How US 'war on terror' emboldened Sri Lanka's
The Army appears on verge of crushing Tiger rebels.
(Page 2 of 2)
War on terror's other front: criticsSkip to next paragraph
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The success on the battlefield has been shadowed by another campaign, that of clamping down on critics of the war. Since 2006, attacks on Sri Lanka's media have spiked, and a once-vibrant civil society has been largely muted. Last week, a Tamil newspaper editor was arrested and accused of links to the LTTE. In January, the outspoken editor of an opposition newspaper was shot dead in Colombo, the capital.
As defense secretary, Rajapaksa has equated criticism with treason, and he makes no apologies for silencing anyone who undermines the fight against terrorism. "You can't win a military campaign without the public support. You can be a genius or a hard person or whatever, but you can't win unless you have the public support," he says.
Sri Lanka's authoritarian tilt comes as the Obama administration tries to redefine its fight against militancy and lift the lid on the cost of war, in terms of spending and lives. By contrast, officials here refuse to update casualty figures or reveal details of a roughly $1.6 billion military budget. The war and the global downturn have squeezed the nation's finances, forcing it into talks on an International Monetary Fund bailout.
China and Pakistan are the military's largest suppliers of arms. In 2007, Congress halted US military aid to Sri Lanka over its human rights record. However, the US and India have supplied intelligence on LTTE ship movements, which has helped Sri Lanka choke off illegal arms imports.
'Deep wounds and scars' for Tamils
Critics say the emphasis on crushing the LTTE comes at the expense of a political solution to longstanding grievances. They warn that a triumphant government could renege on past promises to devolve power to the Tamil-speaking north, spawning another generation of alienated youth.
"I don't think a people can be beaten down by force. What has been happening in the latest military operation has left deep wounds and scars in the minds of young Tamils," says R. Sampanthan, an opposition lawmaker.
Government officials argue that political reform can only happen after the fighting stops. They point to provincial elections held last year in the east, which the LTTE surrendered in 2007, as proof of their intent. In that vote, an LTTE defector was elected as chief minister.
The removal of the LTTE may open up space for political alternatives in Tamil communities, says Alan Keenan, a senior analyst in Colombo for the International Crisis Group. "But that requires the government to let Tamils speak freely, to hear them and to respond, even if they criticize government policies. That's what they've yet to prove willing to do," he says.
President Rajapaksa is expected to call early elections this year to capitalize on the war's popularity. His coalition relies on right-wing Sinhalese parties that oppose concessions to Tamils. A personal mandate could give him room to be bold, says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo.
"Mahinda Rajapaksa has a unique opportunity to go down in history as a grand unifier of the country, to fashion a coalition that forges a political settlement along devolved, power-sharing lines," he says.