by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill….” - George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-four)
Some months ago, Defence Secretary and Presidential sibling Gotabhaya Rajapakse threatened to send the former Army Commander, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, to the gallows.
When BBC’s Stephen Sackur asked about the possibility of Gen. Fonseka testifying about possible war crimes, Mr. Rajapakse went into what can only be termed a fit of apoplexy: “He can’t do that. He was the commander. That’s a treason. We will hang him if he do that….. How can he betray the country? He is a liar, liar, liar” (Hard Talk - BBC). The verdict of the first military tribunal indicates that this is no idle ranting. The totally disproportionate, vindictively excessive sentence of the tribunal is a symbol of Rajapakse hatred and an omen of things to come.
In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the innermost circles of hell are reserved for those who commit the most heinous crime and this is where the Rajapakses would send General Fonseka to, because according to their worldview, going against the Ruling Family is the ultimate crime. How else can the maliciously vengeful decision to strip Gen. Sarath Fonseka of his rank and honours and dishonourably discharge him be explained?
A guilty verdict was never in doubt. What shocks is the sheer vindictiveness of the sentence given. After all, the first military tribunal convicted Gen. Fonseka of meddling in politics while in uniform, hardly an unusual occurrence in Sri Lanka (for instance, during the last Presidential election, several top ranking army officers appeared on state TV, in uniform, defending the government and Candidate Mahinda Rajapakse, while other top officers instructed soldiers to vote for the ruling party candidate). Army officers meddling in politics is not a healthy sign; but if all army officers who meddle in politics are dishonourably discharged, the top and the middle rungs of the Lankan Army would become somewhat.
Moreover, there is not even a shadow of proportionality between the charge – meddling in politics - and the sentence – dishonourable discharge and the stripping of rank and honours. Obviously the Rajapakses not only want to punish their erstwhile ally but also to humiliate him to the maximum.
Perpetrators of human rights violations often efface their crimes by turning their victims into un-persons, ‘Untermenschens’ who do not really count as ‘human’ like the ‘rest of us’. Once this process of de-humanisation is complete it is easy to render invisible even the most heinous of crimes against the target group or individual. In the Orwellian dystopia, those guilty of ‘Thoughtcrime’ were vaporized: “Your name was removed from the registers, every record of every thing you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated…” (Nineteen Eighty-four). When non-persons disappear into jails or are snuffed out on gallows, who would notice?
Is the government implementing a similar tactic vis-à-vis Gen. Fonseka? Is his sentence (dishonourable discharge and the stripping of rank and honours) aimed at transforming him from a military ‘hero’ into a civilian non-hero in the public mind, so that even hanging him can be rendered less unpalatable to the Sinhala South? Is this one of those Rajapakse sleights of hand, so that when the former Army Commander meets his final fate (already decided on by his enemies), he will do so not as General Sarath Fonseka but as Mr. Sarath Fonseka?
Is this transformation of Gen. Fonseka into Mr. Fonseka an attempt to break the link between the man and the army he once commanded? Is this vengeful sentence aimed at habituating the army to regard its former commander as an outsider, than as ‘one of us’? Is the regime using this tactic to inculcate within the army a sense of indifference towards Gen. Fonseka’s ultimate fate? Is the stage being set, so that even if Gen. Fonseka is sent to the gallows as a traitor by some other military tribunals, he will die not as the former Army Commander cum ‘war hero’ but as a disgraced civilian?
Sarath Fonseka was a member of the Triumvirate which won the war against the LTTE. That is an indisputable, unchangeable truth. Or is it? Will the government be able to wipe out this truth by turning Gen. Fonseka’s past on its head? In the Orwellian dystopia, the aim is not just to control the deeds and the thoughts of the populace but also their memory: “The Party said that Oceania has never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness…. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past’…. It was quite simple.
All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control’, they called it” (ibid). Is the Family engaged in a similar exercise of changing history via effacing public memories? After all, if Sarath Fonseka is no longer a former army officer, if he is just a civilian, could he have played any role in defeating the LTTE? Consequently is there any reason mention him in any history of the Eelam War? Vellupillai Pirapaharan used ‘Reality control’ when he arrested, tortured and murdered his one time deputy, Mahattaya. Are the Rajapakses emulating the Tiger leader in this matter as they have done in so many others?
‘Reality control’ works only in a society that is willing to adjust its collective memory according to the needs of the rulers. The North, nursing its physical and psychological in silence, is unlike to forget the key role Gen. Fonseka played in the Fourth Eelam War. Will the South remember or forget? Will the Southern society accept whatever ‘anti-truths’ the regime dishes out, in a collective exercise of ‘consciously inducing unconscious’?
