Imprisonment Of General Sarath Fonseka
The imprisonment of General Sarath Fonseka, consequent to a trial by a war tribunal could be described as one of the ugliest incidents that has taken place under the Rajapaksa regime. At a glance, it appears to be an act of serious and ruthless revenge taken from a political opponent who contested against the President at the presidential election.
In view of the nature of the responsibility of the post that he held in the army and the conditions applicable to his post, General Sarath Fonseka required the approval of the President to retire from his service in the army. The President’s approval had been an essential condition.
The general opinion of the opposition parties was that the President would not allow General Sarath Fonseka to retire from his service, thereby preventing him from contesting the presidential election. Yet the President allowed him to retire from service and contest the election though, using the enormous power that he possessed, he could have prevented him from entering politics.
In the backdrop of the victory over the war against the LTTE, the power and fame of the President had soared enormously high. The opposition had become so weak that they were not in a position to field a strong candidate capable of giving a good fight at the election. In the circumstances, the opposition parties viewed General Sarath Fonseka as a redemptive Messiah. Having accomplished a significant role in the war which defeated the LTTE, General Sarath Fonseka had earned an enviable reputation among the few war heroes produced by the war. Despite the differences in their political ideologies, all political forces that were against Mahinda and the government rallied round General Sarath Fonseka in unison as one united group pledging their wholesale support to him, in order to defeat the government. Consequently, the presidential contest became an extremely exciting and intense competition for power.
In view of the fact that General Sarath Fonseka contesting as the common opposition candidate against the Commander in Chief of the Forces and the volume of hatred spread out by both candidates against each other during the election, it became obvious that the defeated candidate, whoever it may be, would inevitably become a victim of revenge by the winner.
Mahinda and the General
The Commander in Chief was a well tempered political leader though he was not a veteran war hero. The Army Commander was a veteran war hero. But he was only a novice to the game of politics. The contest between the two was held in the political arena and not on a battle field. Obviously, the prospect of winning the contest was more in favour of Mahinda who was a veteran in politics than the General who was a veteran in military affairs. The General lacked the political acumen to make an objective assessment of the result of the election. He blindly believed that he would be the winner and was certain that he would become the next president of the country. In the circumstances, he uppishly arrogated presidential powers upon himself and began to make a Quixotic display of it, not only against the President, his brothers and the close supporters of the President but also the high ranking officers in the armed forces thereby antagonising all of them and creating a situation in which he was perceived from an angle of hatred and anger by all of them.
Up to the point of announcing the election results he blindly believed that he would be the winner. He was certain that his victory was inevitable and was concerned with a strategy to subvert the resistance that may come from the President and his close supporters. This situation immensely contributed to enhance the complexity of the contest for power and to intensify the hatred and vengeful attitudes of the leaders of the two main power groups.
The policy adopted by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government in regard to General Sarath Fonseka is not acceptable. It is not reasonable. It will not contribute to ensure public confidence and respect. However, if General Sarath Fonseka had won the last presidential election we must not forget the possibility that he would have adopted a far more rough, coarse and evil policy against President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the members of his family. By that we must realise that the political impropriety is associated not only with the governing party. It is equally true of the opposition political parties as well.
Both the governing party and the opposition parties should be held equally responsible for the oppressive and coarse character of the political system that prevails in this country. Just as much as the political system could become aggressive when a party with coarse and rough disposition is in power, a similar situation could arise when the opposition reacts to the government with equally coarse and rough attitudes. During the regime of President J.R. Jayewardene, the governing party resorted to the brutal use of thuggery to suppress opposition political movements.
The JVP resorted to an armed struggle adopting violent measures to face the assaults made by thugs of the government using bicycle chains. They used and justified violence against the violence of the state. The reaction of the JVP further aggravated the rough and coarse character of the political field and made it a serious problem only to be resolved with blood. If, the JVP instead of retorting against the violence of the government had resorted to a non-violent policy, perhaps, it may have resulted in making a desirable impact in changing the rough and coarse character of the political scenario of the country.
Connection between actions and reactions
The nature of our own actions and reactions invariably has a direct impact on the nature of actions and reactions that affects us. Mahatma Gandhi adopted a non violent policy against the violence of the British rule in India and was able to mitigate the degree of violence of the Colonial rule. He converted the struggle against the colonial rule in India into an endeavor of making not only the Indians but also the colonial rulers more civilised.
The rough and coarse character of the struggles launched by the opposition parties against the government has greatly impacted on the roughness and the coarseness reflected in the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. Under the prevailing political system in the country, it is not easy to oust a president soon after being elected to power. It is nothing but fair that the opposition political movements should allow the government elected by the people to work for a reasonable period of time without obstructing its agenda and work. On the contrary, the UNP perceived the victory of President Rajapaksa as an opportunity which was theirs but snatched by him. Consequently, they attempted to implement a political plan to thwart the power of the President.
