By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“….let us recognise it for what it is essentially: a revenge.” — Camus (Resistance, Rebellion And Death)
The incarceration of Sarath Fonseka should concern not only those who admired Army Commander Fonseka or voted for Candidate Fonseka, but also those who did not.
The incarceration of Sarath Fonseka matters not because he was the war-winning army commander or he is an opposition leader, but because he is the victim of an act of political persecution and personal vengeance.
The incarceration of Sarath Fonseka is the business of all of us, because none of us can be safe in a country which victimises citizens for making political choices abhorrent to rulers.
The Defence Secretary asked where Gen. Fonseka’s current defenders were when he was fighting the Tigers. At least some of them would have been critiquing him for his scant regard for human rights and democratic freedoms, his Sinhala supremacism and his occasional interference in matters political in defence of the Rajapaksas.
And for those who critiqued Army Commander Fonseka for his words and deeds inconsonant with human rights and democratic freedoms, ignoring the plight of Prisoner No. 0/22032 is a non-option. Because, as Thomas Paine said, “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach himself” (Dissertations Of First Principles Of Government).
The law must prevail. But law had very little to do with the Fonseka incarceration. Gen. Fonseka was not tried in a court of law which considered him innocent until proven guilty and placed the onus of proof on the prosecution. He was tried in a military tribunal, by judges handpicked by the men who had ordered his arrest and had pronounced him guilty before the trial began.
His judges were serving military officers whose careers and post-retirement prospects depended on the Rajapaksa brothers. Given that post-presidential election, several top soldiers were arrested and others sent on compulsory retirement for their connections with Gen. Fonseka, only an irrepressibly quixotic officer would have dared to displease his political masters. Can a military tribunal operating under such insalubrious conditions be anything other than a mere appendage of the political authorities and an instrument of their vengeance?
Would Gen. Fonseka have been accused of meddling in politics whilst in uniform, had he meddled in pro-UPFA politics? Assuredly not; quite a few senior officials backed candidate Rajapaksa, on television, in uniform and they were not charged with meddling in politics.
Would Gen. Fonseka have been accused of procedural irregularities, had he continued to back the Rajapaksas or stayed neutral? Assuredly not; he could have broken any rule or law, so long he did not break the first of the Rajapaksa Commandments: Thou shalt not be disloyal to us.
The Air Force Commander who did not break that cardinal commandment but broke heaven knows how many laws by building a chalet in a national reserve (which is a global heritage) is still as free as a bird, still commanding the air force and still in possession of his illegal hideaway. And Mervyn Silva who tied a public official to a tree, publicly, is free and a deputy minister.
Anything is permissible for the supporters of the ruling family, while its opponents may lose everything, including their freedom and their lives.
The incarceration of Sarath Fonseka should be opposed irrespective of whether or not one admired Army Commander Fonseka or voted for candidate Fonseka (I did neither) because he was not convicted in a fair trial, but victimised by a witch-hunt. His incarceration is an act of conscious, premeditated injustice, aimed simultaneously at slaking the thirst for revenge of his persecutors and sending an unmistakable warning to the opposition.
If the war-winning army commander, the darling of the Sinhala right can fall so, anyone can, if they commit the unforgivable sin of challenging the Rajapaksas’ right to rule, from whatever political standpoint.
The consent of the Sinhala majority to the transformation of Sri Lanka from a flawed albeit vibrant democracy to a family oligarchy, in return for the defeat of the LTTE and the restoration of Sinhala supremacism: this quid pro quo is the fundament of the Rajapaksa project.
The Rajapaksas understood that familial rule required an ideological justification which can equate the interests of the ruling family with the interests of the Sinhalese. They took upon themselves the mantle of ‘saviours’ and ‘protectors’ of the ‘nation’, giving a patriotic gloss to their dynastic project.
Since the victory over the Tigers provided substance to their claims, the Rajapaksas need to monopolise the glory of winning the war. They can afford to admit an indefinable mass (‘patriots’, ‘war heroes’ etc.) into the Pantheon of Saviours but there is no space in that hollowed precinct for any specific individual, who not only competes for a share of the glory but also wants to use it for a contending political project. As a rival claimant to the glory of winning the war, Gen. Fonseka became both a political threat and a personal enemy to the Rajapaksas.
He had to be stopped and stopped in a manner which would give pause to other would-be-troublemakers. Incarcerating Gen. Fonseka not as a political prisoner but as a felon, is a measure of the diabolical ingenuity of the Rajapaksas. The Fonseka incarceration is yet another sign of these anti-democratic times.
At a ceremony to bless the army flags, the Army Commander talked about a ‘new security arrangement’ (hatched by the Defence Secretary) to locate at least one army division and one STF camp in each district. This will accelerate significantly the Rajapaksa efforts to militarise post-war Sri Lanka, while politicising (i.e. Rajapaksasing) the military.
The Rajapaksas invite foreign investors and tourists, claiming that the terrorist threat is over, even as they garrison the country. The seeming contradiction is no contradiction because the army will be used to suppress democratic dissent (especially when unbearable economic pain makes the docile South restive).
In another significant move, the police have been asked to stop a planned poster campaign over the Fonseka issue, because the posters may ‘provoke people against the government’. In a democracy, any self-respecting opposition should provoke the people into opposing the government, peacefully and legally. Clearly, the only opposition the Rajapaksas can tolerate is a moribund one and they will crackdown hard on any sign of life in the opposition.
Had other Tiger leaders and Tamil society intervened when Velupillai Pirapaharan had his deputy Mahattaya arrested and killed, the LTTE’s march towards barbarism and Pirapaharan’s self-deification could have been impeded. Army Commander Fonseka misused the military law to persecute Gen. Parakrama Pannipitiya who led the successful Eastern offensive; he was eventually jailed on a trumped-up charge of treasure hunting, to the sound of (Sinhala) silence.
Gen. Fonseka would not have thought that someday the Rajapaksas (who permitted him to have his unjust way with Gen. Pannipitiya) would mount an even more vicious witch-hunt against him. No man can be an island unto himself. The persecution of one citizen endangers the rights and freedoms of all citizens, including, someday, the perpetrators.