| by Maheen Senanayake
( June 8, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) When I arrived at the headquarters of the Democratic Party to interview its leader, General Sarath Fonseka, the small office was packed to capacity, with many in their Sunday best, spilling into the garden. The general had gone to Kalutara to see those affected by the torrential rains.
It would take another one and half hours to meet him. He gave me 20 minutes.
Now you are in politics with representation at the grassroots. Did you envision this during your incarceration?
Even before I was sent to jail I had embarked on my political journey. I had set myself a target and we had our own aspirations for this country. Even though I was jailed over bogus allegations, my ambition never changed. My aspirations never changed. My targets never changed. They had to release me. They couldn’t keep me in forever. Normally when you put an innocent man in jail, it is not practically possible to keep him there till he dies, although they were talking about keeping me there till I die. Big shots were on record saying ‘they were going to hang me’. I knew that international pressure along with the pressure from the local people would not allow them to do as they wished and that they would certainly succumb to this pressure and be forced to release me. On my part I continued to prepare with grassroots level planning. I knew that it was only a matter of time and prepared myself to launch my campaign from the moment I was released. Today we have achieved.
How many days were you incarcerated?
I was incarcerated for almost 20 months from September 30, 2010 to May 21, 2012.
They say it’s ‘Gota’s War’. What do you think?
That is what he says. I have never heard of a Secretary to a Ministry who is an administrative officer giving leadership to a war. I have never heard of defense secretaries fighting wars. Men on the ground need a man in uniform to follow. Troops on the ground will not listen to an administrative officer. If he says that he was commanding the war, then he does not know what his job was nor has he done his job. This army had been fighting this war for 30 years. We had captured Jaffna, captured Mankulam. And if you remember, none of the defense secretaries of the time tried to claim credit for those military victories. Only a foolish fellow will try to say in a book, sitting in Colombo and wearing a tie, and say that troops took orders from an administrative officer. Troops don’t carry out orders like that.
What is your opinion on what is happening to and in the military now?
They are trying to weaken the military. They are trying to put people who are not professional and not suited for certain positions in order to weaken the military. They are so scared and have been scared of me as the army commander and are still scared of the military. When the military was recording successes, getting better trained and becoming more professional, these corrupt politicians began to shiver and became very frightened, especially because they know how corrupt they are. This is not only with respect to the military – take any other department in the public service. If it tries to become professional and follow due process and do a proper job, they begin to get scared and do not like it. For instance they were waiting till I left the army to encourage soldiers to run away. The army, which I commanded then, is not there today.
There is word out there that being a military man, you are a very rigid person, someone who would even assault somebody physically if he did not do something right. How would you respond to such allegations?
Please don’t call these general sentiments. These are stories being spread by the regime. These are certainly not the sentiments of the people. Military leaders have become presidents in many countries in the past. The USA for instance had five generals becoming presidents and today is considered the biggest superpower in the world.
George Washington, Dwight D Eisenhower, Ulysses Grant, Andrew Jackson, William H Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Rutherford B Hayes, James A Garfield, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison are some examples among others who held military ranks before becoming political leaders.
Even last week we saw the Egyptian people selecting an ex-army commander as their president.
If some people want to keep the country without law and order, maintain it as a haven for thugs and goons and criminals where the police can get assaulted on the road, politicians may do anything they wish; they can kill, molest children, rape, then certainly they will be very happy without people like us. We maintain discipline. I have not assaulted anybody in the army but I have maintained discipline. If I had not maintained discipline, even today you will be living in a country being destroyed by terrorists.
What is your vision for our economy?
If someone suggests that a general has no understanding of economics then it is clear that whoever says this has no idea what functions a general or the army performs. I had approximately 200,000 men and women under my command and managed a budget of Rs. 82 billion per year. For three and half years I did this to end the war without any lapses. You need not be an economics specialist to become a politician. Is Mahinda Rajapaksa an economics specialist? Is Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga or JR Jayewardena an economic specialist?