The UNP with the support of Chandrika Kumaratunga, the former President, made a vain attempt to persuade a sizable number of government MPs to cross over to the opposition. When this attempt failed they were determined to destroy the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime by capitalizing on the emotional atmosphere created by the war and with the assistance of international forces which were against Mahinda. The opposition forces lacked the sagacity to discern the positive events that were likely to happen. In the war effort of the government, had the opposition adopted a policy of safeguarding the government amidst the threats of the international power groups and resorted to be critical only of the wrong-doings of the government, perhaps the relationship between the government and the opposition might have become smoother.
After failing to achieve their objectives in regard to the war, what the opposition did was to make General Sarath Fonseka who had earned a heroic recognition in the LTTE war, the common presidential candidate of the opposition. This tendency contributed to further intensify the rough and coarse character prevalent in the inter relationships between the government and the opposition.
The sudden arrival of an Army General in the political arena immediately after his retirement from the war front and contesting for the presidency of the country as the common candidate of the major opposition parties was a novel experience for the people. It was also a new experience to witness a political party of the caliber of the UNP avoid contesting at the presidential election and offer the opportunity to a complete outsider who was new to politics. Perhaps, the President may have viewed all these actions as components of a sinister plan adopted by a group of opponents who would not tolerate his political power and was trying to oust him by hook or crook.
Making General, the Common Candidate
In view of the enormous fame earned by the President over the victory of the LTTE war, the UNP lacked the ability to field a candidate capable of defeating the President at the last presidential election. Even though they fielded General Sarath Fonseka as a common candidate, that too, could not make a significant improvement in the situation. Perhaps, the UNP may have been able to prevent the degeneration of the party to its present level so fast, had it realised the fact that, if they had fielded a candidate of their own, i.e., either the leader of the party or any other who is earmarked for the party leadership in future, though it was not in a position to win the presidential election, it could have at least obtained a similar support that General Sarath Fonseka did secure at the election. Such an action might have greatly contributed to the sustenance of the party and empowerment of its actions, rank and file.
The decision of the UNP to refrain from fielding a candidate from the party and agreeing to support the common opposition candidate could be considered an irrational and stupid step which ought not to have been taken by a major political party of the caliber of the UNP. There is no doubt that General Sarath Fonseka had accomplished a unique role in ensuring the victory of the war against the LTTE, thereby earning for him a great respect of the people of the country. Upon entering politics, in a political sense, it is natural for such a person to become an object of criticism. The UNP ought to have realised that it would lead to deprive him of the reputation he had already earned as a war hero; On the other hand, the political victory of a military officer who is devoid of any political experience might have had a destructive impact on the future of the country; further, the humiliation and the downfall to be encountered by him on defeat in the political battle field were going to be much larger than that is encountered by a seasoned politician.
It is rather difficult to fathom as to how an experienced politician of the caliber of Ranil Wickremesinghe had agreed to such an irrational decision, completely ignoring its adverse repercussions on the country and his party. It would not be possible for Ranil Wickremesinghe to be unaware of the fact that, from a political sense, Sarath Fonseka had come under suspicion of almost all the leaders who held power despite him being an efficient military officer. Sarath Fonseka was appointed to the post of the Army Commander at a time when he was due to retire from the army. President Mahinda Rajapaksa apparently had not been in favour of this appointment. However, it was on the persuasion of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Defense Secretary that he had been appointed to the post of the Army Commander.
Apparently, Gotabaya Rajapaksa held the view that he was a skillful military officer and his skills should be made use of though, from a political sense he was not a trustworthy person. Even Chandrika Kumaratunga, the Former President, too refrained from appointing him to the post of the Army Commander, as she was apprehensive that he might attempt to seize power through a military coup. To a greater or lesser degree, almost all the rulers had this suspicion about Sarath Fonseka. The leader of the UNP too, was well aware of this fact. It is also not possible for Ranil Wickremesinghe to be unaware of the inability of the UNP to control Sarath Fonseka and also the danger involved in his inclining more towards a military rule had he been elected the president of the country.
The Question of Lasantha Wickrematunge
General Sarath Fonseka was alleged to be the person responsible for a number of ruthless assaults made on journalists during war time. The assaults made on Keith Noyahr, the Deputy Editor of The Nation newspaper, Namal Perera who was attached to the Sri Lanka Press Institute, Mahendra Ratnaweera who worked at the British High Commission office, were generally held to have been executed with the knowledge of the Army Commander. It was an obvious fact that the actions of Keith Noyahr and Namal Perera had cause to exasperate the Army Commander.
