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Power before Peace in Sri Lanka – MorungExpress

[MISC, Thursday, 16 July 2009 15:25 No Comment]

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This July 15, 2009 photo released by the United Nations shows U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, left, shaking hands with President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, at the Non Aligned Movement Summit in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. (AP Photo)

The Sri Lankan government has asked international aid agencies to scale back operations as there has been no more fighting after the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May. ‘There must be a reduction or scaling down in operations,” Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe told Reuters. “The challenges now are different,” he added.

The directive to aid agencies comes at a time when the aid community has been calling for increased access to the camps where some 300,000 Tamil internally displaced persons are being housed. Rights activists have accused the government of keeping Tamils as “prisoners behind barbed wire in camps where conditions are in many cases abysmal” and of not allowing them to return to their homes.

Relations between the government and international aid agencies deteriorated sharply in the final stages of its offensive against the LTTE when the Sri Lankan armed forces were closing in on the Tigers. With the media not allowed into the war zone, it was humanitarian workers there who drew the world’s attention to the plight of civilians caught in the crossfire. It was observed that the government’s use of heavy weaponry put the lives of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians at risk.

In the final stages of the war, an increasingly prickly Sri Lankan government rejected visas of journalists and diplomats of countries that were calling for a ceasefire. With the victory over the LTTE, its tolerance of international and domestic criticism has vanished. The government is shutting down the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process, or the Peace Secretariat, a body that was set up in February 2002 to coordinate and facilitate the peace process and negotiations. While the LTTE’s Peace Secretariat was flattened by bombing during the hostilities, that of the government continued to function through the fighting, albeit in a much diminished role.

The government has not given a reason for its closure of the Peace Secretariat. The scaling down of relief work and the shutting down of the Peace Secretariat point to strategy that President Mahinda Rajapakse is crafting in post-LTTE Sri Lanka. “The Rajapakse government has made it clear that after defeating the LTTE militarily, it is not keen on reconciliation or reaching out to Tamils,” said a Tamil political analyst who spoke to Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. “It has signaled its lack of interest in pursuing a political solution to the ethnic crisis. It has indicated that it doesn’t have use for a Peace Secretariat.”

Rajapakse has made it clear that seeking a political solution is not on his immediate list of priorities. It would have to wait his re-election as president. “I must get the mandate. After that, the political solution comes,” Rajapakse said in an interview to The Hindu, an Indian daily. The search for a political solution has been set aside. The “end of hostilities” has been used by the government to justify its demand for a scaled down international humanitarian agency presence on the island. But the end of combat operations has not led to a trimming down of the government’s military muscle or of security measures.

In fact, the government is planning to expand its armed forces. Chief of Defense Staff Sarath Fonseka has said that he wants a 50% increase in the size of the 200,000-strong Sri Lankan Army. Army officials say that more soldiers are needed to monitor Tamils in the north and east to ensure that the LTTE isn’t revived. With 5.7 soldiers per every 1,000 in the population, Sri Lanka already stands first in South Asia and 42nd in the world with regard to armed forces per capita. The country does not face external military threats and the LTTE has ceased to exist as a military force. “Even 200,000 soldiers are not required in a post-LTTE Sri Lanka,” the political analyst pointed out.

Rights activists fear that an expanded army means that military occupation of the north and east will continue for many years. They also fear that the army will be deployed to crush protests that are likely to break out in the south. Although the war is over, emergency regulations, which have been in place for much of the past 30 years have not been lifted. Last week, the government extended many of these once again.

Its war on the media continues. Both, the Defense Ministry and the government-controlled press continue to label journalists who were critical of its conduct of the war as traitors. Journalists have been jailed, abducted, shot dead or beaten up during the war years. But they aren’t any safer now that the combat operations have ended. On June 1, Poddala Jayantha, an advocate of press freedom was abducted and assaulted in Colombo. The government has announced the re-establishment of a powerful press council with the authority to jail journalists.

Apparently, the government has compiled a list of journalists supposedly on the LTTE’s payrolls based on information divulged by Daya Master, the LTTE political wing member who surrendered to the army in April. Journalists – both Sinhala and Tamil – fear that critics of the government will be named on this list and punished. “The witch-hunt against journalists critical of the government has been intensified,” the analyst said.

Following the defeat of the LTTE and the death of its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and the entire Tiger top brass, a mood of triumphalism and extreme chauvinism has gripped the Sinhala south. Accompanying this is a frenzied glorification of Rajapakse by his cronies, his party members, Sinhala-Buddhist hardliners and the Buddhist clergy. Rajapakse has been promoting a personality cult around himself for some years now. The victory over the LTTE has given this personality cult a massive shot in the arm – and taken it to a new level.

Within weeks of the victory over the LTTE, Rajapakse was conferred with the title of Vishvakeerthi Sinhaladheeswara (Universally Glorious Overlord of the Sinhalese) and Shree Wickrema Lankadheeswara (Heroic Warrior Overlord of Lanka) and crowned Sri Lanka Raajavamsa Vibhooshana Dharamadveepa Chakravarti (Monarchical Emperor of the Glorious Land of Buddhism) by high priests of various leading Buddhist chapters.

Billboards featuring Rajapakse in the white robes of a Buddhist deity carry slogans hailing “Our Savior”. There have been calls for a constitutional amendment to allow him to remain in office beyond his six-year term without facing a fresh election. These are trying times for those who disagree with this regime’s vision for Rajapakse and his family. A popular astrologer was recently thrown in jail for predicting that the president would be ousted by his own prime minister by September and that the opposition leader would become prime minister.

A few days later, the prediction of another astrologer, this one prophesying good times for the Rajapakses was carried in the state-owned Sinhala daily, Silumina. “In the next presidential election, President Rajapakse would be victorious with more than 75% of the votes. The next chapter in Sri Lanka is reserved for the Rajapakses. Before 2010, this constitution would become invalid and the country would get a new constitution. This would get not two-thirds, but three-fourths majority,” the astrologer said. In a country where astrology wields significant influence, the Rajapakse regime appears to be using it to mould public opinion.

Nepotism and dynastic politics are common across South Asia. Still, what is unfolding in Sri Lanka is unprecedented. “With siblings, cousins and nephews ubiquitous, the administration has a distinct Rajapakse flavor,” writes noted political commentator Tisaranee Gunasekera. Besides the presidency, Rajapakse controls the ministries of defense, public security and law and order, finance, religious affairs and moral upliftment, and highways and road development.

His elder brother Chamal is Minister of Irrigation and Water Management as well as Ports and Aviation while younger brothers, Gotabhaya and Basil “function as presidential alter-egos, controlling key swathes of the state structure. According to Gunasekera, Gotabhaya is effectively in charge of the country’s defense and its powerful and growing military machine. Basil, believed to be the brains of the family, is senior presidential advisor and an appointed member of the legislature. “As the ‘Development Czar’, he presides over mammoth infrastructure projects. … Together the siblings control 67.6% of the national budget,” he added.

The Brothers Rajapakse are tip of the iceberg. There are Rajapakse nephews, nieces and cousins in various positions of power and influence in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankans believed that with the end of the war their freedoms would return.

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