If the combined forces of the opposition in Sri Lanka showed appalling political judgment in fielding retired Army general Sarath Fonseka as their presidential candidate, the government has returned the favour through an act that is as miscalculated and reckless as it is authoritarian and ugly. The decision to arrest and court martial the former Army Chief, and the manner in which his arrest was carried out, has shocked everyone who values democracy. Even at face value, the allegations made against General Fonseka are dubious, with the government apparently confused about what exactly he was guilty of (other than vaingloriousness, political ambition, paranoia, and foot-in-the-mouth disease, which are not really prosecutable offences). In fact, the official versions have been such as to challenge credulity: while a press release posted at the Army’s website informs us that General Fonseka has been “taken into military custody on charges of alleged fraudulent acts and military offences,” a government Minister has accused him of “direct contact with opposition political parties” amounting to conspiracy (while he was Army Commander, Chief of Defence Staff, and member of the Security Council), and the director-general of the Media Centre for National Security has spoken darkly of charges of plotting a military coup and conspiring to assassinate President Mahinda Rajapaksa. To the public in Sri Lanka and abroad, what all this signals is a witch-hunt that makes no political sense.
True, the general has been provocative beyond normal limits. Instead of accepting the people’s decisive verdict, he has made false allegations that the presidential election was stolen from him. He has hurled accusations of war crimes against field commanders who served under him in the 34 month-long-war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. He has spoken of an official plot to assassinate him. He has even given hints of political blackmail by saying that upon his death an affidavit containing the government’s ‘secrets’ would be made public. Statesmanship demanded that these provocations be treated as acts of political folly born of failure and frustration. President Rajapaksa, after all, is in an extremely strong position. Following his 17+ percentage point triumph in the presidential contest, he expects his party and alliance to make substantial gains in the parliamentary election that will be held in the first half of April. Sri Lanka, in the post-LTTE era, needs normalcy, reconciliation, a just and sustainable political solution to the Tamil question, and development of all regions starting with the North — not the politics of vendetta, more divisiveness and strife, and further politicisation of the military. Assuming that President Rajapaksa was persuaded or pressured by the hawks around him to go against his better political judgment, he must act boldly to reverse course and set General Fonseka free.