Friday, November 06, 2009

Politics and the war in Sri Lanka: To which victor the spoils?

NOT even six months has elapsed since the protracted war with Tamil Tiger rebels ended in a bloody climax, leading to the Sri Lankan government’s triumph. But already the leaders of the military campaign are sparring ahead of an election due next year. For weeks the press has been speculating about friction between the administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka, the hawkish army general who commanded troops in the final assault against the Tigers.

Jittery over rumours, spread mostly by opposition parties, that General Fonseka will challenge Mr Rajapaksa in the election, the government in October banned reports about his political ambitions. A communiqué from the army’s spokesman warned the press that several laws would be used against those who published “false reports” using the names of serving senior army officers.

General Fonseka is no longer army commander. But as chief of the defence staff, a post obtained after the defeat of the Tigers in May, he is the highest-ranking military officer in service. He cannot contest elections while in uniform. But his term ends in December and he has hinted that he might reject any offer of an extension.

During a visit to America which ended abruptly this week, General Fonseka, who holds an American green card (ie, permanent residence), told Sri Lankan expatriates he would step out of uniform to bring the country back on track “if it continues to go on the wrong path even after defeating terrorism.” Such statements, combined with goading from the opposition, have increased agitation in government, and particularly presidential, quarters. Some ministers are already cautioning the public about the pitfalls of a military regime. Others have claimed ownership of the victory for Mr Rajapaksa himself, rather than his military chiefs.

The plot thickened this week when General Fonseka notified the government that America’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had sought his testimony in a probe into alleged human-rights violations by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s defence secretary and the president’s brother, a naturalised American citizen.

General Fonseka was hastily flown back from America on the day the DHS interview was to have taken place. Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry said no American government agency had questioned him before his departure. Still, it had taken several days of feverish diplomacy to prevent the meeting, which, intriguingly, General Fonseka had consented to two days before notifying the defence secretary.

The government’s obvious anxiety about General Fonseka’s possible candidacy is a consequence of Mr Rajapaksa’s plans to call a presidential election in early 2010, nearly two years before the end of his six-year term. He naturally wants to capitalise on the popularity generated by the military victory. But this strategy may backfire if he is challenged by the former army commander, who is hugely popular among the president’s main support base, the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.

As one independent Tamil analyst put it, the ruling regime’s main achievement has been to win the war. But with the victors apparently squabbling among themselves, which ones should people support? Mangala Samaraweera, a parliamentarian who defected to the opposition from Mr Rajapaksa’s party, says his former leader will now “not have the guts” to hold an early poll. Judging by the president’s actions this week, that prediction sounds premature. At the convention of a big trade union, he promised a pay rise in January for all public-sector employees. The next day, as General Fonseka flew back to Colombo, the president took a helicopter to previously Tiger-controlled areas and told soldiers that the salaries of all security-force personnel would be raised with immediate effect. This hardly sounds like a man shy of an early dash to the polls.

© The Economist

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