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The Fonseka factor excites Rajapaksa Govt.

  • Opposition strikes up dialogue with deposed Army Chief
By Our Political Editor

For President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the daily schedule in the past days has been punishing.
He dashed from town to town, village to village in an Air Force VIP helicopter. His ministers and UPFA stalwarts assigned specific sectors for yesterday's Southern Provincial elections, were all on the ground and busy.

A victory for the UPFA was never in doubt. However, the heavy deployment had a singular objective - to ensure that the South returned UPFA candidates in larger numbers with greater majorities. That extraordinary thrust saw an extravagant polls campaign where money flowed as easily as the Nilwala Ganga. The use of State resources and even state power, a monopoly of any party in control, went hand in hand.

Independent polls monitoring bodies found that phones and fax machines in their offices were not working. No complaints of polls offences or incidents of violence could be received by them. Nor could they investigate or monitor them. The Officer-in-Charge of the Weligama Police, Chief Inspector Mahesh Kumarasinghe received transfer orders after a reported shooting incident at a UPFA rally. Election officials had to intervene to cancel it. The fact that it was illegal to affect such transfers during an election campaign did not occur to the Police hierarchy.

Unlike the PC polls in the East, North Central, Sabaragamuwa, Central, North Western, Western and Uva, the opposition parties were more active. Both the UNP and the JVP had mustered relatively large groups of supporters. Besides their rallies, they were engaged in discreet house-to-house canvassing. They wore clothes that showed neither their party colours nor symbols. That was for fear of attacks by rivals. The one man SLFP (Mahajana Wing) led by Mangala Samaraweera, doing the rounds in his own strongholds in Matara, urged voters to show their protest by keeping away from the polls. Samaraweera did not join the Opposition polls campaign. However, some of his supporters were to tell him they would show their protest by casting their votes.

President Rajapaksa and Chief of Defence Staff Sarath Fonseka at the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Sri Lanka Army last week.

For the UPFA, the outcome of the polls has an even bigger objective. By throwing all its resources for an overwhelming victory, it wants to demonstrate that the South has en masse endorsed the Government's campaign in the north where it militarily defeated the Tiger guerrillas. Armed with that glory, the UPFA wants to launch its campaign next month for the Presidential elections. An official announcement in this regard is also planned. This election is slotted for January 16 next year.

However, influential sections in the Government suggested this week that parliamentary elections be held ahead of a presidential poll due to a string of political developments in the past few days. They believe that powerful but unhappy personalities within the Government could cause serious embarrassment and damage vote banks. UPFA leaders are aware of these aspects. Hence, they want President Rajapaksa to dissolve Parliament soon after a Vote on Account is passed next month.

Such a move, they believe, would deprive the Opposition from rallying behind one common candidate or obtaining his support at a presidential poll to defeat President Rajapaksa.

An elaboration of these matters is difficult due to their sensitive and secretive nature. Yet others were openly speaking about a referendum to extend the period of the current Parliament by three years, a move that is highly unlikely. The term of the present parliament ends in April, next year. President Rajapaksa was in a fiery mood during his campaign speeches. At Matara, he berated US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton for her remarks at the UN Security Council last week. She had declared, "We have seen rape as a tactic of war in Bosnia, Burma, Sri Lanka and elsewhere." Rajapaksa said "Mama Clinton Nonata Abhiyoga Karanawa boru chodana karanna epa kiyala…… ( I challenge Madam Clinton not to make false accusations). State Department officials were to later issue clarifications seemingly backtracking on what Clinton said. (See News Focus on opposite page for details).

Nevertheless, the situation has been further confounded by a local radio interview Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake gave. He told state run SLBC's Subharati programme, "Hillary Clinton seems to have forgotten the Monica Lewinsky episode and should focus on her own backyard instead of making allegations of women being harassed in other countries." The remarks incensed the US Government and a new controversy was brewing yesterday.

