Thursday, February 18, 2010



By Olindhi Jayasundere - Missing journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda’s wife Sandhya said yesterday the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka was examining the information collected so far by the Mirihana Police.

Ms. Eknaligoda said the HRC had asked her family members and the Mirihana Police officials involved in the investigations to come to the HRC office to find out how the investigations were progressing.

“It is nearly a month since my husband went missing and I still don’t know where he is. I have sought information from the police many times but there isstill no news of him,” she lamented.

Ms. Eknaligoda said their children were disturbed by their father’s disappearance and that she herself was feeling helpless.

“My younger son believes he may be dead. He does not want to go to school because he does not want to face the other children,” she said.

Ms. Eknaligoda said when she first went to the police she was told the investigation would be completed in two or three days.

“When I spoke to the police, I was told they are yet to begin the investigations but will do so soon. I can not understand why the investigations are being delayed,” she said.

Ms. Eknaligoda said that according to Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena the Police have the information in a week and she was hopeful of receiving some news soon.

“I cannot sleep anymore and I don’t think I will until I know where my husband is. Please help me find him,” she pleaded.

© Daily Mirror

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sri Lanka monks put off meet fearing unrest

Sri Lanka's top Buddhist monks postponed Wednesday a gathering to press for the release from military custody of defeated presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka, citing safety concerns.

The conference, bringing together the heads of all the island's major Buddhist sects, had been scheduled for Thursday.

"Given the current political climate in the country and considering the safety of the monks and laymen, the chief priests decided to put off their gathering," the monks said in a joint statement.

The postponement followed strong criticism of the monks in the state-run media for dabbling in politics, after they sent a letter to President Mahinda Rajapakse condemning former army chief Fonseka's arrest and urging his immediate release.

As the battlefield architect of the victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels last May, Fonseka was feted as a national hero for finally crushing their 37-year campaign for an independent Tamil homeland.

After falling out with Rajapakse, he quit the army in November and ran against the president in elections on January 26. Rajapakse won comfortably, and two weeks later Fonseka was taken into military custody.

He is currently awaiting court martial on unspecified charges of conspiring against the government while he was head of the army.

Sri Lanka's Supreme Court has agreed to hear a petition submitted by Fonseka's wife calling for his arrest to be ruled illegal.

Fonseka's detention has triggered violent protests in Colombo and other parts of Sri Lanka and drawn expressions of concern from the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and several other countries.


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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Freedom under threat in Sri Lanka

By Joe Leahy - As one drives towards Sri Lanka’s war-torn northern Jaffna Peninsula on the A9 Highway, the island’s main north-south arterial road, the landscape takes on echoes of the Somme, the French battlefield of the first world war. At the old front line between government-controlled Jaffna and the former Tamil Tiger rebel-held territory to the south, blackened coconut trees rise like telephone poles from the landscape, their palm leaf tops blown off by artillery fire.

Today, the guns have fallen silent, but this landscape and the war-damaged buildings of Jaffna, the former cultural and economic capital of Sri Lankan Tamil society, are testament to the island’s great capacity for violence.

The new government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who won re-election for a second term with an 18 percentage point lead last month, has a rare chance to reverse history and set Sri Lanka on a path towards ethnic rapprochement and prosperity.

But earlier this month, Mr Rajapaksa shocked domestic and international observers by arresting his main political opponent, General (retired) Sarath Fonseka. If such events are any guide, turmoil and violence may remain part of the Sri Lankan political landscape. A much-vaunted peace dividend is in danger of being squandered.

Sri Lanka’s victory last May over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam separatist group was hard fought. The LTTE had battled for 25 years for a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka’s north and east. But its tyrannical leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, failed to read the global mood after the September 11 attacks on New York and continued to use indiscriminate terrorist tactics, including suicide bombings, leading to the group’s designation as a terrorist organisation in the west.

