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Updated: February 9, 2010 15:08 IST

Sarath Fonseka detained for 'military offences'

B. Muralidhar Reddy
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Sri Lanka's former military chief, Gen. Sarath Fonseka. File photo
AP Sri Lanka's former military chief, Gen. Sarath Fonseka. File photo

Sri Lanka’s former Army Chief and Opposition presidential candidate, General Sarath Fonseka, was detained by a team of investigators late on Monday night for "certain fraudulent acts and military offences" from the 'safe house' he had been living in since he lost the January 26 election.

Three days after the poll outcome, the government accused the commander-turned-politician of plotting a coup to overthrow President Mahinda Rajapaksa and assassinate his family members. In what is regarded as one of the biggest shake-ups in the post-independence history of the island nation, the President, in recent days, ordered a reshuffle of the top brass of the military and at least 30 supporters of the retired General have been either detained or taken for questioning.

Military spokesman Prasad Samarasingha confirmed that the retired General was taken into custody for "certain fraudulent acts" and for "committing military offences" for which, he said, there was some evidence and that investigations were in progress.

The spokesman said Gen. (retd.) Fonseka’s Media Secretary, a Captain in the Army but discharged for certain offences, would also be questioned for his role in the alleged plot.

Senior officials in the government said Gen. (retd.) Fonseka was also charged with creating divisions in the Army by getting some senior officers to involve themselves in political activities against the government.

A section of the media has quoted an unnamed military official as saying that the recent military reshuffle went beyond the 1962 shake-up following a coup attempt by volunteer officers against the late Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

Lakshman Hullagulle, Director-General of the Media Centre for National Security, said Gen. (retd.) Fonseka, during his tenure as Army Chief and then as Chief of the Defence Staff, had worked with the Opposition against the President.

A few of his aides present at the safe house told this correspondent that around 10 p.m., men who identified themselves as officials of various investigating agencies drove the General away in a vehicle. "We have no idea where he has been taken and on what charges."

Since the raid on his election office a few days ago and the subsequent arrest and detention of two dozen of his supporters, the imminent arrest of the former Army Chief had been in the air.

Arrest could be poll issue

With the dissolution of the Sri Lankan Parliament expected on Tuesday and the general election scheduled for the first half of April, the arrest of the former Army Chief and consensus Opposition presidential candidate, General Sarath Fonseka, could be one of the main poll issues.

Though nearly two weeks have passed since the January 26 presidential election, there is no coherent explanation from either Gen (retd.) Fonseka or the Opposition leaders who rooted for him on what prompted them to leave their offices and homes and hire a whole floor of a five-star hotel. Their account that it was meant to pre-empt an operation by the government to round up the General and all the other leaders, only leads to more questions.

If the intelligence agencies were keeping vigil outside their offices and homes, how did the Opposition leaders assume that they could move into the hotel premises without being noticed?

Their justification, that they were convinced of victory in the polls and by their collective presence at the hotel, could halt the plans of the Rajapaksa regime to stage a 'political coup' to stop the smooth transfer of power, makes little sense. No political leader with a basic understanding of the ground realities could be expected to move into a star hotel, leaving the counting centres entirely to the charge of second and third-rung leaders particularly when they had reckoned it as a do or die election for Mr. Rajapaksa.

Little wonder, once the election results started trickling in, their main charge was that while the voting process was a peaceful affair, there was massive fraud in the counting process.

According to the retired General by the single click of a mouse, 1.4 million votes he had polled were transferred to the kitty of the President. The charge has been categorically denied by those connected intimately with the counting process including Election Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayaka. This correspondent, who was one of the few journalists who met Gen (retd.) Fonseka in the wee hours of January 27, heard no such complaint from him in the course of the 10 minute informal conversation that was recorded by an Indian television channel. "So far only results of postal ballots of a few districts have been declared. They are no more than 40,000. Just wait for and watch the results. I am winning," he had said.

