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An evaluation of Sri Lanka’s democratic credentials

By Ana Pararajasingham

On Monday, Sri Lanka’s Court of Appeal issued an interim injunction suspending the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, his ministers, deputy ministers, and state ministers from continuing to function in their respective portfolios. This has reversed, albeit temporarily, President Maithripala Sirisena’s attempt on October 26 to re-install a government under former president Rajapaksa as prime minister.Earlier, Sirisena’s attempt to dissolve Parliament in the absence of a majority supporting Rajapaksa was stayed by the Supreme Court until December 7. These actions no doubt demonstrate the independence of the country’s judiciary, an essential attribute of a democracy.

Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis was triggered by Sirisena appointing former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as the country’s new prime minister on October 26, in effect firing the sitting prime minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe. The removal of a sitting prime minister is a clear violation of the country’s constitution, that is if one is to rely on the English version of it. This is because the Sinhala version of the constitution appears to provide the president with the power to remove the prime minister.

In such circumstances, where there is a discrepancy between the Sinhala version and the Tamil or English versions of the constitution, the law clearly stipulates that it is the Sinhala version that will prevail. It is argued that the import of the Sinhala version is the same as the English version and the discrepancy is attributable to the chaotic legislative process by which the 19th Amendment to the constitution defining the president’s powers was enacted in 2015.

However, this is yet to be tested in court. In view of the independence demonstrated by the judiciary to date, it may well result in actions that resolve Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis.

Should that occur, much will be made about Sri Lanka’s democracy and its restoration. This is because from the very beginning Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis was framed as a challenge to democracy.

Indeed, Sri Lanka is widely described as one of Asia’s oldest democracies. No doubt this perception is backed by Sri Lanka’s current constitution, which was enacted in 1978, and its previous constitutions, the founding 1948 charter and the 1972 republican constitution, being underpinned by features associated with democracy, that is, parliamentary assemblies, periodic elections and an independent judiciary.

But do they make Sri Lanka a democracy? The country’s laws providing supremacy to the Sinhala version of the constitution should surely cause some niggling doubts about Sri Lanka’s democratic credentials.

Ethnocracy not democracyUpon a close examination of Sri Lanka’s constitutions enacted in 1948, 1972 and 1978, it becomes obvious that Sri Lanka cannot be regarded as a democracy but has to be considered an ethnocracy. Ethnocracy basically means “government or rule by an ethnic group” or ethnos, and more precisely rule by a particular ethnos in a multi-ethnic situation where there is at least one other significant ethnic group.

Indeed, since it was granted its independence by Britain in 1948, Sri Lanka has emerged as a typical ethnocracy in which the state apparatus is appropriated by the dominant ethnic group to further its own interests, power and resources. In Sri Lanka’s case, Sinhala Buddhist ethnicity is the key to securing political power. As such, resolving the constitutional crisis is not a matter of restoring democracy but of restoring ethnocracy.

Indeed, over the years Sri Lanka’s ethnocracy has been strengthened by constitutions enacted by succeeding Sinhala-dominated governments. It is not surprising therefore that Oren Yiftachel of Ben-Gurion University and Asad Ghanem of the University of Haifa, in an article titled “Understanding ‘ethnocratic regimes: the politics of seizing contested territories,”  identified Sri Lanka as an ethnocratic state.

An ethnocratic state, however, is not completely devoid of democracy. But this democracy is confined to the dominant ethnic group. As pointed out by James Anderson of Queens University Belfast, within an ethnocratic state the dominant ethnos “typically demands democracy, actively wants it – at least for itself.”

“Thus these national regimes are not simply authoritarian: they typically have parliamentary assemblies and periodic elections, for instance, and perhaps a (sometimes ostensibly?) independent judiciary, and a (supposedly?) free media. These can give the appearance of ‘ordinary democracy’ but they hide a ‘deeper structure’ which is profoundly anti-democratic in that the democracy applies only or mainly to politics within the dominant ethnos, not to the demos of all the people in the state territory.

“Rule is mainly or solely by members and representatives of that ethnos, it is they who are in charge, making the major decisions: ethnos and demos are conflated but the ‘democracy’ is disproportionately and sometimes exclusively available to the favored ethnos. And it is this political cleavage between the ethnic groups which defines the character of the state as ethnocratic rather than democratic.” 

Sri Lanka exhibits all of the above.

Sri Lanka’s constitution(s)

The evaluation of Sri Lanka’s current constitution and the previous two constitutions by Andrea Iff, a Swiss academic and political scientist, confirms that all of  Sri Lanka’s constitutions have been based on ethnocratic principles.

In a chapter titled “Constitutional Accommodation vs Integration in Sri Lanka” in Sri Lanka: 60 Years of Independence and Beyond, Iff makes it clear that the so-called democracy that is being associated with Sri Lanka is illusionary. Having painstakingly examined Sri Lanka’s 1948, 1972 and the 1978 constitutions, she concludes that all of Sri Lanka’s constitutions have been based on a “control model” where the majority segment dominates and reduces all other segments to a position of subordination.

Sri Lanka’s flag is a powerful symbolic reiteration of this truth. The flag is dominated by a lion, the ancient symbol of the Sinhala people, with orange and green stripes in the periphery representing the Tamils and the Muslims.

Hence the framing of Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis in terms of democracy is misleading. The resolution of the crisis will merely restore ethnocracy and provide the dominant ethnicity with the choice of electing a government.

As pointed out by Yiftachel and Ghanem, “Sri Lanka demonstrates the inability of an ethnocracy to be sustained for the long term, and its need to structurally reform in order to survive as a state.” 

*Ana Pararajasingham is an independent researcher focusing on political developments in the South Asian region with particular emphasis on geopolitical developments impacting Sri Lanka and India. He was director of programs with the Switzerland-based Centre for Just Peace and Democracy between 2007 and 2009.

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