Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sri Lanka is still reeling

By Joe Leahy, Financial Times - As one drives towards Sri Lanka's war-torn northern Jaffna Peninsula on the A9 Highway, the island's main north-south arterial road, the landscape takes on echoes of the Somme, the French battlefield of the first world war. At the old front line between government-controlled Jaffna and the former Tamil Tiger rebel-held territory to the south, blackened coconut trees rise like telephone poles from the landscape, their palm leaf tops blown off by artillery fire.

Today, the guns have fallen silent, but this landscape and the war-damaged buildings of Jaffna, the former cultural and economic capital of Sri Lankan Tamil society, are testament to the island's great capacity for violence.

The new government of President Mahinda Rajapakse, who won re-election for a second term with an 18 percentage point lead last month, has a rare chance to reverse history and set Sri Lanka on a path towards ethnic rapprochement and prosperity.

But earlier this month, Rajapakse shocked domestic and international observers by arresting his main political opponent, General (retired) Sarath Fonseka. If such events are any guide, turmoil and violence may remain part of the Sri Lankan political landscape. A much-vaunted peace dividend is in danger of being squandered.

Sri Lanka's victory last May over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatist group was hard fought. The LTTE had battled for 25 years for a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka's north and east. But its tyrannical leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, failed to read the global mood after the September 11 attacks on New York and continued to use indiscriminate terrorist tactics, including suicide bombings, leading to the group's designation as a terrorist organisation in the West.

Civilian deaths

In 2006, Sri Lanka's military began driving the LTTE out of long-held territories in the north and east. To minimise civilian deaths, it shelled nearby villages first to warn civilians to leave before intensifying assaults on LTTE positions. But then, at the end of the war, Sri Lanka courted world condemnation when the LTTE herded civilians into a small pocket on the east coast. Thousands of civilians were killed by air strikes and artillery, human-rights groups say. Sri Lanka denied that it had used heavy ordnance and accused the West of being "pro-LTTE".

In the meantime, civil rights in the capital Colombo and other areas in the south, far from the war, were compromised.

Presidential elections last month were a chance to set things back on a normal course. The poll turned into a contest between Rajapakse and his former army commander, General Fonseka, backed by a loose coalition of opposition parties. The emergence of a credible challenger to Rajapakse briefly led to a resurgence of debate and free speech. But the contest turned into a bitter personal rivalry, with Rajapakse feeling betrayed by his former ally. The opposition accused Rajapakse of violating electoral rules by using state media for his campaign, while the president accused the general of plotting a coup.

Not content with winning the poll, Rajapakse had the general arrested. Troops dragged him from an opposition party meeting. He remains in custody, awaiting a possible court martial or worse. With parliamentary elections due in April, civil rights and freedom of speech are once again under threat in Sri Lanka.

The loser from all of this could be the Tamil minority. While about two-thirds of the nearly 300,000 Tamil civilian refugees kept in detention camps after the war have been freed, their plight remains difficult. Their homes and livelihoods have been destroyed and the government seems disinclined towards a comprehensive political solution that would devolve some power to the Tamil regions.

Sri Lanka has everything to gain from settling the ghosts of its political past. Tourism is reviving and the country has started an advertising campaign, Visit Sri Lanka 2011.

But before it can truly welcome outsiders, the island needs to get its political house in order. Otherwise the Jaffna Peninsula may one day again hear the sound of gunfire.

Joe Leahy is the Financial Times' Mumbai bureau chief.

© Gulf News

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