Rajapakse Regime And The Fonseka Phenomenon: Genesis Of Current Crisis
By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Not withstanding desperate denials to the contrary, current developments have clearly demonstrated the deep divisions existing between the ruling Rajapaksa regime and former Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka.
In a controversial turn of events General Fonseka has submitted his resignation from the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) post held by him. It has been promptly accepted by President Rajapaksa and is expected to come into effect from December 1.
It is widely believed that Sarath Fonseka after official retirement would plunge into politics and would contest against President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the forthcoming presidential election.
The erstwhile army commander’s foray into presidential hustings is expected to get the backing of a number of opposition parties ranging from the United National Party (UNP) to Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).
In May this year when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) met its waterloo by the waters of Nandhikkadal lagoon, the lion’s share of credit for the victory against the Tigers was apportioned to a triad at the helm.
The triumvirate comprising President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Army Chief Sarath Fonseka was hailed for providing political, administrative and military leadership respectively in the triumphant war against the Tigers.
Barely six months later this triumphant triumvirate lies fractured with Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka getting ready to cross swords with the other two in what is likely to be a bitter, divisive political battle to be fought fiercely.
It is as if Bernard Montgomery was contesting against Winston Churchill after World War II or Sam Manekshaw competing with Indira Gandhi after the Bangladesh war!
Why has this happened?
What are the reasons for this unsavoury spectacle where an army chief responsible for leading his troops against the enemy is now turning his electoral guns against the very same Commander-in-Chief under whom he fought victoriously?
There are no clear or definite answers at this juncture. Nevertheless the purpose of this article is to examine recent events and shed some light that would be helpful in understanding the genesis of this crisis.
Mahendra Percival Rajapaksa known as Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected Executive President on November 18, 2005. Despite being elected through an enforced boycott by the Tigers it soon became apparent that Medamulana and Valvettithurai were on a collision course.
President Rajapaksa made two crucial appointments at the onset of his presidency in anticipation of a savage war with the LTTE. One was to make his younger sibling Gotabaya Rajapaksa Defence Secretary. The other was to appoint Sarath Fonseka as Army Commander and extend his tenure.
Gotabaya, an old soldier himself held the rank of Lt. Colonel when he quit the army in 1991 and migrated to the United States of America. Although a US citizen Gotabaya returned to serve his brother and country with a missionary zeal. His objective was to defeat and destroy the LTTE and rid Sri Lanka of a menace plaguing it for decades.
It was at Gotabaya’s behest that Sarath Fonseka was made army chief. He was scheduled to retire as he would have reached the mandatory age 55 on December 6, 2005. But Gotabaya persuaded his brother to make Sarath army chief because Fonseka was the best man to lead the army at that point of time.
The serving Commander Maj. Gen. Shantha Kottegoda was sent to Brazil as ambassador and Fonseka brought in. Thereafter his term was extended each year in December. This time he would not seek extension on December 6.
A tough soldier
There is unanimous opinion that Sarath Fonseka is a tough soldier and astute commander. He is a man of tremendous courage and remarkable military acumen. But there were other aspects to his character and military record that negated his prospects of being army commander.
Chief among them was an inflated ego of gigantic proportions. This resulted in a lot of friction earlier between Fonseka and his contemporaries. The long standing rivalry between Fonseka and his naval counterpart Wasantha Karannagoda is legendary. So too was the intra-army strife with another top-notch soldier, Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera.
There was also Fonseka’s colossal arrogance. He fancied himself as a combination of Hannibal, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Napoleon and Rommel. In Sarath Fonseka’s self-perception he was Sri Lanka’s greatest military treasure and all glory was due to him alone. It was the “I, me, myself alone” syndrome.
Most contemporary officers resented the cantankerous bullying and crowing of Sarath Fonseka. They admired him as a professional but disliked him at a personal level. But Fonseka was highly popular among the rank and file. He always looked after their welfare and earned their respect and regard.
Abysmal human rights record
There were also other alleged ignoble traits. There have been many allegations (none proven) of sexual impropriety. Moreover as a hawkish soldier his human rights record was abysmal. In 1990 for example there were large scale massacres of Tamil youths in the Amparai District which was under his command. Even recently Fonseka’s hand was suspected in some attacks on journalists.
