By Col. R. Hariharan
The presidential pardon to General Sarath Fonseka (officially it is ‘ex-General’ as he has been stripped of his hard earned rank) after he completed only two years of a three-year jail sentence should come as no surprise.
As things happen in the Island nation, the idea touched off speculations on when and how he will be released. Of course, there was a lot of build up before it really happened with the perennial political go-between Tiran Alles MP took up the General’s case for pardon with his one time pal – the President. And the former Army Chief comes up once again in national focus with the speculation on what is he going to do?
President Mahinda Rajapaksa chose to show his benevolence to the General around the third anniversary of victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and bestowed his pardon. In a sense it was as the hapless General had gained national accolade for leading the Sri Lankan forces to victory in the Eelam War IV. But he committed the mother of all sins no military man should commit and escape reprisals – crossing swords with politicians – that too President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who brooks no opposition. The hounding of the General after he chose to contest against the President, who wanted to cash in his moment of victory by winning a second term in office, will remain a black chapter in the country’s presidential history.
The Green Card-holding General’s release had been one of the minor items in the long list of demands the U.S. had been thrusting on Sri Lanka ever since their relations went South in the last stages of the Eelam War. It started as an irritant with Rajapaksa government’s studied disregard human rights concerns of the U.S. and the West on the happenings in Sri Lanka.
However, the breaking point came when Sri Lanka trashed the U.S. plan to dramatically intervene in the last stages of war (with all the Hollywood dramatics of Marines landing in the battle zone to rescue a Prabhakaran and his pals in distress). It made the U.S. agenda suspect in Sri Lankan eyes, and the U.S. demand for release of Fonseka added to the suspicion as allegations of Sri Lanka war crimes were piling up in international forums.
So the release of the former Army Chief probably added a dime’s worth to the reputation of Prof GL Peiris, External Affairs Minister, who on a mission impossible trip to the U.S on “how to make friends with the U.S.” The news of the General’s pardon gathered timely momentum around the weekend Prof Peiris was meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State Mrs Hilary Clinton. During the meeting he made a lot of promises on Sri Lanka’s game plan (as usual verbally) to the Secretary of State who had insisted on his plans to meet the requirements of UNHRC resolution.
President Rajapaksa’s pardon also satisfies the President’s right wing Sinhala admirers (he has aplenty it seems) and coalition partner Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the monks party, as they had been clamouring for Fonseka’s rehabilitation in the pantheon of Sinhala war heroes.
But the General’s release is not without its strings (or stings?). According to Attorney General Eva Wanasundara the former Army Commander has been granted a conditional release as he has received a remission of his three-year sentence. He cannot contest an election for seven years, although she clarified in an interview that he had the right to vote in elections. She also reminded that the General has one more case pending against him in the court for harbouring army deserters.
So both the main opposition parties – the United National Party (UNP) and the Left Wing Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) – smelling a possible political opportunity in have called for the removal of restrictions imposed on Fonseka after his release. More voices are likely to be added to this as Fonseka has his own constituency outside the political spectrum; and this had helped him emerge as a common opposition candidate against President Rajapaksa in the last presidential poll.
President Rajapaksa used to have an uncanny sense of timing his political moves during his first term in office when the enemy was physical and tangible. After all, the LTTE had painted itself as the national enemy No. 1. But in recent times, his gut feeling appears to be letting him down. In this situation, what will be the impact of Fonseka on Rajapaksa’s future moves?
I have great deal of respect for the former Army Commander for his military competency. He gave form and content to what many Sri Lankans thought of as an impossible dream. As an old soldier I sympathise with him for his plight after working so hard for three decades for the country. Notwithstanding this, he has glaring short comings if he decides to take on President Rajapaksa once again.
With the amount of introspection during his prison days, I expect him to be aware of these. In his last political outing his performance was below par as the vote-count showed in the presidential poll. Before, during, and after the presidential contest, he came out as a novice in the ‘live and let die’ game politicians play all the time. His economic agenda was grandiose and vague, long on promises galore and not much on how he will go about it. His wooing of the Tamil votes came out as a measure of political expediency, as it contradicted his strong ‘Sinhala first’ credentials gathered over the earlier years.
