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Is Sri Lanka a democracy?

| by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( November 04, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) Gaja Lakshmi Paramasivam, in her article entitled “Reconciliation needed with the British Government” published in the Sri Lanka Guardian of 3 November 2011 asks the question “is Sri Lanka a Democracy? and seems to conclude that it is not. To quote her words: “Whether we like it or not, whether we agree or disagree – Sri Lanka’s current status at the global level, as per majority impressions - is that it is an anti-democracy country. Those of us who are honest with ourselves, would know that this is true. It may be right or wrong for Sri Lanka at this point in time but Sri Lanka does not qualify to call itself a democratic country”.

I do not wish to contest this statement for two reasons, the first being that as an expatriate who has lived continuously out of the country for 22 years, I am not competent to judge Sri Lanka as I am not directly privy to what has gone on there or what goes on there. The second reason is that the author of the above statement, who shows in her writings a certain sense of endearment to the country, obviously has her own reasons to arrive at her conclusion.

Having said that, I believe one could determine with certainty whether Sri Lanka in its current state of government and governance is a democracy by asking ten questions as follow:

1. According to Democracy Watch, a democratic society is one in which all adults have easily accessible, meaningful, and effective ways to participate in the decision-making processes of every organization that makes decisions or takes actions that affect them. Is this true of Sri Lanka at the present time?

The same definition requires a democracy to hold other individuals, and those in the organizations who are responsible for making decisions and taking actions, fully accountable if their decisions or actions violate fundamental human rights, or are dishonest, unethical, unfair, secretive, inefficient, unrepresentative, unresponsive or irresponsible. Is this requirement satisfied in Sri Lanka?
  • Do those in power in Sri Lanka use the power of censorship to suppress the truth?
  • Aristotle, in his Politics, fundamentally held that a government is good when it aimed at the good of the whole community, and bad when it cared only for itself. Aristotle was emphatic when he made the distinction between oligarchy and democracy by using the economic status of the governing party as the only criterion for the distinction: oligarchy is when the rich govern without consideration for the poor; and democracy is when the sovereign gives power to the hands of the poor and needy in initial disregard for the interests of the rich. Is this the case in Sri Lanka?
  • Jeremy Bentham a protagonist, recognized democracy as being composed of four essential and basic elements: subsistence; abundance; security and equality. Do these exist in balance in Sri Lanka?
  • Bentham further observed: “wars and storms are best to be read of, but peace and calms are better to endure”. The two fundamental postulates which Bentham attributed to good government were equality and security. Do the people of Sri Lanka enjoy equality and security?
  • The essence of modern practical democracy is to curb unnecessary power of the central government and not to buttress the authority of the State to the point of corruption and self service. Is this true of Sri Lanka?
  • Democracy is a system where ordinary citizens have a meaningful and compelling role in the affairs of the State, including the formulation of policy and the development and implementation of legislation. A typical democracy would separate the State and its instrumentalities from the Church or other religious body. It would be composed of three separate and intrinsic powers, i.e. the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. Is this true of Sri Lanka?
  • Spinoza (1632-1677), was of the view that freedom of opinion should not be subject to governmental control. Is this true of Sri Lanka?
  • A modern democracy should have four basic elements: A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; protection of the human rights of all citizens; and a rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens. Are these elements present in Sri Lanka?
With my woefully inadequate knowledge of what goes on in Sri Lanka, I do not know the answers to these questions. Would the current system of governance and government in Sri Lanka score a resounding “yes” to all these questions? Would they score 50% or more? It is for those who know, to answer these questions.

What I can say is that, on the other side of the coin, in Hobbes’ Leviathan, begins with the premise that the supreme power, whether it be a man, woman or assembly, is called the sovereign. Hobbes (1588-1679), recognized initially that the powers of the sovereign are unlimited, untrammelled and unchallenged. The sovereign has the right of censorship over all expression of opinion, on the basis that the main interest of the sovereign is the preservation of internal peace. Therefore, a true sovereign will not use the power of censorship to suppress the truth, because a doctrine which is at variance with peace cannot be true. Hobbes emphasised that the laws of property should be entirely the purview of the sovereign, for in absolute nature and in its pristine purity, there is no property, as property is created by government.

Hobbes believed that, even if a sovereign were to be despotic, the worst despotism was better than anarchy. The interests of governments become singularly identifiable with the interests of the subjects. Above all, rebellion is wrong : not only because it usually fails; but also, if it succeeds, it sets a bad example.

Whatever may be said, the bottom line in this debate should be that a true democracy should ensure that whatever freedoms a citizen might have, they should be enforceable by a credible and effective system set up by government.

In my own hapless state of ignorance, I would prefer to give those in authority in my country the benefit of the doubt, with the caveat issued by with the caveat issued by Shakespeare in Hamlet where Polonius says to Laertes:

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!”

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