Sarath Fonseka like Janaka Perera had been fingered in many reports by reputed human rights organisations as well as those by Commissions of Inquiry. Though they hated each other Janaka and Sarath were both in the same boat. Both President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were reluctant to appoint them earlier as army commanders.
Despite their positive military credentials their negative attributes stood in the way of achieving the highest military office. Another reason contributing to this was the suspicion and fear about ulterior motives. There was paranoia (unfair perhaps) that Sarath and Janaka could bring about a coup d’etat. This is a perpetual concern of successive regimes since the 1962 abortive coup.
For all these reasons , Sarath Fonseka was denied what he felt was his rightful place as army commander. It is said that President Rajapaksa was also reluctant to appoint Sarath but Gotabaya got his brother to go ahead. Apparently the President relied on his brother’s guarantee that Sarath would be “managed” by him (Gota).
This is how Sarath became army chief. After the first year Mahinda wanted to let Sarath go but again Gotabaya intervened and stayed his brother’s hand. In the early stages Gotabaya evolved a satisfactory working relationship with Sarath and set the military juggernaut rolling forward.
Both had a lot in common as they were fellow Anandians and more or less of the same age. Sarath got into the army as part of the third intake while Gotabaya was of the fourth intake. They served together in crucial battlefronts like that of Vadamaratchi in 1987. Both played a role in the midnight express evacuation exercise of Jaffna Fort in 1990. Sarath was Colonel and Gotabaya Lt. Colonel when the latter quit the army.
Another bond between both was their common intention of destroying the LTTE. The reverse of this was that the LTTE also was determined to kill both as the Tigers realised that the death of this duo would cripple the war effort beyond redemption.
Sarath Fonseka was seriously injured in a woman suicide bomber attempt within Army Headquarters but miraculously survived and bounced back in what was perhaps a medical marvel. This was another revelation of the man’s grit and stamina.
There was a near successful attempt on Gotabaya too when a three-wheeler exploded near his convoy at the Piththala junction on Greenpath. Gotabaya was not injured but again escaped death by a hair’s breadth.
The fact that both survived LTTE attempts to kill them drew them closer and strengthened their resolve to fight the war to the finish. Initially there was a lot of camaraderie between both and so great was this perceived relationship that there were rumours of their offspring marrying. But this was simply a rumour.
The war progressed and the nation as well as world at large witnessed the LTTE being slowly driven back and the armed forces advancing. But the Sarath-Gotabaya equation was under strain. According to defence establishment insiders the greater share of blame for this was Sarath’s.
There was a time when a uniformed Gotabaya saluted his superior officer Sarath Fonseka. Now Gotabaya was in civvies but entitled to salutes from Sarath as Defence Secretary. Though Sarath saluted Gotabaya and addressed him as “sir” in public, the egoistic Fonseka was unhappy about this turnabout.
To the average military officer anyone in “civvy street” was an object of contempt. This was so in the case of Sarath who was now perceiving Gotabaya as a civilian boss. Gotabaya to his credit did not play soldier and indulge in antics like Anuruddha Ratwatte. He conducted himself as a civilian in authority refusing to wear uniform or be made General.
Nevertheless there were several instances of Sarath Fonseka shooting his mouth off about how galling it was for him to salute Gotabaya his junior in the army. Given the penchant for tale-carrying in Sri Lanka these comments were duly conveyed to Gotabaya.
But Gotabaya stomached them and continued to work with Sarath as he felt that Fonseka was the best person to prosecute the war with the LTTE. It must be remembered that Gotabaya was a man with a mission and was prepared to sup with even the devil till “mission accomplished.”
There is no doubt that ultimately wars are won on the actual battlefield and that the role of the infantry is crucial at decisive stages but the problem with Sarath Fonseka was that he regarded the army and the army alone as being pivotal and the sole repository of all kudos. In this there was something puerile in Fonseka. Unfortunately the power he wielded made him an enfant terrible.
