[lg policy] Heroes Cross Swords in Sri Lanka

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sat Jan 16 15:51:48 UTC 2010

Heroes Cross Swords in Sri Lanka
Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI – Two celebrated heroes who, as president and army chief,
helped end Sri Lanka’s long and brutal civil war against the Tamil
Tigers are now crossing political swords. Whichever candidate wins Sri
Lanka’s presidential election on January 26 will have to lead that
small but strategically located island-nation in a fundamentally
different direction – from making war, as it has done for more than a
quarter-century, to making peace through ethnic reconciliation and
power sharing. Sri Lanka, almost since independence in 1948, has been
racked by acrimonious rivalry between the majority Sinhalese and the
minority Tamils, who make up 12% of today’s 21.3-million population.
Now the country is being divided by the political rivalry between two
Sinhalese war idols, each of whom wants to be remembered as the true
leader who crushed the Tamil Tiger guerrillas.

The antagonism between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the now-retired
General Sarath Fonseka has been in the making for months. No sooner
had Sri Lanka’s military crushed the Tamil Tigers – who ran a de facto
state for more than two decades in the north and east – than Rajapaksa
removed Fonseka as army chief to appoint him to the new, largely
ceremonial post of chief of defense staff. Once the four-star general
was moved to the new position, his relationship with the president
began to sour. After rumors swirled of an army coup last fall, the
president, seeking military assistance should the need arise, alerted

When Rajapaksa decided last November to call an early election to help
cash in on his war-hero status with the Sinhalese, he had a surprise
waiting for him: anticipating the move, Fonseka submitted his
resignation so that he could stand against the incumbent as the common
opposition candidate. In his bitter resignation letter, the general
accused Rajapaksa of “ unnecessarily placing Indian troops on high
alert” and failing to “win the peace in spite of the fact that the
army under my leadership won the war.”

Now the political clash between the two men – both playing the
Sinhalese nationalist card while wooing the Tamil minority – has
overshadowed the serious economic and political challenges confronting
Sri Lanka.   Years of war have left Sri Lanka’s economy strapped for
cash. Despite a $2.8 billion International Monetary Fund bailout
package, the economy continues to totter, with inflation soaring and
public-sector salary disputes flaring. The government, desperate to
earn foreign exchange, has launched a major campaign to attract
international tourists.

But a vulnerable economy dependent on external credit has only helped
increase pressure on Sri Lanka to investigate allegations of war
crimes and crimes against humanity. This was a war with no witnesses,
as the government barred independent journalists and observers from
the war zone. Yet the United Nations estimates that more than 7,000
noncombatants were killed in the final months of the war as government
forces overran Tamil Tiger bases.  How elusive the peace dividend
remains can be seen from the government’s decision to press ahead with
the expansion of an already-large military. The Sri Lankan military is
bigger in troop strength than the British and Israeli militaries,
having expanded five-fold since the late 1980’s to more than 200,000
troops today. In victory, that strength is being raised further, in
the name of “eternal vigilance.”

With an ever-larger military machine backed by village-level militias,
civil society has been the main loser. Sweeping emergency regulations
remain in place, arming the security forces with expansive powers of
search, arrest, and seizure of property. Individuals can still be held
in unacknowledged detention for up to 18 months. Now calls are growing
for the government to surrender the special powers that it acquired
during the war and end the control of information as an instrument of
state policy. Fonseka has promised to curtail the almost unchecked
powers that the president now enjoys and free thousands of young Tamil
men suspected of rebel links. Rajapaksa, for his part, has eased some
of the travel restrictions in the Tamil-dominated north after opening
up sealed camps where more than 270,000 Tamils were interned for
months. More than 100,000 still remain in those camps.

Neither of the two main candidates, though, has promised to tackle the
country’s key challenge: transforming Sri Lanka from a unitary state
into a federation that grants provincial and local autonomy. After
all, the issues that triggered the civil war were rooted in the
country’s post-independence moves to fashion a mono-ethnic national
identity, best illustrated by the 1956 “Sinhalese only” language
policy and the 1972 Constitution’s elimination of a ban on
discrimination against minorities. Sri Lanka is the only country,
along with Malaysia, with affirmative action for the majority ethnic

As the incumbent with control over the state machinery and media
support, Rajapaksa has the edge in the election. But, with the
fractured opposition rallying behind Fonseka and a moderate Tamil
party also coming out in support of him, this election may produce a
surprise result. Whichever “hero” wins, however, building enduring
peace and stability in war-scarred Sri Lanka requires a genuine
process of national reconciliation and healing. The country’s future
hinges on it.


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