The March of Folly Sarath Fonseka as both Good Cop and Bad Cop

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By 2017-09-26

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Rajiva Wijesinha

It was vastly entertaining, while away, to read Sarath Fonseka's latest interpretation of history. He typically weighed in when Jagath Jayasuriya was attacked in Brazil, to claim that he had been trying to investigate Jayasuriya for war crimes when he was removed from the post of Army Commander.

This was not a reason he gave when he resigned from the post of Chief of Defence Staff. Amongst the reasons he cited, there were two that related to the role of tough guy that he had relished before becoming a tool of countries that resented our victory over the LTTE. Thus, in his letter, he noted the refusal of the President to expand the Army as he had recommended.

I found this an embarrassment when I headed the Peace Secretariat. The Economist's correspondent in Delhi – an intelligent young man who provided me with material that helped me, together with the then head of the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission, to rein in its more aggressively anti-Sri Lankan personnel – asked why Government wanted to expand the Army after we had won the war. I told him this was not the government's intention, but he then cited Sarath Fonseka and I had to say that the Army Commander was entitled to his views, but that the Government thought this unnecessary.

Sarath drew attention to this disagreement when he resigned, and also to the government's decision to resettle the displaced before he thought this should be done. This was also embarrassing, given that I had been the focal point for questions about this, and had indeed written to Basil Rajapaksa to tell him that we were taking too long. Basil called me up and gave me an earful, evidently under the impression that I was doing this at the behest of the Americans (unbeknown to me, the head of American Aid, Rebecca Cohn, knowing that I was writing, had written herself, though she told me that she had not wanted to do this, but been compelled by her boss – I think it was the then Deputy, since the more nuanced Bob Blake had been transferred by then).

I told Basil that we were pledged to three months from June but nothing had been done and this was August. But he told me that three months did not mean half in half that time, and he had kept his word about resettlement in the East. I was convinced of his sincerity then, and was delighted when, just before the Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva in September, returns began.

But when I got to Geneva, it was to be told that, though sent away from Manik Farm, the returnees were being held by the forces in each District. This was upsetting, and it was more upsetting to be told that Basil was away. I knew he did this when he was upset, and it seemed then that his commitment was being thwarted. I then asked Jeevan Thiagarajah, who had been doing much relief work, to check. He flew up to Jaffna for the purpose, and was told by the General in charge there – Mark, I think it was – that they had received orders to check the returnees again, but the Generals as a group (with one exception if I recollect right, Trincomalee) had decided that this would be perfunctory and the returnees would be sent home the next day.

And I certainly knew that Kamal Guneratne in Vavuniya was quite liberal about all this, for he had as Walter Kalin had suggested, been prompt in releasing pregnant mothers. I recall being there when he was told that there should be another check, and he acquiesced, and then turned as he was getting into his vehicle and ordered that all be released immediately.

Jeevan was not told in September whence the orders to hold the returnees further had come, but we suspected it was Sarath Fonseka. Sure enough, his letter of resignation mentioned this, though the claim then was that he did not think conditions on the ground were ripe yet for returns. This may have been because, by then, he had changed his tune and was playing the good guy, in pursuing the support of those who were trying to turn back the clock.

So too, whereas in October an American report cited him as having, at a speech in Ambalangoda, taken credit for what happened to those who had tried to surrender bearing white flags, in December, we had a different story. That indeed, was when I realized that the American strategy was working in that, in responding to Fonseka's challenge, Rajapaksa and his then advisers had decided to take on the tough guy role themselves. Whereas in June, Fonseka had claimed that Rajapaksa had told him not to be silly, in refusing to expand the army, saying that we were not a country like Burma, by December the counter-attack on Fonseka's claim about those in air-conditioned rooms (intended to implicate Gotabaya) was that he was a traitor, rather than a liar.

So, I was reprimanded for reporting to Geneva that Fonseka had indeed withdrawn his allegation, and instead the government went on the rampage, with Rajapaksa being effectively barred from pursuing the reconciliation mechanisms his manifestos had pledged.

Later he was to claim, when I told him he needed to rein in the Bodhu Bala Sena, that he would be attacked if he did this. He even told me that people like me would claim that he was violating the Human Rights of BBS personnel, though later I learnt that in fact he was nervous of what Champika Ranawaka might do.

So, Rajapaksa lost his chance of winning the peace as he had won the war, whereas if he had stood against Ranil in 2010 as he had anticipated, he could have moved swiftly to the middle ground. But it is fascinating now to watch Fonseka allowing his personal predilections – or rather resentments, for he is not a man for positive thinking – to further destroy the precarious tight rope that so many in the government are walking.

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