One year after: Fonseka jailed but not jolted

By Chandani Kirinde

One year ago, General Sarath Fonseka was the country's Army Commander and was being feted as the leading hero of the war victory against the LTTE. But today he has gone from hero to enemy number one of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration.

He spends much of his days, after his dramatic arrest on February 8 this year, in near solitary confinement, facing two courts martial inquiries for alleged malpractice while in the army and conspiring against the government. He also faces cases in civil courts. Since being elected a Member of Parliament (MP) from the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) in the April 8 general elections, respite from his restricted lifestyle comes in the form of attending parliamentary sittings.

War winning Army Commander during a battlefront tour

Seated in the room allocated to his party on the third floor of the parliament complex in Kotte, Retd. Gen. Fonseka looks relaxed. It is so different from the picture and scene of May 19, 2009, the day on which the war against the LTTE was officially ended with President Rajapaksa addressing Parliament to make the announcement.

Within hours of that speech, General Fonseka was on state television confirming the death of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, the news of which he had received while heading back to his office after attending Parliament to listen to the President.

In a way he stole the thunder from the President's speech that day by being the man to announce the death of the dreaded LTTE leader and he believes it is his popularity after the war ended that has led to his present plight.

"I only wanted to be a professional army officer and I did my job as the Commander. But these people (President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa) started listening to the sneakers. They started suspecting me and they also became jealous of me because I was becoming a little too popular in the country." That was how General (retd.)Fonseka describes the rift between him and the members of the First family.

But was it not his political ambition that really alienated him from the President and his brother?
"Only when they removed me from the post of Army Commander and put me into a place with little authority (Chief of Defense Staff) ,I realized there was no point wasting my time there and I must do something for the country. It was they who pushed me into this. I was also fed up and disgusted with their conduct and behavior by that time," he says.

Among the allegations that have been levelled against the former Army Commander is that he was planning to stage a coup to seize power, a charge he says is "baseless and cooked up to fix him."
"They arrested more than 50 retired soldiers and officers including, major generals and brigadiers but have they been able to prove anything or find any clues? These are bogus allegations to keep me confined and prevent me from going ahead with my political work," he says.

Hitting back, General Fonseka says it was the Government that was planning the coup against him on the night of the presidential election on January 26 this year. He claims he has in his possession maps that were sent to him from the Operational Branch of the of the Army Headquarters after the plans were discussed at the Security Council meeting. "They surrounded the hotel when we went there for our security. They were trying to arrest and assassinate the Opposition Leader and me. They planned and led the plot against me in violation of the constitution."

He seems hesitant to share credit with the President and the Defence Secretary when asked to comment on their support to the military efforts. "They had no choice but to back me because I was doing the job well from the beginning."

Asked if it was not intervention by the Defence Secretary that actually secured him the post of Army Commander, General Fonseka say that here too they had little choice but to appoint him. "The LTTE was getting stronger by the day and they knew the only way to overcome that was to make me the Army Commander because previous ones could not do that job. They did not make me the Commander because they were in love with me."

It's his pride that seems to have been hurt by what he sees as the lack of appreciation for the services he and other service commanders rendered during the war. One case in point he recollects is how the universities of Sri Jayewardenepura, Kelaniya and Colombo offered honorary doctorates to the three commanders but while the President and the Defence Secretary were the beneficiaries of the doctorates, the Commanders were left seated in the audience cheering them on.

Asked about the alleged hit squads that operated with his knowledge that targeted journalists who were seen as "traitors," General Fonseka says he had nothing to do with the covert operations that were taking place in Colombo and that the army only engaged in professional work in the operational areas.
He also fears for the future of the military in the country saying that a government that was not courageous to even send a soldier home during the war is today sacking major generals and brigadiers and putting an Army Commander in jail.

"Such things have not happened anywhere in the world. Today the Defence Secretary is the de facto Army Commander making change as he wants,"

For General Fonseka, the hope of May, 2009 created by the end of a three decade old civil war has turned to despair due to the inability of the government to seize the opportunity to convert the war victory into a victory for the people; He laments the lack of political freedom and deterioration of democratic rights in the country. "I have a feeling if they go on like this, terrorism will come up again in the north and east. No measures have been taken to create communal harmony and the mistrust can start to grow again," he warns.

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