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Sajith now seeks deputy leader's post

  • New turn in UNP crisis; wide sections oppose any change in Karu's position
  • Fonseka and Alles appeal for more UNP backing in their campaign for democracy
By Our Political Editor

It was past 8 p.m. last Tuesday when four persons walked into the apartment within Navy Headquarters in Fort where former General Sarath Fonseka is held in custody.

There, Colonel Channa Etipola, Staff Officer attached to the Army Provost Marshal's Directorate, handed over to Fonseka a letter. It specified the findings of a General Court Martial (GCM) on August 13 holding him guilty of dabbling in politics whilst in active service, the sentence imposed and the confirmation by the Confirming Authority - President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Others who accompanied him were Major Pradeep Vithanage (Army), Lieutenant Commander P.B. Chandrasiri (Navy) and Jailor W.W.L.B. Warnkulasuriya. A prisons official was present since Fonseka is deemed legally under remand custody.

Col. Etipola knocked at the door of the apartment. Fonseka opened it and asked "mey mokadda?" (What is this?). "Mann danney nehe" (I do not know), he responded. Then Fonseka opened the letter and read it. "Magey medal araganna yannney. Eva kakkusiya waley," (My medals are to be taken. They are in a toilet pit), said Fonseka, obviously unaware that the medals had only been withdrawn. Hence, its physical re-possession is not being sought. He then exhorted "magey pension ekatath gahala" (They have also hit my pension). He complained that he was spending over Rs 15,000 on his fuel bills now.

That encounter was the first official intimation to the former Commander of the Army and later Chief of Defence Staff, then General Sarath Fonseka, that he has been cashiered. He was no more a General nor entitled to wear decoration medals. Nor was he entitled to a pension. From the height of glory, he had fallen to the depths of ignominy. This is whilst facing a second Court Martial where, if found guilty, he faces a jail term.

Gardihewage Sarath Chandralal Fonseka, joined the Sri Lanka Army during its third intake as a Second Lieutenant on February 5, 1970. Holding the personal regiment number 0/50536, he was commissioned as an officer on June 1, 1971. The road to becoming the first serving General in Sri Lanka's military history, a rare honour, has not been a smooth one for Fonseka. He was embroiled in many a controversy during his 40-year career. Just four years into service, when he was attached to the Army Training Centre in Diyatalawa, (Drill and Weapons Training Unit), he risked being cashiered.

The charge sheet against Lt. G.S.C. Fonseka, attached to the first battalion of the Sinha Regiment, a copy of which was seen by the Sunday Times, read: "WOAS (Whilst On Active Service) being an officer of the Regular Force is charged with conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline in that on 25th December '75 at the ATC and Station Officers Mess, Diyatalawa, did behave in a manner unbecoming the character of an officer and a gentleman and thereby committing an offence punishable under AA (Army Act) Section. 129(1)." He was accused of misconduct with the domestic aide of a neighbour in the living quarters.

The relevant section under which he was indicted (129 (1) of the Army Act) states "……..every person subject to military law who, by any act, conduct, disorder, or neglect, prejudices good order and military discipline, shall be guilty of a military offence and shall, on conviction by a court martial, be liable, if he is an officer, to be cashiered or to suffer any less severe punishment in the scale set out in section 133, and, if he is a soldier, to suffer simple or rigorous imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or any less severe punishment in the scale set out in section 133."

Then, Fonseka's commanding officer, Colonel Cyril Ranatunga, decided against using the full force of the law. Instead, he wrote in the charge sheet "accused pleads guilty" and added in the "punishment awarded column" that Fonseka is "severely reprimanded." That allowed Fonseka to continue in his career to reach greater heights. Col. Ranatunga too later rose to higher ranks. Though he retired as a Brigadier, he returned as a Lieutenant General during a UNP administration to serve as General Officer Commanding (GOC) the Joint Operations Command (JOC) and was promoted General upon retirement. He was also Secretary to the Ministry of Defence thereafter.

Fonseka became the main contender to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, at the Presidential election, in January this year. Gen. (retd.) Ranatunga mounted the stage at a campaign rally in Mawanella to support his one time junior officer whose career he had saved.

