In today’s world, democracy is often portrayed as the ideal political system for every country and society, far superior to any of the more primitive alternatives. However, Sri Lanka ‘s democratic history and particularly the country’s current state of affairs suggest that the atrocities we imagined could only be possible under fascist regimes can transpire within democracies as well.
Sri Lanka‘s democracy has manifested itself as an oppressive majoritarianism based on the popular belief that it is inherently a Sinhalese Buddhist country, and therefore institutionalized discrimination against other ethnic groups is justified. Lieutenant-General Sarath Fonseka, Sri Lanka ‘s Army Commander and one of the most powerful men in the country, expressed such a sentiment quite clearly in September 2008. According to him, Sri Lanka “belongs to the Sinhalese” and non-Sinhalese “must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things.”
Such discrimination has been a consistent feature of Sri Lankan society since it gained independence from Great Britain in 1948 and became a democracy. Especially during last three decades the government has unceasingly violated the human rights of Tamils. These abuses include arbitrary arrests and detainment, often accompanied by torture in police stations; racial profiling and frequent harassment at military checkpoints; inferior public educational provisions for Tamils as compared to Sinhalese; suppression of language rights; and white van abductions of Tamils 4-5 times a day.
Since the beginning of 2009, however, this discrimination has been taken to an entirely new, unprecedented and nightmarish level in the North of the country: genocide. Based on Fonseka’s words and actions, it is clear that he thinks the Tamil minority has, in fact, “demand[ed] undue things” and therefore deserves to be ethnically cleansed. Such government initiatives as “IDP Centres” that bear a remarkable resemblance to concentration camps, the systematic rape of Tamil women, an embargo on food and medical supplies (and subsequent epidemics of preventable and treatable diseases), mandatory civilian registration, and repeated bombings of hospitals and government-created ‘safe zones‘ strongly suggest that Sri Lanka’s government intends to destroy the entire Tamil population, not just the LTTE.
Even if the Sri Lankan government succeeds in making the country ethnically homogeneous, it will still, inevitably, be a pluralistic society, as all societies are: there will always be people of different ages, viewpoints and countenances, to say the least. Within a majoritarian system, after one minority is destroyed, the majority will inevitably turn against another group. Lasantha Wickramatunga, a recently assassinated Sri Lankan journalist, quoted a poem by Martin Niemöller in his self-written obituary that forewarns of such a phenomenon:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Wickramatunga and Niemöller‘s warning should be heeded: if we fail to stand up for the persecuted minority today, we may very well be the persecuted minority tomorrow. An overhaul of Sri Lanka ‘s political system, complete with extensive, genuine devolution and full safeguards on minority rights is needed now to save society as a whole.