Joining the fray as a tail ender was the Army Commander Jagath Jayasuriya. In what is billed as an 'exclusive interview', he is quoted as telling the pro-Government website Asian Tribune, "The U.S. Secretary's accusation has puzzled us. On what basis this allegation was made against us. Of course, the State Department has since retracted the statement and declared that they did not receive such reports (of rape as weapon) from 2006 to 2009. If that is the case, how could the Secretary of State make the allegation in the first place? Take it from me, the allegation is totally malicious. It is absolutely baseless."

Senior Foreign Ministry officials who spoke on grounds of anonymity said events arising out of Hillary Clinton's remarks have gone beyond souring relations between Colombo and Washington. "If US officials took a step back, the remarks by both the Prime Minister and the Army Commander have made matters worse. The US attitude against Sri Lanka will harden," he said.

From election rallies, Rajapaksa hopped by helicopter to his new Presidential retreat at Embilipitiya. Before that, he even offered to send a chopper to fetch former Army Commander and current Chief of defence Staff Gen. Sarath Fonseka so the duo may together, as winners of the war, meet the people en route to election rallies. However, the Chief of Defence Staff was "busy" in Colombo with matters relating to the Army's 60th anniversary and was unable to oblige his Commander-in-Chief.

In Embilipitiya, Rajapaksa chaired a rather poorly attended Cabinet meeting. Though Ministers were informed in writing that the event would take place there, some had already made other commitments in Colombo and suburbs. One of them remarked that going for the meeting from Colombo would have involved an-eight-hour journey by road both ways. At this meeting, the Cabinet formally decided that the Government would not present budget proposals for 2010. Instead, it would move a Vote on Account. Such an account is the Finance Minister's statement to the House seeking Parliamentary approval of the obligatory expenditure that the Government has to incur.

The ministers decided that the Vote on Account would be for the period January 1 to March 31, 2010. They agreed to allow a three-day debate on the subject. Unlike the budget debate, there will be no Committee stage, where the allocations for each ministry are taken up for scrutiny. It was pointed out during the meeting that previous UNP governments had introduced Vote on Account in 2000 and 2002. The move drew a tart response from Opposition UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. He charged that the Government had already exhausted the Consolidated Fund and there was not enough revenue to pay salaries of state sector employees. All revenue received by the Government including loans raised goes to the Consolidated Fund.

UNP's Kotte parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake charged that the Government had "hoodwinked the International Monetary Fund (IMF)" to win its stand-by loan facility. "It made promises to enforce several fiscal measures in the budget. Now, there is no budget to honour the promises it made," he charged. The Government should make clear whether the Vote on Account had the concurrence of the IMF, he said.
After more campaigning on Wednesday, Rajapaksa flew to Colombo. On Thursday, he chaired a 'Temple Trees' meeting of the National Security Council (NSC), the apex body responsible for defence and security. There were two newcomers — re-born Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera and Foreign Secretary, Romesh Jayasinghe. Ahead of the meeting, some of the participants were to congratulate General Sarath Fonseka, Chief of Defence Staff. This was after an SMS operator on a mobile telephone network reported Wednesday "Gen. Sarath Fonseka has been appointed as the Secretary to the Ministry of Sports in addition to his current position, says Sports Minister." The report was later picked up by TV, radio and some of the print media.

It was the same service and the same mobile telephone operator that had on September 31 circulated an SMS which said "Tune into any local TV channel this evening at 8.05 p.m. and watch as Sri Lanka makes history. A message from the Government of Sri Lanka." The claim "Sri Lanka makes history" turned out to be a hoax. It was an advertising stunt about the resumption of a railway network from north to the south. Perhaps, some politicians behind the move were unaware that the rail tracks in the north had existed until the separatist war broke out. Then, the guerrillas had dismantled them, to use the 'sleepers' and the rails to build bunkers. A Cabinet Minister boldly declared, "I take the full responsibility for this" but did not think it fit to say sorry to his fellow compatriots for the cruel joke.

Those who wanted to extend congratulations to Gen. Fonseka at 'Temple Trees' on Thursday were to learn that the SMS saying he had "been appointed Secretary to the Ministry of Sports" was also not true. Even to the dim witted, when a claim is made that one is "appointed," such action is presumed to be only after he or she had given his or her consent. "I have not accepted any such appointment," Gen. Fonseka told one well-wisher. To another, he said this was neither a subject he was familiar with nor one where he could give his best.

