General Sarath Fonseka and politics

“For the development of the country, for the security of the country if there are any steps that need be taken, I believe that it our duty as citizens to take these steps. It is important to pay attention to what will happen in the future rather than spend our days living in a joyful mindset.”*

Sage words indeed from General Sarath Fonseka. Now that the euphoria of winning the war against the LTTE is over, our minds must turn to the complex issues facing the country, such as wining the peace; post-war reconstruction; the bourgeoning economic crisis; the settlement of the displaced people; and dealing with the national question.

Sri Lanka, with all its flaws, still maintains the appearance of a democracy. There is a demarcation in Sri Lanka, though often blurred between its Presidency, parliament, judiciary and the armed forces. No matter which of the two bourgeois parties have ruled the country, in alliances or by themselves, their leaders and senior cabinet members for all their flaws and virtues, have been civilians. The civilian authority over the armed forces has never been effectively challenged, although some of these civilian directions can be construed as self serving.

History is littered with the good intentions of Generals who have come to power through military and democratic means. Many have been motivated by patriotism and the genuine desire to solve the intractable problems in their societies created by corrupt and inefficient regimes. However, the end result was, of course, a distinguished soldier with a tarnished reputation and a country and society in an even deeper morass than it was in before.

Recent experience in Nigeria, where an ex military commander taking power through democratic election, has not been a successful one. After a long period of disastrous military rule General Olusegun Obasanjo came to power democratically in 1999 in Nigeria, with the specific aim of getting the country out of the economic and political morass it had found itself in.

Nigeria like many developing countries found itself beset by unfair terms of trade, a ballooning public debt, communal unrest, huge disparities in income and corruption. General Obasanjo came to power with the express aim of tackling and alleviating these problems. Yet when he retired as President in 2007 these problems still plagued the country and inter-communal harmony, for example, were in an even more perilous state.

This breakdown of Nigeria’s economic and social structures was not because General Obasanjo was an untalented person. But his skills were those of a military man. As a result, he sought solutions to complex cultural, political and economic problems in simple, clinical and logistical terms. Dealing with complex problems of economic disparity and inter-communal harmony requires not only a leader of vision and goodwill, but also the political and intuitive skills to negotiate political goals. Namely, the willingness to listen, compromise and have the background to take all the people in the country through the changes that are necessary. These are not the qualities we expect of Generals.

This is the reality civil l society in Sri Lanka and General Foneska as an individual need to be cognisant of at this juncture in the country’s history.

Compounding the issue, of course, are the individuals and political groupings that are pushing General Fonseka’s candidature for the top political job in the country. Nationalist groups see the General as personage who would push their hard line agenda once in power. This would be a disaster and open the wounds of communal disharmony once again. For these groups issues of economics, corruption, democracy and communal fairness are subsumed in attaining their nationalist goals. To unchain their political fantasies would bring to reality a truism that f General Fonseka himself has recognized in his recent speech at a Buddhist Temple in Washington DC. ‘In the beginning there was no Prabhakaran, he was created thirty years ago.’

This seems an open admission that the Tamil nationalist militancy came into being as a response to the nationalist and discriminatory policies, strategies and tactics of successive Sri Lankan governments. One must not ignore the fact that such nationalist and discriminatory policies were imposed upon non-Sinhala communities in Sri Lanka through violent campaigns carried out by mobs and allegedly by the security forces at the behest of the prevailing regimes.

Furthermore, the security forces and its commanders have been the main props governments in Sri Lanka relied upon repeatedly to carry out short term political manoeuvres leading to the creation of militant youth struggles not only in the north but also in the south.

The youth demanded justice, fairness and equity of opportunity to the issues that were affecting them, their families and their future. Rather than addressing such issues, and ensuring the democratic right of people to protest, successive governments resorted to repressing such demands militarily leading to the death of nearly 150,000 young Sri Lankans.

