Ex Army Chief put on firing line by Rohan Abeywardene
War winning general turned outspoken critic of the government and Leader of the Democratic National Alliance Sarath Fonseka sat with us recently for a no-holds-barred interview. Although he, unlike some big talking politicians, did not rule out any queries, we could not pose a few more questions due to a time limit he laid down at the outset.
Following are excerpts:
Q: Are you satisfied with the security that is provided to you now?
A: I am not satisfied at all because the threat on me is equal to that faced by anyone else involved in anti-terror operations, whether it was a high ranking politician or high ranking secretary or the army commander who commanded the ground operations. The threat is almost equal, but compared with others due to the supposed threat from the LTTE most probably they have thousands in their security detail and some people have hundreds. In my case they have given me 15 policemen. Fifteen policemen cannot protect me from a terrorist attack. They can provide security in the event of a threat from a normal man or one or two individuals. I think they have given this contingent for the sake of giving, for them to tell the people that they have given me security, but it is not satisfactory at all. The security officers are doing their best, but they are unable to provide the security that is required.
Q: Surely they are not that foolish to ignore your safety. If anything happens to you, the country and the world will blame them.
A: But, they have been doing enough foolish things. If they are not foolish they would not have put me in jail after doing all the service I did to the country. They had the audacity or the stubbornness to put me in jail. They never thought of the reaction of the people. When it comes to arrogance and stupidity they have always exceeded limits.
Q: Then you had it coming because in the run-up to the presidential poll you told them to get ready with their sleeping mats as you were going to lock them up overnight after your election victory.
A: It was never mentioned like that.
Q: It was widely reported.
A: That was misinformation on the part of the government media. We never mentioned things like that. You think we are so foolish as to talk like that at political meetings. We never told the people anything like that.
Q: Your childhood neighbours tell us that like the tough general you came to be, even then you were a tough nut to crack and your father had a tough time keeping you under control.
A: I was a boy not a girl! Normally boys do various mischievous things and basically boys create lot of problems for their parents when they are young. If they don’t do that then there is something wrong with them.
Q: Your father as a school principal had to punish you almost on a daily basis, they say.
A: Are you here to interview me or to assassinate my character?
Q: Nothing like that. We just want to see how your character was moulded?
A: I have always been a bright student throughout. You can check with the schools. I was the cadet sergeant in two schools. I have been a very good sportsman. I have been a school prefect. So you are trying to assassinate my character …
Q: We want to see how you came to be a tough general.
A: I have been a tough general, but I have not been punished all over or been a black sheep.
Q: Some say you had a sixth sense in winning the war. We ourselves saw how you had looked after even the minutest detail, when we accompanied a unit under Maj. Gen Udawatte that was advancing towards Mulaitivu from Weli Oya, where a field artillery unit that was supporting an advancing unit was being watched over by your special forces men in black T-shirts and when we inquired from them why the SF were overseeing the firing of artillery by personally rechecking the range independently with frontline scouts before those guns could be fired, they said those were your orders. So you did not leave anything to chance.
A: There were lots of civilians held by the LTTE as they were falling back. So, we went out of our way to take precautions, especially when it came to firing of heavy weapons. I had the capacity to go into many details, to check the accuracy, whether they are taking the correct target, and whether there is any loose firing. As a responsible ground forces commander I had to take all that responsibility. I knew the terrain and the capability of the weapons, but there was always the chance of human error so I did not want to leave any mistakes behind.
Q: Did you fear infiltrators within?
A: No, but we had to take precautions. For example that suicide attack on me, came because there was a soldier cook who was working for the LTTE. Like that there were some officers who were caught working for the LTTE and feeding information to it. So we had to take all the precautions to begin with.
Q: We also saw you by-passing generals, brigadiers and even colonels, who were supposedly spearheading various brigades, task forces and divisions and personally giving tasks to lieutenant colonels, and majors to achieve each day at ground level by the use of simple CDMA phones carried by each unit. With there being so many fronts and so many units how did you manage to assign tasks almost on a daily basis to each and every one?
A: I was instrumental in planning the ground operation. When you are in the picture, if you have read the battle properly and if you know the ground information ….
Q: You seem to have known everything like the back of your hand.
A: If you read the battle properly it is not difficult for you to give instructions at the right time and at the right place.
Q: You did all that by-passing generals, brigadiers, and colonels who were out there.