Perhaps, UNP pole-vaulter and Sports Minister Gamini Lokuge who declared he knew of the appointment could now insist he takes "the full responsibility." However, his move could be viewed as a snub or embarrassment to President Rajapaksa. Without his authority, such appointments cannot be made.

Lokuge told a local radio station that he was proud to have as his Ministry Secretary a 'Ranaviru' like Gen. Fonseka. This seemed to be a counter to a JVP claim that Gen. Fonseka was being demoted in the public service. Nevertheless, Lokuge has created history. This is the first time a person is appointed Secretary to a Ministry without his own consent or acceptance.

In sports where records matter, here is one that is extraordinary. Was it another hoax? Alternatively, was there any other motive behind the move? That is in suggesting that the CDS has also been given the concurrent task of looking after a relatively low priority subject like sports. This is in marked contrast to high priority subjects like defence and national security. An earlier attempt to make Gen. Fonseka the Secretary to the Ministry of Export Development and International Trade also fell through. There is also a far more serious side to the matter.

General Fonseka's exit as Commander of the Army, as reported in these columns on August 23 under the headline 'MYSTERY OVER MAJOR MILITARY SHAKE UP'' was hurried. More details of how it happened have now emerged. On July 11, as Commander of the Army, he was chairing a day-long conference that continued without a lunch break. It was part of meetings being held to plan the Army's 60th anniversary celebrations that are now under way. Discussions continued over short-eats and soft drinks until after 8.30 p.m. An aide came to Gen. Fonseka carrying a mobile phone. It was President's Secretary Lalith Weeratunga, wanting to speak to the Commander. He was requesting him to come over for a meeting.

Participants at the conference heard Gen. Fonseka ask Weeratunga whether the meeting could take place the next day, Sunday, if it was not very urgent. They later heard him say he would come over as soon as the ongoing conference was over. Participants saw and heard him receive a second call from Weeratunga. He hurriedly concluded the conference, which had lasted some 13 hours and headed for the meeting with Weeratunga. It was here that Gen. Fonseka was told he would have to relinquish office as Commander of the Army in just three days - on July 14. He was being appointed as Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). As reported earlier, this meant there was no time to say his farewells to troops in major garrisons, particularly in the newly cleared areas of Wanni.

The new CDS Act, passed in June this year by Parliament, 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: 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. 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.

Just a day before he was told to relinquish office, Gen. Fonseka was at a felicitation ceremony at his alma mater, Dharmasoka College, Ambalangoda. It was held on July 10. There, Gen. Fonseka declared that whilst President Rajapaksa had given the political leadership to the war against the LTTE, it was he who gave it the military leadership. Gen. Fonseka had repeated the same remarks at several public fora causing ripples in other quarters. Some complained this was "I, me and myself" syndrome over a task that was a team effort. However, one cannot deny Gen. Fonseka the credit for the exemplary role he played. He proved many of his predecessors wrong. He was firm in his commitment to fight the guerrillas. Thus, he had a major share of the success.

Other matters were also backdrop for the change of his position. However, they were not official reasons. The Ambalangoda event led to tighter security measures; so much so, the main Galle-Colombo Road was blocked for some five hours. It was pointed out that such stringent security was not in place even when President Rajapaksa visited an area. Invitees had to alight from their vehicles, a few hundred metres away from the school, be body searched and asked to walk to the venue.

The Senior Superintendent of Police in charge of the area had refused to proceed after he was told to remove his hat and shoes for inspection. This was part of security precautions adopted by the Army security team. Another was the arrest by the Millitary Police of the Aide de Camp of then Security Forces Commander, Wanni, and now Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya, on allegedly dubious grounds. One of the latter's first tasks upon assumption of office was to get him released. It later came to light that the accusations were unfounded.

