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Sarath Fonseka – The wild card in Sri Lanka’s politics

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By Vishnuguptha

“One should always play fairly when one has the winning cards.” – Oscar Wilde

It’s been three months since the release of former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka from prison.

The euphoria that his release generated is slowly fading away. The after-dinner gossip is gradually being replaced by more constructive, innovative and friendly advice. However, the electricity that the news generated at the time was beyond comparison and there was and is a very good reason for it.

After the last Presidential Elections and the incarceration of the defeated candidate, no Opposition leader or for that matter, any politician, had challenged the present regime the way in which Fonseka had been daringly doing so during his court appearances –the misfortunes of which were many –even though those utterances were confined to one or two catchy phrases or political allegations.

In an ugly atmosphere of inaction and impotence, the General just showed that at least there was one man with a spine. People love strength, they love those who call a spade a spade, come what may. They judge their leaders not only by words; they look for nuanced utterances that directly relate to their fibre of thought.

What is being whispered in Parliament lobbies by Government Ministers, spoken softly in closed door boardrooms by company directors, transmitted via SMSs by ordinary men and women, murmured inside judiciary canteens by attorneys and what is not being given expression to by the Leader of the Opposition and his party men, or reformists, former General Fonseka chose to say in public, in broad daylight – for everyone to hear. He just criticized the regime and named names.

A man of undiluted courage and conviction

The media, both electronic and print, covered him like a blanket; the supporters and well-wishers waved their hands in unison and the country at large silently applauded a man of undiluted courage and conviction. When the news filtered out that this man was going to be free once again, it sent thrills and joy to the common man who respects liberty and freedom, though it would have made some newspaper editors quite uncomfortable and jittery-and even scared!

What is this Fonseka phenomenon? How did it originate and does it have legs to stand on? These are the questions that have been asked in the past few months and answers sought for.

I was told a fascinating story by one of the late Gamini Dissanayake’s close associates:

In 1994, Fonseka, a Brigadier in rank at the time, had sought an appointment to see Gamini Dissanayake which had been arranged by this person. This was after Gamini came back to the UNP in the wake of the demise of R. Premadasa.

Brigadier Fonseka had met Gamini for about one full hour and whilst coming out of Gamini’s main office, he had thanked the person who facilitated the meeting and had stated that he was quite happy that he had the opportunity to discuss with him some salient issues. After Fonseka left, Gamini too had called this associate and announced thus: “I can win this war with him as our Commander”.

This episode sheds light, not only on General Fonseka; it also illuminates the character of Gamini Dissanayake, his uncanny ability to assess a man’s capabilities and potential.

Fifteen years later, as Commander of Sri Lanka’s Army, former General Sarath Fonseka led his troops, with the able support of the Commanders and men of the Navy and Air Force, and finished a twenty seven-year old war against one of the most dreaded terrorist organizations in the world. What followed after 19 May 2009 – the white flag case, numerous courts martial, Fonseka’s arrest, Hicorp case and the rest – is a sordid part of Sri Lanka’s contemporary politics.

The buildup created by the government-sponsored media outlets and especially in the electronic medium, after Fonseka decided to exercise one of his fundamental human rights enshrined and guaranteed to every citizen in a democratic social order – the right to contest an election – was despicable. A man who nearly laid down his life for his country-not once but three times- was portrayed as an outright traitor. The war that Fonseka fought and won assumed bizarre attributes and some cronies gave titles to it, naming it after their ‘heroes’, obviously for their own selfish ends.

The General has some thinking to do.

Well, that is all in the past. And now that Fonseka has stepped back into civilized society, assuming the day-to-day living of a free man, the former General has some thinking to do and if he treats what he has to do as a privilege and another challenge in his illustrious life, the ultimate beneficiaries would be the country and her people.

After paying so many visits to a number of electorates and being the recipient of many a warm reception of tribute and thanks, and given his propensity to re-launch himself into Sri Lankan polity in a more engaging manner, Fonseka would have to consider and adopt the option most promising to himself and profitable to the country from amongst many:

1. Join the government forces, accept what it gives him and retire.

2. Assume leadership of the party from which he was elected to Parliament in 2010 or form another new political party and organize it as a strong third force.

3. Join the ‘official’ UNP of the Ranil Wickremesinghe wing and pay second-fiddle to Ranil and rot away with the rest of the cronies.

4. Join Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa’s reformists’ group, provided both Karu and Sajith agree to such an alliance, and agitate for a genuine change in the UNP leadership, and in this option, Fonseka would have to accept Karu J as his leader. I personally don’t think that former General would have any misgivings on being second to KJ.

