Wednesday, 16 October 2019

2019 prez poll: A high profile role for Sarath Fonseka



By Shamindra Ferdinando

The UNP-led coalition on, Oct. 10, declared Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, MP, would be appointed as the minister in charge of defence portfolio, in case UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa won the Nov. 16 presidential election, followed by the parliamentary election next year.

Sajith Premadasa made the announcement at the inauguration of his costly campaign at Galle Face. Fonseka was on stage with Premadasa, who is contesting the crucial poll – the third presidential since the conclusion of the war in May 2009 - under the ‘swan’ symbol of the New Democratic Front (NDF).

The UNP-led coalition, comprising the TNA, JVP and SLMC contested the two previous presidential polls, also on the NDF ticket. The JVP is no longer in the UNP-led coalition, while the TNA still weighs its options. Many an eyebrow has been raised over the TNA’s readiness, even to explore the possibility of reaching an understanding with the SLPP presidential candidate, war time defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Sajith Premadasa has no option but to reach new alliances with political parties, civil society groups and even individuals, such as war-winning Army Chief Sarath Fonseka.

Sajith Premadasa and the coalition backing him revealed that unprecedented measures were required to strengthen his campaign. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is certainly a tough contender, though he lacked political experience at any level. Although, there had been four presidential elections, during the conflict, no party felt the need to name a future defence minister. However, Sajith Premadasa did, in line with the NDF’s overall strategy, to deprive Gotabaya Rajapaksa the advantage of being considered the only candidate capable of guaranteeing security.

Interestingly, Sajith Premadasa, in spite of being asked by the media, on more than one occasion, refrained from naming the prime ministerial candidate.

The announcement on Fonseka’s appointment should be examined against the backdrop of the worst ever security lapse, on the part of a post-independence government, in April 2019, that led to near simultaneous suicide attacks in six locations. The blasts claimed the lives of approximately 270 men, women and children. About 500 received injuries. The Easter Sunday carnage caused irreparable losses to the national economy. Fonseka wouldn’t have received privilege status if not for the Easter Sunday carnage.

Similarly, former Army Commander General Mahesh Senanayake, also in the presidential fray, cannot absolve himself of the responsibility for the security failure. The Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), tasked to probe the Easter Sunday carnage, never sought to establish the failure on the part of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) to thwart the coordinated suicide attacks. Instead, the then Army Chief faulted the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) retired DIG Sisira Mendis of not making available intelligence provided by India. The PSC never addressed the failure on the part of the DMI to abort the suicide missions, in spite of the group responsible for the Easter Sunday carnage killing two police officers in Nov 2018 at Vaunativu, Batticaloa.

Post-2018 LG poll politics

Sarath Fonseka, too, seriously believed that he would get a second opportunity to contest a presidential election, this year. With the UNP in turmoil, in the wake of the Feb 2018 debacle at the Local Government polls, Fonseka asserted that he could be the right candidate. However, Fonseka always insisted that their presidential candidate should be the leader of the party. In other words, the former Army Chief backed Ranil Wickremesinghe’s candidature as long as he remained the leader of the party. The tough-talking war hero reiterated his position as Wickremesinghe and Premadasa battled for presidential nominations, with the influential civil society throwing its weight behind Speaker Karu Jayasuriya.

Even after the decision-making UNP Working Committee ratified Sajith Premadasa, Sarath Fonseka remained skeptical. However, Fonseka has been brought in to the campaign with the decision makers reaching consensus on the former Sinha Regiment veteran’s political future.

The Oct 10 announcement, on Fonseka’s future role, certainly didn’t have an impact on the Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha election, held the following day. Of course, the Elpitiya electorate hadn’t been really affected by the overall deterioration of security, in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks. Therefore, Fonseka’s appointment did not jolt the Elpitiya electorate. But, the UNP-led coalition should certainly inquire as to why the much-touted ‘Gamperaliya’ and ‘Enterprise Sri Lanka,’ launched in the wake of the Feb 2018 Local Government debacle, failed to influence the Elpitiya electorate.

The SLPP comfortably won all 17 polling divisions in Elpitiya. The UNP, UPFA and the JVP couldn’t win even one seat. They had to be satisfied with nominated members.

Can Fonseka inspire the electorate? The civil society grouping, backing Sajith Premadasa’s candidature, too, is confident there cannot be a better person to be in charge of defence portfolio than the one-time outspoken Army Chief. The writer covered the civil society media briefing, at Rajagiriya last week, where Ven. Dambara Amila, Prof. Chandragupta Thenuwara and Saman Ratnapriya declared their support for Fonseka. Their stand seemed odd. They flayed wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa for excesses during the conflict, and after (2009-2015), but found Fonseka, who commanded the victorious Army (accused of flagrant human rights abuses), the ideal politician to handle the defence portfolio.

