India uneasy over Sri Lanka's slide
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - Developments in neighboring Sri Lanka are triggering unease in
India. There is growing concern that President Mahinda Rajapaksa will use his
second term to marginalize political rivals rather than seek a political
solution to the island's ethnic conflicts.
The arrest last week of General Sarath Fonseka, former army chief and
Rajapaksa's losing rival in the presidential election in January, is fueling
fears that the president is focusing on consolidating the already substantial
grip of his family over the levers of power rather than on addressing the
country's bigger problems.
Rajapaksa's convincingly won the presidential election by a margin of 1.8
million votes. The vote was fiercely fought with the
two front-runners and their supporters engaging in personal attacks.
It was far from the days when Fonseka and Rajapaksa partnered in the war
against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that the Sri Lankan army
finally won in May last year. The army chief and the premier both tried to take
the credit for the victory, with Rajapaksa attempting to sideline Fonseka by
"promoting" him to a largely ceremonial post. This was bitterly resented
Fonseka, who decided to enter the presidential race as the opposition parties'
Both Rajapaksa and Fonseka have long records of getting even with enemies and
silencing dissent, it was only a matter of time before they turned on each
other. That the victor in the presidential election would show no mercy on the
vanquished was evident in the election campaign.
Rajapaksa did not even wait for results to be officially announced before he
began the witch-hunt, with troops surrounding the hotel where Fonseka and his
aides were staying. The general was allowed to leave the hotel the next day,
but several former army officers who were part of his election campaign team
There has been no let-up in the intensity of the crackdown on the Fonseka camp
in the weeks since. The president has purged the army of Fonseka supporters.
Fourteen senior officers have been forced to retire and around 40 serving and
former soldiers arrested. Early last week, troops arrested Fonseka.
While the army is yet to press formal charges against him, a government-owned
newspaper says that charges could include "conspiracy to carry out a military
coup against the government and a bid to assassinate President Rajapaksa". He
could face a court-martial if the allegations are proved.
Many in Sri Lanka believe that Fonseka and his supporters in the army were
plotting a coup and hence deserve to be arrested. Others fear that it is part
of a larger strategy to eliminate all opposition to Rajapaksa's rule.
Sri Lanka has been one of Asia's most vibrant democracies. But leaders have
grown increasingly autocratic and under Rajapaksa the slide towards
authoritarian rule has been rapid. This has evoked apprehension in the island
and beyond. Several countries have expressed concern over Fonseka's arrest.
Neighboring India issued a cautious statement after a day's silence following
the arrest. "As a friend and neighbor, we trust that due processes of law will
be observed in democratic Sri Lanka," a spokesperson of India's Ministry of
External Affairs (MEA) said.
Officials speaking to Asia Times Online on the condition of anonymity said that
while India was "no supporter of a general entering politics, it is not happy
with Rajapaksa's undemocratic style".
During the run-up to the elections, both Rajapaksa and Fonseka seem to have
sought India's support or at least a commitment that India would not sway the
all-important Tamil vote by indicating its preference between the two
Fonseka made a "private visit" to Mumbai, apparently to open a line of
communication with Indian political leaders, while Rajapaksa's brothers, Basil
and Gotabhaya - senior advisor to the president and defense secretary
respectively - met with top Indian officials as part of a Sri Lankan
delegation. They are reported to have briefed Delhi about the steps taken by
Rajapaksa to resettle the Tamil Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and to have
assured the Indian government of Rajapaksa's commitment to finding a political
solution to the long-running ethnic conflict between the island's Sinhalese
majority and the Tamils and other minorities.
Throughout the presidential campaign India refrained from indicating a
preference between the two front-runners. Senior officials told Asia Times
Online then that there was little difference between Rajapaksa and Fonseka as
both prioritized the military option over a political settlement to deal with
"Rajapaksa stubbornly resisted exploring a political solution right through his
first term despite India constantly urging him to do so," a MEA official
pointed out. "And both [Rajapaksa and Fonseka] showed little concern for Tamil
civilian lives through the months of aerial bombardment of Tamil areas."
India saw Rajapaksa and Fonseka as presenting "a choice between the devil and
the deep-blue sea," but Delhi quietly hoped for Rajapaksa's return to power.
"Rajapaksa is a known devil, unlike Fonseka," the official said, pointing out
that "as a politician, Fonseka was an unknown entity". A career soldier,
Fonseka entered the political arena late last year. But for his political
agenda of settling scores with Rajapaksa, little is known of his "vision" for
India knew that Fonseka was pro-Pakistan and China. And that worked in
Rajapaksa's favor. While Sri Lanka warmed to both Pakistan and China during
Rajapaksa's first term, with economic and especially defense ties expanding
significantly, "Rajapaksa kept India in the loop right through the war against
the LTTE," a fact that was appreciated in decision-making circles in Delhi.
Another point that worked against Fonseka was that he is an ex-military man.
Fonseka resigned before he stepped into the political arena and hence did not
enter politics via a military coup, but India was uneasy with a military man
taking over the reins in Sri Lanka.
Rajapaksa's victory therefore evoked a sigh of relief in Delhi.
Delhi was hoping that with his re-election out of the way, Rajapaksa would
quickly settle down to addressing the ethnic conflict. But there have been no
signs or statements issued on this matter in the three weeks since his
landslide victory. Instead, the government has been preoccupied with clipping
Last week, the president dissolved parliament and announced that general
elections would be held in April. What can be expected from him and other
politicians in the coming weeks is campaign rhetoric on the ethnic issue aimed
at wooing voters, not concrete steps towards starting dialogue and
consultations with Tamils and other minorities.
It is not just Rajapaksa's procrastination on a political solution to the
ethnic conflict that is worrying India. Delhi is concerned over Tamil
alienation. In the past, LTTE-led boycotts kept Tamils from voting, but even in
a post-LTTE environment they have stayed away from the polls, with the turnout
in Tamil areas very low in the recent election. Those Tamils who did vote did
so in favor of Fonseka, who was backed by the Tamil National Alliance, a
The Sri Lanka Freedom Party headed by Rajapaksa and the United People's Freedom
Alliance that Rajapaksa leads has a clear edge over the divided and battered
opposition. The opposition is expected to focus on Fonseka's arrest in its
campaign for April's parliamentary elections.
Delhi expects Rajapaksa's party to win decisively. "The president is expected
to emerge from the election with support in parliament that will be strong
enough for him to push through changes required to resolve the ethnic conflict
politically," the Indian official said. But does he have the political will to
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in