Peter Popham: Thirst for revenge did not die with the Tigers

Colombo Notebook
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The Independent Online

Being a top Sri Lankan politician is an extraordinarily risky job: very many of them have been bumped off in their prime.

That's all history now, you might say: Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tamil Tiger leader, creator of the world's most innovative and fanatical terrorist machine, was killed along with his closest comrades trying to escape from the Nanthikadal lagoon on the island's far north-east coast on the morning of 19 May 2009. Sri Lanka has been resoundingly at peace since that bloody morning.

It was the most decisive end to an insurgency since the British put down the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in 1957. Sri Lankans fed up with the West harping on about civilian deaths point out that Washington can only dream of bringing its war with al-Qa'ida to such a thunderous conclusion.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was the architect of the war, the southern politician who, with his brothers, decided to finish off the Tigers, and he is riding high. He swept to a second presidential term by a huge margin in January, and his coalition is expected to wipe out the opposition in a general election this week.

Yet although his bullish, beaming figure now dominates the island like no one since the mythical king Ravana, I would hesitate to put a lot of money on Mr Rajapaksa living to a ripe old age and dying in his bed.

His opponent in the general election was Sarath Fonseka, the general he picked to finish the war, and who delivered that great victory. Rajapaksa may or may not have beaten Fonseka fair and square to become president again – there are dark rumours of skulduggery in the count – but when he had him locked up on somewhat tenuous grounds soon afterwards, he was taking a big gamble.

Fonseka is still behind bars today, and marginalised politically; but a lot of senior army officers went to hell and back with him during the war. The Tigers may be long gone, but thirst for revenge is not a monopoly of the Tamils.

On the record

My friend who works as a journalist here received a useful present the day in January that Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, was murdered: a CCTV system to keep an eye on vehicles taking too close an interest in his premises. "Just having the cameras visible helps," he said. "These thugs hate to be identified." Wickramatunga was punished for being a "traitor" by taking a hostile tack on the war; almost as shocking as his death, and the disappearance of half a dozen other journalists, is the way otherwise right-thinking Lankans will tell you they got what was coming to them.

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