Fonseka's past misdemeanours were forgotten in the recent years. He became easily the most popular military officer in Sri Lanka. That was for leading troops to military victory against Tiger guerrillas in May last year. He shared that glory with President Mahinda Rajapaksa who gave political leadership. An equal shareholder in it was Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa who made available the required resources to the armed forces, the police and the civil defence force and was the rock that withstood external pressures to stop the war.

President Rajapaksa looks at a photograph of Sarath Fonseka taken during the presidential election. The occasion was the photographic exhibition held by senior photojournalist Srilal Gomes at the National Art Gallery on Friday. Pic by Nilan Maligaspe

The country's main opposition United National Party (UNP) backed Fonseka as the 'common candidate' at the presidential elections. It seemed an irony that two UNP MPs were the main witnesses at the General Court Martial.

It was almost entirely on their evidence that he was convicted. (See also report on next page). They were Johnston Fernando (Kurunegala District) and Lakshman Seneviratne (Moneragala District). Fernando has since joined the UPFA and is now a cabinet minister. The third witness was Gamini Abeyratne alias 'Taxi Abey', also a one time staunch supporter of the UNP. He has, however, become closely associated with Fernando and the UPFA and even got for himself a post as a Director of the government-run budget airline Mihin Air.

At the time Sarath Fonseka was reportedly in conversation with the two UNP MPs it was a known fact that they were both part of an anti-Ranil Wickremesinghe group within the UNP. This group was concerned that Wickremesinghe would be defeated should he contest the Presidential election and that it should promote another candidate to challenge the President.

The GCM found Fonseka guilty of three charges relating to uttering "traitorous/disloyal words" and "neglect to obey garrison or other orders." The fourth witness, Major General Chrisantha de Silva, then Military Secretary, only produced what the prosecuting counsel said during GCM hearings were "certain documents." Major General Harsha Weeratunga headed the GCM, which began sittings on March 16. The two other members were Major General Lalith Wijetunga and Major General Aruna Jayatilake. The charges related to telephone conversations Fonseka has had with Johnston Fernando and Lakshman Seneviratne. He had sought their support to become the presidential candidate.

Both parliamentarians told the GCM how Ruwan Weerakoon, a journalist, brought CDMA telephones to different locations to help them speak with Fonseka. Though he did not testify before the GCM, Weerakoon had denied the claims in a statement to the CID. The two parliamentarians had met regularly at the Colombo residence of Abeyratne. The latter told the GCM that he had advised the two MPs to tape-record all their conversations with Fonseka. They had done so. Fernando said he tape-recorded a conversation with Fonseka when he telephoned him from the United States. Similarly, Seneviratne said he too tape-recorded conversations with the then Chief of Defence Staff. Their calls related to Fonseka's plans to enter politics and become presidential candidate.

UNP leader Wickremasinghe raised issue over some of the submissions made to the GCM by Lakshman Seneviratne, who is still a UNP parliamentarian from the Moneragala District. He asked during the parliamentary group meeting last Tuesday whether Seneviratne had told the GCM that he had had discussions for several weeks with then General Sarath Fonseka. He had replied that he said no such thing.

However, official records of proceedings where Seneviratne testified before the GCM tell a different story.

Here is an extract:

Q: Do you remember in which period the decision was taken that the
UNP would support General Fonseka if he becomes presidential candidate?
A: I cannot remember the exact date. But it should be in October or November, about three weeks before the polls.
Q: But before taking that decision, was there no discussion as to what would be the stand of the UNP if General Fonseka was to contest the presidential election?
A: Yes, we discussed.
Q: How long before the final decision was taken did these discussions take place?
A: Few weeks. A short period.
Q: You were discussing if Gen. Fonseka was to contest as presidential candidate, would the UNP support him or not?
A: Yes
Q: That would mean, according to your evidence, you all knew that General Fonseka is to contest the presidential election?
A: That is correct.

Mr. Wickremesinghe however told Parliament a different story this week. He said that the UNP never took such a decision and that the GCM's Prosecuting Counsel Buvenaka Aluvihara "deliberately misled the Court Martial" that the UNP had discussed at 'Siri Kotha' (the party headquarters) giving Sarath Fonseka nominations. "Nothing like that happened", he told Parliament.

He said it was said that the Working Committee of the UNP had discussed Fonseka's candidature. It was not the Working Committee that discusses a candidate, but the Nominations Board of the party.

