By Arjuna Ranawana –
Across Sri Lanka, ecstatic crowds have welcomed the release of former army commander Sarath Fonseka from jail, and it is intriguing to see whether his presence will help the fragmented opposition shift President Mahinda Rajapakse’s firm hold on power in the country, or will indeed perpetuate his rule.
In a surprise move President Rajapakse used his extraordinary executive powers to pardon and release Fonseka last month. Fonseka, who led the Sri Lankan military forces in the final decisive years of the 30-year civil war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, is the country’s premier war hero. Rajapakse fell out with his trusted army chief after the war was won by the state when Fonseka received public adulation for his role.
Fonseka was then shunted out of the army commander’s position and placed in the largely ceremonial position of chief of staff. Fonseka chose to leave and contest Rajapakse in a presidential election three years ago as the sole opposition candidate.
Rajapakse won that election easily and shortly afterwards Fonseka was arrested and convicted of a slew of offences by military and civilian courts.
Fonseka and his supporters say this was an act of vengeance by Rajapakse, and it did show up the president in a bad light.
The Rajapakse administration is the most powerful in Sri Lanka’s history. The president was at one time supremely popular. But that popularity is waning as the cost of living rises speedily and rampant corruption and an erosion of confidence in the judiciary eats away at public morale.
So why use presidential power to release a potential rival at this time?
Fonseka claims the president had no choice because there was overwhelming demand for his release from his supporters, including religious and business leaders.
There are unconfirmed reports that Rajapakse had been pressured by the United States to release the general, which had listed him as a political prisoner. This has been denied by the government.
The release seems more like a Machiavellian tactic by Rajapakse to bolster his popularity and throw a cat among the pigeons of the opposition.
Although he was a war hero and hailed as such during the past presidential election, Fonseka was paradoxically supported by two major political parties opposed to military action.
They are the main opposition United National Party and the Tamil National Alliance which dominates the northern and eastern regions which are predominantly Tamil.
The UNP is split three ways, with its leader Ranil Wickremasinghe hanging on to power despite being drubbed by the governing party in successive elections. The TNA and the other opposition parties are too small to challenge Rajapakse.
So it would seem that Fonseka is a figure that the opposition could coalesce around. But the conditions of his release are that he cannot contest public office, although he can vote and support other candidates.
In the euphoria of seeing the cheering crowds around him Fonseka said being unable to contest did not matter.
He told the Colombo Daily Mirror that he did not need to be in office to make a difference. “If you look at people like Mahatma Gandhi in India, he created a huge impact on the politics of the country.”
It seems an odd comparison. Fonseka was a fierce, hard-driving army chief with a reputation as an autocrat. As an army commander he made statements that often upset minorities in the country.
If the UNP were to back Fonseka and help build a broad, multi-ethnic opposition front to challenge the Rajapakse juggernaut, with the former general as its leader, Wickremasinghe would have to take a backseat. Or there could be in-fighting among these opposition parties to claim Fonseka. This would certainly strengthen Rajapakse in time for parliamentary general elections rumoured to be held next year.
Many Sri Lankans are tired of the country’s corrupt and thoroughly rotten political culture, where those in power act with mind-numbing impunity.
Fonseka’s declaration promising to bring an end to impunity and corruption has struck a chord amongst many.
Right now, Sri Lanka does not need another war hero. It needs men and women who can manage the economy, honestly make an effort towards reconciliation between the majority Sinhala and the minorities and have a clear vision to restore shattered democratic institutions, restore freedom of expression and bring back the judiciary and law enforcement authorities to their former standards. Rajapakse’s team is failing in those areas.
The need for change is strong and apparent among Sri Lankans. Could Fonseka be the catalyst that brings together a visionary team that would bring about that change?
Courtesy New Straits Times