Colombo Telegraph

The General and the Witch-hunt

By Tisaranee Gunasekara –

For all their patriotic rhetoric, the two omnipotent presidential-siblings, Basil and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, tend to be more open and truthful with major and minor US officials than with Lankan people.

Perhaps this proclivity to lie less to American officialdom is a carryover from their long years as hardworking US citizens chasing the American dream. As far as it is known, both siblings are still dual-citizens, and thus subject to American laws. This may explain their obvious eagerness to present their doings in the best possible light to US diplomats and other US officials.

Since the Rajapaksas may not want him to die a prisoner, the President may pardon him, once he becomes too ill to engage in any political action and the will of his family to resist has been broken by constant and consistent persecution.

Thanks to this curious compulsion on the part of the two Rajapaksa Siblings, we Lankans have been provided with a fascinating glimpse of the Fonseka-phobia of the Ruling Family. According to a Wikileaks cable, soon after winning the Presidential election, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa informed a US diplomat that “unlike outrageous claims by regular political opponents, Fonseka’s threats and betrayals had to be taken more seriously” (reproduced inColombo Telegraph – 18.11.2011 – This revelation should be juxtaposed this with another Wikileaks cable in which the Defence Secretary is reported heaping praises on the supremely ineffectual Leader of Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe, describing him as a “very reasonable, a professional politician”. According to the same cable, Mr. Rajapaksa informed Mr. Wickremesinghe, “You should have been the candidate; you would have got more votes”.

“Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is not known as a moderate voice, and his remarks were emblematic of his downplaying government actions while exaggerating the opposition threat. It is interesting that he did not mention the allegation of coup plans by Fonseka, but his promise of more military purges to come was ominous”. -US Ambassador Patricia Butenis (Wikileaks)

Had Mr. Wickremesinghe been Mahinda Rajapaksa’s main contender in 2010, the presidential election would not have been a contest. The election became a keenly contested one because of Gen. Fonseka’s entry into it as the common oppositional candidate. And as Gotabhaya Rajapaksa revealed in his heart-to-heart with the US diplomat, the Ruling Family was perfectly cognizant of the threat presented by the Fonseka candidacy and took it with the seriousness it deserved.

Fonseka Phobia

The persecution of the defeated candidate Sarath Fonseka (and his family) by the victorious candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa (and his family) commenced almost as the voting ended. The hotel in which Gen. Fonseka and other opposition leaders were temporarily residing was surrounded by hundreds of armed soldiers and policemen.

This ‘siege’ continued for almost twenty four hours and rendered it impossible for the defeated candidate to take part in the traditional ceremony held at the Elections Commissioner’s office to announce the outcome of the election.

The siege ended due to national and international pressure and Gen. Fonseka was allowed to leave the hotel with his family, unharmed. Interestingly, the regime was unable to arrest even one of the many hundred deserters it claimed were littering the hotel. Instead, members of Gen. Fonseka’s official security detail (granted to him by the military, in accordance with the orders of the Election Commissioner) were arrested the moment they came out of the hotel to report to their original unit. These uniformed regular soldiers were made to kneel on the road, handcuffed and taken away by the military police.

It was an ominous portent of the repression that was to come.

The Defence Secretary’s meeting with the US diplomat happened against this backdrop. Mr. Rajapaksa’s intent in engineering the meeting was to offer the US a series of explanatory-excuses for past, present and future actions by the regime aimed at negating the political efficacy of Gen. Fonseka. According to the cable, “On February 2, Defense Secretary Dotabhaya Rajapaksa summoned DATT to a hasty meeting under the pretext of discussing an upcoming engagement activity with the U.S. military. As expected, Rajapaksa also wanted to explain the government’s position on the treatment of General Fonseka following the January 26 presidential election… Rajapaksa accused Fonseka of manufacturing hysteria among the diplomatic corps, senior religious leaders and others by claiming the government wanted to harm him. He also accused Fonseka of inventing grievances as CDS in order to appeal to the opposition. The Defense Secretary claimed Fonseka and his supporters had no reason to fear government reprisals. He pointed out there had been no reprisals carried out after the 2005 election, and there was no reason to expect such behavior now….. Fonseka held a press conference yesterday and the opposition leadership with Fonseka met with the diplomatic corps today. The hasty summoning of Embassy DATT was an effort to get the Rajapaksa spin on developments” (ibid).

