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Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2010
Power grab in Sri Lanka
One year ago, Gen. Sarath Fonseka was a hero in Sri Lanka. As head of the army, he played a key role in crushing the Tamil insurgency that had waged civil war against the government in Colombo for decades.
Last week, Mr. Fonseka — he had already been dishonorably discharged for politicking while in uniform — was found guilty of fraud by a military court and faced the prospect of jail time.
Mr. Fonseka was charged with bypassing official procurement procedures and involving his son-in-law in those deals. Most observers believe his real crime was running against President Mahinda Rajapaska in the presidential election earlier this year.
His conviction appears to be part of a broader campaign to silence administration critics. The signs are troubling.
The Parliament recently agreed to remove presidential term limits from the constitution, allowing Mr. Rajapaska to run for a third term. That vote followed a Supreme Court ruling that a referendum was not required to make the change. The constitutional amendment also eliminates several checks on the president's power to appoint members of key posts such as Supreme Court judges and electoral commissions. With the virtual collapse of the opposition, the president is now unchallenged.
Supporters say Mr. Rajapaska's popularity provides a compelling reason to eliminate checks on his authority. They also claim those institutions slow government down at a time when Sri Lanka needs to rebuild after a horrific civil war.
Sri Lanka's needs are dire, but efficiency should not be a justification for the shredding of the constitution, even if a majority backs those steps — and especially in a society as deeply divided as Sri Lanka.
Now, more than ever, there needs to be sensitivity to the concerns of the minority and resistance to the consolidation of power and the stripping of checks on an administration that has been thin skinned about challenges and criticism.