Colombo, Elections, Politics and Governance, Post-War

The Return of Sarath Fonseka: An Enduring Headache?

The sudden and allegedly suspicious death of former General Secretary of the UNP and Minister of Transport, Highways and Civil Aviation, Gamini Athukorala (in 2002) seemed to have marked the end of a critical phase in Ranil Wickremasinghe’s political career; a phase which spanned from the early 1990s to 2002. During this phase, Ranil saw most of the charismatic and senior colleagues in the UNP being assassinated [President Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali (then in the DUNF), Gamini Dissanayaka et al], or pass away (Gamini Athukorala). The deaths of these leaders, almost effortlessly and unwittingly made Ranil the undisputed Leader of the UNP, as well as of the Opposition, and more importantly, made him remain there without much trouble.

The next critical phase began thereafter, and continues to date. But this is not one in which Ranil sees his political challengers passing away. It is one in which such challengers are being either arrested, detained or imprisoned. One significant landmark in this regard was the imprisonment of Minister SB Dissanayaka, who was considered at that time to be the most potent threat to Ranil, having almost single-handedly toppled President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government (earlier, in 2001). Most recently, Ranil faced another threat which came in the form of General Sarath Fonseka. Just then, Fonseka was arrested.

Dangers of rushing to embrace a formidable threat
Ranil’s role as the leader of the opposition has been greatly overshadowed by the presence of Fonseka in the political mainstream during the past couple of months. Many began seeing Fonseka as a de facto Opposition leader in case he lost the Presidential election and was elected to Parliament in April. In any case, Fonseka is too dominant a figure to be overshadowed by Ranil, and during the Presidential election campaign, it was clear that a depleted Opposition alliance, including the UNP, had been invigorated by the ‘war-hero’. Fonseka was far more popular than Ranil, and almost all within the Opposition (except for those who crossed over), including Ranil himself, believed that it was only Fonseka who could have successfully challenged President Rajapaksa at a Presidential election. Even though the argument can be raised that Fonseka polled lesser number of votes than the number of votes polled by Ranil in 2005, the popularity of the two cannot be compared by reference to the two elections which were held under very different circumstances.

Ranil is too experienced, and too shrewd a politician, to not realize the above. In fact, Ranil would have also felt that if Fonseka was able to challenge President Rajapaksa at the zenith of his popularity, challenging Ranil, if necessary, would be a relatively simple task for Fonseka.

All this makes Fonseka a ‘political prisoner’ in the eyes of Wickremasinghe. But, what is crucial here, is that Fonseka is an ideal political prisoner who is, in the final analysis, immensely beneficial to his (Ranil’s) own political career. Having being humiliated during the Presidential election, the sudden arrest of Fonseka provides Ranil with a wonderful opportunity to regain some of the lost prestige; by coming out in defence of Fonseka. It was Fonseka who was considered by some to be a ‘savior’ of the UNP not so long ago. And this sudden twist of fate makes Ranil look like a possible savior of Fonseka.

But is it so? Can Ranil ever be sincere in his fight against the arrest of Fonseka? It is here that the release of Fonseka complicates matters for Ranil.

The first hypothetical scenario damages Ranil very significantly: i.e. The scenario where Fonseka comes out as one with a ‘not guilty’ verdict, cleared of all charges (which are yet to be clearly framed), by the military tribunal and/or the civil courts (a remote possibility, one might add). In such a scenario, Fonseka re-enters the political scene as a virtual political hero: as a man who (in the eyes of many who oppose the Rajapaksas) stood fearlessly against the ‘despotic’ leadership of the Rajapaksas, a man who escaped from the false allegations leveled against him, a man who having fought the LTTE has now fought, and is fighting, the Rajapaksas. And in such a scenario, it is not difficult to imagine where Ranil would stand. Would he not be dwarfed by the presence of Fonseka? And is it not why that the General Secretary of the UNP Tissa Attanayaka claims, that he or his party did not know anything about the launch of the online petition seeking signatures supporting Fonseka’s release?

