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Sri Lanka’s war heroes battle for a clean image

[AFP, Sunday, 20 December 2009 11:56 No Comment]

Rajapakse told his first campaign rally on Friday evening that he will wage war against corruption A presidential election in Sri Lanka next month will see two former allies from the country’s bitter civil war slugging it out, but their record on corruption, not the battlefield, might swing the final vote.

President Mahinda Rajapakse and his former army chief Sarath Fonseka are set to face each other at the ballot box on January 26 in the first national elections since the end of Sri Lanka’s 37-year-long ethnic conflict in May.

Official campaigning opened on Friday in what promises to be a bitter and highly personal battle between the two architects of the victory over Tamil Tiger rebels that ended a war the United Nations estimates cost up to 100,000 lives.

Rajapakse, 64, told his first campaign rally on Friday evening that he will "wage war" against corruption and triumph in the same way as he finished off the Tigers, who were fighting for a Tamil homeland in the north of the island.

In a similar vein, Fonseka has promised to stamp out the pervasive graft that both candidates agree is stalling post-war economic recovery.

For Fonseka, the root of corruption is the president’s family. The former general and his backers have made much of a pledge to oust what they call the "family oligarchy" of Rajapakse.

This "oligarchy" sees one of the president’s brothers as the ports and aviation minister, another handling post-war reconstruction and the third being the all-powerful defence secretary. Rajapakse’s eldest son controls a national youth movement.

"The corruption stems from the family rule of the Rajapakses," Fonseka said while launching his campaign on Friday evening. "I will end the culture of corruption and jail those responsible."

Rajapakse, who refutes corruption allegations, called the election two years ahead of schedule, hoping to benefit from his popularity after the end of Asia’s longest running ethnic conflict.

He has since sought to shift his popular image, ordering posters of himself on the battlefield with military top brass and army commandos to be replaced by larger-than-life cut-outs of him dressed in squeaky clean white national dress.

The recently-won war has caused international problems for Rajapakse, who has resisted demands from Western nations for a war crimes probe into the final stages of the conflict with the Tigers following UN reports that 7,000 Tamil civilians died in the first few months of this year alone.

He has since turned to China, Iran, Libya, Myanmar and Pakistan for support.

In contrast, Fonseka, who says he would glady submit his wartime behaviour to scrutiny, has the backing of Sri Lanka’s right-wing United National Party, which in turn has close ties with the West and Japan.

He is also strongly supported by a Marxist party which has connections with China.

Both men are seen as nationalists drawing support from the majority Sinhalese community. It is unknown how the minority Tamil population, which makes up 12.5 percent of the country, will vote in January.

The Berlin-based Transparency International’s (TI) Sri Lanka branch said graft had emerged as a major campaign issue because of the unprecedented level of abuse of state resources by those in power.

"Both sides will talk about stamping out corruption because they know it is a major campaign issue, but what we need is guarantees that they will deliver," said TI’s chief in Colombo, J. C. Weliamuna.

TI reported last week that Sri Lanka’s economic recovery has been slowed by graft, violence and a culture of lawlessness.

"The opposition is attacking the incumbent and capitalising on corruption," said Sumanasiri Liyanage, senior lecturer of economics and politics at the Peradeniya University in central Sri Lanka.

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