The humiliation of a hero

One of our readers' letters which we publish today in our Features section (Plus) somewhat sums up what the general public might think of last week's seemingly choreographed exercise to cashier former Army Commander Retired General Sarath Fonseka and strip him of his medals.

The medals he wore, no doubt, were earned by him; even though they also included those he recommended for himself. There is little debate on the fact that he also wears the scars of battle on his body -- no better proof of his valour in the battlefield. For many, these medals are merely colourfully designed soda bottle tops. The notorious Ugandan despot General Idi Amin awarded himself so many that both sides of his broad chest were covered with them, the extras given to his son to wear even if he was not in the Army.

An officer, however, greatly values his medals, be they victory medals or service medals. They represent the blood, sweat, toil and tears he endured in uniform and particularly in the frontlines of mortal combat on behalf of his nation and his countrymen. Though the retired Sri Lankan Army Commander puts on a brave face, he must have felt some emotion surely in seeing all of his medals withdrawn by what he sees as a drumhead Court Martial.

The second part of his punishment - being cashiered, may not be of much consequence as he has already retired from military service, but what it means is that he would not be entitled to his rank, pension and when he eventually passes away, a military funeral. For now, the once 'best Army commander in the world' is too busy in politics to be moping about what has been done to him. He has taken it in his stride, treating it as a witch-hunt against him for daring to contest the incumbent President earlier this year. One must go back not too long ago to the dizzy days in the immediate aftermath of the military victory over the LTTE in May last year to trace the roots of this tragic saga in Sri Lanka's contemporary politics.

The Government made maximum propaganda for political advantage from the military defeat of the LTTE by the country's Armed Forces. Ruling party politicians all but carried the troops on their shoulders with elections looming so that they could have a ride back to power and place. Billboards came up in every town square hailing the President as a King - and why not, thought this Service Commander, shouldn't he himself be the President? Why, many officers and foot-soldiers felt, should we allow corrupt politicians to run away with their muddied and bloodied clothes.

There was some merit in the Government's argument that the General, with his retirement nearing, was dabbling in politics, not so much on the flimsy evidence that has been led before the Court Martial inquiry (extracts appear on the opposite page) but Colombo being a relatively small town, word gets around. Opposition political parties, bereft of a worthy candidate to challenge the popular President also egged the General on to be their common candidate.

The serving General was forced on the one hand, to suppress his intentions because he was still in uniform and on the other, to open some dialogue with politicians to test the waters. This is not uncommon among public servants who enter politics - this is a political entitlement afforded them. But things are different in the Army. Politics is a No-Go Zone for those in uniform. Given his own credentials and the pumped-up popularity of the Army in the fresh flush of victory over the LTTE, it was initially a deadly cocktail for the Government to handle. It moved swiftly in the midst of swirling rumours of a possible coup d'etat to smother any such ideas blossoming by sidelining the General from commanding troops to co-ordinating the Forces through the Defence Ministry.

With the General plunging into politics thereafter, the real turning point probably came in the final days of the run-up to the Presidential election. Some of the General's remarks made their way to President's House, gathering momentum, possibly, as they went from mouth-to-mouth. Some of these remarks were blood-curdling stuff referring to what would be the fate of the President and the Defence Secretary should the General win. Knowing him only too well, the incumbents in office would have not taken these threats lightly. There were acts criminal committed when they were shoulder-to-shoulder that were placed on the doorstep of the then Army Commander. The Media knew best. The President watched helplessly as he had a war to win, and wanted the General to do it for him. Today, when the retired General laments about the lawlessness in the country, it is ironic, to say the least.

Yet, one must ask the question; is the caging of the General to curb his political rights the accepted norms of a democratic country? Does the punishment meted out to him fit the 'crime'?

The Government will, no doubt, argue that its primary duty is to safeguard the democratic foundations of the country (the purge of officers and policemen in the immediate aftermath of the election was put down to this factor) and that it cannot afford to have anti-government elements in the military; that the over-grown Armed Forces need to be kept on a tight leash. Others would say that this is nothing but a one-way street towards one-party rule, and it cuts across the fact that the Government unleashed its top brass on the eve of the Presidential Election on State TV to vilify the General. Was that not dabbling in politics while in uniform? Are there two rules or just one -- if you are not with us, you are against us.

In Britain, Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the British Army joined the Conservative Party last year though the move angered the Opposition and caused disquiet in the Army and Whitehall at the time. His nomination to the House of Lords has now been blocked on the basis that he should have waited at least a year after retiring from the Army to engage in politics. For all intents and purposes, the retired Gen. Fonseka was not punished for merely dabbling in politics while in uniform and on impending corruption charges but for what happened and what was said thereafter. But if justice must be done, it must appear to be done and sadly the benchmark has fallen way short.

It could be said that there was dereliction of duty by the General's counsel absenting himself from the Court Martial on the final date, for he is well known in legal circles for his willingness to even appear on public holidays, as he once did. Then again, what was the indecent hurry for the Court Martial not to have accommodated counsel for the hapless General?
There is also the unease that those LTTE leaders who escaped the wrath of the Sri Lanka Army are now enjoying State patronage while a war hero languishes, humiliated, in a cell. Is this a travesty of justice or has the General only sown the seeds of discord and reaped the whirlwind?

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