Less than 24 hours after his sensational statement that Sri Lanka Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa had instructed a ground commander in the battle zone during the last phase of the Eelam War IV (May 16 to May 19) to shoot all LTTE leaders that had come out waving a white flag with the intention of surrendering to the military, the retired General and contender for the January 26 presidential poll, Sarath Fonseka did a volte-face.
At a hastily convened news conference on Monday afternoon, the former Army Chief said he is responsible for all the actions of the security forces commanders and forces on the ground throughout the war against the LTTE and no field commander acted in violation of any international law.
The retraction of Gen. (retd) Fonseka came after the government not only categorically denied the charges levelled by the commander turned politician as ‘motivated’, but also said that it was examining the contents of the interview for possible legal action. According to a senior government functionary, the statement, made in the course of an interview for an English weekly, has been referred to the Attorney General for his legal opinion.
True import of comment
Media Secretary to the former Army Chief, Ajit, told The Hindu, “At the hurriedly convened press briefing, the General explained the true import of his comment in his response to a question on the sequence of events during the last days of the war and talked about how senior functionaries in the government are hurling cooked up allegations against him by misinterpreting a media statement made by him.”
Political circles here believe that Gen. (retd) Fonseka chose to distance himself from the controversial statement in the course of the interview after senior opposition leaders pointed out to him that it would not only deprive him of the plank of ‘sole hero’ of the war against the LTTE, but would also be self-inflicting, as he cannot disassociate himself from the actions of the military he led.
The controversy triggered by the remarks of the retired General in the interview and the response of the government has left many in the island nation worried about the dangers of further politicisation of the military and the already divided polarisation of the ethnic communities.
Dominant sentiment in English daily
The dominant sentiment was captured by the English daily, Island in its editorial titled ‘An attempt at hara-kiri’. “There is a high octane performance on the part of government propagandists and their Opposition counterparts engaged in a ruthless mud-slinging contest. The government used to boast that it had ensured there were no irregularities in military purchases unlike in the past. But now, we are being told that while Fonseka was the army commander, his son-in-law was involved in some questionable business deals with the army.
“In the aftermath of Prabhakaran’s death, Fonseka pooh-poohed allegations of war crimes against the army. When asked, at the inaugural press conference after entering politics, to comment on moves being made in some quarters to press war crime charges against the Sri Lankan military, Fonseka said those who wanted to do so had to make specific charges with times, dates, locations, etc mentioned –– the implication being that the allegations levelled against Sri Lanka were baseless. He has also claimed on more than one occasion that he personally handled the successful ground operations which decapitated the LTTE.
“Now, we have Fonseka saying he has information that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ordered a ground commander to kill the LTTE leaders who tried to surrender (The Sunday Leader, Dec. 13, 2009). As much as the government's allegations against Fonseka and his son-in-law are tantamount to a self-indictment, Fonseka's charge against Gotabhaya has seriously affected his own credibility, in that, he contradicts his much advertised claim that he alone commanded the victorious army. If Fonseka says that his ground commanders who steered the army to victory took orders from someone else, how could he justify his attempt to promote himself in politics as the man who won the war and seek the executive presidency in return, as it were?,” the paper asked.
With December 17 set as the D-day for filing of nomination papers to a keenly watched contest between the major opposition parties’ candidate retired General Sarath Fonseka and the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, charges and counter-charges were anticipated but no one had expected the campaign to hit such a low note at this early a stage.
Several senior opposition leaders are privately discussing the possible adverse repercussions of the controversial interview of the retired General and consulting among themselves on ways and means to limit the damage. The retired General, who, during the day, filed three separate Fundamental Rights petitions before the Supreme Court seeking fair coverage for his campaign by the government media, is hosting a get together to select group of journalists later on Monday evening.
In the The Sunday Leader, General Fonseka has contended that he had no information communicated to him in the final days of the war that three key LTTE leaders had opted to surrender to the military.
“Fonseka charged that communications were instead confined between the LTTE leaders, Norway, various foreign parties, Basil Rajapaksa, Member of Parliament and the powerful senior adviser to the President, and such information was never conveyed to him as he supervised the final stages of the war,” the weekly reported.
The three LTTE leaders he is referring to are Balasingham Nadeshan, a former police constable of Sri Lanka police and the political head of the LTTE. Seevaratnam Pulidevan the head of the “LTTE peace secretariat” and Ramesh, a senior special commander of the military wing.
Fonseka told the weekly that he later learnt about what exactly had taken place as a result of journalists who had been embedded at the time with forces in the battle field.
Predictably the government hit back at the retired General. At a special news conference, Human Rights and Disaster Management Minister, Mahinda Samarasingha had said, “The interview of the retired General is a great betrayal of the nation, people of Sri Lanka and his former colleagues. Since the end of the Eelam War IV in the fourth week of May, there have been so many attempts by so many quarters to defame the security forces of Sri Lanka on charges of human rights violations but the simple truth is up to now no one has been able to prove anything.”
Mr. Samarasinghe maintained that the charges made by Gen. (retd) Fonseka are a contradiction of his own statement on July 10 at a function where he was facilitated for successfully leading the forces to militarily defeat the LTTE. He said that the contents of the speech have not only been reported by the local and international media but found a place in the 68-page U.S. State Department report of October 22 to the Congress on the war between the security forces and the LTTE.
The U.S. State Department report says, “July 10 – A media outlet reported on July 18 that at a celebratory event in Ambalangoda, Army Chief General Sarath Fonseka stated that the military had to overlook the traditional rules of war and even kill LTTE rebels who came to surrender carrying white flags during the war against the LTTE.”
Quoting from the media reports on the July 10 speech made by the then Army Chief, the Minister said that Fonseka at the function had gone to the extent of saying that he was under tremendous pressure from several quarters to order the ground troops not to shoot at the LTTE cadres and had taken the position that soldiers in the battle field who have staked their lives are the best judges to decide on such matters.
“It is instructive for every one to remember that Sri Lanka has emerged after 30 years of protracted war and there are forces still out there working for destabilitation of the island nation. We are sad and disappointed that Gen. (retd) Fonseka is wittingly or unwittingly working on their script,” the Minister said.