There was much inter-service strife. So great was the animosity against the Army Commander and by extension the army that it required Herculean efforts to get the navy and air force cooperate with the army. Ideally this coordination should have been the task of former Air Force Chief and Chief of Defence Staff Donald Perera. But Fonseka paid scant regard to Donald Perera.
It was therefore the onerous duty of Gotabaya to manage tensions and coordinate matters. He liaised between the army and navy and army and air force. He smoothed ruffled feelings and secured the cooperation of all. Fonseka and Karannagoda the navy chief were not on speaking terms. Relations were rather strained though not ruptured between Air Force Chief Gunatilleke and Fonseka.
The navy had played an important role by destroying many LTTE ships and interdicting supplies to the Tigers. The naval cordon too had been very effective curtailing Sea Tiger movement to a very great extent. Likewise the air force had conducted several successful strikes on LTTE installations demolishing many Tiger arms dumps. The aerial attack that killed LTTE Political Commissar Suppiah Paramu Thamilselvan was a significant achievement.
But all these were apparently not acknowledged by Fonseka in discussions within the corridors of power. Discussions like those of the National Security Council were turned into colleague haranguing monologues by Sarath Fonseka. Still Gotabaya managed to keep the war going by deftly striking a balance among all three services. Both Mahinda and Gotabaya treated Sarath as a prima donna throwing occasional tantrums.
Dennis the menace
As far as Sarath Fonseka was concerned he went on like a spoiled brat causing havoc. A latter day Dennis the Menace! Gotabaya was like a tolerant mother cleaning up the mess made by her recalcitrant child. There was also Sarath’s selfishness that created a lot of heartburn within the army too.
Sarath Fonseka departed from tradition by withholding promotions and transferring officers whom the army chief regarded as not being efficient or up to the mark. In a noteworthy deviation from accepted norms several junior officers who proved themselves in battle were given rapid promotions.
Fonseka justified these actions as promoting the strong and penalising the weak in the army so that the force could be transformed into a formidable fighting machine. This unorthodox approach was rather successful in extracting frontline results and had the support of Gotabaya in principle.
But the downside of this was growing discontentment against Fonseka among many officers. Several officers of Major, Lt. Col and Col rank were deprived of rightful promotions and sullenly harboured resentment. Again it was Gotabaya’s lot to soothe hurt feelings.
These feelings were exacerbated by the naked favouritism displayed by Fonseka towards certain officers and unconcealed antipathy towards some others.
For instance Parakrama Pannipitiya, the conqueror of the east was transferred and then removed from his post despite his military triumph. This was simply because he had fallen foul of Fonseka.
Pannipitiya was treated very shabbily and denied security. He had to go to courts to get it restored. Later Pannipitiya was framed on a frivolous treasure hunt charge and penalised. He is now being restored to grace after Fonseka’s fall from grace.
On the other hand blue-eyed boys of Fonseka like Samantha Sooriyabandara were not subjected to penalties in spite of an abysmal military record as 53 Division commander. Sooriyabandara suffered many reversals in his ill-fated attempts to break through LTTE defences along the Muhamalai axis but was not axed. Eventually he got a plum assignment as defence attaché to the Washington Embassy.
The growing disenchantment within military officers towards the conduct of Sarath Fonseka was best encapsuled in a pithy comment attributed to battle-hardened Brigadier Rajaguru. “If we go front there is Johnny and if we fall back there is Fonny.” Johnny refers to the LTTE’s anti-personnel mine and Fonny of course is Fonseka.
A glaring illustration of Fonseka’s tendency for self-aggrandisement on the one hand and denying honours to subordinate-colleagues was visible in 2007 when the Vishista Seva Vibushanaya (VSV) awards were conferred.
The VSV is regarded as equivalent to the Distinguished Service order.
In the case of the army all officers above Lt.Col rank with 30 years of unblemished service were eligible for this. Incidentally Sarath Fonseka who completed 30 years in 2000 was yet to be awarded a VSV due to perhaps the operative requirement ‘unblemished.’
What the Army Chief did in 2007 was to refrain from recommending any serving officer other than himself for the VSV. He also proposed that only retired or serving army commanders be given the VSV. To his credit Gotabaya disagreed.
