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Journal of Democracy 13.1 (2002) 84-98

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South Asia Faces the Future

Illiberalism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka

Neil DeVotta

"History," wrote Hegel, "teaches that history teaches men nothing." Despite 19 years of ethnic conflict, Sri Lanka's political, civic, and religious leaders have failed--or refused--to see that their actions have poisoned interethnic relations and engendered a stubborn and cruel civil war.

The cancer that eats at Sri Lanka's political life is "ethnic outbidding": the auction-like process whereby Sinhalese politicians strive to outdo one another by playing on their majority community's fears and ambitions. This "outbidding" has plunged the Sinhalese government in Colombo and the Tamil rebels who control parts of the northeast into a protracted conflict. There is no peace, and democracy has been reduced to a hollow shell. Democratic forms and institutions have been preserved for appearance's sake, while the essentials of true constitutional liberalism--the rule of law; limited government; free and fair elections; and the freedoms of assembly, speech, and religion--have been perverted, crippled, or destroyed in an atmosphere of ethnic hatred. 1

Under normal circumstances, universal-suffrage elections, party politics, and elite competition are crucial for democracy. In Sri Lanka, however, misguided or malicious leaders have used these democratic mainstays to perpetrate ethnic conflict and gain politically. While in formal terms Sri Lanka may be a consolidated democracy, having managed the requisite two peaceful turnovers of power more than four decades ago, the actuality is sadly different. For if we ask whether the rules governing formal democratic processes are consistently observed by all parties, we can see just how badly ethnic particularism and outbidding have dominated the country's politics since the mid-1950s and undercut democratic consolidation. [End Page 84]

Sri Lanka (called Ceylon until 1972) is slightly smaller than the Republic of Ireland but contains nearly 19 million people. British authorities granted universal suffrage in 1931; independence came in 1948 as the British withdrew from the subcontinent. In 1981, the last all-island census put the island's ethnic breakdown at 74 percent Sinhalese, 12.7 percent Sri Lankan Tamil, 5.5 percent Indian Tamil (descendants of indentured laborers who came to work on the central-highlands tea plantations under the British), and 7 percent "Moor" or Muslim.

Sinhalese and Tamils are distinguished by ethnicity, language, and religion--the former are mostly Buddhist while the latter are predominantly Hindu. In the main, the two groups coexisted peacefully for nearly two millennia. Ethnic tensions date from the 1920s, when Tamil politicians first began to fear what universal-suffrage elections might mean in a society where Sinhalese outnumbered them six to one. Yet despite Tamil misgivings, the interethnic comity between the elites from each group allowed them to work together for independence. Tragically, soon after independence was won, Sinhalese leaders began to justify Tamil fears by taking advantage of their community's overwhelming numbers, the first-past-the-post electoral system, and a unitary state structure with no substantive minority guarantees. The first step--and here the Sinhalese had the able assitance of certain Sri Lankan Tamil politicians--was to disenfranchise the country's Indian Tamils.

This maneuver meant that the Sinhalese composed more than four-fifths of the electorate. Each Sinhalese political party began seeking victory in the island's hypercompetitive political arena by trying to take the most truculently pro-Sinhalese, anti-Tamil stance. Spurring the whole thing on was the Sinhalese swabasha (self-language) movement, which used its influence in civil society to condemn linguistic parity and successfully demand a Sinhala-only policy. 2

Ethnic Outbidding and the Road to Civil War

As suggested above, Sri Lanka's constitutional structure lent itself to ethnic outbidding. What the island needed was a setup that encouraged consensus politics and polyethnic coexistence. What it got was the opposite. As Arend Lijphart has noted, in most deeply divided polyethnic societies, "majority rule spells majority dictatorship and civil strife rather than democracy." Consequently, "what such societies need is a democratic regime that emphasizes consensus instead of opposition, that includes rather...