Sri Lanka Imprisons a Military Hero

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Sri Lanka imprisons a military hero

Exclusive November 2010, by Padraig Colman

Politics is a rough old trade, nowhere more so than in Sri Lanka where the former army commander Sarath Fonseka, military hero of the victory over the Tamil Tigers (LTTE, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), has been imprisoned after his foray into politics. In January, he ran for president but lost. In April, he was elected to parliament. Now he has now been deprived of his seat and has to conduct his political life from a 12’ x 8’ cell.

He was court-martialled twice, found guilty of engaging in political activity while a member of the armed forces and stripped of his medals and army pension. At his second court-martial, he was found guilty of irregularities in arms procurement while army commander and sentenced to 30 months imprisonment.

Also being heard at the High Court in Colombo is the “white flag case”, in which Fonseka is accused of violating the Public Security and Emergency Regulations Acts via an interview in The Sunday Leader on 13 December 2009 (1). In this, Fonseca claimed that defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had issued an illegal order to Brigadier Shavendra Silva (now Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative at the UN) to shoot and kill LTTE cadres, surrendering with white flags, during the final stages of the war.

The charges and punishment have been scaled down (despite rumours that he was to be charged with harbouring military deserters, plotting a coup and the assassination of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers. Rajapaksa said in a BBC interview that Fonseka deserved to be executed). However, the white flag case could end in a 20-year sentence.

A motley alliance is campaigning for Fonseka’s release. The main opposition party, the UNP (United National Party), wants a remission of the sentence, which would amount to a pardon. But Fonseka refuses to ask for a pardon because he says he is not guilty and does not recognise the legitimacy of the court that tried him.

The JVP (People’s Liberation Front) also wants a remission, but it is facing an internal revolt and defections since ground-level activists object to their party’s support for Fonseca (whom they accuse of involvement in extra-judicial killings of their comrades during a JVP uprising of 1988-89).

Many Sri Lankans, even those who do not support Fonseka, are critical of the fact that some former senior LTTE members go free because they support President Rajapaksa, while Fonseka – who was a major factor in the LTTE’s defeat – languishes in prison. Some Buddhist priests have even offered to serve Fonseka’s sentence for him; and the JVP claims to have collected a million signatures in a petition calling for Fonseka’s release.

Even so, popular sympathy for Fonseka has been muted. But he has support among the Tamil diaspora. David Poopalapillai, spokesman for the Canadian Tamil Congress, a pro-LTTE group, said: “We in the Tamil diaspora will fight not only for the release of thousands of Tamils but also Fonseka” (2). That left the Canadian Daily Tamil News bemused: “Many Tamils are angry at Poopalapillai and CTC for expressing such unequivocal support for the jailed general. In some queer way David Poopalapillai and Canadian Tamil Congress has managed to upset all three parties in this conflict. Namely the Rajapaksa regime, General Fonseka’s supporters and Tamils in general.”

Back in Colombo, The Island newspaper questioned the motives of many of those campaigning for Fonseka’s release: “That his release is far from their goal is clear from their grinning mugs at protests which they have apparently turned into carnivals of sorts” (3). Many Sri Lankans were amused that Fonseka had campaigned for the presidency on a platform of fighting for oppressed minorities and press freedom, and against corruption and nepotism. For Fonseka is no Aung Suu Kyiu: as army commander, he upset all minorities with his bigoted outbursts. And before his candidacy, he had failed to champion press freedom.

Fonseka could now be more of a problem inside prison than out. As economist RMB Senanayake wrote in The Island, “If he dies in prison, Sarath Fonseka would prove himself to be not only a war hero, but a martyr.”

7 comments on « Sri Lanka imprisons a military hero »

  • # sam :
    3 November 2010 @23h51
    Sri Lanka imprisons a military hero

    Any Army Commander could win the fight against LTTE dictatorship, If they had the correct political backing. MPs in the parliaments in Western countries, specially, U.K., France, Spain, Benelux countries wanted to stop the progress of armed forces always, as it would prevent settled economic tamil refugees voting for tthem.

    Mahinda Rajapaksha has led the correct leadership.

    Sarath Fonseka while on a visit to USA to see his daughter, was interviewed by USA judicials regarding so called Human Right Violation.

