Democracy & Human Rights | Speeches

Democracy in Action

Mahatma Gandhi Memorial

Colombo, Sri Lanka

October 9, 2009

In days gone by India and Sri Lanka could make the proud boast of being the best functioning Parliamentary Democracies in the developing world. Some political historians, including Karl Marx, have stated that the ancient monarchical systems in our countries tended to be benevolent autocracies. They may have arrived at this analysis when comparing the systems that prevailed in pre-medieval and medieval Europe with ours. We did not have the institution of slavery like they did. Yet, the pervasive caste system structures imposed upon the monarchical system, resulted in oppressive governing and social systems.

The Indian independence Movement was led by educated thinkers like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru etc:. They gave to the Independence Movement and thereafter to the newly formed governments, a well defined philosophy and a vision. The philosophy and policies of Mahatma Gandhi were founded on the principles of tolerance, understanding, equality and of course, non-violence. He believed and preached that these formed a decidedly more potent force for change, than the politics of distrust, exclusion and hatred. The very foundation of Gandhian philosophy was freedom in every sense of the word. The powerful message of Gandhiji’s mission has reached every corner of the world. Eternal validity of the Gandhian philosophy is amply demonstrated by the fact that innumerable thinkers and politicians have embraced this vision.

The leaders of Indian Independence presented a Vision of a Secular and Federal India, together with other dynamic programmes, such as the Swadesha Programme - economic self sufficiency and independence. This proved to be the 'Leit motif" of India's stability, despite remarkable levels of poverty and consistent political disturbances at regional levels.

In Sri Lanka there was no comprehensive philosophy, nor vision given by those who led the independent movement and ran the first governments, excepting the limited programme of obtaining independence from colonial rule.

In Sri Lanka the appearance of a definite Vision occurs only in 1956. The social, economic and political empowerment of all sectors of the population gave rise to a vibrant Nation and a people's economy brimming with dynamism.

After 450 years of colonial domination, the Sihala Only policy certainly gave a place in the sun to the Lankan people, through the potent vehicle of the language of the vast majority. It also established a non-Secular State, excluding and marginalizing the minorities.

Policies meant to alleviate the disadvantages of the One Language Policy, such as the Reasonable Use of Tamil Bill and the Bandaranaike - Chelvanayagam Pact were never implemented.

The advent of modern democracy, occurred á la British, during colonial rule in the first half of the 20th Century.

The basic tenets of Democracy, as we know them are:-


• the guarantee of the fundamental freedoms of the individual,

• freedom of the media,

• the people's right to free and fair elections.

• the separation of powers of the 03 accepted institutions of government - Legislature, Executive and Judiciary and guarantee of their independence and probity.

Let us look at Democracy in Action in India today. Most of these factors exist in reality. For 06 decades, Independent India has managed to guarantee and operationalise the essential principles and institutions of democracy, indeed with numerous exceptions. We do hear of election fraud and malpractices and corrupt judges and even a few brief periods of governments leaning towards autocracy. But this has not affected the overall effective functioning of democracy in India.

In Sri Lanka 03 decades of valorous efforts at democracy and good governance, were seriously damaged with the introduction of the overreaching powers of the Executive Presidency. For the first time we see massive acts of violent revenge perpetrated upon democratic political opponents during and after elections, State sponsored election fraud, violent reprisals against all democratic opponents including the minorities, together with the consistent and dangerous whittling away of the independence of the administrative apparat and the Judiciary.

Here I am aware that I am begging the question why I did not abolish the Executive Presidency when I had the opportunity to do so. I shall come back to it in due course.

It is important at this point, to briefly consider the Constitutional arrangements in the two countries. The provision of a Secular State in the Indian Constitution, guarantees equal rights to all ethnic, linguistic and religious communities.

Secondly the creation of a Federal State accords equal political rights, with extensive arrangements for political power sharing with all regions of the country and thus all sections of the population. Ancient Bharat composed of multifarious ethnic, linguistic and religious communities was thus successfully welded into a stable, strong and single, modern Indian State. The Indian Federal experience has much to demonstrate to us, about building Unity in Diversity. The Secular Federal State of India has successfully forged a cohesive Nation out of one of the world’s most ethnically, linguistically, religiously and culturally diverse groupings.