Quoting from the minutes of the Working Committee meeting of Nov 19, 2009 he said that when the issue of the election came up for discussion he had told the Working Committee that as the government hadn't decided on a Presidential election there was no need to come to any decision on the matter yet.

"Even at that stage Sarath Fonseka had resigned from military service. He had submitted his resignation on Nov. 12 and the President accepted it on Nov. 14. The decision to agree to support him as a common candidate was taken on Nov. 26," he added.

When the GCM held its last sittings on Aug. 11, Fonseka was offered a mobile phone to get down his lawyers. That was in a building in Navy Headquarters where the sittings were held. He refused. His response to questions from the Judge Advocate General was "I will inform only through the counsel, when they are present. " His counsel was absent on the grounds that the Courts (the normal Courts) were on vacation. Thereafter, the Judge Advocate of the GCM allowed Prosecutor Aluvihara to make the closing address. The Judge Advocate summed up on the law and told the GCM that the principles of law were that a man is innocent until proven guilty and that the defence does not have to prove anything.

Should there be any doubt on the facts, the General should be acquitted. At the end of the day the GCM resumed sittings to inform Fonseka that he had been found guilty. Later, the three-member GCM adjourned to decide on the sentence, which was conveyed through the Commander of the Army to the President who is Commander-in-Chief. He confirmed it on August 13.

Fonseka could not respond to his being cashiered since he remained in custody. His wife, Anoma and DNA spokesman Anura Kumara Dissanayake held a news conference where they jointly declared that the GCM verdict was flawed. Anoma was to join DNA MP and former cricketer Arjuna Ranatunga and Tiran Alles MP, for a meeting with Most Venerable Thibatuwawe Sri Siddharatha Sumangala Thera, the Maha Nayake of the Malwatte Chapter in Kandy. Alles, who was once the conduit for backchannel contacts with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Government, told reporters "Fonseka had received his thanks for ending the war and saving the country from division."

However, President Rajapaksa telephoned Most Venerable Sumangala Thera on Monday to explain how the General Court Martial came to be appointed. Rajapaksa told the Malwatte prelate that he could consider a pardon for Fonseka if he, in accordance with Court Martial laws made an appeal to him. Section 153 of the Subsidiary Legislation under the Army Act states "Any officer or soldier who considers himself aggrieved by the finding or sentence of a court martial may forward a petition to the confirming authority (who, in this instance, is the President and Commander-in-Chief) through his commanding officer."

A more critical response came from Somawansa Amerasinghe, leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the largest constituent in the Democratic National Alliance led by Fonseka. "He has become the biggest pariah for the Government. The biggest pariah who gave strength to the military machine of the LTTE to make them stronger, Kumaran Pathmanathan has now become a patriot and is now loved by government leaders. This is what the Government has done," he told the Sunday Times.

Amerasinghe said if Fonseka was charged with engaging in politics, there were many other Generals who should be tried. "There were several of them who came on TV talk shows during the presidential elections and dabbled in politics. Their remarks violated Army discipline. They criticised the opposition," he said. In the same way, Fonseka had also criticised the leader of the opposition whilst in uniform. Nothing was done then. Was it not dabbling in politics, he asked.

Amerasinghe said there was no purpose in having a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission when they treat the man who won the war with such vengeance and hatred.

He charged that the only motive behind punishing Fonseka was because he entered politics, which is a legitimate right of any Sri Lankan citizen. All his contributions to safeguard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country have been forgotten. A traitor (KP) was now king whilst Fonseka has been made to look a traitor. The people will not forget this though they are now frightened to talk. Dissent is not tolerated any more and we are heading towards a police state, he charged.

Though the decoration medals were withdrawn from Fonseka, the government cannot take away the factors that made him earn those. "He defeated terrorism and united the country. No one can now undo that," he said.

On Thursday, Fonseka, who attended Parliament, gave a news conference. He said, "I worked in the army for 40 years and now I have been denied of my rank, medals and pension. I am not saddened by the loss of medals or rank. I will not get disheartened or be silenced. They cannot dismiss a retired officer from the Army. The only offence is that I contested the election. They have withdrawn these things but does that mean the sacrifices I made and the service I rendered which earned me these things will be returned to me?

"Today KP who was the alternate leader of the LTTE is being treated as a VIP. That is because he has money. If things go this way, the country will face a sad future. You are safe today only if you talk good of the President. Otherwise, you are considered a criminal. This ruling is a black mark on the country. They have made the Army and the defence establishment the laughing stock of the world.

