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When we get our rights ?

Written By Freedam to the nation resettlement of IDPs on Monday, July 15, 2013 | 2:22 AM

A referendum to repeal the 13th Amendment?
July 14, 2013, 8:44 pm 

By R. M. B. Senanayake

The government seems to be toying with the idea of holding a national referendum on the abolition of or changes in the 13th amendment. But can an ethno-religious majority decide against the rights of a minority by a majority vote? A certain institutional structure has been fashioned to resolve the grievances of the Tamil minority and to protect their rights with regard to their language, religion, culture, land and personal security of the minority. They have for long protested at what they called discrimination against them by the Sinhala dominated State. There is a UN Declaration called the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The Tamil minority has been complaining that they have been disadvantaged and discriminated against since 1956. They say their language and cultural rights have been denied and point to past attacks on the Hindu writers Conference. They say they have to deal with the State in Sinhala even in the areas where they are in a majority. They also say they have been deprived of personal security of life and limb and point to violence against them in 1958, 1977 and 1983. They point out that the Sinhala majority State failed to protect them from such violence. So they ask for police powers in areas where they constitute a majority. They say they cannot trust the Sinhala majority Police to act impartially. They also have been pointing out that there has been discrimination against them in the alienation of State land and want land powers to protect themselves from encroachments on their lands by the Sinhala dominated State. They also allege that there is settlement of Sinhalese in their traditional areas of occupation to make them a minority in their areas of habitation- something not permitted in UN Declarations. It is to resolve these problems and prevent discrimination that they want some measure of self government while being subject to the over-all sovereignty of the national State. They have also alleged in the past that they were discriminated against in entry to universities through the unscientific standardization of scores which was later altered to district quotas for admission to the universities.

The 13th Amendment was a solution to these problems of the Tamil minority. They were to be given some measure of self government through a Provincial Council.

The shortest available definition of democracy according to Abraham Lincoln is government of the people, by the people, for the people; in other words, political self-government. Direct democracy means the right of all citizens to directly vote on political subjects. According to modern political scientists there are Five Principles of Democracy which are

1. Basic human freedoms and rights.

2. Political equality/equal political participation.

3. Open power structure.

4. Rationality (transparency, efficiency).

5. Effectiveness

Of these principles, political equality is the most "democratic" one; it means that each citizen is the source of all legitimacy and has the right to participate in decision-making. If his vote doesn’t count because there is a permanent ethno-religious majority which decides against his interest it is not a democracy.

The ‘people’ in the definition of democracy includes everybody and includes the minorities. Majority decision making is only a convenient device for decision making but it does not give the majority the licence to deprive the fundamental rights of the minorities. Direct democracy, that is to say, the opportunity for the total citizenry to determine issues on the basis of voting for or against specific measures, is a product of modernity although it existed in ancient Athens where it collapsed. It is grounded in the principle that political sovereignty resides in the people and therefore they may choose to determine certain policies directly rather than relying on their chosen representatives in government.

The original founders of modern democratic republicanism in the eighteenth century did not look kindly on direct democracy through referenda or plebiscites because they believed that governmental decisions of that kind required deliberation. The people are known to be swayed by demagogues and to be incapable of rational discussion and informed judgments. So the Republicans did not think the fundamental values of democracy like freedom and equality among all citizens could be safeguarded in a direct democracy. They thought direct democracy would lead to tyranny.

As in any political system, democracy needs institutions and structures to act effectively in the political interest of all people. These can be institutions of direct democracy or representative and responsible institutions to ensure the minority has a say at least in matters affecting them. The 13th Amendment provides for this.

Of course referendums have been held on devolution in UK, and Canada. But the referendum was conducted only for the minorities- the Scottish in UK and for the citizens of Quebec in Canada. It is meaningless to hold a national referendum where the majority is 70% of the people and known to be no respecters of minority rights. The right to freedom and equality of the Tamil people cannot be denied by a majority. Referendums cannot be used to deny fundamental rights of a segment of the people. The Government will no doubt campaign for the abolition of the PCs and it has the whole paraphernalia of the media and the public money at its disposal. But it does not give the majority the right to deprive the rights of the minorities. The abolition of the PCs without putting in place alternative structures to safeguard the rights of the Tamil minority is not a measure of democracy. It will only open the way for endless discussion of the grievances of the Tamils with an invitation to India and the UN to intervene.

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