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January 26, 2010

Sri Lanka's Presidential Election: How the General who ruthlessly defeated the Tamil Tigers has become the hope of Sri Lanka's liberals and Tamils

Posted by Clifford Bastin

Clifford Bastin examines the background to today's Sri Lankan presidential election and explains the strange alliances which have formed.

The Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapakse has called a presidential election for today (January 26), two years before his term finishes. In May this year the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were finally routed bringing to an end a thirty year conflict. It might be assumed that this remarkable victory would comfortably guarantee a second term for Rajapakse but he is facing an unexpected challenge from his former Army Commander, General Sarath Fonseka.

Other than presiding over a stunning military victory a number of factors point to a second term for the President. Rajapakse is a shrewd and seasoned political operator, a master of lowest common denominator politics. The state controlled press and broadcast media dutifully promote the President and denigrate his opponent. The independent media with certain notable exceptions is mostly pro-Rajapakse and if their inclinations are otherwise inducements or intimidation have brought them into line. The President and his immediate family wield virtually unchecked power over the institutions and agencies of the state. Three of the Presidents brothers hold key posts and many close associates and extended family members have been appointed to leading positions in state bodies.

The relentless and strident promotion of the President's accomplishments and virtues is striking. The cult of personality is apparent from the ubiquitous posters and hoardings, some of towering dimensions. Recently a new banknote came into circulation bearing the Presidents beaming image and that of conquering troops planting a flag, conflating victory with his leadership. On New Years day all mobile phone companies were ordered to send the islands 13.5m subscribers a presidential greeting. At no cost to the Rajapakse campaign and unrestrained by modesty or electoral propriety, the SMS ran:

As promised, I delivered a free and sovereign country. Wish all the very best for the future. Happy New Year: Mahinda Rajapaksa
There is no doubting the President's impressive achievement in creating conditions in which the war could be won and disproving the commonly held belief that the conflict was unwinnable. The Tigers were a ruthless and determined terrorist organization, lavishly funded by the million strong Tamil diaspora. When Rajapakse won the presidential election of 2005 a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) established three years earlier, was still in force. It had been littered with LTTE violations and the early hope of a political resolution had evaporated. Events however were moving against the Tigers.

The Tigers were weakened by an internal split which reduced their fighting strength by a third. The breakaway faction of eastern Tamils became allies of the government, working closely with the army and contributing both manpower and intelligence. The regime was successful at building relations with friendly nations notably Iran, China, Russia, Pakistan and Burma from whom they gained crucial financial, political and military support. In a post 9/11 world the LTTE were finding it harder to channel funds and arms shipments to Sri Lanka while Rajapakse was expanding and modernizing the armed forces. Sri Lanka is now proportionately the most militarized society in the region with the army, navy, air force, police and civil defence numbering 350,000 in a population of around 20 million.

Once hostilities resumed in earnest there were no half-measures. White van squads began operating and suspected LTTE operatives and sympathisers disappeared in increasing numbers. Dissenting voices in the media were muted by a series of abductions, assaults and murders. Despite occasional setbacks on the battlefield and a wave of terrorist outrages the momentum was with the Sri Lankan forces. In May 2009, on a narrow strip of territory in the east between the coast and a lagoon the remnants of the LTTE were killed or captured and the entirety of the senior leadership perished. The precise civilian death toll in this final phase is disputed, but was inevitably high, the UN estimates 7,000 fatalities.

After the initial euphoria had subsided and the victory parades were over, tensions quickly developed between the Rajapakse family and the former army commander. With no conflict to engender cohesion, injured sensibilities and bitter rivalries soon surfaced. The Rajapakse’s were concerned that their political hegemony might be threatened by an increasingly powerful military. At the end of the conflict Sarath Fonseka was appointed Chief of the Defence Staff, an apparent elevation but in fact the move weakened his control over the army. As his relations deteriorated with the government, the General opted to retire. He was offered a public servants role in the sports ministry, which he turned down as a humiliating slight. His personal security was drastically reduced, further evidence of what he considered degrading treatment. Fonseka was ordered to promptly vacate his official residence and when he did not do so, a large contingent of troops was sent to his home on the pretext of looking for army deserters.

In December Fonseka announced his candidature for the Presidency. It is unclear whether Fonseka's motivation is ego or a principled opposition to the government. He is promising to eliminate corruption and promote ethnic harmony, media freedom, and human rights. Fonseka has also announced his intention to abolish the Executive Presidency, which concentrates power in the hands of the President at the expense of Parliament. Many are indeed concerned that the present constitutional arrangement has led to a dangerous accretion of power in one office and has the potential to pave the way for autocratic and ultimately even dynastic rule.

