By The Economist –
SARATH FONSEKA, Sri Lanka’s former army chief, emerged through the brown gates of the Welikada prison on May 21st, blowing kisses to his ecstatic supporters and declaring a vow to fight unto death for democracy.
The bright-green balloons his supporters had brought earlier that morning were already flat after hours in the sun. Their flower garlands were wilting in the heat. But as Mr Fonseka strode out of jail, their cries were jubilant: “Long live democracy! Long live our future president!”
Given the circumstances of his release, however, the presidency is not something Mr Fonseka can aspire to in the near future. He was freed after nearly two years in jail on a pardon granted by the current president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. But there was a catch. Rather than grant his political arch-rival a full discharge for his crimes, Mr Rajapaksa only shortened one of his jail terms. Thus the ailing, 61-year-old Mr Fonseka, now an ex-con, enjoys neither the right to vote nor to contest at an election—not for a while, anyway. According to the law anyone who serves more than six months in prison must forfeit his civic rights for seven years.
In his first interview since leaving prison, Mr Fonseka told The Hindu newspaper of India that all parties must form a strong, common opposition against the government. People will decide who should lead it, he said. Tiran Alles, a parliamentarian from Mr Fonseka’s Democratic National Alliance who negotiated the terms of his release, said they will campaign anew for the restoration of their leader’s rights.
A full pardon had been anticipated by Mr Fonseka’s family, but the lesser deal comes as no surprise to most others. Relations between Messrs Fonseka and Rajapaksa crumbled after the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009. Mr Fonseka was an ambitious general who had survived a Tamil Tiger suicide bombing to lead his troops to victory. He soon began to feel sidelined by his former commander-in-chief.
Mr Rajapaksa, for his part, had come to think that the outspoken commander was getting rather too big for his army boots. And then Mr Fonseka had the audacity to challenge him at the 2010 presidential election (the first after the military victory) under an alliance led by the main opposition group, the United National Party.
Despite his war-winning credentials, the decorated General Fonseka lost to the incumbent by 1.9m votes. Even so Mr Rajapaksa saw red. In February, barely two weeks after the election, more than 100 soldiers acting on his orders surrounded his office in Colombo and took Mr Fonseka away—kicking and screaming, as it were.
Standing before a court-martial, the legality of which he challenged unsuccessfully, Mr Fonseka was cashiered for engaging in politics while in uniform. He was separately sentenced to 30 months rigorous imprisonment over irregularities in military procurements. This second conviction saw him lose the parliamentary seat he had won at a general election in April 2010 (having contested it from his detention).
In November 2011, Mr Fonseka received an additional three-year term for giving a newspaper interview that implicated the president’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, by then the defence secretary, in an allegation of war crimes. In his own defence, Mr Fonseka claimed he was misquoted. Then another court impounded his passport before releasing him on bail—in connection with yet more charges, this time for harbouring army deserters. While Mr Fonseka received a full pardon for the first of these cases, he could still be imprisoned on the second.
Mr Fonseka maintains he has been made the victim of a vendetta. His name was pointedly omitted from official commemorations of the war. Though he was Sri Lanka’s only four-star general—an honour bestowed on him by President Rajapaksa—he has subsequently been “disappeared” from official photographs.
Human-rights campaigners and some foreign governments, including America’s, take the view that Mr Fonseka’s incarceration was politically motivated. At least one of President Rajapaksa’s own ministers has hinted that Mr Fonseka “should just have retired gracefully,” because in that case “none of this would have happened”.
Instead, even after his conditional release, the outspoken general—who routinely used court dates and photo-ops at hospitals to issue caustic remarks about the government—shows no sign of backing down. Asked why he thought the president had pardoned him from his sentence, he mused that it might have buckled beneath public pressure.
A senior government minister, who requested anonymity, said the president’s reasons were more devious. Mr Fonseka, in this minister’s analysis, was more of a threat to the government “inside [jail] than out”. He was politically immature and will “soon shoot himself in the foot, as he has done in the past.” He will split the opposition too, his adversary predicts gleefully.
It seems like a risky tactical play, if that’s what it is. The government’s popularity has waned in recent months, particularly over the spiralling cost of living. And Mr Fonseka can still draw a spontaneous crowd more effectively than any other opposition leader.
A woman who waited in the sweltering heat outside the prison for hours to catch a glimpse of Mr Fonseka said she didn’t come there come there “for 100 rupees and a pack of rice”—the bribe politicians typically offer to boost attendance at their rallies. She came because she felt a war hero had been done wrong.
She did vote for President Rajapaksa, she says, “but that was some time ago”.