The Sri Lanka Constitution, through its many splendoured trajectories has failed to achieve anything like the strength and stability of the Indian State. Although we are 50 times smaller than India and is inhabited by only 04 ethnic communities and one tribe. Our Constitution accords scant rights to the minority communities. It guarantees hegemony to the majority religious and ethnic community.

We in Sri Lanka use statistical enumeration and the fact that 70% of the population belong to the majority Sinhala community and Buddhist religion to justify theories and practices of dominance and enjoyment of privileges over the statistically less numerous communities. Control of State power, traditionally exercised by the upper echelons within the Sinhalese social groups has passed on to the hands of a new class of politicians from the lower social echelons. This most welcome transformation, taking place within our socio – political structures has not unfortunately been accompanied by constitutional, legal and administrative measures to empower the State to overcome the tendency by present politicians to treat a career in politics as a lucrative business venture, which in turn has encouraged the politics of hanging onto power at any cost.

This has led to the contemporary political culture and practice of bribery, corruption, gangsterism coupled with a total intolerance of opposing view points, even when expressed democratically and a callous disregard for the Rule of Law and the Geneva Convention on Human Rights.

It is clear that our society is a deeply divided one, which has in addition to contend with the horrors of political violence on one hand, and the ethnic conflict on the other. We also have to deal with psycho-social trauma related to the war, affecting military personnel and a certain number of civilians on the Sinhala side, as well as LTTE cadres and Tamil civilians on the other side of the divide. The effects of brutalization of Tamil civilians, during and after the war, by the LTTE on one hand, and the State on the other, have caused attitudes of immeasurable hatred, revenge and counter revenge.

Permit me at this point to talk to you even briefly about the vision, attitudes and practices of my governments in dealing with Tamil civilians, who are hapless victims, caught between the LTTE terrorists and the military. Our vision was and in my case, still remains:-


First to study and obtain a clear understanding of the ethnic problem in our country,


to endeavour to understand and accept the facts, situating ourselves outside the usual hegemonisitc Sinhala mindset. This was not only because of our strict adherence to the Buddhist principles of Metta, Katuna and so on, but also because we came to understand rationally that a durable Peace, which was the essential basis for a stable and united country, would not be possible without convincing and winning the confidence of the 02 major minority communities, after many decades of distrust, division and hatred.


We understood that building a few roads, bridges, repairing the railway and opening up railway lines once again, like many governments have done, would not suffice. We ascertained that the vast majority of the minority people do not seem to trust governments dominated by the majority anymore. When I say the vast majority, I mean all those other than active members and cadres of the LTTE.
The vast majority hence, of the Tamil population of Sri Lanka, who live presently here or were forced out after 1983 and are living abroad, would be satisfied to live within one united Sri Lanka, where they could have the confidence of administering their own affairs within an arrangement of devolution of powers, securing civic and political rights, most importantly their human rights, as equal and honoured, citizens, free to lead a life of safety and dignity.


We understood that Sri Lankan Governments need desperately to win the confidence and trust of the Tamil people. Hence, when my government took back about 3 /4 of the Northern Province, held by the LTTE at the time, we took great trouble to invite the residents of the District of Jaffna, forced out by the LTTE when they ran away from the military attacks, to come back to their homes within weeks.
We knew it was near impossible to sift out LTTE cadres from the rest,nor did we believe it useful to categorize LTTE sympathizers as opposed to LTTE cadres, because we were aware that in the desperate situation in which the Tamil people were forced to live under the LTTE, they would have had no option other than sympathizing with the LTTE oppressors.
We housed them mainly in places of religious worship and school buildings, whilst systems were quickly set in motion to give monetary compensation and other assistance to householders, to rebuild their homes and resettle. 400,000 people, residents of Jaffna were resettled in their homes by the end of one to 1 ½ years. About 2 years, after taking over Jaffna, we began a massive programme of reconstruction of physical and social infrastructure. Thus the Sri Lankan Government probably succeeded in restoring some of the lost confidence between the Tamil civilians and the State.

