Charu Lata Hogg: They needed a fresh start. This is more of the same

Thursday 28 January 2010 01:00

Touted as historic for being the first elections to be held in Sri Lanka since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), this week's poll did not mark a departure from intimidation and violence. History, in fact, repeated itself as Mahinda Rajapaksa, was re-elected, in part because the minority Tamil community could not exercise its franchise without fear.

In November 2005, the Tigers forcibly prevented Tamils from voting, an exercise that catapulted Mr Rajapaksa into power by a narrow margin. The Tigers were defeated in the bloodiest phase of a three-decade-long conflict last year, but nearly seven months later, a large number of Tamils in the north east could not vote as they were coerced to abstain, unable to register, or had no transport to reach polling stations.

Elsewhere,state power was brazenly abused and Mr Rajapaksa's main challenger, Sarath Fonseka, was undermined and compared to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. General Fonseka's supporters were threatened and attacked and as a final straw, his candidacy was challenged in court. He has in turn contested the results and accused the government of trying to have him assassinated.

With its claims of being a democracy already in question after the ruthless end to ethnic conflict, marked by a callous contempt for civilian lives, Sri Lanka does not need charges of election rigging.

What it needs is constitutional and institutional reform to build a more inclusive and just democracy. But President Rajapaksa, considered a war hero by the Sinhalese majority, could be held accountable for war crimes; and he has also failed to offer a credible proposal for political reform that would address the marginalisation of Tamils and other minorities.

This is not a fresh start for a country recovering from three decades of conflict. His re-election could spell a continuation of the same set of hard-line policies, corruption and nepotism that would weaken an already battered democracy. The defeat of the Tamil Tigers will remain hollow unless the president makes moves to establish a more inclusive and democratic state which shows genuine commitment to the rule of law and human rights. So far, his track record remains questionable.

The writer is an Associate Fellow for the Asia Programme at Chatham House

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