During his army days, Fonseka was not good at winning friends; his ability to influence others came from his professional acumen rather than personality. So it is extremely doubtful if he can morph into a political leader of universal charisma who can galvanise all political elements opposed to Rajapaksa and lead them to success. His not so good performance even at the height of his national popularity in the presidential poll could discourage this from happening.
Politicians make friends only with winners; so as of now Fonseka’s political rehabilitation will depend upon their agenda and choosing. Both the UNP and JVP are mired in internal power struggle. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP leadership is constantly hounded at the heels and he has to keep an eye on his rear guard. The UNP leader has nothing much to gain by forming an alliance with the JVP which lost its fair-weather supporters after the electoral drubbing. It is also suffering from a strong bout of typical Marxist internal contradictions. Theoretically, even if they come together can they meaningfully pose a worthy opposition to Rajapaksa? I have my reservations.
However, if Fonseka gathers enough public support and sympathy, he may become a focus of convergence for an opposition alliance. And for it to happen there has to be a political a situation where the opposition can have a chance of success. Such a clear cut situation does not appear to be coming up in the horizon, except for a parliamentary or presidential election. And both of them are due only in 2016 unless the term of either is ended earlier or popular compulsions of the Arab Spring kind emerge.
It is safe to rule out an Arab Spring happening in Sri Lanka. Despite its aberrations in governance, President Rajapaksa’s government is politically stable as his party – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – has overall majority in parliament on its own steam. Despite this he has opted to rule the country with a 17-party coalition; this has provided enough space for all shades of opinion from the Right, Centre and Left parties to share power. This has minimised the chances of disparate elements coming together to start a mass movement against him.
That leaves economic chaos taking over the country as the only other potential destabiliser. Despite clocking 8 percent growth last year, Sri Lanka is in for tough times as global recession and rising oil prices are affecting most of the economies. Even Sri Lanka’s major trading partners China and India though less affected so far have started feeling its impact. With Sri Lanka’s Western clients and the U.S. already in an economic tailspin, the country is unlikely to escape the economic aftershock. So the future does not augur well for any government in Sri Lanka.
Given this setting, can the UNP and JVP which have diametrically opposite economic agendas come together to form a coalition under the leadership of Sarath Fonseka? Even if this happens, Fonseka with limited political credentials and no economic agenda of his own is unlikely to inspire public confidence. Being an army man Fonseka must be in a defiant mood after his release. He must be raring to get back into the political act to vindicate himself and rally the opposition against Rajapaksa. But as man with sufficient military campaign experience, he will also know his options to successfully do so are very limited.
So it is safe to presume that his immediate efforts will be to get the existing case against him dropped; and that will cooperation from the government. Any rapprochement with Rajapaksa looks out of question. If at all it comes, it would be at Rajapaksa’s terms resulting in a big loss of face for the General; and politically, it would be suicidal for the General. He might be hoping to bring some international (meaning the U.S. and the EU) pressure. But can he count on this?
Now that he is out of the prison, what could inspire the U.S. and the EU to take up the rehabilitation of the General? If former U.S. ambassador to Colombo Patricia Butenis cable (courtesy Wikileaks) of January 2010 is any indication, the U.S. did not set great store on Fonseka to effectively take on President Rajapaksa even in the last parliamentary poll. As the political compulsion of elections is not there, the U.S. and its allies are likely to focus on issues much bigger than Fonseka’s immediate woes in their dialogues with Sri Lanka.
So we can expect a decent pause before Fonseka makes any major move. And even that would come after he gets the political pulse of his supporters, and opposition parties. As the General’s friend Tiran Alles said in an interview, “the government and the president knew that Fonseka would not keep quiet once he was out. But one day or another it had to happen. Now we will wait and see how things shape out. In politics it is difficult to predict the future, but in the light of all that has happened, it is tough to see Fonseka and Rajapakse call a truce. So we will rule that out.” That almost sums up the present situation.
But it is equally difficult to predict when and how Fonseka will fire the first political salvo of his second war. If at all it comes through his second war is going to be tougher than the one he fought against the LTTE.
(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E- mail:firstname.lastname@example.org)