Thursday, 18 November 2010


Essay from Issue N° 1 of DISSENTING DIALOGUES*

Rohini Hensman
is a writer and researcher who was born and brought up in Sri Lanka, which is the setting for her second novel, Playing Lions and Tigers. She lives in Bombay and has been active in the trade union and women's liberation movements, as well as anti-war campaigns and struggles against the oppression of religious and ethnic minorities in India and Sri Lanka. Her publications include books and numerous articles on these issues.

Anyone who was expecting that democracy would be restored in Sri Lanka after the end of the war last May, would have been sadly disappointed. Not only were the various curbs on democratic rights and liberties retained, there were further assaults on them.

The internment of about 280,000 internally displaced persons in camps for months on end, violating their right to freedom of movement as well as other fundamental rights,was the first ominous sign.Continued attacks on freedom of expression, which gathered pace in the run-up to the presidential election in January 2010, was another. The way in which the election was conducted, and the arrest of opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka after it ended, marked an erosion of the right to elect one’s representatives in free and fair elections. This was further eroded in the April 2010 parliamentary elections and by the convictions of Fonseka in kangaroo courts, as a result of which he was stripped of his rank, honours, pension and parliamentary seat, and sentenced to rigorous imprisonment. The passage of the 18th Amendment, which not only nullifies the democratic safeguards of the 17th Amendment but also abolishes the two-term limit on the executive presidency, marks a new low in Sri Lanka’s postindependence history.

Unless we conduct our own exercise to understand how we ended up in this unenviable position and chalk out what we can do to get out of it, there is every reason to believe that the limited democratic space that still remains will gradually be shut down. Let us start with what we can learn from the passage of the 18th Amendment.

Absolute power

If a referendum were to be conducted asking the people of Sri Lanka whether it is or is not a good idea to give someone absolute power for life to commit any crime whatsoever with impunity, it is fairly certain that the majority would say: “No, it is not a good idea.” So how was such an amendment passed in parliament? How did the Supreme Court allow such a momentous bill to be rushed through without adequate discussion or debate?

One can only conclude that those who supported the amendment in parliament do not represent the people, and the Supreme Court judges who allowed the amendment to be rushed through did not carry out their duty of safeguarding the fundamental rights of the people. But how did these politicians and judges justify acting in this way? Some, clearly, were sycophants who would do anything to curry favour with the powers-that-be. But there were others who might have been capable of acting in a more principled manner, yet chose to bow down before the regime because they feared adverse consequences if they refused to do so.

These people in positions of relative power who nonetheless failed to take a stand against increasing state authoritarianism are reminiscent of the four judges whose stories are told in Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film, Judgment at Nuremberg, a fictionalised account of the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials. One character, judge Ernst Janning, was once a champion of justice, yet played a major role in turning the German legal system into an instrument of Nazism How could these eminent and apparently decent men have been complicit in the ghastly atrocities committed by the Nazi regime? The mystery is solved only when Janning makes a statement, showing how actions, which at first seemed trivial and innocuous – like swearing an oath of allegiance to the Nazis – led to deeper and deeper entanglement with the regime. Even when the full horror of Hitler’s agenda became clear to them, they justified staying at their posts with the argument that they were trying to prevent matters from getting even worse.

It appears that some of the opposition politicians who voted for the 18th Amendment, including those of the Socialist Alliance, did so for similar reasons: fearing that if they opposed the regime, their party would split or they would not be able to satisfy the needs of their constituents. It is possible that the Supreme Court judges feared they would be removed from office if they refused to allow the amendment to be rushed through as an urgent bill. Perhaps these judges and politicians felt that by staying at their posts, they could prevent matters from getting even worse. But for the judges in Nazi Germany, that turned out to be a delusion. What would really have prevented matters from getting worse would have been clear opposition to the fascist transformation of the state and society, but that was the course they did not take. Had the Sri Lankan judges insisted on a thorough debate plus passage in provincial councils and a referendum, had all the MPs from opposition parties voted against the amendment, it would have been defeated, and that would have prevented matters from getting even worse in Sri Lanka. But that was the course they did not take.

