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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 1584

Threats from within and Spectres from the Past

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

During the Presidential election season, the hopes of Lankan democracy rest not on Mahinda Rajapakse or on Sarath Fonseka, but on Dayananda Dissanayake, the Election Commissioner. On nominations day the Election Commissioner demonstrated his determination to ensure that the Presidential election is as free and as fair as it is possible in the current context. He conducted the nomination process with a dignified impartiality that is in sharp contrast to the servile conduct of most public officials today.

In his speech on that occasion, the Election Commissioner recommended the full implementation of the 17th Amendment and warned that a competent authority will be appointed to oversee both the state and the private media, if there is blatant impartiality in election coverage. He also stated that proxy candidates (and most of the 22 Presidential contenders are proxy candidates) will not be permitted to use the opportunities granted to them under the constitution to canvass for their paymasters. He announced that he had already invited international election observes and asked the candidates to express any objections, right there, in the full view of the country. Most pertinently, he cautioned that if polling is marred by violence, election in the affected district/s will be declared invalid and the final national result delayed until fresh polling is held in the disputed area.

“For never can true reconcilement grow
Where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep….”
Milton (Paradise Lost)

The 17th Amendment gives wide powers to the Election Commission, to ensure a free and fair electoral process. Since the Election Commission has not been appointed (due to the refusal by President Rajapakse to empower the Constitutional Council), these powers have become vested in the Election Commissioner. And the Election Commissioner seems intent on using these constitutional powers to the maximum to ensure that the Presidential election is as free and as fair as possible. His efforts may become hampered by the general cowardice of the bureaucracy and the partisan nature of the police force. The Election Commissioner cannot single-handedly ensure for Sri Lanka a completely free and fair election, especially when the powers that be are determined to win at whatever the cost. Still the impartiality and the fearlessness of this one man is a beacon of hope to Sri Lanka’s battered and beleaguered democracy.

That the government is willing to violate all election laws, blatantly, in its obsessive quest for power was evident in the manner in which the state television channel Rupavahini covered the nomination process. The visuals of the main opposition candidate were limited to a few chance shots; the focus was entirely on the ruling party candidate Mahinda Rajapakse. And to make matters worse, the visuals were interspersed with a commentary which was, in actuality, a political peroration in support of the incumbent President. Though the state media has always been biased in Sri Lanka, generally on nomination days an attempt at even-handedness is made. The departure from that tradition this time around indicates the desperation of the Rajapakses and their obsessive desire to perpetuate their hold on power through whatever means necessary.

Power at any Cost

The Rajapakses needed to win the war, because the success of their dynastic project depended on that. Even supporters of the Ruling Family make little attempt to defend their development record or to gainsay the charges of unprecedented corruption and nepotism. In this context the Rajapakses needed to defeat the LTTE and restore Sinhala supremacy over Sri Lanka in order to justify their claim to long term power. Patriotism to the Rajapakses was both a cloak for their crimes and misdeeds and a cudgel to beat their enemies with, just as it was for Vellupillai Pirapaharan. As the UTHR-J (University Teachers for Human Rights – Jaffna) points out in its latest report covering the final phase of the war, “For both Prabhakaran’s war of national liberation and Rajapakse’s war for national sovereignty, one unstated motive assumed the greatest significance – the entrenchment of unchallenged personal power. Rajapakse followed Prabhakaran in calling his political enemies “traitors.” Both used the cover of war to kill their enemies; and for both the expression of critical independent opinion was anathema. Both ran regimes that killed exponents of independent opinion – regulating the media in the euphemism above” (Let Them Speak: The Truth about Sri Lanka’s Victims of War – UTHR Special Report No. 34 – 13.12.2009).

The advent of a powerful new candidate in place of Ranil Wickremesinghe and the presence of a truly independent Election Commissioner have prised opened some of the democratic spaces closed by the Rajapakses. But these openings may well be temporary ones; in fact they may not even outlast the Presidential Election if Mahinda Rajapakse wins an outright victory. In that event, the Rajapakses will unleash all their power to win a two thirds majority at the parliamentary election without which the constitutional changes necessary for the success of the dynastic project cannot happen. A leader who is deliberately preventing the implementation of one of the two most democratic constitutional changes in the history of Sri Lanka, the 17th Amendment, cannot be a true democrat.

Unfortunately, Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s democratic credentials are equally suspect. In the past he has been as anti-democratic and intolerant as the Rajapakse brothers. His metamorphosis from an autocrat to democrat may be genuine or it may be spurious. Candidate Fonseka can be all things to all men and make promises by the bushel; but there is no guarantee that a President Fonseka will honour those undertakings. Nor is there a mechanism in Sri Lanka to ensure that a victorious Mr. Fonseka keeps his promises or at least does not depart too far from the path he promised to adhere to during election season. Given the nature of the two candidates, it is no exaggeration to say that Lankan democracy is facing a threat to its very survival, from within its own bowels.

