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ANALYSIS-Sri Lankan president’s political-military shuffle

[Reuters, Sunday, 13 September 2009 08:01 No Comment]

To win a quarter-century war four of his predecessors could not, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa did what none of them would: gave the military near-unlimited power.

But now that he has claimed victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels in one of Asia’s longest-running wars, Rajapaksa has moved quickly to diffuse the military’s influence as he eyes another term in office and rejuvenating the war-hit economy.

Analysts and officers say Rajapaksa is at once sharing the spoils of war and diffusing the military’s post-war power, ensuring there will be no threat to his plan to turn the war victory into an electoral one in a poll expected early next year.

Barely three months after the war ended, Rajapaksa promoted his war-winning army chief General Sarath Fonseka to a newly created post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), which many analysts saw as neutralising the wide powers Fonseka had in wartime.

"Fonseka was kicked upstairs to the ceremonial post before he will be made to retire," said a serving military officer on condition of anonymity.

Rajapaksa also sent senior officers to foreign diplomatic postings or top civilian jobs and made Lt.-Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya, who won a reputation for professionalism when dealing with aid agencies during the war, the new commander.

A number of top officers are regular speakers at business leadership conferences in Colombo, imparting winning lessons.

From the time the war started in 1983 until Rajapaksa took office in 2006, it was an axiom of Sri Lankan political leadership that the military not be given too much power, lest it pose a coup threat.

"A military coup is not possible in Sri Lanka, but with over 100,000 in the force you can put pressure on the political system," the officer said.

FAKE E-MAIL

Underscoring that reality, last month an e-mail circulated falsely attributed to Fonseka in which he declared his candidacy for president. The general quickly called it a hoax, and the government said it suspects an opposition hand in it.

Fonseka, nearly killed by a rebel suicide bombing in April 2006, engineered the successful war campaign and won it in a 34-month offensive. That garnered him and the military tremendous popularity.

Sri Lanka has never seen a top military leader enter politics, except for Major-General Janaka Perera. A popular member of the main opposition, Perera was killed by a suspected Tamil Tiger suicide bomber last year.

Fonseka, who on paper has oversight of the army, navy, and air force, in fact directly controls no troops and must clear all decisions with his former comrade-in-arms, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a retired army colonel who is the president’s brother.

"The CDS position is overall a policy function and it is not a command function," said Colonel R. Hariharan, a security analyst who headed military intelligence for the Indian Peacekeeping Force in Sri Lanka in 1987-1990.

Hariharan said the moves leave the president free to focus on politics and strengthening himself before a vote presidential allies say will happen around January, to be followed soon after by a parliamentary election.

SOLID VOTE

"The president wants to get a solid vote. I think he will put presidential polls first. So once the president comes with a big majority, it is psychologically an influence on the parliamentary polls," Hariharan said.

Rajapaksa’s moves come as Sri Lanka’s $40 billion economy is showing a resurgence since the war ended on May 18 and now that a $2.6 billion International Monetary Fund loan has come through to cushion the war-ravaged economy, which was also hard hit by the global slowdown.

Since then, shares on the Colombo Stock Exchange .CSE have risen more than 48 percent, the central bank is holding the rupee LKR= steady, foreign exchange reserves have more than doubled to $4 billion, and tourist inflows have climbed every month.

Since the war’s end, Rajapaksa’s administration has been talking to investors directly and indirectly through central bank officials to persuade them to invest in Sri Lanka, amid a quiet intelligence war to nab remnant rebels and their international network.

[Full Coverage]

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