- General Sarath Fonseka
By Frederica Jansz
The first Court Martial has found (Rtd) General Sarath Fonseka guilty of political activity and sentenced him to a dishonorable discharge. The ruling has to be approved by President Mahinda Rajapaksa who is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. This comes after an often-delayed trial which finally proceeded during court holidays despite Fonseka not having legal counsel during that time.
Fonseka fell out of favour with the government when he decided to challenge President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2010 Presidential Election as the common opposition candidate. Prior to that he was the powerful Army Commander during the war and was portrayed as close to the President and his brother, the Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Fonseka is currently an MP from the opposition Democratic National Alliance party though he remains under arrest. He was tried for political activity while in office and a second court martial for corrupt procurement practices is continuing. His supporters allege that these accusations are politically motivated.
The first charge is that General Fonseka, who was then serving as Chief of Defence Staff, had made certain remarks to one time United National Party (UNP) Parliamentarian Johnston Fernando. The second that Fonseka, as Chief of Defence Staff, actually asked for the support of Johnston Fernando to have his name proposed at the UNP Working Committee as the presidential candidate. The third is for having over three dozen telephone conversations discussing politics with UNP MP and Deputy General Secretary Lakshman Seneviratne also whilst serving as Chief of Defence Staff.
JVP Parliamentary Group Leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake said there was no legal provision to present former Army Commander, General Sarath Fonseka before a court martial.
He said that General Fonseka could not be brought before a court martial according to the Army Act and that a Habeas Corpus has been filed before the Supreme Court requesting his release.
UNP Parliamentarian Lakshman Seneviratne went before the first court martial and gave evidence against Retired General Sarath Fonseka in this case.
Gamini Abeyratne known as “Taxi Abey” one time Executive Director of Airport and Aviation Services Ltd., together with Minister Johnston Fernando were the other two witnesses.
The trial focused on nearly 40 telephone conversations had between Lakshman Seneviratne and Fonseka during his tenure as Chief of Defence Staff.
Lakshman Seneviratne recounting some of those conversations said, “Fonseka’s close confidant and journalist Ruwan Weerakoon initially brokered those phone conversations.” Weerakoon was one time defence correspondent for The Nation newspaper.
“I had never met or spoken with the General before. Weerakoon contacted me middle of last year and said the General wished to speak with me. He brought a CDMA (Satellite) phone he claimed belonged to the Sri Lanka Army to my house at Pitakotte where he telephoned Fonseka and the General spoke with me.”
Seneviratne added, “The General told me he was planning his retirement. He said he intended to enter politics after he retired from service. I saw nothing wrong in this. He then told me that he would be flying to America on September 23, last year and returning a month later in October. He said he thereafter intended to enter politics. He asked me for my support.”
Seneviratne went on to say that during the course of these many telephone conversations he (Seneviratne) together with a number of other UNP MPs “all like minded colleagues” were meeting at Gamini Abeyratne’s apartment at the Sun City complex in Colombo 3 - to discuss party reforms for the UNP. “All of us were disgruntled and fed-up of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership – Wickremesinghe was not going to contest the presidential election – we wanted to win and form our own government so at that stage we had proposed S. B. Dissanayake’s name as a presidential candidate – but Wickremesinghe turned it down. It was at this juncture that it seemed more than feasible to promote Sarath Fonseka as the main opposition candidate.”
At the time UNP MP Johnston Fernando was also a part of these meetings at Abeyratne’s apartment. Fernando subsequently defected to the Government in December last year weeks before the conclusion of the presidential election in January this year. Fernando is currently Minister of Cooperatives and Internal Trade.
Gamini Abeyratne recounting what happened said that on one of these occasions when Lakshman Seneviratne had come to his apartment he had said General Fonseka who at the time was still CDS would be telephoning him in a short while.
“The General did indeed call. Seneviratne at that stage indicated to me that he was not certain if indeed he was speaking to Fonseka since he had not spoken to him before nor met him. I told him to put the phone on speaker as I knew Fonseka’s voice and could verify if indeed it was him. This Seneviratne did and the moment I heard the General speak I knew it was Sarath Fonseka. The following conversation ensued,” Abeyratne said.
Lakshman Seneviratne: Hello General. When are you going to retire?