The second hypothetical scenario is more favourable to Ranil: i.e. Fonseka coming out somewhat bruised, found guilty of some of the charges, not guilty of some others. Such a scenario (depending on the penalties imposed) would help Ranil maintain some composure, for Fonseka would not be able to appeal to the masses as a ‘clean’ candidate who deserves greater recognition than Ranil himself. Fonseka would be hurt, Ranil would be saved.

While the above are hypothetical scenarios, Ranil would still worry about the more immediate problem: the upcoming General Election. What happens if Fonseka (from the DNA) gives a stiff fight to Ranil (in terms of preferential votes)? This looming danger makes Ranil an unwilling supporter of Fonseka’s release, for ‘support’ in this context could draw ‘sympathy votes’ for Fonseka. One should not forget that the upcoming general election is one which will also test, to a great extent, the popularity of the two candidates: Ranil from the UNP vs. Fonseka from the DNA. Ranil knows this all too well, and he is today seen drifting away from the Fonseka camp.

Original photo from Indian Express

Dangers of having a grave-digger in your own backyard
While Ranil has much to gain from Fonseka’s arrest and detention, the Rajapaksas too find it convenient to see him where he is, today; for obvious, and perhaps far more serious, reasons.

As President Rajapaksa admitted elsewhere, the arrest of Fonseka during the Presidential election campaign would have sent a very wrong signal to the public; one which would have clearly meant that Rajapaksa was politically threatened by Fonseka. The comprehensive defeat of Fonseka makes President Rajapaksa more confident of the fact that the former is no serious political threat to his own existence or in a general election.

But the problem that the Rajapaksas (i.e. President Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa in particular) face is not the kind that Ranil faces. The problem here is with regard to the accusation of ‘war crimes’. Serious allegations have already being made against Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was alleged by Fonseka as having given ‘stupid’ orders to kill certain LTTE leaders carrying white flags. And Fonseka had reiterated this on that fateful day when he was arrested.

It is this accusation of ‘war crimes’ which seems to be most deeply distressing, even frightening, for the Rajapaksa administration. This is not only because an allegation has been made, but also because it is made by the former Army Commander. And if there is any single man who needs to be considered seriously in this regard, it is most certainly Fonseka. What is more troubling for the Rajapaksas is that they see in Fonseka a person who would go all out against them, even urge the international community to intervene in the matter; as he did just before he was arrested.

Here again one needs to consider the possible impact and seriousness of Fonseka’s release in the context of the two hypothetical scenarios set out above.

Firstly, what happens if Fonseka comes out clean? It is difficult, in such scenario to believe that Fonseka would go all out so suddenly against the Rajapaksas on the ‘war crimes’ issue. This is because Fonseka should, or would, very well know that proceeding to The Hague to meet the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, is not the politically correct thing to do. He would also know that an ‘international’ investigation is highly unlikely (especially in the form of a directive issued to the ICC by the UN Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter), and that given that reality, he cannot afford himself to be seen as the sole individual in the country who proceeds to some place to furnish evidence against the Rajapaksas. But doubts would always remain (and one does not need to ‘travel’ to The Hague if the intention is to provide the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC with necessary evidence). And also, the Rajapaksas would see Fonseka receiving greater support from the ‘international community’; support which will come, when and where necessary, given also the fact that serious accusations have been leveled against States such as the US and Norway of supporting Fonseka’s election campaign, without any serious evidence being produced to substantiate those serious accusations.

Secondly, what of the second hypothetical scenario, whereby Fonseka comes out bruised? In such a scenario, Fonseka’s urge to take immediate revenge would certainly be far greater than it would be in the above scenario. This is not only because Fonseka would find his reputation as well as his political stature greatly tarnished by some of the court rulings against him. But also because he could even think that he has nothing to lose personally even if he nails the Rajapaksas on the ‘war crimes’ issue. The effort would be made much easier, given also the most recent developments; i.e. The setting up of a Panel of Experts which would advice the UN Secretary General on developments concerning accountability issues in Sri Lanka. Cooperating with such a mechanism (even though the Terms of Reference governing this Panel’s work are yet to be publicized) would be seen to be an easy task.

