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Embattled general

Print edition : Jan 01, 2010 T+T-
Sarath Fonseka after opening a media centre in Colombo on December 6 for his election campaign.-ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP

Sarath Fonseka after opening a media centre in Colombo on December 6 for his election campaign.-ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP

GENERAL elections to the Sri Lankan Parliament are due by April 2010. Call it the fate of the country or the irony of its politics, the year 2009, which began with a bang with the fall of the administrative headquarters of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has ended on a bizarre note. President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced a snap presidential election to seek re-election two years ahead of schedule. But no one imagined until a few weeks ago that a prematurely retired Army chief, General Sarath Fonseka, would enter the race, six months after the forces led by him defeated the LTTE. The Army chief, who led from the front in Eelam War IV, and the supreme commander of the armed forces, who provided the leadership from Colombo, are to be the main actors in the election, scheduled for January 26. The mainstream opposition parties are playing the role of sidekicks of the military strategist-turned-politician.

What adds to the melodrama is the dilemma faced by the parties representing the minorities. The script, to say the least, is not only misleading; it is sanctimonious humbug with the focus on constitutional and electoral reforms, nepotism, corruption in high places and a solution, acceptable to all stakeholders, to the three-decade-old ethnic conflict.

The simple truth is that the decision of the general to contest and that of the opposition to put him up as the least unacceptable common candidate have nothing to do with any of the issues tossed around in the non-existent presidential script. It became evident on the afternoon of December 7, when S.B. Dissanayake, the national organiser for the United National Party (UNP) and the opposition leader of the Central Provincial Council, said at a hurriedly convened news conference in Colombo that the entry of the Army chief into politics was dangerous not only for the UNP but also for the country. He must have jolted the general also with his announcement to break ranks and return to his parent party, the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), and lend all help to Rajapaksa.

The action of the opposition parties is rank opportunism. The November 30 editorial in The Hindu noted:

The more serious question is what kind of political and ideological message the United National Party, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (Mahajana wing) are sending to the people, the Sinhalese, the Tamils, and the other ethnic groups.

Is this an invitation to yet another South Asian variant of Bonapartism? This is the first time in the 61-year-old history of independent Sri Lanka that a mainstream effort is being made to politicise the military, which has unswervingly stuck to its job unlike some of its counterparts in the region. The island nation stands at a crossroads of history following the comprehensive military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

There is a new opportunity to redefine and settle the terms of unstable relationship between the 75 per cent Sinhalese majority and the Tamil and Muslim minorities on the basis of genuine devolution, equality, and justice. Opposition parties have a lawful right to go for their best shot at the top political job, especially when the odds seem stacked against them. Moreover, the combined Sri Lankan opposition can be given some credit for placing on the agenda the issue of the long-promised abolition, or at least whittling down of the powers, of the executive presidency.

To be fair, Army chief Fonseka commanded the respect of his men and had a reputation for professionalism as long as he stayed a soldier. The problem was that, from time to time, he crossed the lines and betrayed quirkiness, triumphalism, chauvinism, and hints of political ambition. At the height of the Eelam War IV (August 2006 to May 2009), he went on record with assertions like I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese and that the minority communities can live in this country with us but they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things.

Three days after the military defeat of the Tigers in May, Fonseka was ardently pleading for a 50 per cent increase in the Armys numerical strength on the grounds that it was the only way to ensure that forces like the Tigers did not rear their heads again in Sri Lanka. In his latest interview to Outlook, an Indian weekly English-language magazine (issue dated December 5), the general revealed that he was disgusted with the remarks of Rajapaksa five or six days after the demise of Velupillai Prabakaran that as President he could not let the Sri Lanka Army turn the island nation into a Myanmar. No questions have been asked nor any answers provided as to why the conscientious general chose to stay on from May 23 to October 13, the day he wrote his resignation letter, if he had indeed come to a conclusion that it was not safe to let Sri Lanka be governed by a tinpot dictator called Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The antics of the retired general were not confined to Sri Lanka. Wittingly or unwittingly, he caused serious embarrassment to the government he served by characterising sections of Tamil Nadus political leaders as a bunch of jokers. His new-found allies and friends are being treated on a par. At his maiden news conference on November 29 in his new avatar as a politician and a presidential hopeful, Fonseka, much to the chagrin of his political supporters, talked about the need to relook in the present context at the 13th Amendment to the Constitution pertaining to devolution of powers to the provinces.

In response to a question on the 13th Constitutional Amendment, which came in after the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord, he said that since it was the by-product of certain circumstances, the amendment and issues relating to it needed to be reviewed in the present context.

Fonseka seems to have deliberately kept his answer vague on the contentious subject as the two main opposition parties propping him up have diametrically opposite views on the subject. The UNP led by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, wants what is known as the 13th Amendment plus, that is, meaningful implementation of the provisions of the amendment with further improvement in the powers to the provinces. However, the JVP is totally opposed to the amendment and wants it be scrapped on the grounds that it has been imposed by India.

The mockery does not end there. Fonseka-in-uniform was waging a parallel war with his current political sponsors, some of whom dubbed him a racist and went so far as to accuse him of manipulating the data on Tiger cadre killed in the fighting to bolster the sagging morale of the Army. The general, however, does not want to be reminded of the past. He wants to move on to the future.

The travails of the general are not only from the ranks of the opposition. Despite the backing of most of the main opposition parties, his campaign has been a lacklustre one.

The lack of coordination among the supporting parties is too glaring to be missed. Nine days after he jumped into the presidential fray, Fonseka was still to announce the name of the party under which he would file his nomination.

Fonseka is regarded as an excellent field commander, but politics is a battlefield of a different kind. Whether he can overcome the obstacles before him and occupy the most powerful executive post in the country, which he promises to abolish and pave the way for a democratic model akin to Indias, is a difficult question.