Within hours, after it became clear that Mr. Rajapaksa was headed for a second term with a thumping majority, hordes of reporters from the electronic and print media descended on the hotel premises. General (retd.) Fonseka showed up only after keeping them waiting for hours and insisted he was the choice of the people and Mr. Rajapaksa 'has stolen the verdict'.

True, the military surrounded the hotel, with hundreds of heavily-armed troops and police, and checked anyone entering or leaving. But, there was no restriction on the entry or exit of any one wanting to go inside. Mr. Rajapaksa, in his first informal interaction with the media outside the Election Commission on the evening of January 27, dismissed the Opposition claims as ridiculous, and made light of their allegations that he had deployed the state machinery to arrest the Opposition leaders. “What is the problem of the General? If he has any issues related to his security he can always contact me directly. After all he was my former Army Chief,” Mr. Rajapaksa said in response to a pointed question.

Addressing a news conference from the safe house, Gen (retd.) Fonseka claimed that the Department of Immigration and Emigration had been instructed to prevent him, his son-in-law Danuna Tillekeratne and several other people from leaving the country. He reiterated claims that there was a move to assassinate him and pointed out that security was reduced from 90 soldiers to three police constables and one inspector. “You can’t go to the police or the courts. You can be arrested at any time. There’s no media freedom. Everyone is under pressure and cannot carry out their rightful duties.”

Gen (retd.) Fonseka warned that if he were killed, the government’s “secrets” would be exposed. He told the media that he had written an affidavit that would be made public upon his death. On January 30, the Director General of the Media Centre for National Security, Lakshman Hulugalle, came out with a startling disclosure that the retired General and the former military officers and soldiers with him had hatched a conspiracy to wage a military coup and organise the assassination of Mr. Rajapaksa and his brothers including Defence Secretary, Gothabaya Rajapaksa and Senior Presidential Advisor, Basil Rajapaksa.

Simultaneously, a massive raid on Gen (retd.) Fonseka’s election office was conducted and over 15 former military officers and aides were taken into custody in connection with the coup conspiracy. In addition, a major re-shuffle in the top ranks of the military ranks was carried and all the elements suspected to be close to Fonseka were transferred.

At least 37 held

As of February 4, at least 37 people are being held in Sri Lanka in connection with an alleged plot to assassinate President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The state owned English paper, Daily News, reported that most of those detained under emergency regulations are military officers.

A day before, 14 officers including five holding the rank of Major General were sent on compulsory retirement on the ground that they had dabbled in politics. It said those being held included a brigadier, a colonel, army deserters and four civilians. The magnitude of the purge could be gauged from the simple fact that the Major General asked to pack up and leave accounted for nearly ten per cent of their equivalent rank officers in the Army that has strength of 200,000.

The government controlled English paper Daily News said the police were also holding two Tamils, accused of supplying arms said to have been found in a central Colombo temple. An opposition politician, Jayalath Jayawardena, told the BBC the account was false, malicious and fabricated and maintained that weapons had been planted in the temple by government supporters and that its chief monk was being harassed for supporting Gen. (retd.) Fonseka. Reports say the monk is among those under arrest.

The first official acknowledgement of the military purge came in the form of a brief statement from the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS). It said, "Officers who served as political party members during the presidential election, breaching Military discipline will be sent on mandatory retirement."

The MCNS claimed there was confirmation that several Military Officers had been involved in the activities of political parties during and after the election. "Accordingly, initiatives have been taken to send them on retirement regardless of their rank, MCSN revealed, pointing out that maintaining discipline within the Security Forces is an important factor and that politicisation of the Armed forces should be prevented. Retaining the Officers who had interfered in political activities during their service period will have a direct impact on the country’s security."

That there is no love lost between the President and General (retd.) Fonseka much before he chose to become the rallying point in the presidential election for all the political foes of Mr. Rajapaksa was known to all Lanka watchers. The matter was made public by none other than General (retd.) Fonseka when he decided to go public with his much publicisied letter citing 16 reasons that prompted him to part company with the Army.

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