Challenging the West’s Narrative on Sri Lanka’s “Victory for Democracy”

06 Feb 2015 - Commentary

Of the many pieties that have been promoted in the Western media in the aftermath of Maithripala Sirisena’s victory over incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa in the recent Sri Lankan presidential election, none has been more cherished than the notion that Sri Lanka is now on board with “democracy.”[1] This claim is counter-posed to Sri Lanka’s recent cozy relationship with China and other authoritarian countries. A new Cold War is supposedly being fought, with Sri Lanka’s election reduced to its strategic relevance to policy makers.

At the same time the dominant narrative promoted by Western media and diplomats has been conveniently ignored in other places where it is considered politically unfeasible to support democracy. The same diplomats and officials that criticized the previous Rajapaksa regime have often argued that equally if not more repressive governments in places such as the Middle East are “on the path to democracy.” This claim temporizes the same political expectations that have been applied to Sri Lanka.

The Rajapaksa regime, however, easily caught hold of the West’s hypocrisy. In the run up to the election campaign, it canvassed posters through various front organizations. These posters showed in gory detail the devastation wrought by the West’s imperial adventures in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Libya. Without knowing it, however, the Rajapaksa regime had already accepted defeat. It seemed to subconsciously accept the power the political apparatus of the West still has to define the terms of the global.

This is more practically evident in terms of capital’s relationship. The Rajapaksa regime relied more and more on private investors to shore up the government’s debt. Such dependence contrasts with the media’s fixation on the politically controversial Chinese presence. Moreover the regime attracted funding for mega development projects from around the world, including Western countries such as Australia. Foreign commentators have often chosen to ignore these more pervasive aspects of the West’s hegemony, implicitly assuming that citizens of other countries can only play out a script that has already been written for them.

The significance of Sirisena’s victory for Sri Lanka

In order to move past the West’s standards and measures and the Rajapaksa regime’s capitulation to these terms, it would be better instead to ask, what was actually at stake in the election for Sri Lankans themselves? As a whole Sri Lanka’s citizens collectively voted against Rajapaksa, perhaps most crucially in order to annul the increasingly repressive aspects of the regime. Western policy makers, however, would do well to avoid self-congratulation in trying to insert themselves into this story. Rather than a vindication of their narrative, Sirisena’s victory was in fact a stunning reversal of policy makers’ core assumptions. To identify the difference, we must first go back to an earlier period.

In the early 2000s, Ranil Wickramasinghe, then as now Prime Minister, championed the Norwegian-backed peace process between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. In addition, he promoted a series of neoliberal reforms advocating privatization of state enterprises. Sinhala nationalists such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and Jathika Hela Urumaya quickly articulated this connection. They managed to develop a popular campaign against the politically and economically-linked aspects of Wickramasinghe’s reforms which, they argued, sought to “divide the country” and render it susceptible to Western imperial interests.

Moreover, the peace process proposed political solutions that focused almost exclusively on high-level diplomatic negotiations between the government and the Tigers, erasing dissenting voices in Sri Lankan society. These included everyone from right-wing Sinhala nationalists to the Muslim community to politically progressive Tamil dissidents who bravely faced the wrath of the Tigers. Such constituencies could only be seen as “spoilers,” a view still implied even in Norway’s otherwise self-critical account of the process released in 2011, “Pawns of Peace.” Ultimately, however, it was the failure to engage people on the ground that led to the collapse of social support for the peace process.

In contrast, Sirisena’s election manifesto revealed a remarkable attempt to balance allusions to earlier policies of economic liberalization with the core tasks of fighting the Rajapaksa regime’s “corruption” and providing a people-friendly alternative. It was this ethos of compromise that in fact proved decisive in the election. It helped bring together a diverse coalition of actors from Sinhala nationalists to Tamil and Muslim political parties, communists to economic liberals. Whereas the peace process attempted to cordon off Sri Lankans from expert decision makers, the presidential election demonstrated the opposition’s attempt to work with a fragmented array of forces.

Rethinking politics in other places

Going forward, solutions for Sri Lanka’s problems, from democracy to the national question, will require messy compromises and respect for the inherent pluralism of the country’s political order. To a large extent, Sirisena’s campaign succeeded because it engaged with the local discourse and attended to debates within the country. It recognized that it first had to speak to people’s demands and expectations, rather than impose technocratic solutions prescribed by Western policy makers from above. In addition, it articulated some of the concerns of poorer and middle class constituencies that had been excluded from Sri Lanka’s supposedly high rates of post-war growth.

In this regard, perhaps given the right progressive push the aftermath of the opposition campaign might even be able to slowly change people’s assumptions about what is considered a viable solution to some of the above issues. For example, the post-war university teachers’ campaign to devote 6% of GDP to public education was incorporated into the opposition manifesto. While it may simply be a rhetorical gesture, the very acknowledgment of this demand nevertheless demonstrates the potential power of people’s movements to bring critical issues to the forefront.

Ultimately, interpreting the election results requires a principled response to the cynical attitudes of contemporary global power politics. This is expressed in much of the Western media’s patronizing view that Sri Lankans have simply reaffirmed their ability to make decisions as rational political actors by rejoining the “right” geopolitical camp. Only by critiquing the West’s taken for granted ability to define the meaning of democracy can we truly begin to acknowledge the agency of the Sri Lankan people—and for that matter other countries—in writing their own story.

This piece also appears in Kafila on 6 Feb 2015