In these very columns we pointed out the co-relationship between the sudden removal of Gen. Fonseka as Army Commander and a news item in the front page of the state run Daily News to a military coup in Honduras where the incumbent President was ousted by the Army. It has now transpired that messages were trickling in, some rumour, some speculation, some Intelligence reports that the Army hierarchy in the flush of the LTTE's crushing defeat and the wave of public euphoria was getting "too carried away" as one very close to President Rajapaksa would say, and unless the President acted swiftly, he would be face the same fate as the Honduran President; that it was better to be safe, than sorry.

Last month, the Reuters news agency in a report circulated worldwide said President Rajapaksa had given the military "near unlimited power" to defeat Tiger guerrillas and added he has now "moved quickly to defuse the military's influence as he eyes another term in office and rejuvenating the war-hit economy. Among other matters, the report said:

"Barely three months after the war ended, Rajapaksa promoted his war-winning army chief General Sarath Fonseka to a newly created post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), which many analysts saw as neutralising the wide powers Fonseka had in wartime.

"Fonseka was kicked upstairs to the ceremonial post before he will be made to retire," said a serving military officer on condition of anonymity. Rajapaksa also sent senior officers to foreign diplomatic postings or top civilian jobs and made Lt. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya, who won a reputation for professionalism when dealing with aid agencies during the war, the new commander."

In the recent weeks Gen. Fonseka has been the eye of many storms, some political and others military. Some are well known and others only by a few. Though he ceased to be Commander of the Army, the Government heeded his request to be in charge of arrangements for the 60th anniversary celebrations. For this purpose, he chaired regular meetings at the conference hall at Army Headquarters. Last week, Army Commander Jayasuriya was away in the Wanni when Gen. Fonseka stayed behind in Colombo to supervise the rehearsals for the Army Tattoo that begins tomorrow at the Khettarama Stadium.

The two Army top rungers will take the salute at different parades on different dates to mark the 60th anniversary. Adding glitter to the ceremonies this month are visits by top foreign military personnel. They include India's Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Pradeep Vasant Naik and Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani.

Tensions came into the open this week when Gen. Fonseka publicly admonished a senior Army officer for changing some of the arrangements he had made at the army exhibition at the BMICH. Younger officers and sections of the public saw the incident reportedly over the switching of some of his photographs and those of other VIPs.

The changes, to give prominence to the VIPs, had been done by staff of an agency tasked with arrangements. They insisted there were no motives or any directives from the top to do so.

Even to suggest that he be Secretary to the Ministry of Sports in addition to being CDS, to say the least, appears to be a demotion with the devaluation of the post of a Secretary to a Ministry - once the plum for any public servant. The thirty year insurgency has given the military almost dangerous precedence over the civil service in the country. However, it does clearly acknowledge the fact that with more powers under the CDS Act revolving around the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence there is lesser responsibility for Gen. Fonseka.

However, the Government of course is mindful of the contribution made by him in the recently concluded military campaign against Tiger guerrillas. Defence Secretary Lt. Col. (retd.) Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has made this point on a number of occasions, but he has been careful to say that the victory was not a 'one man show', but a joint effort of the tri-forces under the political leadership of the President. It will be recalled that soon after the conclusion of the 'war', he had to issue a circular requesting the media to get the Ministry's approval before running interviews with Service Chiefs. This was clearly to prevent Gen. Fonseka from making remarks that provoked angry reactions from other Service Chiefs, particularly the then Navy Commander Wasantha Karannagoda.

Significant enough, the Defence Secretary re-iterated this position on Wednesday night in an interview simulcast on Rupavahini and ITN, the two state run networks. It came both in the backdrop of the Army's 60th anniversary and yesterday's Southern elections. He said the Government had a plan to deal with the LTTE after President Rajapaksa was voted to power in 2005. Here are relevant excerpts:

"Q: It is five months after the war has ended. What is the situation now?