    Common belief is that he agreed to listened to their underlined requests, in view of getting the presidency. They also used the cast problem in SL society. Please refer DBS Jayaraj published letter about Sirmavo Bandraranayke. This leter tell bout Karawe and Govigama cast problem in SL at upper echeilon. HOW come now canadian DBS Jeyaraj write a letter stipulating cast roblem at this time unless he was told that Sarath is Karawe caste and Mahind is Givigama caste. So the time is right to get some extra money from donor agencies.

    DBSJ Didn’t that letter focus on cast, and leadership.

    President is a friend of Palastine Friendship Club. He sacked one of his, ministers Mangala Samaraweera then, foreign ministe, because he failed to voice the agony of Palastines at U.N.

    Israel Lobby groups want to stop Mahinda Rajapaksha at this level. They do not want to pass the LTTE technology to Palastine miltiantiy. Yes, they helped to eradicate LTTE, because it was the wish of India. Israel Has lots of trade dealing with subcontinent and USA.

    Now the governments in so called west wants to prosecute, Iraq style court, our belowed MR and Gota.

    When Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia ask for a court in their country, west (i.e.President of USA and the ass licking priminister in UK) decided to hang him in Hague. So he took his life. When Saddam Husssain ask for a court at Hague in Nethwerlands the west ( i.e.President of USA and ass licking priminister at 100/ Downing Street ) decided to make the hanging in Iraq ( former Persia also known as the creddle of human civilization) So they make a special criminal law. To Hang PRESIDENT SADDAM HUSSAIN.

    They said he was in a hole like a rat. Remember He never left his people. He was with persians. He could easily go to any country.

    When Idi Amii Did settled in Dubai nobody asked it.

    MR cleaned the country. He may not perfect. Can those westerners, specialy those UNITED kINGDOM People representative say that he violated geneva convention.

    Get a life, You are the decendents of King Jeorge the IV who killed all males over 18 many years ago in the island of Sri Lanka.

    You are the idiots telling us about war crimes

  • # PP :
    4 November 2010 @00h46
    Sri Lanka imprisons a military hero
    Poopallapillai is trying another stunt. Country will come up slowly. Just like Europe after WW11. Give time and evrything will be on track. Bloody LTTE terrorised us for 30 years and no one opened their eyes then. There is a lot happening in tamil areas and people live without fear.
  • # Sarath :
    5 November 2010 @23h39
    Sri Lanka imprisons a military hero

    It is amazing how much crap Sri Lankans are willing to take. After 5 years they have not still figured out that Mahinda Rajapaksa always does the exact opposite of what he says and always accuses other of exactly what he’s going to do.

    He accused Sarath Fonsake of planning a coup. Without a single shred of evidence people are ready to believe this. Yet after seeing the images on TV of Sarath Fonseka and supporters being barricaded in their hotel on election night and forcibly keeping the election commissioner in a room, people couldn’t figure out that it was Mahinda Rajapaksa who was planning the coup. He accused Fonseka of being an Idi Amin and look who’s acting the part. He promised the citizens a “Subha Anagathayak” (A Bright Future) but they will not finish paying the loans he’s taking for at least eight generations. He promised people the benefits of peace yet after an year since the end of the war the country is still under Emergency Law and people are still being abused by politicians and police. He talks of a “just society” while his brother (affectionately known as Mr. 10%) want 10% from any deal that goes on in the country; this would be pure extortion if someone else did it. He declares “Mathata Thitha” (prohibition) yet serves alcohol at his many party gatherings and its a well know secret he’s an alcoholic himself. I mean come on, people in Sri Lanka have seen heavy drinkers, haven’t they? Do you think they can’t see it when they see his blood shot eyes? He raises taxes on wheat floor and bans wheat products from government facilities, yet wheat products are still served at the Presidential house and parliament.

    The list goes on and on. If people of Sri Lanka want to figure it out they have plenty of evidence. I don’t think they are capable or willing. This must be akin to Stockholm Syndrome. Their inability has condemned them to suffer the fate that they are in for a very long time to come. He will keep promising them the moon and they will keep believing him; every time. All they’ll get will be empty stomachs.

