By Shamindra Ferdinando Courtesy Island
The then Chief of Defence Staff General Sarath Fonseka claimed that he didn’t want to lose his popularity, within 24 hours, by seeking a political career.
The Sinha Regiment veteran was responding to a query, at a packed media conference, at the Joint Operations Headquarters, situated within the army headquarters premises, on the morning of July 15, 2009. The writer was among those present on the occasion.
The war-winning army chief was meeting the media after having handed over the command to the then Vanni Commander, Maj. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya, under acrimonious circumstances. In fact, an officer, at the behest of Gen. Fonseka, queried the newly appointed army commander, whether his briefing could be cut short to enable the newly appointed CDS to address the media. Having being promoted to the rank of Lt. Gen, over nearly a dozen Majors General, a confident Jayasuriya continued with his scheduled briefing. The armoured corps officer revealed that he hadn’t been aware of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision to name him as Gen. Fonseka’s successor, until the evening of July 11, 2009.
Gen. Fonseka’s choice had been the then Chief of Staff and one-time Jaffna Commander, Maj. Gen. G.A. Chandrasiri, incumbent Governor of the Northern Province.
Gen. Fonseka reminisced the fate of two of his senior colleagues, Maj. Gen. Lakshman Algama (assassinated on the night of Dec 18, 1999, at the final UNP rally, held in Ja-ela, in support of its candidate, Ranil Wickremesinghe) and Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera (on the morning of Oct 6, 2008, in Anuradhapura). LTTE suicide cadres carried out both attacks (“Politics not for me,” says Gen. Fonseka-The Island, July 19, 2009).
For want of a better strategy to deprive incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa of a second-term, the Opposition fielded a disgruntled Fonseka at the January 26, 2010 presidential election. Enticing Gen. Fonseka had been a stunning political coup that caused panic at the highest level, though President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa resorted to immediate damage-control measures. The defection sent shock waves through political and military establishments.
With the UNP-led Opposition, again engineering another high level defection (SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena), ahead of the January 8, 2015 presidential, it would be pertinent to examine the last presidential election.
MR called ‘tinpot’ dictator
Having publicly ruled out a political career, on July 15, 2009, Gen. Fonseka announced his candidacy for the January 26, 2010, poll at a media briefing, at JAIC Hotel, on the morning of November 29, 2009. Gen. Fonseka informed President Rajapaksa of his decision to leave the army at a one-on-one with the President on Nov 11. There had never been such a mega press conference, with Sirasa giving live coverage of the event from the venue – JAIC Hotel. Fonseka didn’t mince his words when he lambasted President Rajapaksa for failing to take advantage of the LTTE’s defeat to win over the Tamil community. Calling President Rajapaksa a ‘tinpot dictator’, Gen. Fonseka declared that he was ready to work closely with UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and UNP, MP Mangala Samaraweera, in spite of having serious differences with them during the Eelam War IV. Emphasising his readiness to work with anyone, to ensure a regime change, Gen. Fonseka declared that he would even accept the support of Prabhakaran’s parents to see the back of the Rajapaksas. The first four-star General revealed that the JVP extended an invitation to him on behalf of those political parties, opposed to President Rajapaksa. (Fonseka ready to secure even support of Prabhakaran’s parents to defeat MR-The Island, November 30, 2009).
Responding to a query, raised by the writer, at the media briefing, Gen. Fonseka said that far reaching constitutional amendments were required to prevent MP’s from switching allegiance for personal gain. The retired Gen acknowledged that crossovers caused political instability, therefore constitutional measures were needed to address the issue (Fonseka promises to prevent crossovers-The Island, November 30, 2009).
Consequence of US visit
Even before President Rajapaksa proclaimed the presidential election, during the third week of November, 2009, the US approached the then CDS Gen. Fonseka in a bid to obtain a statement from him that could be used against Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The war veteran, a long term permanent resident of the US, had been visiting the country (late Oct-early Nov, 2009). The US felt that Gen. Fonseka’s statement could be used to implicate Defence Secretary in ordering Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva (General Officer Commanding 58 Division) to execute surrendering LTTE cadres on the Vanni east front. Fonseka had been contacted by the Department of Homeland Security to obtain a special statement on Nov 4, 2009. Sri Lanka thwarted the US attempt (US seeks info on Gota from Fonseka, The Island, Nov 2, 2009).
