Democracy is many things

Tuesday, 10 June 2014 00:11 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

“Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many, for appointment by the corrupt few” – George Bernard Shaw Many a visitor to this island has observed the overwhelming power of the State as reflected in the armed strength displayed so openly. In a relatively peaceful country, where the possession of a firearm is strictly controlled, the armed forces act as if anticipating a ‘high noon’ at any moment. Even when investigating the most trivial offence it is not unusual for the Police to arrive at the scene of the crime, armed as if to do battle with a small army. The bodyguard provided for various politicians and high officials of the State are so teeth-rattling fearsome that they could well be mistaken to be on the way to take on formidable warriors like the US Navy Seals. To those more in touch with reality however, the phrase “use a sledgehammer to crack a nut” has never sounded more appropriate. Going by the recent happenings in the country, the most endangered are not those being guarded so completely, but those who are in the detention of the guards. A simpler, truer time The generations born in the first two decades of independence will remember a time when this country was much more carefree and easy going. It is said that Dudley Senanayake as Prime Minister would drive to the golf course for a morning game. There were Ministers who took public transport to Colombo – W. Dahanayake, a former Prime Minister, being one. I am told reliably that left leaders such as Dr. N.M. Perera when holding cabinet portfolios were most reluctant to use their government cars for personal use. Bernard Soysa, a long-term MP and sometimes acting Finance Minister, never owned a car, depending mostly on taxis for transport. The personal stature of these leaders did not derive from a convoy of limousines or a large bodyguard, all paid for by the State. In those times we were convinced that the armed forces were there to protect the people and not to protect themselves from the people. In our youthful imagination, bodyguards were something that criminal masterminds like Dr. No, in the then famous Bond series, required. As teenagers we were converts to the ethos of the Boy Scouts and accordingly expected senior officers to assist the public in every aspect, not to brush aside everybody else from the road when travelling somewhere. Looking back now, what we in our immaturity imagined as a permanent state of affairs was only a fleeting moment, existing with great difficulty in an unreceptive environment. Underneath the awkward looking salutes to the Boy Scouts, there were other ideas and values awaiting expression. With greater maturity, we now see the cycle of rise and fall, efflorescence and decay of all things. Like what was once, the prevailing culture too will inevitably reach the end of its usefulness and be replaced eventually. But somehow one cannot help but feel richer for having known the former order, where things seem much simpler and even truer. The first JVP insurrection It is not that everything was calm and peaceful in those times. In the first 25 years after independence there were terrible transgressions in the form of race riots, large scale industrial unrest, attempted coups, political assassinations and turmoil. But from what we saw and experienced in our childhood the country had seemingly weathered these disturbances and continued to retain its democratic, if laidback nature. The April 1971 insurrection was a watershed. After the first few days of a grim curfew, we boys actually began to enjoy the extended holiday that the insurrection imposed! But the system, which had never anticipated a country wide attack on the police and other institutions of the State by a youthful insurgency, so soon after a left-leaning government under Mrs. Bandaranaike was voted in by a popular mandate, was shaken to the core. In reality, the JVP adventure was foredoomed. The young insurgents, idealistic, if foolhardy, had no chance in the world of besting the armed forces on the field. When the forces recovered from the initial shock of the unexpected attack, they took only a few weeks to mop up the retreating insurgents. By end of June it was all over. After that utterly unnecessary and wasteful massacre under a burning April sun, not even a single act of terrorism occurred anywhere in the country. But the state of emergency which was declared in early 1971 was continued on some pretext or the other until a few months before the ignominious defeat of Mrs. Bandaranaike at the July 1977 elections! During this period the heavy-handed use of the State machinery for the Government’s political purposes were justified, sometimes based on dogma, but mostly without even giving a reason. The Government, while suppressing most mainstream print media, began its own propaganda machinery, all funded with taxpayer money. The politicians had begun to enjoy the bonuses that an excuse of an armed threat provided. "When we look at the 60 something years of our post-independence history, one thing that strikes us straight in the face is that there have been three large-scale armed challenges to democratically-elected governments in this period, and all of them from within the country. In other words, people who in physical terms look the same, speak the same languages, eat the same food, have the same kind of culture, share their religious beliefs and have had a Sri Lankan upbringing and education ended up fighting and killing each other on this relatively small island" The second JVP insurrection The second JVP insurrection, roughly from about 1985 to 1990, was a lot