Where is Democracy in SL heading to?

Professor Hector Perera, Sydney, Australia (Daily Mirror)

It is now time that we discuss some key factors relating to democracy, given that the name of our country is the ‘Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.’ But, unfortunately, ours is still far from being a true democratic state.  Democracy, which refers to the idea that people should rule themselves, was first established in Greece in the 5th century B.C. Henceforth, many countries, using different methods, have experimented to govern their societies and it is today recognised as the best form of governance.  It has been described as a system of governance ‘of the people, by the people and for the people,’ in which the supreme power is vested with the citizens. Accordingly, this authority is exercised by people, generally governed through their representatives elected periodically at held free and fair elections. Importantly, democracy means a set of principles about individual freedom and related practices and procedures. It is characterised by the institutionalisation of freedom. Hence, the idea of democracy consists of rights and responsibilities for both the government and the governed (citizens). This is the basis of ‘good governance.’  

In a democratic society, political decisions are freely made by majority rule. But, rule by the majority is not necessarily democratic, as no one would call a system fair or just if the majority oppresses the minority in their name. In making political decisions, majority rule must be coupled with guarantees of human rights of all stakeholders irrespective of their ethnicity, religion or political affiliation. The rights of minorities do not depend on the goodwill of the majority. The country’s Constitution protects the rights of all citizens through the democratic laws and institutions. Democratic society is also characterised by constitutional limits on government.  

Cartoon added by TW from internet

Image result for Democracy cartoons

Citizens’ freedom and democracy are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same although they are inseparable. Freedom is the condition of having the power of self-determination, which emphasises the opportunity for the exercise of one’s rights, particularly basic human rights. However, in a democratic society, the freedom to exercise individual’s (or a group’s) rights cannot be unlimited, as it is limited by the freedom to exercise the rights of other individuals (and groups) in society. However, in Sri  Lanka, the terms ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ seem to be misunderstood, misinterpreted and misused too. Politicians and others often use these titles inappropriately to achieve various objectives driven by self-interest.    


There seem to be at least two prerequisites to be recognised as a true democratic state. First, the citizens should have the power to govern themselves and the freedom to protect their rights, and they should also comprehend the sense of that freedom in order to be able to use it rightfully. Second, everyone should realise that corruption is a major obstacle to democracy, and have a genuine interest to contribute towards eradicating it. Undoubtedly, these would be difficult prerequisites to fulfil as they require a paradigm shift in the way many people in the country are used to think. However, with a determined effort by all citizens to make a change, they are not unachievable goals.    

Citizens’ Freedom — a main characteristic of democracy  

Citizens’ freedom to protest is a good sign of a democratic society. Such a society is characterised by individuals’ (and groups’) freedom of expression. For instance, according to the Constitution of Sri Lanka, every citizen is entitled to the freedom of peaceful assembly. However, it is vital that individual freedom of expression cannot be unlimited, as it is limited by the freedom of other individuals in society. Infringing the freedom of others in society is unacceptable. Those who infringe on the rights of others should remind themselves of the following: “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.” (Abraham Lincoln)  

In the present local context, the idea of freedom of expression (or the opportunity to protest) seems to be misused. Such freedom should be used in a peaceful manner and that the decision to protest should be the last resort to solve matters (particularly of political nature). From the society’s point of view, it would be preferable to resolve such issues amicably through negotiation. But for various aggrieved groups, especially those politically motivated, protest seem to be the first step in showing disagreement. Politically-motivated protests and protest rallies have become part of the everyday life.

They are usually characterised by slogans, shouting and road blocking, with no regard to the inconvenience caused to the non-protesting community including bus commuters, motorists, children going home after school or tuition classes, people returning home from work and so forth. It would be a violation of human rights of those non-protesting groups of citizens. It would also cause a large loss of productivity to the country due to the time wasted on the streets. Such activities must be against the law of the land.  

In a democratic society, the government of the day has a pivotal role to play in nurturing democracy. For instance, when the human rights of a section of the community are violated, it is the paramount responsibility of the government to take action to ensure the Law and Order situation is restored. Failing to do so would be interpreted as a weakness and the government’s inability to perform as expected. On the other hand, citizens may also have genuine grievances or displeasure with some government policies. On such occasions, they should be able to express their views peacefully. The government is responsible to provide facilities for people to have protest meetings or rallies, for example, by earmarking suitable locations and making it widely-known that only set places could be used for such purposes.

It is not unreasonable, however, to expect that individuals (and groups) who break the law should face the consequences (legal and other) of their actions. It is also possible for some sections of the society to become aggrieved due to other reasons than government policy (such as natural disasters). It is a duty of the government to listen and respond to the aggrieved parties for some reason in a positive and inclusive manner, and resolve the issues amicably. Failing to do so might trigger protest action.  