The Department of Homeland Security had contacted Fonseka on Oct 28, 2009, whereas he alerted Defence Secretary, Rajapaksa, on Oct 30, 2009. (Gota says Gen. Fonseka alerted him to US move, The Island, Nov 3, 2009). Fonseka returned to Colombo on Nov 4, 2009.
In spite of failing to obtain a statement from Gen Fonseka, as regards an alleged execution order given by Defence Secretary Rajapaksa, the US had been closely involved in the ‘events’, leading to the nomination of the former army commander as the Opposition common candidate.
Thanks to Wiki Leaks, Sri Lanka knows the US involvement in the Opposition project at the January, 2010, presidential election. The whistle-blowing website, in collaboration with international media agencies, commenced releasing confidential US diplomatic cables, in November, 2010 much to the dismay of the administration. Among them were classified documents that dealt with the January, 2010, presidential election and related matters, including accountability issues. Possibly, one of the most important cables, originating from the US mission in Colombo, was dated Nov 6, 2009.
The classified missive revealed that the US Embassy had been exploring ways and means of uniting Opposition forces for a specific project, meant to deprive President Rajapaksa of a second-term. It would be important to keep in mind that discussions between US diplomatic staff and leaders of Opposition political parties had taken place many days before Gen. Fonseka informed President Rajapaksa of his decision to quit the defence establishment. In other words, Sri Lanka’s top soldier had been talking politics, while being in uniform.
Unfortunately, the government did not make a genuine effort to examine diplomatic cables, relating to Sri Lanka. Due to the lethargic attitude of the External Affairs Ministry, the country missed a golden opportunity to study US perspective. In fact, the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS) should have closely examined the US cables, relevant to Sri Lanka, in accordance with overall strategy, to meet post-war challenges. Even five years after the conclusion of the war, LKIIRSS hadn’t made a cohesive attempt to conduct a thorough study on international dimensions of the conflict.
Let me examine the Nov 6, 2009, dated US diplomatic cable, titled ‘Muslim Congress leader on elections, Fonseka and Tamils’
US told of SLMC strategy
SLMC Chairman and Eastern Provincial Council Opposition leader, Basheer Segudawood, had told the Political Officer, at the US Embassy, in Colombo, that President Rajapaksa could be deprived of a second-term by forming a broad coalition, that included the UNP, for the specific purpose of abolishing the executive presidency. Segudawood had been confident of securing the support of minority political parties, and Tamil Diaspora, for the project. Segudawood expressed support for Gen. Fonseka’s candidature, during his covert meeting with the US Embassy representative.
Interestingly, Segudawood had discussed the signing of a political pact, involving the UNP, SLMC Mangala Samaraweera’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP-Mahajana), Mano Ganeshan’s Western People’s Front, as well as 19 other organizations. Segudawood declared that the UNP-led grouping had the backing of many Tamil political parties, including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and other Tamil groups.
An understanding on the abolition of the executive presidency, and the restoration of the parliamentary system of governance, paved the way for the grand coalition. The UNP and MP Mangala Samaraweera’s outfit had publicly declared their support for the coalition, wheres the SLMC was silent. However, Segudawood pledged SLMC’s support to defeat President Rajapaksa at the January, 2010, presidential poll.
Segudawood had stressed that UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, couldn’t defeat President Rajapaksa, though the minorities liked him. The then US Ambassador, Butenis, too, endorsed Segudawood’s ascertain. Butenis said: “SLMC Chairman underscored UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s popularity with minorities but echoed the sentiment, expressed privately by many political observers in Colombo of Wickremesinghe not being the ideal candidate to beat President Rajapaksa. Segudawood also discussed the pivotal importance of having a common strategy, instead of the Opposition making disputed statements at the expense of the coalition against the Rajapaksas.