I was planning to donate my pension of Rs 50,000 to a home for orphans but now I have been deprived from doing that.

"Are you worried you will be deprived of your MP post?
"I know it will happen but I am not worried. I did not become an MP to enjoy perks. I came to serve the people.
"What verdict do you expect from the next court martial?
"I will be put in jail. All I was expecting is happening now.
"Some government leaders allege that you placed over 4000 soldiers before court martial when you were Army Commander?

"Around 2000 were arraigned before court martial but these were deserters. Many were deserting during the battle for Kilinochchi and to stop this we had to court martial them. Any army would need to do that. Otherwise, we would still have been stuck at Omanthai. Does this mean they will court martial any Army Commander who has during his tenure in office punished offenders."

Lakshman Hulugalla, Director General of the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS), defended the government's position. He said "Sarath Fonseka now claims that the General Court Martial on him was an injustice as his lawyers were not available to defend him. That is not correct. Lawyers were given the opportunity to be available.

They were informed the dates and they were not present. Therefore, he cannot claim that injustice has been done to him. The Court Martial ruling has now been authorised by the President which means it has been accepted".

Fonseka said he would not petition the President to appeal against the sentence of the GCM. However, he would appeal to civil courts and added, "I want to put everything on record. If we don't, they (the government) will see it as an admission of guilt."

Fonseka also dismissed Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa's assertion that alleged international activities of the LTTE had made it mandatory for retaining a huge military presence in the north. The Army needs to be able to be deployed in all parts of Sri Lanka.

However, it was Fonseka, who, soon after the defeat of Tiger guerrillas, formulated reports recommending that the Army's strength be doubled. He also prepared reports listing equipment requirements for the future. Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, however, rejected the move. He opined that such high levels of militarisation were not needed since the guerrilla military capability had been decimated. He said what was needed was continued security measures for greater vigilance.

Fonseka also took a few swipes at the UNP. "It needs to do more to support the undemocratic actions of the government. It must not limit itself to words but must act," he said. Since the UNP was a "powerful political party," its support would be strength to the DNA, he added. "We are at the receiving end of brickbats of the government. The UNP too must face the same brickbats," he pointed out.

The UNP countered by saying that Fonseka's legal team never bothered to contact the party to find out the truth of what happened within the party over the common candidature of Fonseka and that evidence should have been put into the proceedings for future reference.

However, for the UNP, the brickbats continue to be hurled against each other by rival factions. The in-fighting has now taken a comical turn with the leadership crisis now descending to a deputy leadership crisis. This is the direct result of Sajith Premadasa (Hambantota District), who vowed never to have one-on-one talks with party leader Wickremesinghe because he could not trust him, doing an about turn. In the light of that assertion, Premadasa earlier asked other party MPs to accompany him when he met Wickremesinghe. On one such occasion, MPs John Ameratunga and Kabir Hashim accompanied him.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Premadasa did have one-on-one talks with Wickremesinghe. Similar one-on-one talks were also held by Ravi Karunanayake (Colombo District) with Wickremesinghe during the two days. The discussions made clear that the issue now was a crisis for the deputy leader. On Thursday, Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya and UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake joined the discussions.

Premadasa was to tell Wickremesinghe that he (Premadasa) was the most popular person in the United National Party, even more popular than the party leader. The party supporters countrywide wanted him to lead it, he claimed. However, he was now willing to accept Wickremesinghe as the leader and work under him. For this, he said, he would wish to be made the deputy leader of the party. That was indeed an about turn from the earlier position. Premadasa and a group of dissidents had wanted to replace Wickremesinghe. He had said at many public meetings that a leadership change was imperative.

Wickremesinghe made clear the position held by Jayasuriya could not be changed. The Maha Nayakes of both the Malwatte and Asgiriya chapters had said that Jayasuriya, a stout Buddhist, should continue to remain the deputy leader of the UNP. This week, there was also pressure on Wickremesinghe from Buddhist organisations not to sideline Jayasuriya under any circumstances.

During his one-on-one dialogue with Wickremesinghe, Karunanayake had insisted that he should be considered for a position similar to the one that would be given to Premadasa. "Even if a doctor had achieved popularity because of his skills, that did not mean that his son would automatically become a doctor and inherit that fame," he told Wickremesinghe. Karunanayake was alluding to the late President Premadasa, Sajith's father.