  • # Padraig Colman :
    6 November 2010 @05h51
    Sri Lanka imprisons a military hero

    Sam: My intention in this article was not to take sides but merely to explain to a western audience how the imprisonment of Fonseka had affected the political landscape of Sri Lanka. I am not sure if I am being called an idiot personally or whether it is blanket abuse of westerners in general. I am certainly not a descendant of George IV. Wasn’t he German? I don’t think I have any German blood in me. As my compatriot, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney once wrote: “Let it be known my passport’s green/I owe no allegiance to the queen”. The passport isn’t green any more but it is Irish. My nation suffered 800 years of British oppression, much longer than Ceylon.

    In spite of your overheated style of expression, I think we are probably broadly in agreement about most things. UK and USA are still committing far worse war crimes today than Sri Lanka did during a legitimate fight against terrorists.

    Sarath: Hypocrisy seems to be part of the landscape of politics in any country. I don’t know as much about Rajapaksa’s personal habits as you do. I did make eye-contact with him at the Nuwara Eliya flower show a few years ago and didn’t notice any bloodshots. I agree that apathy is a feature of many Sri Lankan people (what to do, men?) but violence has also been too prevalent for too long.

    What choice does the voter have? The UNP is dead in the water. Many UNPers have joined the government as has most of the left apart from a rump of the JVP. As I said in the article, the JVP are losing foot soldiers because of their support for Fonseka. Fonseka’s personal character defects are many and well-documented and I doubt if the country would have been better-off with him as president. Many Sri Lankans have expressed the masochistic desire for a “benevolent” dictator like Lee Kwan Yew. Now they’ve got the Rajapaksas.

    I did mention the fact that Fonseka in the end was not charged with plotting a coup. I have expressed the view in another article that a coup might have been likely if Fonseka had actually won the presidency.

    I try to avoid expressing my own opinions in these articles but if I were Rajapaksa I would release Fonseka and encourage him to join his family in Oklahoma.

    PP: I agree that most of those Tamils who live in the north and east have better hope for the future now that the LTTE have been defeated.

  • # Dan :
    7 November 2010 @03h36
    Sri Lanka imprisons a military hero

    It was heavily reported that General Fonseka had strong political ambitions, and that was the reason previous governments kept him away from the powerful post of Army Commander.

    From what transpired, looks like that accusation is well founded. In that case, nailing him to the cross and making an example out of him for the rest of the military might be a good for the democracy in SL. Especially considering the role of military in neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Burma, Indonesia…etc.

    I do feel sorry for the guy, but I am not sure what else the government can do. Fonseka attended a very public mini political event, in traditional white dress (uniform of the sri lankan politicians) at Kelaniya temple, a day after he publicized his intention to retire from military. It was only a day or so after the government accepted his 30 day retirement notice, but they forced it to take effect in 24 hours instead of waiting 30 days.

    It so funny the way politicians, monks, ex LTTE sympathizers, most of them who publically loathed Fonseka, and given the chance probably would bestow the same or worse fate on him, trying to protect him from Rajapaksha government. For them Fonseka is just a stick to beat the Rajapaksha government with. Most people involved in Sri Lankan politics are sleazy, spineless and unscrupulous. This makes Sri Lankan politics a very dirty game, but you cannot say it is not interesting… In a sad, funny sort of a way

  • # Dan :
    7 November 2010 @03h49
    Sri Lanka imprisons a military hero
    Forgot to mention, I love reading Padraig Colman’s article every month. It is nice to read an intelligent article about Sri Lanka in western media once in a while. You are one of the few journalists I know that can report on complex issues with amazing perspective. Reminds me of Joe Schlesinger, great journalist from Canadian journalist from CBC.
  • # Padraig Colman :
    8 November 2010 @06h01
    Sri Lanka imprisons a military hero

    Thank you so much for your kind words Dan. I hope the editor has read them!

    You say:” This makes Sri Lankan politics a very dirty game, but you cannot say it is not interesting… In a sad, funny sort of a way”. I find it endlessly fascinating. A lot of the commenters here berate me for not taking their side. I have no interest in taking sides but get great pleasure out of trying to make sense of the ever-changing soap opera.

    I have analysed Fonseka’s history and character in more detail on my word Press blog. See:…

    I can be contacted on