The civil society has conveniently forgotten that the incumbent government co-sponsored a resolution against one’s own country, in Geneva, in early Oct 2015, on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations, directed at the Army, during Fonseka’s tenure as its celebrated commander. The writer, on many occasions, on both print and electronic media, pointed out the Geneva Resolution should be re-examined against the backdrop of Fonseka receiving the backing of the four-party TNA, at the January 2010 presidential poll. Thanks to TNA’s support, Fonseka comfortably won all the predominately Tamil speaking electoral districts, in the de-merged Northern and Eastern provinces, including Digamadulla. In spite of a splendid performance, in the Northern and Eastern regions, Fonseka suffered heavy defeat in other areas. Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated Fonseka by over 1.8 mn votes.

The TNA consists of the Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) and three former terrorist organizations, namely the TELO, PLOTE and EPRLF.

Now, the 16-member TNA parliamentary group is sharply divided, with one-time TELO lawmaker M.K. Sivajilingam handing over nominations to contest the presidential poll. The UNP anticipated the TNA to quickly reiterate its commitment to Sajith Premadasa’s candidature. But, much to the disappointment of the UNP-led coalition, the TNA appeared to have delayed its decision. A section of the TNA expressed shock and dismay over the readiness of the party, even to discuss a poll alliance with the wartime Defence Secretary.

UNP National List slot for defeated Fonseka

Having fielded Fonseka, at the January 2010 presidential poll, the UNP showed absolutely no interest in reaching a consensus, with the defeated candidate to contest the parliamentary election. Fonseka was compelled to contest the April 2010 general election, on the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) ticket. The DNA comprised the JVP, Democratic National Front, Democratic United National Front, People’s Tamil Congress et al. The DNA won seven seats. In addition to Fonseka, the then SLFPer Arjuna Ranatunga, and influential businessman Tiran Alles (National List) entered parliament along with four JVPers, including Anura Kumara Dissanayake. Today, Dissanayake is among 35 candidates in the presidential fray. It would be pertinent to mention that defeated Fonseka was arrested on Feb 8, 2010, in the run-up to the general election. The war-winning Army Chief was later jailed, by a court martial, and vacated his seat on 7 October 2010. After a failed legal battle, to retain his MP status, he was replaced by DNA member Jayantha Ketagoda, on 8 March 2011. Subsequently, Fonseka received a presidential pardon, in May 2012, after he reached an agreement with the then administration.

Fonseka strongly believed he could make a difference with his own political outfit. Fonseka contested the August 2015 general election, on the Democratic Party ticket, after having contested the Provincial Council polls in several regions. The DP failed to impress the electorate, at the Provincial Council polls. But, Fonseka persisted. One-time Chief of Defence Staff contested the August 2015 general election on the Democratic Party ticket, having backed Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential. The electorate rejected Fonseka’s party. Fonseka failed to enter parliament from the Colombo district. The Democratic Party failed to secure even one seat.

At the January 2015 presidential election, Fonseka didn’t enjoy the right to exercise his franchise.

The UNP accommodated Fonseka, on its National List, in early Feb 2016. Fonseka got the seat of late M.K.D.S. Gunawardena in paliament. By then, he had received the Five-star Field Marshal’s rank. Fonseka received the Field Marshal’s baton, in March 2015, whereas his wartime colleagues Wasantha Karannagoda and Roshan Goonatilleke had to wait till August 2019 to receive the equivalent rank.

Fonseka served as Regional Development Minister and Wildlife and Sustainable Development from 2016 and 2018.

Fonseka served as a cabinet minister at the time the UNP and the SLFP suffered a humiliating defeat at the Feb 2018 Local Government polls.

Fonseka earns President’s wrath

Fonseka lost his Wildlife portfolio when President Maithripala Sirisena sacked the UNP members of the cabinet, including UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on Oct 26, 2018. President Sirisena perpetrated the constitutional coup after his UPFA quit the UNP-led coalition. Although, President Sirisena swore in a UNP cabinet, in mid Dec 2018, he steadfastly refused to accommodate Fonseka in the cabinet.

By then, Fonseka had been also embroiled in an alleged conspiracy to harm President Sirisena and former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa though the accusations weren’t proved in any court of law.

The civil society grouping made a desperate attempt to save the UNP-SLFP/UPFA alliance, though the UPFA was on the offensive. Three leading civil society activists, co-convenors of Purawesi Balaya Gamini Viyangoda, K.W. Janaranjana and Saman Ratnapriya, explained their efforts after having met President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe. They declared the civil society received assurance from both President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe that they wouldn’t quit the yahapalana alliance over the Local Government polls debacle (Last ditch attempt to prevent collapse of govt-The Island Feb 14, 2018).

That grouping feared President Sirisena’s stepped up attacks on Premier Wickremesinghe could derail the yahapalana project. Amidst their attempts to save the government, the Joint Opposition alleged that the US and India, too, were involved in the effort.

