Heroes Cross Swords in Sri Lanka

NEW DELHI – Two celebrated heroes who, as president and army chief, helped end Sri Lanka’s long and brutal civil war against the Tamil Tigers are now crossing political swords. Whichever candidate wins Sri Lanka’s presidential election on January 26 will have to lead that small but strategically located island-nation in a fundamentally different direction – from making war, as it has done for more than a quarter-century, to making peace through ethnic reconciliation and power sharing.

Sri Lanka, almost since independence in 1948, has been racked by acrimonious rivalry between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils, who make up 12% of today’s 21.3-million population. Now the country is being divided by the political rivalry between two Sinhalese war idols, each of whom wants to be remembered as the true leader who crushed the Tamil Tiger guerrillas.

The antagonism between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the now-retired General Sarath Fonseka has been in the making for months. No sooner had Sri Lanka’s military crushed the Tamil Tigers – who ran a de facto state for more than two decades in the north and east – than Rajapaksa removed Fonseka as army chief to appoint him to the new, largely ceremonial post of chief of defense staff.

Once the four-star general was moved to the new position, his relationship with the president began to sour. After rumors swirled of an army coup last fall, the president, seeking military assistance should the need arise, alerted India.