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Democracy in the US and Sri Lanka

by Rohini Hensman, 28 November 2008

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The Island, 27 November 2008

The US Elections

In recent years, America’s claim to be a democracy has been seriously
damaged in the eyes of its own citizens. Even the most minimal definition
of democracy – that it entails free and fair elections – was contradicted
by two presidential elections (in 2000 and 2004), in which there was
damning evidence that George W. Bush won only because the vote was rigged.

The fact that the overwhelming majority of those who were disenfranchised
in the elections were Black Americans linked up this outrage to the
persistence of discrimination and violence against minority communities in
the US. A lack of equal rights, exclusion from the franchise, and, after
the attacks of 9/11, a rapid erosion of civil liberties: these were the
marks of a state heading towards totalitarianism.

Against this backdrop, the election of Barack Obama to the presidency came
as a much-needed reprieve. And the people who deserve the most credit for
it are the majority of the electorate. They turned out in large numbers to
vote for the candidate they had chosen, and also monitored the voting and
vote-counting – no easy task with electronic voting machines – to try and
ensure that the election would not be stolen. For veterans of the civil
rights movement, the success of an African-American was an outcome of
their struggles; indeed, as Obama himself acknowledged, it would not have
been possible without a long history of patient opposition to horrific
oppression. But it is also true that it would not have been possible
without a large number of white people casting their votes for him. The
vicious White supremacism that produced the Ku Klux Klan and lynch mobs
was still very much in evidence in Sarah Palin’s rallies where the crowd
chanted "Kill him! Kill him!’ (referring to Obama). But in this election,
they did not prevail.

In this context, there was every possibility that Obama would fall between
two stools, and at times that appeared to be happening. The son of a Black
African father and White American mother, who had spent part of his
childhood in Indonesia, the diversity embodied in his physical being could
have been a reason for everyone to reject him. For many White
supremacists, the very idea of a Black president was anathema. Added to
this was his foreign-sounding name, which made them denounce him as not
being ‘American’ enough (such an irony, given that White Americans are no
more indigenous to the US than Black ones!). Others repeated his middle
name, ‘Hussein’, and circulated pictures of him at school in Muslim
Indonesia, insisting he was a Muslim: a powerful attack in the current
climate of Islamophobia. On the other side, for many Black Americans he
was not Black enough, given his White mother, and had not shared enough of
their struggle, since he was not the descendent of slaves. It is to
Obama’s credit that he was sufficiently comfortable with his own identity
to ride out these attacks with equanimity, reiterating his belief in a
non-racial nation.

Finally, those who organised his election campaign also deserve credit for
a magnificent job well done. Obama was nowhere when he first stepped into the race; even Black Americans backed Hillary Clinton because, among other things, they simply could not see Obama winning the presidency. Thus, the whole success of the campaign hinged on grassroots mobilising of people, many of them young, who otherwise might not have voted at all, and on combating the cynicism and despair resulting from a feeling that nothing that ordinary people did could change anything. It was only after the enthusiasm of these marginalised people had been aroused that more
mainstream figures came forward to back Obama. Critics from the Left who
suggest that Obama won only because he was backed by the establishment
need to be reminded that even if this was true after the financial and
economic crisis broke out in the US, it was certainly not true at the
beginning of his campaign for nomination. And while it is likely that he
will not live up to the expectations of many who voted for him, this does
not detract from the significance of the fact that he was elected.

Elections in Sri Lanka

The situation in Sri Lanka in many ways resembles the situation in the US
prior to the elections there. Minorities in Sri Lanka, like minorities in
the US, have been disenfranchised in various ways since Independence,
starting with the legislation that deprived hill-country Tamils of their
citizenship and franchise. They have also been subjected to all-pervasive
discrimination, persecution and violence, like African-Americans in the
US. This has been orchestrated by virulent Sinhala supremacists, including
our home-grown equivalents of the Ku Klux Klan and lynch mobs which have periodically been turned loose to visit horrific bouts of torture, rape
and murder on minority communities. These people are still very much part
of the ruling elite; when we hear Army Commander Sarath Fonseka and
Minister Champika Ranawaka voicing the belief that ‘this country belongs
to the Sinhalese’, and ‘other communities are all visitors to the country’, we know that our country is governed by the Sri Lankan version of the jingoists who were defeated in the US election. And, as in the US, the irony is that Sinhalese are no more (or less) indigenous to Sri Lanka than Tamils.

