Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sri Lanka’s Second Chance

Sri Lanka’s Second Chance

The end of the civil and a successful general election mark the first steps in restoring democracy and the rule of law to the island nation, writes Siddharth Kotian

In the immediate aftermath of the recent general election in Sri Lanka, amidst charges of attempts to murder, threats to life and even the possibility of exile for the loser, Sri Lanka began to resemble some of its less savoury neighbours in South Asia. Elections in Pakistan and Bangladesh are often zero sum games, where the winner takes all, including the loser’s life.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has wasted no time in beginning his purge of his vanquished opponent General Sarath Fonseca’s sympathizers in the Armed Forces. As soon as the results were announced the ten man security detail attached to Gen. Fonseka was withdrawn. Days later the entire top leadership of the army was subjected to scrutiny with at least three Major-Generals are being retired. The Ministry of Defence issued a statement saying simply that they had become a “threat to national security,” words reminiscent of the 25 year civil war when anyone advocating peace or negotiation with the Tamil Tiger insurgents was branded a traitor.

Gen. Fonseka has been stubborn in refusing to accept the results of the election despite having lost by over one and a half million votes or 17% of the total cast. Even if the entire voting Tamil population had braved intimidation and bombings to come out and vote for Gen. Fonseka it would still have left a sizable, albeit smaller, gap between the candidates. The minorities, inclusing the major Tamil parties like the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Western Peoples Front (WPF) as well as the single largest Muslim party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), all backed Gen. Fonseka. Says WPF parliamentarian Mano Ganeshan, “We have no other options.”

The only party in Gen. Fonseka’s coalition that failed to deliver was the radical Sinhala Janata Vimukthi Perumuna (JVP) that failed to mobilise its voter base among the rural youth. Indeed most rural Sinhalese voted Mr. Rajapaksa possibly fearing that a close contest between the two Sinhalese strongmen would allow the Tamils to cast the deciding vote. Giving the Tamils that sort of leverage was unacceptable to the Sinhalese, who are still celebrating their victory in the civil war. The Sinhalese may have appeared fractured in pre-poll counts but these proved inaccurate in predicting the larger picture. In fact, the rural vote was so strongly in favour of Mr. Rajapaksa that even in the largely fishing district of Gen. Fonseka’s hometown in Ambalangoda, 63% of the vote went to Mr. Rajapaksa.

The challenges Mr. Rajapaksa now faces in his first year of a six year term in office include massive repayments taken on war time loans, a loss of duty free status for exports of Sri Lankan garments in European markets and, of course, the ethnic integration of the two communities after a devastating civil war.

While they have applauded Mr. Rajapakse’s iron will in resisting Western pressure while allowing his army to finish off the top LTTE leadership in cold blood, the Sinhalese have begun to question his competence in managing the peace. The population is worried about spiralling inflation, the conversion of the government into a family business (50% of the country’s budget is controlled by the three Rajapaksa brothers in the cabinet), his inability to control rogue elements in government and “selling out” to China -- whose arms and cash proved essential to winning the war.

Gen. Foneseka, while relentlessly pursuing the LTTE even after he was nearly killed in a suicide bomb attack, has made strange bedfellows with the TNA, whose sympathies with the LTTE during the war was well known. The subcontinent’s experience with generals in politics has never been an unmixed disaster. His call for doubling the army’s strength to half a million in a country of twenty million raised fears of Sri Lanka heading turning into a military state. One rumour persists that the general had planned a coup just days after the election which prompted Mr. Rajapaksa’s purge of the Army.

Job security has become a major concern for large numbers of people ever since the European Union withdrew the “preferred country” status for imports from Sri Lanka over its human rights record. Export earnings, particularly from finished garments, have been a vital component of the Sri Lankan economy and have provided jobs for a large segment of the population. To assure the Sinhalese majority that jobs will not be lost, both candidates had been promising that the preferred country status would be restored. They promised full cooperation with investigations into war crimes, a big step down from their earlier position of not allowing “outside interference” in Sri Lankan affairs.

Once hopeful of being the deciding vote in the elections, Sri Lanka’s Tamils have now been marginalised. In the eyes of the Tamils, both contestants have just a veneer of humanity that masks their ruthlessness. They had been dealing with a ruthless Prabhakaran and the LTTE for the longest time and have yet to overcome that mindset. Prabhakaran had given the Tamils a voice but now it seems their saviours have to come from the ultra-nationalistic Sinhalese politicians.

On his maiden visit to Jaffna, considered the centre of Tamil culture on January 10, 2010, Mr. Rajapaksa gave assurances to resettle displaced Tamils in the area but stopped short of announcing the dismantling of the high security zones (HSZs) in the region. Gen. Fonseka had promised that he would dismantle the HSZ if brought to power. Jaffna, though it has been under government control since 1995, is divided into HSZ’s because of heightened security concerns. It means a heavy military presence in the region and severe restrictions on the freedom of movement for the citizens. Till the end of 2009, it also meant night curfew in most parts; the army has since announced lifting of night curfew in Jaffna.

According to a report in the Sunday Times on 10th January, the dismantling of HSZs would mark the beginning of a massive resettlement of displaced Tamils to their places of origin. “The withdrawal of the security zones will enable 80,000 displaced civilians to return to their homes. The HSZs extend to an area of 42 square kilometres in the Jaffna peninsula. Bulldozers and heavy equipment have been kept ready to be used to remove bunds and bunkers in the HSZs,” the report said.

The government is also facing new calls for a war crimes investigation after video footage surfaced which appears to show troops shooting blindfolded, naked Tamils in the final months of the war. Philip Alston, the UN expert on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said last week that the footage appeared to be authentic following examination by US-based independent experts.

The media within Sri Lanka has been very partisan and have made it difficult for ordinary people to form an informed opinion. The government controlled papers and TV news channels take a blatantly pro-president stand which provokes the private media into taking a thinly disguised pro-Fonseca stand. Hence, a majority of the common people are swayed by peer pressure and by word of mouth. Sri Lanka boasts of a 99% literacy rate but that doesn’t mean they believe what they read. The rapid swings in poll ratings from the president to the general showed that democracy thrives even if a “free press” doesn’t aid the process.

Both parties have been short on common sense when dealing with the ethnic issue. Gen. Fonseca appeared openly sympathetic to the minorities and scared away the majority vote. This leaves Mr. Rajapaksa with six more years to address an issue which he sought to crush by military force. But Sri Lanka’s Tamil “problem” can’t be wished away. Reconciliation may be too much to hope for a generation scarred by discrimination and war. But the people of Sri Lanka have to come to terms with the horror of the past three decades and put it behind them if they are to recreate the plural, liberal democracy that their country once was.

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