As a party we know that we have to continue with the system of the open economy as a framework. Foreign Investment is always welcome, but we will not allow commissions and corruption to become part of this agenda. We have to develop production. At the moment we have no production in this country. We should also support agriculture. Today even mangoes are imported. We should attain self sufficiency in food products. We will support and facilitate exports. We will develop industries in this country. Without industry we will not be able to sort out the unemployment situation. We will not be playing out 80 million rupees from each kilometer when we carpet the roads. We will maintain culture. We believe that if we can stop corruption we will not need to perform any magic to develop the country.
In the event that there is a presidential election soon, are you looking at a common candidate?
We have not taken a decision. What I said was that we should have a capable and acceptable candidate from the opposition. We need a candidate who will save the country from the clutches of this present regime.
What is the Democratic Party doing to appeal to a younger voter?
We are taking the message that we are trying to build a new country for them, a democracy where there will be employment, no corruption, the rule of law will be upheld and a country where they can prosper.
This is the message that we are taking to the younger generation.
Did you feel that the UNP abandoned you after the presidential election?
That is the way people engage in politics in this country. 95-98% of the politicians in this country are selfish. They will not sacrifice anything for someone in difficulty. That is their nature. I never expected these politicians to come to my rescue. They will come when the media is there, when the lights are on and the cameras are rolling. When you are isolated and in trouble no politician will come to you in this country.
Who visited you the most in jail?
Palitha Thevarathna visited me the most. Jayantha Kettagoda visited me often apart from my family and a few others who have been with me whose names I won’t mention. (He mentions a man who contested from his party who visited him once and laughs)
So what did you learn by being incarcerated. Were there any lessons there?
Well in a way I am happy that my victory was stolen. I gained a lot of experience and am now forged in politics. I am certainly more experienced thanks to the incarceration.
What is your understanding with respect to the position of your civic rights?
As far as the constitution is concerned if you are imprisoned (even though for bogus charges) you should be imprisoned for an offence for which the minimum punishment is imprisonment for two years. As you know I didn’t complete my sentence therefore according to the constitution I did not lose my civic rights. The elections commissioner himself told me that I did not lose my civic rights and that is how he put my name in the list. I don’t understand why he is seeking an opinion from the Attorney General.
Would you like tell us something about the issue with this land of yours?
You see this person has the habit of grabbing other’s lands. He has been grabbing lands belonging to poor people who have been there for the last 50-60 years. That is his psychology. He thinks that beautification of Colombo is more important that a man living on his own land. My land has been taken over even though I had paid Rs. 9 million for it. I have the deeds. But of course I only have copies that I got from the Land Registry because this man is hiding them and keeping them. Although he never gave them to my hand, it says that I have paid so much, and that it belongs to me and that for all intents and purposes I am the sole owner of that land. Now they have taken over my land without going through the normal procedure. They did take it over through the normal acquisition procedure and had taken it over under some UDA Act. But then they could have followed due process. The first thing is that you have to do is to inform the owner. You have to follow the procedure. Again you can only take the land for a public purpose. I heard that they are trying to auction the land. If you are taking over the land for a public purpose then you can’t auction the land. The land has been there for the last two years which clearly shows that there’re was no real reason or need for it. Furthermore, the acquisition has taken place without any compensation. If you take a land, you can only do so if you compensate the owner. On the other hand we have read in our historical accounts of how kings gave away acres and acres to achievers. But when you have a beggar’s mentality what you do is you give it and take it back when you don’t like his face or something.
Under a Democratic Party regime, what would be the position of religion?
We will honour the constitution. It says you have to give priority to protect Buddhism. We believe in that. At the same time we believe that everyone has the right and freedom to follow his own religion.
(Interviewing the general wasn’t altogether a bad experience. But he did seem a tad rigid. But finally he did smile at me. A great feat, I think, for him. After all only he knows what he had had to go through to create the Democratic Party. Sound principles and a necessary and systematic approach were written all over the affairs of his party. It seems they are getting closer than ever to the hearts of the people.)