Apart from these two scenarios, the Rajapaksas, just like Ranil, face the immediate problem: the General Election. This is certainly not in the form of a threat to the UPFA winning the election. The UPFA would win. But what happens if Fonseka comes out on top in terms of preferential votes, or makes a significant impact? In such a case, and from thereon, the pressure exerted on the government concerning the entire Fonseka-episode would mount considerably, and the pressure would spill-over to the judicial proceedings which might commence shortly. Here then would be a man who has received public support and sympathy at an election, and the performance of Fonseka and that of his party would be closely watched; not only by the Rajapaksas, but also by other pressure groups, within and without.

No other politician’s arrest, detention or even release would have an impact on so many powerful political figures as that of Fonseka’s. It was clear that the Fonseka-phenomenon became a severe headache to the Rajapaksas, a pleasant headache to Ranil, the very moment Fonseka was endorsed as the ‘Common Candidate’, not so long ago. Today, it is clearer that he is a common problem, a severe and enduring headache, not only to the Rajapaksas who opposed him, but also to Ranil Wickremasinghe who embraced him. What do politicians do with such kinds of headaches?

  • Sarath Fonseka will never be a challange either to the UNP or to Mahinda. He is a man who has passed his used by date. He took a gamble and challanged his Commander in Chief and lost. End of the story. War Crimes have been committed by the nations that accuse the president of commiting such crimes. Mahinda eliminated terrorism and it was not Fonseka who did it. Fonseka was there even before Mahinda became President and he had achieved nothing then. Mahinda brought Fonseka back from almost retirement and promoted him and gave him the top job as Commander. Mahinda appointed the AirForce and Navy Chiefs as well. Mahinda said quote “People, by the way they voted, showed they gave the credit to me. Who built the Taj Mahal? Who is remembered by people as the builder of the Taj Mahal? Not the mason or the chief engineer, right?”
    It was Mahinda who achieved everything the others before him could not achieve. The West should thank Mahinda for destroying the most ruthless terrorist organisation in the world.


  • Donka

    The politicians will do what they always do, that is politics. Though a reasonable and fair question, in which the events will have the answers. In the end, Sri Lanka will prevail, as it is her century!

  • basil

    It’s good to see new party rising to fight against old rotten parties loosing their grip all because of their history of wrong doing and family politics .I am not pointing finger and Rajapakse family nealy most of politicians are like that and taking for granted of their being elected.

  • basil

    It’s good to see new party rising to fight against old rotten parties loosing their grip all because of their history of wrong doing and family politics .I am not pointing finger at Rajapakse family ,nealy most of politicians are like that and taking for granted of their being elected.

  • Mr Minority

    The formation of a UPFA government seems to be a foregone conclussion of many. But I do not think so. There is every possibility of a government formed under the UNP alliance, but the big question would be – Will Ranil (gentleman politican) would be willing to be a horse dealer, and politically savvy enough to outsmart the charismatic Rajapakshe. There are many in the UPFA who are bidding thier time to teach the samagama a lesson, and Ranil could lead that coup if he wants to get his hands a little dirty in politics. His decission will can change or destroy the future of Sri Lanak

  • Girin Bandara

    This is a nice analysis. One factor was not considered. Fonseka is headache for both MR, GOTA, and Ranil. But who get the oppotunity: Non other than JVP. It is highly unlikely that Fonseka to get rid of MR’s grip at this time – in fact there are no proper allegation againts him and no profer reasons to arrest him non other than the premonition. As has been mentioned in the article most possible senario may be Fonseka to get highest preferential votes from Colombo. This make Ranil further into his own agony/jargon. However, Ranil still have the chace to form a government as a result of Fonseka’s arrest joining with JVP. MR will dissolve this goverment hopefull y before 2012 and go for another election. Hopefully Fonseka get another chance to challage MR.