Sarath Fonseka: Not decided. I am going to America on September 23, and returning in October. I am going to contest against Mahinda Rajapaksa. Please try to support me.
Lakshman Seneviratne: Ok. We will try to do something.
“Some more pleasantries were exchanged before the General ended the call,” Abeyratne said.
Abeyratne went on to recount how Ruwan Weerakoon meanwhile brought a similar phone also CDMA and belonging to the army (“because these phones could not be tapped”) to the Cricket Café off Duplication Road where another meeting was set-up with Johnston Fernando.
Weerakoon on this occasion used two mobile phones too from which he called the General Fernando says he was nervous at this meeting but had been reassured by Ruwan Weerakoon not to worry that there was a pistol team nearby who could be summoned at a moment’s notice if any trouble arose. Thereafter, Weerakoon had telephoned the General and handed the phone over to Fernando. Johnston says he moved into the garden of the Cricket Café to take the call. The General had spoken in Sinhala asking how Johnston was doing. He had then proceeded to tell Fernando that he intended to retire and enter politics. Fernando had asked when he would retire at which point the General had replied, “After September. I am going to the US and returning in October I will resign from office then. I will then contest the presidential election against Mahinda Rajapaksa.”
After Fonseka’s return in October 2009 the leaders of the opposition parties met with him secretly at numerous locations. That is what finally culminated in him being chosen as the main opposition candidate.
Ruwan Weerakoon has meanwhile denied to the CID that he ever facilitated these phone calls between the General and Lakshman Seneviratne and Johnston Fernando.
Seneviratne Friday told The Sunday Leader “I regret having had to go before this court martial. But I was really cornered. This is a very unfortunate incident.”
Seneviratne reiterated that the entire episode took a turn following Johnston Fernando’s and Gamini Abeyratne’s defection to the government weeks before the conclusion of the presidential poll. “Thereafter it all turned ugly following the conclusion of the poll and Rajapaksa’s comeback.”
The court martial proceeded without defence counsel. Sources close to General Fonseka’s family told The Sunday Leader that the defence counsel had informed the court martial that they would not be appearing for the case, as they were on vacation.
The court nevertheless proceeded to hear the case resulting in Friday’s order which stripped Fonseka of all rank.
Gardihewa Sarath Chandralal Fonseka, joined the Sri Lanka Army in 1970 and saw extensive action throughout the 26 year civil war, culminating in a term as Commander of the Army from December 6, 2005 – July 15, 2009. As Commander, he oversaw the final phase of the Sri Lankan civil war, which resulted in the total defeat of the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam organisation. He also survived an assassination attempt when an LTTE suicide bomber attacked his motorcade in April 2006. Following the end of the war Fonseka was promoted to a four star rank in the Sri Lanka Army, becoming the first serving officer to hold the rank of full general. He has been described as Sri Lanka’s most successful army commander, and his successful conduct of the war led the Indian National Security Advisor Kelath Narayanan to describe him as the “best army commander in the world.”
General Sarath Fonseka MP, has frequently recounted how he won the war. The Sri Lanka Army’s strategy of acting like a guerrilla organisation, the restructuring of the Army, ending corruption, increasing its strength, firepower and a direct chain of command that went from the top to grass root levels, forced the end of terrorism in this country, he says.
When he took over the Army, the LTTE was acting almost like a conventional army and was considered to be unstoppable. Like a conventional army, they had to protect land, equipment and armaments.
In conversations with The Sunday Leader Fonseka explained how he achieved victory, how, “From our side, we changed our tactics and strategies. We started acting like guerrillas, making incursions into their territories in small groups and carrying out daring attacks when the LTTE challenged us in the jungles.”
“I was the chief architect responsible for strategy, restructure, and implementation of the entire war. The small group guerilla tactics of’ ’search and kill’ in contrast to conventional battles for territorial conquests was the major deviation from previous war strategies. The strategy was implemented with clinical precision and thus effective in achieving a kill rate that stealthily and steadily destroyed the enemy despite no major show of grand battle successes. The strategy was amply supported by exorbitant and unaffordable but effective state of the art defence technology which gave a clear edge over the enemy. Intensive and incessant attack and bombardment of enemy territory, despite overwhelming obstacles, was also a key feature of the winning strategy,” Fonseka said.