There is no doubt that security forces and their commanders were actively involved in these campaigns; they have openly admitted to learning from the military experiences of forces that fought against the liberation war in Vietnam in destroying those who rebelled against the unjust actions of a corrupt, nepotistic South Vietnamese regime. As General Fonseka himself has allegedly admitted in his speech, he had been instrumental in preventing the implementation of certain decisions of previous governments in bringing relief to certain sections of people in Sri Lanka.

The policies spelt out thus far by General Fonseka in solving some of the complex issues facing Sri Lanka today lack clarity, whether they be of the  economy, unemployment, protection of human and democratic rights, bribery and corruption, abolishing the executive presidency etc. etc.. Despite the alleged support for his candidature by many parties, any discussion or clarification on any of these issues is yet to see the light of day.

Coalitions of many hues have come and gone in Sri Lanka, promising many things to many sections of the communities in Sri Lanka, from the abolition of presidency to an open economy with a human face. Have we learnt anything from these experiences?

On the contrary, issues have spiralled upwards with increased economic, social and political burdens heaped on people not to mention increasing levels of bribery, corruption and discrimination.

Under the circumstances, what guarantee is there whatever bourgeois democratic characteristics that remain in Sri Lanka will not be brought to an end by an army general elected as President of the country? Would not one want to remain President for life once elected? What are the safeguards that could be applied in such circumstances? I have not seen any discussion of such issues.

There is a role for retired war heroes and Generals who have served their countries admirably and with distinction. Their prestige, bravery, tenacity and skills of command are best put to use on specific nation building projects, not on solving the complex social and political issues for which they have shown no aptitude in the past.

We need to be mindful of this when we weigh and balance General Fonseka’s candidature at this crucial juncture in the nation’s history.

* All quotes are from the English translation of General Sarath Fonseka’s speech made at a Buddhist Temple in Washington D. C. on the 25th of October 2009

  • Kusum Paranawithana

    General Sarath Fonseka is one of the very efficient brave army commander. His duty and the task of eradicating ruthless terrorism has not been finished yet. He should be with the present government in hand in hand to fulfil that task. He should not become pawn of undesirable elements…

  • AJ Perera

    Kusum –

    I am sure Mr. Fonseka appreciates your sincere complement on his leadership.

    However, a hypothetical question, if I may.

    What if the undesirable elements you refer to are in fact running the Government? (I believe that is what he stated while in Washington just a week or so ago!) Where should he be then, with the Goverment or away from it?

  • Sinhala_Voice

    There is NO DOUBT that G.S.C.Fonseka is a genuine perosn in ALL sense of the word.

    But the question is WHAT can he do in power other than topple Mahinda Rajapakse administration.

    If you think he will just disappear after toppling Mahinda Rajapaske WELL YOU WOULD BE QUITE WRONG TO THINK THAT……..

    Best scenario for Sri Lanka is a government with a Parliamentary Majority of 2/3 and a President who is willing to conduct and participate in a dialogue to solve the Political Rules of the Game…..That is ALL.

  • Kumar David

    OK it is clear that on balance Lionel does not like a Sarath Fonseka (SF) presidential candidature. But I think I am correct in saying that Lionel does not like a Mahinda Rajapakse (MR) candidature either. So Lionel’s article does not take us one jot further in answering the crucial question ‘What Next?’.

    Let me say that it is too early to make a decision on the opposition candidate yet; of course discussion, and hence Lionel’s contribution, is welcome.

    What we need to focus on NOW are the following:
    (1) Consolidating a joint opposition (JO) since the principal task of the moment is resisting the trend to dictatorship and the erosion of democracy
    (2) Securing some understanding about how the Minorities and the Left can enter a working arrangement with the JO – who the candidate is, will have a bearing on this
    (3) Since SF, if fielded, and MR will split the chauvinist and the Sinhala vote, would it be better to field a Tamil candidate in the first stage? (I understand there is provision for indicating a second preference on the ballot – is this correct?)
    (4) AND MOST IMPORTANT, using the election as a launch-pad for consolidating a movement with 6 years worth of stamina, whatever the outcome of the two elections, to persist with the tasks mentioned in (1).

    kumar

  • C W Fernando

    Ranil is trying to put Gen. Fonseka on to Gen. Janaka’s boat.

