Photograph: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images from Guardian

The breaking news that JR Jayawardana had won the 1977 general election by a 5/6 majority is one of my vivid childhood memories. Perhaps, the fact that my father was an ardent supporter of the United National Party led by Junius Richard Jayawardana, commonly known as JR, compounded the significance of that memory. JR Jayawardana asked for a mandate to build a just society (“Dharmishta Samajaya” in Sinhalese) and an open economy. There was no TV at that time, but his Green posters on lamp-posts, buses, and walls highlighted this attractive slogan. He passed the 1978 constitution that gave sweeping powers to the executive president to build the so called just society. That included powers to over-rule a decision of the Supreme Court. Then he locked the constitution by changing the electoral system from a winner take all system to a representative system that made it extremely hard to win a 2/3 majority to change the constitution. He started to build the just society by stripping his opposition candidate Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranayake’s civil rights to participate in politics for seven years and by expelling her from the parliament, citing abuse of power during her term. The justice system in the new order did not find anybody guilty of stoning judges, burning the Jaffna library, or for perpetrating crimes in the 1983 riots. Public mistrust and despair grew day by day but the impending catastrophe was invisible in the glare of extreme presidential power. The economic policies in the new order however achieved a growth rate of more than 7.5%. Some were mesmerized by rising buildings in Colombo, new roads, TV, and numerous other fantasies made available in the markets. My next vivid memories are in two bloody armed uprisings – one from the South, and the other from the North – that continued to torture the minds social fabric of Sri Lankans till recently.

As a child, I was keen to read about an ancient Sri Lankan King known as Dutugamunu.  He lead an army to fight with King Elara who ruled the Northern part of Sri Lanka in 161BC. As soon as King Dutugamunu won the battle, he ordered all citizens to respect the tomb of defeated King Elara at all times. That included an order to get down from the horse whenever they passed the tomb. There was no United Nations at that time to impose international ethics of war, but it is said that this voluntary demonstration of nobility won the hearts of both Sinhalese in the South and Tamils in the North to unify Sri Lanka.

Let this be the backdrop to discuss the petition “Urge the release of former commander of the Sri Lankan Army and Presidential candidate General (Ret.) Sarath Fonseka” that has received more than the required 25,000 signatures on “your voice in our Government” section of the official White House web site.

Why should the Obama administration pay close attention to this?

In addition to the above two cases from Sri Lanka, let me remind two exemplary incidents of profound respect for people’s voice behind defeated leaderships found in the US independence struggle and in the civil war.

During the American independence struggle, the battle of Saratoga came to an end with British General John Burgoyne with his survived soldiers surrendering to General Horatio Gates in New York on October 17, 1777. In the surrender ceremony General Burgoyne said “The fortunes of war, General Gates, has made me your prisoner”. In reply, General Gates said “I shall always be ready to testify that it has not been through any fault of your Excellency”. What should be celebrated in this historical negotiation was the maturity of both military leaders to respect the aspirations of people represented by both groups of survivors.

At the end of American civil war (1861 – 1865), General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant. General Grant paroled General Lee without resorting to the legitimate opportunity to try him for treason. This and the steps taken by President Carter to absolve General Lee of all wrongdoings only helped to forge a better union than permanently sealing hateful sentiments.

During the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr highlighted the danger of unfair laws that some rulers abuse to oppress those who hold opposite views by saying “remember, all what Hitler did was legal”.

Jailed Sri Lankan common opposition presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka obtained 40% of the votes in the 2010 presidential election. President Rajapaksa became the only president after JR Jayawardana to enjoy a 2/3 majority if he ever wished to reverse the anti-democratic elements of the 1978 constitution. To our astonishment, he did the opposite. He abrogated the independent judiciary committees under the 17th amendment to the constitution, so that he can appoint judges at his discretion. Under these circumstances, everything President Mahinda Rajapakse does against Sarath Fonseka may be legal. However, a cardinal historical lesson being repeatedly highlighted in the above historical examples of dealing with a defeated leader has been neglected in the nature of these legal maneuvers against Sarath Fonseka. Compounding the blow to the sentiments of the people represented by Sarath Fonseka, president Rajapaksa and his media men arrogantly defended the present policy. Daily Mirror reported that “President Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday said he was ready to consider a pardon for former army commander Sarath Fonseka if his family makes a request to that effect in the proper procedure”. Reports elsewhere suggested that this “proper procedure” involves Sarath Fonseka’s family going to the foot of the president to beg for pardon for some crimes the state accuses him to have done. President Rajapaksa further went on to say that “It is immaterial whether you deliver a petition with millions of signatures to President Barack Obama or adopt any other strategies but the final decision rests with me”. He left out one choice – to come and kneel down in front of him and beg for pardon. What if Sarath Fonseka and the public represented by him believe that he should not surrender to unfair terms?

During president Premadasa era, MP Mahinda Rajapaksa went to Geneva to complain against human rights violations in Sri Lanka. I am sure he did not expect president Premadasa to say “your flight to Geneva is in vain Mahinda. It will be directed back to me, and you know what I will do with it”.

This time people chose to petition the Obama administration. Will he just revert it back to President Rajapaksa as he boasted?


The author is a lecturer at King’s College London, and a former Radcliffe fellow at Harvard University.