Colombo, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Vavuniya

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