Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Prageeth Ekneligoda: Still Missing After a Month

The motherland

This house of thick colonial walls
and a very nineteenth-century patio with azaleas
has been crumbling down since several centuries.
As if nothing were happening persons come and go
from one collapsing room to another,
they make love, they dance, they write letters

Bullets often whistle or maybe it’s the wind
whistling through the hole in the broken-down ceiling.
In this house the living sleep with the dead,
they ape their customs, they repeat their grimaces
and when they sing, they sing their failures.

Everything is ruins in this house,
the embrace and the music are ruins,
destiny, all mornings, laughter are ruins,
as are tears, silence, dreams.
The windows show obliterated landscapes,
flesh and ashes get mixed up in the faces,
words are jumbled up with fear in the mouths.
In this house we are all buried alive.

ría Mercedes Carranza
© Translation: 2004, Nicolás Suescún

María Mercedes Carranza was born in Bogotá in 1945, the same city where she took her life in 2003. From an early age onwards, she was surrounded by poetry because her father, the poet Eduardo Carranza, met his friends (among whom were Dámaso Alonso and Pablo Neruda) in his living room to sing verses to life.

© Poetry International Web

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The dangers of triumphalism

Irfan Husain - Sri Lanka had barely recovered from the bruising presidential election that saw the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa win with a landslide that it finds itself preparing for the general elections on April 8. Thus far, though, the campaign is desultory, with the opposition in disarray.

After joining hands under retired General Fonseka in a mighty effort to oust Rajapaksa in the January election, the opposition is reassessing its options.

The major opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), has decided to retain its own identity, and go into battle under its traditional ‘elephant’ symbol, foregoing the ‘swan’ that was the symbol of Sanath Fonseka last month.

While the other components of the United National Front have darkly muttered ‘betrayal’, there is a certain logic to Ranil Wickramsinghe’s decision to ditch Fonseka.

While the general was widely assumed to take a sizeable chunk of the majority Sinhala vote from Rajapkasa, in the event, he won only in minority districts. Additionally, there was the real possibility of alienating traditional UNP supporters by fighting on the same platform as the JVP, its erstwhile foes.

While the two parties had forged an alliance to unseat Rajapaksa, this marriage of convenience was bound to fail, given the polar opposites of the political spectrum they occupy.

The JVP is a hard-line Marxist group with a chauvinistic pro-Sinhala position. Accused of committing some terrible massacres in the South in the early Eighties, it was a key member of the coalition that initially brought Rajapaksa to power.

Over the years, its popularity in its southern bastion has waned, and its representation in provincial and national assemblies has fallen sharply. The UNP has clearly calculated that handing over seats to the declining JVP made little political sense.

Another factor that prompted the UNP to part ways with Fonseka is the general’s overbearing ways, and his ignorance of Sri Lankan politics. During the presidential campaign, he seemed to favour his JVP allies, while often seen to be snubbing Ranil Wickramsinghe.

Fonseka’s utter lack of experience was embarrassingly exposed on election day when he went to his home town to vote. There, it transpired that he had not bothered to get himself registered as a voter. This was immediately splashed on the government controlled electronic media which questioned his right to run for the presidency.

Whether this resulted in fewer votes for him is hard to prove, but this incident did much to underline Fonseka’s novice status.

Another story in the local press that is bound to stain the general’s reputation is the discovery of over 70 million rupees in a relative’s bank lockers. This horde, supposedly a part of campaign funds, included over half a million dollars in cash in clear contravention of foreign currency laws.

Earlier, Fonseka’s son-in-law had been accused of running a firm that sold equipment to the army during his tenure. The presence of a large sum of dollars in this haul strengthens the government’s claim that funding for Fonseka’s campaign was coming from abroad.

As the general languishes in custody over an unspecified breach of military regulations while he was the army chief, he must be reflecting on the minefield that is Sri Lankan politics after the certainties of his long military career. After a few protests, his continued arrest has not really galvanized the opposition as it was expected to.

Indeed, there is a growing realisation that now, Fonseka is really irrelevant. While the JVP and a handful of minor politicians continue to support the general, it is more for their own survival than any belief that he can really lead them to victory.

