Opposition supporters in Sri Lanka clashed with rival groups Wednesday as anger swelled over the arrest of defeated presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka. But it’s unclear how far the backlash will help the opposition amid signs of a widening crackdown ahead of parliamentary elections in April, which were announced late Tuesday.
Thousands of protesters gathered in the capital Colombo and fought briefly with smaller groups of government supporters before police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. Opposition politicians had earlier called for nationwide protests against the treatment of their candidate and vowed to contest his detention at a military compound.
Mr. Fonseka, a former Army chief who fell out with President Mahinda Rajapaksa after last year’s victory over Tamil Tiger rebels, was detained Monday. The government has accused him of fomenting dissent in the military and of plotting a coup against Mr. Rajapaksa, who defeated him soundly in an election held two weeks ago that was marred by violence and harassment of independent media.
Fonseka as ‘political magnet’
Critics say the ruling party is determined to weaken the opposition and is aiming for a two-thirds majority in parliament, which would allow for constitutional amendments. “Clearly the arrest of Fonseka is to neutralize him as a political magnet in the parliamentary election campaign,” says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, who heads the Center for Policy Alternatives, a think tank in Colombo.
Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, a military spokesman, said investigators were still gathering evidence with which to charge the accused in a military court. There is no time limit on detentions without charge under military law. He said the offenses were related to Fonseka’s military service, which ended in November, but declined to specify them. “It has nothing to do with political matters,” he says.
Analysts say keeping together the fractious coalition that supported Fonseka may become harder in his absence. A rightwing nationalist party, which had defected from Rajapaksa’s camp, said Wednesday it hadn’t decided whether it would campaign with the opposition, signaling a possible crack.
Mr. Saravanamuttu said the opposition would have to work hard to get the vote out at the election, as Rajapaksa’s landslide victory has left an impression of invincibility. “We’re in danger of sliding into a one-party state,” he says.
Fonseka also provoked the government by threatening to testify in any international investigation into the final stages of the war. Government officials have accused him of divulging military secrets, an apparent reference to war-crime allegations. At least 7,000 civilians died in the final assault against the Tamil Tigers, though the real number is unknown and no credible investigations have been held.
A United Nations spokesman said Tuesday that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was concerned by events in Sri Lanka and had asked for guarantees of Fonseka’s safety. Opposition leaders have claimed that he was at risk of assassination, but Nanayakkara denied this and said Fonseka was being well treated.
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