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egg 1It 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 the 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 had 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 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). Read the rest of this entry »

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qrcode.26819894What was termed the militarization of the North was attributed mainly to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Secretary of Defence, and in many minds he was considered the greatest barrier to Reconciliation. He was thought the architect of the policy that held security to be the most important consideration, and that to ensure this the footprint of the military had to be heavy and pervasive.

This was ironic, for during the course of the war he had seemed of the view that, while the forces could handle the military requirements, a settlement required the politicians, and setting this in place was not his role. Indeed, in this regard he seemed the opposite of his Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka, who was thought to be of the view that a policy of settlements in the North was the best way of guaranteeing peace. Gotabhaya, on the contrary went along with his brothers, the President and Basil, when they sidelined Fonseka, having refused his request that the army be enlarged; and, as noted, Basil went ahead with a policy of swift resettlement, which was in accordance with the pledge of the President.

Indeed, even during the war, Gotabhaya had seemed soft in comparison with Sarath Fonseka. His chosen instruments were officers such as Daya Ratnayake, appointed Army Commander in 2013, who had developed the strategy that ensured that there were hardly any civilian casualties in the East. Sarath did not like Daya Ratnayake, and sidelined him and would have had him retired early, but Gotabhaya saved his career by sending him off to China for his Staff College Course. When he came back, he was not used at all in what remained of the Northern offensive.

Sarath had a no nonsense approach to the conflict, and when the ICRC told him that firing was coming close to hospitals, his response was on the lines that the hospitals should no longer have been there, since they had been instructed to move. Gotabhaya on the contrary had taken notice of such warnings and indicated that he would have the line of fire changed.

In general, Gotabhaya and his preferred instruments such as Jagath Jayasuriya who, as Commander of the Special Forces in Vavuniya, was in charge of the Northern operation, tended to follow international law as best possible. Given the general strategy followed in the war, and the care taken in most quarters to avoid civilian casualties, there is no doubt that Sarath Fonseka also followed the general principles laid down by the civilian command, but it was also apparent that he sometimes saw this as a needless hindrance. His initial account of the killing of those who tried to surrender by carrying White Flags and leaving the Tiger lines indicates his bluff mindset, for he was reported as having said that those in air-conditioned rooms, an obvious reference to Gotabhaya, ordered that they be spared. He however had done what was required, since he knew how they had behaved in the past.

It was odd then that, a couple of years later, Gotabhaya should have inherited the mantle of the hard-liner, but perhaps it was inevitable given the manner in which government decided to respond to the challenge presented by Sarath Fonseka, when he stood for election against Mahinda Rajapaksa as the common Opposition candidate. Having experienced what seemed a Damascus style conversion, doubtless because he was backed by the Americans (who could not have been ignorant of his measure but thought him the best instrument of applying pressure on Rajapaksa), he put himself forward for election as a dove. He was indeed supported by the UNP, which had not supported the crushing of the Tigers, and by the TNA, the main Tamil political party. His approach then to the White Flag case was that it was those in air-conditioned rooms who had given orders that they be killed.

Government responded, not by pointing out the contradictions in his accounts, and calling him a liar, but by saying he was a traitor. They had decided that, since Fonseka was the principal opponent in the election, it was the hardline vote that had to be won. Patriotism, in order to get the better of Fonseka, had to be tough, so it did not matter that the impression they created was that his story might be true. The upshot of this, of course, was that when the LLRC recommended inquiries into possible abuses, the government was in difficulties, since Fonseka could well have called them traitors for letting down patriots who had only done what was necessary to eliminate terrorism. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2019
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