  • Assas

    I thinnk the statemnets given in this artical should have been mad guy.> Ranil is a clean guy and having an un bias dvelopmnet program for the country to prosper but he will nevr go for cheap politics like Mr or others to chieat voters for him to come for the power. The best example is that when UNP exco had requested him to come to the stage with National Dress. He has very clearly said if people vote for my dress I do not wants to become the leader of the country. He had not robbed public funds. He has no cheap politics. If he was in a dveloped country he should have been appointed as the president.priminister of the particular country until his death. The idiots who does not understand this try to corner him or oterwise the writer should have received a lub sum form supporters of MR.

  • DD

    Your first paragraph itself was a blinder. Without the expected brainwash, its shocking to see the numbers of ploiticans, great sons to the motherland, and lastly, UNPers assassinated. This does explain the apathy to the UNP, and Ranil’s short sight when he went for the historical CFA.

  • Bruno Umbato

    What ever said about Sarath F, truth is that he is finished politically and professionally. Nobody could take him out of the mess he has created. He is definitely NOT a presidential material. He has no vision or brain to be a president. He is not even a good human being given the fact that he is ready betray the team who has finished the worst terror this world has ever experienced. I had very very respect and regard for SF when he was in that team. He has exposed himself so badly and I now treat him as the worst traitor ever surfaced for decades. Only thing SF could now is to be look after himself rather than the country.

  • Observer

    fonseka ain’t gonna make a comeback (i don’t know how it can be a comeback because he never came). if u think that then u still underestimate the current administration and the strategists behind them. saying that ranil aint gonna come at all! simple advise, REVAMP! out with the old guard, bring in the new guns if UNP wants a fighting chance. ranil can come to the political stage in drag outfits no one would even raise an eyebrow, that’s the level of respect & attention majority has for him.

  • Dhathusena

    Good review.The whole problem is Rajapakse’s setting the sights of a lonstanding foothold in the Sri lankan power base after eliminating the tigers .In my view sudden emergence of Fonseka factor was totally unexpected and has taken the rajapakses by surprise.Allegation of war crimes have further complicated the matters.This is why government is playing mayhem and seemed to prepared to do anything to preserve the powerbase. Fonseka whether we like or not will not be released that easily unless there is a huge public outcry.Rajapakses are too shrewd and ranil will be a mere spectator.

  • I do agree with Kalana. Scenario1: the best option. SF comes clean. ICC case unlikely, SF must not testify, no need of doubts. Scenario2: worst option. if SF bruised more damage to MR, SL. It is very true SF issue has become a bigger issue to Rajapakse bros thought, and it will further worsen if SF is not released without charges. If it happens not only Rajapakse Bros corner internationally but also in Sri Lanka, the down turn of Rajapakse bros. I do respect both parties and I want them to stop bringing personal crisis on national podium. That is the first lesson every politician must learn.

    Arrest of General Fonseka should have been avoided if Rajapakse Bros treated him as he desered during his service and after. Rajapakase bros (by the way, I do accept them also as heros) have let it blown out of proportions but there is still room for rectification. General shouldnt have told of war crime testification either. If General is punished under any law, Rajapakse bros will never be pardoned by Sri Lankans, peole will never forget heros. By punishing SF, Rajapkase bros cant avoid what SF has to say, it is already in an afidavit. It will reveal if something happens to SF. We dont want to lose neither Rajapakse bros nor SF. So best thing is to make a deal between them without harming each other and Sri Lanka further and come to a compromise.

    Former chief justice of Sri Lanka, Sarath Silva sas arrest of General Fonseka is against Sri Lankan & International law


  • paul

    This was written by one of the stooges of the Rajapakse family.They fabricate stories about things that never happened or can never happen in this world.But they know those yarns are going to help them for their own gain in the future.How defamatory or harmful these tales to others, I mean other politicians or the country in general, is not their concern.Now, a person like Mahinda Rajapakse will definitely be happy to read this and imagine that this is what exactly happened and going to happen.