Of these assaults the most sensational incident was the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge. Ranil Wickremesinghe, commenting on the assassination of Lasantha at the Working Committee of the United National Party stated that it had been executed by a special team who reported directly to the Army Commander. After this statement was made by Ranil, Joseph Michael Perera, the Chief Opposition Whip, made a similar statement in Parliament. Lasantha Wickrematunge sacrificed a greater portion of his life for the UNP. He was subjected to a number of assaults. His newspaper office and the printing press came under attack on several occasions. All these happened as a result of his working for the progress of the United National Party.
He was very close to Ranil Wickremesinghe. He took the lead among the few people who dissuaded Ranil from renouncing the party leadership in 2005 after the presidential election. Ranil being a political leader who had held various positions, had a close rapport with the officers of the security forces. Consequently, he has reliable sources of information in regard to the incidents that take place in the security forces. Lasantha Wickrematunge was so close to Ranil that Lasantha used to address him by his name. When Ranil Wickremesinghe made the above statement at the Working Committee of the UNP, in regard to the assassination of such a close associate of him, obviously, he may have made it on solid facts and not on unfounded rumours.
Perhaps, it maybe on his instructions that Joseph Michael Perera, the Chief Opposition Whip, made a statement in the Parliament in this regard. The problem that arises here is as to how Ranil Wickremesinghe persuaded himself to forgo his candidacy and agree to support a person at the last presidential election, whom he believed, to have been responsible for the assassination of one of his closest associates.
Joy over the defeat of the General
Ranil Wickremesinghe was also among those who were jubilant over the defeat of General Sarath Fonseka . During the last few days of the election, apparently, the General was in an arrogant mood over the definite victory that he anticipated at the presidential election. During this time, Ranil had received only step-motherly treatment from him. It was common knowledge that not only Ranil, even his close associates were rather apprehensive and perplexed over the policy adopted by the General in regard to Ranil Wickremesinghe during the last few days of the election. It is said that all of them were happy to hear the news of the defeat of the General. If this was the true state of affairs that prevailed at that time, why did Ranil opt to select a policy of duplicity?
Though the selection of the General as the common candidate had given a temporary impetus to the opposition, in the long run it contributed towards debilitating the opposition political movement. The Common Alliance of the opposition collapsed soon after the defeat of the General. They all contested the subsequent general election as separate parties. This situation further reinforced the strength of the government and reduced the parliamentary representation of the opposition parties. The decline in the opposition group contributed towards the curtailment of the political security of the General. It further enhanced the capacity of the government to be more authoritative.
In this circumstance, the recognition that the General enjoyed among the opposition political movement depleted making him vulnerable to increased insecurity. It was after a difficult contest that he was eventually elected to Parliament. It was not an easy victory. The General did not have the capacity to keep the opposition parties together in the role that he played at the presidential election. The leaders of the UNP did not have a true need to strengthen and safeguard him. In that sense, General Sarath Fonseka is not a person victimised by President Mahinda Rajapaksa alone. He could be described as a person who sacrificed himself on his own accord and also one who was sacrificed by the opposition political movements as well.
Taking revenge from political opponents
Taking revenge from political opponents cannot be considered a bad policy inherent only in the Rajapaksa regime. It could be described as an animal trait which was apparent in the anthropoid primates during the early stages of human evolution and was pronounced during the tribal age and continued to reflect in greater or lesser degree in the process of political evolution of man. This trait was seen in operation in all great revolutions commencing from the famous French Revolution.
Oliver Cromwell (1598-1658) killed King Charles I during the English Revolution which is considered to be the First Great Capitalist Revolution that commenced in 1640 which resulted in the abolition of the feudal authority and establishment of Parliamentary Power. It was considered a political event having a symbolic value. Cromwell’s rule that laid a strong foundation for a modern capitalist state in England declined to a great extent after his death in 1658. His son who ascended the throne after Cromwell’s death renounced the rule soon and General Monk seized power. He was intrigued by the members of the royal family who lived in exile and enthroned King Charles II and re- established the old monarchy. With that the rulers of the new monarchy exhumed the dead body of Cromwell and hanged it in front of Westminster Square. Later the head of the corpse was severed from the body and the torso was placed for public display for over 20 years. The exhumation of the three years old dead body of Oliver Cromwell and hanging it in front of Westminster Square was an act of symbolic value.
The Socialist State that emerged after the Great October Revolution in Russia initiated a killing spree subjecting a large number of people which included not only the opponents of the revolution, but also the leaders who accomplished a great role for the victory of the revolution. Lenin, during his last phase had disputes with Stalin. However, Stalin was able to succeed Lenin because he adopted a policy of not criticizing Lenin and remained faithful to him. This enabled him to have the support of Lenin to emerge as his successor. Soon after Stalin obtained ruling power, a large number of front line leaders of the October revolution was killed after two public trials were held against them.