Democracy will not and cannot function for very much longer in Sri Lanka, unless the seething problem of the Minorities is resolved in a durable and acceptable manner. For this the Sinhalese majority cannot continue to stand firm within our exclusivist view point and throw a few crumbs to the others. We, the Sinhalese have in the last few years, gone back in time once again. Look at the problem from the stand point of the others. Can’t we live and operate as One United Nation, while each one subscribes to the different characteristics of his diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious communities. Can’t we celebrate the richness of our diversity, rather than living like the legendary frog in his well – each one submerged in his narrow space. Then, democracy and its precious freedoms, so essential for the forward march of humanity, will have the ability to operate effectively in this Nation of ours.

I make no attempt to state that Democracy in India functions today with no flaws. As I stated before we hear of serious election fraud, in some instances. Yet, the independence of the Indian Elections Commission is so assured that it is known to take strict action without being subject to undue influence by Governments. Also, the political and administrative structures are well defined and work within regulations and practices accepted by all political parties.

Despite various flaws, democracy in India is a vibrant force. Quite clearly the effective practice of secularism by the Central State, together with the federal nature of the state, the accordance of equal rights, not only in theory but in practice, are the major ingredients of neighbouring India’s recipe for unity in diversity.

In our country the Executive Presidency has at times thrown out all accepted norms of decent political practice, in order to wreak revenge from political opponents or even non opponents for reasons that are nothing but subjective.

We must not forget that the slow destruction of democratic governance in Sri Lanka is also due to the fact that the existence and authority of the State has been put in question, many times over, by the use of violent politics by the JVP and the LTTE over a period of 4 decades. The response of the State to these resulted in the inevitable hardening of the State apparatus and its militarization and the transformation of the Police to a repressive police force.

Although there have been, and still exist many insurgencies in India, they remain regional. The Central State has not had to face serious challenges to its authority and power.

I would say the solution to the problems of regular uprisings from varying sections of our peoples is not repression but the adoption and practice of an inclusive politics.

The major lessons Sri Lanka could draw from the Indian experience are:-

That a Secular State is essential to weld together our diverse communities, which were engaged in terribly violent conflict, through mutual understanding and some amount of sacrifice on all sides. Unending crowing about war victory certainly does not help in this exercise.
Magnanimity from leaders - especially the victors, should be the order of the day.

We need today a massive programme to de-educate the Nation, away from the anger and hatred built up in the war years, to re-build fraternity and understanding in the same way my Government did, with the Sudu Nelum movement and other similar programmes.
In order to rebuild a cohesive, forward looking and progressive nation, there is no alternative to transforming the mindset and policies of the Sinhala leadership from exclusivian and hegemony to one of equality.

We need to very quickly recommence an honest appraisal of the causes of the minority problem as it presents itself today and to formulate solutions.
We don't need to spend any more time.
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution presented by the Jayawardena government
The draft Constitution presented by my government in Parliament, in 2000
The findings of the APRC under this government are more than enough to arrive at an early decision on this issue. Then these solutions must be implemented without delay. The Indian Federal experience has much to demonstrate regarding unity in diversity etc;

Extensive educational and cultural programmes will have to be implemented to reconstruct bridges of amity between our deeply divided communities.
In this exercise, the private sector, NGOs, religious leaders, professionals, and intellectuals must play an important role.

In this way, I believe we could halt the slide to becoming a failed Sate and emerge from the international isolation we have pushed ourselves into, whilst rebuilding confidence between the State and its peoples, if we are willing to look at the truth rationally and engage honestly in the great National project of reuniting our Nation and taking it forward towards a peaceful, prosperous and stable future.

My Government's Constitution drafts, presented to the country in 2000, contained provisions for the abolishing of the Executive Presidency, with the transfer of Executive power to an elected Prime Minister, directly responsible to Parliament. We failed to implement this, as the Opposition steadfastly refused to vote with us to provide the 2/3 majority required.