Is Sri Lanka heading for military rule?
Upali, the driver, is confused. He’s feeling like the child of a broken marriage, torn between two disputatious parents. He doesn’t have any luxuries, but he is proud to be a citizen of Sri Lanka, secure in his sense of Buddhist Sinhala identity. He feels no acrimony for those of other ethnic groups or religions. Without any sense of triumphalism he rejoices that his country is at peace. A national flag flies over his corrugated iron roof and two portraits are similarly displayed – of President Rajapaksa and General Fonseka. For Upali, these two men were the saviours of his motherland.
Upali doesn’t know how to cope with the news that his two heroes now seem to have become enemies. Fonseka, the army commander who led the military victory against the LTTE Tigers, has resigned as chief of defence staff, complaining about his reduced security detail and the loss of his official accommodation. This is reminiscent of King Lear with Mahinda and his brother, defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, in place of Goneril and Regan. The president addresses rallies using the word “traitor”.
The United National Front (UNF) opposition coalition running Fonseka as its presidential candidate is a motley crew of 18 parties. The main opposition party is the United National Party (UNP), but it is depleted and needs help. The UNF has a kingmaker, Mangala Samaraweera, who was once Mahinda’s foreign minister and chief strategist, and was instrumental in getting Mahinda to be president. It is rumoured that Samaraweera bribed the Tigers into stopping UNP supporters from voting, enabling Rajapaksa to win by a narrow margin. Samaraweera later resigned in protest against the government’s human rights record and formed a breakaway group. (And he remarked that Fonseka was not fit to run the Salvation Army.)
The other main prong of the alliance is the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, People’s Liberation Front), a party that staged two bloody revolutions in pursuit of an extreme Marxist Sinhala nationalist agenda. Their fanatical anti-western stance led to comparisons with Pol Pot. They later re-invented themselves as a legitimate parliamentary party and joined a coalition with President Chandrika Kumaratunge (even though they had killed her husband). All very Shakespearian.
The UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, ought to be the main contender against Rajapaksa in a presidential election. But, unfortunately for the opposition, Ranil is seen as a dead man walking. (When he was prime minister, he had agreed to a humiliating ceasefire which allowed the Tigers to regroup and re-arm. As a consequence the UNP got only 30% of the vote in the recent provincial elections.) In contrast, Rajapaksa is seen as the man with the courage and firmness to press ahead until military victory over the Tigers was complete.
The UNF plan is for the victorious general to appoint Ranil as caretaker prime minister and then set about abolishing the executive presidency which, under the current constitution, is where the real power in Sri Lanka sits. So Ranil, who has shown a special gift for losing elections as well as UNP members, will get to rule the country after all.
The UNF carefully drafted Fonseka’s resignation letter and released it to the world. The general made substantive amendments to the draft and released his own version. According to Kumar David in the Sunday Island, “The alterations are all retrogressive, reactionary and militaristic; unwelcome to democrats and unacceptable to Tamils.”
In 1990 there had been large-scale massacres of Tamil youths in the Amparai District, under Fonseka’s command. He was thought to have a hand in some attacks on journalists. Tamils, Muslims and Burghers have taken exception to derogatory remarks made in October 2008. Rajapaksa said the opposition had embraced someone whom it had been blaming for violence, and was now hailing as the saviour of democracy.
Interestingly, Fonseka has felt the need to deny responsibility (to the current Sunday Leader editor) for the murder of the previous Sunday Leader editor. The Leader seems to be supporting the general.
The Asian Tribune (1) alleges that Fonseka’s son-in-law became a multi-millionaire because of the war and used his family connections to submit false evidence in order to win tenders with the Sri Lankan security forces. The paper says: “A few generals and others got involved in the deals under the instruction of Gen Fonseka and covered up the issue.” Fonseka’s family deny these allegations.
Complaining about the venality and ineffectiveness of politicians is a Sri Lankan national pastime. Yet for all its troubles, Sri Lanka is a long-running democracy. But some Sri Lankans believe democracy, particularly an electoral system based on proportional representation, is unable to deliver effective governance in a “developing” country; some would prefer a military man to a politician.
There were recent newspaper reports that India was on standby after hearing from the Sri Lankan government that a military coup was imminent. India denies this. There had been an attempted military coup back in 1962 which was easily quashed. Lingering fears of a coup have led to soldiers of Fonseka’s regiment, who were guarding sensitive installations, being replaced by soldiers of the regiment of the new army commander, Lt General Jagath Jayasuriya.
It is unlikely that Fonseka would have the capacity to organise a coup because he has alienated too many fellow officers with his huge ego. And there has been a long-standing rivalry between Fonseka and the navy chief.
Most of the military would agree that the general is mistaken in siding with a party that nearly handed half of Sri Lanka’s land mass and a third of its coast to a terrorist group and compromised the nation’s sovereignty. After much coyness, Fonseka has finally backed into the limelight. Speaking at a lawyer’s forum in Colombo, he acknowledged for the first time that he will contest the upcoming election as a common opposition candidate and will work towards abolishing the Executive Presidency.
Rajapaksa has another two years of his first term to run. There is a strong possibility that during that time the fragile opposition will disintegrate and the general’s reputation would then lose its sheen. However, Rajapaksa is a canny politician and is perhaps calculating that it is best to seek re-election now, while his popularity is high, before mundane matters like the high cost of living and unemployment trump the victory over the LTTE.
One of the many ironies arising out of the muddle of Sri Lankan politics is that Tamils have their best chance for decades to exert mainstream national influence — not through a violent Tamil group dedicated to separatism, but because the Sinhalese nationalist vote will be split by the pique of its two lions who defeated the Tigers. These two are now both reaching out to minorities for support.