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Fonseka’s Trial and Sentence: A Bitter Road Ahead


by Brig (Retd) Rahul K Bhonsle

(August 15, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) The sentence seemed almost inevitable once the trial of General Sarath Fonseka Sri Lanka’s former Army Chief and the LTTE’s bête noir commenced in Colombo. The verdict delivered on 13August has reportedly been approved by the President the very next day. The urgency with which this has happened would itself be debated in the days to come. The dishonorable discharge of the General would also be ironic for it was his stellar leadership which saw the defeat of the Liberation of Tamil Tigers for Eaalam, the LTTE last May. Even as Fonseka and his political supporter the Left inclined Democratic National Alliance (DNA) are likely to raise objections to the ruling and approval of the sentence, the controversy is likely to have a much larger impact than that of stripping the General of his rank and medals on retirement.

General Fonseka came into the limelight having survived a suicide attack by a female bomber of the LTTE in April 2006. He was a hero much before having led the much acclaimed "Midnight Express" operation to save hundreds besieged in the Jaffna fort in 1993. He and Defence Secretary Gothbaya Rajapaksa, the Presidents’ youngest brother are credited for modernization of the Sri Lankan armed forces which finally led to defeat of the LTTE. While who should get the larger share of the glory would always be debated, Fonseka fell out with the Rajapaksa brothers when he contested the President in the elections in January this year.

The President was possibly deeply hurt by the challenge by his own commander in chief in an election which he was expected to sweep through. While General Fonseka did not win, he did create a scare when many knowledgeable analysts of the region predicted his victory. He garnered 40 percent plus votes which is some credit to his popularity, but then the witch hunt began and after a siege of his hotel after the election results, he was finally taken into custody in February. General Fonseka however succeeded in winning a seat in the parliament supported once again by the DNA with a high vote percentage of 89 percent in the parliamentary elections that followed.

Fonseka possibly cherished political ambitions after seeing an upsurge of support to the military during the course of the campaign. Many believe that he was moved upwards as Sri Lanka’s first four star general and Chief of the Defence Staff to possibly assuage any larger aspirations. However it is apparent that this did not satisfy him per se and egged on by his supporters he choose to challenge Mr Rajpaksa.

Victorious military commanders are frequently accused of having political ambitions and national leaders are always wary of their charisma and popularity. Field Marshal Montgomery and Slim faced this challenge in post war Britain when their popularity soared so did Field Marshal Manekshaw after the victory in Bangladesh, whose jocular statements were frequently taken out of context. But these leaders were hard core military professionals who did not have any political ambitions and thus fears of their political master proved unfounded.

General Sarath Fonseka obviously is of a different make of mind but after the wealth of confidence gained from having destroyed the LTTE, he underestimated the political, “minefield,” he was entering with the well entrenched President and his supporters including the loyal family which occupies commanding positions in the country’s hierarchy. Fonseka’s gullibility was well evident. Now it remains to be seen if he learns his lessons and carries on to continue the political and legal fight or chooses to opt out. Knowing his dogged and resolute nature, he is more than likely to contest the verdict in courts and follow up rather than give up so easily.

Whatever be the case, the Fonseka incident will remain another scar in Sri Lanka’s troubled post Ealam war trauma. The primary need of the hour is to rebuild a cohesive, multi ethnic, plural society in the country and disarm and dismantle the many overt and covert arms of the state which have been targeting those against the Establishment. Neither Fonseka nor Gothbaya Rajapaksa will be able to overcome allegations of human rights violations during the Ealam war for they had a joint responsibility.

More over the rank and file in the Sri Lankan armed forces will be clearly divided over this issue unless it dies a natural death which is unlikely at present. Will the President despite his considerable political skills be able to ride a “tiger,” of discontent in the forces remains to be seen? At present he seems to be confident to do so, but who knows, in what direction the machinations may take in the months ahead.

People in Sri Lanka have opted for peace after defeat of the LTTE and have tasted the same for over a year now, hopefully this phase will not be interrupted by another, “battle” of sorts in the political hierarchy in the days ahead.

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