A Legacy of Bitterness

At his inaugural rally, Mahinda Rajapakse passionately reiterated that neither “his government nor he would seek money from LTTE leader Vellupillai Pirapaharan’s parents for any matter and will not betray the nation by doing so” (Daily mirror 19.12.2009). This statement demonstrates yet again the Sinhala supremacist outlook of the Rajapakses and their fundamental incapacity to see the difference between Tamils and Tigers.

After all, Vellupillai Pirapaharan’s parents were never members of the LTTE. The fact that their son waged a long war against Sri Lanka does not make them guilty of any crime. President Rajapakse’s remarks demonstrate his Sinhala supremacist and anti-modern outlook. With such a dominant ideology, it is little wonder that post-war, hundreds of thousands of civilian Tamils were incarcerated in internment camps. And if the Commander in Chief equates Tigers with their family members, in public, would not have his forces done the same in the battlefield, away from the eyes of the world?

The latest UTHR report tries to present an impartial picture of the events of those last horror-stricken weeks and days of the war, using eye witness accounts and informed deductions. The conclusion is that both the LTTE and the government acted in contravention of international laws and with scant regard for the safety of hundreds of thousands of civilian Tamils caught in the war zone: “What these survivors’ stories make clear is that for both parties, the key to military dominance lay not in brilliant strategies, but in an utter disregard for the lives of civilians and combatants alike, driven by their leaders’ single-minded pursuit of personal power” (ibid).

The UTHR’s conclusion fits in with a charge the Sinhala hardline lobby made against Presidents Ranasinghe Premadasa and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga – that they did not pursue the war properly. The euphemistic ‘properly’ means that both leaders observed certain restraints in military actions, at least some of the time, because they wanted to avoid excessive civilian casualties. This restraint was motivated partly by concerns about international reactions and partly by the feeling that these people too are not just Sri Lankans but also Sri Lankan voters. This attitude acted as an important restraint on the Lankan state during the Second and Third Eelam Wars.

The Sinhala supremacist lobby understood this politico-psychological constraint. And it wanted a leader who would not be impeded by such beliefs and considerations. In President Rajapakse they got that leader, a man who subscribes to the hosts and guests concept of Sri Lanka, a man who believes in treating the minorities well only if they behave well, a man who can afford to be ungenerous towards the minorities, because, as he himself put it, his was elected by the Sinhalese. He was ably assisted by his brother Gotabhaya Rajapakse and his Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka; both are Sinhala supremacists and both saw the war not as a civil conflict but as a war against a foreign invader. It was this attitude which enabled the Rajapakses to act in contravention of humanitarian laws and considerations, because, for them Tamils were enemy aliens rather than fellow citizens.

As the UTHR report points out, the Rajapakses won this war by becoming like Pirapaharan. “The Rajapakse model for fighting terrorism gave the military complete operational freedom ‘to Eliminate and Annihilate’ while standing by them politically, which meant telling all foreigners and governments demanding a reigning in of human rights and humanitarian abuses to ‘Go to Hell’ and regulating the media” (ibid). Every excess, every brutality, every atrocity was justified in the name of Sri Lanka, just as the LTTE did in the name of Eelam. And as the LTTE did, a system of verbal smoke and mirrors was used to hide the naked bloody truth from the country and the world.

That Sarath Fonseka remains a prisoner of this paradigm is evidenced by his flip flopping over his remarks to The Sunday Leader. Candidate Fonseka cannot afford to acknowledge the crimes and errors of the Eelam War IV because Gen. Fonseka was part of the triumvirate which ran that war. He cannot incriminate the Rajapakses without incriminating himself, and without tarnishing his own image as a ‘war hero’. But by making the charge and then withdrawing it just 24 hours later, Mr. Fonseka did himself more harm than good. His volte face demonstrates that he is not a man of his word and that he is capable of denying his words according to his convenience.

Sri Lanka has lost the GSP+, as a direct outcome of the Rajapakses unwillingness to abide by international humanitarian laws and standards. The threat to sue the EU is but a lie to pacify the electorate. The calls for an impartial inquiry into alleged war crimes will grow, particularly given the validation by an independent international expert of the Channel 4 tape depicting the execution of Tiger prisoners by Lankan soldiers. An independent inquiry into crimes and misdeeds by both the government and the LTTE is necessary not because of international pressure but because so long as the truth remains hidden, so long as lies about zero casualties, humanitarian operations and hostage rescue missions are perpetrated, a true national reconciliation will elude us. Even if there is no punishment, at least the crimes must be acknowledged by the government, because the victims were our own people, fellow Sri Lankans. Without such an acknowledgement a legacy of bitterness will emerge, which will render impossible a lasting peace.

- Asian Tribune -

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