In 2006, Sri Lanka’s military began driving the LTTE out of long-held territories in the north and east. To minimise civilian deaths, it shelled near villages first to warn civilians to leave before intensifying assaults on LTTE positions. But then, at the end of the war, Sri Lanka courted world condemnation when the LTTE herded civilians into a small pocket on the east coast. Thousands of civilians were killed by air strikes and artillery, human rights groups say. Sri Lanka denied that it had used heavy ordnance and accused the west of being “pro-LTTE”.

In the meantime, civil rights in the capital Colombo and other areas in the south, far from the war, were compromised. Thugs attacked and murdered journalists and intimidated civil rights activists.

Presidential elections last month were a chance to set things back on a normal course. The poll turned into a contest between Mr Rajapaksa and his former army commander, Gen Fonseka, backed by a loose coalition of opposition parties. The emergence of a credible challenger to Mr Rajapaksa briefly led to a resurgence of debate and free speech. But the contest turned into a bitter personal rivalry, with Mr Rajapaksa feeling betrayed by his former ally. The opposition accused Mr Rajapaksa of violating electoral rules by using state media for his campaign, while the president accused the general of plotting a coup.

Not content with winning the poll, Mr Rajapaksa had the general arrested. Troops dragged him from an opposition party meeting. He remains in custody, awaiting a possible court martial or worse. With parliamentary elections due in April, civil rights and freedom of speech are once again under threat in Sri Lanka.

The loser from all of this could be the Tamil minority. While about two-thirds of the nearly 300,000 Tamil civilian refugees kept in detention camps after the war have been freed, their plight remains difficult. Their homes and livelihoods have been destroyed and the government seems disinclined towards a comprehensive political solution that would devolve some power to the Tamil regions.

Sri Lanka has been able to fend off a potential United Nations war crimes investigation with the help of allies such as China. But this week, the European Union suspended trading privileges for the island under its GSP Plus scheme.

Sri Lanka has everything to gain from settling the ghosts of its political past. Tourism is reviving and the country has started an advertising campaign, Visit Sri Lanka 2011.

But before it can truly welcome outsiders, the island needs to get its political house in order. Otherwise the Jaffna Peninsula may one day again hear the sound of gunfire.

The writer is the FT’s Mumbai bureau chief

© Financial Times

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sri Lanka After the Presidential Election

Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda - Sri Lanka’s sixth presidential election was held on 26 January 2010. Although this election was constitutionally due at the end of 2011, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the incumbent president, advanced the election by two years. Rajapaksa obviously wanted to capitalise his huge popularity gained by crushing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militarily in May 2009. His main rival at the presidential election was his own former army commander, Sarath Fonseka, who strategised and executed a pretty ruthless and therefore successful war against the LTTE.

The dispute between Rajapaksa and Fonseka erupted ostensibly on the question of sharing the credit for the military victory. A deeper issue was also involved in this dispute. Rajapaksa and his brothers, who are very influential civilian officials of the administration, may have tried to curtail the influence of the military on the post-war policy process. Civilian politicians perhaps became aware of the need to restore the pre-war balance of power between them and the army. Obviously, this angered General Fonseka. The opposition which has been searching for a viable presidential candidate to pit against the popular President Rajapaksa wasted no time to entice General Fonseka to be its candidate.

Fonseka was also the centre of gravity of a new coalition which brought together the right wing United National Party (UNP), the left-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), and a significant section of Tamil and Muslim political
parties. Notable among the latter was the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main parliamentary coalition of mainstream Tamil parties which had maintained political sympathies with the LTTE. Some influential dissident sections of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) of the Plantation Tamils also backed the opposition candidate.

