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Fonseka's Perils of Playing Politics and its Implications

Aug 29, 2010 8:33:16 AM- transcurrents.com

By Col R Hariharan

For General Sarath Fonseka who revamped a demoralised Sri Lanka army and led it to final victory in the nearly three-decade long campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, its aftermath had not been peaceful. His woes appear to be mounting after an army court martial found him guilty of dabbling in politics while in uniform and recommended his cashiering.

And President Mahinda Rajapaksa promptly confirmed the harsh sentence, stripping his rank and hard earned military honours and medals. The hapless General is facing a few more court martial that would haunt him in the coming years.

It will be difficult for non-military minds to understand the ignominy of cashiering. It is much more than stripping of rank and medals of General Fonseka (I do not have the heart to drop his rank and call him Mister Fonseka, although this is what has been reduced to now). It is the negation of the contribution of a person who served the army for 38 years to become the first-ever chief of defence staff. And in the history of Sri Lanka his victory against the Tamil insurgents will always be hyphenated with his cashiering. Only four years back he was lucky enough to escape (with serious injuries) a LTTE suicide bomber assassination attempt him in 2006. It seems the perils of politics have proved more deadly to the General than the Tamil Tiger assassin.

As I am not privy to Fonseka’s court martial proceedings or judgement I am unable to comment on its legality. Even if his political contacts were substantive as decided by the court, Fonseka was neither the first Sri Lankan army officer to do so nor will he be the last. The history of Sri Lanka’s three decades of war against the LTTE is strewn with examples of army officers either favoured or discarded by political masters, not necessarily for reasons of military competency. So it will be reasonable to conclude the Fonseka episode has its seeds in politics of power; after all the government has not shown the same alacrity shown in prosecuting the General to put on the dock even a single hardened LTTE leader held in custody for over a year.

This is evident if we see the sequence of events after the war ended and General Fonseka was hailed as a national hero, sharing the victory banners alongside the President. Politicians were a little unnerved at the soaring popularity of the General after the war and a subdued campaign sideline his contribution in the Eelam War was launched.

The campaign within the government against the General gained more decibels when he spoke of his plans to expand the army, making the politicians even more nervous. Though his plan was not accepted, the government’s mind on his future became clear when it decided not to extend his tenure as Chief of Staff after December 2009 when it ended. The process of cutting down the war hero to size was truly in place when the government offered him the job of secretary in the ministry of sports after his retirement!

The point of no return was probably reached when he developed political ambitions and decided to throw his gauntlet against President Mahinda Rajapaksa seeking his second term as president. The situation was further aggravated when the deeply divided opposition rallied together to put him up as their common candidate against Rajapaksa. In the run up to the presidential poll, Fonseka’s campaign threw a scare, though ultimately he polled fewer votes than Ranil Wickremesinghe did in the presidential election 2005.

The presidential election campaign saw the transformation of the General, generally considered a Sinhala hawk, into a champion of Tamil problem. And it was anachronistic to see that elements of Tamil Diaspora that had supported the LTTE, which tried to kill him, were his election bedfellows! Even as the pre-election campaign gathered momentum, political screws against the General were tightened. Conspiracy theories of military coup and take over abounded, Gajaba regiment troops deployed for his security were withdrawn for suspected personal loyalty to the General and serving officers considered loyal to Fonseka were given the walking papers. Even the retired servicemen who supported him were not spared. And in a clear break from the past even some elements of army joined the tar brush brigade to paint Fonseka as a villain during the election campaign. The smear campaign had three parts; prosecution of the General on the legal cases relating to three aspects.

The army and civil intelligence sleuths have "discovered" a whole range of offences committed by the General during his tenure as army commander. Presumably there was a prima facie case at least in some of them. But their inaction in showing the same diligence they later displayed when he became political loose cannon is rather intriguing.

Thus in an oblique way it was the General’s rapid rise in national popularity charts that did him in. It led him to the bogs of party politics and he quickly got entangled in its culture of intrigues and character assassination. Otherwise he would have probably ended up enjoying his well earned retirement, expanding on his concept of counter terrorism warfare in haloed portals of military learning everywhere.

But his prosecution has shown the weakness of Sri Lankan system in action where checks and balances of government action appear to have been sacrificed to serve political interest. While this is inevitable in party-politics it is detrimental to the long term interest of healthy growth of democracy. At present Sri Lanka is involved in a serious exercise of revising its constitution. A key dilemma is the changeover of the present presidential system to a Westminster type parliamentary democracy, limiting the powers of executive president. A compromise is likely to be struck - to have the cake and eat it in typical South Asian style - by retaining the presidential system while clipping his powers. But constitution largely remains a document in parchment unless political parties and the people are able to exercise full powers guaranteed to them in the constitution. Will they be allowed to do this or become victims of maelstrom of power? This question has to be confronted not only by politicians and the civil society but the intelligentsia as well. Otherwise mere changes in constitutional structure will be a cosmetic surgery that does not cure the underlying maladies.

(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: colhari@yahoo.com Blog: www.colhariharan.org)