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Unease at Sri Lanka general’s presidential ambitions

[AFP, Monday, 16 November 2009 10:21 No Comment]

Hailed as a hero for ending decades of civil war, Sri Lanka’s most decorated general now looks set to challenge for the presidency — a move that some analysts view with deep foreboding.

General Sarath Fonseka led the Sri Lankan army’s May victory over the separatist Tamil Tigers, achieved in a brutal showdown that eliminated the remnants of the rebel army and its leadership.

But after apparently being sidelined into a largely ceremonial role because of what he says were fears he would lead a coup, Fonseka resigned and now looks sure to challenge his former political masters at the ballot box.

"He is certainly entering politics. It is an irreversible process for him now," Sumanasiri Liyanage, a political science professor at the University of Peradeniya, told AFP.

Some observers saw the prospect of a Fonseka challenge as being behind President Mahinda Rajapakse’s weekend decision to delay the announcement of dates for elections next year.

Hoping to capitalise on the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, Rajapakse had been widely expected to provide a timetable for snap polls on Sunday, but said he needed more time to consult with party leaders.

In May, Fonseka’s troops wiped out the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had been fighting for nearly 37 years for a Tamil homeland in the north of the island.

Allegations of human rights abuses abounded, with the United Nations saying more than 7,000 civilians could have died in the final stages of the fighting.

And since the victory, Colombo has been criticised for not moving swiftly enough to resettle Tamils uprooted by the war.

Fonseka has added his voice to that criticism, telling Rajapakse that the government had failed to win the peace after the army won the war.

"There is no clear policy to win the hearts and minds of the Tamil people, which will surely ruin the victory attained," he said.

Fonseka is thought to have clashed with the president and his brother, who is defence minister, in a wrangle over who should take credit for the victory over the rebels.

In July, he was moved from his role as head of the army to chief of defence staff — a more ceremonial position that has no command responsibility.

He announced his resignation last week in a bitter letter that read like an election manifesto, criticising the government on a host of policy fronts.

Huge posters of Fonseka that had been put up throughout Sri Lanka were ordered down as he accused his political bosses of corruption, violating human rights, stifling media freedom and suppressing political dissent.

Analysts say Fonseka would pose a formidable challenge at the ballot box, especially if he could unite opposition parties behind his candidacy.

"Boosting the image of the military has boomeranged on the government," said Terrance Purasinghe, political science lecturer at Sri Jayewardenepura University.

"People now have a feeling that a military leader will ensure a cleaner government, but I feel Fonseka’s entry into politics would be a danger to democracy," Purasinghe said.

Liyanage agreed, saying a Fonseka presidency could take Sri Lanka down the road of Pakistan or Myanmar where military dictators have ruled for long periods.

During his time as army chief, Fonseka was regarded as ruthlessly efficient, and a US State Department report on possible war crimes in Sri Lanka accused Fonseka of having "overlooked rules of war."

His 40-year military career would set the tone for any political role he could assume, said Liyanage.

"In the short term, his entry into politics is good for democracy because he is helping to rally the opposition and we need a strong opposition for democracy to thrive, but in the long run it will be a danger," Liyanage said.

Human rights activist and lawyer Nimalka Fernando said Fonseka’s split with the government had strengthened the hand of those clamouring for improved human rights, at least in the short term.

"It is an irony of ironies that Fonseka is talking about human rights when he was our target of attack in the past," Fernando said.

Victor Ivan, political commentator for the weekly "Ravaya" newspaper, said the country’s fractured opposition saw in Fonseka a candidate they could unite behind.

[Full Coverage]

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