At one level, the Rajapaksa Fonseka dispute showed that the war coalition which President Rajapaksa put together had cracked up from within. General Fonseka’s challenge to the incumbent president focused primarily on the issue of corruption and nepotism. These are, of course, governance issues. However, the debate during the election campaign was centred less on democratic reforms than on regime change. Broad policy issues were not in the campaign agenda of either of the two main candidates.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has now been re-elected with a comfortable majority of 58% of total votes cast. Amidst allegations of misuse of state resources and manipulation of results by the Rajapaksa camp, Sarath Fonseka has refused to concede defeat. He might challenge the election results before the Supreme Court, although it is surely a long-drawn out process with no immediate impact on the outcome of the election. Three key trends in the outcome of the election stand prominent. First, the electoral districts with concentration of ethnic minorities have overwhelmingly voted for the opposition candidate. Second, President Rajapaksa has got only very little support in the urban electorates, where ethnic minorities as well as the social elites represent a sizeable share of the voters. Third, and emanating from the first and the second, is the fact that President Rajapaksa’s main and strongest support base is in the rural districts and among the voters of the majority Sinhalese community.

These three factors might weigh heavily on the policy agenda of the Rajapaksa regime in its second term. One way to interpret these trends is to say that the minorities are clearly estranged from the Rajapaksa regime. In this post-election context, reaching out to ethnic minorities, particularly the Tamils, will be essential to address this deep sense of minority alienation and for Sri Lanka’s political stability. In a press interview to the NDTV Television Channel of India soon after the election result was announced, President Rajapaksa asserted that he had a “plan” to address minority grievances. No one in Sri Lanka seems to know the details of this plan. Even if he had a plan as such, President Rajapaksa will have to wait until after the parliamentary election which is due before April this year to disclose its contents. Even then, regional autonomy may not re-figure in any of these unilateral solutions from above.

The presidential election campaign as well as the post-election developments indicate quite clearly that Sri Lanka’s dominant political class is deeply and antagonistically divided. Reconciliation among them does not seem to be possible at present. The forthcoming parliamentary election will further sharpen these divisions and antagonisms. The tragedy of electoral democracy in Sri Lanka is that elections do not seem to help the political class to negotiate and settle their contradictions and resolve problems in the polity. Rather, elections compel the factions of the political class to resort to false agendas and, in turn, to invent and pursue enmities. Nevertheless, parliamentary elections will be crucial for Sri Lanka to allow a new political balance of forces to emerge in the country. Parliamentary elections as well as the post-election regime formation will show how political power will be reconfigured through coalitions.

Political Disequilibrium

The end of the violent civil war and the dramatic demise of the LTTE have created a significant political disequilibrium in Sri Lanka. Crucially, the LTTE was not there in January 2010 to shape the outcome of the presidential election, as was the case in 1994, 1999 and 2005. Meanwhile, although the war-coalition has disintegrated from within, a new post-civil war political equilibrium is yet to take shape. The parliamentary election will provide opportunities for the political actors to forge new alliances and redefine the constitution of the dominant power bloc in order to manage the post-civil war Sri Lankan state. Thus, although the civil war is over, the trajectory of the island’s post-civil war politics is still in the process of being formed. One has to suspend one’s assessment of the possible paths of Sri Lanka’s future politics until the shape of the new configuration of political forces becomes clearer during the first half of the year 2010.

Meanwhile, the agenda of democratic reforms and political rights of the minorities may not be at the centre of the political agenda of either the ruling party or the opposition. In the post-LTTE politics of Sri Lanka, the minority parties too may not pursue the state reform agenda with the same degree of ardour and commitment as in the past. They have become sensitive to the fact that the military victory over the LTTE has reaffirmed the hegemonic hold of majoritarianism over the Sri Lankan state. They also know that at present, unlike in the past, minority rights struggles have no dependable friends, globally or regionally. Entering into pragmatic coalitions with Sinhalese political parties and regimes for political survival is likely to occupy their attention in the near future.

