Just when the elections were over in Sri Lanka and it was time to pick up the proverbial pieces together and restore normalcy in the war-torn island, a new unfortunate chapter has begun. Former army chief and joint opposition candidate in the recently concluded elections, General Sarath Fonseka was arrested by the military police from his office on the night of 8 February 2010. The recent sequence of events relate to: (i) Fonseka’s fallout with the Rajapakse brothers (President Mahinda and Defence secretary Gotabhaya), (ii) contesting elections against Mahinda Rajapakse (iii) the General’s claim that election results were rigged (a claim that he did not substantiate) and (iv) Fonseka’s threat that he would disclose the names of those involved in war crimes particularly those committed during the last phase of the war with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May last year (as Army chief Fonseka himself would probably be a party to the war crimes). Fonseka has been arrested on charges of conspiring for a military coup and the assassination of President Mahinda Rajapakse and his family, and for leaking state secrets. Fonseka’s arrest is made possibly to thwart his attempt to contest the forthcoming Parliamentary elections in April 2010 or to set an example to anybody who attempts to oppose the government. Fonseka will be court-martialled, which means that once again the media will have limited access to information. This case is particularly intriguing because of the fact that the man who was considered a hero and liberator a few months back is now painted as a villain and criminal. It makes one wonder whether the arrest and charges are politically motivated rather than criminal. It is ironical that Fonseka, who was known for his high-handedness and forcefulness, was himself at the receiving end ‘when they came for him’. But the issue is not Fonseka per se, the issue is the culture of violence and intimidation that has set in. It is the politics of revenge, the hate campaign and silence that raises concerns.
During the course of the war, particularly the last phases, there was severe erosion of the right to speech and media was restricted. The war enabled the government to prevent national and international organizations and media from operating and reporting in the war zones. While the government was successful in keeping information related to the war out of the public domain, it also acquired legitimacy to intimidate journalists who questioned government policy. The situation was serious. However, done in the context of war when curtailing of media freedom was perceived as a necessary for national security and hence national interest, it was accepted with varying degrees of public support, discomfort or silence.
As often happens, after the war was over, this legitimacy was extended and justified and media curtailment continued in a big way. Later, the issue of war crimes became a sore point for the government of Sri Lanka which prompted it to clamp down further on any information related to the war. During the election several websites were blocked, there were cases of disappearance of journalists, harassment of politicians from the opposition for supporting Fonseka. The entire army top-brass was changed as soon as Rajapakse came back to power. Instead of taking the positive mandate seriously and getting on with policies for reconstruction and development, Rajapakse has embarked on a negative agenda of targeting and silencing his enemies. In his post-election speech he spoke of reconstruction without outlining an agenda for doing so.
It is being conjectured that Fonseka’s arrest is an attempt to pave the way for a smooth electoral victory for President Rajapakse’s United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in the forthcoming April elections so that he has majority in the Parliament as well, and hence complete control over decision-making. This does not augur well for democracy as healthy debate and opposition is important. But even if one looks at it through electoral lens alone the arrest may not prove to be a sound move. Such acts may help in the short run, but can also be counter-productive in the long run. There is protest and violence over Fonseka’s arrest in the south (Galle and Matara), the southeast (Ampara) and in the capital Colombo. This means that public sympathy may be growing in favour of Fonseka. Parties which had put together the joint opposition for the Presidential elections and were planning to contest alone are once again reconsidering an alliance. A Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Member of Parliament has mentioned that even if Fonseka is not released, he could remain the ‘main figure’ and the opposition could unite in his name. Key electoral decisions have not been announced and the state of affairs is unpredictable. But it needs to be reiterated that more than at any other time the Sri Lankan state needs genuine democracy, development and freedom of speech.