The United National Party did not vote for the amendment, but it did not vote and argue against it in parliament e i t h e r. Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has been criticised for being absent at the debate on the 18th Amendment, but what could he possibly have said that would not have sounded hypocritical? As a member of J. R. Jayawardene’s and Ranasinghe Premadasa’s UNP governments, he participated in their assaults on democracy – the 1978 Constitution, which introduced the authoritarian executive presidency, and the rigged 1982 referendum and subsequent rigged elections – and the horrors they perpetrated, including the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983 and the torture and extrajudicial killings of Sinhalese in the late 1980s. Later, as leader of the opposition, Wickremesinghe sabotaged the constitutional proposal of 2000 (which would have made the 18th Amendment impossible if it had gone through), and played a negative role in the All Party Representative Committee process, which was aimed at democratising the state. Under his leadership, the UNP’s failure to stand for anything but a desire for power has meant a steady haemorrhage of defectors to the ruling alliance where the real power lies.The role of the UNP in eroding democracy and then blocking attempts to restore it helped to push the amendment through.

Civil society must rebuild democracy 

There is a lesson here for civil society supporters of democracy: we cannot rely on the political leadership or even the judiciary to uphold the rule of law and democratic principles. On this occasion, MPs of the Tamil National Alliance and Democratic National Alliance/Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna voted and spoke against the amendment, and for that we must be grateful to them. But as of now, we cannot count on them to be the standardbearers of democracy in Sri Lanka. We need not go into the distant past to find occasions on which the JVP and Fonseka articulated Sinhala nationalist positions, nor did we see the TNA criticise the totalitarian politics of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – even when it was holding hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians hostage. Both Sinhala and Tamil nationalism have been responsible for the disastrous erosion of a democratic culture in Sri Lanka, and that process cannot be reversed unless and until there is an explicit critique of both by those who adhered to these ideologies.

So if we cannot rely on political leaders, where does that leave us? Perhaps the answer can be found in anotherv film about Germany, Alexander Kluge’s 1979 film, Die Patriotin (The Female Patriot). It follows Gabi Teichert, a history teacher, as she explores the reasons why she is so dissatisfied with the German history she has to teach. One of the conclusions she comes to is that it is the history itself that is unsatisfactory, and that everyone, no matter how humble, is involved in making history by his or her acts of commission and omission. While Kramer’s film offers an American view of how relatively powerful Germans contributed to Nazism by going along with it, Kluge shows how ordinary people could also have made difference by organising against the Nazi regime before it became so powerful that opposition was almost certain to result in death.

There are already people who have been penalised savagely for criticising or opposing the authoritarian policies of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime, and some have even been killed. Under these circumstances, it certainly requires courage to take a principled stand and face the consequences. But the danger to each individual is reduced as the number of opponents rises, especially if they are organised. Isolated individuals can be picked off relatively easily, and if this has the desired result of terrorising the rest into passivity or compliance, then the strategy of repression has succeeded. The alternative is for large numbers of people to resist the growing totalitarianism in small ways that add up to make a significant difference. A totalitarian state cannot survive for long if civil society refuses to allow its democratic relationships and organisations to be destroyed. If a partial destruction has already taken place, then rebuilding has to start from below. Identifying ways in which this can be done would be the aim of our Lessons Learnt exercise.


       Rohini Hensman

           Tisaranee Gunasekara

               Wasana Punyasena

      Kevin Shimmin


MUSLIMS          SLDF London Chapter


Ahilan Kadirgamar

*dissenting dialogues is a social justice magazine that seeks to expand the space for dissent and critical dialogue on Sri Lanka. The magazine is currently facilitated by the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum with participation and contributions by others committed to a just, plural and democratic Sri Lanka. e-mail to:

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