Freedom also means the ability to communicate with fellow citizens. Language is a crucial factor, and the country’s education system takes centre stage in removing the language barrier. For this purpose, the government should develop appropriate policies for the country’s schooling system to ensure all citizens have this ability. This would have a unification effect among different ethnic groups in the state. As the founder of the Ford Motor Company late Henry Ford once said; “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”    

Corruption – a main obstacle to democracy  

As pointed out in a recent panel discussion held in Colombo, corruption is ingrained in the Sri Lankan society almost as a part of the country’s culture. People from all walks of life, irrespective of their social status, are accustomed to engage in corrupt practices for their convenience and/or to accumulate wealth unlawfully. The menace of corruption in the country has grown into an epidemic proportion, and it appears to sit on an exponential growth curve. It is a major obstacle to democracy as it causes an individual or a group to take undue advantages at the expense of others. Its eradication from society would require a mammoth collective effort by the general public and many groups such as the media, independent citizen, professionals and so forth, in addition to the government.

People in Sri Lanka tend to blindly follow what the ‘corrupted people’ say and do. Fighting corruption could only be successful with the involvement of all Sri Lankans for which the country’s education system can also play a pivotal role. People need to change their mindset and stop bribing. Freedom does not mean license to engage in corrupt practices, even without breaking the law. It is also important that law and justice do not mean the same thing (law is a rule enacted and recognised as prohibiting certain actions and enforced by the imposition of penalties, whereas justice is just conduct).

Corruption refers to both illegal and unjust conduct which should be eradicated from the country in order to strengthen democracy. Furthermore, people must believe that corruption could be wiped out. Although this sounds like a dream, it would be a dream that could come true. It has been done in other countries, for example the Hong Kong police force.  

Various professional groups in the country have a responsibility to uphold the standards in their respective fields so that corruption would not thrive. However, the professions in Sri Lanka seem to have contributed to the growth of this menace. Lawyers, bankers and accountants are often criticised for letting set standards lapse.

(Doctors are the worst amongst professionals who practise corruption and plundering the public after getting educated from the people’s money -TW)   

The subject of the panel discussion jointly organised by the Colombo MBA Alumni Association and the Daily FT was ‘Fighting Corruption.’ The panel consisted of the chairpersons of the Corruption Commission and Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), Cabinet Minister of the present government and representatives from a number of professional organisations.

For example, it was pointed out during the aforesaid discussion that the bankers believed (when they gave loans) they knew 60% of the audits reports and accounts were misrepresentations, falsifications and were incorrect. Banks have also been criticised for deliberately targeting to collect drug money and filter it into the legitimate financial system to increase their profits. Similarly, legal and accounting professions have been criticised for manipulating the system, which makes corruption worse in Sri  Lanka.  

In addition, the media have also been criticised for contributing to the growth of corruption in the country. They are expected to be unbiased and impartial, and when they disseminate distorted and biased information for some reason that should be exposed so that the public won’t be mislead.  If the rulers are involved in politicising the professions for taking undue political advantages, citizens’ groups such as the ‘Puravesi Balaya’ should divulge it (among other things), thereby making a positive contribution to eradicate corruption. De-politicisation of public service is crucial as political interferences in the public service seem to be one of the main causes of corruption. For instance, it is vital to ensure the independence of the public service including the judiciary, and is also crucial to empower public officials who could identify wrongdoers including parliamentarians and bring them to justice. Unless politicians in all persuasions understand the weight of public expectations on them, they run the risk of having the situation escalated.

 It is obvious that the government alone cannot take full responsibility of wiping out corruption. However, the government should recognise that ‘lip service’ only is not sufficient. At present, the characteristic features of the government’s political agenda seem to talk about democracy and good governance on the one hand, and continuation of some corrupt practices (irrespective of what was promised before coming into power) on the other. The appointment to state institutions is an area where rampant corruption could take place. As pointed out at the same panel discussion mentioned earlier; “such a policy must recognise that just the ability to speak in English, having a privileged family background and education in an elite school are inadequate to run a state institution economically, effectively and efficiently.”  

It would also be important to a country like Sri  Lanka to bring in international standards that would test domestic systems against global best practices. Whether one likes it or not, in today’s globalised world, no country can afford to exist and grow in isolation. There are greater, more pressing challenges in the global geopolitical landscape that is changing constantly, which ultimately shape everything domestically. Therefore, it is important that the global context is part of the country’s national conversation; otherwise the country will struggle to deal with challenges that lie ahead, both locally and internationally. Lack of understanding about the global context, which is becoming increasingly-complex, would make us look like ‘frogs in a well’ and tend towards attempting to apply simple answers to complex issues.