Deprivation of Civic Rights of Mrs. Bandaranaike
There is an analogy between the manner in which J.R. Jayewardene punished Mrs. Bandaranaike, his main political opponent and Sarath Fonseka who is now being punished under the regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Subject to reservations we must admit that Mrs. Bandaranaike was a head of the state who had accomplished a great deal of work for the progress of this country. The land restriction law enacted by the United Front Government under her leadership caused to deprive Mrs. Bandaranaike and her family members of a large extent of lands belonged to them. It is a fact that pending the enactment of this law she had engaged in controversial land transactions. But the economic benefits that she gained from those transactions were rather small. The President J. R. Jayewardene determined to punish her on this lapse and clear out his major political opponent, who was in a position to challenge him, of the political scene.
A Special Presidential Commission was set up in August 1978 to probe into the events that had taken place in this regard during the period May 1970-July 1977.
In February 1978, a Special Presidential Commission was appointed under the Act No.7 of 1978 with powers vested in it to probe into the incidents of political revenge, misappropriation of power, bribery and corruption and recommend those responsible for such acts to be punished with deprivation of their civic rights.
According to the Clause 81 of the New Constitution implemented commencing from 7th September 1978, the Parliament was vested with the power to enact laws for depriving the civic rights of persons found guilty for a period not exceeding 7 years. If the offender happened to be a Member of Parliament, the Parliament was vested with the authority to expel that person from the Parliament on approval of a proposal made on recommendations of the Special Presidential Commission by not less than two thirds majority of the Parliament.
When the Special Presidential Commission sent summons to Mrs. Bandaranaike to appear before the Commission, she filed a case before the Court of Appeal challenging the legality of the Special Presidential Commission. The Court of Appeal reached the verdict that the Special Presidential Commission does not have legal authority to probe into, report and make recommendations in regard to the matters pertains to her rule. The reason attributed for this decision was that the Special Presidential Commission law had been enacted subsequent to the period of her rule. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal passed an injunction order on the Special Presidential Commission.
The government reacted to this situation hurriedly by introducing two Acts of Parliament. One of them was the Special Presidential Commission (Special Enactment). The objective of this Act was to abolish the injunction order of the Court of Appeal and vest the Commission with the powers to probe into the charges against Mrs. Bandaranaike with retrospective effect. The second Act constituted the first amendment to the Constitution.
By that Parliament was vested with the power to withdraw the judicial power of any trial from the Court of Appeal and hand it over to the Supreme Court.
After these laws were enacted, Mrs. Bandaranaike appeared before the Special Presidential Commission and asserted that under the system of parliamentary democracy all actions of the government during her regime would fall collectively on the responsibility of the Cabinet of Ministers which includes her as well, and she is responsible only to Parliament and eventually to the people of the country at the general election, and as such she would refuse to testify before the Special Presidential Commission in regard to the allegations made against her.
The Special Presidential Commission conducted the examination ex parte in her absence. At the end, the Commission found her guilty for misuse of power. The verdict of the Commission was declared on September 25, 1980 which coincided with the 21st death anniversary of her husband, late Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.
On October 16, 1980, two pieces of legislation were hurriedly presented to Parliament and were approved on the same day. One was to deprive Mrs. Bandaranaike of her civic rights for a period of seven years and the other to expel her from Parliament. The Jayewardene government did not stop at that. In august 1981, under the National Security Act, the ownership and the control of the head office of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was vested in the government.
Mutual Respect and Reconciliation
Whoever does it, acts of political revenge cannot be approved. Unfortunately, we have inherited a system that encourages such ignoble practices. It is not only the system of government and the state that lags in backwardness. The entire society is rooted in a mire of backwardness. The practice adopted by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, might have been implemented in a similar way or perhaps in a more coarse and crude fashion under a regime of Sarath Fonseka, if he had won the election and been president of the country. This shows that it is not just one political party, but the entire political culture that is ignoble. This could be considered an outcome of the social consciousness of the people. It is said that the social consciousness drags behind the social existence.
The Lord Buddha asserted that hatred is never appeased by hatred. Both, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka are acknowledged to be ardent Buddhists. If they respect the teachings of the Buddha, both must shed the mutual hatred that they harbour against each other. The power is in the hands of the President. It is therefore, the President who should extend compassion first on his opponent. Similarly, Sarath Fonseka should renounce the hatred that he has developed towards the President. In this regard, the best we could do is to wish that wisdom may transcend on both of them to adopt a policy of mutual respect and reconciliation.
(The writer is the author of over a dozen books and Editor-in-Chief of the Ravaya Newspaper.)