Colombo, Elections, IDPs and Refugees, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

“Believable Change” with unbelievable evasiveness: Sarath Fonseka’s manifesto

Part 1

The presidential election manifesto of the opposition Common Candidate General (Rtd) Sarath Fonseka was released on 7 January, 2009 at a media launch in Colombo, titled “Believable Change”.  He says “I am different. I am change. I will bring about believable change” writing for himself, in the manifesto in which he tries to spell out his vision.

Why this manifesto of Gen (rtd) Fonska is singled out for this short dissection, with no comparison with the “Mahinda Chintanaya” of President Rajapaksa or with what he keeps blurting out at dinners and luncheons, at public rallies and public gatherings, is because of just one reason.

There was consensus among democratic forces that Rajapaksa needs to be opposed, long before elections were declared. Opposed for his anti democratic and anti rights, arrogant governance and for his very chauvinistic rule that left Sri Lanka ethnically divided, despite his claim for war victory. There was consensus among most opposition political parties and groups to defeat Rajapaksa, for his arrogant rule that seeped with heavy corruption, nepotism and absolute neglect of the economy that shows no future for Sri Lanka. There is therefore almost consensus on all issues to have President Rajapaksa replaced at this presidential elections. This leaves Gen (rtd) Fonseka as the alternative candidate from among 22 other candidates, campaigned for by the UNP – JVP led alliance, now supported by the larger group of TNA members in parliament.

All SL elections have always seen negative voter shifts as far as choosing alternatives. The voter tide has been “anti” and not positively “for” a programme at elections. This time too, the tide for Gen (rtd) Fonseka is more an “anti – Rajapaksa” vote and not one for a programme. A “change” is asked for, but that change is not politically defined in any tangible manner. Therefore, there is a need to understand what “change” Gen (rtd) Fonseka stands for as the alternative, in replacing Rajapaksa.

This therefore is an attempt to dissect that “alternative” to see how qualified or adequate an alternative Gen (rtd) Fonseka is. This, for that sole reason, leaves out Rajapaksa and his politics as not worthy of comment.

This country, right now and from a long time before, had the grand task of establishing itself as a pluralistic, secular nation State to develop itself as ‘one’ country. It thus has three fundamental issues to be addressed politically, in order to move forward. It is necessary to provide a political solution to the left out aspirations of the Tamil people, restructure the State to make it functionally democratic and pluralistic and also create a market economy away from neo liberalism, for national development.

This has become an urgent need, especially after this Rajapaksa regime, which leaves the SL polity divided and estranged ethnically, leaves the State politicised, corrupt and inefficient, with a constitution that is shamelessly and arrogantly violated and a parliament wholly alienated and disfigured, insulting the very verdict of the people at the last parliamentary elections.

It is this that we need to address and remedy and it is this that is assessed about Gen (rtd) Fonseka’s candidature. It is accepted that the three most important issues broadly spelt before, can not be wholly completed on a single programme and within a short period. Yet, what needs to be evaluated is the possibility and the opportunity this manifesto of Gen (rtd) Fonseka provides, in achieving what needs to be achieved for the future of this country.

On such an assumption , what is glaringly evident in Gen (rtd) Fonseka’s manifesto for a “Believable Change” is its ambiguity and evasiveness in not saying, rather than saying, what it would do.

The promise of abolishing the executive presidency, was “the” promise that brought this otherwise impossible grouping together. All other issues have been lately accommodated to make the candidature a populist one. Yet this most important promise of abolishing the executive presidency  is too vague to be “believable” as included in the manifesto. All what Gen (rtd) Fonseka’s manifesto promises is that he would “restore democracy and win the peace” for which he says, “Within a month cabinet papers will be presented for the approval of a ‘Constitution Amendment Bill’ to abolish the Executive Presidency”. That simply is everything about abolishing the executive presidency.

There is no mention of what power(s) would remain with the presidency thereafter, which he says he would hold and said it would not be like ‘William Gopallawa’. With such statements that was made by the Common Candidate himself, it is important for the people to know and also for a social dialogue to discuss, whether the new executive and legislative powers would be modelled like in France or like in India. Or, whether it would only have its “immunity” removed and or made answerable to parliament. There is no conceptualisation of the presidency that the people could understand, before they could vote in favour of abolishing the executive presidency.

