SRI LANKA: Wijeweera and Prabakaran — rebels within a dysfunctional democracy (2) 

Exactly what made both movements represented by these two leaders (The JVP and the LTTE) abandon the struggle for democracy and rule of law altogether and resort to violence reflects on the limitations of other political movements within the country. At no time was there a single political party or tendency in Sri Lanka which made it their aim to construct and improve the institutions of the rule of law and democracy. In this the Sri Lankan experience differed from that of India where the National Congress Party, which was started in 1885 had two programmes which were both pursued vigorously for a long period of time; the programme of emancipation of India from British rule, and what was called the social programme, which was to prepare people for the democracy that would come after independence. This preparation for democracy meant fighting against entrenched prejudices within the country such as views on women symbolised by such practices as sati, (burning of widows) dowries, child marriages and above all, the segregation of people on the basis of caste. Part of this preparation was forums and meetings which were held even in the remotest parts of the country where people had the opportunity to express themselves and listen to others. Leaders that came in later, like Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, brought the element of democratic participation to the poorest and most oppressed sections of Indian society: the untouchables.

Many decades of such democratic practices among the people prepared them for the exercise of their franchise in the future and also for a high degree of participation. However, the greater achievement was that all over the country an intellectual element emerged that was able to keep an enlightened and fiery discourse on democracy going under all circumstances. This was also reflected in the making of the constitution, discourses of which are well documented where, the leaders of the country from different political spectrums, agreed to have provisions in the constitution in order to prevent some of the worst practices of the British colonial power in India, such as the arrest and detention of political opponents. Since then India has gone through many trials and tribulations but the belief in democracy has remained as strong as ever. The last election in the country which was held this month (May 2009) was seen by even the defeated opposition as a free and fair election.

This however, was not the case in Sri Lanka. Among the movements that came to light in Sri Lanka first was the labour movement which, by the 1930s was under leftist leadership. While these leaders contributed to democratisation in some way, their main goals were more utopian. World revolution was the cry and democracy and rule of law were seen, for the most part, as an imperialist ploy. This utopian vagueness remained in these parties through the years of their decline which, coincidentally, was the time when both the JVP and the LTTE had their origins. The parties of the elites such as the UNP and the SLFP never had a programme for improvements and the consolidation of the institutional framework of democracy. We have earlier quoted Tarzei Vittachi, who in 1958 observed how these political leaders abandoned the need to maintain the rule of law and uphold the authority of the public institutions. The same can also be said of the Tamil political parties. The concern for the country’s total democracy, as the basis for achieving the rights of the minorities, was never advocated by anyone. As against the political opportunism of the majority based parties the minority parties made demands for respect for the minority purely as a separate issue. That the existence of a functional democracy for the whole country is the basis of the protection of minority rights was never understood by these parties. Of course there were some parties which called themselves the ¡¥liberal party’ etc, which were on the one hand too insignificant to be worth a mention and on the other hand some of the leaders of such parties changed their views, to coin a colloquial saying, as easily as changing pillows.

Thus the political and the intellectual heritage of the leaders of the JVP and the LTTE was paltry. The JVP made a revolution with Marxist, Leninist, Maoist, Che Guevarist rhetoric but in fact there was nothing worthy of any intellectual exposition of its political philosophy. Nothing in that literature indicates any interest in democracy and the rule of law. In fact, almost childish rejection of these as tools of repression was the more general approach.

As for the LTTE its expressions were based on race alone which of course could never be the basis of democratic discourse. Its avowed goal as a separate state achieved by force alone left no room for democratic discourse even within the Tamils themselves. In fact, the killing of all Tamil opponents was one of the central components of the LTTE’s ideology. Driven by militaristic necessity to have one military front against the Sri Lankan military it was mortally opposed to any form of democratic discourse within the Tamil community. This was noted very early by leaders such as Rajani Thiranagama, who was one of the first Tamil intellectuals to be assassinated by the LTTE.
Rajani Thiranagama ¡V assassinated
by the LTTE on September 21, 1989

By 1970 all the major political parties in the country had expressly rejected democracy as a suitable form of government for the country. The government of Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike, which included a coalition of three major parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Communist party embarked on a new constitution spoken of as a home grown constitution, which was incongruously called a socialist constitution. It abandoned the separation of powers as the basis for the constitution to the detriment, particularly, of the judiciary. In 1977 J.R. Jayewardene’s United National Party was elected and in 1978 abolished liberal democratic constitutionalism altogether in favour of creating a monster called the executive president who had more power than anyone under any government. This constitution was noted as having the worst of all the elements of common law tradition and civil law tradition and none of their better elements. In fact, a leading constitutional lawyer of the time stated that the constitution was made following the example of that of the Central African Republic of Jean Bedel Bokkasa, a comic figure with unlimited appetite for abusing power. All subsequent governments, to date, have followed the same model and with time the collapse of the entire fabric of rule of law and democracy has taken place.

This was the political ethos within which these two rebels, Wijeweera and Prabakaran, had their movements. To a great degree reaction to this overall political system conditioned their political strategies and actions. The overall system unleashed terror on all political dissidents and particularly on the members of these two movements. They in turn attempted to outdo the state apparatus in terror. A terror v terror situation developed and the ultimate consequences are now a known fact.

Reacting to the undemocratic nature of the overall government structure negatively by way of violence was a self destructive course for the members themselves and their leaders, as well as to the whole country. The politics of violence that both leaders exposed lead them to opt for secretive political groupings and that also removed them from the community, including the very constituencies they were claiming to espouse. Wijeweera’s JVP was far removed from the underprivileged groups of the country and Prabakaran’s LTTE removed itself completely from the Tamil community. Such developments are natural judging from the studies of similar movements from different times in many countries.

Rooting of the country’s political system on the rule of law and democracy is the only solution the country has to move itself out of the self destructive course that the established political parties, as well as the rebels, have lead the country into. As there is enormous anxiety and deep reflections within the country of finding a new path to peace and stability, all reflections should move towards the sole ambition of creating a functional democracy. Even the solution to the minority problem can only be realistically found within a functional democracy.

While there are discussions about solutions to the minority problem all such discussions will come to naught if they are confined to the pure rhetoric of federal state or the implementation of the 13th Amendment, and the like. None of these things are of any practical use as long as the country’s democracy remains dysfunctional. Thus, for the discussions taking place in the country and internationally today the problems of the rule of law and democracy should be deliberately brought up and emphasized.

The present government is based on the same dictatorial model as J.R. Jayewardene’s government. With over 31 years of the operation of this constitutional model, the country’s situation has dissolved into one without any viable public institutions. The present government, like the previous governments, has benefitted from movements such as the JVP and the LTTE because the overall situation of terror allows the central problems of a failed system to be swept under the carpet. The President’s speech on May 19 did not indicate in any way that there was any attempt to address the country’s dysfunctional system. As long as the government makes no move to abolish this system in favour of a separation of power based democratic system, the government will continue to contribute to the destruction of the nation, even after the LTTE’s capacity to do so has been brought to an end by the military. It is the task, above all of the youth, and the thinking elements of the country to address the problems relating to rule of law and democracy within the country and thus to create new energies which are of a positive nature that are capable of offering a path to peace and stability.

For the first statement in this series please see:


Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-115-2009
Countries : Sri Lanka,