America, Sri Lanka, and the Future of Democracy in Asia

11/18/2010 05:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza Former DNC Deputy National Press Secretary; Co-Author, 'Forty More Years' with James Carville

While a narrow view of what constitutes democratic government has periodically impeded U.S. foreign relations, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, so, too, has a willingness to overlook the shortcomings of un-democratic regimes. For the sake of convenience when attentions and resources were diverted elsewhere, in the name of expediency during times of conflict, and out of concern for critical strategic interests, the United States has repeatedly ignored or excused abuses abroad. Yet no such rationale presents itself in the case of U.S. reticence on the decline of democracy in Sri Lanka.

An examination of U.S. policy-makers' statements on Asian democracies suggests a need to scrutinize the assumptions American policy-makers hold about the process and goals of democratization abroad. At a September lecture by Princeton's Professor John Ikenberry at Hong Kong University, he used paternalistic language in describing Asian democracies. He compared South Korea to his child, lacking discipline and maturity, and dismissed Southeast Asia as in need of tutelage. Asked whether expanding American academics and policy-makers' definition of democracy might yield a different conclusion regarding the state of democracy in Asia, he was flustered. It didn't seem Ikenberry's intent to lecture from a U.S.-centric viewpoint, but, nonetheless, his underlying assumptions and tenor of the talk seemed to alienate -- or perhaps just baffle -- his Chinese audience. In Asia, no form of democracy is presupposed to be the superior form of government, much less Western-style democracy.

The diversity among democracies in Asia requires the United States to refine its perspective on democratic governance. The evolution of official views on religious elements in democracy in the Middle East and Turkey over the last decade suggests progress toward engendering an inclusive view of democracy. However, even as the United States has developed a more tolerant perspective in one region, it has remained silent elsewhere in Asia as Sri Lanka's claim to democracy has become ever more tenuous, pointing to a selective failure to set criteria for democracy.

Sri Lanka remains fragile following the end of the civil war in May 2009. A stable democracy will be critical to post-conflict unification. Although no longer militarized, tensions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority now take the form of social, political, and legal battles. Sri Lanka must achieve political reconciliation, reconstruction, and resettlement, tasks suited to a democratic government that incorporates the North.

Endemic over-simplification and attempts to reframe political debates by both domestic and foreign actors have ensured that conversations regarding Sri Lanka's political system and future continue to be conducted in democratic terms. But using the lexicon of democracy to discuss Sri Lanka concedes that either the state is fundamentally democratic or that the Rajapaksa administration aspires to democracy. Neither is true.

Sri Lanka has hovered between authoritarianism and democracy since its independence in 1948. The 1978 Constitution marked the beginning of Sri Lanka's descent into authoritarianism -- and this year's 18th Amendment may denote its culmination. Over time, the lines between authoritarianism and democratic governance have blurred. The concepts of legality and illegality are no longer legible in Sri Lanka: people can no longer distinguish between what is law and what is not law, what is legitimate and what is illegitimate. This absence of the rule of law affects all aspects of life in Sri Lanka, from corruption among police and violation of detainees' rights to abuses of power by government officials at the highest levels. While vestiges and remnants of democratic governance remain in the form of the Constitution and the government structures, these, too, are falling away.

The reversion of Sri Lanka to authoritarianism will have international consequences. In addition to its strategic relevance to India's security, Sri Lanka controls portions of Indian Ocean trade routes crucial to Asian maritime trade routes critical to the United States, China, and India. Attempts by the Obama administration to tie aid to political reform have been rejected by the Rajapaksa government, which instead turned to Burma, China, Iran, and Libya. Sri Lanka's geopolitical maneuvering reveals the anti-democratic nature of its government, and, moreover, reaffirms the importance of reestablishing democracy in Sri Lanka by offering a glimpse of the alternative.

Opponents within Sri Lanka and human rights critics from without have successfully publicized changes to the government, yet this opposition can only go so far. Outside actors could offer much-needed leverage. A sense of external accountability could also reduce internal abuses. In January of this year, following the presidential election, opposition candidate General Sarath Fonseka was arrested despite weak explanation and evidence, his office raided. Police brutality and violence against detainees remain endemic. Men and women taken into custody on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations -- or at the behest of a corrupt official -- are beaten and killed each week.

The United States, as well as other international actors and organizations such as the UN, can do more to shore democracy and encourage reform and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. American aid to Sri Lanka has traditionally focused on civil society and humanitarian crises rather than economic or political infrastructure, which would offer more direct routes to encouraging political reform. Expanding U.S. aid from predominantly Tamil and North-related concerns to encompass the Senhalese majority may also cultivate receptivity to democratic reform among members of the public. Strengthening the U.S. relationship with Sri Lanka through aid and trade may allow the United States greater traction and influence to contribute to halting its backslide into authoritarianism. Outside actors, including media, may also catalyze opposition to Constitutional changes and support for political reform by publicizing authoritarian abuses and supporting civic education.

Drawing distinctions between authoritarian and democratic governance in transitional countries is a complex task, requiring policy-makers to closely examine fundamental features of governance. All democracies are not created equal, but nor will all equal democracies resemble one another. It is the principle virtue of democracy that government is ruled by and thus resembles all of its citizens. This is the basis on which the United States must assess the quality of democracy and determine its foreign policy with respect to democratization. To be guided by this core concept is to accept that the tenets of socialism will continue to influence Southeast Asian democracies and that religious parties will be prominent in the democracies of Islamic countries--and that Sri Lanka is no longer a democracy at all.