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No easy task for new Lanka leader

By Mel Gunasekera

Sri Lanka's next president will face immediate pressure to investigate war crimes allegations and mend relations with Western powers that provide key export markets for the island, say analysts.

Today's election pitting incumbent Mahinda Rajapakse against his former army chief Sarath Fonseka is the first peacetime presidential vote since separatist Tamil Tigers took up arms against the state in 1972.

Rajapakse and Fonseka proved their military mettle by crushing the rebels last May, but the final victor will need to show skillful statesmanship to secure the prosperity they have promised, analysts say.

On the diplomatic front, the war against the Tigers led to allegations of serious war crimes that continue to dog both men and have damaged relations with former allies in the West.

The United States, Britain and the European Union have been critical of Rajapakse's handling of the war, media freedom and holding of nearly 300,000 war-displaced Tamil people for months in internment camps.

As a consequence, the island nation – colonised first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch then Britain until 1948 – has deepened its ties with Japan, India, China and Myanmar, as well as Iran.

"There has been a shift in Sri Lankan foreign policy," said Charu Lata Hogg, Sri Lanka expert at British think-tank Chatham House. From looking to the West for support, it is now focused more on Asia. For instance, Japan, China and India continue to be important investors. "Any closer alliances with the West, particularly the EU, would necessarily invite greater scrutiny on human rights and accountability for past crimes."

But Western nations are vital markets for the island's key exports – clothing, tea and ceramics – and the business community is lobbying for an improvement in the strained relations. "We need to stop burning bridges and start making friends," said Sunil Wijesinghe, who heads the Japanese-owned Dankotuwa Porcelain company.

Last month, the EU announced plans to suspend important tariff concessions to Sri Lanka that facilitate exports to the giant European market.

The suspension followed a year-long European Commission probe that concluded the Sri Lankan Government was in breach of commitments on human rights and good governance that come with the preferential trade status.

"The West is the biggest buyer of our exports and now that the war is over, it's time to tone down our overly aggressive foreign policy and take a more practical approach," said Asantha Sirimanne, who edits Lanka Business Online, the island's biggest business news portal.

Whoever finally triumphs will have to deal with reviving the war-battered economy, where growth fell to 3.5 per cent in 2009 from six per cent in 2008 amid rising unemployment.

The threat of a war crimes investigation will also continue to hang over the victor. The UN, Western nations and international rights groups are seen as likely to continue pressing for some sort of a probe as allegations and evidence show extrajudicial killings and weapon use.

The UN estimates that 7,000 civilians perished in the final stages of fighting last year. Sri Lanka has always argued that there are no grounds for a war crimes investigation.

Internally, the biggest challenge for Rajapakse and Fonseka – both Sinhalese nationalists – will be maintaining the relative peace that reigns across the island at present. The minority Tamil community in the north, on whose behalf the Tigers waged their war for independence, must be integrated economically and politically to prevent the re-emergence of a popular armed resistance movement, say analysts.

"The victory over Tamil militancy will remain fragile unless Sinhalese-dominated political parties make strong moves towards a more inclusive and democratic state," said Donald Steinberg from the Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group.

How the new president wins over the Tamils by devolving power and preventing another conflict will also be closely watched by foreign investors, said Nirosh de Silva, partner for Hong Kong-based private equity firm, Leopard Capital. (AFP)


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