The Sri Lankan who won bouquets and brickbats worldwide for leading troops to military victory against Tiger guerrillas eight years ago and became a national hero now finds himself in a lesser light.
General Gardihewa Sarath Chandralal Fonseka, who successfully negotiated the title of Field Marshal in return for his support for Maithripala Sirisena at the January 8, 2015 presidential election, accused a subordinate senior officer of committing war crimes.
He summoned an hour-long news conference at his Regional Development Ministry in Kotte on Friday (September 1) to level the charge that onetime Security Forces commander Wanni, Major General Jagath Jayasuriya “was engaged in various crimes.” However, he did not identify what they were.
Whether true or false, there is a tragic irony in his revelations. Upon becoming Field Marshal, Fonseka declared in public statements that no troops had committed any war crimes. It is thus clear he has changed his mind now though the reasons are not known. Otherwise, if such acts were indeed committed, he as Commander of the Army, would have subjected Jayasuriya to a Court Martial and cashiered him out or even complained to the Ministry of Defence. There are instances where Fonseka has threatened such action for even seemingly minor breaches of discipline. A senior officer who danced with his glass of whisky on his head at a private party was one such instance.
On the other hand, that politics had crept into the military under successive governments and grown to its detriment is no secret. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya, rose over nine other senior officers, some with very good track records, to become Commander of the Army in July 2009 to succeed Fonseka. It was all too well known that his ascension was partly due to political reasons, since Jayasuriya’s family had distant links to the Rajapaksa family. After retirement as Commander, he was appointed Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). It is this coalition Government that named him Ambassador to Brazil in a move that showed that both sides of the political divide rewarded him well. Yet, Jayasuriya was not involved in any offensive operations in the final stages of the separatist war in May 2009. Fonseka confirmed this when he said at his news conference that “I operated outside normal military tradition in ensuring that all regiments came under me. I did not assign any to him (Jayasuriya). His duty was to secure the bunker line.”
His remarks were grist to the mill for some hard-line Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora groups. They put out reports this week that Jayasuriya had operated Torture Chambers in Vavuniya and was responsible for war crimes including killings. Fonseka’s outburst came just days ahead of the 36th sessions of the UN Human Rights Council. They begin in Geneva tomorrow (September 11) and will go on till September 29. The resolution sponsored by the United States and co-sponsored by Sri Lanka calls for a probe into alleged war crimes both by troops and guerrillas.
If the Rajapaksa administration took up the position that troops fought the war with the Human Rights charter on one hand and a weapon on the other, the ruling coalition has continued to maintain that no war crimes were committed. A debate still continues over whether the probe should include foreign judges as stipulated in the resolution – a position rejected by the Government. Fonseka’s remarks now bring in a new dimension. It has lent credibility to claims by groups that troops indeed committed war crimes. After all, the charge is being made by none other than the man who led the troops.
In July 2009, just two months after the military defeat of the LTTE, Fonseka was given only two days by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to relinquish office as Commander of the Army and take over as Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). New legislation for this unified command of the armed forces headed by a CDS had been passed only weeks earlier. Until then, a CDS appointment had been made only under then prevailing Emergency Regulations.
That there was no love lost between Fonseka and Jayasuriya over personal issues was common knowledge. So much so, it is the current Commander of the Army Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake who declared this week that Fonseka should not “settle personal scores at the Army’s expense.” In doing so, the veteran soldier with a stint with Special Forces, made no exception of Fonseka though he was forced out of service at one time for reportedly being personally loyal to him. Lt. Gen. Senanayake was rightly more concerned about his institution and the men and women who served him and the country. Though not under the operational command of a Field Marshal, he was also conscious, that Fonseka held a higher appointment.
Fonseka told the September 1 news conference that Rajapaksa appointed Jayasuriya as Commander of the Army “to get what they wanted done.” He declared “one of those things was to drag me off and imprison me”, and added “crimes have indeed been committed in some areas.”
Why Fonseka was removed
What many Sri Lankans did not know, however, was another fact. Fonseka was forced to quit as Commander of the Army hurriedly in July 2009 only because former President Rajapaksa wanted to install Jagath Jayasuriya there. The Sunday Times can reveal today that the pace was hurried due to some unexpected developments that became cause for worry and concern for Rajapaksa and the defence establishment.
Under Fonseka’s orders, the Corps Ceylon Military Police (CCMP) had then taken into custody the Aide de Camp of Jayasuriya. He was brought down to Colombo from Vavuniya and was interrogated for days. The line of questioning had little to do with military operations but about the evenings he spent at Jayasuriya’s chalet. Questions had been asked about the type of video movies they reportedly watched together and where the Aide de Camp spent the nights. Rajapaksa was livid when he heard of these developments done on Fonseka’s orders. On top of that, he became furious when he learnt through credible channels that Fonseka made plans to get the Military Police to arrest Jayasuriya. Was it a move to thwart Jayasuriya’s appointment? So he thought. He ordered the release of the ADC and directed his then Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga to inform Fonseka, whom Rajapaksa once called the “best Army Commander in the world,” to step down within two days.
At his news conference, Fonseka conceded that he arrested a Lieutenant who was assigned to Jayasuriya and launched an investigation. “I got the impression that this investigation was one of the main reasons behind my removal,” he declared.