That Fonseka and Ranawaka make such statements in public makes it clear
that the government is waging a war not against the LTTE but against the
Tamil people of Sri Lanka. Special Report 31 of University Teachers for
Human Rights (Jaffna) (UTHR-J) reports that many of the LTTE’s conscripts
are either very young children or so unwilling to kill that they prefer to
kill themselves. In such circumstances, an offer of a just political
solution and humane treatment for those who escape from the LTTE’s
clutches would end the war very soon and save innumerable lives, including
those of the Sinhalese poor who are being used by the government as cannon
fodder. Yet the president has repeatedly sabotaged attempts to put forward
proposals for a just political solution, and, according to UTHR-J, those
who escape the LTTE are treated with sickening brutality: ‘The government
in turn confines those escaping LTTE-controlled areas in mass detention
centres from which they are not allowed to leave. Those in Vavuniya find
themselves in a place of crime and lawlessness, where torture, murder,
extortion, abduction and rape are routine and women are powerless.’

One of the main obstacles to minorities voting in free and fair elections
has been constituted by the violence of the LTTE, which has thus acted as
an accomplice of the Sinhala supremacists in depriving minorities of their
democratic rights. Here there is a marked difference from the US. There
has been a Black nationalist separatist movement in the US, embodied
mainly in Nation of Islam (NoI); and when Malcolm X, who was a member for
several years, left the organisation and moved closer to the civil rights
movement, advocating the use of international human rights to bolster the
struggle for the rights of Black Americans, the NoI leadership responded
with public death threats. Shortly afterwards, he was assassinated by
members of the group, but there were strong suspicions that agencies of
the state, which had infiltrated NoI, were also involved. However, this
was an exception, not the rule. Despite sharp differences between, say,
the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers, Black activists did not
collude with the racist state to kill each other.

In Sri Lanka, by contrast, the LTTE has acted as the agent – in
Premadasa’s time as the paid agent – of Sinhala supremacists in their
drive to eliminate every Tamil leader of any importance. Those who remain
have been driven underground or into exile, or forced to accept the
protection of the state, thus restricting their freedom of action
severely. Nor has the supposedly non-violent TULF been innocent of such
activities. The first murder of a Tamil political leader who expressed his
desire to work for a Sri Lanka which was not divided along ethnic and
religious lines was that of Alfred Duraiappah, who was issued with public
death threats by TULF leaders (exactly as in the case of Malcolm X) before
he was assassinated by their gun-wielding disciple Prabakaran in 1975.
They were thus instrumental in creating the Frankenstein’s monster which
later turned against them.

The combination of LTTE terror, state terror and the violence of armed
groups allied to the state has ensured that there have been no free and
fair elections in the North and East for decades, up to and including the
recent Provincial Council elections in the East. The situation is, indeed,
much worse than it has been in the US. If Mahinda Rajapaksa calls for snap
elections, as it has been rumoured, it is likely that he, like George W.
Bush, will win a second term, given that a large number of Tamils will not
be able to vote freely. But, like George Bush, he will then have to face
the consequences of massive military expenditure combined with profligate
luxury consumption by the political elite, even while the mass of the
people suffer a steep reduction in their standard of living. If Sri Lanka
loses its GSP+ trade preferences from the EU on account of the failure of
the government to achieve the relevant human rights standards, the
consequences would be even far worse. The inevitable economic collapse
will ensure that he leaves office as hated as his US counterpart.

Prospects for Democracy in Sri Lanka

Despite all these drawbacks, prospects for democracy in Sri Lanka are in
some ways brighter than in the US. Supporters of Sinhala supremacism are a smaller minority in Sri Lanka than supporters of White supremacism in the US, and unlike Martin Luther King, we do not have to dream of a day when little Sinhalese and Tamil girls and boys play together, since most of us have witnessed such a sight or even experienced it in our own childhood.

What is lacking, however, is an organising drive which can bring together
and energise opponents of ethnic supremacism in the way that Obama’s
campaign did in the US. The fact that witnesses in the cases of the
murdered five students and ACF workers could be terrorised by the police
throughout, without effective opposition from civil society, demonstrates
the weakness of the supporters of democracy and the rule of law in Sri
Lanka. NGOs, whose personnel depend on being paid to do their work, cannot be a substitute for a vibrant civil society movement whose participants freely contribute their time to a struggle for justice and equality in our country. Until that can be built, our democracy will continue to go down the drain.