By Rick Westhead
South Asia Bureau, Toronto Star
COLOMBO— When Sarath Fonseka resigned as Sri Lanka’s top army general to run for president, supporters of President Mahinda Rajapaksa viewed the move as pure betrayal.
The president had helped Fonseka rise quickly through the ranks, choosing him as his top general ahead of more qualified candidates. It was shocking to many here when Fonseka on the stump alleged Rajapaksa’s government was guilty of widespread corruption, vote-rigging and nepotism.
Former army chief Sarath Fonseka (C) gestures while surrounded by prison officials as he enters the Colombo High Court in Colombo on Oct. 29, 2010. The supreme court on Oct. 29 dismissed a petitioned filed by Fonseka challenging the re-election of President Mahinda Rajapakse at January polls. ~ pic: courtesy: Getty Images/Ishara Kodikara via ~ Toronto Star
“Democracy will be restored,” Fonseka bellowed at one rally. “Your children will have a bright future.”
But in January, Rajapaksa coasted to an easy victory in Sri Lanka’s national election winning by a two-to-one margin over Fonseka.
Weeks later, Fonseka was arrested at a political meeting, court-martialed and jailed for allegedly pursuing politics while still in uniform. He was eventually sentenced to 30 months in prison.
Fonseka had also filed a petition to nullify Rajapaksa’s election alleging widespread intimidation, bribery and misconduct but Sri Lanka’s supreme court dismissed the request Friday.
Time has mellowed many here. Public sentiment in Sri Lanka now seems to be in favour of Fonseka’s release. Some say the 59-year-old, who survived an assassination attempt in 2006 by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber disguised as a pregnant woman, remains a war hero.
'Sri Lankan government remains afraid of Fonseka'
The Sri Lankan government, apparently afraid the former four-star general will foment a coup, views him differently.
In a new case that has served as front-page news for weeks, Fonseka has been charged with making a false statement to the anti-government Sunday Leader newspaper, arousing communal feelings and arousing anti-government sentiment. If convicted, he could face an additional 13 years behind bars.
Political analysts and journalists say the case signals that the Sri Lankan government remains afraid of Fonseka, his election failure notwithstanding.
The charge stems from an interview Fonseka gave the newspaper in December. He alleged the president’s brothers conspired to have Tamil Tiger rebels executed in the waning days of the country’s long civil war — even those LTTE leaders who were trying to surrender with a white flag.
“If they could lock the door on this guy and throw the key away, they would,” said Dayan Jayatilleka, a diplomat and political analyst who was once Sri Lanka’s envoy to the United Nations.
“The fear is that he is someone who has a propensity to start some kind of putsch or coup d’etat.”
After announcing his retirement, Fonseka won the endorsement of a coalition of opposition parties. They hoped the former general, a member of Sir Lanka’s Sinhalese majority who ran under the campaign slogan “Believable Change,” would appeal to Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese voters. The president’s Freedom Party, by contrast, draws its support entirely from the Sinhalese majority.
After he was court-martialed for using “traitorous” words and failing “to obey garrison or other orders,” Fonseka was stripped of his rank, medals and decorations.
The government is hinging its case against Fonseka on a story that appeared in the Sunday Leader in December.
In the story, headlined, “Gota Ordered Them To Be Shot,”
Fonseka was quoted saying he learned Basil Rajapaksa, a member of parliament and advisor to the president, had instructed defence secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, also the president’s brother, to tell a senior army brigadier “not to accommodate any LTTE leaders attempting surrender and that they must all be killed.”
Fonseka told the newspaper that the orders helped to explain how three senior LTTE leaders trapped in the war zone were killed on May 17, 2009, even as they negotiated with Norwegian diplomats to arrange their own surrender.
Fonseka’s allegations came at an awkward time for the country. Sri Lanka is under attack from a host of international human-rights organizations for its conduct during the final days of its civil war.
Earlier this year, the International Crisis Group released a report charging that the government was mostly responsible for the allegedly unnecessary deaths of some 10,000 civilians caught in the crossfire between soldiers and the LTTE. Fonseka’s statement added fuel to the fire.
“What Fonseka said was basically alleging war crimes by the government,” said Eswarapatham Saravanapavan, a Tamil politician and newspaper publisher.
“The international community hears him and says, ‘we are saying all these things are happening in Sri Lanka and here it is coming right out of the horse’s mouth.’ I think this is a guy with a lot of secrets no one in government wants out.”
The government is also using Fonseka’s interview to lash back at the Sunday Leader, one of few media outlets in Sri Lanka that has dared to challenge the government.
At least seven journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka since 2007, including the January 2009 murder of former Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickramatunga.
A government critic, Wickramatunga made international headlines when he predicted his own death in an editorial called “And Then They Came for Me.” The paper continues to feature Wickramatunga’s photo prominently and spotlight his still unsolved case. - courtesy: Toronto Star -