Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

SRI LANKA: Post-Election Protests Fail to Get Wide Support

Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Feb 21 2010 (IPS) - Street protests that erupted in Colombo and other cities following the Feb. 8 arrest of defeated presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka have yet to gain wider support from non-political groups.

The protests did in fact begin on a fiery tone when around 2,500 pro- Fonseka protestors chased down by pro-government supporters braved tear gas and water cannons to hold their first rally near the country’s highest court on Feb. 10. They vowed to continue the movement until the former Army commander is released.

Fonseka was arrested on charges of corruption and attempts to topple the government while he was in public office.

The government has maintained that there is no political motivation behind the arrest of Fonseka. “We have repeatedly said that there is no political motive behind this. The law of the nation has been followed,” media minister Lakshman Yapa Aberyawardena told the press on Feb. 17.

Although no formal charges have been filed against Fonseka, the government has accused the losing presidential candidate of plotting to overthrow the government in a military-style coup.

Protests and processions held in the city have been boisterous but peaceful. But several of those that have been staged in cities outside Colombo have turned violent with protestors clashing with police.

The protests have been led mainly by the People’s Liberation Front (PLF) and the United National Party (UNP), the two main political parties that formed the foundation for Fonseka’s failed presidential bid.

There have been attempts by non-political groups to lend support to the protests, but they have not been able to bring large numbers of protestors. “The arrest … is a reflection of our freedoms. It affects all of us – mothers, wives, widows. This has to become our struggle,” Vishaka Dramadasa, one of the protestors, told IPS.

Dramadasa participated in the protest organised by a non-governmental group called Women for Democracy in Colombo on Feb. 15. But it managed only to attract dozens, and not hundreds, of participants.

“The manner in which he [Fonseka] was arrested was totally unacceptable. It undermines law and order,” Anuradha Nirashini, one of the participants at the vigil held by the women, told IPS at the rally.

“We have launched a non-violent campaign to gain his release,” Fonseka’s wife Anoma Fonseka said to the local media when she visited lawyer Srilal Lakthilaka, who had begun a peaceful protest calling for Fonseka’s release.

The protest movement, however, would have taken on a totally different dimension had a large convention of Buddhist monks pushed through on Feb. 18 in the central town of Kandy. Four major Buddhist leaders had written collectively to the government, calling for Fonseka’s release. They had also called the convention to discuss future actions.

Soon after receiving the letter, the government sent emissaries to meet with the Buddhist priests. By Feb. 16, the convention was postponed.

The opposition has now come out accusing the government of bringing pressure on the monks to postpone the convention. “There was a lot of pressure,” Tissa Athanayake, the secretary-general of the UNP, told IPS. But the government denied any hand in the postponement. “There have been various interpretations, but the prelates have said why the event was postponed,” Dulles Alahaperuma, the Minister of Transport, said.

If the convention was held, it would have given the pro-Fonseka movement a semblance of wider acceptance and support outside the political parties supporting him.

Any momentum likely to be gained from the pro-Fonseka protests would have a direct impact on the parliamentary election set for Apr. 9. The beleaguered opposition leader is expected to contest the results and his arrest could become the rallying point.

The UNP, however, has decided to field candidates under its own banner and Fonseka, notwithstanding his detention, is likely to enter the fray under a new coalition spearheaded by the PLF.

For a brief period immediately after the Fornseka arrest, the opposition appeared to have been galvanised. It was that momentum that launched the first wave of protests on behalf of Fonseka.

The opposition was left in disarray after Fonseka lost the Jan. 26 presidential election by a margin of 1.8 million votes to incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The former Army commander led the final military assault against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who had been fighting for a separate state for the country’s Tamil minority since the early 1980s. Government forces wiped out the Tigers in May last year and Fonseka was hailed as a hero soon afterwards. He later fell out with the Rajapaksa government and came forward as the opposition presidential candidate. Two weeks of charge trading after the election ended when Fonseka was arrested.

The UNP and the PLF, despite their inability to form a common block to counter the formidable government challenge at the Apr. 9 election for 225 parliament seats, have given strong indications that the protests will continue.

“If the President thinks that he can get away with this, he is very much mistaken,” Somawansa Amarasinghe the leader of the pro-nationalist party, People’s Liberation Front (PLF), told a group of about 400 supporters. They had converged at a busy thoroughfare on Feb. 16 for yet another public protest, blocking traffic. They were calling on the government to let Fonseka free.

The UNP, the country’s largest political party, has also come out strongly against the Fonseka arrest. Its leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe, has told the media that Fonseka was imprisoned to prevent him from contesting the upcoming elections for the parliament.

“There was never any talk of overthrowing the government. All these charges are false,” Wickremasinghe said earlier last week.

“We still don’t know the charges against him; the usual practise is that charges are formally made known before any arrest,” Wickremasinghe, who was also the leader of the opposition in the last parliament, told the media on Feb. 17 as he signed a petition for Fonseka’s release. He accused the government of being on a witch hunt, allegedly harassing relatives and supporters of the defeated presidential candidate.

The police detained on Feb. 17 the mother of Fonseka’s son-in-law following an arrest warrant on her son and the recovery of over 500,000 U.S. dollars in cash from bank deposit boxes maintained under her name. She was later released on bail.

The government has maintained that the arrest was not a case of victimisation and was due to violation of exchange control regulations. “The notes (recovered by police) have not been used; they are in sequential order. The exchange control regulations have been violated and the police and the Central Bank are looking into this,” Minister G. L. Peiris told the media on Feb. 18.

The UNP and PLF jointly launched a public signature campaign last week for the release of the former Army commander. They promised to collect as many signatures as they can before they hand over the petition to President Rajapaksa.

“Over four million voted for Fonseka at the presidential election – we can get all that. We will not give up this struggle for justice,” PLF leader Amarasinghe vowed during the campaign’s launch.

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