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Updated: November 13, 2009 15:49 IST

Sri Lanka’s Defence Staff chief quits

B. Muralidhar Reddy
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The outgoing Sri Lankan Army chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka
File: AP The outgoing Sri Lankan Army chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka

Sri Lanka’s Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Sarath Fonseka, who led the war against the LTTE as Army Chief, on Thursday afternoon sent his resignation letter to President Mahinda Rajapaksa possibly to join politics. There was no immediate response from the President’s office.

The timing of the resignation, a consequence of rift between the high profile General and Mr. Rajapaksa in the post-Prabakaran Sri Lanka, is significant as President Rajapaksa is scheduled to announce dates for the general election and a possible presidential election at the convention of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) on November 15 at 1.30 p.m.

For several days now dominant opposition parties in the island nation have been engaged in talks with Gen. Fonseka, who was divested of his responsibilities as the Army Chief and elevated to the post of CDS in July, on fielding him as a candidate against President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the event of an election.

Gen. Fonseka sent his letter of resignation to Secretary to President, Lalit Weeratunga within hours after former Prime Minister and opposition leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who heads the 12-party opposition alliance, retuned to the island nation after consultations with New Delhi on the current developments in Sri Lanka.

First official confirmation of the contacts between the dominant opposition parties and Gen. Fonseka came on Wednesday from the leader of Sri Lanka’s Western People’s Front (WPF) and Colombo district parliamentarian, Mano Ganeshan.

In a lengthy response to criticism by a Sri Lanka columnist in Groundviews, Sri Lanka’s first citizens journalism website, on how a party which claims to represent aspirations and concerns of Tamils could even consider the General who spearheaded the Eelam War IV as a possible Presidential candidate, Mr. Ganeshan had said his party sent a set of questions to Gen. Fonseka and was awaiting his response.

Besides endorsement from the leader of the 12 party opposition front led by Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the man who escaped death in the hands of a LTTE woman suicide bomber in April 2006 has the indirect backing of the ultra-national Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). JVP, which backed Mr. Rajapaksa in the 2005 Presidential election, in the last few months has been openly campaigning for his ouster.

Following a call for `work to rule’ by JVP affiliated trade unions, from Wednesday, President Rajapaksa early this week had said that he will counter attempts to create anarchy in the island nation.

At a function on Wednesday Mr. Rajapaksa stressed that the economy should be strengthened to protect and promote the country’s sovereignty. “All forces which we had focused on the eradication of terrorism have now been diverted to national development,” a report posted on the Presidential Secretariat quoted him.

He told the gathering that when he took over as President in November, 2005 he had given an assurance to the people that terrorism would be eradicated in the country and an environment would be created where people of all communities could live in peace. “I was determined to fulfil that pledge and now people can talk of national freedom,” he said.

Mr. Rajapaksa’s managers have been working feverishly to counter any threat to his rule and this was evident on Wednesday when a group of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) local body leaders, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the opposition United National Party met the President to express “their support to the programme of the UPFA government”.

A Government Minister told Parliament last week that President Rajapaksa is not deterred by the plans of the opposition to put up any candidate including Gen. Fonseka in the event of a Presidential election.

The determination on the dominant opposition parties to go whole hog against Mr. Rajapaka came to fore on November with the birth of 12-party United National Party (UNP) led by the main opposition party United National Party (UNP) with the explicit objective of combating the “corrupt and despotic Rajapaksa family regime” and switch over to Indian-style parliamentary democracy.

The majority of the opposition parties are of the view that given the popularity of General Fonseka as a war hero, he is the ideal candidate to take on Mr. Rajapaksa. The new grouping included the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Democratic People’s Front and the splinter group of the ruling party led by the former Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera.

At the launch ceremony of the new formation Mr. Samaraweera had said: “Historians would record today’s event as a great milestone in Sri Lanka’s history. We have formed the United National Front, in order to defeat the forces of the Rajapaksa regime, which managed during the past four years to drag the country in to a very dangerous precipice.”

Mr. Samaraweera said the group, led by the leader of the UNP Ranil Wickremesinghe, would provide equal representation for all communities in the island nation.“

However, a section of the Tamil parties including the TNA are yet to finalise their strategy to deal with the emerging political scenario. The dilemma before the Tamil parties was best articulated in the response of Mano Ganeshan on Groundviews web site (http://www.groundviews.org/).

He says, “Until then we will say that if his [General Fonseka] answers satisfy us we will decide positively. It is logical. Isn’t it? First let him answer. We are also discussing with the main opposition for alternative candidates. We are also discussing among the Tamil and Muslim parties. There are some efforts made from the government side too for some discussions with me,” said Mr. Ganeshan.

He maintained that as a party which represents the oppressed Tamil minorities, it maintains dialogues with all sources and cannot always be very ambitious and rigid. “We will be wiped off if we refuse to answer all the calls we receive. We cannot be another LTTE. We value engagements.”

Mr. Ganeshan said a “deadly” silence was maintained by all Tamil leaders since General Fonseka’s name was proposed as the common opposition candidate. “But we spoke at the appropriate time and initiated a national dialogue in the media, street corners, households, offices, among the political parties etc. A national dialogue on ‘Sarath Fonseka and Tamil people’”.

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