Friday, February 05, 2010

Sri Lanka's post-election crackdown : How not to celebrate a victory

Optimists hoped that, after Mahinda Rajapaksa’s stunning victory in Sri Lanka’s presidential election on January 26th, he might be magnanimous to his opponents and reassure citizens worried about the erosion of their civil liberties. He defeated his main opponent, Sarath Fonseka, the former commander of his army by the huge margin of 17 percentage points. With the war against the Tamil Tigers behind him, and seven more years of presidency ahead, Mr Rajapaksa could afford to be generous. But instead, his government has launched a sweeping crackdown, suggesting it remains paranoid about dissent, and fretful about a possible military coup.

At least 20 former members of an elite army commando unit and ten army deserters, all supporters of Mr Fonseka, have been arrested. Accusing the defeated candidate of a plot to assassinate Mr Rajapaksa and his family, the police also raided Mr Fonseka’s office in Colombo and detained some of his staff. A brigadier who served as military assistant to Mr Fonseka when he was army commander was arrested, and several other officers transferred within the army. Twelve senior officers, including three major-generals, were then asked to retire at once, accused of having engaged in political work.

Mr Fonseka, who says he will continue in politics, has appealed for international help to uphold democracy in Sri Lanka. He protests that his supporters have been harassed, his computers and some motor cycles seized, that the police will not take complaints from him and that he has constantly been followed. At a press conference this week he also denied speculation that he was planning a coup.

The post-election crackdown has also hit the press, prompting the country’s six main journalists’ unions to urge Mr Rajapaksa to stop what they said was a deterioration of media freedom and “dangerous trends” faced by reporters. The visa of Karin Wenger, a Delhi-based Swiss radio-correspondent, was cancelled after she asked a “sensitive” question at a press conference. The decision was later revoked by Mr Rajapaksa. The government’s media minister, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, has denied that there is any threat to the press, and said that no news organisation had complained to him.

However, the government shut down the printing press of Lanka, a newspaper, and detained its editor. The press was unsealed on the order of a magistrate but the editor, Chandana Sirimalwatte, was still held under emergency regulations imposed during the war with the Tigers. Lanka is the organ of the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, or JVP, one of the three main parties that backed Mr Fonseka.

Chulawansa Sirilal, convener of the Free Media Movement, an NGO, says the government is accusing journalists of taking part in a conspiracy to defeat it, and is waging a concerted campaign against the press. Mr Sirilal says Prageeth Eknaligoda, a contributor to, a website that carries dissenting views, has been missing since two days before the election.

Workers at state-owned media, including television and radio, have been assaulted, threatened, suspended or sacked. This week a correspondent for a private television station was beaten up and his equipment destroyed in Anuradhapura district, as he tried to film opposition supporters, who had themselves allegedly been assaulted.

The behaviour of Mr Rajapaksa’s new government is already attracting criticism abroad. Amnesty, a human-rights watchdog, urged it to deal with the violations that have plagued Sri Lanka. It noted that, instead, “we have seen a serious clampdown on freedom of expression.”

© The Economist

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