The sober reality is that the opposition is aware that it does not stand a chance of winning the general elections. After the thumping victory Rajapaksa has scored last month, most people expect him to carry this momentum on to the April polls.

The best the opposition can hope for is to deny the government the two-thirds majority it is determined to get. This would set the stage for sweeping constitutional changes that would alter the course of Sri Lankan politics for years to come.

The so-called executive presidency created by President Jayawardine in 1978 has long been criticised for giving the president too much power. While campaigning politicians have sworn to do away with it, they shelve the proposal once they are elected.

If the government secures a two-thirds majority, it might well re-write the constitution on the American model, creating a presidential system. Another provision that would probably be changed is the two-term limit on the president. The degree of provincial autonomy might also be reviewed.

What Rajapaksa has still not addressed are the Tamil grievances that led to the civil war in the first place. While they are demoralised and sullen in the aftermath of the bloody military defeat the LTTE suffered last May, they are waiting for the government to announce the major concessions that have been discussed over the years.

It remains to be seen whether Rajapaksa will be magnanimous in victory. If his treatment of Fonseka is anything to go by, the future of Tamil-Sinhala harmony does not look too bright.

Nevertheless, Jaffna in the north is bustling after decades of war and neglect. The few hotels and guest-houses there are packed, and investors are exploring deals in large numbers. If and when the government can sooth local concerns, many in the million-strong Tamil diaspora would return.

A talented and hard-working people, they could transform their war-torn homeland. But this government must first provide them with the political space to do so.

Major political and military victories have given President Rajapaksa an enormous opportunity. With peace finally achieved (though at a very high cost), foreign investment is poised to pour into the country.

Already, its GDP per capita is nearly twice that of India and Pakistan. Enjoying a strategic location, and blessed with ample water and fertile soil, the country has a very high literacy rate, making it the ideal destination for tourists and investors.

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has also witnessed a slide towards authoritarian rule in recent years. This bodes ill unless it is checked.

Alas, the unconcealed triumphalism evident in the ruling party makes it unlikely that it will make the concessions to the opposition and to the minorities that are so desperately needed.

© The Dawn

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sri Lanka: Power drive

B. Muralidhar Reddy - It is nearly a month since the presidential election, and the Fonseka factor refuses to fade away. The dramatic detention of General Sarath Fonseka, the defeated common opposition candidate and former Army chief, by the military police on the night of February 8 has taken the sheen off the spectacular re-election of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The action, widely perceived as vindictive, has actually given a fresh lease of life to the commander-turned politician, who continues to reel under the shock of his loss.

Even some of Rajapaksa’s ardent supporters are critical of the arrest and have voiced their concerns over its possible consequences in an already polarised society. In the write-up “The Fonseka affair: A perfect blunder?”, Dayan Jayatilleka, the island nation’s former Permanent Representative at Geneva and a supporter of Rajapaksa, said:

“Are we headed for a third great cycle of violence? Sri Lanka has experienced two so far: the violence of the Sinhala underprivileged youth vs the system, and the youth of the Tamil periphery vs the Sinhala heartland. Are we living through the prelude of a third cycle, this time of a Cold War turning hot – factional strife turning into civil conflict – within the Sinhala establishment itself?”

There are many who concur with Jayatilleka’s view. They feel that the timing and tactics behind the General’s arrest and the President’s handling of the general situation after his re-election were a perfect blunder.

Over 200 personnel led by a Major General descended on Fonseka’s election office when he was discussing the upcoming parliamentary elections with Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Somawansa Amerasinghe, his party parliamentarian Sunil Hadunnetti, and political leaders Rauf Hakeem and Mano Ganesan. Fonseka argued in vain with the officers that since he was a civilian he could be arrested only by the police and not the military.

