Monday, February 15, 2010

Sri Lanka's president tightens his grip on power

By Kshama Ranawana - While Sri Lanka's presidential election victor, Mahinda Rajapakse, was awarded a doctorate for his efforts towards world peace by the Peoples' Friendship University, of Moscow on Feb. 5, his defeated political rival, retired General Sarath Fonseka, was unceremoniously arrested by the military police in Colombo on Feb. 8.

Fonseka, detained in a navy facility, is being accused of violating the Military Act while being army commander, and is expected to face a court martial. On the morning of his arrest, Fonseka told a media conference that he was unafraid to reveal evidence of alleged war crimes that took place early in 2009, when government forces militarily crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The arrest of a once revered war hero, who garnered 40.15 per cent of the national vote on Jan. 26, as opposed to Rajapakse's 57.88 per cent, triggered protests in some Sri Lankan cities.

The protestors were met by police teargas and water cannons. In Hulftsdorp, where the country's supreme court is located, government supporters attacked them while the police initially looked on and then arrested the protestors.

In a country that has steadily seen politicization of government agencies, and dissenters branded as traitors who bed with the LTTE, a flicker of light prevailed when Colombo's chief magistrate, Champa Janaki Rajaratne, rapped the arresting officers for letting armed thugs who attacked peaceful protestors go free.

In an apparent move to further tighten the screws on Fonseka, presidential sibling and Sri Lanka's defence secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, accused the United States and Norway of funding Fonseka's election campaign, a claim both countries were quick to deny.

India, Sri Lanka's geographically closest neighbour, in a fait accompli, urged for a fair trial for Fonseka, but in the Indian parliament, the leader of the opposition Sushma Swaraj demanded Fonseka's release, stating "we cannot allow this to happen in our backyard."

Last week, more events unfold than there were days. President Rajapakse dissolved parliament,throwing an already fragile joint opposition into further disarray. Fonseka, who fell out with the Rajapakse regime late last year over who should be credited for the war victory, was the presidential candidate of an opposition cobbled together of unlikely political allies, including the capitalist United National Party, the Marxist Janatha Vimuthi Peramuna, several ethnic minority parties and the Tamil National Alliance, considered closest to the LTTE.

Incidents of violence and harassment against supporters of both main contenders marred the run-up to election day. Both contestants accused each other of assassination plots. Fonseka and his close associates were surrounded by government troops at a hotel in Colombo where they spent the day awaiting the result.

Rajapakse's unprecedented margin of victory was rejected by Fonseka. Sri Lanka's elections commissioner, Dayananda Dissanayake, refuting allegations of computer manipulations in the final tally, advised the opposition to seek legal redress. He did, however, fault the government for failing to ensure fair media coverage of the campaign despite directives by him and the supreme court. With Fonseka's hands being tied, it is anyone's guess whether an election petition would be filed by Feb. 17, the end of the three-week period to seek legal redress.

As expected, Rajapakse won the mostly Sinhala Buddhist rural and many urban areas comfortably, but was not so lucky in the eastern electorates dominated by Muslims and Tamils. Election day morning saw several grenade explosions in the north of the country, which is inhabited by the Tamils, and who were reported to be more supportive of Fonseka. It was not surprising then, that only a mere 20 per cent of that population voted, and mostly in favour of the general, whom they seem to consider the lesser of two evils.

On February 3rd, the joint opposition backing Fonseka led a massive rally to protest the election results.

Almost 24 hours following the election result being known, the government embarked on a witch-hunt of suspected Fonseka supporters amongst the army. Serving and retired officers, reportedly more than 20, including majors, general, brigadiers and colonels, have been arrested or dismissed. Several others have been transferred to less responsible positions, while many other senior officers have been sent on compulsory retirement citing a "a threat to national security" by defence authorities.

Their action was justified by the head of the Media Centre for National Security, Lakshman Hulugalle, as being "involved in party politics," adding that the officers had been dismissed to maintain the discipline and impartiality of the armed forces. He dismissed the actions of Rajapakse's son, a naval officer who campaigned for his father, as being irrelevant.

A week later saw a major upheaval in the police force too.

One of the arrested, Brigadier Duminda Keppitiwalana, is now being accused of the Jan. 8, 2009 murder of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickramatunge, according to General Fonseka. If that is the reason for the arrest it is an interesting development. Keppetiwalana had been the military assistant to General Fonseka, who led the army when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was defeated in May last year.

The investigation into Wikramatunge's murder, like all other investigations into the intimidation of journalists, never progressed, until this arrest. Suddenly, the government, which has dragged its feet over this murder, has a suspect, and that a member of the military which Rajapakse has time and again vowed to protect against allegations of human rights violations.

In a continued pattern of media intimidation which has lasted throughout the past four years, an editor of the Lanka E News website went missing a day before the election. To date, there has been no information of his whereabouts.

Also arrested was the editor of the Lanka newspaper, the official organ of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. Though its press was sealed by the Criminal Investigation Department, that action was revoked by a court order. Several employees of the state-run media who have been critical of bias in coverage of the election are reported to have been suspended, too, and the privately owned Sunday Times reported that a private radio and TV channel which has strived to be more critical may lose its operating license.

Access to several news websites from within the country are reported to be blocked by the local internet provider, a government-owned company. On Thursday, Feb. 11, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, who heads the ministries of defence and finance took over the media ministry as well, a move described by the previous minister, as the position was being handed over, as being necessary so he could concentrate on working his electorate for the forthcoming parliamentary election.

The president of Sri Lanka already has enormous power and is immune before the law. However he is limited in the number of terms he can serve. But with two-thirds of parliament supporting him, Rajapakse could now extend his term indefinitely. What he appears to be doing is to crush all opposition so that this future can become a possibility.

Kshama Ranawana is a freelance writer, media ethics trainer and activist.


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