The kind of Sydney Morning Herald editorial that is hard to condemn. In fact, it’s necessarily strong against Sri Lanka’s descent into brutality. Alas, can we dream that one day the corporate press will equally see Israel’s occupation of Palestine in the same way?
War is often the justification for a temporary suspension of normal civil liberties under emergency powers. The test of an established democracy comes when a war ends, and those liberties are promptly returned to the population. This includes the right to stand and vote against the wartime leader in free and fair elections.
Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his army defeated the Tamil Tigers last May. But where is the peace dividend for his terror-racked country? The early presidential election held on January 26 was a textbook case in abuse of incumbency against Rajapaksa’s rival, the former military chief General Sarath Fonseka.
Into the bargain, there are now credible reports that the election commissioner, Dayananda Dissanayake, and his wife were kept captive at the presidential compound on election day and the day after while counting was conducted and a result announced. Dissanayake now appears to have withdrawn the resignation he announced after this detention, again as a result of what appears to have been a threatening meeting at Rajapaksa’s office.
On Monday soldiers arrived at General Fonseka’s office and carried him off into the night amid blows and verbal abuse, after he told a foreign radio station he was willing to testify in any international human rights tribunal about alleged war crimes during the final stages of the war. As a former United Nations official on the scene, Gordon Weiss, said on ABC television this week, there is much that Colombo would want to keep hidden. Although he had resigned from the army before standing for the presidency, Fonseka is being held by the military, and seems destined for a closed court-martial on vague charges.
Meanwhile, organisations such as Amnesty International and Reporters without Borders note that disappearances and intimidation of journalists continue. The respected commentator Jehan Perera, of Sri Lanka’s National Peace Council, talks of a ”climate of fear”. In this vitiated atmosphere Rajapaksa has now dissolved parliament, in preparation for an early election at which his goal will be to achieve a two-thirds majority, sufficient to amend the constitution.
The descent into dictatorship must be watched with alarm by the democratic world, especially fellow members of the Commonwealth. It could easily spark new rebellion, this time among the Sinhalese majority on the lines of previous Marxist insurgencies. Until now Canberra has treated Rajapaksa gingerly, intent on getting co-operation in stopping the outflow of boat people refugees. Now it appears more and more that Rajapaksa is the cause, not the solution.