The government has levelled corruption allegations against the General, claiming that in military procurement he favoured a company owned by his son-in-law. Cabinet spokesman Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa alleges that Fonseka became angry with the President's brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the Defence Secretary, when in August he refused his request for the purchase $222,392,635 of military equipment from China, Fonseka strenuously denies the accusation.

As Army Commander, Fonseka had made menacing pronouncements against the media. On January 2 2009, in an interview in the state-controlled Sinhala daily, Dinamina, while army commander, he called unnamed journalists "traitors" and referred to the "treachery" of the media. He claimed that the biggest obstacle to defeating the LTTE was the unpatriotic media. For some time Sri Lanka has been one of the most hostile country's in which to be a journalist. Six days after Fonseka's published comments, on January 8 2009 the Editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was shot dead. The paper is best known for its investigations into corruption in high places and while unsympathetic to the LTTE was critical of aspects of the war's conduct.

Two days prior to Wickrematunge's assassination, the Sirasa television station on the outskirts of Colombo had been stormed and set alight. State media had specifically criticised Sirasa for giving disproportionate coverage to a suicide bombing in Colombo, diverting attention from a speech made by the President lauding the capture of the Tiger capital, Killinochchi on the same day. No progress has been made in finding the perpetrator of either crime which has been the pattern for all other attacks on the media. Reporters Without Frontiers has claimed that 30 journalists have fled Sri Lanka in the last year.

Ethnic minorities, especially Tamils and Muslims, will need some convincing that the General is the man to deliver ethnic harmony. His choice of language in an interview with the Canadian National Post in September 2008 was at best grudging.

I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese but there are minority communities and we treat them like our people. We being the majority of the country, 75%, we will never give in and we have the right to protect this country. We are also a strong nation ... They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things.
Fonseka is personally without party affiliation but has garnered support from a broad and diverse coalition of opposition groups, campaigning under the symbol of the Swan. He is backed by the main opposition and centre-right United National Party (UNP). The JVP (translated as People's Liberation Front) a curious amalgam of Marxism and Sinhalese nationalism backs the general. The JVP was involved in violent insurrections in the early 1970s and late 1980s and recently fragmented when a number of its MPs joined the government.

The largest Muslim party, the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress (SLMC) supports Fonseka and has significant support amongst the 8% of the population who are Muslim. After much soul searching the Western Peoples Front (WPF), a small Tamil party has decided to campaign for Fonseka. The WPF is led by Mano Ganeshan, a human rights activist who has worked at great risk to himself on behalf of the families of the abducted.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) a coalition of four Tamil groupings was close to the Tigers. It represents lowland Tamils who form 12% of the population. To win the TNA's support Fonseka has pledged to repeal the state of emergency in place since March 1983, that gives powers to arrest and detain terrorist suspects without trial. He has offered an amnesty to captured LTTE cadres and to dismantle the High Security Zones in the north occupied by the armed forces. The government alleges that Fonseka has struck a secret deal to re-merge the Eastern and Northern provinces, a key demand of the LTTE.

The Tamil vote may be crucial. In the 2005 election a margin of only 2% separated Rajapakse and his UNP opponent Ranil Wickremesinghe. The LTTE had instructed Tamils in the North and East to abstain and in Tiger strongholds few dared disobey. This deprived the opposition candidate of vital Tamil votes that the UNP could normally have counted on in a presidential election and almost certainly opened the door for a Rajapakse victory. It is hard to estimate how exactly the Tamil vote may influence the outcome this time. The President is himself supported by some smaller Tamil parties. Many Tamils may abstain, unenthusiastic about voting for the army commander that led the military campaign against the LTTE and still less for the President who directed it.

The intense fighting that took place in the final stages of the war created around 280,000 Internally Displaced People (IDP) .They were housed in temporary camps run by the military and it is estimated that 100,000 are yet to be re-settled. Given the considerable displacement of the local population concern has been expressed that many will not be registered or possess an Identity Card enabling them to vote.

The main election monitoring NGOs have complained that the authorities have done insufficient to ensure the affected population will be able to exercise their franchise. The Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE), estimates that out of approximately 271,000 IDPs eligible to vote, only around 13,700 are registered. The wisdom of calling an election two years early is questionable when a proportion of the people that the government fought to liberate will possibly be excluded from the democratic process.

As is customary during a Sri Lankan election, a number of individual politicians have switched allegiance. Two UNP politicians who recently joined the Rajapakse camp were immediately rewarded with ministerial posts. S.B.Dissanayake, a national organizer of the opposition UNP has switched sides just as he did at an earlier election in 2001 when making a different calculation about the swing of the political pendulum. The former Captain of Sri Lanka's 1996 cricket world cup winning team, Arjuna Ranatunga, a member of the President's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), is campaigning for the General.

