As Sri Lankan Government strongly condemned the incident of shooting at a group of supporters of the Opposition consensus candidate retired General Sarath Fonseka, in which one woman was killed and several others injured, the United States on Wednesday said it was deeply concerned what it termed as the escalating violence surrounding the January 26 presidential elections.
Registering its concern over the incident the U.S. Embassy in a press release said, “We urge the appropriate authorities to conduct a full investigation of this and other acts of violence and to protect those exercising their democratic right to support the candidate of their choice. This is the first nation-wide election in a peaceful, united Sri Lanka in several decades. We hope that the election is conducted freely, fairly and without violence”.
Stakes for every one are indeed very high as it would be the first such mass exercise in the post-Prabakaran Sri Lanka. As both Mr. Rajapaksa and Gen. (retd) Fonseka represent the majority Sinhalese community and are credited for the military victory against the Tigers, the focus is bound to be especially on the choice of the Tamils that account for 12.5 percent of island nation’s 20 million people.
A few months ago, re-election of Mr. Rajapaksa was considered a certainty. However, surfacing of the retired General as the rallying point for the Opposition has changed the ground scene substantially. On the face of it, the retired General enhanced his chances of securing more Tamil votes than the President after the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), announced its decision to back him.
Amidst reports that police have apprehended culprits behind the shooting at a group by two persons riding a motorcycle at Tangalle the Government said that it would not tolerate any such acts of violence, in the midst of this democratic electoral process.
"Instructions have been given to the authorities to bolster security at political events up to and on polling day to ensure that all Sri Lankans can participate safely in the electoral process”, it said.
The dilemma before the Sri Lankan electorate in the run up to the presidential vote, the slew of promises and trading of charges on both sides is best summed up by Chris Patten, currently the co-chairman of the International Crisis Group in a New York Times op-ed article.
He notes that public in Sri Lanka is "faced with a choice between two candidates who openly accuse each other of war crimes. Whoever wins, the outside world should use all its tools to convince the government to deal properly with those underlying issues to avoid a resurgence of mass violence.
Mr. Patten goes on to say that while there may not be much to choose between the candidates, the rift between General Fonseka and Mr. Rajapaksa - and the consequent divisions among Sinhalese nationalist parties and the renewed vigour of Opposition parties -has at least put the possibility of reforms on the agenda. International leverage, correctly applied, could help expand this small window for change, leading to the democratisation and demilitarisation the country desperately needs to move finally beyond its horrific war and its bitter peace.
The campaign in the coming days is bound to generate more heat, which was evident from the speeches of the top two contenders in their respective campaign trail across the length and breadth of the island nation with a population of 20 million.
A report posted on the Presidential Secretariat web site quoted Mr. Rajapaksa as saying at an election rally at Ambalangoda in the south (home town of the retired General) that on January 26, the people of this country will tell the world they are against separatism. “I will not allow anyone to betray the hard earned freedom”.
The web site quoted him as saying that the war against LTTE has been won amidst many difficulties. “But I cannot say that the victory was my own. Many have supported the victory”.
“President Rajapaksa added that the people of this country should teach a lesson to those who attempt to betray the country and its unity. He questioned the democratic credentials of the Opposition who had threatened a senior journalist for revealing in the newspaper Lankadeepa agreements signed between the TNA and the NDF candidate. If this is the situation before the election how worst would it be if they were vested with power, the President also queried”.
The main opposition United National Party web site quoted Mr. Fonseka as saying at several rallies that what the President Rajapaksa acquired in 40 years in politics, he did it in 40 days. “However, what I have achieved is a clean unblemished record”.
“In 2005, the President promised to usher in peace by negotiating with the LTTE. But I promised that I will defeat them at war and save the country from this terrorist scourge which destroyed lives, economy and progress. I achieved 98% of what I promised. There is a 2% remaining to complete my promise”.