A: Not only to lieutenant colonels and majors, basically I was reading the battle down to four-man and eight-man teams (of Special Forces). Everything was marked on my maps and all those maps are still with me. I maintained them. They will have some historical value one day. Even four-man and eight-man teams’ operations in frontlines I monitored. I knew the outcomes and I knew their difficulties so I was capable of giving instructions to everyone.
Q: Then after the war you did not forget them and rewarded practically every one of them who performed.
A: Definitely. I even gave commendations to field commanders in writing at the parade. Everybody else I awarded the gallantry award. Of course, I could not go into many details as I was commanding the army for only one and a half months after the war; otherwise I have done my best for the men.
Q: Is it correct you promoted most of those who were in those four-man and eight-man teams to the rank of second lieutenant?
A: Yes. During the war I had the problem of not having enough young officers so I promoted over 2,000 corporals and sergeants to the rank of second lieutenants and commissioned them. They were trained very quickly and given responsibility. They were the people who registered the victory and delivered the goods because their morale was very high. I picked them up from the field from among the best corporals and the best sergeants. When they were given promotions they went for their targets despite the risks to their lives.
Q: You have been described as the type of general who comes along once in a thousand years but you did not want to share the victory. You wanted to collect all the trophies for yourself and that is why everyone fell out with you. What have you to say to that?
A: I did not want to collect all the trophies, but I wanted definitely to collect the trophies which the army deserved, the share of the army for the job done by it. There can’t be civilian secretaries and politicians saying they were planning the war, they were commanding the war. That is nonsense. The military operations were planned by the military. It was my plan. I directly commanded the generals under me and all the field commanders. Unlike in other armies I kept all the division commanders directly under me. I was also commanding brigade commanders. I was giving orders to even battalion commanders. I was monitoring everything. I planned the war, the ground battles and I commanded the ground battles. It was I who reacted during difficult situations. When there were LTTE counter attacks, it was I who took over such tough situations most of the time as army commander. Therefore the bulk of the ground battle credit has to come to me. If I also commanded like the previous commanders the final outcome would have been the same in failure. Politicians can take the credit for their part, but not for commanding the ground battle.
Q: You have to grant the fact that there was a good team to back you and that team clicked and there were no attempt to trip you from the back. You didn’t have to watch your back as they were backing you to the hilt.
A: They were backing me in the sense they were doing their job. We were proceeding without any failures. Unlike in the past there were no debacles and no reversals. All that they had to do was to pay salaries of recruits I took into the army and give the money to buy ammunition. When we were winning without any reversals can they wait without doing that? Even the previous governments, secretaries of defence did the same thing. But in the past the army failed at various places. Here they did their job and I did my job. They didn’t go out of their way to do anything for me.
Q: In the past on the eve of operations you had generals reporting sick and getting admitted to hospitals, but here you had plenty of commanders who volunteered to lead the fight.
A: Here there were no volunteers. I nominated them. I detailed them with their orders and they went and did their job. Nobody volunteered and I did not accommodate any volunteers. The generals, the brigade commanders etc., I handpicked them. I did not ask for any volunteers to come. I handpicked them because I knew the capabilities of many people. With my background knowledge I picked them up.
Q: Will you endorse any party at the forthcoming provincial elections?
A: No. As it is we are boycotting the election.
Q: Are you being neutral?
A: Not neutral, but basically boycotting it because of various reasons. For one thing there is no unity in the Opposition. The opposition has to get restructured, revamped; otherwise no point in supporting its campaign. The government of course is corrupt and this is a corrupt election. They are holding these elections prematurely for their own benefit and not for the welfare of the people or for the democracy.
Q: We can start out very idealistically, but the reality is that it is bags of money that win elections. Without money you can’t do anything much. You need money to run a campaign, to advertise, print posters etc., so if you are to win an election how are you going to match them first of all resource-wise?
A: Money as you say is needed to certain extent, but it is not everything. There are lots of moneyed people who have lost. Those who spent rather moderately have also done well at elections. At the moment we are not contesting, but for other activities we have enough financial support. There are lots of people who are giving us substantial financial support. As you can see we are doing lot of things and all that cost lot of money. Basically, even to pump petrol and diesel to vehicles every month you have to spend couple of hundred thousand rupees in today’s context, but there are people supporting us and there will be more people joining us.
Q: Had the UNP Leader contested the last presidential election after mocking the war, he would have received such a severe drubbing that he would have been consigned to the dustbin of history. So, he used you to get over that problem. In the same manner there are foreign forces trying to use you to topple this government, but afterwards if you come they will do the same thing to you.