A prominent Buddhist monk involved with the hardline and Sinhalese nationalist, Patriotic National Centre (PNC) has endorsed the General after previously supporting the President. At a media briefing the Dambara Amila Thera said:

There is no media freedom, there are no free and fair elections in the country and there are too many problems in the IDP camps. Over 50 people die every day in the IDP camps.
The next day he found himself in prison accused of corruption.

Three parliamentarians of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) including a Deputy Minister have broken ranks with their leadership and are campaigning for Fonseka. The CWC represents Tamil workers of Indian descent who largely work on the plantations in the hill country and make up 5% of the population.

Hardly had Fonseka's candidacy been declared when the campaign became mired in a controversy that has yet to subside. In an interview published on December 13, in the Sunday Leader, the General reportedly said that in the final stages of the conflict Gotabayha Rajapakse had ordered that neither the LTTE leaders nor their families were to be taken prisoner, even though they were attempting to give themselves up. The government response concentrated less on rebuttal than on portraying the allegations as treacherous and sullying the nations image abroad. They represented a betrayal of Gotabayha, the President and the armed forces, that left them open to war crimes charges.

The failure to anticipate how his remarks would be exploited was indicative of the Generals lack of political experience. The resulting furore compelled Fonseka to hurriedly claim misrepresentation. The highly respected and senior journalist, Federica Janz, stands by her story. In his subsequent clarification Fonseka said that he had only heard from a journalist embedded with the army of attempts by the LTTE leadership to surrender and that while he was in charge of conducting the final operation no request to surrender had reached him and hence the army had never acted unlawfully.

The General Secretary of the ruling SLFP, Maithripala Sirisena, alleged that Fonseka has now become a pawn in the hands of some western nations "conspiring" to bring "regime change" in Sri Lanka. Fonseka has wryly observed that:

Before I handed over the nomination I was the best army commander in the world, but after that I was the country's number one traitor.
The now infamous interview prompted the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Phillip Alston, to request that the government explain how senior LTTE cadres and family members thought to be surrendering, met their deaths on the night of May 17 and 18 2009.

The Rajapakse regime is certainly taking the challenge posed by the Fonseka candidacy seriously. The electorate have been offered a range of economic inducements. Petrol and bottled gas prices have been reduced. On orders from the President, import duty on wheat sugar and onions has been lowered to reduce prices of those staples. Rajapakse has claimed that he has received information that business men associated with the UNP were engineering a shortage in the rice market. Correspondingly he has ordered the importation of extra stocks at preferential rates to keep the price down.

Wages for public servants have been raised including the police and military. Pensions for service personnel have been increased substantially and the elderly are to be entitled to a 20% bonus on the interest they receive from their savings. Farmers are also enjoying the election time spree having seen the price of fertilizer reduced and rates for agricultural credit clipped. Fonseka is responding by making some similarly expensive promises that a fragile economy with a high level of public borrowing can ill afford.

With access to vastly greater finance, media advertising and hoardings supporting the President far outnumber those for Fonseka. Electoral law stipulates that hoardings and posters can be displayed only in the vicinity of party offices and at political meetings but the law has been flagrantly ignored. The Head of the Police has said that the President instructed the police to remove all illegal publicity from the streets before nomination day on the 17th December, but the illegal publicity is still in place.

The People's Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) is deeply unsatisfied that the law is being flouted. A police officer in the eastern town of Ampara has been transferred to Kilinochchi after acting on the orders of the Election Commissioner to remove illegal hoardings. The Commissioner has responded by ordering that no public servants be victimized at election time with transfers. The Election Commissioner, Dayananda Dissanayake, gave a fresh deadline of January 7 for the hoardings to come down, which came and went.

The Elections Commissioner now appears to have given up. He has told Inspector General of Police, Mahinda Balasuriya, that he will not be making any further requests to him to uphold election laws as the police have repeatedly failed to act. He has informed political parties not to notify him of any more complaints, given his inability to take action. The electoral contest has become rather like a boxing match, with Queensbury rules, but no referee to enforce them.

The President has been lavishly entertaining large groups of lawyers, farmers, artists, three-wheeler drivers and police officers, amongst others, at his official residence, Temple Trees. His ready bonhomie and common touch are well suited to such gatherings. The participants are entertained and in some cases transported at state expense, a practice Transparency International criticized in its report of December 31. This report revealed how state finance and property are being used in contravention of electoral law, by the Rajapakse campaign.