A few days, after the civil society briefing at the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR), Maradana, on Feb 13, 2018, Purawesi Balaya called a second press briefing, at the same venue, where the outfit intensified pressure on President Sirisena to name Field Marshal Fonseka as the Law and Order Minister. The demand was made on the basis that the failure on the part of the government to bring high profile investigations into a successful conclusion, contributed to the Feb 2018 Local Government polls debacle. The writer, present at both briefings, at the CSR, was quite surprised to hear yahapalana proponent Ven. Dambara Amila declaring, at the second press briefing, that the police, under Fonseka, should be allowed to operate outside, what he called, democratic norms. Purawesi Balaya made the declaration in the wake of the then Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake offering to quit. Some propagated the blatant lie that the UNP and the SLFP suffered a massive defeat, at the Local Government polls, for want of inconclusive investigations into bigwigs of the previous administration.

Ven. Amila didn’t mince his words when he advised the government to operate beyond the normal laws of the land, as the Rajapaksas were planning to cause chaos in the aftermath of the Local Government polls.

Among those who addressed the media, at the second CSR meeting, were Director of Centre of Policy Alternatives, Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, Nimalka Fernando (now a member of a Commission established in accordance with the Geneva Resolution), Chameera Perera and Saman Ratnapriya.

Ven. Amila wanted Fonseka given six months to carry out the operation (Prez, PM urged to appoint SF Law and Order Minister with strap line Ven Amila: Give him six months. Place Army on standby’-The Island Feb. 16, 2018). President Sirisena simply turned down the civil society request, made on behalf of the UNP. President Sirisena, furious over the treasury bond scams that caused serious damage to his government, rejected the UNP-civil society move.

President Sirisena’s refusal to accommodate Fonseka in the cabinet, under any circumstances, ultimately forced Premier Wickremesinghe to take over the Law and Order portfolio temporarily. Subsequently, the ministry was vested in UNP senior Ranjith Madduma Bandara, who held the post at the time President Sirisena sacked the cabinet in late Oct 2018.

Law and Oder portfolio was never returned to the UNP.

A failed bid to seek consensus with Prez

Having failed to secure the Law and Order Ministry for Fonseka, the UNP-civil society combine has now promised the war-winning Army Chief defence portfolio. Perhaps, those really interested in examining the lapses on the part of the government, since January 2015, should probe as to why the current dispensation became so unpopular. Having secured presidential nominations, following a big battle with Wickremesinghe’s group, Sajith Premadasa made a serious attempt to reach a consensus with President Sirisena. Premadasa failed, primarily due to the majority of President Sirisena’s parliamentary group backing SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Those who expected Fonseka to save the UNP should be reminded of as to how his military career would have ended, in Dec 2005, if not for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s intervention on his behalf. Fonseka, whose principled stand as the Security Forces Commander, Jaffna, in 2002/2003, thwarted an LTTE/Norway bid to weaken Jaffna defences by doing away with high security zones in the guise of restoring normalcy, was to retire. In case of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s victory at the Non 2005 presidential poll, the then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Shantha Kottegoda would have continued as he had about 18 months to serve. But, on the recommendation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, President Rajapaksa replaced Lt. Gen. Kottegoda in spite of him assuring the Defence Secretary that he could achieve whatever task given. But, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was determined to bring in Fonseka, though many, including ex-military officers, known to him, questioned the then Army Chief of Staff’s loyalty. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, having received the position of Defence Secretary, requested President Rajapaksa to promote the then Maj. Gen. Fonseka to the rank of Lt. General and name him the Commander of the Army. This intervention was due to Gotabaya Rajapaksa accidentally meeting Fonseka, at Hambantota, during the presidential election campaign. Fonseka had personally requested Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s intervention on his behalf as he felt one time Commanding Officer of the 1st battalion of the Gajaba Regiment could influence Mahinda Rajapaksa in case the latter won the presidential poll.

Fonseka remained a key member of the Rajapaksa’s defence team that brought the LTTE to its knees in May 2009.

Thereafter the UNP exploited Fonseka’s animosity, towards the Rajapaksas, to field him as 2010 presidential candidate. The move was to deprive Mahinda Rajapaksa of the credit for defeating the LTTE. At the January 2015 presidential polls, Fonseka threw his weight behind Maithripala Sirisena, whose government never recovered from the first treasury bond scam perpetrated by the UNP, several weeks after the last presidential poll. President Sirisena dissolved parliament, in late June 2015 to save the UNP from the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) report on the treasury bond scam. President Sirisena called parliamentary elections, in August 2015. SLFP leader Sirisena delivered a knockout blow to the UPFA by declaring that Mahinda Rajapaksa wouldn’t be named Prime Minister under any circumstances even of the outfit won the poll. The move certainly facilitated the UNP victory. The UNP-led grouping secured 106 seats. The UPFA managed to obtain 95. President Sirisena’s parliamentary group remained with the UNP till Oct 26, 2018. By then, the UNP perpetrated the second treasury bond scam. Can those who served President Sirisena’s cabinet, at the time of the Feb 2015 and March 2016 bond scams, absolve themselves of responsibility for the bond scams?