Precisely one week after the United States administration attempted to get a confession from Sri Lanka’s Chief of Defense Staff, Sarath Fonseka on possible war crimes by Gothabaya Rajapakse – the Defense Secretary of Sri Lanka, the Army General has submitted his resignation. The resignation letter submitted by Sarath Fonseka outlines the frustration he had to endure since the days he declared victory over the Tamil rebels – the only group with which the Sri Lankan army has every been ordered to fight.
Sarath Fonseka – the name evokes mixed response among Sri Lankans. It depends on who you are talking to – except for the small group of Sinhalese who view the nation as sliding towards its darkest days since its inception, many Sinhalese with nationalistic sentiments, view him as a hero who has helped the nation defeat what they call “terrorism” – a reference to the secessionist resistance by the minority Tamils of Sri Lanka. However almost all Tamil civilians of Sri Lanka (including the large Tamil Diaspora) view him as an individual who had no respect to the sentiments and lives of the Tamil civilians or the lives of the Sinhalese army men of the nation.
His career is surrounded with black marks. It is during his tenure, the Sri Lankan army earned some not so desirable reputation across the globe.
During Sarath Fonseka’s command, in Nov 2007 – a total of 108 of the Sri Lankan army servicemen were sent home for sexually abusing minor girls in Haiti where they were deployed as part of a UN peace keeping mission. UN spokeswoman Michele Montas reported that the Sri Lankan soldiers are sent back and that they are going to be prosecuted in Sri Lanka. However, there is no verifiable reports to confirm if they were prosecuted or any action was taken to that respect.
In the home front, the Army under Sarath Fonseka received the largest funding from the government to engage in an all out war against the Tamil rebels who at one point were running a parallel government in the Tamil inhabited North and East of the island. The Rajapakse government which spearheaded the war initiative gave the tactical advantage of a total blackout from world media that allowed Sarath Fonseka and his Army to advance with no regard to human lives or the “Rules of War” as laid out by the Geneva convention. This war is largely regarded as the most bloodiest war in this part of the world. UN reports indicate that almost 1000 civilians were killed every day during the last phase of the war. Total civilian casualties is reported to exceed 80,000 since the start of the all out offensive two years back.
The Army is also accused of continuously shelling schools and hospitals in spite of international warnings during the last months of the war. Video footage showing Hospitals being shelled were made available during the war. Recently, video footage of Tamil civilians stripped naked and shot by Sri Lankan soldiers at point blank range was released by Canada’s Channel 4 news channel and sent shock waves across the world. The video initially rebuffed as fake by the Sri Lankan government was then verified and certified as original by an independent agency in the US.
In an interview to Canada’s National Post in September 2008, Sarath Fonseka said he “strongly believed that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese, but there are minority communities and we treat them like our people”, and of the other communities “They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things.”
Sarath Fonseka’s anti Tamil sentiments served the President Rajapakse well, in his mission to put an end to the Tamil resistance. However, it is the post war developments that revealed Rajapakses shrewdness that lead to the rift between the President and the General. Immediately after the war, Rajapakse, in a clandestine effort successfully striped Sarath Fonseka of his command by promoting the General to Chief of Defense Staff – a ceremonial position that actually removed Sarath from his command of the Army. Sarath Fonseka seem to have realized this too late. The General describes in his resignation letter about the series of attempts by the President that had frustrated him and has lead to his submitting the resignation letter.
Imeediately after the war, rumors were making rounds in Colombo that Sarath Fonseka is likely to attempt a coup. The rumor and the grim situation that it created in the nation, allowed Rajapakse regime to get the sympathy and cooperation of India and other countries that raised concern over the holding of 300,000 civilians in internment camps against their will. Several western nations had warned Sri Lanka for its gross violation of human rights in holding these civilians against their will. However the “coup” story allowed Rajapakse regime to divert the attention of the visiting Indian Parliamentarians in an attempt to buy their silence to cooperate with his administration to pass through the so called “difficult days” faced by his nation. The Indian parliamentarians never the less blew the whistle for “War Crime Investigation” against the Lankan Regime.
The Rajapakse administration played the “terrorism” card to eliminate the Tamil resistance earlier, to which General Sarath Fonseka played along very well. However little did Sarath Fonseka realize then that the Rajapakse regime was capable of playing the “Army Coup” card in containing the General himself from gaining popularity among the nationalist Sinhalese population. The General now realizes the shrewdness of the Rajapakse brothers to eliminate any possible opposition that questions their political future.
The Rajapakse brothers however, were alarmed when the US government’s Homeland Security officials spoke to General Fonseka during his US visit (to renew his US Green Card) about a possible corroboration for a war crime charge against Gothabaya Rajapakse – brother of President Mahinda Rajapakse and Sri Lanka’s Defense Secretary. However, Sarath Fonseka – who has hopes to enter politics back home and become the next President, turned down the offer and fled US before the arranged interview date. That move might possibly jeopardize his US Green Card renewal prospect – which might have offered him a secure life in the US in the event of a possible backlash that might put his life at risk back home.
The General mentions in his resignation letter, the risk he carries to his life because of his actions as the Army Chief and has also expressed his frustration at the government’s failure to provide him adequate security from the time the Rajapakse regime viewed him as a competition to President’s popularity. It’s a late realization by the General though, and leads to speculation that the risk to his life comes not from the rebels or the Tamil population, but from Rajapakse regime itself. It may not be a surprise if the General is already in the hit list of the infamous white van abduction group that operates under the supervision of the Rajapakse brothers.
In summary, General Sarath Fonseka was played very well by the Rajapakse brothers and now that they do not need his service any more, have found ways to show him the door. If the Rajapakse brother’s political manipulative reputation holds, they may have already drafted a scheme to get rid of the General from the political scene of the nation or even from the nation altogether to clear the way for a second term for the President. The General, after all has underestimated his boss and does not seem to posses the political acumen to win elections – a skill that is seldom learned from the war front.