5. Walk into the gentle night…

Option 1

This option, if he does take it, would be personally comfortable for his family and himself but will disappoint a large number of his supporters who hero-worship him and would not offer any thrills or satisfaction to a man who had fought and won an incredible war. It will make Sarath Fonseka, the hero an ‘unhero’.

Option 2

With the JVP not in unison to support the former General, it will be quite a task for even a seasoned politician to put together an alliance like the Democratic National Alliance which was formed to fight the Parliamentary Elections in 2010. Even if he succeeds in holding the Alliance together, the appeal of the JVP is dwindling daily as a viable alternative political party capable of forming a government in Sri Lanka, coupled with the socialist tinge that the JVP still assumes. Thus Sarath Fonseka would find himself in alien territory as far as the economic policies are concerned. Yet it’s still an option.

Option 3

The United National Party as it is, embroiled in personality and policy clashes at present, the official version of the UNP led by the Ranil wing, which is totally divorced from the people –especially the Sinhalese Buddhist majority segment – will not be an attractive hub for an extraordinarily active soldier of politics. Furthermore, playing second fiddle to a failed leader who is surrounded by political spent forces of yesteryear would only aggravate the existing fissures of the party.

In addition, the allegation that the General’s last Presidential campaign was wilfully sabotaged by the top-rung of the UNP must be still fresh in his mind to derail any alignment with the Ranil wing of the United National Party. It is in evidence that Ranil personally instructed some of his people not only to refrain from praising Fonseka, but also not to attack the government candidate, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Option 4

Option four seems to be the most attractive scenario. With the overwhelming acceptance and popularity of Sajith Premadasa and sober leadership provided by Karu Jayasuriya, the ‘reformists’ group of the UNP, ably manned by some overachieving newcomers (relatively speaking), such as Shiral Lakthilaka and Maithree Gunaratne from the outside, and MPs Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Ashok Abeysinghe, Thalatha Athukorale, Rosy Senanayake, Sujeewa Senasinghe and Dunesh Gankanda from within the Parliamentary Group presents a very attractive political setting.

Fonseka has more than one option

Fonseka forceful entry into this mix will have a telling effect on the party, which still enjoys, as was evidenced on May Day Premadasa Commemoration Ceremony, the support of large numbers of diehard party stalwarts among its rank and file. Within this context Fonseka has, if he chooses, more than one option: He can either join the UNP and agitate from within, with the express backing of the ‘reformists’ group to ask Ranil to step down and call for fresh ‘Sessions’ of the Party or ally himself with ‘reformists’ group and give both physical and vocal backing to them who will carry forward the torch of ‘change’.

Also, as one shortcoming the Fonseka would have, is lack of organizational support from ground-level activists, the ideal situation for him would be to ally himself, with a set of activists that already has that organization or at least access to such an organization.

Whether one likes it or not, Fonseka represents ‘change’, which is a most saleable commodity in the political marketplace today.

Well, we did not discuss the fifth option. Fonseka, after a winning an incredible war, after being incarcerated for almost two and a half years, after being maligned by his enemies as a traitor, today has become a subject of envy, one admired by his peers and feared by his opponents. Provided his health is within manageable measures, he can take an active role in politics in Sri Lanka. Or as was said earlier, he can just walk into the gentle night.

People will speculate as to why the government decided to release or pardon him. Some say that the collective pressure brought upon the regime by the USA and India is one sure cause. America has categorized Fonseka as a ‘political prisoner’. Political prisoners are usually found only in dictatorships and Communist countries. Sri Lanka is supposed to be a ‘five-star democracy’. There cannot be any political prisoners in any democracy, five-stars or otherwise.

Standing for election is a right, not a privilege in a multi-party democracy. Sarath Fonseka became a traitor overnight, after he declared his candidacy for Presidential Elections. A wrong has to be righted.

Yes, he can walk into the gentle night, as in the fifth option.

But he seems to have opted not to exercise that option. The decree that Ranil Wickremesinghe has issued to his fellow UNPers not to be associated with Fonseka is a foolish decision, making Fonseka even more an intriguing personality in a very positive sense. People get attracted to intriguing personalities, either negative or positive.

In the case of Sarath Fonseka, he is only helping Ranil Wickremesinghe be judged by his own loyalists with a tinge of suspicion. Such a foolhardy approach to politics by a leader of a major political party would only contribute to the undermining process with added alacrity.

The Working Committee of the UNP might, contrary to the contention of most of the political pundits, not support their leader indefinitely.

The forthcoming Provincial Council elections may accelerate the process. If the UNP gets swept away by the government party, if the number of councillors who get elected from the party gets reduced, then even the wrath of the Working Committee members will be on the leader. Only time will tell.

The Fonseka wild card is in play. courtesy: Ceylon Today

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