During and after the siege of the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, Cabinet Spokesman, Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa publicly and officially accused Gen. Fonseka of planning a ‘Bolshevik style coup’ aimed at assassinating President Mahinda Rajapakse, brothers Gotabhaya and Basil and senior ministers: “With the military officers who were active partners of the conspiracy spilling the beans, it is frightening to contemplate the result of what may have happened if such a Russian Revolution – style military coup had taken place” (Daily Mirror – 6.2.2010). Minister Yapa went on to say that “if the deadly deed was carried out, the country was to be told that government leaders had been killed by an angry public disgruntled with the performance of the government. ‘In a popular revolt when people get killed it is not possible to pinpoint the killers. That was how the plotters planned to divert the attention of the public from the bloodbath and prevent investigations being conducted’, he said. Minister Yapa said that similar to what happened at the 1917 Russian Revolution, ‘Bolshevik Committees’ headed by military officers handpicked by General Fonseka were to be appointed to carry out the work at various state institutions” (ibid).

It was Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who started the coup-rumour several months ago, as the differences between the Ruling Siblings and their former top-soldier were reaching the boiling point. In an interview with the state-owned ITN in October 2009, Mr. railed against the ‘pillis’ sent by conspirators to depose his brother, the President: “This can cause us tremendous challenges in the future… (They) might send various zombies (pilli)…… We know our country is a democratic country. There are plenty of people willing to do anything for narrow gains. There are politicians; there are people who have become degraded; there are people filled with hatred…. All they want is to come to power. They will be used by national and international conspirators, those who want to protect the LTTE and to regain Eelam…. It is very easy to mislead people, through false propaganda…”

Interestingly enough, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, in his outpouring to the US diplomat, made no mention of the coup story. “He did not mention a coup attempt, as had been charged in the media, but said Fonseka was planning violent reprisals against the Rajapaksas and their supporters if he had won” (Colombo Telegraph– 18.11.2011). This curious omission is proof positive that the coup-story was just that – a story. Obviously Gotabhaya Rajapaksa knew that US officials would not believe such an obviously apocryphal tale. So he decided to omit it from his barrage of charges against Gen. Fonseka, just as he and Brother Basil decided to admit to US officials that the war had been far from ‘clean’.

The Defence Secretary also made some references to the repression the regime was planning to unleash on Fonseka-supporters, especially within the armed forces: “He claimed Fonseka his supporters had no reason to reason to fear government reprisals but also warned there would be more transfers and compulsory retirements of officers who were seen as Fonseka supporters in the security forces” (ibid). In the Rajapaksa politico-psychological universe, supporting Candidate Fonseka was not a democratic option available to any Lankan citizen. It was an act of treachery, which only anti-Lankans resorted to.

Within days of the election, Gen. Fonseka’s office was raided by a 200 strong STF contingent, searching for ‘army deserters’ and ‘illegal weapons’; having found neither one or the other, the raiders arrested 15 members of Gen. Fonseka’s staff, all of them duly retired army men. The army was subjected to a spate of transfers and compulsory retirements. Eventually, the war-winning Army Commander was arrested, charged under military law of financial misappropriation, and after a travesty of a trial, sentenced to jail for 30 months.

Silencing Gen. Fonseka

The Siblings’ determination to remove gen. Fonseka from the political scene becomes perfectly explicable in the light of the Wikileaks revelations. The Rajapaksas fear Gen. Fonseka. They are also furious with him for turning against them (this is revealed by the use of the term ‘betrayal’), even though by opting to join the Opposition Gen. Fonseka was doing nothing more than exercising his democratic right. What is the best way of taking care of such a political migraine?

Incarceration seems the most sensible option, especially if the target can be imprisoned as a common or garden criminal and not a political prisoner. A political trail would make the charge of political victimisation harder to refute. A criminal trial, on the other hand, can be passed off as a normal law-enforcement exercise, unrelated to political events.

Are the Rajapaksas planning to get Gen. Fonseka sentenced sequentially, for this crime or that, so that he does not get to leave the prison? If so, cumulatively he may get what amounts to a de facto life sentence. The rigorous imprisonment he is being sentenced to is likely to further undermine his precarious health condition, a result of the Black Tiger attempt to murder him in 2006. Since the Rajapaksas may not want him to die a prisoner, the President may pardon him, once he becomes too ill to engage in any political action and the will of his family to resist has been broken by constant and consistent persecution.

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