The campaigning schedule of the opposition's "common candidate", retired General Sarath Fonseka has been a punishing one.
Since nominations last month, between mounting stages to address rallies in various parts of the country and chairing conferences, he has found little time. Lunch has often been a packet of sandwiches eaten whilst being driven from one rally to another. For the group of commandos protecting him, it is a nightmare. As they go from rally to rally, his men keep changing routes and vehicles to counter any possible threats to Gen. (retd.) Fonseka's life. They also carry his mobile phones and hand them in so he could be in touch with opposition leaders and aides helping in the campaign.
Last Friday, at his polls office at Rajakeeya Mawatha, he gave the Sunday Times an interview. Here is the Q &A.
Q: How has your brief experience in politics been?
There is a huge difference. It is easy to work in the military. We believe in the hierarchy system and there is command and control. There are lot of people you are dealing with and in different ways. Here, they are not used to punctuality, planning things like in the military. So I am trying to adjust myself and get accustomed to the new system.
Q: You can’t bark orders can you, in politics? It is different. What is your view?
I am adjusting myself. You have to go out of the way to get some things done. Of course there are two leading political parties supporting me. Even with that, I find the system is totally different. Politics is not done under an established organization. Here, there are a lot of individuals who are working without proper rules and regulations. Therefore it is different.
Q: How have you managed to work with three divergent forces – the pro-capitalist UNP, the leftist JVP and the TNA?
We are focused on one goal. It is simple. To free the country from corruption, maintain justice and democracy, law and order, equality for everybody. We have agreed on these principles. Though they have different political views we have agreed on these principles. Therefore we have no problem working together.
Q: There are allegations you have an agreement with the TNA. What is the position?
I have signed no agreement with any party.
Q:Not even an informal one ?
No. I explained the issues we are focused on and that is the only understanding we have. With that understanding and trust we are going forward.
Q:What role do you envisage for yourself in the short term (until the dissolution of Parliament before April) and thereafter as President if elected?
The short term focus will be the burning issues of the people --the cost of living, issues affecting low income gropups are some of the issues which will be addressed immediately. The people are hungry, they can’t eat three meals, they can’t get milk food for the children, they can’t pay for the school vans and transportation is expensive.
In the long term we want to strengthen the administrative structure by first putting the politicians - the President, Prime Minister and MPs right and have a transparent system in government, restoring democracy and making them answerable to parliament. We must strengthen the administrative system starting from the Ministries, Secretaries downwards and stop corruption. Things should fall inline thereafter.
Q:But, what would be your role?
I will be the Head of the Government till we get two thirds and abolish the Executive Presidency. I will have to do the Executive President’s job. We will do that as early as possible. Thereafter too I will be the Head of Government.
I will work with Parliament with less powers under a new Constitution which will call for the President to work with the parliament. As Head of State I will be answerable to the people on all the issues. I can’t wash my hands off, that’s why they are appointing me.
Q: There is an element of concern among the people that you may suspend the Constitution or try to run the country with the support of the military. Can you reassure the people of this country that this will not be the scenario in the event you are elected or are you made to do that right now?
If I wanted to do that I should have done it when I was the Army Commander. Why should I leave the army, come forward according to the Constitution , win the election and then go back to a military government. When I was in the Army I had full control over the military. During the war I could have done it without any problem.
Q:You may get frustrated with politicians and want to just issue orders to get a job done- like when you fought the LTTE. What is your view on this?
I have to work within the constitution. For that I have to work with politicians.
Q:You have been critical of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa of late. At the time you both were fighting the LTTE you said that it was his “wisdom” that helped the war strategy. Why have you changed now?
I did not say “wisdom”. I appreciated the support they gave me. They gave it in their capacity as any other President, any other Secretary. If they wanted to go to war, that was their job to give that support. Previous Presidents and previous secretaries gave the same support to the previous service commanders and the military. Of course the military had some reversals and failures. Even previous presidents have given more support. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga gave more money and more support, but we let her down, the military at that time.
I have not criticized, but I have been telling the truth. He (the President) is the one who has been publishing books and telling that I am indisciplined, I am not an outstanding man. At that time they said I was the best commander in the world. The President and the Defence Secretary said that. Now they say that I was useless, the secretary told me how to fight, he did the tactical planning. So I have to come out with the truth and when I come out with the truth, the Secretary will be exposed.
Q: Next month you might say that Ranil Wickremesinghe and Somawansa Amarasinghe are useless rascals. Would you?
