A Net Across The Island
- Political analyst and cartoonist of pro-opposition website lankaenews, Prageeth Eknaligoda, has been missing since January 24, two days before the presidential election.
- Chandana Sirimalwatta, editor, Lanka, has been in custody of the criminal investigations department for one week. The Sinhala newspaper is aligned to Marxist opposition party Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna.
- New Delhi-based Swiss Public Radio reporter Karin Wenger who was in Colombo to cover the presidential poll was, at one stage, asked to leave Sri Lanka by February 1. The President later revoked the government order.
- Three people were arrested by the police on January 31 for allegedly defaming the government through text messages via cellular phones and social networking sites such as Facebook.
Around 9 pm on February 8, as Colombo’s nightclubs were opening, cellular phones beeped with the news of General (retd) Sarath Fonseka’s arrest. Sri Lanka’s former chief of defence staff was holding a meeting with the country’s opposition leaders at his private office in Colombo when the military police whisked him away. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who beat Gen Fonseka by 1.8 million votes in the acrimonious January 26 presidential election, was then in Moscow, on an official visit.
The army is yet to formally press charges against Fonseka, but government-owned newspaper Daily News says the allegations could include “conspiracy to carry out a military coup against the government and a bid to assassinate President Rajapaksa”. According to Laxman Hulugalle, director of the state-run Media Centre for National Security, the general could face court martial if allegations against him are proven. He could also be tried in a civil court, depending on the attorney-general’s advice on the army’s findings.
Gen Fonseka had denied such allegations in the run-up to last month’s election, calling them a “smear campaign”. Counsel Wijayadasa Rajapaksa filed a violation of fundamental rights petition on Gen Fonseka’s behalf in the Supreme Court on February 10 as supporters poured on to the streets of Colombo. The police had to control the crowds with teargas after an allegedly pro-government group clashed with protesters. “We don’t know under which laws they have held him. They are yet to tell us about the charges,” counsel Rajapaksa told Outlook. He says he has requested the apex court to order Gen Fonseka’s immediate release. Former prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, whose United National Party (UNP) is supporting the general, said, “The Army Act states that if an army officer is arrested, he should within 24 hours be informed in writing of the charges that called for the arrest. But with regard to Gen Fonseka, this hasn’t been done.”
The general has been detained in an apartment of the Sri Lankan navy in the capital. His wife Anoma and counsel Rajapaksa are being allowed an hour’s visit each day. “I am afraid for his life. I can’t trust anyone there (at the detention centre),” a distressed Anoma Fonseka told Outlook. She has been carrying meals and medicines for her husband to the navy quarters. “There are certain medicines he has to consume daily after the bomb blast in 2006,” she says, referring to injuries suffered by her husband during an assassination bid by the LTTE. Her two US-based daughters, who want to be by her side, have been told by the parents to stay away.
Fonseka’s arrest has belied hopes that President Rajapaksa would ease the ethnic schism in Sri Lanka through reconciliatory overtures to minorities, particularly Tamils, as well as the opposition. The political faultlines were quite evident in the January 26 election—pro-LTTE Tamil parties had (ironically enough) supported Fonseka’s bid for Sri Lanka’s highest office. According to the results, a significant majority from the island’s Tamil and Muslim communities living in the northern and eastern provinces had voted for him. Also, all five constituencies within Colombo city had gone to him. Consequently, the arrest is being perceived as a tough signal to the beleaguered minorities, perhaps conveying to them the futility of opposing the president and his party.
Supporters protesting Gen Fonseka’s arrest in Colombo
With Gen Fonseka in custody, the opposition is likely to weaken further. Although voters in southern and western provinces enabled President Rajapaksa to fetch an overwhelming victory, opposition parliamentarians say Gen Fonseka was organising political parties for the general poll scheduled for April 8, and was entertaining thoughts of throwing in his hat again. Besides that, “the government is going after him also because he wanted to challenge the outcome of the presidential election in court,” Vijitha Herath, spokesperson of the nationalist-Marxist party Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), told Outlook. His party had supported Fonseka in the presidential election.
True, Gen Fonseka’s association with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which used to endorse the LTTE ideology of a separate home state, did alienate him from many in the majority Sinhalese community. But the perceived cornering of Fonseka threatens to polarise the majority community itself, much to the concern of many. “The polarisation that you see today is obviously political and not ethnic. The fragmentation of the Sinhalese community is a matter of great concern,” says Santasilan Kadirgamar, a former Jaffna University professor of modern history. There is always a fear that skirmishes within the majority community could end with the minorities suffering collateral damage.
The post-poll scenario has had an impact on other institutions as well. For instance, a week after Rajapaksa’s re-election, the Sri Lankan army witnessed a massive shake-up, with several senior officers—perceived to be sympathetic towards Fonseka—either transferred or sacked. These officers had ostensibly violated rules by “actively participating in political work prior to and during the presidential election, while in service.”
The armed forces are not the only ones to have come under government scrutiny. Fonseka’s private secretary, Senake De Silva, has been in custody of the criminal investigations department since the night of February 8. Political analyst and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who worked for the pro-opposition website lankaenews, has been reported missing by his wife since January 24. “Given the current political tension, it is extremely worrying that a journalist known for criticising the government should disappear in the capital,” wrote Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres about Eknaligoda’s disappearance on its website. And he wasn’t the only one (see box). Surveillance in cyberspace resulted in three arrests on January 31, when the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission tracked down the IP addresses of people allegedly defaming the government through text messages via cellular phones and social networking websites such as Facebook.
An initially watchful India stated through the ministry of external affairs on February 11: “As a friend and neighbour, we trust that due processes of law will be observed in democratic Sri Lanka”. Sources in Colombo’s diplomatic community say that the Indian government perhaps prefers to watch “how things pan out in coming days”. If anything, current political events have only underlined the fragile nature of the peace that Sri Lanka and the world thought it had finally earned.