Universal suffrage does not mean merely that all adults have the right to vote. It also means that race, religion, ethnicity, class or gender basis does not stand as a barrier for any one to participate in a democratic government. The only barriers, perhaps, are age and citizenship.
But in a multi-ethnic, pluralistic country like Sri Lanka, often democracy faces multiple challenges in the form of majority domination. It’s true that democracy is all about majority rule. But the phrase ‘majority rule’ in its democratic sense means political power obtained through universal suffrage. In an ideal democracy, the majority will have their way, but the minorities must also have their say. Though theoretically, the word ‘minorities’ here refers to the democratic opposition within a parliamentary democracy, it should also mean ethnic or religious minority by extension. It is in this context that I quote James Madison, one of the architects of the United States Constitution. He wrote in Federalist Paper: "It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure."
Although Madison’s concern was to prevent a tyranny of political majority in a more or less homogeneous society such as the United States, the sublime meaning of the saying is more apt for any society divided on ethnic, religious or class basis.
Unfortunately, such views are hardly heard in Sri Lanka at a time when such advice is needed most. For more than fifty years, Sri Lanka’s Tamil people have been agitating for a political system that recognises their aspirations and dispels their fears of majority oppression. The raging war which has swallowed up more than 70,000 precious lives in 25 years, it seems, has not taught us any lessons or driven home the message of urgency to solve the ethnic problem in a way that would not only address the grievances of minorities but accord them the status of equal partners in a democracy.
When President Mahinda Rajapakse pledged in his election manifesto that he would solve the ethnic problem through extensive devolution, the emphasis was on the word ‘extensive’. We, the people who like to see this country achieve peace through devolution and democracy, believed that here was a president who would go the extra mile to meet the aspirations of the Tamil people and who would grant more political autonomy to Tamils than any other previous political leaders had offered in their political packages.
Rajapakse’s predecessor, Chandrika Kumaratunga goes down in history as the president who dared to defy Sinhala nationalists and offer the Tamils extensive political autonomy. Even moderate Tamil political activists saw Kumaratunga’s package as more than what they bargained for. So when Rajapakse said he would solve the ethnic conflict by extensive devolution, we naturally believed that he would go beyond Kumaratunga satisfying the Tamil’s thirst for political autonomy.
But alas, the proposals his party put forward on April 30 as a discussion paper took the whole devolution debate 50 years back. The proposals say that power will be devolved to smaller units — districts — instead of provinces. In fact, the proposals envisage the creation of more districts — 30 of them — thus truncating the geographic area of all or some of the 25 districts we now have. Another salient but outrageous feature in the proposals is the setting up of a senate or a second chamber which will have 75 members —25 members appointed after a parliamentary election based on the votes polled by political parties, with a cut off point, presumably to favour the bigger parties; 30 district chief ministers; and 20 persons appointed by the President. Yet this second chamber has little legislative power. Even the district councils to which power is to be devolved will have limited legislative authority and the president retains the discretion to dissolve any council.
Reading the ruling party proposals makes us wonder whether Rajapakse’s promise of extensive devolution was just one of his hundreds of election promises, most of which remain unfulfilled in the absence of a mechanism to hold politicians accountable for their election pledges. His niggardly approach to devolution may have disappointed the Tamils but it certainly must have brought a smile on Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
The Rajapakse proposals have enabled him to tell the international community that the Sinhala government in the south has no political will to share power with the Tamils —and project his armed struggle in a justifiable light.
The proposals, instead of addressing the grievances of the Tamil community, go on to satisfy the aspirations of Sinhala ultranationalists, though the leftist-turned-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna has picked holes in the proposals, rejecting the devolution concept.
The proposals are not the be-all-and-end-all. They would be submitted to the all-party representative committee which would then come up with a compromise document. If that document grants devolution to larger units and a sharing of power in a truly extensive way, Rajapakse would then tell the Sinhala nationalists — who form his vote base — that the final document was not his while taking credit in the international community for offering the Tamils a meaningful devolution package. After all, political astuteness is the Rajapakse legacy.
Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo
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