Regulations forbade the recommendations of the army commander being disregarded in the case of serving officers. But the Defence Secretary ensured that 11 retired army officers got the VSV. This infuriated Fonseka.
Irritants between Sarath and Gotabaya were not restricted within the defence establishment alone. Sarath Fonseka in media interviews would drop very heavy bricks causing an adverse fall-out. On one occasion he called Tamil Nadu politicians “jokers in the pay of the LTTE.” When New Delhi remonstrated Fonseka was asked to issue an apology. He refused. It was left to Gotabaya to patch up by issuing an apology for no fault of his own.
Then there was the infamous interview given to the Canadian newspaper National Post. Fonseka said Sri Lanka belonged to the majority Sinhalese and that the minorities can stay but have no say. He was asked to do some damage control by clarifying matters in another interview to a state controlled newspaper. In that he was even worse saying the minority communities could not make undue demands like federalism.
It could be seen therefore that relations between the Rajapaksas and Fonseka had been under strain for quite some time. The public split was not something out of the blue but a logical culmination of simmering tensions.
Sarath Fonseka’s attitude was resented but accommodated because he was considered crucially important to the war effort. He was humoured greatly but when the war ended and Fonseka was perceived as exceeding his limits the Rajapaksa regime came down heavily on him. This situation was compounded by paranoia on the one hand and pique on the other.
Sarath Fonseka had been regularly boasting about his prowess in prosecuting the war successfully as the battles were in progress. He saw himself as a latter day Dutu Gemunu and even had at one stage a picture of Gemunu on an elephant before whom a cowering Elara was kneeling. A foreign journalist who saw this art said that the face of Gemunu resembled Sarath
When Fonseka went on blowing his Rohana trumpet the Rajapaksas were annoyed but tolerated him till the task was done. He was also allowed to derive popularity mileage due to the war. Even President Rajapaksa basked in reflected glory with some posters showing Mahinda and Sarath marching together towards victory.
But the President was growing increasingly insecure about Sarath’s growing popularity among the people. This was akin to Ranasinghe Premadasa’s resentment and fear over Denzil Kobbekaduwa. But Rajapaksa was confident that brother Gotabaya would not let things get out of hand.
On the other hand Fonseka was resenting the fact that he had to share popularity gained through war victories with the President and government. For example he was irritated by the delay in announcing the fall of Sampur in order to coincide with the SLFP convention. Fonseka was openly critical of politicians and politics and referred to them derisively.
This resentment on the part of Fonseka to the President getting praised for war victories was manifested during the demise of Velupillai Pirapaharan. The President who was abroad at the time was misinformed that the LTTE Leader was no more on May 16th. A jubilant Rajapaksa returned on 17th and kissed the tarmac in an exhibition of patriotic glee.
He learnt later that Pirapaharan was not yet reported dead but was very likely to be encircled and finished off very soon. An address to the nation was scheduled by the President for the morning of May 19th to announce the Tiger supremo’s death.
Refused to confirm
But to Mahinda’s chagrin Fonseka refused to confirm the death and the President’s anticipated announcement did not materialise. But after the Presidential address was concluded the Army Chief announced to the nation that Pirapaharan had been killed. Sarath Fonseka and not Mahinda Rajapaksa made the historic announcement.
This heralded the floodgates opening for waters of resentment in Rajapaksa ranks to flow towards Fonseka. The Army Chief aggravated the situation by glorifying himself as the sole cause for victory. The contribution of other officers, other defence services, the Defence Secretary and President were overlooked or ignored.
Several newspaper articles singing paeans of praise to Sarath Fonseka began appearing in the media. Victory celebrations extolled the martial virtues of Sarath Fonseka and he blew his own trumpet lustily in media interviews. Media persons close to Sarath wrote books giving too much credit to the army chief. The President and Defence Secretary were eclipsed.
While the role played by Sarath Fonseka in the war is certainly praiseworthy the part played by Gotabaya also deserves much credit. It was he who planned out the military strategy and implemented it by coordinating and directing the entire military effort. He was the lynchpin that linked the defence establishment with the political executive.