MR and SF compared
Gen. Fonseka’s Sinhala nationalistic ideology was similar to that of the Rajapaksas, Segudawood said, emphasizing that there couldn’t be a better person to be fielded at the presidential poll. Interestingly, Segudawood had claimed that the major Opposition political parties and minorities would throw their weight behind Gen Fonseka, depending on an agreement to do away with the executive presidency, within 90 days.
According to Segudawood, Gen. Fonseka had sought clarifications from the Opposition as regards two matters. The war veteran had queried about his future, following the abolition of executive presidency and his security, as well as safety and security of his family. Gen. Fonseka had feared that the Rajapaksas would resort to violence to prevent him from contesting the poll, Segudawood said. Segudawood discussed a JVP effort to guarantee security of retired senior military officials by moving a bill in parliament.
Commenting on the Tamil Diaspora, Segudawood said those living away from Sri Lanka would play a critical role in the presidential election.
Butenis, is on record, as having said that she wanted to meet TNA leader, R. Sampanthan, before the Trincomalee district leader left for the UK to attend a two-day conference, on Nov 12-13, to discuss post-LTTE future of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. Butenis was reacting to Segudawood commenting on the forthcoming meeting in London. There had been an exchange of views regarding the Tamil-speaking electorate and how the Diaspora could be used to influence a national election here.
Segudawood also revealed the possibility of engineering two defections from the UPFA to the UNP to undermine President Rajapaksa’s campaign. The SLMC Chairman asserted that had the Opposition succeeded in convincing two members (undoubtedly, he was talking about members of parliament) to switch their allegiance, more UPFA members could revolt. (UPFA National List MP, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, switched his allegiance to the UNP on Dec 2, 2009).
Segudawood declared that people resented President Rajapaksa repeating the war propaganda. Due to growing unpopularity of President Rajapaksa, among the Tamils and Muslims, the SLFP needed at least 75 per cent of votes from the Sinhalese electorate, according to Butenis’s cable to Washington.
While expressing the belief that Gen. Fonseka could eat into President Rajapaksa’s vote base, Segudawood stressed that the common candidate’s success would largely depend on the Tamil and Muslim voters.
Butenis advised Washington that the Tamil community would find it extremely difficult to exercise their franchise for Gen Fonseka, who had conducted the war, though the community disliked the Rajapaksas, too. Butenis, however, admitted that Gen. Fonseka was the only one who could split the Sinhala vote and also deprive Rajapaksas of using the war victory to their advantage. Butenis quoted TNA leader, R. Sampanthan, as having said he (TNA) would support the Rajapaksas as they were lesser of the two evils.
Butenis asserted that the difficulties experienced on the political front, as well as other issues, including GSP plus, and Gen Fonseka coming forward, as his main rival, may prompt President Rajapaksa to drop plans for early polls. Butenis was wrong. President Rajapaksa declared presidential poll on Nov. 15, as planned.
Butenis made another significant miscalculation on the basis of Sampanthan’s statement. The five-party TNA supported Gen. Fonseka, at the January, 2010, presidential election, in spite of its earlier decision to back President Rajapaksa. Had the TNA given a free hand to the Tamil electorate, it could have had much better relations with President Rajapaksa.
At the Nov. 2005, presidential election, the LTTE-TNA combination engineered the defeat of UNP presidential candidate, Ranil Wickremesinghe, that led to the bloodiest phase of the conflict. The grouping deprived Wickremesinghe of the Tamil vote, especially in the Jaffna peninsula.
At the last presidential poll, the TNA told Tamils to vote for the senior most army officer who executed the war, at the expense of President Rajapaksa, who gave the political leadership.
In another classified cable, dated January 15, 2010, Butenis dealt with the contentious issue of war crimes accountability. Butenis implicated President Rajapaksa, his brothers, Gotabhaya and Basil, and Gen. Sarath Fonseka. Butenis pointed out “that responsibility for many of the alleged war crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa and his brothers and opposition candidate.
To be continued on Dec 10