SRI LANKA: Wijeweera and Prabakaran — rebels within a dysfunctional democracy 

May 19, 2009

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

SRI LANKA: Wijeweera and Prabakaran – rebels within a dysfunctional democracy


Following the demise of the LTTE leadership there is now much discussion about the LTTE itself. In 1971 a similar movement in the south to the LTTE was the JVP and this movement, lead by Rohana Wijeweera, took to arms again from 1987 to 1991. Today there is much to be gained by studies and reflections of both movements.

Of course there are vast differences in the two movements. The JVP was broadly based on class orientation while the LTTE was based mainly on race orientation. However, there are many strong similarities:

  • Both were non-elitist movements.
  • The working language of each was their own language, Sinhala or Tamil and not English.
  • Both leaders represented socially lower strata and lower income groups and drew heavy support from the castes which were normally considered in Sri Lankan traditional society as low caste.
  • Both had no faith at all in democracy. Wijeweera, after the failure of the 1971 insurrection, when released from prison worked for a short while within the democratic framework. However, soon for various reasons he opted out of democratic politics. Prabakaran did not have any faith at all in the democratic process.
  • Following these considerations both believed in armed struggle with emphasis on assassination as a tool of their strategy.
  • They and their followers more or less belonged to the same age group and were mostly products of the country’s free education system.
  • The suppression of both movements was brutal and based on the premise that “those things cannot be done according to the law”, as a former Deputy Minister, Ranjan Wijeratne told parliament.
  • Discussions about these movements by others, particularly those associated with the state and the status quo is more characterised by heat and hate rather attempts to arrive at a rational understanding of these movements.

Why did they not trust democracy?

An issue of great significance; and one which should be subjected to study is as to why both these movements did not trust the country’s democracy; and why there was a failure to convince them that their objectives could be achieved within a democratic framework. The answer is fairly obvious; Sri Lanka does not have a functioning democracy that can make a convincing argument that all the problems that might arise within this society could be resolved within the framework of democratic institutions and by vigorous participation in the democratic process. The absence of such a democratic framework has created various mental attitudes within the country. To the politically active young people it has created a sense of nihilism which considers everything as permissive. In the political field it means a belief in violence for its own sake. It is hard to believe that either Wijeweera or Prabakaran would have seriously believed that they would be allowed to achieve the aims they were claiming that they were trying to achieve. It is most likely that both, as persons who were hardened by the politics of violence, would have known the end that they faced. That a whole young generation would have no political aspirations except for protest for its own sake reflects as to how deeply the dysfunctional nature of Sri Lankan democracy has affected the entire nation and particularly the young. Despite of the violent ends of both these leaders and many of their followers the basic lessons of what a dysfunctional political system does to the entire population and particularly to the young cannot be ignored.

One of the early writers to understand the impact of the result of dysfunctional democracy was the well known author and journalist, the late Tarzei Vittachi, who in his celebrated book, Emergency ‘58/ The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots, wrote:

Unfortunately the Government made the mistake of throwing the baby away with the bath water. While repressive legislation and irksome, outmoded attitudes which had kept the masses in thrall had to be hurled away without delay, it was vital for the peace and order of the country, especially in times of rapid social change, to preserve and strengthen the rule of law and the authority of the officers who enforce the law. This salutary rule was ignored and even spurned in the extravagant mood of enthusiasm in which the Government tried to meet the massive problems that challenged its capabilities.

The abandonment of the rule of law and the authority of institutions which was already visible in 1958 became a much greater problem in the years that followed with a similar political approach by subsequent governments and even radical experiments to undermine democracy and rule of law in favour of the executive, particularly the adoptions of the 1972 and 1978 Constitutions. The only time there was a rare unanimity by all political parties in Sri Lanka was in 2001 when on the basis of the admission of the collapse of all public institutions an amendment to the Constitution was passed to take some limited measures to attempt to recover the authority of these institutions. This was again abandoned after a few years. On the issue that the entire institutional framework of Sri Lankan democracy has collapsed there is hardly any controversy. The country is now run by the executive president and the armed forces.

