Fight to stop dictatorship cannot be postponed
On Monday, 8 February, Sarath Fonseka, the main rival to President Rajapakse in Sri Lanka’s recent presidential election, was abducted by government forces. This dramatic turn of events has set alarm bells ringing internationally as well as within the country itself. It is a jarring indication of how Mahinda Rajapakse is using his war and election victories to entrench his increasingly dictatorial rule and how little it cares for the opinions of either western imperialist powers or the Sri Lankan workers and poor people.
It tramples on human rights with impunity, backed up by regimes such as China and India which have little regard for the ’niceties’ of democracy. Their investment in Sri Lanka, as well as their arms and military assistance have helped Sri Lanka maintain the second fastest growth rate in South Asia. The fruits, like those of the palm, grow only on the top of the tree. On the ground, nothing has changed in terms of an easing of the conditions of life of the majority of the population.
Even as Fonseka was being bundled into a military bus, Rajapkse was ending a state visit to Moscow. There he clinched a lucrative deal with Gazprom for the exploitation of oil in the northern area of Mannar and secured a $300 million loan to buy (Russian!) military hardware.
At the time of writing, the whereabouts of Fonseka were unknown. He was variously reported as being held at an army camp, a navy camp and then a shipyard! He is expected to be dealt with by a court-martial – closed, swift and with the ultimate punishment available of execution.
At around 9.30 on Monday evening 150 soldiers surrounded Fonseka’s office. He was discussing with representatives of opposition parties involved in his electoral campaign. Although an attempt by the government to arrest him was not unexpected, they were horrified by what happened. “This was nothing short of abduction,” they insisted to the press.
“When the military arrived, with a newly promoted Major-General at their head” said Mano Ganeshan, a Tamil politician, “Fonseka asked him who he was. He kept insisting they should have a warrant if he was to be arrested, and it should be by the police, not the army. He struggled but was finally grabbed by the legs and arms, hit in the back and taken away in one of the buses in which the soldiers had arrived.
Mano has been a member of the Civil Monitoring Commission, along with Siritunga Jayasuriya of the United Socialist Party (CWI Sri Lanka). He knows only too well how the Rajapakse regime has ‘disappeared’ numerous people – mostly Tamils – and silenced journalists, editors and politicians through kidnappings and day-light assassinations. It has become widely understood that kidnappings and killings are carried out by white-van and other gangs, without fear of investigation or punishment by Rajapakse’s police.
Now Fonseka, until a few months ago hand in glove with Rajapakse in prosecuting the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, has experienced these terrifying thuggish methods, typical of all dictatorships. Already, on the day after the presidential election of 26th January, he had been holed up in a central Colombo hotel, surrounded by government forces and fearing for his life. (One of Rajapakse’s claims against Fonseka now is that the general had been planning to kill him in the past! If it didn’t have such serious consequences for working people and all those who defend their rights, the whole situation would appear farcical.)
A few years ago, as hated commander of the Sri Lankan Army at war in the East and West of the island, Fonseka narrowly survived an assassination attack by the LTTE. Now, in this year’s presidential contest, he courted the votes of former ’Tiger’ supporters, along with those of fellow Sinhalese, to defeat the man whose orders he had enthusiastically obeyed – his accomplice in the murder of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians,
Both ’leaders’ have accused each other of ’war crimes’. In fact, they would undoubtedly be found equally guilty of the crime of genocide if a genuine tribunal was permitted to judge them, with elected representatives of Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim working and poor people. Socialists have no sympathy for either. But the treatment of Fonseka by the Rajapakse gang bodes extremely ill for the whole population of Sri Lanka.
“No one is safe!”
“If they can do this to Fonseka, after he got 4 million votes in the election just two weeks ago, no one is safe!” commented USP presidential candidate Siritunga Jayasuriya, hours after Fonseka’s abduction. “Two hours after his abduction, at midnight, they raided Fonseka’s house, terrorised his wife and refused her pleas to get his essential medications to him.
“They want to get revenge on Fonseka for daring to stand against Rajapakse in the presidential election. They want to conduct a witch-hunt to sabotage the forthcoming parliamentary elections (due before the end of April). They want to terrify the people – in the streets, in the workplaces, in the villages.
“It is difficult to predict what will happen to Fonseka. The media is terrified of giving opinions! The papers just say ‘Fonseka arrested’. Every hour the (government-controlled) TV comes out with charges that Fonseka was plotting to ‘divide the army’, ‘conduct a coup’, ‘kill Rajapakse and the people around him’ before he was ‘moved sideways’ by Rajapakse in the period following their mutually celebrated ‘victory’.
“Either the government is not stable or it is using the Rajapakse victory to conduct a witch-hunt, to eliminate all opposition.
“They have gone ahead with plans to dissolve the parliament before it could meet and discuss these events. There is huge tension in society now. There was much talk of Fonseka making a petition to challenge the election result as fraudulent as well as bringing to light evidence of Rajapakse’s massive human rights violations.”