Winning over India
Gotabaya secured military assistance from diverse sources and channelled them productively. He, Basil Rajapaksa and Lalith Weeratunge were responsible for winning over India. The full cooperation of the armed forces were secured by Gotabaya despite the stumbling blocks placed by Sarath Fonseka.
Likewise President Rajapaksa provided leadership at a very high level. He fully backed the war effort resisting tremendous pressure from powerful quarters to call off the war. He stood resolutely against mounting international criticism about how the war was being conducted. The President gave a free hand and unlimited support to the armed forces to finish the job.
Under these circumstances President Rajapaksa also deserved praise for the war success. Besides President Rajapaksa was relying heavily on war victory euphoria to gain victories in the political arena. Fonseka’s attempt to hog all credit was impacting on these plans.
Another evolving divergence was about re-settlement of Wanni IDPs. President Rajapaksa had given assurances to the UN, IMF, Western nations and India on this account and had obtained aid from the IMF predicated on these guarantees. But the hawkish Fonseka was of a different opinion. He wanted prolonged detention of IDPs to identify and eradicate Tigers masquerading as civilians.
Fonseka also wanted the army’s strength to be increased to 300,000 and at least 100,000 deployed in the Wanni. He had elaborate plans of settling army families in cantonments in the Wanni thereby changing the demography in the north. Fonseka had once stated in an interview about attacks from Tamils during his childhood in Amparai District. For him the war was not over.
There was also a perceived shift in Sarath Fonseka’s outlook. The adulation received from the masses was affecting him. From being a person who spurned politics and ridiculed politicians the Army Chief began hinting at a political role for him in the future.
On spirited occasions the General fires off like a loose cannon. Fonseka began talking of himself as the man who defeated the Tamils like the son of Ruhunu and began querying from friends and acquaintances in bantering tones “Why can’t I be the next president?”
He was also critical of sycophantic attempts to project Mahinda as the great emperor who won the war and saved the country. As far as Sarath was concerned it was he and not Mahinda who won the war and saved the country.
As news of this changed attitude was conveyed to the Rajapaksa brothers the alarm bells started ringing. A real or imaginary threat to the President’s political fortunes was perceived.
At least three separate intelligence reports were officially and unofficially commissioned. The essence of these reports stated that Fonseka was nursing political ambitions and that he enjoyed equal if not more popularity among the masses than Mahinda Rajapaksa himself.
There was thus a re-alignment within the triumvirate. The Rajapaksa brothers saw an emerging threat in Sarath Fonseka. On the one hand Mahinda saw Sarath as someone who could usurp his political leadership. On the other Gotabaya was miffed by the crudely blatant efforts of Fonseka to deny the important role played by the Defence Secretary
The Rajapaksa regime that mollycoddled Sarath Fonseka and tolerated all his past idiosyncrasies and foibles was no longer prepared to do so. First came a rule by the Defence Secretary that no service chief could give media interviews without permission or monitoring. This effectively restricted the media monopoly of Fonseka.
Then came a swift transformation of public posters. The earlier ones with Mahinda and Sarath gave way to new ones with Mahinda, Gotabaya and Basil. The old trinity was replaced with the new one based on blood ties.
There was also an incident that caused a rift between Gotabaya and Sarath. Two shipments of ammunition and artillery shells ordered earlier arrived after the war ended. Gotabaya turned them back saying they were unnecessary as the war was over.
According to knowledgeable circles the middleman was a Pakistani national who went by the name Ahmed Nissar. It was widely rumoured that Sarath Fonseka’s son-in-law Danuna Tillekaratne was associated with this middleman and received US two cents per bullet and US$ 20, per shell as commission. These rumours have neither been confirmed, denied, challenged or disproved.
There continued various irritants between the Rajapaksas and Fonseka. Some of the noteworthy ones included the one where first Lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa and elder son Namal were stopped by the army on a journey to the north and were delayed unduly for hours. This was seen as being done at the behest of Fonseka himself.