It is not possible to create faith in democracy when there is no functioning democracy within the country. If people in general and the younger generation in particular are to be brought up to understand and respect democracy then there must be an actual democracy within the country in the first place. Nobody could have faith and trust in something that does not exist. That is the situation of democracy within the country; it is a thing that does not exist.

There is no need to reiterate the well known position that holding of elections alone is not democracy. Many rogue systems have many forms of manipulated elections for no other reason but to have some legitimacy, particularly before the eyes of the international community for certain regimes. However, any reading of the materials produced by the movements lead by Wijeweera and Prabakaran, particularly in the early periods of their inception, would demonstrate the cynicism that their generation has for the mockery of democracy that has been taking place in the country for many decades now.

It is not only rebels that cannot understand democracy. The numerous spokesmen for the government, including ministers and those who deal with media and information, demonstrate a very clear lack of understanding of democracy. For this it is possible to quote a large body of literature. Just to mention one example, following the declaration of the victory against the LTTE by the government, there were many spokesmen who condemned the western governments for allowing the Tamil Diaspora to have demonstrations and protests in their own capitals. According to the understanding of these spokesmen it is the duty of the western governments to suppress all these protests and demonstrations. They also cannot understand how there can be any war crimes when the government was pursuing a good cause like the elimination of terrorism. According to this way of thinking there cannot be any war crimes, either in wars between countries or civil wars on the part of governments which are pursuing the good cause, for example, the allied powers trying to defeat Hitler. If the cause is good anything that is done, even if it is otherwise a crime, is not a crime from this point of view. The forced disappearances of 30,000 persons in the suppression of the JVP were no crime at all.

What is important for the purpose of this reflection is that there is a mentality that has developed within the country that while using words like democracy there is no need at all to worry about the institutional foundations of democracy. However, it is through the institutions that democracy is achieved practically. Democracy is just a word to justify whatever a ruling regime does and nothing more.

This particularly affects the approach to the media. Discussions by government spokesmen including the military spokesmen with media channels such as the BBC, Aljazeera and the like clearly demonstrate that in the view of these spokesmen the sole function of the media is to give publicity to the government’s point of view. These spokesmen understand the media only as propaganda. The idea that for a democracy the right to information and freedom of expression is fundamental is a concept that does not make sense to these spokesmen. Simply everybody should live by whatever the government tells them. As it was written in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, if Comrade Napoleon says it, it must be true. One of these spokesmen told the media that the allegations of abuse in the IDP camps are untrue because he has personally investigated them and found them to be untrue. This is like a defence lawyer telling the court that according to his judgement his client is innocent and that everyone should act on his opinion. Independent inquiries are a primary aspect of a democracy. In a democracy people are not told to believe what the government says simply because the government has said it. The idea of accountability and transparency does not make any sense if people must accept what the government says without independent sources to confirm it.

The mentality of this distrust of democracy will remain so long as democracy itself does not exist by way of functioning institutions within the country. Dysfunctional institutions will confirm every day to the population, and its younger generation in particular, that there is no way to have any problem resolved within a framework of democracy in the present context of Sri Lanka.

Writers such as Hannah Arendt have made extensive studies on the impact of the dissolution of the structural framework of democracy on political systems (of particular importance is her book the Origins of Totalitarianism, which is considered a political classic). All the authoritarian regimes in Europe in the 20th century relied on the mentalities that arise with the undermining of the state structures within each country. Destruction of the institutional framework of the democratic state provides the ethos for the development of mob support for political movements with authoritarian ambitions. Those who are seriously concerned with understanding the political developments in Sri Lanka, including also the rebel movements, need to pay attention to the way in which Sri Lanka has become a dysfunctional democracy.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-111-2009
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Democracy,