Jayadeva Uyangoda ( teaches political science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

© Economic and Political Weekly

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sri Lanka: Towards a Rajapakse future

Tisaranee Gunasekara - The outcome of Sri Lanka’s presidential election removed the only real impediment to the dynastic project of the ruling Rajapakse family. Unsurprisingly Mahinda Rajapakse won the election. He obtained 57.9 percent of the valid vote, in sharp contrast to the 40.2 percent polled by his main rival, Sarath Fonseka, the former head of the Sri Lankan Army. As a consequence, President Rajapakse is within striking distance of establishing his family’s dominance over Sri Lanka for the foreseeable future.

His spectacular performance at the polls has made it possible for his ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to hope for a two-thirds victory at the upcoming parliamentary election.

This would enable the president to effect the necessary constitutional changes to avoid mandatory retirement at the end of his second presidential term, either by removing presidential term limits or by replacing the executive presidency with an executive premiership sans term limits. The continuous airing of songs hailing Mahinda Rajapakse as the ‘King of Sri Lanka’ – by both state-owned and private television stations – is indicative of the Rajapakse future that is awaiting the divided island.

Though polling itself was peaceful, barring some marginal incidents, the election campaign was far from free and fair. As an obviously dispirited Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake admitted after the election, the state media and some state institutions acted in a markedly partisan manner throughout the campaign. Still, President Rajapakse’s large majority cannot be attributed (except incidentally) to the widespread abuse of state resources. Rather, he won because a majority of the Sinhalese constituency backed him, as a mark of appreciation for defeating the LTTE without making political concessions to the Tamils. For his part, Fonseka lost because his campaign failed to persuade disillusioned Tamils and demoralised members of the opposition United National Party (UNP) to overcome their apathy and vote for him in sufficient numbers.

No message

Notwithstanding the decisive victory over the LTTE and the consequent restoration of territorial unity and integrity after a hiatus of almost three decades, Sri Lanka remains a divided land, politically and psychologically. As the results of the presidential election demonstrate, the fault lines are ethnicity and religion, though an urban-rural divide is also discernible. Rajapakse won overwhelmingly in Sinhalese-majority districts, while Fonseka won in those districts in which Tamils and/or Muslims predominate. Rajapakse was clearly the choice of the Sinhalese; equally clearly, however, he was not the choice of either the Tamils or the Muslims. For his part, Fonseka failed to make any inroads into Rajapakse’s Sinhalese base. Rajapakse was able to get just 33.9 percent of the votes in the north and the east, while Fonseka’s average in the provinces outside of these two areas was just 35.1 percent.

These facts cannot but have an impact on the future trajectory of the Rajapakse administration, making it more ‘Sinhalese’ then ‘Sri Lankan’ in its attitude towards the minorities. Rajapakse contested and won the presidential election of 2005 on a revanchist platform, aiming to regain ‘lost’ territory; consequently, during his first term, he made a conscious effort to shift Sri Lanka towards a Sinhala-supremacist paradigm. After 2005, policies and practices, rhetoric and tactics that were considered Sinhala chauvinist, and thus unacceptable in the post-1987 conjuncture, came into vogue again.

This politico-ideological framework was evident during the presidential election campaign of 2010, with Rajapakse himself using coded racism to muster Sinhalese support. The Rajapakse campaign focused on ‘the need’ to save the ‘nation’ from a ‘resurgent separatist threat’, a euphemism for Fonseka’s electoral alliances with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). Rajapakse himself accused SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem of “trying to revive the separatist movement once spearheaded by the LTTE”. Rajapakse’s attitude towards Tamil concerns and demands was dismissive at best; at a meeting with media heads, he declared that the 13th Amendment, which focuses on devolution, had become “reduced to a mere political slogan”, and stated that he had no special message for the Tamil people.

Rajapakse was Sri Lanka’s first ‘Sinhalese only’ president, since he won his first term almost exclusively with Sinhalese votes. That fact had a major impact on his policies and practices during his first term – his unwillingness to come up with a political solution to the ‘ethnic problem’ and his callous conduct towards civilian Tamils during the ‘Fourth Eelam War’ being central cases in point. The results of the 2010 election are likely to reinforce the president’s Sinhalese bias. At the official post-victory press conference, Minister Champika Ranawaka, leader of the hardline Sinhala Buddhist party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a constituent of the ruling alliance, announced that the regime would work towards a “constitutional change suitable for the country”.

