“Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together in new shapes of your own choosing.” -George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty -Four)
The end was never in doubt; President Rajapaksa would confirm Gen. Fonseka’s jail sentence and the bête noire of the Ruling Family would be duly incarcerated. Only the blindly optimistic would have expected the Rajapaksas to show any mercy to an enemy to whom they have denied all justice.
Still, the reality of the former army commander serving a rigorous imprisonment like a common or garden criminal did cause some shockwaves.
After all, procedural abuse, the crime of which an obviously biased military tribunal convicted him, is nothing less than a Lankan norm. If officials are jailed for procedural abuse, Sri Lanka will not have either an armed force, or a bureaucracy or even a cabinet of ministers. This ridiculously banal charge was nothing more than an excuse to deprive Gen. Fonseka of his parliamentary seat and jail him, not as a political prisoner but as a common criminal.
Will the incarceration of Gen. Fonseka satiate the passion for vengeance of his persecutors? Or will he be subjected to more trials and tribulations, including other and longer prison sentences, and perhaps even the gallows the Presidential sibling threatened him with?
Perhaps if Gen. Fonseka succumbs to despair and pleads for a pardon from the President, he will be spared. Perhaps that is what his tormentors are hoping for. Once Gen. Fonseka’s sprit is broken, he can be neither a threat to his foes nor an inspiration for his friends; a suppliant invokes pity and fear in onlookers, not defiance.
But if Gen. Fonseka refuses to knuckle down, the Furies will be unappeased and will continue to pursue him. After all, in the Rajapaksa credo, is any crime as heinous, as unforgivable as that of challenging the Rajapaksas’ right to rule?
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell spells out the modus operandi used to evaporate dissenters in Oceania, his frightful dystopia:
“The first thing for you to understand in this place there are no martyrdoms…. In the middle ages there was the Inquisition. It was a failure. It set out to eradicate heresy, and ended by perpetuating it. For every heretic it burned at the stake, thousands of others rose up. Why was that? Because the Inquisition killed its enemies in the open, and killed them while they were still unrepentant.
Naturally all the glory belonged to the victim and all the shame to the Inquisitor who burned him. We do not make mistakes of that kind. We do not allow the dead to rise against us. You must stop imagining that posterity will vindicate you. Posterity will never hear of you. You will be lifted clean out from the stream of history. Nothing will remain of you; not a name in a register, not a memory in a living brain. You will be annihilated in the past as well as in the future. You will never have existed”.
Memory, as we know, dies. It can die a natural death when it is neglected or it can be murdered when fertilised with counter-narratives. When Vellupillai Pirapaharan had his one time deputy and Tiger hero, Gopalaswami Mahendraraja alias Mahatiya imprisoned and murdered, Mahattaya became transformed from a hero of the Tamil cause to a traitor to the Tamil cause. The man who was the LTTE’s military commander, the man who played a key role in the Tiger’s war against the IPKF was simply wiped out of official Tiger history and public memory.
After his execution on the orders of Mr. Pirapaharan, Mahatiya was remembered as a ‘traitor’, if he was remembered at all. Mahatiya simply ceased to exist. Sarath Fonseka was deprived of his rank and his honours by the first military tribunal. Officially, he is no longer a general.
According to media reports, his name is being removed even from existing monuments; it will naturally not appear in any new ones. As other news items supersede, he will be forgotten by the media, until his next conviction and his next sentencing. The opposition is too weighted down by its own multiple crises to be able to do more than mount an occasional token protest. History books under Rajapaksa Rule (and the Rajapaksas are set on being in the saddle for a long, long time) will make no mention of Sarath Fonseka.
As years progress, Sarath Fonseka will be remembered primarily, and perhaps solely, as a former military leader who was jailed for crimes committed – and that too only in passing. Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa will be credited for defeating the Tigers while Gen. Fonseka would be forgotten.
This is what the Rajapaksas would want to see happening to Gen. Fonseka. His incarceration is an important step in this process of rewriting a history of the Eelam Wars, sans Sarath Fonseka. (Incidentally, this rewriting of history began at the 2009 convention of the SLFP. One of the sideshows of the Convention was a dance display depicting the Eelam War and the defeat of the LTTE.
According to this re-enactment, there were the people, there were the Armed Forces and there was Mahinda Rajapakse; and that was the trinity which defeated the Tiger menace. In this official interpretation there is no room for any other individual to claim even the slightest credit for winning the war. Little wonder that Fonseka, who insisted on claiming the honour he thought of as his due, had to be suppressed and evaporated).
