By Ramesh Fernando –
Since the tragic events on Sunday, I’ve chosen to remain silent, as I did not see any point in offering my views belatedly. But, at this time. I wish to write about this one man, who could have, and still could, change the course of events that unfolded, and are to unfold; Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, RWP RSP VSV USP psc. I think from my direct and vicarious association with him, I can shed some light on this oft misunderstood, yet admired, complex personality.
As you may be aware, he was the first officer from an infantry unit (frontline fighting regiment), the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment, to become Army Commander. In the past, the role of Commander has by-and-large been occupied by officers from the Artillery, Armour, and Field Engineer regiments. Even among infantryman, FM Fonseka stood out, as he was constantly on the battlefield from the inception of the war, and served with distinction in all areas of conflict within Sri Lanka. He does not require a map of Sri Lanka, it is all committed to rote.
As an Officer, he held himself to the highest standards. The manner in which he maintained his person, and conducted himself, even out of duty, was unimpeachable, so much so that very few officers could attain his almost ruthlessly high level of discipline and professionalism. As he has disclosed, he left his Advanced Level examination early to go home and shine his cadetting boots. During the 2.5 years of the final humanitarian operation, he barely slept 4 hours a day, and he was a constant nightmare to his field commanders as he signalled them every 2 hours to get updates as to their progress. He truly detested “suck ups”; I am aware of a incident where he thoroughly reprimanded a senior army officer for delivering a carton of cigarettes to him when he had only asked for one pack.
When referring to his most outstanding trait, his leadership skills, you may be aware that he was the only Commander to have a firm belief that terrorism could be fully eradicated without compromise. Prior to him taking over Command, the governments and the military focused on limited objective operations, such as Wadamarachchi and Riviresa. No one really had a vision of how terrorism could be defeated with finality. As Commander, he placed the most apposite officers in the appropriate positions, and ensured that they fulfilled their duty, or vacated office. He set objectives, and rarely accommodated excuses for non-performance. Without such firmness, a war cannot be fought and won. However, he would never allow a subordinate to be blamed for following his orders. Gone are the days when wars were a gentleman’s game. It is important to state here that I am personally aware that he frequently took steps to ensure that HIS operational directives complied with the national laws and also the laws of armed conflict and humanitarian laws. It is for this reason that he remains the only senior officer who demands, without any qualms, an inquiry into war crimes, domestic or international.
Many may not have noticed this, but he is the only politician to continuously state that the IGP should not be removed for this debacle, though the entire political leadership and country are ready to hang the IGP. The responsibility in this matter ultimately must borne by none other that the Commander-in-Chief, Minister for Defence and the Minister for Law and Order; President Maithripala Sirisena.
Now, he is frequently in trouble for expressing his opinion without varnish. His character is such that he would not hesitate to even give the President and Prime Minister of the country a earful. He places absolutely no stock in consensus and popular views. I feel that we should appreciate leaders with such curt honesty more than the many others whose words are dripping with honey, sarcasm and falsities. He is absolutely untainted from corruption, or else he would not be complaining about his military pension amounting to just over Rs. 50,000 a month.
Many are blaming the current failure in intelligence on the arrest and detention of a few intelligence officers. Please realise that these officers are not being prosecuted for defending us, but for abusing their positions for personal gain and/or for political reasons; in one case, to abduct several innocent youth and obtain ransom money. Intelligence is important, but it is more important that they themselves are subject to the law, else they turn their powers against the people.
The country is in need of a strong leader to secure the defence of the country. If one reads Lee Quan Yew’s book on ‘The Singapore Story’, the former leader relates how he accorded first priority to defence and law enforcement, as without a secure country there cannot be investment and economic development.
It is not often that a country is blessed with an Arthur Wellesley, a Horatio Nelson, a George Washington, or a Sarath Fonseka. We need a doer, not a bunch of jokers.