Columns - Political Column

Mystery over major military shake-up

  • Gen. Fonseka's sudden shift amidst war of words
  • Ninth in line promoted as Army Chief, sweeping powers for Defence Secretary
By Our Political Editor

It was a week of dramatic developments. For President Mahinda Rajapaksa who has put a separatist war behind and a re-election bid ahead, the focus was all three - military, political and economic - as he charted a new, concerted course to usher in a greater peacetime environment and a new image for his Government.

The most significant move came in the security establishment, for months the cynosure of both Sri Lankan and world attention. This was after they successfully ended a two-and-a-half-decade-long separatist insurgency, long regarded as unwinnable. Exactly two months ago, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed in the fighting together with his family. That brought the curtain down on the military capability of Tiger guerrillas.

All that remains now is a largely disorganised group that have mingled with the citizenry around the country and a coterie of one-time Sri Lankans now overseas and led by the most wanted former guerrilla procurement chief, Kumaran Pathmanathan, known best by his initials, 'KP'. A so-called trans-national -government that coughs out news releases has turned out to be nothing more than doses of oxygen to the Tamil Diaspora, who had bankrolled the separatist military campaign. That their financial contributions are now dwindling is known, because to the relief of many other Tamils living abroad, the extortion has also stopped.

It is even clearer that the Government did not expect the military defeat of the LTTE so early, certainly not just two months ago. Both defence and security officials had earlier set time frames of two and three years to defeat the LTTE. More proof came this week when the Government decided to cancel orders worth US$ 200 million (Rs. 22 billion) for defence supplies both from China and Pakistan, which have been two of the largest suppliers. The main component of the orders was for replenishment of large quantities of expendables like artillery shells, mortars, bombs and assorted varieties of ammunition.
Barely two months after the military defeat of the LTTE, President Rajapaksa made some significant changes in the security establishment.

General Sarath Fonseka, Chief of Defence Staff, posing for a photograph with service commanders and the IGP soon after his new appointment.

Though the reasons for the immediacy remain shrouded in secrecy at the highest levels, the decisions to effect the changes were made last Sunday in the midst of some information that emanated in the public domain from which certain deductions and inferences could be made. President Rajapaksa directed his Secretary, Lalith Weeratunga, to affect these changes.

The most important was to ask the Army Commander, General Sarath Fonseka, to quit and accept the appointment as Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).The fact that he was to be made CDS, under newly introduced laws, was well known. Parliament on June 25 passed into law the Chief of Defence Staff Act. As Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake told the House on that day, the purpose of the legislation was to legalise the post of CDS. Until the new law came into effect, the office of Chief of Defence Staff, operated under the State of Emergency. According to that arrangement, the office of CDS played a pivotal role in directly supervising, directing and controlling operational matters.

The new law, however, is quite different in form and content. It lays down that the CDS will function "under the direction, supervision and control of the Secretary to the Minister in charge of the subject of defence." There are also other important powers vested in the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence. They include:
n The Secretary may also recruit staff if it be so necessary for the office of the Chief of Defence Staff, in accordance with the administrative regulations and the rules of the public service commission as are in force.

n Where armed forces personnel are deployed for service in the office of the Chief of Defence Staff, such deployment shall be done by the Secretary in consultation with the Commander of the Army, the Commander of the Navy, or the Commander of the Air Force, as the case maybe.

n At the request of the Secretary, an officer in the public service may with the consent of that officer and the Public Service Commission be temporarily be appointed to the staff of the Office of the Chief of Defence Staff for such period as maybe determined by the Secretary.

The new law, however, tasks the CDS the responsibility to provide strategic directions of armed forces, develop a doctrine for the joint employment of the armed forces, and facilitate the preparation of strategic plans. Yet, it will be under the direction and supervision of the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence. Another aspect is his responsibility to 'co-ordinate' functions relating to intelligence, as well as to prepare operational and contingency plans. He will also advise on military recruitment and procurement tenders.
As is clear, under the new law, the main role of the CDS, therefore is working as an appendage between the Army, Navy and Air Force and Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and is to largely formulate doctrine, strategic directions as well as co-ordinate intelligence. With the separatist war now over, operational planning of a wider scale will not arise. Thus, to a lesser level, it would be the the Army, Navy and the Air Force Commanders who would, like in the past, continue with that task. Of course, that is again subject to scrutiny by the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence who will now have the overall responsibility. It would naturally be exercised through the CDS.

The fact that Gen. Fonseka is widely acclaimed for his gallantry on the battlefield and his leadership of the Army for militarily defeating the Tiger guerrillas under the direction of Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is too well known. It was also well known that he was to assume the office of Chief of Defence Staff. But, what came as a surprise to the security establishment was the short time frame within which a string of changes were effected.