On July 9 Fonseka spoke at a book launch about the war in which he heaped compliments upon himself lavishly. Token lip service was paid to the President’s role. Gotabaya was virtually ignored. According to Sarath he and he alone had won the war with the President’s support. It was a one-man show. This implied that Sarath and not Mahinda was the saviour of the nation.
Another incident was the felicitation ceremony at Dharmasoka College, Ambalangoda on July 10. All traffic was stopped along the Galle Road for hours. There were massive security arrangements made arbitrarily by Sarath’s security personnel causing much hardship to people.
Sarath waxed eloquent about his role in winning the war alone to an appreciative home audience. In the process he shot himself in the foot by allegedly admitting that Tigers who surrendered with white flags were shot dead in cold blood.
Law unto themselves
There were increasing signs that Sarath and his merrymen in the army were becoming a law unto themselves. It was as if a parallel authority was being exercised by Fonseka in certain spheres.
At one point five journalists who sang Fonseka’s praises in their respective media organs were granted special protection by the army chief. The reason given was that there was a threat to their lives from the Naval Chief Wasantha Karannagoda’s men.
Another high-handed incident was the one in which military officials acting under the orders of Fonseka arrested the aide de camp of Jagath Jayasuriya the present army chief. There was even a move to arrest Jayasuriya too but was thwarted.
In the meantime developments in far off Honduras were impacting on Sri Lanka. Manuel Zelaya the Honduran president was planning a referendum aimed at extending his term of office in a roundabout way. The courts rejected the referendum proposal but Zelaya in an act of defiance went ahead and ordered the army to begin distributing ballot papers.
The Army Chief Gen. Romeo Vásquez Velázquez refused to do so. President Zelaya then sacked Velazquez and went ahead with his plans. On June 28th Velasquez staged a military coup. Zelaya was arrested and packed off to neighbouring Costa Rica. News of this Honduran coup rattled the powers that be and a state controlled newspaper in Colombo gave a lot of prominence to the event.
Shortly after this coup a friendly country passed an intelligence tip that a military coup was possible in Sri Lanka too. The friendly country suggested that the Army Chief could enact a coup with the backing of another country. Both countries concerned were sworn enemies but were friendly towards Sri Lanka.
It was against this backdrop that the government acted. Fonseka was urgently summoned on July 12th and given three days to bow out as Army Chief and take over as Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).
The CDS post had been in existence for decades but in recent times the powers were revamped. As the senior most service chief Karannagoda was to succeed Donald Perera but Fonseka who regarded the Navy Chief as his bete noire objected vehemently and wanted it himself.
This was granted but Fonseka wanted to take up that position only after the ceremonial functions of the Army’s 60th anniversary were over. Fonseka wanted to be army chief at that time. Another reason for procrastinating was that Fonseka was unhappy about the CDS having to report to the Defence Secretary and not the President. He was seeking an amendment on that count.
Since Fonseka objected to Karannagoda being made CDS, President Rajapaksa appointed the Navy Chief as defence adviser. Karannagoda was also made Secretary to the Highways Ministry. Fonseka was angry at this. He was also resentful of the close friendship between the First Lady and Mrs. Karannagoda.
But suddenly Fonseka’s world went crashing down. He was summoned and given an ultimatum. Reluctantly Fonseka submitted and relinquished his army chief post and became CDS. His request that his close associate Gen. Chandrasiri be made army chief was rejected. The Rajapaksas were in no mood to appoint someone close to Fonseka. Instead Jayasuriya ranking 9th in seniority was appointed army chief.
Thereafter Fonseka found himself being undermined systematically. Exhibits pertaining to him were removed at the army exhibition. His address at the 60th anniversary function was blacked out in the state and significant sections of the non-state media.
There were also rumours that people suspected of being close to Fonseka were being edged out slowly from sensitive posts in the defence establishment. Strategically important positions were filled by persons hostile to Fonseka.
Even his staff at CDS was infiltrated by elements hostile to him. There was also much talk that Fonseka and those regarded as loyalists were being monitored.
In a comical exercise there was an announcement that Fonseka would be made secretary to the Sports Ministry. Sports Minister Gamini Lokuge was not informed but welcomed it. But the proposal turned into a damp squib as Fonseka rebuffed it.