Key to understanding the potential for abuse is that the President has made inoperative the 17th amendment to the constitution. This amendment established the principle of an independent public service whereby appointments would be screened impartially by a Constitutional Council. This Council was also to nominate members of independent Commissions on elections, police, corruption and human rights.

The President has not appointed a Constitutional Council despite a statutory obligation and the Commissions are not therefore functioning. Accordingly all public appointees, including judicial, are the result of unrestrained presidential and ministerial patronage. At election time partisan place men naturally do their masters bidding. When coupled with the fact the four Rajapakse brothers head ministries accounting for two-thirds of the national budget, the extent of the family’s control over the agencies of the state becomes apparent.

Transparency has documented a number of other areas of concern. The deployment of government sector vehicles and public buses as well as helicopters for election work has been widespread. Public institutions such as the Board of Investments, Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Urban Development and a state retail chain, Lanka Sathosa, have placed advertisements and hoardings supporting the Presidents campaign. Money has been channeled to the youth organization Tharunyata Hetak, (Youths Future) by public bodies such as the Bank of Ceylon and the National Lotteries Board. The youth organisation is headed by the Presidents two sons and has been spending considerable amounts on advertising in support of the campaign.

The state controls a number of TV and radio stations as well as newspapers. They often have office holders from the Presidents own party in key positions and all obediently communicate the Rajapakse message. A selection of headlines from the Daily News of January 5 demonstrates the point.

President sets example

Fonseka arms deal bared

Govt never kept people hungry

Invariably there is a photograph of the President on the front page and a host of upbeat pieces on the state of the nation along with articles decrying the Opposition.

A chilling video showing the alleged execution of Tiger prisoners by the army and supposedly filmed in January was screened by Channel Four in August. The footage was dismissed by the government as a fabrication after the experts it had appointed examined it. However the UN Rapporteur, Phillip Alston has said that independent analysis by US experts confirms its authenticity. Abductions and disappearances, attacks on the media and high profile incidents such as the murder of 17 local aid workers of Action Contre La Faim, have created considerable international unease regarding Sri Lanka's human rights record. To assuage international opinion the government has set up enquiries but foot-dragging, obfuscation and studied incompetence ensure no culprits have been identified and apprehended.

The response of the Sri Lankan authorities to all accusations that its personnel have committed human rights abuses has been an automatic and blanket denial. The rejection of culpability and a refusal to bow to criticism from the international community, wins approval from large sections of the domestic audience. It should certainly not be forgotten that the LTTE perpetrated appalling crimes against their own people and against the civilian population of the island. However the government's failure to take seriously allegations of human rights transgressions perpetrated by elements within its own armed forces has allowed a culture of impunity to develop increasing the likelihood of further abuses.

The European Union appears to have lost patience with the government and is moving toward suspension of an important trade concession, the Generalised System of Preferences or GSP plus. This is granted on condition that human rights norms are fulfilled. Primarily it will impact on exports from the important garment sector, for which the EU is the biggest market. The President has responded with characteristic belligerence:

We will not be held back by threatened economic sanctions or withdrawn trade concessions by those who seek strategic interference in the national affairs of Sri Lanka.
Instead, he suggested, relations would be strengthened with friendly nations like China who had not raised awkward questions regarding human rights and war crimes.

In the absence of credible opinion polls it is difficult to predict the election outcome but the incumbent has been shaken by the intensity of the contest. The General has undoubtedly rallied the previously demoralized and fragmented opposition. There is concern that the election and its aftermath maybe violent. Already rallies have been broken up and political offices burned. In Tangalle, a stronghold of the President in the south, a bus carrying Fonseka supporters came under machine gun-fire, killing one and injuring ten. Should the declared result be close and of dubious credibility, what Mahinda Rajapakse has termed the "emerging wonder of Asia" may be thrown into turmoil.

The Jaffna based group University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) has observed that the real issues facing Sri Lanka are being eclipsed by the squabble between the regime and the General about who can be considered the greater patriot and who deserves the major credit for achieving military victory. The UTHR believes the election should be about re-building trust between communities, devolving power and reforming the state in order to defend human rights.

Historically the Sri Lankan people have been poorly led by a self-serving political class, conspicuously unable to provide statesmanship and vision. It is hard to be optimistic that either candidate in this election can break a well established mould and deliver the reform necessary to nurture reconciliation, human rights, clean governance and development. It is earnestly to be hoped that this pessimism is misplaced as the end of the war has created a unique opportunity for the winning candidate to unleash the islands enormous potential. What has taken many by surprise is that in the aftermath of its bloody conflict that there is a fiercely contested election at all.

To read Clifford Bastin's previous reports from Sri Lanka, see Sri Lanka after the Tsunami.

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