The former army commander upon being released from prison has lost little time announcing his intention to challenge the prevailing political order, notwithstanding a restriction that prohibits him from voting or contesting in elections for seven years.
Appearing unfazed by the two and a half years of incarceration ("wearing prison jumpers" and "eating prison rice and pol sambol," as he likes to say) the four-star general who was stripped of his titles, outlined his political project to the media on Thursday.
An anti-corruption stance seems to be the main plank of his campaign, and he says that ousting the current regime will be the means to achieving his goals. "To get rid of a corrupt political culture you have to first get rid of the corrupt government."
With the main opposition UNP in shambles, riven by internal disputes and unable to fulfill its role as a challenger to the government, the arrival of a new entrant to the political landscape would on the face of it seem to be 'a good thing' for democracy.
|Former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka addressing the media for the first since he was released from jail after serving a two-and -a-half-year sentence.
Pic by Saman Kariyawasam
Fonseka's promises to transform the existing political culture and fight against the rampant corruption that currently plagues government and other spheres would sound like music to the ears of the public. So too would his pledges to end political interference and restore public confidence in justice and the rule of law. If he is to be seen as a credible alternative to the incumbent regime, the test for him will be to convince people that he can follow through on these pledges. To do that he will need to forge a strong oppositional force with organisational capability and it is not clear from where he will shore up this support.
If the former military chief has caused a flutter at all in political circles, ironically it would appear to be, at this point, not in the ruling UPFA coalition but in the ranks of the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led UNP. Witness the number of UNP MPs who have surrounded him at every televised public appearance since his release.
Among those to whom the leader of the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) extended special thanks for standing by him and giving him moral support during his time behind bars, were UNP MPs Karu Jayasuriya, Palitha Range Bandara, Palitha Thewarapperum and DNA MP Jayantha Ketagoda (who replaced him in parliament when he lost his seat). Journalists would have noticed that besides his wife Anoma, there were two other persons seated at the head table during the press conference. One was Jayantha Ketagoda, and the other was, not either of the DNA MPs Arjuna Ranatunga or Tiran Alles as one might have expected, but UNP's Kalutara district MP Palitha Thewarapperuma.
There seems to be an element of sympathy in the political support the DNA leader attracts, owing to his past which has cast him in the light of a hero, and the aspect of political victimisation. Nevertheless the interest he generates has caused some consternation within UNP ranks. UNP National Organiser Daya Gamage is reported to have rapped MP Range Bandara for involvement in Fonseka's political meetings, and to have said he would inquire into Thewarapperuma's participation at the news conference. He has felt obliged to issue a reminder that Wickremesinghe is the party leader.
It may be recalled that the JVP, which earlier joined the DNA, won four seats in parliament at the April 2010 general elections, contesting on the DNA ticket. But it has not been vocal about its allegiance to the newly released DNA leader. It seems to have distanced itself from the alliance over time. So it appears that while individual defections may be in the offing, the mainstream opposition parties have no intention of fitting into the rubric of any new 'joint opposition alliance' under the ex-general's leadership.
If Fonseka wants to position himself as a potential future president, he would need to demonstrate that he is ready to face the challenges of leadership in the international arena as well. In this context some remarks made in the course of a response to a journalist's question are of interest. Referring back to the events that took place at the war's end, Fonseka recapped some of the developments, starting from UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's visit and leading up to the passing of a UN Human Rights Council resolution against Sri Lanka earlier this year. He said:
"Api aaradanaa karaa ney? Pareekshanayak thiyanna kiyala? Rajaya?" (This roughly translates as "It was we who invited, wasn't it? To hold an inquiry? The state?")
"Ban Ki Moon va meheta gennala ethumaath ekka givisumak uth athsan karala, ethanadee api aaradanaa karaa me aparadha siduvela thiyenava nan, eva gena pareekshanayak thiyanna kiyala." ("We brought Ban Ki Moon over here, signed an agreement and invited him, if these crimes were committed, to hold an inquiry.")
These words are on record about halfway through the video clip on the online edition of the Daily Mirror of Thursday 14.06.12. The suggestion that there was an invitation ('aaradanawak') by the state to hold an inquiry ('pareekshanayak') is somewhat misleading. Besides, Ban's panel did not have a mandate to 'investigate.'
Fonseka's interpretation here of these past events would seem questionable, and it could be argued that a potential national leader needs to demonstrate more clarity in the reading of such sensitive matters. This perhaps gives a glimpse of the complex challenges that lie ahead for the ex-general, if he is to successfully make the transition from the role of 'military leader,' in which he undoubtedly excelled, to that of 'political leader,' in which the diplomatic challenges are of a different order.