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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2490

Erosion of Democracy, Rule of Law and Basic Human Rights

Dr. Siri Gamage - University of New England, Australia

When we look at Sri Lanka's troubling developments in the post-independence period, without targeting any particular government or leader, there is one phenomenon that stands out as the culprit for the social ills brought about by the practice of politics. That is the patronage system of favoritism and nepotism underlying the political and national rhetoric. This has contributed to the steady decline in democratic rights and freedoms that average citizens can enjoy. Kishali Jayawardena has highlighted some aspects of this phenomenon in her article (Sunday Times online edition, Focus - 15.04.2007). In comparing Nepalese and Sri Lankan societies, she pointed out why in Sri Lanka we do not have a civic consciousness to demand the state to be democratic and respect human rights without considering the status of the individual? She asked 'We still fail to place the rule of law and the failure of our domestic institutions of justice at the centre of our criticism of the State' while giving relevant examples.

To understand this, one has to examine the social and political organization of Sri Lankan society. Sri Lanka is perhaps the most colonized and globalized society in South Asia with a high degree of integration with Western societies, governments and culture at the practical level- even though we pride ourselves about our ethnic histories, heritages, and cultures when it comes to formal ceremonies and rhetoric. Sri Lanka's ruling political, business, military, bureaucratic and intellectual elites are drawn from the upper layers of class hierarchy -with a few exceptions. Political leaders come from Upper or Upper Middle class layers. There is a high degree of cross-cutting interrelationships among the top layers of the society by means of old boys and girls networks, marriage and family relations, political party and business linkages, local allegiances, University mate-ships etc. Thus members of this top layer -which I call the political class - controls the levers of power and privilege in comparison to the large masses of people belonging to lower middle class, working class, and those in poverty. The country is mostly run by speeches (deshana) and debates (vivada) conducted by leaders belonging to the political class. The human rights of the members of this top layer is not an issue unless as an aberration or an exception as exemplified by the Mangala and Suriyarachchi affair recently.

Those who belong in the lower strata of society do not have a voice as such unless via some NGOs, exemplary individuals, and on occasions some political parties that do not represent the political class as such, e.g. JVP. Members of this lower classes are listeners - even when they disagree with the Desana or speeches by the leaders in the political class. Some members of this lower classes enjoy benefits of patronage relations with powerful figures in the various sectors, therefore their voices are muted. Others' voices are muted because of the fear created by the powerful figures in normal as well as abnormal times. Some members who are unhappy about the erosion of democratic norms, institutions, and rule of law (which is applied in practice depending on the status of the person - class, ethnic. caste etc) chose to leave the country and settle elsewhere in the world. Elected representatives who are supposed to represent the lower classes in various electorates engage in window dressing activities that benefit only a segment of the disadvantaged populations in these strata -it is also along the lines of party affiliation, close links they have with the elected representatives or their families, etc.

Since independence, Sri Lanka has been ruled by a top-down system of administration where the local decision-making or inputs into the decision-making system has been extremely limited. Political class representing the upper layers of society have been making decisions over resource distribution, new economic ventures, utilization of resources controlled by the state etc. hoping that there will be a 'trickle down effect' on the lower layers of society. Thus the lower layers of society have not only been made subordinate to the upper layers but they have been made powerless in every meaning of the term. Sadly, the lower layers have accepted this destiny as if it is inherent in their existence. Rarely a few understood this as a condition imposed from the top.

In order to alleviate the sufferings of such existence, powerlessness, and alienation some resorted to seeking spiritual help via various gods, deities, and astrology. Others looked to violent means of resisting the state and its instrumentalities at certain points in time causing death and devastation to all sides in conflicts created by their actions and counter actions by the state.

By and large, Sri Lankan population expected any meaningful reforms in the state, its institutions and processes to emerge from the fountain of knowledge and wisdom supposedly held by their leaders in the government, academia, media, judiciary, and general literati. The 'modernist' education, thinking and practice that were popular among Sri Lankans in the post-independence period reinforced such expectations. When this did not happen, the conflict with the LTTE started. The whole national discourse converted to be one of ethnic discourse rather than a human rights discourse in a wholistic sense. The latter was subsumed under the former. Citizenship rights which have to be universal within the area covered by the Sri Lankan state also became a casualty of this ethnic discourse and desana (speeches)made by powerful figures in society. Demonising the other became an easy pastime in such desana. Tamils, especially if they were sympathetic to the LTTE cause, were seen as the demonic force in Sri Lankan politics, religion, academic and popular discourses, whereas the state and its operators became unquestioned guardians of the entire nation. In such a context, violations of rule of law and basic human rights by those in power in regard to the lower classes of people did not attract the due attention. The people in the lower classes not only sacrificed much by way of sending their kith and kin to the battlefield in the north and east, they also tolerated the actions of a state machinery biased toward the privileged layers of society as a transitory phenomenon.

Thus Sri Lankan polity, society, and its various strata are caught in diverse contradictions and cleavages. Making meaning out of these is not a simple task - particularly for the subordinate and disempowered classes. On one hand they have a stake in the conflict even if they did not have a similar stake in the state in a direct sense while being subjected to dehumanizing, disempowering and subordinating forces. On the other hand due to various processes of modernization and globalization such as the opening of employment market in the middle east, upward social mobility via education, business, patronage relations and politics, some members left their lower status in exchange for middle status positions in the bureaucracy or private sector. Thus their thinking and behavior manifested pseudo middle class characteristics. They believed it is better to be silent observers rather than being vigorous advocates of social rights based on social justice principles. In a society where the international linkages reinforce the status of the upper classes and the political class, and the subordination of the lower classes by a range of means -which are not described here - such decisions are understandable.

Thus, the case of Sri Lanka - in comparison to Nepal - is different. Different in its social fabric, composition of the political class, their dual identities of pro-Western allegiances and affiliations and Pro-Sri Lankan allegiances and affiliations, as well as a high degree o duplicity in day to day behaviour as well as theory and practice (Deshana vs. Action). Divided loyalty in theory and practice if not in political rhetoric characterizes the political class at the fundamental level. In theory they are truly nationalistic, yet in practice they generally carry divided loyalties - except a few cases. Disempowered and disgruntled populace at the middle to lower layers of society can only be led.

The latter are seen but not heard. If this situation is to change and the lower layers to take up the human and basic rights issues as in the case of Nepal, a wholesale centralization of power or rather its abuse has to occur. The masses will then wake up and make its voices herd under the leadership of disempowered academics, professionals, artists, poets, media personnel, clergy, activists etc. In my opinion, Sri Lanka has not yet reached this situation -even though signs of such a trend are reported in the media -some with a degree of credibility.

Dr. Siri Gamage, Senior Lecturer School of Professional Development & Leadership Faculty of Education, Health and Professional Studies University of New England, Armidale NSW Australia 2351.

- Asian Tribune -

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