Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tragic triumphalism in Sri Lanka

By Mahir Ali - A YEAR ago, as Sri Lanka’s long and agonising civil war entered its endgame phase, there was little indication that the bloody denouement would make way for the healing and reconciliation that the island-nation so desperately needs.

The manner in which the army conducted its final assault in the Tamil-dominated north and east precluded such a possibility in the short run. And neither President Mahinda Rajapaksa nor army chief Gen Sarath Fonseka made much of an effort to suggest they would be gracious in victory.

Who could have guessed, though, that they would turn into implacable foes within weeks of that military triumph, and that one of them would imprison the other just a few months later?

Fonseka has been threatened with court martial on the charge of conspiring to overthrow the government. And a military trial has been justified on the basis that the plot was hatched while he was still in uniform.

That’s an implausible scenario. Sri Lanka does not have a tradition of military coups. There is no question that its armed forces have grown progressively stronger and more influential in recent decades as the country has morphed into a security state, and that is always an unhealthy sign. But that troubling circumstance can hardly be construed as evidence of Fonseka’s culpability.

The fact is that he left the army and took on Rajapaksa in last month’s presidential election. That isn’t how military plotters generally behave.

Rajapaksa won by a substantial margin and, notwithstanding the misgivings of Fonseka and some of his supporters, international observers found few signs of electoral fraud.

The retired general had managed to rally behind his presidential bid a remarkably broad coalition that ranged from Sinhalese radicals to Tamil parties, and included former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, who not so long ago headed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party that Rajapaksa now leads.

By and large, however, this reflected not so much an endorsement of Fonseka as a desire to relegate Rajapaksa, whose reputation for corruption and predilection for nepotism is compounded by a disturbing personality cult and a disinclination to countenance dissent. That desire appears to have been widely shared in the capital Colombo, where Fonseka handsomely outvoted his rival.

But the Sinhalese countryside appears to be solidly behind Rajapaksa, who has every intention of capitalising on his current standing and the opposition’s confusion: he has prematurely dissolved the national parliament and elections are expected to take place by early April. A two-thirds majority — which may prove hard to achieve, but isn’t out of the question — would hand him unprecedented power.

As executive president, Rajapaksa is already head of state and government as well as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. In addition, he has kept the defence and finance portfolios for himself, and — ominously —has expressed an interest in taking over the information ministry as well. One of his brothers, Basil, is a senior presidential adviser; another, Gotabhaya, is the defence secretary. The president’s 23-year-old son, Namal, is likely to be a candidate in the coming parliamentary elections.

Some years ago, Rajapaksa told a long-time friend that his sons were his greatest joy and he loved spending time with them, so he left it to his brothers to operate the machinery of state. This intriguing snippet emerged when that friend, prominent newspaper editor Lasantha Wickremtunga, was shot dead in Colombo in January last year. He left behind a remarkable indictment of the Rajapaksa regime, in which he said: “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me”, but also hinted at a military role in silencing him.

In the same article, Wickremtunga accurately described the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as one of “the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations to have infested the planet” and called for its eradication, but added: “To do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dharma is forever called into question by this savagery — much of it unknown to the public because of censorship.”

Equally aptly, he pointed out that “a military occupation of the north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens”. Until recently, huge numbers of Tamils were incarcerated in concentration camps where they were routinely maltreated. Estimates of the civilian toll in the final stages of the civil war tend to be speculative, but it would have been uncharacteristic of either the Tigers or the army to go out of their way to avoid civilian casualties.

Sri Lanka’s drift towards one-man — or at least one-family — rule through an ostensibly democratic process (albeit in the absence of a free flow of information, a crucial ingredient of meaningful democracy) is deeply unfortunate, but even more tragic is the apparent lack of concern among most Sinhalese for the plight and prospects of their Tamil compatriots.

There are, thankfully, sections of the intelligentsia and other segments of society that tend to speak out against human rights abuses, but what are the chances that they will be able to resist Rajapaksa’s determination to silence them?

It’s harder to say how he will react to a plea from the country’s leading Buddhist monks that Fonseka be freed. After all, Rajapaksa loves being photographed in temples on national occasions.

Be that as it may, the dispute between the two of them comes across as a personality clash more than anything else. A disgruntled ex-general miffed at having been offered the humiliating post of sports minister probably won’t count for much in the slightly longer run, unless Rajapaksa is foolish enough to make a martyr of him.

Like many of its South Asian neighbours, Sri Lanka deserves a far better leadership, a redistributive development strategy (based in part on a sharp decline in ‘defence’ expenditure, now that the war is over), and a more pluralist form of democracy.

© The Dawn

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