The resignation by the Sri Lanka Chief of Defence Staff, Sarath Fonseka, to President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Thursday is a culmination of tension building up for at least five months.
It began on what initially appeared to be a case of communication gap between the office of the President and the office of the Army chief during the last phase of Eelam War IV.
Camp managers of Gen. Fonseka in recent weeks have been complaining that the man who took the LTTE headlong was not given his due by the political leadership and the defence establishment and became a victim of speculations over his political ambitions as well as the role he envisaged for the military in reshaping Sri Lanka in the post-Prabakaran era.
The first signs of unease in government circles over Fonseka became evident in the last week of June when a Bill was hastily moved to institutionalise the office of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). Until Parliament enacted the CDS Bill, the post was held by an officer who was ninth in the military hierarchy. In a deft move that took everyone by surprise, Rajapaksa “elevated” Fonseka to the position of CDS “in recognition of his valuable contribution in winning” Eelam War IV.
Going by the accounts of representatives of various parties, who have been openly talking about the possibility of Fonseka joining the presidental race, the general was not elated at the elevation. His statement, in the course of an interview, on the need to augment the forces by another 100,000 soldiers soon after the victory over the LTTE appears to have only reinforced suspicions in the presidential camp about his motives.
The relations between the General and the President deteriorated steadily with each passing week and attained a momentum of their own after The Hindu in the first week of July published a three-part interview with Mr. Rajapaksa. He took every one by surprise with his declaration that that he would seek re-election as President before the parliamentary elections.
Under the Sri Lankan Constitution, the President is empowered to call a presidential election once he/she completes four years of the six-year tenure. Rajapaksa will complete four years in office in the third week of November. However, there is a difference of opinion about whether Rajapaksa, in the event of a re-election, can defer taking the oath of office until the end of his first term in November 2011. Observers are of the view that Rajapaksa wants an early second term as his popularity ratings in the south are high after the military defeat of the LTTE and the death of Prabakaran in May.
Managers in the President’s camp believe that if Rajapaksa is re-elected, he will have a firmer grip on ruling party candidates for the parliamentary elections and will be better placed to seek a clear majority for the alliance led by him in the new House. If the ruling combine musters a two-thirds majority in the new Parliament, the President can push through amendments to the Constitution. On the top of his political agenda, like that of all his predecessors, is a switch from executive presidency to executive prime ministership under the parliamentary form of democracy.
Given the consensus within and outside Sri Lanka that the Constitution as amended by former President J.R. Jayewardene, and a President with sweeping powers are at the root of most of the problems of the island nation, the intentions of Rajapaksa are noble. However, there is a hidden agenda here – a switch-over to parliamentary democracy would free Rajapaksa from the bar of ineligibility to seek a third term to the office of President and he can hope to rule as Prime Minister for as long as he has the backing of the electorate.
Against this backdrop, sections of the opposition parties begun to look at Gen. Fonseka as their best bet to take on the President. In an analytical report titled “Importance of being Fonseka”, Col. (retd.) R. Hariharan says: “In the progressively marginalised General Fonseka, the two major Opposition parties – the United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) – see a potential Opposition candidate who can give a run for the money in the presidential poll.
A US State Department to the Congress on October 21 added a new dimension to the soap opera in the island nation. The document titled `Report to Congress on Incidents During the Recent Conflict in Sri Lanka’ (the reference is to the last phase of the fighting between the security forces and the LTTE from January to May”. It lists 170 alleged incidents while acknowledging that it does not provide, nor is it intended to be, a comprehensive portrayal of the conflict and reach legal conclusions.
The most controversial aspect relates to confusion on sequence of events in the final days of the war and the debate on whether a section of the Tigers who walked out with a white flag were killed at point blank range. The report says, “A number of sources alleged that the GSL committed unlawful killings. Multiple reports alleged that in the final few days of fighting, senior LTTE leaders contacted international representatives in an effort to broker surrender but were killed after they allegedly reached a surrender agreement with the GSL”.
On October 23, a statement from the military spokesperson, Brigadier Udaya Nayyanakara, read thus: “It has already been observed that certain individuals who intend to engage in political work continue to use names of serving senior Army Officers for baseless reports in some print media reports and websites. …Officers serving the Army are completely barred from political work, and use of their names for personal political gains and agendas for such wrong reports is therefore illegal and liable for prosecution.”
On October 28, on the basis of the State Department report that the U.S. authorities summoned Sri Lanka’s Chief of Defence Staff Sarath Fonseka for questioning on November 4. Gen. Fonseka, who led the war against the LTTE as the Army chief, is a U.S. Green Card holder and was on a private visit using his diplomatic passport visiting his daughters in the state of Oklahoma.
The General was told by the Attorney that his statement during the scheduled November 8 interview could be used as a possible source against Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa over charges of excesses by the security forces and the LTTE during the 34-month war.
The General telephoned the Sri Lanka High Commissioner in the US, Jaliya Wickremasuriya on the request and he in turn reached the island nation’s Defence Secretary and hell broke loose in Colombo. The panic in the corridors of power of Sri Lanka was understandable as the Defence Secretary is no ordinary person. Besides being the President’s brother, Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is an American citizen. Twenty years ago after retiring as a Colonel in the Sri Lankan Army he had left for US and settled down there. He came to Sri Lanka on the invitation of his brother to help him in the 2005 Presidential election and subsequently took charge as Defence Secretary of the island nation. Throughout the Eelam War IV while he was in charge of defense, Gen. Fonseka was the Army Chief.
On November 1 Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama summoned the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives Patricia Buteni and conveyed a message asking Washington to “desist from any endeavour to interview” Gen. Fonseka.
Mr. Bogollagama disclosed the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary had already been questioned by U.S. Immigration authorities on his arrival in the U.S. as a member of the Sri Lankan delegation for the U.N. General Assembly in the last week of September. It led to a legitimate question as to why the Government is objecting to the Gen. Fonseka interview. Mr. Bogollagama’s answer was the Defence Secretary unlike Gen. Fonseka was not asked to testify against any one.
The matter was obviously not that simple. Managers of the President smell a rat in the entire episode as Gen. Fonseka is being openly projected by the opposition parties as a possible consensus Presidential candidate if an election is called by Mr. Rajapaksa. Political ambitions or unhappiness of Gen. Fonseka with the Rajapaksa regime surfaced during his stay in the US when he told Sri Lankan expatriates at a function that he would step out of uniform to bring the country back on track “if it continues to go on the wrong path even after defeating terrorism.”
The tense stand-off between Washington and Colombo over the subject ended on November 3 as General Fonseka returned to the island nation on the day the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) interview was to have taken place. Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry said no American government agency had questioned him before his departure.
Despite the general’s immense popularity, there are some difficulties in projecting him as an alternative to Rajapaksa. A section of the Tamil parties have already expressed their opposition to the candidature of Fonseka. The main Opposition party, the UNP, is also a divided house on the issue.