Colombo Telegraph

Under Pressure, Rajapaksa Played His Card Smartly On Fonseka

By James Pryor and Muheed Jeeran

James Pryor

Muheed Jeeran

Today, the former Army Chief of Sri Lanka Sarath Fonseka is able to move freely to any part of the country he chooses. But his political future looks very uncertain in becoming a lawmaker in Sri Lanka. He will however, be a headache to this current regime. It looks like he is not going to give up his confrontation with the Rajapaksa regime and will play a vital role as part of the opposition politicians in the future election in Sri Lanka.

It was the pressure mounted from international community to release Fonseka that made forced the regime to release him. However, the government categorically denied any knowledge of international pressure and even stated to the local media (via their politicians) that they did so based purely on local interest.  Well some reports clearly indicate that the Rajapaksa regime is not totally immune to international pressure.

The President said to the local media that his brother (and current Defense Secretary), Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the person that has the most interest in Sarath Fonseka’s release. If you look at the recent interview given by the Defense Secretary to the Sunday Leader Newspaper on 27th May 2012, he contradicts the President’s statement. In that interview, Editor Frederica Jansz was asking her first five questions about the release of Fonseka and the Defense Secretary was not at all interested in talking about the matter and threatened to cancel the interview if the editor continued to press him on the issue.

If you look at the answers given by the Defense Secretary, he is obviously showing his bitterness towards the former army chief. So how come the president said that his brother is very keen on his release? Any reader can tell from the interview that the Defense Secretary’s answers clearly state that he was not happy about the release, that he had no part to play in it and that the release was beyond the remit of his position as the Defense Secretary.

The Hindu reporter, Mr. R K Radakrishnan, broke the story of Fonseka’s release after speaking to the President on the sidelines of a function held in the third week of May to launch a book, Gota’s War. He recently wrote to a Frontline National Magazine of India and stated “It is significant that Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris was in Washington, D.C., holding talks with State Department officials ahead of Fonseka’s release. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke on general issues in Sri Lanka, including the need to demilitarize the north, Assistant Secretaries of State Robert O. Blake (South and Central Asian Affairs) and Mike Posner (Democracy, Human Rights and Labour) are reported to have taken up point by point issues that the United States was concerned about. One of these issues apparently was Fonseka’s liberty. The US. had held that Fonseka was a political prisoner and had been demanding his release.”

We totally agree with the Hindu reporter that the US demanded the release of Fonseka and (according to direct sources) at the same time, the UK and the EU also demanded his release. It was learned that Sri Lanka was trying bargain with the US by using Fonseka to maintain the US GSP and lifting of Iran Oil Embargo. However that particular card never played with them as the US wanted an unconditional release.

As we also know, there were discussions between The President and Tiran Alles MP, the Secretary General of the Fonseka’s Party, the DNA for sometime. It was learned that Rajapaksa’s team only approach Fonseka’s team to open a dialogue for the release as the International community was continuously pressing the government about the treatment of Fonseka. At the House of Commons British Parliamentarian Mr Andrew Smith MP asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what recent representations he has made to the Government of Sri Lanka on the treatment of Sarath Fonseka.  In answering the question, the Foreign Minister Alistair Burt, stated that “on 18 November 2011, Sarath Fonseka, former head of the Sri Lankan army and rival of President Rajapaksa, was found guilty of spreading rumours likely to cause public alarm and disorder. The High Court sentenced Fonseka to three years in prison, which he will serve in addition to the 30-month sentence handed down in September last year after he was found guilty of misconduct by a military tribunal.  We have consistently urged the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure its judicial process meets international standards”.

The talks between Tiran Alles MP and the President continued without any notice to the media – however, the media did find out about the talks and reported on them. It was quickly watered down in the media and no one expected that the negotiations to resurrect again. But due to an extensive pressure mounted on Rajapaksa from the powerful western bloc, the President finally released the story via a Hindu newspaper that negotiations had in fact started. Thereafter the wife of Sarath Fonseka met the President in a one to one meeting with the negotiator. It was here where Rajapaksa decided to act upon his strategy of trapping Fonseka not to challenge him in any future president elections. He invited the wife of Fonseka to the talks on her own to make that meeting more relaxed and informal rather than a formal meeting. If the meeting were to be formal then he would have been compelled to implement the process of whatever was discussed during the meeting. The discussion will have to have transparency and Sri Lankan public will now have the chance to see the President’s true interest in this release saga. It was a very wise move by the president. According to various media reports, the President promised to provide the unconditional release and security of the former army chief to his wife. But those promises have been broken which we will see in the final outcome. Chief Government Whip, Minister Dinesh Gunawardena has told parliament that the government would provide security but only if Fonseka requests it. But we know that Mrs Fonseka had requested for security from the President during the one to one meeting.

Rajapaksa was compelled to release Fonseka as the state department was keen to see the result while Hilary Clinton was meeting with G L Peries in Washington DC. It was learnt that the President had signed the release paper just few hours before the meeting with the State Department by the Sri Lanka Government. Fonseka had two important tools which were a thorn in the side of the President such as Supreme Court allowing Fonseka to receive treatment at the private hospital and the appeals of previous convictions. And then suddenly Attorney General stated that Fonseka must withdraw his appeals in order to get the presidential pardon. Rajapaksa’s strategy was to make Fonseka concede on the appeals so that the conviction will continue to stand. Rajapaksa fears that Supreme Court will allow Fonseka to appeal and therefore wants Fonseka to concede them to stop his challenge to Rajapaksa in any future presidential election. Lobbyist from the international community wanted to see that Fonseka not concede his appeal as they warned it was a clear trap. They saw through the Rajapaksa plan to keep him out of politics. Compromising on appeal conditions will be used against him to stop Fonseka challenging the President in future elections. However, had Fonseka not conceded any grounds for his conditions and withholding his appeals, it was highly expected by political strategist that the international pressure would force Rajapaksa to release him with full rights and privileges restored. Also one time close supporter of this regime and heavily supported this regime in the European parliament for the war against LTTE Mr Charles Tennock (Member of European Parliament) said “very well deserved freedom as his arrest as far as I could see was an injustice from the start”.

If the government and DNA representative were having the discussion for the last 6 months about the release then why hadn’t these types of legal glitches ever popped up in their meetings? Even though the government and the DNA stated that the release talks were very positive and that they had some minor legal issues to be sorted out. Why did they wait until the last minute to sort out the legal issues? If we analyze the final result, it clearly shows that president has only reduced his prison terms rather to pardon him on his previous convictions. Also another case of ‘harbouring the deserters’ was never withdrawn by the Government.

If you study the whole scenario, Fonseka sacrificed a lot in this truce but Rajapaksa’s expenditure was very low.

 

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