The government’s legal advisers say that there is provision under the Army Act to try offenders who have ceased to be subject to military law. The main charge against Fonseka is that he put together a group of retired officers and soldiers to overthrow the government and assassinate the President. Fonseka has denied this. Another allegation is that he indulged in corrupt deals with respect to Army supplies. The news of the arrest spread like wildfire, and the following day the Opposition issued a joint statement: “….We believe this act is one of vengeance aimed at punishing Gen. Fonseka for daring to contest the presidential election held last month, challenging the incumbent. The arrest follows a fortnight of intense post-poll violence unleashed by government supporters and sweeping moves to purge the government service and the armed forces of would-be opposition supporters. Gen. Fonseka’s arrest marks the climax of this unprecedented witch-hunt of the opposition in the election aftermath and we condemn this dictatorial and anti-democratic move in the strongest possible terms.

“The military arrest of Gen. Fonseka who is a retired Army official and therefore a civilian is not only unlawful but barbaric and extrajudicial and is a clear sounding of the death knell for democracy in this country. We have good reason to believe that the extrajudicial arrest of Gen. Fonseka may be followed up with assassination while in custody, on a trumped-up charge that he was attempting to escape or attack.

“Therefore, we demand that the government ensures the safety and security of Gen. Sarath Fonseka, the Army Commander who led our troops to victory over the LTTE less than a year ago. How can the government treat a war hero and a Commander they once glorified so vividly? In this despicable manner, today the ‘world’s best Army Commander’, in the words of the Defence Secretary, has been arrested and dragged off by his feet like a common criminal. President Mahinda Rajapaksa campaigned on a platform of gratitude, but he has proved today that he himself does not know the meaning of the word….

“We, the joint opposition, call upon the people to rise up against this injustice and let your voices be heard. They may have the might, but we persist in holding the numbers. It is only unity and popular support that can pose any kind of threat to this dictatorial administration. We urge all those who believe in the need to keep democracy alive in Sri Lanka to join us and rally against this ruling junta and do whatever it takes to protect our motherland from destruction. In the past, Sarath Fonseka and his soldiers fought in the blood-drenched battlefields of this country to keep us safe. The time has come for us to rise up and return the favour….”

Fonseka has challenged the detention in the Supreme Court, and the case is posted for hearing on February 23. Separately, he has also contested the outcome of the presidential election. The petition says that the majority of voters were prevented from electing the candidate of their choice, namely Fonseka, and/or the result may have been affected by acts of intimidation, violation of laws and the commission of corrupt practices.

Parliament election

Focus has now shifted to the general election scheduled for April 8 to elect a new Parliament. Fonseka, who hogged the limelight in the last two months, appears to retain the position as a leading figure in the general election as well.

However, unlike the presidential election, in which he emerged as the rallying point for all the political foes of Rajapaksa, Fonseka will be one of the many leaders in the fray and that too perhaps from behind bars.

The contours of the alliances and electoral understandings are beginning to emerge and there will be at least three main groupings. The mainstream opposition parties, which demonstrated a rare unity in the presidential election, have decided to part ways and form their own alliances for the parliamentary election.

The main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), led by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, has decided to fight under its own election symbol. It is wooing several smaller parties that had thrown their weight behind Fonseka in the presidential race.

So far the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (Mahajana wing) led by Mangala Samaraweera, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) led by Rauf Hakeem, and the Democratic People’s Front (DPF) led by Mano Ganesan have agreed to contest on the UNP platform and symbol.

Ironically, Fonseka, who had brought the opposition parties together, is set to lead the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) floated by the JVP. It will be an uphill task for the two opposition alliances to take on a fully charged ruling combine, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) led by Rajapaksa.

The signs of disunity in the opposition were evident soon after the presidential election result was announced. While Wickremesinghe chose to describe the election as fair, the JVP dubbed it as the biggest computer fraud in the nation’s electoral history.

The term of the 225-member House, which came into being in 2004, was scheduled to end in April. It was a well-calculated move on the part of the President to go in for a presidential election almost two years before his first term came to an end. It was aimed at cashing in on his popularity as a political leader who had led the military to a victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). With his resounding victory, Rajapaksa has the advantage of a firmer grip on his party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), and its alliance partners. He would also have the last say in all matters related to choosing candidates for the general election.


In the last election, the UPFA, led by the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga, secured a majority by winning 105 seats. The UNP secured 82 seats. The Tamil National Alliance got 22 seats, while the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) nine.