  • Observer

    They say if you can’t beat em, join em! These are good times! I’m just gonna sit back, relax and watch the drama unfold. Meantime enjoy the “kanapita” talks as well – the most enjoyable aspect.

  • Gama

    We shall not gauge normal SF with SF in Army uniform. During his period as the army commander, he had to work as a strong army commander and operate the Army to the biggest issue we had at that time. He did it well. No military commander in the world could become an ideal commander with zero critics. He might have had to talk with some strategic and stimulating answers to attract young boys to army. Who join the army? Most of them are Sinhala youths. We saw during that period there were queues of youth to join the forces. It is because he strategically addressed the Sinhala youth. It was a requirement at that time. Now the situation is different. We do not see that there are reasons for General SF to deviate from specifications of a democratic leader. Sri Lanka should have a strong leader to destroy corruption, to restore political decency and establish discipline in the country.
    The surprising thing is all argue for probable bad side. Why can’t we see any probable good out comes? There is no doubt General SF will become the best President in Sri Lanka run the country well and better than anybody else.

  • Susantha

    UNP policy must change and accept to work with commitment to destroy Tamil self determination and Tamil national aspirations.Then UNP can easily come to power.

  • saman

    “They say if you can’t beat em, join em! These are good times! I’m just gonna sit back, relax and watch the drama unfold. Meantime enjoy the “kanapita” talks as well – the most enjoyable aspect.”

    Well said.

    SF feels he is useless after the war.
    There is no challange, no sanspence etc. to keep him going as militory man. So he thinks he can have exciting life in politics. Best of luck to him and best luck to JVP and other strike organzers.
    Even CEB and GMOA watch out.

  • PB

    What exactly is the need and Who’s need it is, is the point here. As SF says it is the controversy on the ownership of the victory. No word about it, he owns a part of it. Yet all the forces men who put their life in to it have that ownership. The glory is of all Sri lankans. And we all pay the tribute to all who worked to gain it. And if a politician claims his part of it in an election people will consider that in voting.
    BUT according to what SF says he deserves a lot ( of cource i agree) and HE HAS THE RIGHT TO BETRAY IT ALL AND JOIN THOSE WHO PULLED THE LEG OF THE FRONT THAT LEAD US TO THE VICTORY! PUTTING IT ALL AT RISK AGAIN.just o teach a lesson…. this is absurd.
    if he come for election it’s up to the people to decide. but he has no right to join with all these traitors and come as their candidate. Even with this suggestion ( or by letting it to be spread) he had disrupted all the happiness in the victorious minds who enjoy the thought that we are united again.
    I thought that the age that our nation suffered due to lack of unity is over. But i’m very distressed that thare are these funny joker fellows who’l betray all glory that they and we as countrymen enjoy for their thick headedeness of for …………..

  • President Bean

    Is it true that President Rajapaksa has appointed General Sarath Fonseka as the Ambassador to the “Bermuda Triangle.”

  • CheeLanka

    President Bean,
    Having read your remark above, Boggles apparently asked his staff to immediately find out where this Bermuda Triangle is, because he has not yet visited this place with his massive entourage!
    How we all wish we could give Boggles a one-way, first class ticket there…

  • Nimal Sandaruwan

    The West and the “International Community” backed the regime of the MR. However now it is now obvious that have decided that they need a regime change in SL to get rid of the Slobodan Milosevic of Colombo using a “People’s General”. But they know that it will be impossible to perform a “coloured revolution” in Sri Lanka. The main opposition party is so bankrupt and discredited amongst the ordinary Sri Lankans, in that they cannot find someone from their ranks to run for the presidency. That is why, for the first time in history, they have permitted, the ruling elite in Sri Lanka to go for a serving military commander – a person who had been part of an army that brutally killed so many southern youth in 1971, 1989-1990 and in the 35 years of war against oppressed Tamils – as their representative.