A: We had a plan to complete the war after President took over in 2005. Everybody would have thought all has ended after Prabhakaran was killed. We continued our work. We were able take into custody KP. Many of the Tigers hiding in Colombo were taken into custody. We were able to arrest the Police Officer who helped the Tigers in a plot to assassinate the President on four different occasions, identify those responsible for the assassination of Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, detect large arms hauls. This is all because we intelligently carried out work according to our plan. This is because we do not want to see the revival of the same situation we experienced for 30 years and ended it with much sacrifices.

Q: But what about future plans?

A: The LTTE is widespread you can see they have infiltrated various sections including the armed forces and Police….. Our aim is to completely end their influence…. We have a plan for this….. Therefore, it is important that President Rajapaksa is supported at this stage. People should not get caught to petty political ideas. The President has proved that he is working according to a plan. It is clear to the public how effective his plans have been. The international plan is very important, particularly the co-operation with other countries…….

Q: President Rajapaksa in his first visit to India said that he would talk with the LTTE. He has learnt from the experience of the past leaders. He was far thinking even in 2005. He asked for military co-operation at that time. Your comments:

A: President during his visit to India presented a report to the Indian Prime Minister. I prepared this in consultation with the armed forces commanders. This gave the strength of the LTTE, their plans, etc. The President said in the light of the findings the SF needed to be prepared to meet eventualities by carrying out offensive operations. He said it had been decided to enhance the fighting capability of the forces. He said the govt of Sri Lanka requests military assistance from India considering the long standing friendship.

He gave a list of the requirements. This shows that soon after he took over office, he had a plan. At this meeting, I further explained this to the Indian Prime Minister. Therefore, false allegations cannot be levelled against us. We directly told the Indian government about the plans. The President directly asked for military assistance.

Q: The arrest of KP:

A: That was very important. Secrecy was important. Until KP landed here, only a few knew about it. Some countries need this secrecy. We did that very professionally.

Q: Is it correct that details of conspiracies are becoming known following the interrogation of KP?

A: KP was instrumental in getting the weapons for the LTTE in various ways, by maintaining international co-ordination. He has a large amount of information. Only if we have all this information can we destroy the LTTE. A limited number of people have been questioning him and getting the relevant details. We are trying to get more details about the LTTE's wealth spread across the world.

Q: Will there be any action against those involved in conspiracies against the Government?

A: Yes. In some cases, if they are not Sri Lankan citizens we will try to take action against them in their respective countries. We are aware about the local conspiracies as well. There are some who have been affected. Some believe that President should not be in this position. They believed that he should either be assassinated or defeated. This is a part of the conspiracy. Therefore, there can be challenges in the future. There are people, for petty reasons will try to help these conspiracies. It is clear these people will try to act in the future

Q: What is your message to public about these conspiracies?

A: There are various attempts. There are websites, which give wrong information. There other methods where money is spent to get power. It is important that they do not get caught in the conspiracies. They should back the President and keep their confidence in him. It is important they have faith in the person who performed, than those who promise to perform."

The theme of Defence Secretary Rajapaksa's answers was about "conspiracies". He was urging people not to get caught to conspiracies, and to have confidence in the President. Amidst all these developments, speculation has remained high that Gen. Fonseka would enter politics. However, weeks ago, he dismissed them and declared he would remain a soldier. "Why should I get unpopular by getting into politics", he had asked - then.

The highest levels of Government believe that the Opposition is in touch with a somewhat embittered Gen. Fonseka, who feels he has been shabbily treated by the Government after he had delivered the goods for it. Many say that his utterances and behaviour were the cause for his own downfall. Equally, the Government is uneasy. One top runger in the Rajapaksa administration put the Government's predicament aptly saying "miniha nathuwath baa; athuwatha baa" (one can't be with him - or without him). At these highest levels of Government it is believed that the Opposition is not so much interested in making Gen. Fonseka the Common Opposition Presidential candidate but to make him a source of nuisance and embarrassment to the Rajapaksa Presidency in the run up for a second-term Presidential election.

That explains the excitement within the Rajapaksa camp this week to keep Gen. Fonseka moored to the ship of state than wander off to the Opposition.

History has shown that both in dictatorships and democracies, military top men have found themselves in politics even before they could announce they would enter. Who knows it would not happen in Sri Lanka?

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