more sinister and a thorough-going challenge to the State. Discarding the failed methods of 1971, the JVP chose a kind of urban insurgency, resorting mainly to surprise shootings and attacks on isolated targets, mainly individuals. These unusual methods soon pushed the then UNP Government to a state of desperation. Eventually, it was realised that the only effective counter to the JVP tactics was to use similar methods against them. As a result, between 1987 and 1989, the country virtually haemorrhaged, leaving thousands of corpses, of mostly young persons, all over the country side. It will be useful for those born after those harrowing years to refer to the various newspapers, particularly the editorials of respected editors of the era, to get a sense of the despair that gripped the country then. Again, the politicians in power were given an excuse to resort to extra-legal methods by the very methods chosen by the insurgents. The LTTE As if two such insurrections were not trouble enough for a struggling country, there was yet one more, the mother of all armed threats! The remorseless challenge posed by the LTTE almost undid the Sri Lankan elite and power structure. One has to only examine the various actions and panic reactions running the full gamut of sporadic military operations, peace offers, negotiations and ceasefire agreements undertaken in the period (app. 1978-2009) to understand the desperation that beset the national leadership. The implacable ferocity of the LTTE was completely outside of the scope of the average politicians’ mindset and experiences. For a long time they just merely expanded their accustomed habits of power in order to cope with the challenge. While some resorted to piecemeal arms procurement with kick-backs and commissions being a main concern, others thought that an emissary sent on a helicopter to the north could fob the terrorists off with a few vague promises. Even negotiations based on third country initiatives were adopted, a method which opened the country to outright interference. So powerful did the LTTE become in time that it functioned as a semi-government with its writ running through a large area of the country. It even fought as a field army in fixed piece battles. Eventually, all three challenges to the country’s democratic system were overcome only by military means. What in the final analysis amounted to political failures were left to our young soldiers to clean up. In 2009, at the sacrifice of many lives, the war against the LTTE was finally won, a victory hailed for, among other things, democracy. Electoral victory does not provide democratic legitimacy When we look at the 60 something years of our post-independence history, one thing that strikes us straight in the face is that there have been three large-scale armed challenges to democratically-elected governments in this period, and all of them from within the country. In other words, people who in physical terms look the same, speak the same languages, eat the same food, have the same kind of culture, share their religious beliefs and have had a Sri Lankan upbringing and education ended up fighting and killing each other on this relatively small island. Although it may not be directly causal, it is noteworthy that these insurrections followed soon after large electoral mandates, in 1970 and 1977, to the winning party (in 1970 to the SLFP-led coalition and in 1977 to the UNP). It is clear that an electoral victory alone does not provide democratic legitimacy. Adolf Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Mohammad Kaddafi in Libya among others of that ilk, at various times had ballots cast in their favour. But these leaders will not make it to the hall of fame of democracy. Many other things – the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a public service not open to politicisation, a free and vibrant media, a political leadership sharing a certain culture even at a minimum level, and most importantly, a voter who accepts a given set of core values – are perhaps essential features if we are to stand among other democracies as a true practitioner. A true democracy Unlike the periodic holding of elections, these other essential features of a democracy depend very much on the spirit and character of a people. Even North Korea can hold an election. But it cannot have an independent judiciary or public service. Kim Jong Un will never tolerate a free media. Nor did his father or grandfather who ruled the country before him allow such things. But in a true democracy every citizen will hold concepts such as the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and a free media, among other things, as essential terms of his social contract with the State. These are not some foreign ideas to which occasional homage is paid, but a living part of a value system. For instance, laws and conventions may assist or strengthen a judge in his efforts to act independently. But ultimately a truly independent character can only emerge from a person’s inherent qualities. All the institutional protection given to a judge is of little use if the man himself lacks integrity, intelligence or an independent spirit. In a social order where the herd instinct, political partisanship, base economic motives or family loyalties override other considerations, independent spirits are a rarity. When one or several of these essential qualities of a true democracy are absent, a mere election alone can only prove how right Bernard Shaw was. A corrupt few, elected by the incompetent many, will need many men and many guns to protect their way of life! (The writer is an Attorney-at-Law and a freelance writer.)

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