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Unexpected alliance challenges Sri Lankan President January 7, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : Perera, Jehan, Sri Lanka , Comment

Jehan Perera

The forthcoming election has generated a coalition of political forces that few would have believed possible even a few weeks ago.  Today an increasingly beleaguered President Rajapaksa gives the impression of being a man who knows he has the fight of his life on his hands.  The change is astonishing as the New Year dawns that the government that so recently seemed invulnerable should now be doing its utmost to win what had seemed a cake-walk election.

President Rajapaksa’s strategy of ruling by division has compelled other political forces, ranging from the UNP on the right, the JVP on the left and the ethnic minority parties, to unite to save themselves from the juggernaut of government that sought to inflict similar defeats on them.  The unexpected alliance between the UNP and JVP is a result.  An alliance between these two parties had seemed an utter impossibility until it actually happened. (more…)

Winning the confidence of the Tamil electorate December 23, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Perera, Jehan, Sri Lanka , Comment

Jehan Perera

Who the Tamil people will vote for has become an important question at the forthcoming Presidential elections.  The departure of former Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka, and his joining the opposition, has deprived the government leadership of its monopoly regarding credit for the war victory over the LTTE.  This has meant that President Mahinda Rajapaksa can no longer appeal to the majority Sinhalese electorate for their vote of gratitude to himself alone.

The entry of General Fonseka into the ranks of the opposition has also rejuvenated it, particularly the UNP, which was unable to face up to the President’s war victories and appeal to the ethos of the Sinhalese electorate.  Many traditional UNP voters from the Sinhalese ethnic majority began to vote either for the President’s party or for other Sinhalese nationalist parties.  With General Fonseka becoming the common opposition candidate there is a strong likelihood of these renegade UNP voters returning to the fold. (more…)

Presidential elections and the fear of a militarised government December 9, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Perera, Jehan, Sri Lanka , Comment

Jehan Perera

The entry of former army commander General Sarath Fonseka into the political arena as the common opposition presidential candidate has set off a vigorous debate about the danger it can pose to Sri Lanka’s democracy. At the same time, the retired General’s entry into the political contest has rejuvenated the opposition and revived public interest in the result of the elections. These are benefits to democracy that require an active opposition and public interest that keeps the Government on the alert and responsive to popular opinion.

The strength of Sri Lankan democracy over the years has been the unbroken commitment of its people and political leadership to the conduct of elections as the means of ensuring legitimacy in governance.  General Fonseka’s entry into national politics at the highest level has given rise to concern about the longer term fate of Sri Lankan democracy. The General has no experience of being a politician. What he has is a forty year record of being a professional soldier.  During this time he gained the highest position in the Sri Lankan army and led it to a victory over the hitherto tenacious LTTE during his three year tenure as army commander.

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Sri Lanka: towards a more inclusive political process? November 18, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Perera, Jehan, Sri Lanka , Comment

Jehan Perera

President Mahinda Rajapaksa was expected to utilise the ruling party’s special convention on November 15 to announce the dates of both the general elections and presidential elections.  The speculation centred on whether he would declare that the presidential election would be held prior to or after the general election, or that the two would be held be held concurrently.   It was widely held that, as the President is more popular than the rest of his government, he would confidently go in first and notch up a big victory.  He would then lead his team to another resounding victory at the general elections and possibly even obtain a two-thirds majority that would enable constitutional change to the government’s advantage.

At the convention the President made no categorical statement as to which election would take place first, but there was a hint that it would be the general election.  Taking a statesmanlike approach, he said that he would not alter the election schedule as other political leaders had tried to do.  Since Parliament ends its six-year term in April of 2010, and the next Presidential elections are not due until November 2011, it seems fairly certain that general elections are to come first.  On the other hand, there was always an element of doubt about the holding of Presidential elections in the immediate future.  This was due to the shortening of the President’s first term of office by two years. (more…)

Coping with Hillary Clinton’s allegations October 19, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Perera, Jehan, Sri Lanka , Comment

Jehan Perera

Hillary Clinton’s inclusion of Sri Lanka in the short list of countries that are alleged to have used rape as a tactic of war has caused fury and distress in the country. Understandably, the Sri Lankan government has called upon Ms Clinton to withdraw her remarks, which were extreme and provocative. As a result of these charges and counter charges, the possibility of constructive engagement between the government and the international community that will be in the best interests of the Sri Lankan people may get further diminished.

The fact that Ms Clinton made this allegation as US Secretary of State while presiding over a session of the UN Security Council, and passing a resolution against sexual violence on women during armed conflicts at the world’s most powerful decision making body, highlights the seriousness of the challenge that Sri Lanka faces. This month the US Congress is expected to receive a preliminary report from US government investigators regarding human rights violations and war crimes that may have taken place in the last several years. This month the European Union is also expected to announce its decision regarding the extension of the GSP+ tariff concession, where the main criterion for extension will be Sri Lanka’s adherence to the norms and practices of international law.