On May 18, Fonseka created history by becoming the first serving General to function as Commander of the Army. He received this promotion as a reward for his role in crushing the LTTE. On Friday July 10, he was holding a meeting with his senior commanders discussing plans to hold Army Day in October this year. The discussions did not revolve around him not being the Army Commander at the time. Then, on Sunday July 12, he was told he would have to relinquish office in three days' time - on July 15 - and assume the office of CDS. That gave him only two days in between. On the third day, he would hand over to Major General (now promoted Lt. Gen) Jagath Jayasuriya, who was then serving as Security Forces Commander, Wanni.

Naturally, the talking point in the security establishment was the short time frame. That prevented him from visiting some of the major military garrisons he had established in the Wanni, shortly after the end of the separatist war, to say his farewells. Adding fuel was the sudden retirement of the Chief of Staff of the Army, Major General G.A. Chandrasiri. It was only last year, the number two in the Army was granted a year's extension. He was widely tipped to succeed Gen. Fonseka. Instead, he was asked to shed his uniform and don his civvies and take on the job as Governor of the Northern Province. Now, Security Forces Commander, Jaffna, Major General Mendaka Samarasinghe has been appointed as the Chief of Staff of the Army.

Presidential Secretary Weeratunga gave Major General Chandrasiri the letter of appointment as Governor of the Northern Province soon after he expressed his willingness to step down. The fact that the ninth on the line of succession was being named to become the Commander of the Army caught many by surprise. Whilst some sections in the security establishment, and sections of the media, said the incumbent Commander has been elevated to a higher position, others pondered whether the sudden change had other connotations.

The fact that the Rajapaksa Government was keen to de-militarize the country was being discussed in the corridors of power soon after the defeat of the LTTE. The Government had to whip up national euphoria and patriotic zeal in the final thrust to defeat the LTTE. The armed forces were acclaimed as 'Ranaviru', but the political elements were careful that they would not be carried away in the flush of victory. The new laws for thecreation of the Office of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), was one such move in the process of de-militarization.

But it was not so much the fact that the CDS bill was brought to Parliament and passed so quickly, but the swiftness with which the changes were made to the High Command of the Army mostly, and the Navy last week that came as a surprise.

Many political observers did not fail to notice a front page news item in the state-controlled Daily News on June 29, when these changes were being contemplated by the Rajapaksa Presidency. The news item referred to the coup in Honduras. Unlike its usual practice, and the practice in most newspapers, this particular foreign news item did not have a dateline (to say which city it was emanating from) nor the agency or source of the news story, which should, normally, suggest that the copy was written in Colombo based on some credible information.

The story headlined 'World leaders denounce ousting of Honduran President' referred to Honduran soldiers arresting the country's President on the eve of a referendum that was to permit him to run for re-election.

How many Sri Lankans would have been interested in the events un-folding in Honduras to receive Page 1 treatment is one thing, and it sure was picked up by the radar of those trying to pick up signals of what was happening in the corridors of power.

Ten days later (July 9), at a book launch Gen. Fonseka was quoted in the newspapers as saying that the war was won thanks to the political leadership given by the President, and because of that political leadership of the President, he (Gen. Fonseka) was able to conduct the war successfully. The exact quote from the Daily Mirror was, "I did my part military-wise and President Mahinda Rajapaksa played his role as the political leader."

Gen. Fonseka was clearly unaware until last Sunday that he would be told to relinquish office three days later. If he was holding discussions on the plans for Army Day when he was in Ambalangoda for a felicitation ceremony by his alma mater, Dharmasoka College that week, he had told his school-mates that he hoped to remain Commander until the end of the year, when the Army celebrates its 60th anniversary. He did indicate, however, that this may not appear hopeful, as he would have to take up a 'higher appointment'. Security was so tight at Ambalangoda that the main Galle Road had been shut down for hours. A senior defence advisor to the President, who has not been active in that office, and was not recognised by troops manning the road, was among those held by a security detail before being allowed to proceed to the ceremony.

That everything was not working smoothly in the Defence establishment in the immediate aftermath of the victory over the LTTE was seeping to the public in driblets. One way was by the public statements made. In the immediate post-victory period there was a clamour by the different armed forces to claim credit for what they did to win the war. They almost over-ran the President's own political drive to be portrayed as the saviour of the nation. Newspapers were being besieged by requests to be interviewed and write about the various aspects of the war that was fought and won. Partly, they were efforts at letting the public know the role they played. There was genuine pride in what they had. Partly, it was like an inter-services competition.

During his live appearances on the national television networks, Gen. Fonseka has been an outspoken critic of the Navy. The differences of opinion between him and his colleague, Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, have been repeatedly reflected in sections of the media and websites. It was public knowledge and the subject of public tittle-tattle. There were concerns on how the war is going to be won when the heads of these two services were not pulling along, and to President Rajapaksa, the Commander-in-Chief must go the credit for preventing a 'war within a war'.

A comment attributed to Gen.Fonseka at a news conference soon after taking over as CDS (The Island, July 16) "now we can work with the Navy" drove the point home, further.

The situation was compounded by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) questioning a one time staff officer in Admiral Karannagoda's entourage. This was over allegations of death threats to journalists supportive of Gen. Fonseka. In fact, one of the journalists in question had the protection of ten men as allegations and counter allegations continued to be made by the two factions. Most of these came into the public domain particularly after various websites gave their own versions. This was in marked contrast to, the 'white van syndrome' not-withstanding, a comparable degree of restraint by the print media.