If they make similar mistakes I will have to tell the truth. That’s my job, I have to tell the people the truth.
Q: The opposition has made allegations against the President for corruption, nepotism etc, but we haven’t seen substantive proof being produced?
We have given enough instances of corruption. We have mentioned these in meetings about the corrupt deals. The roads, when they say they pay Rs. 30 million for a local contractor, the brothers pay Rs. 130 million to a foreign contractor. We have mentioned about tender procedures being violated. There are no open tenders when it comes to mega projects. These will be investigated when we come to power.
Q: But so far, these matters have not been brought to courts or complaints have not been made to the Bribery Commission. What is your position on this?
The problem is that the government has all the documents with them. When they put pressure on the people who investigate, how can you go to courts? There is no justice. But when we come to power we will produce everything.
Q: On the other hand they have made allegations against you. While those allegations are sketchy as well, in the least wasn’t it however improper to be an Army Commander and your son in law to be involved in Army tenders ?
My son in law has a company in the US which is not even registered with the Ministry of Defence. They can’t do supplies. There was an agent who came on TV and slandered us. He had been an agent of my son-in-law’s company. He had also been the agent linked to the British Borneo in Australia. The Australian company supplied through another company known as Hicorp in Sri Lanka registered with the Defence ministry. They have supplied some items and the man who came on TV was the agent for my son in law’s company was the man doing it from the US. Finally when you see there could be other companies linked to them.
My son in laws company was done with some students in the US. This supply had never been weapons, only some binoculars, some five Kv generators and some scanners through which you listen to terrorists’ conversations. This Hicorp local had tendered for so many other items, but I have rejected nearly 99 per cent of them. These three tenders had gone to them. At that time I did not know from where it had come. I did not know this link of this agent. Also my son-in-law had all the right to do a business in the US.
Q: So you say nothing illegal had happened ?
If I knew about it and spoke to somebody and organized it, you could say I was behind it. And only Rs 30 million all together, of this the profit could have been one million. Say my son in law got something, it could have been 1/10th of it. That’s about Rs. 300,000. But I was handling a budget of Rs. 80,000 million for a year and for four years that figure multiplied by four.
Q: Do you think these allegations have had an impact on the campaign?
They were trying to link my son in law. They were trying to send the CID to the Australian company and see the link with my son- in-law. Four days ago they sent a letter to my son-in-law to appear before the CID.We knew they were going to arrest my son-in- law on a bogus complaint. We came out at meetings and exposed this. The officers told the Defence Secretary ‘we can’t do this’. They said there was no charge here and he has not done any fault.They said if you force us to do these things we will go home. The next day a letter came not to come to the CID saying they were busy. It has never happened in the CID before.
Q: The government questions your personal conduct in the Army. Of course they are doing it only now. But then, you want to be the President. What is your response?
Anybody can say anything about any one. Have they proved anything? Why did they come out only after I left the army. They say I had 70 odd women, is that practically possible? At least they should have come to know half of that when I was in the army. But what did the Defence Secretary do about it, was he sleeping? I was in the army for years. They went around saying I was disciplined and clean. Therefore it is only a mudslinging campaign. Why are they publishing a tabloid and slinging mud at me, but not framing charges against me in courts.
Q: The opposition campaign is a short term one. Is there no long term programme?
Yes our manifesto also deals with long term plans.
Q: Don’t you think people are being asked to take a blind leap to the unknown by electing you.
I am also known to the people of this county. They know how we won the war. They know my capability, they know my approach, they know my character. I will keep to my promises. You do not need to be a politician for 40 years to become a President. In other countries there are cases where they have come from the military to politics.
Q: You prefer to be a De Gaulle or Eisenhower, surely not a Hitler or Idi Amin?
I don’t want to become anyone of them I am another character by myself.
Q: Your final word to the electors?
They must think about the future of the country. What have the politicians done for the country? Where has the county gone? Do they want to go in the same direction, listen to false promises, believe them? Take Mahinda Rajapaksa, what has he done for four years? Has the quality of life improved? He only got the ammunition for the war. We have not started paying for it.
That will be completed in 2020. We were using ammunition which was in stock until half way of 2008. He is trying to take credit for the war, but what about the worst things which happened where we have failed? Does he take responsibility for those as well. Now he is trying to create a rift between the north and the south again saying I had an agreement with the north. He is trying to create suspicion between the people in the north and south.