Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sri Lanka: Last chance for lasting peace

Iranga Kahangama - The recent election loss of Sri Lankan opposition candidate Gen. Sarath Fonseka underlines the island's failure to build on its recently achieved peace, while his subsequent detention brought to light a threat to its democracy. Now, upcoming parliamentary elections, slated for April 8, represent the country's last chance to build an opposition that can bring the ethnic grievances that drove Sri Lanka's civil war into the political arena, while also maintaining a stable multiparty democracy.

Incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa wasted little time in using his commanding electoral victory over Fonseka to consolidate his power. Shortly after the election, Fonseka was arrested and has since been kept in detention under unofficial charges of sedition. Some see this as an act of revenge and political suppression by Rajapaksa against his opponents. Others see it as a preemptive strike to silence Fonseka - who, as the commanding general of Sri Lanka's military campaign to defeat the Tamil Tiger insurgency, could reveal information supporting potential war crimes charges against the government.

Nonetheless, the political ramifications of the arrest have already begun to be felt. Fonseka's National Democratic Front party -- a coalition that had the support of both Tamils and Muslims -- has begun to disintegrate into its component parties, which are preparing to contest April's elections separately. While many of these smaller parties differed greatly in policy, they were able to coalesce around Fonseka in the presidential balloting because they realized the broad range of support needed to challenge Rajapaksa. Without such a unified presence countering him in April, the president could expand his majority to pick up the two-thirds necessary to amend the constitution -- allowing him to potentially consolidate his power institutionally thereafter.

Rajapaksa's wider-than-expected margin of victory underscores the need for a united opposition to contest parliamentary elections. The strong mandate he won without the support of Tamil or Muslim minorities gives Rajapaksa no incentive to expedite political inclusion. To date, he has only offered vague rhetoric concerning political reconciliation with the Tamils, and it is no coincidence that the provinces Rajapaksa failed to win form a territory eerily similar to that of Tamil Eelam -- the independent Tamil state the insurgency sought to establish.

Unification of the opposition will achieve very little, however, if Tamil voter turnout does not significantly increase as well. Only by having a stronger impact on domestic politics can Tamils expect more government attention to their grievances. Before it was militarily defeated last year, the Tamil Tiger insurgency enforced electoral boycotts that historically kept Tamil turnout low. But turnout figures in January's election in the Tamil-dominated Northern provinces of Jaffna and Vanni were approximately 25 percent and 40 percent, respectively, compared to more than 70 percent in other districts in the South and East.

Arguably, the lower turnout can be explained by the fact that Jaffna and Vanni are the most underdeveloped and war-torn provinces, flooded by internally displaced people. But it is also a sign of lack of faith in the political process, a result of the neglect the Tamil population and its regions have received from the government, both historically and since the end of fighting last year.

One measure of this neglect has been the government's inability to meet its self-imposed deadline of resettling 100,000 IDPs by the end of January. It now aims to do so by April instead. While the presidential elections distracted the country from substantive action, the April parliamentary elections are likely to have a similar effect. And that will only be exacerbated by Rajapaksa's recent maneuvers, which represent a significant threat to the country's historically stable democracy.

The arrest of Fonseka, who awaits a potential court martial on allegations of planning a military coup, is just one component of this threat. Military officers who supported him were forced to retire early, and several other supporters were arrested along with Fonseka. The election itself was also marred by charges that Rajapaksa exploited state resources. State media heavily favored Rajapaksa, and it could be argued that the newly printed 1,000 rupee note featuring him on the front served as a campaign poster in everyone's wallet. Now, in the upcoming weeks, a Chinese delegation is set to visit Sri Lanka to help monitor and block offensive Web sites, specifically news media outlets.

Such deteriorating respect for civil liberties and democratic values poses a significant threat to both the country and region. Sri Lanka seems to have learned little from its decades of war, with sporadic violence breaking out over Fonseka's arrest. Failure to promote political reconciliation and the further marginalization of Tamils will generate instability that can endanger the entire region. Rather than pursuing peace, though, the government has found another way to avoid it.

With Rajapaksa already guaranteed another six years in power, he should not be given carte blanche over Sri Lanka's political landscape. Tamil reconciliation and protecting democracy are critical matters that must advance simultaneously, but will only suffer with another comprehensive win by Rajapaksa. Handing him yet another victory removes any incentive he may have to negotiate the devolution of political power, which might serve as the foundation of a lasting solution for the island's Tamil regions. Only a healthy and unified opposition that can bring out the Tamil vote in mass will be able to advance reconciliation, while preserving Sri Lanka's democratic institutions.

Iranga Kahangama is an intern with the Regional Voices program at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

© World Politics Review

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