By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Political Machinations: The international dimension
Perhaps the most destructive of the machinations designed to weaken the government took place way back in 2009, when various groups got together to support the candidature of Sarath Fonseka for the Presidency. In one sense their getting together was not surprising, for all of them thought the President had to be weakened if their own ambitions were to succeed. But it was astonishing that they should have used Sarath Fonseka as their instrument, since in theory at any rate all of them found his basic mindset anathema.
Until late 2009 certainly Fonseka made no bones about that mindset. On the one hand, he believed strongly that Sri Lanka belonged to the majority of its inhabitants, not just the Sinhalese, but Sinhala Buddhists. He enunciated this clearly in 2007, bringing back memories of President Wijetunge’s claim that the Sinhalese were the tree around which minorities clung like vines.
Sarath Fonseka then was the most prominent exponent of one extreme which Fr Vimal Tirimanna described in LTTE Terrorism: Musings of a Catholic Priest, his balanced account of the crisis we went through. He writes there of political hypocrisy being often justified ‘using hackneyed, out-dated and false socio-political premises, like “Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists” or “North and East of Sri Lanka is the Tamil homeland”.
For the TNA then to adopt a proponent of the first of these perspectives as its chosen Presidential candidate seems astonishing. On the other hand, it could be argued that they know well that extremes feed on each other, and thus the best way of arguing for the second perspective was to allow free rein to the other. Though they claimed that Fonseka had agreed to their conditions for supporting him, they could not be naïve enough to assume that he would stand by his commitments.
It is more likely then that they thought that their own agenda – and even the most moderate of them still hankers after the idea of a homeland, as is clear by their continuing hankering after the merger of the North and East – would more likely succeed if Fonseka pursued his own predilections after election. In a sense the strategy could not lose, for either he did what he promised, or else he let them down and cut loose in fulfillment of his previous perspective, which would immeasurably have strengthened their case internationally.
The international dimension is important here, for the Americans were actively behind Fonseka and behind ensuring that the TNA supported him. The argument one of them put to the Indians was that they had found the perfect weapon to pressurize President Rajapaksa, and it is conceivable that they did indeed promote Fonseka primarily to weaken what they thought of as President Rajapaksa’s Sinhala Buddhist base. About this they were myopic – or perhaps Pavlovian, given the way they salivated at anyone associated with the President – as can be seen from their description of Dayan Jayatilleka as a Sinhala hardliner.
Their adoption of Fonseka was the more strange because of what was seen as the other primary element in his mindset, namely ruthlessness when it came to military strategy. While it could be argued that this was one reason the Americans thought him a suitable instrument of their will, given the military extremists they had used in the past, ranging from Pinochet to Zia ul Haq, they had also decided after the end of the Cold War to put forward a more humane face, at least in public. Thus it was primarily Sarath Fonseka they had fingered in the Kerry report in which they had asked the Sri Lankan government towards the end of 2009 to look into allegations of possible war crimes.
This dual approach does not necessarily signifiy hypocrisy. It has been standard practice in many dispensations to pursue multiple options, and these have been most successful when those working on them are basically sincere. Thus we can assume that those who genuinely believed that Human Rights were important thought questions should be raised about Fonseka, just as those who thought America right or wrong was the only principle to follow were promoting his challenge to President Rajapaksa. Patricia Butenis was the perfect exponent of this dual approach, given her own ambiguities, a ruthless Cold Warrior in her El Salvador days, a more mellow exponent of proconsular authority in Bangladesh, where her interference with military involvement was resented, but where she could argue that the end result was democratic.
It is also possible that initially the Americans promoted Fonseka because they believed it was the best way to divide up what they saw as President Rajapaksa’s Sinhala Buddhist vote base, and thus allow the alternative candidate to emerge as victor. This strategy however, if such it was, failed because on the one hand Fonseka was not willing to be merely an instrument of another’s victory, and on the other Ranil Wickremesinghe thought he could not run the risk of coming in third behind both Rajapaksa and Fonseka. That was indeed conceivable, and not only for astrological reasons, given that the minorities might well have decided, given the threat presented by Fonseka, that they needed to ensure President Rajapaksa’s re-election.
I suspect that was what President Rajapaksa hoped for when he decided to deal firmly with the Fonseka mindset. His categorical refusal to expand the army as Fonseka had requested, and his determination to resettle the displaced Tamils quickly, made clear his much more pluralistic mindset. Dayan Jayatilleka has drawn attention to discussions with Israel about the post-war settlement, and it is not unlikely that Fonseka, and others, were being made familiar with a West Bank Settlement type approach in the post-war scenario. But the President was not inclined at all to such machinations, and made this clear.
Unfortunately, the machinations the Americans were engaged in, into which the TNA was drawn, threw all this into confusion, with catastrophic results – for all, at any rate in the short term.