    The radical, “left”. “liberal” intelligentsia, “human rights” activists in Sri Lanka have been instrumental of such changes of regimes in Sri Lanka in the past (for example in 1994). In 2009-10, it is the “Platform for Democracy” that has accepted the contract for the ruling class and the “international Community”. So you have people like Bopage who is feeling out before joining the campaign.

  • Justice

    Lionel’s views and concerns are real.Hope there is a true change of heart and approach by General SF.
    If he meant what he said when he addressed the audience in the Washington DC.Does he realise that society need to be demilitarised through out the country for democracy to florish? The need to stand against all forms of fundermentalism including the sinhala buddhist fundermentalism.
    One has to question the sincerity of his change of heart.Is this only to be elected or a real statesmanship? Only time will tell.

  • CheeLanka

    Just heard this wickedly clever new ballad on the streets of Colombo:
    Weeraya loku wela
    MaRaya baya wela
    Mehema giyothin eya
    Weerayage Maaraya!

    This may be unprintable, but sums up the grim situation pretty well!

  • Humanist

    Curioser and curioser – a mara yudde between weeraya and maraya.

    Considering the number of “undesirable elements”, too bad there is a shortage of first class tickets to the Bermuda Triangle…

    What next in wonderland?

  • Observer

    You do realise Bermuda triangle is not a country to have an ambassadorial post? You might want to tweak that joke a little bit so it’s somewhat consistent with geographical facts.

  • Humanist

    Observer, you are missing the point here. Some things about our political life are not about fact, but about farce – man, how can we survive without it?

  • Observer

    Ahhh.. Of course! All politics is farce.. not just ours. Why do you think I love programs like Yes Minister and the Daily Show.
    Still I thought a joke should be constructed in a meaningful way. In a stand up situation I’d say you’d probably get an awkward silence with that version.

  • Observer

    Humanist, may I add…

    “Considering the number of “undesirable elements”, too bad there is a shortage of first class tickets to the Bermuda Triangle… ”

    I think you have solved the mystery. Those planes didn’t crash, but they tried to land in the water. Those silly people buying first class tickets to the ocean…

    Oh and it’s not a fight between is Weerya and Maraya. There’s a Sooraya and the Maraya who’s trying to be the Weeraya. But he’s already a Weerya! Wow.. I think I just blew my brains out…

  • SinchoSL

    Gama:

    why do you think that general SF could be the most powerful leader to govern the country next? SF deserves the highest honour for what he himself sacrified for over 3 decades, but has he ever gained records in srilanken politics so that he can convince the average in sl, that he could become the most powerful leader for us. Should he be the most suitable choice according to you in terms of elemintation of corruption? Are there any other countries in the region where you can feel former millitary leaders as head of states did their best in bringing their countries progress -setting free those from corruption and being able to implement their millitary strategies. We have minorities folks in sl who have been there for ages and their grievances can only be solved only by pragamatic political leaders. MR could achieve to become malaysia´s Mahathir equivalence
    if all other political leaders in the country could support in his efforts in the rapid development process in srilanka. Even if one would not agree with a considerable fraction of ministers in the present regime, there still exist a powerful fraction there. If one could just see how they defended themselves in Geneva sessions recently, this can easily be understandable. SF can only help the country in achieving better disipline in all defence forces in sl. In controlling corruptions, u need to have a good police for the country. If SF WHOLEHEARTEDLY feel about working further for the country even after entering his retirement as an ununiformed highly respected personality, he can help srilanken Police in their work rebuilding disipline. SF is the war hero and he has gained experience only in the defence forces. In this way only SRILANKENS can respect him further as country´s MOST RESPECTED war hero. If he would become a caricature of totally bankrupted UNP, he can only lose his respect within a shorter period of time.

  • niranjan

    SF is an army officer. He is not a politician. The UNP should contest on its own without SF or forming allainces with the JVP. Ranil W will get the support of the minorities since he takes a non-chauvinist line plus a section of the Sinhalese the business community included. The UNP should stick to its principles even though it will cost them the elections.