Fonseka supporters in opposition parties began a campaign criticising the government for insulting the ex- army chief by offering him the sports secretary post. It was also projected by the opposition that being appointed CDS was a comedown for Fonseka. This compelled the usually taciturn Gotabaya to set the record straight on the CDS affair via newspapers
Ministers attack Fonseka
In another development cabinet ministers and non-cabinet ministers started attacking Fonseka indirectly. He was implicitly criticised for having political ambitions. There was also constant paranoia that a coup was being planned. There was also suspicion that Fonseka was engaged in negotiations with opposition parties though a journalist emissary.
While all this controversy was raging Fonseka himself kept silent holding his cards close to his chest. This itself amounted to making a virtue out of necessity as Fonseka could not make public statements without permission while in the service.
While the country was agog with excitement at this undeclared tussle between the Rajapaksa regime and Fonseka phenomenon, pathetic efforts were made by people like Military Spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara to deny the obvious. A jocular attempt was made to cowe the media into silence by threatening legal action.
But the divide became very visible when Sarath Fonseka visited the US in October to renew his Green Card. When Fonseka informed Colombo about a potential interview with US Dept. of Homeland Security there was widespread panic resulting in Foreign Minister Bogollagama staging a press conference to protest. This indicated very clearly the breakdown in relations between the government and its ex – army chief.
There was also speculation that many opposition parties including the UNP and JVP would support Fonseka as common opposition candidate. On November 6 Sarath Fonseka met with Ranil Wickremesinghe, Rauf Hakeem, Mano Ganesan and Mangala Samaraweera. It is believed that a decision was arrived at then for these parties to support Fonseka but no one has explicitly confirmed or denied it.
On Wednesday, November 11 the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces had a one to one meeting with his erstwhile Army Chief at Temple Trees. In a candid conversation Fonseka told the President that due to “erosion of trust and confidence” he was compelled to quit.
President Rajapaksa responded by saying that Fonseka’s resignation would be accepted promptly if and when submitted. According to news reports the President had quipped that Sarath Fonseka could always return to him after suffering defeat at the presidential elections. Fonseka reportedly smiled.
Gen. Sarath Fonseka then submitted his resignation coming into effect from December 1st to Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga at 1.30 pm on Thursday, November 12.
The three-page letter outlining 17 reasons for quitting was promptly accepted as President Mahinda Rajapaksa had given clear instructions that the resignation should be accepted if and when Fonseka submitted it.
Fonseka worshipped at the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara the same evening. Replying to questions from the media about his plans for entering politics the General replied that he would speak out after shedding his uniform formally in December.
In a disgraceful indicator of what Fonseka could expect in the future an instigated mob gathered at the Vihara premises blocking Sarath’s vehicle. He was also hooted at and jeered. The mastermind behind the mobbing is well-known.
The current crisis is a result of brewing discontent between the Rajapaksas and Fonseka over a long period of time. While these tensions were managed and contained during the war they have exploded openly after the war victory. In a sense the strife is all about who deserves the greater credit and reward for fighting and winning the war. A fight for the spoils of victory!
Essentially this is a personality clash devoid of differences in principle or policy. Extreme paranoia, seething passions, jealousy, vengeful thinking and wounded pride have exacerbated the situation.
Attempts by one side to put down perceived political challenges and efforts by the other side to counter them are creating a situation where diametrically opposite forces are reconfiguring themselves as political bedfellows.
There is a lamentable absence of firm policy and a complete abandonment of principle. No holds barred political expediency seems to be the order of the day. On another level the current situation is also the culmination of a long process of militarisation of Sri Lankan society and a gradual politicisation of the military.
There has been a creeping militarisation that has eroded civic, democratic values. The military was afforded an unhealthy paramountcy over the years. It’s crunch time now!
This then is the situation. The nation has come to a sorry state where the former Army Chief is poised to wage an electoral battle against his former Commander-in-Chief. Whatever the outcome of this titanic clash there is no doubt that the country on the whole will suffer irredeemable harm.