”Both countries have a mostly Theravada Buddhist ethnic majority, and large ethno-religious minorities. Both are in the shadow of a traumatic period in their respective histories. Both have a powerful military with a serious human rights case to answer. Both have a question mark over just how democratic their government may be in future, and how institutionally strong democracy might be.”
By David Griffiths
I was very privileged to attend Aung San Suu Kyi’s historic speech to both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall last week. Delivered with characteristic dignity, it blended an elegant commentary on recent developments in Burma with some rich reflections on the nature of democracy itself, and concluded with a call for us to work together, combining political wisdom of East and West, “to bring the light of democratic values to all peoples”.
Without diminishing its potency for Burma at this time, much of Daw Suu’s speech was applicable far beyond Burma’s borders. In particular, I was struck how some of her own political wisdom seemed to resonate with another south Asian country which attracts considerable international attention.
Sri Lanka’s present situation is of course very different from Burma’s. But there are parallels too. Both countries have a mostly Theravada Buddhist ethnic majority, and large ethno-religious minorities. Both are in the shadow of a traumatic period in their respective histories. Both have a powerful military with a serious human rights case to answer. Both have a question mark over just how democratic their government may be in future, and how institutionally strong democracy might be.
Daw Suu is widely respected in Sri Lanka, as in so much of the world, as a heroic champion of democracy. And while I would not wish to overstretch the analogies or oversimplify the enormously complex task of reconciliation confronting Sri Lanka in the aftermath of its long-running civil conflict between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), I would suggest three aspects of her speech had particular resonance for the country.
Firstly, she was clear that root issues which underlie conflicts need to be dealt with properly. In Sri Lanka, the government has focused strongly on development and tourism as a panacea, but sceptics say this is cover for the lack of meaningful action to address real issues of national reconciliation. The government has been extremely slow to move towards implementing any of the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which it appointed to inquire into the events of the war. The bigger question of a political settlement which incorporates the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil minority is yet further from being resolved. Daw Suu’s warning for Burma sounds ominous for Sri Lanka also: “If differences remain unresolved, if basic aspirations remain unfulfilled, there cannot be an adequate foundation for sustainable development of any kind – economic, social or political”.
Secondly, she was clear that democracy could not be taken for granted, and warned that democratic rights could be eroded away. Sri Lanka has a democratic structure far more firmly entrenched than Burma’s, but a democracy must involve strong institutions, checks and balances, and a culture. In September 2010, Sri Lanka adopted the eighteenth amendment to its Constitution, which substantially increased the power of the President by removing the two-term limit on the presidency and effectively bringing a range of independent commissions directly under the authority of the President. It caused deep consternation as a blow to Sri Lankan democracy.
Daw Suu also highlighted freedom of speech as a foundation of democracy. It remains seriously under threat in Sri Lanka. Reporters Without Borders ranked Sri Lanka at 163 out of 179 countries in its latest Press Freedom Index, and that does not take into account the widespread practice of self-censorship. Abductions or disappearances – of which 29 were recorded in February and March alone – further contribute to a climate of fear and the constriction of this fundamental freedom. As Daw Suu warned pertinently, “if we do not guard the rights we have, we run the risk of seeing those rights erode away”.
Thirdly, in perhaps the most delicate part of her speech, Daw Suu touched on the thorny issue of sectarian violence – thorny because the recent sectarian violence targeting Rohingya Muslims in Arakan state has enjoyed the tacit support of some Buddhist Burmans, including a number of her prominent supporters. Although some suggest she did not go far enough to condemn the violence, she clearly made a point by referring to its victims as “citizens” – protagonists of the violence deny the right of the Rohingyas to call themselves citizens of Burma. She asserted both the rights of the victims, and that political negotiation and the rule of law are the keys to addressing such violence.
Sri Lanka has seen nothing of that scale lately, but there has been rising concern about recent sectarian attacks by extremist Buddhist nationalists on both Muslim and Christian targets. The most high profile was an assault on a mosque in Dambulla in April, and there have been several smaller incidents since, including in a suburb of Colombo. As Daw Suu pointed out, the equitable application of the law is the only acceptable response by the state. Yet, so far the official response has been largely dismissive of the Dambulla incident, focusing on the disputed question of whether the mosque was constructed legally, rather than on the act of violence itself.
Daw Suu spoke in hopeful terms of the present window of opportunity in Burma, and there is indeed much optimism about it. Many people feel that the equivalent moment in Sri Lanka was the period immediately after the highly traumatic end of the conflict: it was a time when just possibly, magnanimity and strong actions to address root problems might have helped lay the foundations for lasting inter-ethnic reconciliation and a just and peaceful future. That moment is no longer there, but Aung San Suu Kyi’s words from Westminster serve again to underline the importance of the task.