As per the Election Commission data, the UPFA received 4,223,970 (45.6 per cent) votes, the UNP 3,504,200 (37.83 per cent), the TNA 633,654 (6.84 per cent) and the JHU 554,076 (5.97 per cent) votes. The Lanka Sama Samaj Party (LSSP), the Communist Party, the Democratic United National Front (DUMF), the Mahajana Eksath Perumana (MEP), the Sri Lanka Muslim Party (SLMP) and the JVP were UPFA constituents.

After Rajapaksa was elected in November 2005, he sought the cooperation of the UNP in defeating terrorism. In October 2006, the two parties signed a historic document agreeing to cooperate on issues of national interest. This included finding a common approach to resolve the ethnic conflict.

However, the agreement was declared as null and void after the President accommodated 17 senior UNP parliamentarians, including the party’s deputy leader, Karu Jayasuriya, in his government. The UNP accused Rajapaksa of attracting its parliamentarians with offers of ministerial positions.

The JVP joined the opposition citing, among other things, its disagreement with the President over the question of bringing all parties on board to find a solution to the ethnic conflict.

At the time of its dissolution, the Parliament’s composition had changed completely from what it was in 2004. Rajapaksa not only succeeded in splitting the opposition ranks but also conjured up a majority for the ruling combine. Most of the key Ministers in the government are from the ranks of the UNP.

The Sri Lankan Parliament is constituted on the basis of the system of proportional representation, which is based on the percentage of votes polled by individual parties, and direct election. So, all the major parties are assured of a relatively decent presence in the next Parliament.

With a massive margin of over 17 percentage points in the recently held presidential election, the SLFP and the UPFA have a clear edge over the divided and battered opposition. However, it needs to be seen how far the outcome of the general election outcome will be determined by the controversy triggered by Fonseka’s detention.

© Frontline

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sink or swim for Lankan opposition

Sutirtho Patranobis - Time is running out for the beleaguered opposition in Sri Lanka as it readies for the April 8 general election. For all their promises of bringing in good governance and better economics, opposition parties are now preparing to fight each other then putting up an united stand against the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA).

The opposition parties were an ideologically assorted but politically keen group as they rallied behind former army chief Sarath Fonseka — or rallied against incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa — in the run-up to the Presidential election; less than a month later, they are all split up and no where to go.

The fissures are showing between the liberal and pro-west United National Party (UNP), the ultra-nationalist-Marxist, anti-India, Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), and the Tamil National Alliance, a succession battle tearing it apart in a post-LTTE era.

As of Tuesday, the UNP — the principal opposition party which seems to have realised the futility of aligning with lesser parties — will fight the election on its own. Fonseka is aligned with the JVP and sacked and sulking TNA members have either switched to UPFA or are floating new entities.

The resounding defeat in the Presidential poll is one obvious reason for the coalition to have lost wind. First the defeat and then its wide margin were not expected and left them floundering for answers.

Another reason could be that after Fonseka’s arrest, the protests failed to take off.

Rallies were held, crowds clashed with the police — ingredients for a street campaign were all there but the recipe for a opposition campaign remained incomplete.

Six weeks are left before the election; for the opposition it could either be six weeks of opportunity or an eternity of neglect.

© Hindustan Times

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sri Lanka's Supreme Court refuses to free Fonseka

Sri Lanka's Supreme Court refused Tuesday to order the release of detained opposition leader and former army chief Sarath Fonseka as it deliberates a petition challenging his arrest by the military.

Fonseka, 59, has been held at a naval detention centre since his arrest on February 8, sparking international condemnation and violent protests two weeks after he was trounced in presidential polls by President Mahinda Rajapakse.

"The request for interim relief by way of his release was rejected but the court said immediate family and lawyers can visit him," a court official said.

A further hearing has been scheduled for April 26.

Fonseka's wife had filed a petition challenging the legality of his detention, and asking the court to order his immediate release pending a judgement.

Tuesday ruling means he will remain in custody until the court makes a final ruling.

The government has yet to specify the charges Fonseka will face, but Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse -- the president's brother -- said he had been plotting a military coup.

The United States, the European Union and the United Nations, among others, have asked Colombo to ensure due process is followed and that democracy is not undermined.

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


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