By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Political Machinations: Eroding Confidence After The Conflict
The beginning of the implosion of the President’s pluralistic vision, which had led him to sideline Sarath Fonseka and his hardline views in the aftermath of the war, began I believe with Fonseka’s effort to remake his image. He did this through his interview with the Sunday Leader where, assuming the Americans were right in their report of what he had said in Ambalangoda in August, he did a 180 degree turn, and accused his erstwhile superiors of having done what earlier he had claimed to do himself.
The Americans had cited a speech Fonseka had delivered which was publicized by Lankanewsweb, one of the many sites associated with Mangala Samaraweera. That had reported Sarath Fonseka as having said, ‘I managed the war like a true soldier. I did not make decisions from A/C rooms. I was under pressure to stop the war even during the final phase. I got messages not to shoot those who are carrying white flags. A war is fought by soldiers. They do so by putting their lives on the line. Therefore, the decisions about war should be taken by the soldiers in the battlefront. Not the people in A/C rooms in Colombo. Our soldiers have seen in life the kind of destruction carried out by those people before they decided to come carrying a white flag. Therefore, they carried out their duties. We destroyed any one connected with the LTTE. That is how we won the war,’ Fonseka said at an event held in Ambalangoda to felicitate him on July 10.’
This gung-ho approach was not however suitable for someone aspiring to be a common candidate. In December therefore he told the Sunday Leader the opposite, declaring that it was in effect those in air conditioned rooms who had ordered that those carrying white flags be shot.
This seemed a sensational revelation, targeting as it clearly did Fonseka’s former superior and erstwhile comrade in arms, the Secretary of Defence, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Government promptly decided to have a press conference to refute the claim, and as previously when dealing with allegations of excesses on the part of the Sri Lankan forces, asked Mahinda Samarasinghe, the Minister of Human Rights, to handle the event.
It was then however that government became too clever by half, and decided to use the pronouncement for electoral gain. Samarasinghe had asked me as his Secretary to attend the press conference, but I was in Kandy and suggested that it be delayed. However when I rang back, having received from our consultant on Human Rights the details of what Fonseka was supposed to have said in August, it was to find that Samarasinghe had been sidelined. Unlike at all previous press conferences in this particular field, he was now to be only a bit player, with the main role being given to Wimal Weerawansa.
Weerawansa went to town, and laid claims then to being the most forceful campaigner for the President in the election that was due in January. He did this however not by pointing out that Fonseka had lied, but rather by claiming that he was a traitor. It had evidently been decided that this was the best strategy to adopt for the election, to stress patriotism rather than any other considerations.
The intensity with which Fonseka was criticized for letting down his troops led him to retract his statement. The Leader was bitterly disappointed, and claimed that he had ‘walked into the government’s trap…. Fonseka’s garbled and gradual retraction destroyed his credibility’. It claimed nevertheless that Fonseka ‘never showed any enthusiasm for the denial always admitting that he had said what he had said’, and indicated that the UNP was not upset about the stance Fonseka had taken. The Leader’s view was that the retraction was insisted upon by the JVP, which had always been as hard on the LTTE as Fonseka had been before his emergence as a common opposition candidate – and which continued to back Fonseka to the last, whereas the UNP leadership seemed to have second thoughts about him as the campaign progressed and Fonseka asserted himself more and more.
Weerawansa’s solid support for the President put paid to what the Americans might have hoped, that what they saw as the hardline Sinhalese vote would be divided. The opportunity the campaign strategists grasped to establish the President and his supporters as patriots, as opposed to traitors determined to do down the brave Sri Lankan forces, led to a polarization that must have been far from the President’s mind when he resisted Fonseka’s proposals for an aggressively majoritarian post-war settlement.
But in another sense this outcome served better perhaps the long term interests of the Americans and the UNP than any other result. Had Wickremesinghe won the Presidential election on a minority vote, with the majority split between the other two and not transferring because of the bitterness that had been engendered, he would have found governing difficult. Had Fonseka won, he would probably have followed his own predilections, having sidelined or got rid of Wickeremesinghe as the perceptive BBC correspondent in New Delhi envisaged. But with President Rajapaksa beholden to the extremists who had loyally supported him against Fonseka, the stage was set for stagnation.
President Rajapaksa had made bold decisions during his first term of office, to pursue a military victory when what was termed the international community advocated continuing negotiations even though the LTTE had made it clear they did not want a negotiated solution. But such bold decisions were not so easy against those who had backed him against the various forces that had opposed his re-election. The political, educational and economic reforms that were essential were put off since the government felt it had to consolidate itself. And in the process the confidence in a peaceful pluralistic future, essential for the investment the country needed to take off after the years of conflict, faded away.