The incarceration of Gen. Fonseka aims to achieve multiple purposes. It is an act of punishment and an act of revenge. It is also supposed to be a deterrent, because it demonstrates to the country the very real costs of seriously challenging the Ruling Family. Gen. Fonseka’s fate is meant to teach us the inadvisability of challenging the Rajapaksas.
In Rajapaksa Sri Lanka, there is a role for an ineffective opposition; in fact such an opposition is necessary to prop up the tattered democratic credentials of the regime. But there is no room whatsoever for an opposition which is serious, determined and is therefore effective.
The Rajapaksas tend to justify their anti-democratic policies and deeds by flavouring them with nationalistic and patriotic rhetoric. Opposing the Family is equated with treachery and international humanitarian norms are castigated as imperialist constraints on Sri Lanka’s right to defend herself and her people.
For instance, the regime refused a request to treat 8,000 Tiger suspects in custody according to international law, and justified this departure by invoking national sovereignty: “We are an independent nation. We are not going to bow down to foreign powers in order to get aid” (BBC – 28.9.2010). Lofty words hiding an ignoble reality; the regime while incarcerating 8,000 ordinary Tamils as Tiger suspects is treating as estimable guests known Tiger leaders such as Kumaran Pathmanathan and Daya Master.
The real criterion therefore is not whether one was a Tiger or not but whether one is willing to support the Rajapaksas or not. Life can be pleasant for those who are willing to submit to the Rajapaksas and exceedingly unpleasant if not downright dangerous for those who are not, as the curiously similar fates of the 8,000 Tiger suspects and the Army Commander who defeated the Tigers clearly indicate.
When national interest is equated with Rajapaksa interest and patriotism with loyalty to the Rajapaksas, any opponent of the Ruling Family can be deemed a terrorist and a traitor and treated as such. In such a context, Gen. Fonseka’s seminal contribution to the Fourth Eelam War cannot outweigh his subsequent opposition to the Rajapaksas, just as Mahattaya’s contribution to the LTTE and the Tamil cause was forgotten the moment he fell out of favour with the Tiger leader. As in Mr. Pirapaharan’s nascent state of Eelam, in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka the ultimate virtue is unquestioning loyalty to the Rajapakses and the ultimate sin is challenging the Rajapaksas’ right to rule.
A democracy cannot be based on a populace which succumbs to servility willingly, either through fear or for self-gain or out of conviction of one’s own unworthiness to be the equal of the ruling power. When we hail Mahinda Rajapakse as king, when we bestow on him encomiums totally at variance with the principle of democratic equality, not only do we degrade ourselves; we also encourage the tendency towards tyranny on his part. Our self-debasement is a propellant moving him even faster towards absolutism.
If Tamil society held Mr. Pirapaharan accountable for his wrongful acts during the First Eelam War, he many not have had the opportunity to develop into the monster he eventually became. But Tamil society, by and large, did not, because of its justifiable anger at the Lankan state and the Sinhala South over Black July.
The Tigers were more effective than their competitors at challenging Colombo and punishing the South; and for these reasons their budding intolerance and nascent despotism was glossed over by most Tamils. Once the Tigers turned themselves into the only game in town, it was easy to equate opposition to the LTTE with disloyalty to the Tamil cause. By then it was too late to rein the Tiger in.
In a country where citizens are treated as subjects who must obey their rulers unconditionally, there is little room not just for democratic rights but even for individual consciences or basic decencies. The arrest of the aged grandmother of Danuna Tilakaratne, the son-in-law of Gen. Fonseka, for her failure to betray her grandson to the authorities is the clearest possible indication that in Rajapakse Sri Lanka loyalty to the Ruling Family is the only absolute virtue. This supreme duty surpasses every other consideration including family ties, including a grandparent’s unconditional love for a grandchild, which many of us would know from experience.
So the persecution of Sarath Fonseka will continue, until he is effaced from memory and history. That at least would be the intent of his tormentors. Whether they succeed or not would depend on how much and how willingly we cooperate with this effort. We allowed the myths of humanitarian offensives and welfare villages to pass, out of a misplaced sense of patriotism. The vaporisation of Gen. Fonseka could not have been attempted without that permissiveness. Excess breeds excess; impunity breeds impunity. In the end it will touch all of us, even those who determinedly stay out of politics, to stay out of trouble.