  • Dr.Wijebahu

    Ranil is the biggest problem the country has got next to geting the General out of Navy compound.The Sri Lankans are not like the Rumanians or phillipinoes who got guts to come out and protest against injustice and family power.As late prabhakaran said once ,Sinhalese people will remember things only for four days.Another saying is’ sinhalaya modaya,kavum kanna yodaya’.Both these sayings are true. The general is kept for nearly a month without charges,still trying to find some thing from the 31 army people out of 180000 strong army ,and Ranil who said he will lead the free fonseka movement is silent today.Rajapakse group is doing what they like to do, people are getting on with their lives, and justics, democrasy and human rights has gone to the dogs.Do Sri Lankans have a proper leader, Answer is no.There is a group who will do any thing to satisfy Rajapakse group ,may be out of fear or bribery,and the other group is wondering when Ranil Wicramasingha after loosing 18 elections as the UNP leader is going to go home ,so some one can reserect theis once powerful UNP to challenge the Rajapakse dictatorship

  • Donka

    I agree with the earlier comment that SF’s political life expectancy was a short one! His political worthiness to anti Sri Lankan forces has been diminished to the point of no return. That said, the plain stupidity of folks who voted for SF and RW, against MR, who represented the nation’s stable and confident future, is beyond belief. Answer to this question is important because if SF can figure out what makes RW continue renew his political life despite RW’s own treacherous behavior annually, SF might think twice before he hangs his political career!

  • Groundtruth

    At the end of the day, people deserve the government they vote for. Very unfortunate for those who did not. Not long to wait until April 8th! But mere voting and mere winning are not all about what democracy stands for. It is only the beginning of a process and follow-up retarded for so long.

  • Heshan

    Fonseka is finished. His arrest and subsequent detention are an eye-opener… now we can be certain that none will come to his rescue, be it the UNP, the Supreme Court, or even the Army. Whatever privilege or high esteem Fonseka may have enjoyed as Army commander will not aid him in any future political endeavor. Mahinda has appointed his friends in exactly the correct proportions in exactly the correct places to ensure that no opposition can pose a threat exceeding perhaps some bad publicity in the newspapers. With the upcoming elections, whose conclusion is already foregone, Mahinda will consolidate his iron grip on power.

    On the other hand, for its worth, we should congratulate Fonseka for his stand. He gave a *voice* to the Opposition that the Opposition seems to have lost quite a while ago. When it will actually recover this voice is an open question.

  • Heshan

    *For what its worth

  • Observer


    “On the other hand, for its worth, we should congratulate Fonseka for his stand. He gave a *voice* to the Opposition that the Opposition seems to have lost quite a while ago.”

    tsk, tsk, don’t forget his ulterior motives. it was a bruised ego and a bitter hatred that motivated this man to destroy his own reputation. and quite possibly convert this state into a militarised state. i would only go far as to congratulate for his service in the army. lost the plot after that.

    “When it will actually recover this voice is an open question.”

    not for a loooong time. thanks to ranil the clown, and the pussies who are scared of him in his own party.


    “At the end of the day, people deserve the government they vote for. Very unfortunate for those who did not.”

    [Edited out] It’s called democracy! Deal with it! [Edited].

  • “charismatic and senior colleagues in the UNP being assassinated [President Premadasa” Hell ya, he also saw Premadasa assassinate people like Richard De SoyZa, and did nothing.
    I stopped after seeing charismatic and premadasa in one sentence.

  • Heshan


    “nd quite possibly convert this state into a militarised state.”

    It will take some kind of radical change to eliminate corruption, and re-institute accountability into the vital institutions that run the country. The Executive Presidency scheme that JR implemented to try to do this has clearly failed… in fact it has backfired altogether. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the Executive Presidency has become an institution in and of itself… which leads, quite naturally, to the next question: how do we eliminate it? Parliamentary debates and campaign promises are not going to do the trick… a strong military, however, within the framework of a military state, just might do the trick. The military is one of the few institutions that has not been *absolutely* politicized as of yet. In other words, it can be counted on to do its job.