Just four months ago, the rulers of Sri Lanka were the toast of the “anti-terror” fraternity in the region and the rest of the world. They were supposed to have attempted and achieved what others made of less-stern stuff had abandoned as unattainable: a military solution to the problem of terrorism.
With the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) now an extinct species, it was said, the island-nation had become a safe sanctuary for democracy. The end of the armed ethnic conflict was expected to usher in a new era of national reconciliation and unity.
What has followed the war, however, has proven both these hopes false.
Democracy in Sri Lanka only faces new threats after the defeat of Tamil “terrorism.” The first major event to follow the war was the presidential election of January 26, pitting the two “anti-terror” heroes in a titanic struggle against each other. As noted in these columns (Sri Lanka: The Battle After the War, January 25, 2019), the contest between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and army chief Sarath Fonseka started on an extremely confrontational note. And it has not ended with the election.
Fonseka had started his campaign, even while in uniform, with the charge that, during the final phase of the war, the president feared an army coup attempt and asked for India’s assistance in such an eventuality. The charge was denied, and the challenger was allowed to contest the election as the candidate of an opposition coalition. Rajapaksa, declared the winner on January 27, has revived the controversy by proceeding for Fonseka’s military trial for “treason.”
The president was not the picture of a confident victor, with a claimed vote of 67 percent, when Fonseka was arrested on February 8 at his office in Colombo. The general has not been seen in public, and not even in private by his political allies, ever since. The arrest has prevented his re-emergence as the rallying point for the opposition in the parliamentary elections to be held on April 8.
All this has not dealt a postwar blow for democracy. As academician and political activist Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations until July 2009, puts it in a recent newspaper article: “No enemy of Sri Lanka could have matched the damage done to the image of the country and the Presidency by our own Government’s recent actions …That clumsy melodrama … permitted a different story line to emerge in and through the international media, obscuring the clear, conclusive electoral victory handed to Mahinda Rajapaksa by the masses …”
Jayatilleka adds: “If there are serious allegations of a criminal nature, then all the more reason that he should be tried in a civil court and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. There should be no attempt to do both, i.e. to try him in a military and then a civil court, because the opaque character of a military court undermines the social legitimacy of the findings and could have an adverse effect on the public perception of the criminal proceedings themselves.”
Many other observers agree. Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, says: “It was reasonable to expect the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s presidential election to usher in a period of political stability. The large majority of votes secured by … Rajapaksa was impressive on its face and promised benevolence in his decisions after the elections. His unchallenged command over the levers of state power made it unlikely that there would be any viable opposition to his rule.”
What followed, however, only provided “evidence of presidential insecurity already manifested in the dramatic events that unfolded even as the votes were being counted.” Perera warns: “… the erosion of faith in the democratic process has transformed into violence in the past.”
As for national reconciliation and unity, the war has only led to a major conflict within Sri Lanka’s establishment and the Sinhala-majority camp. This finds a striking illustration in the statement issued by senior Buddhist monks (to whom both Rajapaksa and Fonseka paid obeisance during their election campaigns), calling for the release of the retired army chief. The monks said: “We wish to stress that we do not under any circumstance approve of the arrest of former army commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka, who risked his life for the country’s unity.”
The powerful clergy’s statement held out no prospect of ethnic rapprochement, either. It charged that ex-LTTE leaders were being given high posts and were protected, while Fonseka was not.
The prelates said: “We urge you (the president) to release and also provide the necessary security to persons including … Fonseka who laid their lives on line for the protection of the motherland the way that the government does to (ex-LTTE) Vinayaangamoorthi Muralitharan (Karuna) and Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan (Pilleyan) who are being provided all facilities and security after being taken into the government side.”” Muralitharan is now the national integration minister in Colombo and Chandrakanthan the chief minister of the Tamil-majority Eastern Province.
Fonseka’s removal as the rallying point for the opposition has ended the coalition, where the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the pro-Sinhala Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or the People’s Liberation Front, coexisted. The general’s arrest has thus freed the president considerably from pressures to follow up on his promise to attempt a solution to the ethnic problem.
Looking at it all in a larger perspective, many analysts have noted the militarization of politics that the quest for a “military solution” to the problem of terrorism has spelt. Harim Peiris, adviser to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga (2001-05), for example, points out: “Using the quantitative yardstick of per-capita number of security personnel or, in other words, the number of security forces divided by the population, Sri Lanka is by far the most militarized society in South Asia.”
He adds: “Our armed forces, including the auxiliaries and volunteer forces, are slightly bigger than the British armed forces and the Brits deployed around the world, including to Iraq and Afghanistan.” This is not a tailor-made situation for a democracy-driven war on terror in a developing country.
It is even less so, if one looks at the mega-economic cost of Sri Lanka’s militarization. Left-wing analyst K. Ratnayake says: “Political tensions in Colombo illustrate broader international processes in an acute form. The island was embroiled in a savage communal war for 26 years…. Rajapaksa, who had restarted the war in 2006 and conducted it with particular ruthlessness, declared that he would now bring “peace and prosperity” to the island. The opposite has been the case.”
Ratnayake adds: “The end of the fighting solved none of the underlying problems. Having mortgaged the country to pay for his criminal war, Rajapaksa was compelled to take out a $2.6 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to prevent a major balance of payments crisis. Now with the IMF calling the tune, the government is preparing to make major inroads into the living standards of the working people …”
As elsewhere, it is the masses who are compelled to pay the price of the “military solution” to the problem of terrorism.