Sri Lanka Imprisons a Military Hero
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
Sri Lanka imprisons a military hero
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.”