Swords crossed in Sri Lanka

by Brahma Chellaney

Two celebrated heroes who, as president and army chief, helped end Sri Lanka’s long and brutal civil war against the Tamil Tigers are now crossing political swords. Whichever candidate wins Sri Lanka’s Jan. 26 presidential election will have to lead that small but strategically important island-nation in a fundamentally different direction — from making war, as it has done for more than a quarter-century, to making peace through ethnic reconciliation and power sharing.

Sri Lanka, almost since independence in 1948, has been racked by acrimonious rivalry between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils, who make up 12 percent of today’s population of 21.3 million. Now the country is being divided by the political rivalry between two Sinhalese war idols, each of whom wants to be remembered as the true leader who crushed the Tamil Tiger guerrillas.

The antagonism between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the now-retired Gen. Sarath Fonseka has been in the making for months. No sooner had Sri Lanka’s military crushed the Tamil Tigers — who ran a de facto state for more than two decades in the north and east — than Rajapaksa removed Fonseka as army chief to appoint him to the new, largely ceremonial post of chief of defense staff.

Once the four-star general was moved to the new position, his relationship with the president began to sour. After rumors swirled of an army coup last fall, the president, seeking military assistance should the need arise, alerted India.

When Rajapaksa decided last November to call an early election to help cash in on his war-hero status with the Sinhalese, he had a surprise waiting for him: anticipating the move, Fonseka submitted his resignation so that he could stand against the incumbent as the common opposition candidate. In his bitter resignation letter, the general accused Rajapaksa of “unnecessarily placing Indian troops on high alert” and failing to “win the peace in spite of the fact that the army under my leadership won the war.”

Now the political clash between the two men — both playing the Sinhalese nationalist card while wooing the Tamil minority — has overshadowed the serious economic and political challenges confronting Sri Lanka.

Years of war have left Sri Lanka’s economy strapped for cash. Despite a $2.8 billion International Monetary Fund bailout package, the economy continues to totter, with inflation soaring and public-sector salary disputes flaring. The government, desperate to earn foreign exchange, has launched a major campaign to attract international tourists.

But a vulnerable economy dependent on external credit has only helped increase pressure on Sri Lanka to investigate allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. This was a war with no witnesses, as the government barred independent journalists and observers from the war zone. Yet the United Nations estimates that more than 7,000 noncombatants were killed in the final months of the war as government forces overran Tamil Tiger bases.

How elusive the peace dividend remains can be seen from the government’s decision to press ahead with the expansion of an already large military. The Sri Lankan military has more troops than the British and Israeli militaries, having expanded five-fold since the late 1980s to more than 200,000 troops today. In victory, that strength is being raised further, in the name of “eternal vigilance.”

With an ever-larger military machine backed by village-level militias, civil society has been the main loser. Sweeping emergency regulations remain in place, arming the security forces with expansive powers of search, arrest, and seizure of property. Individuals can still be held in unacknowledged detention for up to 18 months.

Now calls are growing for the government to surrender the special powers that it acquired during the war and end the control of information as an instrument of state policy. Fonseka has promised to curtail the almost unchecked powers that the president now enjoys and free thousands of young Tamil men suspected of rebel links. Rajapaksa, for his part, has eased some of the travel restrictions in the Tamil-dominated north after opening up sealed camps where more than 270,000 Tamils were interned for months. More than 100,000 still remain in those camps.

Neither of the two main candidates, though, has promised to tackle the country’s key challenge: transforming Sri Lanka from a unitary state into a federation that grants provincial and local autonomy. After all, the issues that triggered the civil war were rooted in the country’s post-independence moves to fashion a mono-ethnic national identity, best illustrated by the 1956 Sinhalese-only language policy and the 1972 Constitution’s elimination of a ban on discrimination against minorities. Sri Lanka is the only country, along with Malaysia, with affirmative action for the majority ethnic community.

As the incumbent with control over the state machinery and media support, Rajapaksa has the edge in the election. But, with the fractured opposition rallying behind Fonseka and a moderate Tamil party also coming out in support of him, this election may produce a surprise result.

Whichever “hero” wins, however, building enduring peace and stability in war-scarred Sri Lanka requires a genuine process of national reconciliation and healing. The country’s future hinges on it.

Brahma Chellaney, a former member of India’s National Security Council, is a professor of Strategic Studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.” © 2010 Project Syndicate