A: I come in what sense …
Q: That is if you get elected. For example in 2001 they helped get Ranil Wickremesinghe to come to power, but they pulled the rug from underneath his feet by first of all giving him an economic dead rope insisting that he should only have austerity measures, meaning no subsidies, no recruitment etc., that finally led to his downfall at the next election. Simply, these foreign interests only want permanent chaos here to help their hidden agenda. Likewise they might help you to topple this government, but remember these are the same people who used to accuse you of committing all types of excesses during the war. So they might press those same charges against you if you come to power.
A: Up to now nobody from outside countries has contacted us or we have not been having anything to do with anybody that you can prove….
Q: Obviously, they will not show their hand. They always operate underneath.
A: If they are trying to do things without our knowledge, they can try and see, but we have a clear set of principles and I have been saying that all these problems that you are talking of are there because of the present culture of politics in this country. We have to change this culture of politics. We have to get people to think differently. That is what I am trying to do. Otherwise people will get fooled and played out. At the end of it they will not get anything. But we want to do genuine and sincere politics. That is why I am looking for sincere people, sincere characters to change the culture of politics in this country. That is why I am also not joining any of the parties at the moment because I have a different agenda.
Q: But in this country the people are always voting in a funny manner. They always vote for either a coalition led by the UNP or the SLFP.
A: This is the history of this country.
Q: How are you going to change that?
A: When I fought the war the people said the same thing.
Q: War and politics are not the same.
A: I am telling you in the war also many people said the same thing. Nobody could win this. Fonseka can’t do it either. If it is happening in a different way in other countries why are you trying to brand Sri Lanka as a place where there can’t be civilised politics? There is civilised politics and democracy in other countries. If we want this country to prosper we have to introduce civilised way of doing politics, elections, democracy and everything else. If we are negative then we will sink.
Q: No sooner had the war ended you pitched into the government making all sorts of allegations of corruption. But, having been in the army all these years even before this war started, you would have seen how many a senior officer enriched himself at the expense of the country and the respective service. Some of them even lost their family members due to corrupt practices preventing the acquiring of what is really required by the forces. But, since the final war was fought to a finish with a sincere will and purpose you could have been more patient and worked from within to correct any wrongs. Even the UNP and the JVP just wanted to ride to power on your back.
A: They depended on me because they did not have a proper candidate. That is a different argument. But why should I do politics with this government. Then I could have continued with the same way I was working under this government in the same position in uniform. I had two more years to serve and I had all the perks, the security …
Q: Then why were you in such haste?
A: It was not in haste. What was the point in delaying it? If I had continued to work with them under so much corruption I would have had to come out one day. Then somebody will again say you have come out in haste.
Q: Hemakumara Nanayakkara, who left the government recently wants to form a rainbow type coalition to oust the government. But, the tragedy is that the rats in the government who have been enjoying the good life so far, sensing a possible downfall of the regime are secretly negotiating with him with the hope of forming the next government.
A: This is the political culture of this country. This is exactly what I want to change. I want to make sure that politicians can’t go before the people, get their vote, go to Parliament and then bargain for various personal positions. I want to change that system. Now everything is done for their own personal benefit, not for the interest of the country.
Q: Some people blame your haughty character for scaring Ranil Wickremesinghe. They say you didn’t even show some simple courtesies to him that he deserved as the senior UNP politician, party leader and the Leader of the Opposition.
A: I respected him in the manner I had to respect him. He respected me as the presidential candidate of the common opposition. Otherwise, if he is scared of me … in other words he is scared of my popularity and nothing else. That is not my problem. You can see there are lots of problems in the UNP. It is not only between Fonseka and the UNP leader. I have no basic problem with him. I have never uttered a word against him.
Q: He is not going to leave his position.
A: That is his problem, but I have not uttered a word against him.
Q: There was speculation that the UNP offered you the party deputy leadership after its working Committee decided to extend the term of its leader to six years.
A: They were all rumours. They had only said at a media briefing that I should buy a 20 rupee ticket and join that party.
Q: Even at the end of the war you wanted to beef up the army even more and wanted to have army cantonments all over the country, but then during your presidential campaign you suddenly talked about withdrawing the army.
A: I never said the army must be withdrawn immediately. Even at that time as army commander I never said keep the army forever. Depending on the situation at the particular time I recommended the deployment of the army. I said beef up the army and give it additional strength because the soldiers had to get some rest. When we captured Jaffna, it was done with 15,000 soldiers, but when we had to hold it after that for fifteen years we had 35,000 troops. So holding requires more troops. So I recommended that I need about another 80,000 troops. Normally in the army at least one fourth should be away from deployment, for training, rest, leave and various other reasons. That is what I recommended, but these people did not understand it. They are all selfish and they did not listen to me. They were not bothered about soldiers rest and recuperation. That is why more soldiers are deserting now than during the war. Up to now about 70,000 soldiers have deserted after the war. During the final war for three and a half years so many soldiers did not desert.
