Sri Lankan opposition fights to be heard
By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO - Street protests that erupted in Colombo and other cities following
the February 8 arrest of defeated presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka have
yet to gain wider support from non-political groups.
The protests began on a fiery tone when about 2,500 pro-Fonseka protesters
chased down by pro-government supporters braved tear gas and water cannons to
hold their first rally near the country's highest court on February 10. They
vowed to continue the movement until the former army commander was released.
Fonseka was arrested on charges of corruption and attempts to topple the
government while he was in public office.
The government has maintained that there is no political
motivation behind the arrest of Fonseka. "We have repeatedly said that there is
no political motive behind this. The law of the nation has been followed,"
Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Aberyawardena told the press.
Although no formal charges have been filed against Fonseka, the government has
accused the losing presidential candidate of plotting to overthrow the
government in a military-style coup.
Protests and processions held in the city have been boisterous but peaceful.
But several staged in cities outside Colombo have turned violent with
protesters clashing with police.
The People's Liberation Front (PLF) and the United National Party (UNP), the
two main political parties that formed the foundation for Fonseka's failed
presidential bid, have mainly been leading the protests.
There have been attempts by non-political groups to lend support to them, but
they have not been able to bring large numbers of protesters. "The arrest is a
reflection of our freedoms. It affects all of us mothers, wives, widows. This
has to become our struggle," Vishaka Dramadasa, one of the protestors, told
Inter Press Service (IPS).
Dramadasa participated in the protest organized by a non-governmental group
called Women for Democracy in Colombo on February 15. But it managed only to
attract dozens, and not hundreds, of participants.
"The manner in which he [Fonseka] was arrested was totally unacceptable. It
undermines law and order," Anuradha Nirashini, one of the participants at the
vigil held by the women, told IPS at the rally.
"We have launched a non-violent campaign to gain his release," Fonseka's wife
Anoma Fonseka said to the local media when she visited lawyer Srilal
Lakthilaka, who had begun a peaceful protest calling for Fonseka's release.
The protest movement, however, would have taken on a totally different
dimension had a large convention of Buddhist monks pushed through on February
18 in the central town of Kandy. Four major Buddhist leaders had written
collectively to the government, calling for Fonseka's release. They had also
called the convention to discuss future actions.
Soon after receiving the letter, the government sent emissaries to meet with
the Buddhist priests. By February 16, the convention was postponed.
The opposition has now come out accusing the government of bringing pressure on
the monks to postpone the convention. "There was a lot of pressure," Tissa
Athanayake, the secretary general of the UNP, told IPS.
But the government denied any hand in the postponement. "There have been
various interpretations, but the prelates have said why the event was
postponed," Dulles Alahaperuma, the minister of transport, said.
If the convention were held, it would have given the pro-Fonseka movement a
semblance of wider acceptance and support outside the political parties
Any momentum likely to be gained from the pro-Fonseka protests would have a
direct impact on the parliamentary election set for April 9. The beleaguered
opposition leader is expected to contest the results and his arrest could
become the rallying point.
The UNP, however, has decided to field candidates under its own banner and
Fonseka, notwithstanding his detention, is likely to enter the fray under a new
coalition spearheaded by the PLF.
For a brief period immediately after the Fonseka arrest, the opposition
appeared to have been galvanized. It was that momentum that launched the first
wave of protests on behalf of Fonseka.
The opposition was left in disarray after Fonseka lost the January 26
presidential election by a margin of 1.8 million votes to incumbent President
The former army commander led the final military assault against the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who had been fighting for a separate state for the
country's Tamil minority since the early 1980s. Government forces wiped out the
Tigers in May last year and Fonseka was hailed as a hero soon afterwards. He
later fell out with the Rajapaksa government and came forward as the opposition
presidential candidate. Two weeks of charge trading after the election ended
when Fonseka was arrested.
The UNP and the PLF, despite their inability to form a common block to counter
the formidable government challenge at the April 9 election for 225 parliament
seats, have given strong indications that the protests will continue.
"If the president thinks that he can get away with this, he is very much
mistaken," Somawansa Amarasinghe the leader of the pro-nationalist PLF, told a
group of about 400 supporters. They had converged at a busy thoroughfare on
February 16 for yet another public protest, blocking traffic. They were calling
on the government to let Fonseka free.
The UNP, the country's largest political party, has also come out strongly
against the Fonseka arrest. Its leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe, has told the
media that Fonseka was imprisoned to prevent him from contesting the upcoming
elections for the parliament.
"There was never any talk of overthrowing the government. All these charges are
false," Wickremasinghe said earlier last week.
"We still don't know the charges against him; the usual practice is that
charges are formally made known before any arrest," Wickremasinghe, who was
also the leader of the opposition in the last parliament, told the media on
February 17 as he signed a petition for Fonseka's release. He accused the
government of being on a witch-hunt, allegedly harassing relatives and
supporters of the defeated presidential candidate.
The police detained on February 17 the mother of Fonseka's son-in-law following
an arrest warrant on her son and the recovery of over US$500,000 in cash from
bank deposit boxes maintained under her name. She was later released on bail.
The government has maintained that the arrest was not a case of victimization
and was due to violation of exchange control regulations. "The notes [recovered
by police] have not been used; they are in sequential order. The exchange
control regulations have been violated and the police and the Central Bank are
looking into this," Export Development and International Trade Minister G L
Peiris told the media.
The UNP and PLF jointly launched a public signature campaign last week for the
release of the former army commander. They promised to collect as many
signatures as they can before they hand over the petition to Rajapaksa.
"Over four million voted for Fonseka at the presidential election - we can get
all that. We will not give up this struggle for justice," PLF leader
Amarasinghe vowed during the campaign's launch.