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Going too far to neutralize a rival?

By Sinha Ratanatunge

(February 17, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It is to the credit of the people that there was no necessity to impose a curfew like in earlier timesafter the hard-fought Presidential election of last month. The final result clearly came as a surprise to most, but that the private sector deemed it unnecessary to follow the Government's decision to declare a pre-emptive holiday for the state sector indicated that there was little likelihood of unwarranted incidents.

However, it now seems that it is the Government that has triggered the instability, despite its claims of a resounding victory.
That is by its move to arrest the Opposition's main candidate just a fortnight after the polls. First, it was the purge in the Army and then the Police. Those suspected of being inimical to the security of the state were sent home and others transferred from 'sensitive' stations.

These officers are suspected to have aligned themselves with the Opposition's presidential candidate. No proof of their complicity is really required because they hold their commissions on the 'whim and pleasure' of their Commander-in-Chief who happens to be the President.

In a country where the Commander-in-Chief is a politician and has been a presidential candidate himself, these purges inevitably have a political flavour. Serving officers were introduced to the 'idiot box' for the first time in the military's history to criticize a Presidential candidate during the campaign.

It is not the first time such purges have taken place against army officers suspected of taking political sides. President J.R. Jayewardene summarily dismissed several officers believed to have supported his opponent, Sirima Bandaranaike. Seventeen years later, though, most of them received the promotions they were deprived of, and back wages to boot.

The issue has got doubly complicated this time round because it was a recently retired General and a former Army Commander who was the incumbent President's challenger. He had every right to contest the election, and when he was heroically commanding troops in battle against the LTTE while at the same time being accused of unleashing the 'white van' against journalists, very senior members of the Government and the Defence establishment defended him by saying that he had 'fiercely loyal men behind him' who would do 'anything for him'.

Now, the Government has felt the need to act against these very men, some of whom may have been loyal to their superior officer as is expected of all good soldiers - even if they had no truck whatsoever with the pursuit of those journalists at the time.

The Government's decision to purge the Forces of anti-loyal elements may not be fair by the families of these men, but in an Army that has grown in size, where its enlisted men even outnumbering the British Army, there is a fundamental requirement on its part to guard against mutinies and coups. The Government itself is culpable of using the Army for its political agenda.

Dissension among regiments and units is the harbinger of political instability in the country, and even if some have to pay the unfortunate price, the Forces must remain loyal to the Government, albeit not as a political arm of the Government.
The clumsy arrest of General (retd.) Sarath Fonseka, however, is a different kettle of fish. This newspaper reported his imminent arrest and then the Government switched plans -- arresting him under the Army Act rather than the normal law.

The manner in which he was taken into custody left much to be desired, to say the least. It actually deserves condemnation because that's not how a war hero should ever be treated whatever the circumstances or provocation.

Leading monks and clergy have decried the manner in which he was arrested (more than the arrest itself) and the manner in which he was whisked away by men once under his own command. We can only empathise with them for lamenting that the leaders of this country don't listen to them. We share the same experience, after all.

The political fall-out from his arrest is inevitable. It may have galvanized the joint Opposition which was rather demoralized in the aftermath of the January 26 election. General (retd.) Fonseka in a Navy 'cell' may be more dangerous than on a public platform. That, however, is a political matter and a judgement call that the Government must make, while the Supreme Court will be going into the legal aspects of it.

To the outside world, as much as to many in this country, the arrest smacks of political victimization and personal vindictiveness. That apart, it will be seen as a move to neutralize the opponent in the face of another important election coming up in two months time.

General (retd.) Fonseka may have made some outrageous comments during the election campaign and there could well have been tales carried from his camp to the President's of threats he supposedly made on how he would deal with the President and his immediate family should he win the election. His own personal conduct only adds weight to the very real possibility that he may have even carried them out.

Whatever they may have been, there was a need for the President's side to show there was no animus on their part. The conflicting accounts from Government politicians and spokesmen over the reasons for his arrest have only reinforced the view that it was inspired by spite and malice than there being any substantive evidence against him. No one is still sure if he is being held for what he said or did as Army Commander or as a Presidential candidate.

In the immediate afterglow of the defeat of the LTTE, President Rajapaksa said: "There are only two categories of people in this country, the people who love this country, and the small group who have no love for their Motherland".

The arrest of his chief political rival less than a month after the election would indicate otherwise; that there are only two sets of people in the country - those who are 'Raja-Paksha' (those who are for the king) and 'Raja-vipaksha' (those opposed to the king).

In the days of yore before democracy was founded, and in autocratic, totalitarian regimes it was quite in order to deal severely with the latter; not so in a modern multi-party democracy.

[Editor's Note: The writer, editor of the Sunday Times, where this piece appears]

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