Will the Sinhala supremacists, who once hailed Sarath Fonseka as a hero, remember the past, now that according to the Rajapakse worldview he is not a hero and could not have been, since he is rank-less and honour-less? Will the absolute majority of Sinhalese who danced on the streets and ate kiribath to celebrate the victory over the Tigers, spare a thought for their former idol or will he become as much of a non-person as the dead, injured and displaced Tamil civilians? Will the Maha Sangha who once venerated Sarath Fonseka condone this disproportionate and thus unjust sentence with their silence, as they condone injustice done to the minorities?
It is one thing not to vote for Sarath Fonseka. I did not. But it is quite another thing to be silent when a man is being persecuted for political reasons. I do not support Gen. Fonseka but I do not need to like his ideas and actions in order to oppose the injustice being done to him. Had Gen. Fonseka remained loyal to the Rajapakse brothers, none of the charges which are being levelled against him now would have seen the light of day. He could have meddled in politics to his heart’s content; he could have abused his powers as army commander in favour of or in detriment to anyone; he could have broken any law of the land with total impunity.
All that was required of him was to remain subservient to the Rajapakses, and obedient to all their decisions. Had he gone along with the Rajapakse project of establishing dynastic rule, post-war, on the strength of defeating the Tiger, he would still be a free man and a honoured ‘war hero’. His real crime was not the many charges which are being levelled against him in courts of law and before military tribunals. He fell because he ceased to obey the Rajapakses. And according to the Rajapakse ethos, that is the greatest crime of all, the one most impossible to forgive or forget.
The sentencing of Sarath Fonseka by the first military tribunal concerns all of us not only because it is a travesty of justice but also because it presages the future. Sarath Fonseka is no ordinary man; he was the Army Commander who helped defeat the Tigers. If that man can be denied his own past, if he can be transformed from patriot to anti-patriot, if he can be arrested, tried and convicted in a manner which violates all norms of justice and fair-play, simply because he opposed the Rajapakses, what cannot happen to other less exalted citizens when they fail the test of unquestioning obedience to the Ruling Family?
With the persecution of Sarath Fonseka, a dangerous precedent has been created which can – and will - be used against real or imaginary opponents of the Rajapakses. If the regime is allowed to get away with this crime, it will exponentially increase the threat to the life and liberty of all Rajapakse opponents, past, present or future.
A few years ago Gotabhaya Rajapakse was an average Asian American, working as a manager of a 7-11 Store in Los Angelis and subsequently as a systems analyst at the Loyola Law School. Today he is the second most powerful man in Sri Lanka, after President Mahinda Rajapakse, his brother. This great leap, from the ordinary to the extraordinary, happened thanks to the Rajapakse presidency and is being sustained by that solely.
Many other family members made similar great leaps, from obscurity to fame and fortune. For the Rajapakse tribe, the Rajapakse Presidency has meant a collective transformation from nobodies into somebodies, very important somebodies. For almost all of them, this Cinderella type changeover would not have been possible without the Rajapakse Presidency and their continued occupation of the heights depends completely on the perpetuation of Rajapakse Rule.
The Rajapakses, having gained a world have a world to lose. That is why they react with such ‘fear and vindictiveness’ to anyone they consider to be a threat to their Familial Rule and Dynastic Project. The Rajapakses, like all political parvenus, are uncertain about their grip on power and thus very jealous of it. This sense of being hemmed in by real or potential enemies and detractors, of being threatened by any outsider is abnormally high in their case because of the narrow base endemic to Familial Rule.
The Rajapakses have no natural ideology to justify and no inherent support base to buttress their rule. That is why they embraced Sinhala supremacism and presented themselves as the creators and protectors of a Sinhala-First Sri Lanka. Gen. Fonseka is not just a military man and a ‘war hero’; he is also a strident Sinhala supremacist, and as such a contender for the same ideology and the same base. This is one more reason why the Rajapakses are reacting with such venomous anger towards his political ambitions.
The Rajapakses began by targeting those who opposed its excesses, especially in the conduct of the Fourth Eelam War. Like the Tigers, they too deemed criticism of certain individuals and entities unacceptable, equating such criticism with anti-patriotism. Until just over a year ago, Sarath Fonseka was an enthusiastic votary of Rajapakse governance. He was an architect of the myth of humanitarian operation with zero-civilian casualties. He was blasé about human rights violations and injudicious towards minorities and Southern dissidents. And within the army, his conduct was almost as virulently intolerant as the Rajapakses are within the country.
Today he is at the receiving end of those Rajapakse practices which he approved of and implemented not so long ago. Gen. Fonseka’s story is a morality tale: a citizen cannot tolerate injustice, condone impunity and practice abuse, without sowing the seeds of his own downfall. Irrespective of whether we agree with Sarath Fonseka or not, we cannot remain silent in his moment of peril, without imperilling ourselves.