COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Searching for an identity between its pristine beaches and its reputation for suicide bombings, Sri Lanka is struggling.
A 26-year civil war pitted the Sinhalese government — the ethnic majority — against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — one of the world’s most notorious terrorist organizations.
The war ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE and the capture of its leader and founder, Velupillai Prabhakaran, yet many say that this country still has a long way to go to ensure that violence does not re-emerge.
Incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa won the Sri Lankan election earlier this year. Voter turnout was about 70 percent and the election commission gave Rajapaksa 58 percent of the vote against his rival and former friend, Gen. Sarath Fonseka.
Shortly thereafter, Fonseka was charged with planning to overthrow the government, and was put on trial. On Aug. 13, a military court convicted Fonseka of involvement in politics while in service and stripped him of his rank and military honors, according to the Associated Press. Fonseka's sentence of a dishonorable discharge was subject to Rajapaksa's approval. It was unclear how much time in prison Fonseka faces, if any.
Fonseka's lawyer, Rienzie Arsecularatne, denounced the verdict and said the case was heard in his absence during a court vacation. He told the Associated Press that he would appeal the decision. "They fixed the court martial on the days I was not available," Arsecularatne said. "This is not a proper trial. This is a total miscarriage of justice."
With Fonseka's arrest and trial, the opposition coalition became fragmented. This division gave Rajapaksa’s majority coalition, the Sri Lankan Freedom Party, a relatively unobstructed path to gain a majority in the April parliamentary election. However, while Rajapaska’s political alliance won 144 out of the 225 seats, securing the majority, it narrowly failed to win enough seats get a two-thirds majority which would have given them overwhelming power, including the ability to change the country’s constitution.
Although Fonseka immediately challenged the validity of the election results after weeks of violence and even reports of multiple bombings on election day, his challenges have gone unanswered.
The results have larger repercussions for the political future of the country. The Rajapaksa regime has lately been hit with charges of corruption as the president and his brothers have centralized their power to an unprecedented level — holding positions of president, commander and chief of armed forces, defense secretary, senior presidential advisor, and cabinet minister of ports and aviation. Various sources estimate that 70 percent of the country's budget is controlled by one of the brothers.
Furthermore, Rajapaksa’s plans for reconciliation in the country are minimal. Instead, he believes that economic development will assuage any hard feelings among the citizenry.
Although Fonseka had promised to collaborate with the Tamil National Alliance to address their demands, a continued Rajapaksa regime could mean a continued denial of war crimes, while crushing dissenting voices, which has reportedly included the disappearances, kidnappings and deaths of dozens of journalists.
For many, the only hope of moving forward towards peace and reconciliation rested with Fonseka's election. With his defeat, many are skeptical that war crimes perpetrators, on both the government and LTTE sides, will be brought to justice or that ex-LTTE fighters will be rehabilitated.
The LTTE army was comprised of both ardent believers who volunteered as well as forcefully conscripted men, women and children made to choose between shooting their families or government soldiers. The government gave most LTTE fighters willing to give up their colleagues immunity.
Tensions remain high with many families still awaiting word on the status of their loved ones who served in the LTTE: Are they alive? Set to be released? Or being treated as criminals?
Another key issue is the 300,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who were forced into camps and separated from their families. One United Nations official spoke to me under conditions of anonymity and described horrific camps that had no potable water or latrines, floating excrement, men sleeping on the ground and 16 women and children packed into shelters designed for six people.
The head of the Law and Trust Society painted a bleak picture of the resettlement challenges IDPs face. While some IDPs have returned home and found their homes intact, many are forced to live in tents where their destroyed houses once stood.
Many do not have the funds to rebuild since the government is not providing compensation for their lost property nor do they have the income to rebuild. Even when they have funds, many have lost their land and housing deeds, thwarting their ability to claim land that is rightfully theirs.
IDPs also face the danger of uncleared land mines. One U.N. official showed me a classified map of areas with uncleared mines, which often correspond to the villages into which IDPs were resettling. Those villagers face significant risks of death and maiming that continue to plague other post-war areas around the globe.
Given these challenging circumstances, Sri Lanka faces an uncertain future as Rajapaksa tries to finally win the peace and move the country ahead in what could be short window of violence-free opportunity.