Institutional Decay perpetuated ethnic conflict- Don

[TamilNet, Saturday, 05 February 2005, 13:36 GMT]
Noting that from 1950s Sri Lanka's politicians resorted to ethnic outbidding to attain power and in doing so systematically marginalised the country's minority Tamils, Dr Neil Devotta from Hartwick College New York, in an article published in Nations and Nationalism, argues that "institutional decay. which was produced by the dialectic between majority rule and ethnic outbidding, was what led to Tamil mobilisation and an ethnic conflict that has killed nearly 70.000 people over the past twenty years."

The article also "analyses the influence informal societal pressures exerted on formal state institutions and how this contributed to institutional decay. Evaluating the relations that ensued between social organisations and the Sri Lankan state shows how institutions can prescribe actions and fashion motives even as it will make clear how the island's varied institutions generated a deadly political dynamic that eventually unleashed the ongoing civil war."

"When a government in a poly ethnic state utterly disregards minorities' legitimate preferences and instead cavalierly institutes policies favouring a majority or other community- which is precisely what ethnic outbidding engenders, those marginalised lose confidence in the state's institutions. This could easily promote reactive nationalism among those disfavoured and create a milieu conducive to ethnic rivalry and conflict," DeVotta argues,

"If the marginalised group is territorialised, and thereby has claims to a historical homeland, they could mobilise to seek a separate existence. This is indeed the setting for Sri Lanka's sad ethnic saga," DeVotta points out.

DeVotta describes the current political culture as follows: "While it was linguistic nationalism that initially galvanised the outbidding process, the country's [Sinhala] political parties have continued outbidding each other on various issues so that the practice is now embedded in the island's political culture. Enforced over forty years, this outbidding phenomenon has severely undermined minority confidence in the country's institutions and is mainly responsible for Tamil extremists seeking a separate state."

"The Sri Lankan case makes clear that outbidding and ethnocentrism can become embedded and path dependent. Indeed, many Sinhalese benefited from the ethnocentric practices successive governments pursued and they now protest against any proposal that promotes devolution or dispassionate governance," DeVotta says reflecting the reasons for the debilitating political discourse currently prevailing in Sri Lanka.

DeVotta points out the importance of institutions as follows: "...while these ethnocentric practices have benefited the majority community, they have led to an illiberal democracy and influenced the principal minority community to seek a separate state. The majoritarian principle does not justify minority domination, and liberal democracies are thus designed to eschew the tyranny of the majority. A proper majoritarian system, especially in polyethnic settings, thus seeks to encourage consensus politics as much as possible and thereby allay minority fears.

"This is why institutions are of paramount importance and also why an institutionalist approach is better suited to explain Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict," DeVotta says.

"Parties in power seek to promote dubious conflict resolution only to be checkmated by the respective opposition. which typically claims that the proposed solutions are bound to eventually dismember the island. This has especially been evident in the past decade as the Bandaranaikes' daughter, President Chandrika Kumaratunga. has tried to accommodate some Tamil demands when the coalition she leads has had a majority in parliament but then sings a different tune when her opponents control parliament.

"Such unprincipled politics merely contributes to the political decay in the island and reiterates that a lasting peace is unlikely until Sri Lanka's leaders can craft the requisite institutions that would treat all citizens dispassionately," DeVotta concludes.


External Links:
TamilNation: From ethnic outbidding to ethnic conflict, Dr Neil DeVotta

 

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