The president and the general (Sri Lanka)

The Sri Lankan military won the war against the Tamil Tigers over six months ago. But since that time, the island has been steadily losing the peace that the people – Muslim, Tamil and Sinhalese – so deserve. The main hurdle towards lasting peace has been the continuing war mentality and ultra-nationalism on the part of the Rajapakse regime – for this is what we have to call it. Those elements that had been the regime's main strengths in fighting the war – the dangerous mix of militarisation and Sinhala Buddhist mobilisation – are now not only undermining peace, but also creating instability in the government hallways of Colombo.

In the single-minded pursuance of the war, President Mahinda Rajapakse and his brother, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya, with full support from the military, put together a broad and formidable coalition. This was made up of the ultra-nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and then its breakaway faction, sections of the left parties, as well as Tamil paramilitaries, including the breakaway faction of the LTTE. Yet just weeks after the last shot was fired, that coalition began to unravel, with increasing anti-government mobilisation by the JVP, criticism from sections of the JHU and, finally, the need felt by the president for a full overhaul of the armed-forces leadership.

The latest in these twists and turns has been the alienation and vocal opposition of the former army commander, General Sarath Fonseka, who is popularly credited with winning the war. Gen Fonseka, even more a militarist and Sinhala Buddhist nationalist than the president, is now expected to contest Rajapakse in the next elections. And with the opposition United National Party (UNP) backing the general's candidature, there appears to be little hope of a credible or strong opposition.

Within weeks of the end of the war, the Rajapakses changed the entire high command of the armed forces, giving the top military brass different assignments, from secretaries of other ministries to ambassadorial appointments. Gen Fonseka's control over the army was severely clipped, by 'promoting' him to a symbolic position as chief of defence staff. The general, in his recent resignation letter, claimed that it was widely understood that he was sidelined because various agencies misled the president regarding the possibility of a military coup.

The sidelining of Fonseka is not very surprising, given that the Rajapakses have been clear that they have no 'friends' – only their large clan. Brothers, cousins and nephews are thus being put into key political positions without any sense of embarrassment. Initially, they seemed certain that with the war victory they could entrench the family in power for the foreseeable future. Very quickly, however, that future began to seem uncertain, with the challenge posed by Fonseka.

Over the last three years, both Gen Fonseka and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse have considerably politicised the military, by making Sinhala nationalist and anti-minority statements. Now, an open challenge between the general and the president could further deteriorate the situation. As Himal went to press, the president announced  early presidential elections, almost two years ahead of the end of his term. Analysts expect this to take place in late January 2010. The president wants to hold elections before he loses momentum from the war victory, but with Gen Fonseka running against him the Sinhala-nationalist vote stands likely to be split. Yet while the minorities' vote could become significant, given that both Rajapakse and Fonseka are seen as Sinhala chauvinists it will be hard for the minority communities to choose.

Trumping militarism
With international pressure mounting, the 300,000 people interned in camps at the end of the war are finally being resettled. While close to 150,000 displaced individuals have apparently been allowed to return home (or elsewhere), and Basil Rajapakse announcing that all IDPs will finally have freedom of movement starting in December, their full access to humanitarian agencies in the north continue to be of concern. Moreover, it must be accepted that rehabilitation and development alone are not sufficient unless accompanied by demilitarisation and genuine political devolution.

Indeed, the regime's lingering war mentality remains amply clear. The signals are not only in the exalted status accorded to the president's brother as defence secretary; nor in the numerous checkpoints in Colombo, and continued militarisation of the internment camps for displaced peoples in the north and east of the country. Such indicators can also be seen in the regime's ongoing flirtation with the Burmese junta, whose guest President Rajapakse saw fit to be soon after winning the war – a visit recently reciprocated by General Than Shwe himself. Just as the LTTE dug its own grave through a totally military mindset, the Rajapakse regime could now be weakening itself irrevocably. For the country and its people, a dangerous instability could ensue.

Emergency rule and the Prevention of Terrorism of Act continue to be the primary supports of authoritarianism and corruption, with parliamentarians lacking the fortitude to repeal them and thus take the Rajapakses head-on. As the Tamil minority suffocates in the north under the military jackboot, police brutality is on the rise in the south. Meanwhile, the media, which should have learned the dangers of authoritarianism over the decades of war, continue their irresponsible projection of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and opportunistic support of the government.

Job losses and increasing unemployment propelled by the global economic downturn are creating conditions for social unrest and disenchantment among labour, and the unemployed are already pushing many onto the streets. Alongside, Sri Lanka's aggravated relations with the European Union are putting more jobs at risk. The political tightrope that President Rajapakse has been walking between the East and West – mobilising India, China, Pakistan and Iran to counter pressure from the EU and the US on human rights and conduct of the war – is looking increasingly difficult to manage, as allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka are presently under consideration by the US State Department and Congress. Incredibly, the president's brothers – Gotabhaya as well as Basil, who is in charge of development – are both US citizens, and could thus become the subject of greater US pressure.

Yet on the ground, the challenge remains the same: the need for sane voices for peace and co-existence – democratic voices that can take up the decades-long grievances of the minorities, and the rising economic questions and inequalities that plague Sri Lanka's post-war future. In the end, it is neither the moorings within Colombo's militarised elite nor the megaphone diplomacy of the international actors that will change Sri Lanka's future. To take a leaf from Sri Lanka's three decades of war, the UNP's authoritarian regime – first under J R Jayawardena and then Ranasinghe Premadasa – though seemingly entrenched, was dislodged after 17 years following the unleashing of democratic forces and peoples movements. Can peace and democracy trump authoritarianism, militarism and nationalism one more time and deliver peace?

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian