Thursday, April 15, 2010

Post-election Sri Lanka turns on critics

By Munza Mushtaq - Boosted by a yet to be finalized landslide victory in last week's Sri Lankan parliamentary elections, the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) is already taking on the world, especially the West's finger pointing-over the South Asian nation's human-rights record.

Addressing a news conference in Colombo soon after registering victory, senior members of President Mahinda Rajapaksa's administration demanded "international forces" to stop dictating terms to Sri Lanka. "The international community must respect the people's mandate and we appeal to them not to bother us," said Transport Minister Dullas Allahapperuma.

Another senior government member, Dinesh Gunawardena, declared that anti-national forces were at work to oust the Rajapaksa government, and singled out Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband. "But they can't defeat us, and neither can they continue to dictate terms on us. The people are satisfied with President Rajapaksa and his government and they have re-elected us, these foreign nations should stop meddling their fingers in our internal affairs," he said.

The government's angry outburst also came just hours after the United States, while congratulating the Rajapaksa administration on its re-election, urged the government to ensure securing human-rights in the island. Sri Lanka also crossed swords with the British government after Miliband attended a meeting of a Tamil group in London that it considers a front for the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

"The United States congratulates President Rajapaksa and the United People's Freedom Alliance for their historic victory in the first nationwide parliamentary election in decades. This victory, coupled with the president's win in January's [presidential] contest, provides a mandate to move forward on the important issues the president discussed during the campaign, such as national and ethnic reconciliation, decentralizing power, economic development, and securing human rights," the statement issued from the US Embassy in Colombo said.

In the historic victory on April 8, the Rajapaksa-led party polled over 4.7 million votes, 60.43% of those polled to take 117 seats out of 196 in parliament, while the main opposition United National Party (UNP) garnered 46 seats from just over 2.3 million votes. However, record low turnout marred the ballot, with only half the total 14 million registered voters exercising their franchise.

Results in two districts out of the 22 in the country were annulled by the Elections Commissioner due to large-scale rigging, including allegations of ballot box stuffing by government members, and the final result is expected to be released on April 20, the day scheduled for the re-poll for the two districts.

The government is expected to obtain around 130 seats after the re-polling. However, Rajapaksa wants 150 seats in parliament (which will give him a two-thirds majority) so he will have the mandate to change the constitution to allow him to hold a third term. A president is permitted to hold only two terms under the present constitution.

The UPFA's general secretary, Susil Premajayantha, noted that it was the first time since 1978 that a single political party had won such a massive number of seats in a parliamentary election.

Last week's vote also elected many new and colorful faces to parliament, including popular Sri Lankan cricketer, Sanath Jayasuriya, several actors and actresses, a former beauty queen, the president's eldest son - and even a former army commander who is currently in military custody.

General Sarath Fonseka, the ex-army commander who steered the victory against the LTTE last May and was defeated as a presidential candidate, secured a little over 98,000 votes. His party, the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), said his election was the public's verdict that it was time the government released him from custody - an appeal flatly turned down.

Fonseka is in custody for allegedly committing military offences, including being involved in political activities while serving as the commander of the Sri Lankan army.

Meanwhile, as pressure mounts over human-rights violations allegedly committed during the final phase of the war against the LTTE, United Nations general secretary Ban Ki-moon has announced that he will go ahead with his decision to appoint an expert panel to advise on action concerning Sri Lanka's "accountability issues" during the conflict.

Rajapaksa last month telephoned Ban to declare the move as "unwanted and unwarranted", but many countries, including the United States, Britain and the European Union, back the UN chief's decision. The UN has also decided to send a senior official to Colombo this month with regard to setting up the expert panel.

Boosted by victory at the polls, Rajapaksa has promised to work towards reconciliation and development.

"The assured majority in parliament given by the voters encourages the government to proceed with its policies for the strengthening of peace and reconciliation, reconstruction ... and the overall development of the country to make it the center of economic and social progress in South Asia," Rajapaksa said.

Munza Mushtaq is a journalist based in Colombo.

© Asia Times Online

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