Q: Western nations are pressing us to speed up the withdrawal of the army from the north. With the LTTE threat far from over, how should we tackle the issue?
A: The eelam threat is not over because the government failed to look into the requirements and needs of the affected people. They only rushed the sending out of the people who were in IDP camps because they didn’t want to spend money on them. They were playing out money that was coming for the purpose of resettling, development of infrastructure in those areas, the maintenance of IDP camps. Lot of money that was coming from India and various other countries they played out. Then they rushed the IDPs to settle without proper infrastructure facilities. That is why they are worried that there will be an LTTE threat again. They should have attended to things systematically cleared the area, restored infrastructure like tank bunds, roads, culverts, schools, hospitals and various other requirements. Instead, they sent the people back with each family given three GI sheets plus one bag of cement or something and wanted people to resettle. As a result the situation is still volatile. If it had been done properly, by this time, the relocating the army as required could have been done to return to a state of near normalcy, but they have failed to do that.
Q: They have done tremendous amount of infrastructure work, especially what we have seen in the east is almost unbelievable compared to what it was earlier.
A: The best way of playing out money for them is through roads and bridges. If one kilometre can be constructed with Rs. 20 million, they are spending Rs. 110 million. That is why they are so fond of construction. Is that the only thing you require in the country?
Q: True there is corruption, family bandyism and various other wrongs taking place, but if the UNP comes to power tomorrow things will not be any different going by past experience.
A: That is why I am talking about a different political culture. I don’t want the fall of this corrupt government to see the rise of another corrupt regime. We have to ensure that the people who love the country and are not corrupt come to power. You don’t think that is possible.
Q: We don’t believe for a moment there are so many saintly politicians in this world. Most are in it for themselves.
A: In other countries also there may be little bit of corruption, but they do their job properly. They can’t play out the way they do it here and survive, in those countries, for that matter even in India. You are talking as if the corruption here should be taken granted. It has to be eradicated. If you think so negatively what is the future of this country?
Q: Can you tell us something about your son-in-law? How did he stage the great escape?
A: That, of course, you have to find out the day you meet him. We don’t know.
Q: What are the chances of his coming back?
A: He will come back the day there is justice in this country. He is hiding now because there is a threat to his life. We heard their plans, whereby they wanted to catch him during the election and assassinate him so that my morale would go down.
Q: But that would have meant blood on their hands.
A: They had a plan to take him to the CID and do something. Lots of people taken to CID custody have died there in the past. They wanted to create a situation like that so they could knock me down mentally.
Q: Just after the war you ordered a huge shipment of armaments. Why was that?
A: Not a huge order for armaments. It was for US $ 200 million for which we had already signed agreements. This was the balance. And during the war my armoured corps, which I commanded was started with 80 tanks, the number came down to 30 by the end of the war. These people did not approve of the repairs during the war. So in the last days of the war I had to do fighting mostly without armoured vehicles. So we had to maintain these regiments. When vehicles are condemned they have to be written off. So I had the idea of using the $ 200 million to replace those armoured vehicles. That was my duty as the commander of the army.
Q: What is your stand on the Parliamentary Select Committee proposed by the government to find a solution to the ethnic problem? Will you all participate in it?
A: You can give lot of things on paper, but unless there is reconciliation whatever you give will only aggravate the situation.
Q: In cut and dry terms for them any settlement requires the permanent merger of the north and east provinces and land and police powers.
A: Don’t talk about police and land. I am talking about the general situation before you decide on the constitutional changes and what you can give and what you can’t give. First, get the people to live together. They must not be suspicious about each other. If the people in the south are suspicious about the people in the north, then what ever you give the situation will get aggravated. The hatred will increase. The distrust will increase.
Q: Will your party get involved in the PSC deliberation process to find a final solution?
A: If the outcome again is a solution on paper, we will be wasting time. What I stated earlier has to take place beforehand. Then a base conducive for a solution will be created. After that a solution will have to come.
Q: For Tamil leaders their baseline for a permanent solution is the permanent merger of the north and east, and police and land powers.
A: This is what the Tamil politicians have been harping on and politicians from both sides have been talking on various lines for their own survival. courtesy: The Island