The controversy surrounding the victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the Sri Lanka presidential election over combined opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka, refuses to die down. World attention is focussed on the detention of General Fonseka, the former Army Commander and once-wounded war hero who led the action against the LTTE. So far, except for general statements hinting at a coup attempt and a broad conspiracy, the Sri Lankan government has chosen to remain silent about the real reasons behind Fonseka’s confinement and impending trial.
In an exclusive interview, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa — a former combat officer in the Sri Lankan Army, the real boss of the armed forces and also the President’s equally controversial brother — tried to make a case for the government. He spoke to senior journalist and author Inderjit Badhwar:
Under what specific charges did your government arrest General Fonseka?
I cannot talk about specific charges because the summary of evidence preceding the chargesheet is now being prepared by the military authorities under specific rules that guarantee due process and a fair trial. That is the work of the prosecutor.
Because there are no specifics so far, this looks like personal vendetta.
Not at all. Most people are probably unaware of the damage done by the General to our military while he was in uniform, particularly in the way he entered politics.
Should he have stayed out of politics? What is this damage you speak of?
Of course he has that right in a democracy. But he misused his office to pervert the process. Most people tend to simplify this story into three parts — he fought a successful war; he was the army commander; he was arrested because he challenged the president in the election. The real issue is the damage he did by politicising the military. We share a proud tradition with India as the only countries in the region that can boast of a neutral military, but when that tradition was subverted in Sri Lanka by Fonseka, there was no option but to take action against him.
As a war hero, he has many admirers who urged him to contest…
He should have made a clean break from the military and then entered politics. In his utter greed for power, he used his position and contacts for his own benefits. He did this while he was Chief of Defense Staff (CDS), and also when he was army commander. He used the commander’s bungalow for political activities and military resources for personal political use.
What kind of political activities? And why the haste in arresting him?
While he was CDS, he was talking to commanders, senior officers. There were complaints of a few soldiers about asking them to work for him. If we did not act on this, we would be signalling that in future others can get away with this. The tradition of a neutral military so precious to us — and India — would have been destroyed.
Can you be more specific about your phrase “using soldiers”?
Young, lower-level soldiers manning roadblocks were stopping vehicles and seeking votes for the general. Most of them were in a confused state when their own commander contests. In fact, he tried to gather support even among army deserters to whom he gave shelter.
He was also using officers and soldiers to conduct surveys and compute vote percentages to measure his support within the army, and this started while he was still the commander. When we found out, we acted against 15 senior officers who were sent into compulsory retirement.
Aren’t there other very serious allegations that the general was planning a coup and assassination of the President and his family?
Well, those are covered under civilian law and are the subject to procedures of criminal investigations, which are a separate procedure. The general’s arrest is in connection with offences he committed while he was in uniform.
‘Lower level soldiers manning roadblocks were stopping vehicles to seek votes for fonseka’
Western media and human rights groups are highlighting his arrest and charges of a vendetta.
I’d like to know why they didn’t highlight his public statements during the election when he was openly saying he would arrest the President if he is elected and put him and his ministers in cages.
There were corruption charges against him when he was the army commander — that he was influencing officers to purchase arms from his son-in-law Danuna Tilekeratne’s company Hicorp International. Why didn’t you arrest him then?
Well, the details are only now coming out because there’s been a falling out among the suspects.
Supporters say he is being punished for favouring a quick political solution to the Tamil issue, on war crimes, and the speedy resettlement of the IDPs (internally displaced persons).
I wish more journalists would do their homework. Why don’t you simply analyse his speeches while he was still in uniform, immediately after the war, and those he made when he became a candidate? His first speech to soldiers was that they had not lost their lives and shed their blood only to allow politicians to implement political solutions: ‘We will not allow this’. Is this not an attempt to mobilise the military against the political system?
What about his allegations that you ordered the troops to shoot down LTTE leaders who were surrendering with white flags, in cold blood?
After the war, Fonseka gave a lecture in his old school where he said that the political leadership was trying to protect LTTE interests by asking them to surrender. Now, he reverses his stand, talks about a political solution and says I gave orders to shoot people waving white flags of surrender.
What really happened?
On May 18, 2010 — the day Prabhakaran was killed, 200 LTTE leaders were trapped in an area 400 metres by 400 metres, surrounded by the military. It was past midnight, making it difficult to see them coming out with white flags from the dense jungle. Then some of them counterattacked. Prabhakaran was trying to escape to the lagoon, his son went in another direction. 10,000 surrendered cadres came down from one side. In in the thick of battle, can you expect a young recruit to recognise a senior LTTE leader and take a decision about whether to shoot him or spare him?
The war crimes issue is still alive in the West. What is your opinion?
Yes we recognise what a war crime is — conducting revenge killings, abductions, ransom under the pretext of a military operation. And we have arrested, tried and punished soldiers for this. But there are situations over which we have no control. They claim, for example, that we bombed a hospital. If it is marked as a hospital and we deliberately bomb it, that’s wrong — but we didn’t. Then again, it was the last phase of war. The LTTE were trapped in a small area, where it was difficult to control a stray bullet hitting a hospital. Moreover, in a situation like this there’s no question of patients or civilians in the area.
‘You expect a young recruit to recognise ltte leaders and decide whether to shoot or spare them?’
Why would the western powers want to back a military man?
First, there is a very powerful and moneyed diaspora within LTTE sympathies who play a crucial role in these countries, participates in their vote bank politics and media. Second, because Sri Lanka did not toe the line on certain strategic policies; and third, the human rights lobbies are pushing war crime trials to which they believed the UNP, supporting the general, would be more amenable.
Are the general’s criticisms of your government’s treatment and rehabilitation of IDPS, a source of concern?
As general, he was the only person on our Security Council who opposed the early settlement of the IDPs — the only person. He kept arguing it was a huge security risk. That’s the only reason that the resettlement of IDPs was delayed. When as CDS he had opposed their release. Later on, made common cause with the opposition, which was using the IDP issue to blame the government during the election.
What finally happened?
Newly liberated areas, like Jaffna, the peninsula, and the east were safe and IDPs could be sent back early. Fonseka had a firm “no”. So I said let them at least go to temporary camps in the eastern province. But Fonseca ordered them to be dragged back to the original detention areas. We were under pressure from the UN and other countries but the general kept arguing ‘security’. Finally, the President himself intervened. He said: “What security are you talking about? Here are 300,000 people in these camps; some 20,000 LTTE supporters and cadres have already escaped. So where’s the security? I want them resettled immediately!”