Karunanayake was a happy man this week. President Rajapaksa had telephoned him to assure that an impartial inquiry would be conducted into the attack on his vehicles when he attended a meeting at Beliatte in the Hambantota district the week before last. Rajapaksa was to tell him that Karunanayake was welcome to visit Hambantota again to engage in politics. The Police have arrested already nine persons, suspected to be supporters of Premadasa, over the incident. Namal Rajapaksa also met Karunanayake in Parliament to tell him that no form of thuggery would be allowed in the Hambantota district. He said Police had been told to take tough action against those involved in the attack since it was a blatant breach of the law.

Quite clearly, Premadasa who wanted to oust Wickremesinghe from leadership with the support of a group of dissidents, some with strong connections with the government, has now come a cropper. It is with this in mind that Premadasa had proposed at the Working Committee meeting on July 19 that all UNP Provincial Councillors, UNP Pradeshiya Sabha members and UNP electoral organizers also be given the right to vote at elections to elect the Leader, Deputy Leader, Assistant Leader, National Organizer and the Chairman of the Party, as claimed by Lakshman Seneviratne. He has told UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake that this proposal was seconded by Ranjith Madduma Banda M.P. "However the minutes of the meeting of July 19, 2010 have not recorded this proposal at all." he has pointed out in a letter.

Nevertheless, the Working Committee on July 19 had unanimously accepted the recommendations of the Reforms Committee. That included a recommendation that the party leader and other senior leadership be picked by an Electoral College made up of UNP parliamentarians and members of the Working Committee only. If there was no consensus, the Reform Committee has said, the matter should be put to vote. As a follow up measure, a subsequent Working Committee meeting on August 11 had named a committee headed by one time Attorney General and Defence Minister Tilak Marapana to draft a new constitution based on the Reform Committee's recommendations.

The inclusion of UNP provincial councillors, Pradeshiya Sabha members and electoral organisers to broaden the Electoral College, the dissident group believed, would help Premadasa win the leadership of the party. However, by choosing to meet Wickremesinghe for one-on-one discussions, Premadasa had made clear he no longer wanted this expansion and would work under Wickremesinghe's leadership
However, Premadasa placed one demand before Wickremsinghe, that he be made Deputy Leader of the UNP. It was on the basis of his claim that he was the most popular UNP personality in the country. The move would mean Premadasa wants to replace Karu Jayasuriya in what is now spawning as a deputy leadership crisis. The Sunday Times learnt that Wickremesinghe offered the post of Assistant Leader to Premadasa saying he would offer the post of National Organiser to Ravi Karunanayake. Both do not seem to be in favour of the two posts, a party source said. Thereafter, the Sunday Times learnt that functions of both

Premadasa and Karunanayake have now been agreed upon. Only the designations of the posts they hold are to be determined, a source said.

Some senior UNP members are strongly opposed to Premadasa being made the deputy leader. They argue that Premadasa had not expressed any views on behalf of the party on crucial issues in the past years. They say, his silence, and the few statements that supported UPFA policies were being viewed as strongly pro-government. Adding to this were reports that he had more security personnel assigned to him by the government recently whilst the deputy leader Jayasuriya had to go to the Supreme Court to obtain a ruling for two police officers to be assigned. They also charge that Premadasa had not held any UNP Bala Mandala (branch) meetings in the Hambantota district. They also claim that he had remained silent over former General Sarath Fonseka being cashiered.

Equally, some members were also critical about Karunanayake. Though he has been vociferous against the government, and played an active role in party's protest campaigns, they say, Karunanayake had antagonised sections of the party hierarchy in the Colombo District. Karunanayake, however, was busy this week trying to complete meetings with some 55-branch organisations in the Colombo North electorate. He told these meetings that he had spent 18 years in politics and had been re-elected to Parliament five times. He said this was in contrast to others who did very little for the party are demanding high positions after being in politics only for ten years.

Fonseka said at the news conference that the UNP could do more. Even his main backer, Tiran Alles, has been telephoning senior UNP leaders to say, "We must get together." However, the UNP leaders have their own issues to resolve before they could do more for the beleaguered one time General or heed Alles' desperate call.

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