Sri Lanka's self-signed death warrant

Sri Lanka's imperilled democracy
Chaminda Jayanetti
12 February 2010

Every Saturday, on one of the main roads leading off London’s famous Trafalgar Square, locals and tourists briefly stop to watch a group of protesters singing, dancing and chanting outside the Zimbabwean Embassy. This is the Zimbabwe Vigil coalition, which has been holding demonstrations against President Robert Mugabe’s brutal dictatorship since October 2002.

Meanwhile, across the world, protests are taking place today against Iran’s cruel theocracy, which has used murder, rape, torture and imprisonment in an unsuccessful attempt to crush the pro-democracy ‘Green’ movement.

Zimbabwe and Iran. Two countries whose names have become international bywords for brutality and oppression. What their people wouldn’t give to be freed from the autocrats whose iron fists loom over them – many of them have already given their lives, more still their livelihoods.

One can only imagine, then, what the pro-democracy movements in Zimbabwe and Iran must make of what can only be called the anti-democracy movement in Sri Lanka. The depressing landslide victory of the country’s president Mahinda Rajapaksa in last month’s election has borne its inevitable fruit.

Rajapaksa’s election rival, former army chief General Sarath Fonseka, has now been arrested on sedition charges, accused of plotting a military coup to overthrow the elected government.


For argument’s sake, let us give the sedition charges the short shrift they deserve. According to government minister Keheliya Rambukwella, Fonseka will be tried in a military court on charges of conspiring against the president and planning a coup while army chief.

“When he was the army commander and chief of defence staff and member of the security council, he had direct contact with opposition political parties, which under the military law can amount to conspiracy,” said Rambukwella.

“He’s been plotting against the president while in the military … with the idea of overthrowing the government.”

Right – so Fonseka was plotting against the government when he was the army commander and chief of defence staff? Fonseka formally left the army on November 16th last year. So why has it taken three months to uncover this supposed plot?

Perhaps Sri Lanka’s media minister Yapa Abeywardene can explain? “He has reportedly spoken regarding certain things that took place during the war. He also said he is going to provide evidence.”

Ah, those pesky war crimes allegations, the result of Sri Lanka’s well-documented crushing of the Tamil Tiger guerrilla-terrorist movement last year. Fonseka – who was arguably as much a part of last year’s bloodbath as Rajapaksa – had indicated he was ready to talk to US war crimes investigators, probably to implicate the president’s brother, the defence minister. Can’t allow that to happen, can we, Yapa?

Fonseka’s arrest is the predictable consequence of Rajapaksa’s victory. But it’s worth returning to why Rajapaksa won in the first place. Both Rajapaksa and Fonseka could claim a strong hand in Sri Lanka’s final victory in its long war against the Tamil Tigers. Rajapaksa, however, was tainted by the corruption that is rife in Sri Lankan politics, together with a crackdown on press freedom, attacks on opposition politicians, and feeble economic performance.

So why did a tainted ‘war hero’ defeat a less tainted one? The answer appears to be Fonseka’s apparent willingness – however tepid – to give concessions to the Tamil minority. Faced with a virtual no-choice election, many Sri Lankan Tamils voted for Fonseka as the perceived lesser evil – but this was enough to drive the majority Sinhalese population into the arms of Rajapaksa, determined to give neither inch nor quarter to the Tamils.

Fonseka was no magic bullet, but it is the reasons for his defeat that are crucial to understanding what is happening in Sri Lanka. In an election that was – setting aside Rajapaksa’s dominance of state media – largely free of violence and vote rigging, and having finally seen off the Tamil Tigers’ military threat, Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority was more concerned about keeping the Tamil population’s face to the floor (which is what sparked the civil war in the first place) than such trivialities as rampant corruption, economic growth, human rights and freedom of the press. All came a poor second to sticking it to the Tamils.

How did Sri Lanka get here? The country’s decline has been a long one, largely caused by the expensive civil war, but aided and abetted by a political class that became increasingly mired in corruption.

The Bandaranaike dynasty – which gave the world its first and worst elected female leader – became a byword for nepotism and corruption. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the dynasty’s most recent president, reneged on promises to scrap the country’s harmful executive presidency, and massively expanded the size of the cabinet.