Strenuous fight for democracy now
“Everyone anticipated that Rajapakse would move against Fonseka,” said Siritunga. “We know from our own experience that all sorts of methods were used in the election to confuse as well as intimidate the voters. Up to a million ‘leaflets’, looking like ballot papers, were distributed around the country. On them, Fonseka’s symbol was an eagle rather than a swan and our symbol – the three-wheeler – was beside the dummy candidate, Mohomad Kassim (who came third!). Beside the USP was a butterfly! We are far from butterflies!”
Struggle for democracy
“We are a key element of the fight against the Rajapakse government. The morning after Fonseka was abducted, we spoke at a press meeting with nearly all opposition forces present. A continuous protest has now been launched, beginning at noon on Wednesday 10th February to fight the Rajapakse dictatorship. There are plans for demonstrations in different localities, and a one hour strike next week.
“A number of journalists and political workers, as well as military personnel siding with Fonseka, have been taken into custody by government forces in the past two weeks and we are demanding the immediate release of all these ’political’ prisoners.”
The Christian Science Monitor wrote on 9 February: “In recent days, the government has arrested at least 37 former members of the military connected to Fonseka, while a dozen senior Army officers who backed him have been forced into retirement. The government has also closed down two newspapers and arrested a number of journalists.”
The Sri Lanka Guardian wrote: “Fonseka’s arrest comes as a part of a multi-pronged effort by the Rajapakses to intimidate the opposition. The arrest of Lanka editor Chandana Sirimalwatte, the failed attempt to seal the Lanka paper, the sealing of the office of Lanka e news website and the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda (who worked for the website), the continuation of low key post-election violence and the strange metamorphosis of the Elections Commissioner from a principled bureaucrat to a willing man are all pointers to the future that is awaiting us, if the Rajapakses manage to embed themselves via a new constitution.” It adds:- “Fonseka’s arrest must be opposed with vigour and determination not because he was or is a hero but because his fate presages the fate of all those who oppose Rajapakse rule, however peacefully and democratically.”
As we have explained on this web-site before, socialists, Tamils, workers and poor people had little or nothing to gain by Fonseka replacing Rajapakse as president of Sri Lanka. For all his professions of democratic aims, he had not breathed a word of opposition to the policies of Rajapakse throughout his five year war-warmongering reign, until he decided, for his own reasons, to rival him in the post-war election.
Fonseka gained the backing of opposition parties like the United National Party and the Sinhala chauvinist People’s Liberation Front (JVP). He had the Muslim Congress on his side and also convinced most of the Tamil National Alliance MPs to back him, in spite of his record in the war. He was from the same, Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist background as Rajapakse and had no alternative programme – either on the economy or on Tamil rights or on the poverty-level living standards of workers, poor farmers and fisher people.
During the election, Fonseka obviously gained widespread support amongst a layer of Tamil-speaking people and maybe a third at least of Sinhala voters. The best choice for the millions of struggling working and poor people – Tamil, Sinhala or Muslim – was the USP’s candidate, Siritunga Jayasuriya. But compared with the massive resources of the main candidates, especially the use of government resources by the Rajapakse clan, the United Socialist Party could not compete. It campaigned the length and breadth of the country, and will do so again if parliamentary elections go ahead.
In the darkest period of reaction the island of Sri Lanka has experienced since independence 62 years ago, the courageous stand of the United Socialist Party has shone like a beacon in the night. Ranil Wickeramasinghe, leader of Sri Lanka’s main opposition capitalist party, the UNP, paid enormous homage to the personal bravery of Siritunga Jayasuriya when he said of the broad ‘Platform for Freedom’ set up at the time of the funeral of the Leader editor, Lasantha Wikramatunga :- “He took the initiative in forming this force. We followed him…… I salute Siritunga. Threatened with assassination we were afraid to come out. Then Siritunga came forward. It paved the way for us to be able to challenge the incumbent president.”
As Senan wrote for this web-site, in reply to slanders against the USP “Ranil Wickremasinghe’s admission that, even with all their wealth and security, they were afraid to come out for fear of their lives, graphically shows the desperate conditions that existed at that time. It took the courage of Siritunga Jayasuriya and USP members to take the lead to defend workers and the poor.”
In the light of the events of the past two weeks it is even more pertinent to stress that the ‘Platform for Freedom’ or something of that nature is be more needed than ever to fight for the most basic of democratic and political rights needed to build the forces of socialist change. The USP will continue to fight against dictatorship with might and main in common with all those who oppose it, not joining in any electoral front with capitalist forces, but holding high the independent banner and programme of international socialism.
Footnote: The gathering of 5,000 protesters outside the Supreme Court complex on the morning of 10 February, was attacked by a small pro-government demonstration. The police were called, who used water cannon and then tear-gas to disperse the crowd. In the melee, Siritunga Jayasuriya was hit by a tear gas canister and fell to the ground, momentarily losing consciousness. He was taken from the square, treated and recovered quickly.