This needs to be clear for one major reason. It was not only the Executive Presidency that was a bane to the people of this country. It was under the previous system of a parliament with the Prime Minister as Head of State, that we did everything we should not have done in polarising this society, ethnically. It was in such a parliament that the Tamil people of Indian origin were robbed of their citizenship and vote. It was in such a parliament that Sinhala was made the “Only official Language” and the bill which standardised university admissions on geographical and language basis were passed. It was within the 30 years with a parliament and a PM that Tamil politics moved from living in a “unitary” State to a “Separate Eelam” State from 1974.

It was also this system of parliamentary governance without an Executive Presidency, that led to armed insurgency, both in the Sinhala South in 1971 and Tamil North from around 1974, with the killing of Alfred Duraippah in July 1975.

Yet the “believable change” in executive presidency is not explained for the people by Gen (rtd) Fonseka, the Common Candidate promising change.

Worst is how the political conflict which left this country haemorrhaged with a human tragedy is treated. The manifesto in no page or paragraph even accepts there is in this country a political conflict that entrenches Tamil aspirations and that it needs a political solution. Since it does not see or accept such a conflict, there is not even a reference to the 13 Amendment to the Constitution, despite Gen (rtd) Fonseka’s earlier statement, “I will not be able to speak of a solution right away. There will be consultations among the political parties in the opposition fold. I’m for 13-plus because we need to move beyond the Indo-Lanka accord (1987)…..” answering a question from an Indian correspondent at his first media briefing.

With such intentional glaring omissions, his manifesto has left out what he has under his signature promised the TNA leader R. Sampanthan, in the document, “Programme of Immediate Relief Measures for war affected persons & Areas for Peace” handed over to the TNA on 04 January, 2009 at his own campaign office in Colombo. This signed document promises, “ High Security Zones to be dismantled in keeping with the re-location of the Security Forces” and also “All ‘para-military cadres’ and ‘armed groups’ to be disarmed forthwith”, Gen (rtd) Fonseka calling them “war lords”. This is further expanded very positively in the letter of promise given to the TNA by saying, “Except the Security Forces and Police, only persons with permits under the Firearms Ordinance, would be entitled to possess firearms.”

These are definitely positive steps towards de-militarising this society, tired and tortured  by numerous groups with arms, running around with State patronage. These are also very positive steps in creating space and providing opportunities for much needed reconciliation. Yet these very important and positive steps have been completely omitted from the ‘Believable Change’ manifesto.

This country today needs a socio political process to heal gaping wounds of a war that was fired off with “Sinhala patriotism” by the Rajapaksa regime, with the tacit support of the then Army Commander (Gen Fonseka) who went beyond his duty to play politics. The war was not only and simply a war that was fought against the LTTE. It was ideologically positioned to rally public support to this regime in the South, leading to an anti Tamil, pro – Sinhala supremacist psyche that changed perceptions within the State to a great extent, against the Tamil polity.

Today, the whole social psyche needs to be changed to accommodate justifiable compensation to the Tamil people who are left out of society with mental and physical agony, after what they had to live through. These wounds are being daily scratched and opened up in different fora, both locally and internationally, with accusations of war crimes. The main contenders to the presidency and their campaigns on one side are trying to bathe in the glory of war victory, while also trying to label the other as traitor on war crimes accusations. Such politics delays and denies much necessary reconciliation between estranged ethno religious communities and leaves reasons and justifications for international investigations on war crimes.

SL today needs a participatory socio political process on the lines of “Truth Commissions” in South Africa to handle its own excesses in war and bring about social reconciliation that compensates the aggrieved communities. A process that would be strong enough and democratic to tell the world, that SL can solve its own fall out of the war, without interference from outside.

Such is what an alternate candidate to Rajapaksa should offer for a “believable change” and most unfortunately, such is not what there is in this manifesto. The whole issue of ethnic reconciliation has been denied attention, though the title listed as number 05 in the manifesto has the word ‘reconciliation’ included.

Clearly, this manifesto for “Believable Change” is unbelievably silent on the Tamil problem and leaves out the Tamil people with only resettlement of the war displaced that any regime would have to undertake. With especially international pressure, as seen under this Rajapaksa regime.

The rest of what is included in the manifesto, especially for the Southern polity, is no different in their presentation. That would be discussed in the next instalment, as – “Believable Change” with unbelievable contradictions.

[Authors note: Part 2 of this article will follow on Groundviews in the next couple of days. To read General Sarath Fonseka’s signed document referred in article, click here.]