Who will get the credit for ending Sri Lanka's 26-year war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam: the tough Army commander or the President who appointed him? That's the question at the heart of island's Jan. 26 elections that will pit President Mahinda Rajapaksa against retired Lieut. Gen. Sarath Fonseka. A political novice, Fonseka may not have the organizational strength to beat Rajapaksa, but he has proven to be a sharp thorn in the side of a president who recently seemed unbeatable.
Fonseka has spent nearly 40 years as a soldier. He joined the Army at the age of 19, and he will turn 59 on Dec. 18, the day his campaign officially begins. The same year that Fonseka joined the Army, Rajapaksa won his first election to Parliament. A shrewd, brash career politician, Rajapaksa made eliminating the LTTE, an armed separatist group, the all-consuming mission of his four years in office. Since the collapse of the Tigers, Colombo has been full of enormous cut-outs of the president, congratulating him on his victory. Rajapaksa called early elections to capitalize on the post-war euphoria.
Without any other compelling candidate, the opposition parties have rallied around Fonseka as their war hero. "He was someone who could prove to be an effective counter to the popularity and the credibility that President Mahinda Rajapaksa enjoys," says Jehan Perera, Executive Director of the National Peace Council, a research and advocacy group in Colombo.
Fonseka's own reasons for entering politics are much more personal. In an interview with TIME on Dec. 13 in Colombo, Fonseka explained that just two months after the war ended in May, President Rajapaksa and his brother, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, sidelined him. He says he was given a prestigious new post Chief of Defense Staff without any operational authority. "Even to get a corporal to the CDS office I had to get the Defense Secretary's approval," Fonseka says. "So then I was not happy with the job there. Then I also realised that they were not trusting me."
Sri Lanka has never had a coup or a military president, and some political observers fear the end of that proud civilian tradition if the general is elected. Fonseka dismisses that concern, taking as his models Eisenhower and De Gaulle. If he really wanted to seize power, he asks, why give up the uniform now and "go around asking for the vote?" He says the high-handed treatment by the Rajapaksa government forced him into politics. "The government was responsible for pushing me into that," Fonseka says. "Now they have to face the music."
Fonseka's base of support cuts right into Rajapaksa's. Both are from the increasingly vocal bourgeoisie of the rural south, the heartland of Sri Lanka's Sinhala Buddhist majority. The LTTE's Tamil nationalism and its dream of a separate homeland for the Tamil minority were a challenge to Sinhala Buddhist dominance. Fonseka has the reputation of being an even more strident Sinhala nationalist than Rajapaksa but is now trying to soften that image. "I am a very good Sinhalese, a very good Buddhist, there is no question about it," he says. "But towards minorities I never had any discriminating attitude." He insists that his comments in a 2008 interview with Canada's National Post, in which he called Sri Lanka a Sinhala Buddhist nation, were taken out of context. "I said historically the country belongs to the Sinhalese," Fonseka says. "the next sentence I mentioned was that the majority Sinhalese must treat the other communities like their own people."
Sri Lanka's treatment of the Tamil minority is a central issue in the election. During the last months of war, the government had restricted nearly 300,000 Tamils who fled the fighting to detention camps. Under intense domestic and international pressure, Rajapaksa announced on Dec. 1 that the 130,000 people still in the camps would have limited freedom to leave. The opposition parties have taken up the cause of these internally displaced people, or IDPs, and Fonseka says the government should give them complete freedom of movement: "If they handled the situation properly, we would have been in a position to give them freedom, even send them back to the areas after improving the infrastructure." He criticized the government for failing to improve roads and water lines in the areas where IDPs are returning, and for preventing opposition MPs from visiting them. "That is worse than keeping them in the camps."
The detention of these civilians has become an international human rights issue. On Dec. 16, the European Union proposed suspending a major trade agreement with Sri Lanka, mainly due to the continued detention of IDPs. But Sri Lankan authorities have justified the camps as a security measure, allowing them to screen out suspected LTTE fighters hiding among the civilian population. Fonseka says he would have handled the process more effectively and warns of the consequences of failing to identify lurking LTTE cadres. "If there is a single terrorist act, the army will have to again start searching these people, putting up roadblocks, checkpoints, raiding houses in the night, cordon and searches," Fonseka says. "The harassment of the people will begin again."
He still considers the LTTE a threat. "Even in Colombo there are [still] about 20 LTTE suicide cadres," he says. "They are waiting for the leadership, the guidance, the orders from top." But burnishing his security acumen and resting on his military accomplishments might not be enough to assure Fonseka an electoral victory. Many Sri Lankan voters have moved on to more immediate concern steeply rising inflation and jobs threatened by a deep global recession and a downturn in major export earners including tea and the garment industry. Fonseka had little to say about economic policy other than to promise "development."
Fonseka wins praise for leading the final ground campaign against the Tigers, and for setting aside seniority to promote talented, effective junior commanders. But military analysts say the last push on land would not have been effective without the Navy, who cut off the Tigers’ vital supply line and escape route by sea. "Sarath Fonseka could not have won the war, if not for the crucial support he received from Secretary Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the other service chiefs, especially the navy and air chiefs and the intelligence agencies," says Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Politics have unraveled the Fonseka-Rajapaksa alliance. In his interview with TIME, Fonseka repeated charges, first published in a Sri Lankan newspaper, the Sunday Leader, that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had given orders that top LTTE commanders not be allowed to surrender. "This is well known to all those who were there in the field," Fonseka said. "[The Defenwe Secretary] was supposed to have said, 'Whether anybody comes with white flags or no, finish off everybody.' I was the Army Commander, they never passed that message to me, never even consulted me. I only came to know this after two days after everything was over. And I never gave any instructions about the white flags." Fonseka told TIME that, during a recent visit to the U.S., immigration authorities had attempted to interview him about alleged war crimes committed by the Defense Secretary but he declined because he was still a government officer.
The government has denied giving orders not to allow surrender, and in subsequent comments to the press, Fonseka appeared to backtrack. The Sri Lankan press have been full of charges and counter-charges between the general and the Rajapaksa brothers, as the country gears up for a month of furious campaigning. This election won't be as long or as brutal as the fight against the Tigers, but it will be a battle just the same.