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Concerted actions by domestic pro-democracy elements and the international community are musts to restore parliamentary democracy in Sri Lanka

Monday, November 12, 2018

Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis is deepening. Only a few days ago, President Sirisena ominously warned that he had more ‘tools’ at his disposal, implying more to come in the ‘constitutional coup’ he had set in motion. True to his word and on top of his earlier actions, including illegal transfer of power from a sitting Prime Minister and proroguing the Parliament without consulting the Speaker, President Sirisena has dissolved the Parliament without any legitimate explanation. The Global Tamil Forum (GTF) condemns these unconstitutional and illegal actions in the strongest possible terms.

In many aspects, Sri Lanka has been a quasi-democracy. Without strong democratic traditions and cultural influences, democracy in Sri Lanka has been a ‘numbers game’ favourable for that moment. Majoritarian whims buttressed by Sinhala-Buddhist hard-line elements endlessly exploited many an ‘opportunity’, with the minority interests paying a heavy price, particularly the Tamil community. Such majoritarian governance philosophy continues to date as manifested in the refusal to share meaningful political power with the Tamil community, as with politicising the accountability processes aimed at addressing serious wartime human rights violations.

From every angle, the recent political shenanigans appear unique and historic: Illegal removal of a sitting prime minister, giving time to his replacement to alter the balance of power in the Parliament, and when all failed, dissolving the Parliament itself, with plans to influence the electoral outcomes using governmental power. All of which point to one thing – authoritarianism, which is already raising fears among civil society activists and journalists, particularly those from the Tamil community, which historically borne the brunt of oppression under such regimes. Undoubtedly, the evolving political conditions have the potential to make Sri Lanka a fullfledged dictatorship, perhaps along the lines of Zimbabwe under former leader Mugabe or the autocratic regimes of the Maldives.

Among the dark dictatorial clouds hovering over Sri Lanka, however, there are possible silver linings, perhaps embers of democracy and continuing international interest in the country.

Despite the popular wisdom “every Parliamentarian in Sri Lanka is for sale, only at the right price”, the attempt to show artificial majority in the Parliament appears to have failed. Pro-democracy forces in Sri Lanka such as NGOs, certain media outlets and sections of people with no political partisanship are agitating for the revival of constitutional democracy. A broad spectrum of small but significant political parties representing different community interests and political philosophies – such as the Tamil National Alliance, Tamil Progressive Alliance, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, All Ceylon Makkal Congress, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and Jathika Hela Urumaya – all of which have remained strong and uncorrupted, are potentially a ‘block’ in the making that could collectively promote constitutional democracy.

Equally important is the international community, the key western countries and India, have taken an active and principled stand, which ranged from non-recognition of the newly installed government, to statements of concern of increasing intensity as the crisis deepened, to explicit articulation of potential economic implications. The GTF express its sincere gratitude to these countries, their governments and leaders for their timely intervention, and call on them to remain fully focussed on Sri Lanka as new developments emerge. The political leaders of Sri Lanka should be made amply clear that without full recourse to democratic and constitutional governance, Sri Lanka will enter a ‘new phase’ of targeted sanctions, denial of trade and investment opportunities and suspension from international forums that have ‘democratic credentials’ as their core value.

Peace, reconciliation and development cannot take root in a country if democracy suffer at the hands of its rulers.