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December 1, 2009

The Fonseka factor

In Sri Lanka, they say, politics is contested through ego-clashes and fallouts. Defections are a common political practice, and after one of the biggest such possible defection, the president, Mahinda Rajapakse could square up against his once-trusted military commander, General Sarath Fonseka in the forthcoming presidential elections.

General Fonseka’s political challenge begins with the legitimacy of the very alliance that he represents. The platform, bereft of a cohesive ideology, is a loose grouping of political parties on the extremes with only one visible agenda—to unseat Mr Rajapakse. It has a Marxist political setup in the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) standing together with Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), which is one of the foremost proponents of free-market policies. Add to that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Muslim parties, and General Fonseka, if elected, will have a tough balancing act ahead.

His resignation letter is perhaps the first reaching-out act to the Tamils. In a veiled attack on Mr Rajapakse, he wrote “Your Excellency’s government has yet to win the peace in spite of the fact that the Army under my leadership won the war.” This is a marked deviation from the passionate ethno-centric statements he made in September 2008 when he declared, “I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese….we will never give in and we have the right to protect this country. They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things.”

Furthermore, by suggesting that the Sri Lankan government requested the Indian army to be on alert to foil a putative coup attempt by the army, General Fonseka has tried to woo the Sinhalese nationalist constituency, which still sees India as its “enemy”. In a way, it also signals his leaning towards Beijing and Islamabad, who might trump New Delhi should he come to power.

A Fonseka-led government, however, will find itself being hostage to Mr Wickremesinghe’s demands—abolition of the executive presidency and equal citizenship for Tamils. By securing a conditional arrangement, Mr Wickremesinghe is ensuring his own political relevance and his party’s very survival; he expects General Fonseka to be relegated to a constitutional figurehead should the opposition alliance prevail. There is rough weather in store for their alliance.

Mr Rajapakse is clearly on the strongest wicket possible in the circumstances. On the ground, his popularity is immense, and many Sinhalese still consider him to be the real war hero. The larger than life portrayal by eminent historians like K M de Silva—invoking comparisons to the legendary Sinhalese King Dutugemunu—only helps his position as someone who kept his word by continuing and eventually winning the war against the LTTE. Moreover, by gradually ensuring the rehabilitation of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the previously LTTE-held areas, Mr Rajapakse’s post-war management has come under praise from his own populace, though the international community and other humanitarian organisations feel otherwise.

Most importantly, despite the JVP withdrawing support and other minor defections, Mr Rajapakse has ensured stability. This August, his United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) took control of the Jaffna Municipal Council and swept the Uva Provincial Council elections. It subsequently captured the South Provincial Council with 38 seats. If that is any indication of things to come, Mr Rajapakse will win by a strong margin. The UPFA has not only won more seats, but also increased its vote share in these provinces. Tamil voters—whose turnout in these elections is expected to be negligible, given that both candidates were involved in the very war against them—might prove to be an important factor.

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and post-war alignment has been interesting. Following its virtual rejection and isolation by the West for its alleged human rights violations during the war, Colombo has moved closer to Beijing. It has also taken to China’s allies very cordially—be it Myanmar, Iran, Pakistan, Nepal and even Libya. In November, Senior General Than Shwe became the first Myanmarese head of government to visit Sri Lanka in 43 years. While Mr Rajapakse continues to balance India and China, which many believe is critical to Sri Lanka’s interests, a Fonseka presidency is likely to end up being anti-India.

Mr Wickremesinghe’s week-long visit to New Delhi in November—to brief the Congress and the BJP about the developing situation in Sri Lanka—hints at a back-channel which New Delhi may be willing to open through the UNP, if an unlikely Fonseka victory should come through. From an Indian point of view, however, stability could be the clincher in Mr Rajapakse’s favour. India would prefer the current arrangement to continue its ongoing efforts in rehabilitating the Tamil IDPs and clear the mess that Mr Rajapakse created. Some analysts have suggested that if General Fonseka came to power, Sri Lanka could well become a potential Pakistan—plunging into chaos and instability. It would be in India’s desired interest to have a stable southern neighbour.

The post-conflict scenario presents India with an ideal opportunity to re-engage the Sri Lanka, and another chance to win the hearts and minds of people, especially the Tamils, who have felt betrayed by India’s policies towards them.


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