Never before has Sri Lanka been confronted with such international pressure. In the long years of Sri Lanka’s three decade long war there were many accusations levelled against the Sri Lankan government, but not this one. There is no denying that rape has occurred in the course of the war. The judicial verdict in the Krishanthi Kumaraswamy rape case 1998 and Sri Lankan media reports of rapes elsewhere bears this out. But these have been acts of individuals and not state policy that is systematically intended to strike fear into the hearts of the civilian population to make it easier to win the war.

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Travails of a journey to Jaffna September 30, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Perera, Jehan, Sri Lanka , Comment

Jehan Perera

It was nearly two years after my last visit to Jaffna. On that occasion, in December 2007, the war was over in the east, and the Sri Lankan military was battling it out in the north. Late in the night we could still hear the thunder of artillery firing in the distance. There were hardly any visitors to Jaffna. The tension in the air was palpable and the people melted from the streets by 5 pm. On this occasion when I visited Jaffna the war had been over more than four months. The streets had people on them well past 9 pm and the tension was much less with the sound of thunder being only caused by lightning.

However, some important things remained unchanged. The road connecting Jaffna to the rest of the country, the A9 Highway, remained closed to people who wished to travel to Jaffna from outside, unless a special permit was obtained from the Ministry of Defence. There is still only a limited bus transportation service. But that is only open to passengers from Jaffna. If they purchase a two-way ticket from Jaffna, they can also return by bus from Colombo. Strangely enough is not possible to purchase a bus ticket from Colombo to go to Jaffna.

It seems that no one, except for those who drew up this scheme of travel, will know the rationale for the restriction on the flow of passenger traffic by road to Jaffna. The freedom of movement throughout the country is a basic right of the citizen. But the residents of Jaffna, and those in the welfare camps for the internally displaced, remain as a large and conspicuous exception. They feel and they are marginalized and excluded, cut off from the mainstream of economic, social and political life of Sri Lanka.

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Sri Lanka: government faces the spectre of war crimes accusations September 16, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Perera, Jehan, Sri Lanka , Comment

Jehan Perera

The issue of war crimes has been in the air since the final showdown between the government and LTTE commenced in 2006. There was early evidence that this was going to be a fight to the finish in which the civilian population would be implicated. The LTTE goaded the newly elected government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to war by repeatedly ambushing dozens of soldiers in the north of the country and claiming that it was not they, but the angry people of the north who were doing it. This was a most provocative action that dimmed the distinction between combatant and civilian. The seeds of the disaster to befall the civilian population were laid here.

The final phase of the war was the most brutal in Sri Lanka’s modern history. Unable to withstand the superior firepower of the Sri Lankan armed forces, the LTTE fell back deeper into its strongholds. But in their withdrawal they did an entirely unexpected thing with possibly no parallel anywhere else in the world. They took the entire civilian population with them on their retreat, and claimed that the people accompanying them did so of their own free will. This included civilians from other parts of the country who happened to be visiting their relatives in the LTTE-controlled areas at that time. A civilian population that exceeded 300,000 became hostage to the LTTE. (more…)

Coping with the legacy of war in Sri Lanka September 7, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Perera, Jehan, Sri Lanka , Comment

Jehan Perera

The international community’s continuing desire to support Sri Lanka may be seen as stemming from a desire to see the ethnic conflict being resolved in a peaceful and just manner.  The importance of such conflict resolution is that it would lead to reconciliation and long-term development.  There are, however, contrary views that are based on a different understanding.  Those who hold such views would see at least part of the international involvement in Sri Lanka as having an ulterior motive – to strengthen Tamil separatism, weaken Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and employ traditional colonial methods of divide and rule.

Such a belief in an international conspiracy reached a peak during the last phase of the war, which ended less than four months ago. At that time there was considerable pressure from sections of the international community for a ceasefire that might have saved thousands of lives, including those of the LTTE leadership.  However, many influential opinion leaders in Sri Lanka saw this as an unwarranted and biased international intervention that was primarily motivated by the ulterior motive of saving the LTTE and its leadership to fight another day.  This same mistrust continues in a new form today. (more…)

Sri Lanka: not only a question of short-term security August 31, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Perera, Jehan, Sri Lanka , Comment

Jehan Perera

The issue that is proving to be the most contentious in Sri Lanka’s post-war context is that of the approximately 280,000 internally displaced persons who are presently confined to 32 welfare centres in the North.  This is taken as a necessary, and temporary, situation by the Sri Lankan government and a majority of the people.  The government has come under increased pressure to improve the conditions of those camps, which it is committed to doing, and also to release the people, which it has problems in doing.

While the facilities within the welfare camps have been a source of concern, the most controversial issue has been the barbed wire fences and army guards that surround them, which deny to the people the freedom to move.  There has also been no registering of people in a transparent manner. Hence even if people disappear there is no way to trace them.  The government has claimed that over 10,000 LTTE cadre have been discovered in these camps, and that there are more to be found.

tamil refugee camp

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