Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Crackdown Provokes Fears for Sri Lanka’s Democracy

By Lydia Polgreen - In a part of the world better known for the interruption of democracy than its stubborn endurance, Sri Lanka has always been something of an oddity. A small country that suffered through one of the world’s nastiest recent wars, it nevertheless remained for the most part a vibrant multiparty democracy.

Last spring the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa decisively defeated the Tamil Tiger insurgency that had terrorized Sri Lanka for the better part of three decades. Last month, voters rewarded him with a landslide victory that gave him a new term.

So it is all the more surprising that his government decided to arrest the longtime ally who became his main rival for the presidency, Gen. Sarath Fonseka.

That arrest, and the harassment of journalists and opposition politicians and their supporters, are raising fears that Sri Lanka’s democracy is faltering just as the long-awaited peace begins.

War has a way of chipping away at the foundations of even the strongest democracies. But what has surprised many people in Sri Lanka and beyond is the way that crackdown has endured well beyond the government’s battlefield triumph, and has, in some ways, even intensified and become routine as Mr. Rajapaksa and his family have tightened their grip on government.

“Sri Lanka has been on a clear path towards the consolidation of power in the hands of very few people, many of them related to each other,” said Alan Keenan, an analyst at the International Crisis Group who specializes in Sri Lanka.

The events of the past week have been so unsettling that some influential supporters of the president have questioned the arrest. In a highly unusual rebuke, a group of leading Buddhist monks, one of Mr. Rajapaksa’s most stalwart constituencies, criticized the arrest of General Fonseka in a letter to the president, saying the general had “made enormous sacrifices to unite and safeguard the territorial integrity of the country.”

Dayan Jayatilleka, a former diplomat, political analyst and ally of Mr. Rajapaksa, wrote in a deeply critical essay on Groundviews, a popular citizen journalism Web site, that the arrest of General Fonseka was a “clumsy melodrama” that was “obscuring the clear, conclusive electoral victory handed to Mahinda Rajapaksa by the masses.”

Even Rajiva Wijesinha, secretary general of Sri Lanka’s peace secretariat and a staunch defender of the Rajapaksa government, admitted in an interview this week that “the timing could have been better,” adding that “it might have been better after he lost so badly to let him go.”

Top officials insist that General Fonseka posed a grave threat.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president’s brother and the defense secretary, told The Straits Times, a newspaper based in Singapore, that General Fonseka had planned to topple the government, and that acting to stop him was the only way to preserve democracy. “He was planning on a military rule,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.

Mr. Rajapaksa and General Fonseka were once united in their determination to crush the Tamil Tiger insurgency at virtually any cost. Mr. Rajapaksa gave the military a free hand to prosecute the war, and the army’s size and budget ballooned.

The president’s defenders say that at the end of the war Mr. Rajapaksa tried to reassert civilian control, alienating the general. Rumors that General Fonseka was plotting a coup have swirled for months, though many dismissed them because Sri Lanka has no history of military intervention in its politics.

Some analysts have contended that he was arrested because he was hinting that he might give evidence of war crimes committed in the final battle against the Tamil Tigers, and the arrest was a way to keep him quiet. No charges against General Fonseka have been announced, and it remains to be seen if he will be tried in military or civilian courts.

The election has featured the clearest signs yet that the government does not feel bound by the rule of law, analysts said. Despite clear directives from the country’s beleaguered elections commissioner, state-controlled news media continued to favor the president overwhelmingly.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for April, and many people worry that General Fonseka’s arrest will have a chilling effect on the vote. Mr. Rajapaksa’s party has made it clear that it seeks a two-thirds majority that will allow the president and his allies to reshape the Constitution.

The opposition coalition that backed General Fonseka, meanwhile, is crumbling. The biggest opposition party, the center-right pro-business United National Party declared Monday that it would run on its own in parliamentary elections. But its ability to draw voters is in question; it failed to deliver its urban stronghold, Colombo, the capital, for General Fonseka.

The other large opposition party, a Marxist organization that dabbles in virulent Sinhalese nationalism, is also on the wane.

The fact that these disparate parties chose to champion General Fonseka is a sign of just how weak and ineffective they have become. Not one had a candidate within its ranks who could rival Mr. Rajapaksa.

General Fonseka proved a wooden candidate and had the temperament of a hard-charging military officer, according to people who have worked closely with him.

As a candidate he pressed the government to release Tamil civilians held in closed camps, but government officials said that as army commander he had resisted calls to resettle civilians quickly. That record, along with his role in the bloody final stages of the war, makes him an unlikely martyr. But Mr. Rajapaksa seems determined to make him one, contended one political analyst who did not want to be quoted criticizing the government.

The president could have simply settled for a victory, the analyst said, but by making the general a target, Mr. Rajapaksa has only given him more credibility.

© The New York Times

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