Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sri Lanka: Protests grip restive nation after General’s arrest

By Adithya Alles - Sri Lanka’s bruising presidential election ended less than a month ago on Jan. 26, but the island nation is now caught up in protests that threaten to spiral into public agitation across the country.

If the populace felt it could breathe easy after incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated his main challenger, former Army commander Sarath Fonseka, by a margin of 1.8 million votes in the January vote, that calm was short-lived.

On the night of Feb. 8, after two weeks of trading charges, Fonseka was taken into custody by the military police on accusations of corruption and trying to topple the government while he was in public office.

Fonseka’s detention has sparked clashes in different areas. Protests are planned across the island by his supporters as well as by other groups such as lawyers and the influential Buddhist clergy in the mainly Buddhist country.

Just 48 hours after Fonseka’s arrest, clashes broke out between Fonseka supporters, pro-government gangs and police in at least three towns, including the capital Colombo.

In Colombo, a group of around 2,500 Fonseka supporters chased down pro-government supporters who blocked their path as they were holding the first protest demanding the Fonseka’s release.

In the next 24 hours, at least three more such protests were tear-gassed by police, including one in the Colombo suburb of Maharagama on Feb. 11.

The rallying point for the protestors has been the wife of the arrested general, Anoma Fonseka.

Anoma remained in her husband’s shadow through his 40-year military career. She maintained that posture when her husband led the Army in its final and crushing assault on the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) last year.

The Tigers were defeated in May 2009, ending two and half decades of deadly civil war that killed over 70,000.

Fonseka was feted as a hero, but soon fell out with the Rajapaksa government. That fallout led to his coming forward as the opposition candidate challenging the president in the January vote.

"He is good spirits, he is mentally strong," Anoma told reporters early this week, soon after visiting her husband, who is being detained at an undisclosed location. "He requests every one of his supporters to be calm and not to resort to unlawful activities or break the law."

Anoma has found herself at the centre of the opposition campaign ever since she addressed the media tearfully the morning after her husband was arrested. She has regained her composure thereafter, but there is no denying that it is her presence that has rejuvenated the pro-Fonseka protestors.

Opposition parties that endorsed Fonseka’s unsuccessful presidential bid have rallied together to launch protests against his arrest.

"This (the arrest) was a blatant violation of fundamental rights, there is no rule of law," said, Rauf Hakeem the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. Hakeem was meeting with Fonseka along with four other leaders from political parties when military police arrested him on Feb. 8.

"We have to fight to gain our rights, our freedom. This government is not behaving as one that has just won an election with a 1.8 million majority, it is acting like one that is nervous," he said.

"This is just the beginning. We will carry on till the general is freed," said Somawansha Amarasinghe, the leader of National Liberation Front, a pro- nationalist party that was instrumental in getting Fonseka to contest the election.

The opposition threatens to launch all-out protests if the general does not get a fair trial. "You will see people coming on to the streets spontaneously, this will become a people’s movement," observed Mangala Samaraweera, a former Rajapaksa Cabinet minister that has since turned foe.

The arrest has galvanised the opposition, which was in disarray soon after the election defeat. It was emboldened even more after a fundamental rights applications filed by the general’s wife, challenging the arrest, was given leave to proceed by the Supreme Court on Feb. 12.

"We have sought the assistance of Buddhist priests to help us," said Karu Jayasuriya, the deputy leader of United National Party (UNP), one of the main political parties supporting Fonseka.

UNP leader and leader of the opposition Ranil Wickremasinghe met with President Rajapaksa on Feb. 12 to discuss the arrest. The UNP later said that Rajapaksa had informed Wickremasinghe that the government will abide by the Supreme Court’s decision on the fundamental rights application.

The government maintains that Fonseka is not being persecuted for his politics and that the correct procedure was followed in his arrest. Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeyawardena said that he was taken into custody under Section 57 of the armed forces act. The minister added that Fonseka was to be charged with attempting to topple the government, abuse of power and corruption when he was still holding office. The charges pre- date Fonseka’s retirement date of Nov.12, 2009.

"I beseech the opposition not to put innocent civilians in front to achieve their political end," the minister said.

But the protests over Fonseka’s arrest have spread to the provinces as well. Injuries were reported when police tried to break up a protest in the north central town of Anuradhapura, about 200 km from Colombo, on Feb.12.

More protests are likely in the coming days. Shrilal Lakthilaka, a lawyer affiliated to the UNP, has announced that he will start a fast on Feb. 15 in support of Fonseka. "If he does not get justice, I am willing to go a hunger strike," the lawyer said.

The National Bhikku Front, the powerful body made up of Buddhist priests, has also come out in support of Fonseka. "A decorated war hero has been arrested. This is not democracy, we will fight for his freedom," NBF head Ven Dambara Amila Thero said.

© Inter Press Service

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