When the Government felt that the 'war of words' was getting somewhat out of hand, newspapers, radio stations and TV channels were sent a letter on June 4 by the Ministry of Defence under the heading 'Dissemination of National Security and defence related news', It drew attention to an earlier letter sent in September 2006 by the Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. While the 2006 letter merely suggested that the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) be contacted for any clarifications on defence matters, and who was authorized to make those clarifications, the 2009 letter added the line that the Director General of the MCNS should be contacted to get "prior approval" for interviews from all those coming under the Ministry. This was clearly to control the public utterances being made and the public showing of inter-service rivalry.

This has now been followed up by yet another letter dated just the day before yesterday (Friday) marked 'secret' by the DG-MCNS Lakshman Hulugalle to newspaper editors specifically naming the service chiefs and the IGP and saying that the Defence Secretary's prior permission is required for interviews from them.

Whether this letter was copied to these service chiefs and the IGP is not known, but it shows the determination to seal the lips of the top brass in the country and prevent them from creating dissention among not only the senior officers, but also the rank and file - and the public.

While Admiral Karannagoda kept studiously away from making any public statements, controversial or otherwise, and accepted the post of National Security Adviser to the President, what should be an influential job of its own, Gen. Fonseka could not be kept quite. He seemed to have a dig at the politicians whom he may have felt had side-lined him after all that he had done. With his political ambitions no doubt in question, a reporter asked him soon after assuming his new job if he did harbour political ambitions. His response was to say that he did not wish to lose the public popularity he currently enjoyed, by taking to politics.

On the political front, President Rajapaksa was busy with senior members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) mapping out strategy for the upcoming Presidential elections. The measures included selecting electorate level organisers and strengthening the party machinery.

Not to be left out, the main opposition United National Party (UNP) has also begun activating its machinery. On Wednesday, its Political Affairs Committee met under the chairmanship of deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya. It decided, contrary to some media reports, to appoint a six-member committee to formulate a common minimum programme for a grand alliance with like-minded parties. That includes the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the SLFP (M) led by Mangala Samaraweera, and Mano Ganeshan's Western People's Front (WPF). They will circulate their final position paper with all other parties as well.
On Wednesday the party discussed a report submitted by a seven-member committee headed by Gamini Jayawickrema Perera. The team had studied the prospects of a grand alliance and recommended that it be formed. UNP and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is not a member of the Political Affairs Committee and will not sit on this new committee to formulate a common minimum programme.
The UNP has decided to stick to its party symbol, the Elephant, and to consider any changes only if there is a major demand from an influential section that doesn't want to contest under the Elephant symbol. Basically, they are prepared to contest like in 2001 possibly under a new name (United National Front - in 2001) but retaining the symbol.

Samaraweera came out with a lengthy 19-page letter in Sinhala addressed to "all those who love the SLFP" under the heading, 'Is this the end of the roads for the SLFP?' The letter starts by making references to various forces that tried to 'finish off' the SLFP, then praise former President Chandrika Kumaratunga for saving the party from "dooshanaya and beeshanaya" (corruption and fear), which is a bit of a laugh, and then refers to this being the 50th anniversary of SLFP founder, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike's assassination.

He quotes from the late Bandaranaike's speeches, especially those titled 'placing manacles on people's minds' and then to sub-heads like the collapse of democracy; the collapse of the economy due to inability; the communalism of the party; the country's image in the world'; nepotism; etc.

His message seems to target mainly the SLFPers who have been side-lined by the Rajapaksa Presidency. He says that the best ministries have been given to non-SLFP members and that the rogues and thugs of the UNP are now in the SLFP, and relates a story of how a UNP Deputy Mayor of Dehiwela went to see the President at Temple Trees and thought he had walked into 'Siri Kotha', the UNP headquarters because the ground floor and the first floor were full of 'UNPers'.

While this no doubt is arch-typical Samaraweera strategy to demoralise the SLFPers, the Government itself recognises that it is the economy and the cost-of-living that would be a key factor when Presidential elections loom in a few months' time. It is, therefore, vigorously still pursuing its efforts to finalise talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for the standby facility of US$ 1.9 billion. There was little or no movement on this facility during the past few days with the IMF saying that the meeting of the Executive Board has yet to be scheduled. But prior to that meeting the Government must give an LoI (Letter of Intent) that it will abide by IMF conditionality for the loan.

Government sources maintain that President Rajapaksa, who is also the Minister of Finance, has refused to provide a Letter of Intent (LoI) to the IMF agreeing to conditions imposed by them. However, other sources say he may appoint a new Finance Minister, who will in turn provide such an LoI as a way out of the log-jam. Sarath Amunugama, now a Minister and Deputy of Finance is strongly tipped for this position. There was no official confirmation of the move, but the ball seems to be in the Government's court now if it still wants this loan.

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