Friday, February 26, 2010

Sri Lanka crackdown shreds hopes of reconciliation

In the afterglow of his thumping re-election last month, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse promised to build a strong and unified country that would consign its 37-year civil war to the past.

Instead, his government launched a sweeping crackdown that has seen the man he defeated at the polls, former army chief Sarath Fonseka, taken into military custody, and other opposition figures and senior journalists arrested.

The clampdown disappointed those who had hoped Rajapakse would be magnanimous in victory, with the opposition labelling it a purge against anyone deemed to have supported Fonseka's challenge for the presidency.

Accusations of coup plots and other conspiracies have fuelled a belief among some observers that Rajapakse, despite routing his rival at the ballot box, remains paranoid about dissent and intent on augmenting his already substantial executive powers.

"What I see is a slide into autocratic rule," said the head of the private Centre for Policy Alternatives think-tank, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu.

"There is a stifling of any kind of opposition and the arrest of Fonseka is the most conspicuous aspect of that," he told AFP.

James Manor, a Sri Lanka analyst at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London, said Rajapakse seemed "intoxicated with triumphalism."

"I think it's clear he wants to establish semi-autocratic rule," Manor said.

"He won't dispense with elections or anything, but the way in which he will use his power will be extremely assertive and illiberal, disregarding the opinion of many in Sri Lanka who favour democratic restraint."

Parliamentary elections have been scheduled for April 8 and opposition leaders say the crackdown is politically motivated to prevent them campaigning effectively.

Others see a strong element of personal revenge, driven by Rajapakse, his family and close advisers who saw in Fonseka's campaign rhetoric implicit threats to their security.

Fonseka, 59, had accused his former commander-in-chief of sleeping at national security council meetings, failing to grasp military strategy and profiting from arms purchases -- allegations rejected by Rajapakse.

The president and his family, whose members occupy key government positions, were particularly angered by Fonseka's announcement that he would be willing to testify before any international probe into war crimes allegations linked to last year's victory over Tamil Tiger rebels.

"There is a very genuine fear and insecurity about what could happen with a war crimes inquiry," said Sri Lanka analyst Charu Lata Hogg at London-based think tank Chatham House.

The United Nations says 7,000 civilians died during the final stages of the fighting with the Tigers and the world body has also called on Colombo to account for alleged extrajudicial killings of Tamil prisoners.

The government has denied that any abuses took place.

In November, Fonseka, who holds a US "green card", cut short a visit to the United States to avoid questioning by the authorities there on the war crimes issue.

Fonseka had initially agreed to be questioned, but was pressured to leave by the Sri Lankan government which feared he would be asked to provide evidence against Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, the president's brother.

"People close to the president are driven by anger and hatred," political analyst Victor Ivan said of the post-election clampdown.

"Even if the president wants to let go, those around him want to seek revenge. They want to do to Fonseka what Fonseka promised to do to them," Ivan told AFP.

The backlash has been broad in scope, with newspaper editors seen as siding with the opposition threatened and arrested in what Amnesty International described as a "serious clampdown on freedom of expression."

The government also accused Western countries "with vested interests" -- specifically the United States and Norway -- of financing Fonseka's presidential challenge.

Several Western governments have voiced concern over the crackdown, but Manor said Rajapakse was unlikely to pay any heed, confident in the support of China which has a growing influence on the island and a number of major infrastructure projects.

"He's quite prepared to address Western human rights criticisms with utter contempt," Manor said.


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