Before her, President Ranasinghe Premadasa – an almost saintly figure compared to those who followed his assassination – faced calls for his impeachment over corruption allegations. The Tamil Tigers spent the best part of the 1990s murdering any political leader or military general who showed signs of competence and incorruptibility, leaving Sri Lankans to feed on the political slurry they left behind.

Therefore it is perhaps understandable that many Sri Lankans now hold the very concepts of democracy and human rights in low regard, longing for a strongman who can beat the nation into shape. Admiring eyes were once cast in the direction of Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf, whose military coup was initially welcomed by many Pakistanis as a break from a corrupt and incompetent democratic establishment. But Sri Lankans should know better from the chaotic denouement of the Musharraf years.

The alarm bells should ring louder still. They say you can learn a lot about a man from the company he keeps. Rajapaksa’s friends are a veritable rogues’ gallery of brutes, dictators, and ne’er-do-wells.

First and foremost, it was the Chinese who armed Sri Lanka’s final military charge against the Tamil Tigers – without China, the war would almost certainly still be rumbling on. Meanwhile, Rajapaksa has been glad-handing Burmese military dictator Than Shwe, Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi (infamously now a friend of the West), and, inevitably, Iran’s midget madman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Any Sri Lankan who doubts where their country is heading under Rajapaksa needs to take the blinkers off.

The fact that Sri Lankans were willing to grant Rajapaksa a landslide victory when they were fully aware of all of this – the corruption, the repression, the alliances with dictators – just to avoid a concession or two to the Tamils, should raise questions not only over their judgement in willingly rushing headlong towards a dictatorship, but also over how Sri Lankans define themselves as a nation.

Beyond their cricket team – whose key player is Everyone’s Favourite Tamil – a large section of the Sinhalese population seems to define itself solely by its opposition to the Tamil population, rather than by its (increasingly sullied) status as South Asia’s oldest democracy.

This, in a sense, is what happens after 26 years of ethnic warfare against the Tamil Tigers, an organisation set up in response to state discrimination and brutality towards Tamils, but which went on to pursue a murderous path of suicide bombings, attacks on civilians and ethnic cleansing, while its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, used every stumbling ceasefire to rearm and return to fighting.

Had the Tigers’ political wing been allowed to take control of the movement – as in Northern Ireland – the ending may have been different. But instead Prabhakaran indulged in increasing brutality towards the Tamil population – recruitment of child soldiers, forced labour, and as a final insult, shooting trapped civilians as they tried to escape during the conflict’s final chapter last year.

None of this is to defend the actions of the Sri Lankan government in carpet-bombing an area full of civilians as the conflict drew to a close. It is, however, to hopefully educate some of the angry young expats who flew Tamil Tiger flags during the protests in London last spring, safe in the comfort of their suburban homes, sporting Nike trainers and Facebook profiles and iPod Nanos, thousands of miles from having to suffer under Tiger rule.

But similarly, the brutality of the Tigers does nothing to justify the brutality towards the Tamils that the Sinhalese population has now endorsed at the ballot box. In a moment of collective national idiocy, Sri Lanka has decided that rather than use this blood-spattered opportunity to reach some kind of reconciliation with the Tamil population, to offer the olive branch of federalism and equal rights, it will twist the knife further in an orgy of vicious ethno-nationalism and fuel exactly the kind of resentment and anger that sparked the civil war in the first place.

Add this to the electoral mandate awarded to the increasingly autocratic Rajapaksa – who having arrested his main rival, has now called parliamentary elections in the hope of securing a massive majority – and we are left with an electorate of mind-numbing blindness. Sri Lanka’s voters have ignored the lessons of history and put the boot into the Tamils. They have ignored all the warning signs to reward a dictator in the making. They have ignored the country’s woeful economic performance and rampant corruption. They will no doubt sit back and watch the inevitable clampdown on the political opposition, and tell themselves that it’s all part of making Sri Lanka a ‘strong’ nation. They will see the news from Iran and change the channel.

Most oppressed people have no choice in their oppression. They did not ask for it – it was forced on them. Many give their lives trying to escape. Sri Lanka is different. It has chosen this path.

Many Sri Lankans can often be heard blaming their country’s ills on others – Norwegian negotiators, Indian politicians, Tamil terrorists, British colonialists. But when one day they wake to find they are ruled by a dictator they cannot get rid of, they will have no-one to blame but themselves.

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