A Rajapakse constitution is likely to reflect the president’s Sinhalese bias, a function less of ideological predisposition than of politico-electoral necessity. Consequently, a Rajapakse constitution is likely to reverse the trend towards pluralist democracy inaugurated by the 13th Amendment, and recast Sri Lanka formally and legally in the old Sinhalese-supremacist mould. Tamil (and Muslim) opposition to such a move, and the government’s reaction to that dissent, could now recreate the old ethnic conflict in new (though hopefully peaceful) guises. It may also give rise to deep-rooted frustration that will keep the conflict alive in the minds of the disgruntled minorities.

Ominous beginning

In Sri Lanka, the post-election tradition is for the victor to crow and the vanquished to cry foul. This time around, the inconceivable overtook both reactions. In a surreal move, President Rajapakse got the army and police to surround the hotel in which Fonseka and other opposition leaders were staying. For almost 24 hours, downtown Colombo resembled the capital city of a Latin American autocracy. The fact that the ‘siege’ ended peacefully does not in any way mitigate the outrageous nature of the deed, nor reduce its portent, especially because this was no isolated event. The election campaign contained many such incidents, indicative of the regime’s willingness to use excessive force against the unarmed, democratic opposition – such as the failed attempt to search the office of the leader of the opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe, for illegal weapons.

The 2010 election campaign was also characterised by the persistent breaching of the necessary divide between the ruling party/family and the state. Not only did the ruling party abuse state resources; members of the ruling family also became involved in the campaign to an extent unprecedented since 1977. The best case in point was the key role played in the campaign by Tarunyata Hetak (A Tomorrow for the Youth) and Nil Balakaya (The Blue Battalion), two organisations founded and headed by the eldest presidential offspring, Namal Rajapakse.

The development symbolised a tendency towards substituting traditional party entities with newly created organisations owned by the ruling family. It marked not just the full takeover of the ruling party by the Rajapakses – including, in addition to the president, brother Chamal, the minister of irrigation, water management, ports and aviation; brother Gotabhaya, the secretary of defence; and brother Basil, an appointed member of parliament, senior presidential advisor and unofficial ‘development czar’. It also indicates a gradual merging of the ruling family and the state. The election campaign contained other unsavoury developments as well, such as senior army officers, in uniform, acting as the propaganda mouthpieces of the incumbent president and his government. The cumulative result of these abnormalities was the superimposition of the Rajapakse seal – not just on the ruling party and the government, but also on the Lankan state.

Buoyed by his overwhelming victory, President Rajapakse is likely to go for parliamentary polls as soon as it is feasible. Given his need to win a two-thirds majority to get the constitutional amendment he desires, it would make sense to strike while the iron is hot – before the glory of the victory is dimmed, before the reeling opposition revives, and before reality (in the form of increased economic hardship) intervenes. President Rajapakse is thus likely to act in an increasingly repressive manner towards the defeated and weakened opposition. The regime looks particularly likely to crack down on the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, one of the few remaining potential sources of effective opposition.

Throughout his first term, President Rajapakse worked to gain the support of the Sinhalese majority for his dynastic project by depicting himself (and his brothers) as saviours of the (Sinhalese) nation. The outcome of the 2010 presidential election has demonstrated the success of this strategy. During the campaign, Rajapakse equated a vote for Fonseka with a vote for separatism; now, the parliamentary election too is likely to be fought as a political war between the ‘patriots’ and ‘traitors’, with the entire opposition cast in the latter role. This would enable the regime not only to retain the support of the Sinhalese majority, but also to justify repressive measures against the democratic opposition and continued marginalisation of the minorities. These seem to be the ingredients of the Rajapakse future.

Tisaranee Gunasekara is a writer based in Colombo.

© Himal - South Asian

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