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An Interview with Sarath Fonseka

By Tapan Bose writes from Colombo

(February 10, New Delhi -Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) I reached General Sarath Fonseka’s office on February 8 at about 4.00 P.M. I had no prior appointment with him. When I told his secretary that I had come from Delhi and would be returning soon he advised me to wait as he would try fixing a little time for me after the evening’s press conference.

I decided to wait in the hall where quite a few people consisting of media persons, TV camera men and a large number of his supporters from Colombo and other parts of Sri Lanka had gathered. I spoke to groups of men and women from Colombo, Kandy and Trincomalee. They had come to express their solidarity with the General. “He is the peoples’ President” said the person from Kandy. A woman from Colombo said our “votes were stolen”. There were family members of retired army men who were arrested by the CID after the election on charges of terrorism for being with General Fonseka. They were completely at a loss as to why working for a “great war hero” became an act of terrorism. They were afraid that they would probably never see these men again. The fear that anybody could be taken away and “disappeared” seemed to affect a large section of people of Colombo. Most media persons present in the hall did not want to discuss the issue of illegal arrests and disappearances.

At about 5.30 the General addressed the gathering and the press. He said that on the 29th of January, the CID arrested about 30 retired army officials from his office on suspicion of heir involvement in the military take over that he was planning. These persons were providing him security on a completely voluntarily basis after the government withdrew his security. He said, subsequently another 22 ex-army personnel who had campaigned for him were also taken away. All these persons were being held by the CID under the anti-terrorism law under which these persons could be held for a long time without trial. Addressing the family members of the ex-army men who were arrested he promised to look after them.

The general claimed that more than 400 serving army men were arrested on suspicion of being his supporters. He said that he had learnt that the government was planning to arrest more army officers. “At this rate the government will end up arresting the whole army” he quipped.

The general met me after the press conference at about 6.30 P.M. My first question was about the news that soon he would be arrested and court marshalled by the army for planning to stage a coup. He said, “if I had planned to stage a military coup why don’t the arrest me and put me on trial”. He claimed that there was no substance in those statements by various ministers and army officers. He did not seem to think that he would be arrested. He was confident that the army would not arrest him as he had not committed any offence during his service. He pointed out that he was “honourably discharged” by the government at his own request. There was no mention of his having committed any offences during his service.
According to General Fonseka it was only after his retirement that he spoke against the government. When I pointed out he had apparently claimed that he had proof of war crimes committed by Sri Lankan army, Fonseka said that he never claimed that. He said that he conducted the war “by the rules” and “no officer or soldier under my command killed persons who surrendered.”

The General asserted that though he was the Army Commander no one told him that three LTTE leaders were ready to surrender during the closing days of the war. According to the General, it was known to only a few journalists, foreign diplomats, the leaders of the LTTE, the Defence Secretary and the Presidential Adviser, Basil Rajapaksa. Talking about the charges of “war crimes” levelled against the Sri Lankan government the General said, “I am no longer in the government. I am only a candidate in the presidential election. The government must respond to these charges”. Asked if possessed information and proof that could substantiate these charges, he said, “no one has asked me about it till date. I asked him if he was ready to face an international commission or a court, he said, “when I am called by an international commission or a court, I will certainly face them and submit my deposition”. Asked if he had proof of war crimes, he said soldiers under his command did not kill persons who surrendered. When I pressed that there are proof that Sri Lankan soldiers killed unarmed civilians, he remained quite for a sew seconds and then he said, if he was given the identity of the regiment, the date and place where these atrocities were committed, he could identify the officers who were in charge and could have given such command.

I asked him if he was aware of negative feelings about him in India because of his role in the war and his popularity in the army. There was fear that he might become a ‘dictator’. He said, “I am not a military man trying to take over state power”. He asked whether I really believe that he had fooled almost all the opposition parties of Sri Lanka who chose him as the common candidate. He asserted that from the day he gave up his uniform he had become a civilian like any other person.

Rejecting the charges that he was planning to stage a coup and kill the President in the event of his defeat, General Fonseka said “if any one has staged a coup, it is the Army Commander of the day. He is the one who sent out troop to surround the hotels, various government offices, the communication centres including the state television and put out the army on the streets. I never did that as the Commander of the army”. Pointing at the large presence of soldiers of the army and the air force on the streets of Colombo and the “arrest” of civilians by the army he said, “this is the coup”.

General Fonseka told me that he had meetings with Ministers and leaders of India’s ruling party. He had also met senior Indian diplomats and bureaucrats. During these meetings, he has explained his perspectives and his position. He felt that Indian government did not share the fear that he would stage coup in Sri Lanka. The general’s parting comment to me was, “I have had good responses from Indian leaders. If I am asked, I will be happy to meet with Indian political leaders and representatives of the Indian government again”.

I left the general at about 7.00 p.m. Two and half hours later the military police broke into office and virtually dragged him out to face a “court martial” on charges of violation of the military act and fraud during his service.

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