The Sunday Leader

Dangerous trends in democracy in South Asia

On 31st May 2018, The Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) hosted a round table discussion on ‘Trends in regional security environment in South Asia’ with a keynote speech by Dr. Mallika Joseph. She is a Senior Fellow at INSSSL and currently serving as the policy advisor of the Hague-based Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC)

She addressed the round table chaired by Prof. Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, Director General INSSSL, along with the researchers at INSSSL, academics and practitioners attached to the Sri Lanka Air force, Navy, Army, Kothalawala Defence University, Journalists, representatives of International Maritime Organization and representatives from foreign missions. The participants discussed around the key points of her research. This article summarizes the discussion.

In her Keynote speech, Dr. Joseph highlighted seven trends that have the potential to impact regional security. These trends were ‘interrelated, yet each distinct’. These were:

•             Rise in anocracies

•             Democratic backsliding

•             Constant erosion of our understanding and acceptance of the quality of democracy

•             Erosion of global and regional institutions of governance

•             Rise in countries reeling under fundamental and radical narratives

•             Demography and large scale movement of people

•             The gap in understanding and responding to terrorism and violent extremism

In recent times there has been a trend in the rise of anocratic governments. Anocratic governments are democratically elected but authoritarian in conduct. In Asia, examples can be found in Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia. In South Asia however, some of these countries are not explicitly anocratic but masquerade as Right Wing nationalistic governments. They entrench majoritarianism resulting in populist politics, promoting their brand of nationalism, which result in deepening ethno religious divides pushing societies to violence and conflict. The social contract which formed the basis of the state is under constant threat is continually being weakened.

Paradoxically, governments that are democratically elected are legitimate owing to a majority of people electing them to power but they abuse the power bestowed on them by serving just their constituencies instead of all the people the government is elected to serve. This is because the understanding of democracy has reduced to just elections; and elections indicate rule by majority. The continuing reliance on the constituencies to preserve power has alienated the rest composed of the ‘other’. Joseph pointed out that ‘overlapping identities make divisions sharper and more prone to conflict’. Although India’s federal structure for example, has diluted divisions along lingual identity, many issues relating to identity still remain.

Many of these unresolved issues, along with dilution of democratic principles result in terrorism, violent extremism and radicalization. Politicians unfortunately keep these issues alive and simmering by labeling and isolating radicalism along religious lines – most often belonging to one religion alone, though radicalization among other religious communities is rampant. Although most countries are performing better in their counterterrorism efforts, their counter radicalization efforts are weak. Terrorism and counterterrorism according to Joseph has ‘centrifugal effect’ while radicalization and violent extremism haves a ‘centripetal effect’; which is why it is all the more important to arrest the rise of radicalization. However, in practice, the state centric approach in countering terrorism is ineffective in preventing radicalization and countering violent extremism which requires inclusive and human security and citizen centered approaches.

Countries could cooperate on developing such strategies but erosion of global and regional institutions of governance preclude this. Failure of SAARC for example had developed a tendency for South Asian countries to work with extra regional powers rather than strengthen and develop mandate of regional organizations. Although recent governments in India and Sri Lanka have increased diplomatic gains; the lack of political stability, lack of liberal policies, erosion of justice, weak security architecture, widening gap in understanding and responding to radicalization, reeling on fundamentalist narratives have compounded persisting problems.

Popular claims such as ‘unity in diversity’ have faded away while ungoverned spaces such as social media are being misused by aggressors on religious or ethnic fault lines. Though SAARC by itself remains ineffective, some of its specialized organizations, like the ones on energy continue to perform well. Perhaps, this points out to the success and cooperation possible among epistemic communities. In drawing lessons for Sri Lanka from what was discussed, we may want to inquire on how far existing bilateral or trilateral agreements are operationalized and what role Sri Lanka can play in ensuring regional security and cooperation.

Today promoting democracy has been counter-intuitive as it does not necessarily bring in stability. And whatever stability that eventually emerges, is not legitimate. Although it is the state’s duty to ensure justice, security, and rule of law; they have failed on this front. A persisting question is on why conflicts occur? Joseph opines that conflicts occur due to horizontal inequality and not vertical such as preferential treatment accorded to members of community on same social/economical standing. This makes problems complex and policies should be inclusive with more debate on why conflicts occur and why radicalization takes root. In conclusion we may reiterate that these issues demand policy makers to create strong inclusive democracies and invest in effective regional security architectures.

Disclaimer: Dr. Joseph’s opinion was her own. The writer is Natasha Fernando, Research Assistant at the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL).

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