By then Rajapaksa had also learnt of another development. Fonseka was being felicitated by his alma mater Dharmasoka College in Ambalangoda. When the ceremonies were under way, Fonseka had ordered his personal security team to block the Galle Road to prevent traffic flow over a kilometre stretch past the school premises until the ceremonies ended. For four long hours, traffic had formed massive queues at both ends and were at a standstill. The wedding ceremony of a wealthy businessman in Galle was held without any food being served. The food van from a star class hotel in Colombo was caught in the traffic jam. Visitors to the event were asked to alight from their vehicles a long distance away from the venue and walk.
Fonseka has also been unhappy that it was Jayasuriya, upon becoming Commander of the Army, who signed two different Convening Orders for him to face two different Court Martials. One was for dabbling in politics and the other was over alleged irregularities in procurements. He was found guilty by both Courts. Fonseka denies charges of corruption or that he committed any irregularities. The first case where he was accused of engaging in politics led to his being cashiered from the Army. Thus, he left the Army as Mr Fonseka and emerged as a Field Marshal only under President Sirisena to win back all his past dues.
The cause for Fonseka’s latest outburst came after foreign media reported that lawsuits have been filed against Jayasuriya, then Ambassador to Brazil and five other countries in Latin America. The court action in Rio de Janeiro was when he had just ended a two year contract and was leaving for Colombo. One report said, “The suits against Jagath Jayasuriya are based on his role as a commander in the final phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009. They allege Jayasuriya oversaw military units that attacked hospitals and killed, disappeared and tortured thousands of people.
“Jayasuriya has diplomatic immunity in the countries where he is ambassador: Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Suriname. But the groups pursuing the suits hope they will compel regional governments to expel him.
“Carlos Castresana Fernandez, the lawyer coordinating the effort, told The Associated Press on Monday night that suits were filed Monday in Brazil and Colombia. Petitions also will be filed in Argentina, Chile and Peru in the coming days, he said, adding that authorities in Suriname refused to accept the suit.
“This is one genocide that has been forgotten, but this will force democratic countries to do something,” Fernandez said. “This is just the beginning of the fight…..”
These foreign media reports once published in the local media prompted Fonseka to hold the news conference at his own Regional Development Ministry. That action gave governmental weightage to the claims he was making since he is also a member of the Cabinet of Ministers. Moreover, he commanded troops during the final stages of the separatist war and that position gave him high credibility. So much so, after the military defeat of the LTTE, corporate bodies in Sri Lanka swamped him with requests to address meetings on his success so they may adopt the strategies and techniques in their own board rooms. The news conference came just after courtesy calls were paid on him by the new Commander of the Navy Vice Admiral Travis Chinniah and Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne.
Fonseka’s outburst drew a response from President Maithripala Sirisena. He declared at the SLFP’s 66th annual convention last Sunday that “I will never allow anyone including international elements to harass not only former Army Commander Lt. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya but any war hero.”
Fonseka hit back over these remarks at a meeting the next day with a small crowd at Kiribathgoda. He ignored a Court order not to hold the event and declared, “If instead of being on the side of the people and punishing those who carry out such actions, if you take the side of a person who claims to be a patriot just because he wears a uniform, that is not what the people expect from a political leadership. This is something the very leader of the country or political party must understand.”
The coalition partners – the SLFP and the UNP – have not made any formal response so far to Fonseka’s latest outburst. The only comment came from the Leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella who said it was his (Fonseka’s) personal opinion. Another irate UNP minister who differed did not wish to be identified. He declared “personal opinions cannot be voiced with news conferences from your ministerial office. If he (Kiriella) said ‘personal opinion’ was used when former Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe criticised the Hambantota Port deal with a Chinese company, there would have been no cause for him to resign. This will only add to accusations that we (the UNP) are insensitive and are belittling the armed forces. When they reached Alimankada (Elephant Pass) during operations in the North, we said they had gone to Pamankade in Colombo. Another was how they referred to LTTE held Thoppigala in the east, which had an LTTE concentration, as a desolate area with rocks when it was re-captured.”
Fonseka’s closing words to a journalist at the news conference were a question – “Heta rata gini ganee ney” – the country will be on fire tomorrow noh!
The first serving General in the Sri Lanka Army not only won the title of Field Marshal but had other successes on the political bargaining table. He also designed his new uniform, baton and other paraphernalia. Thereafter, he declared that he would now be a serving officer until death and would thus draw a higher salary compatible with his rank. The perks including commandos to guard him, a pay to play his role as Field Marshal occasionally and politician at most other times have all come as a launching pad to accuse officers who served under him for committing war crimes. In the military, senior officers described his comments with the usual military adage; “unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman.”
Fonseka, however, is unconcerned and continues his tirade. He called a member of the Buddhist clergy who criticised him as a “fool in robes.” In doing his latest war dance, he has won new friends. The latest is the Transitional Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), a body that seeks a separation of Sri Lanka and is led by a New York lawyer, who has praised Fonseka for his remarks.
It is only an investigation that could formally and conclusively establish Fonseka’s belated but undisclosed claims. The Government’s stony silence is deafening and does no good for those men in uniform who fought to defeat a deadly enemy. They are now made to look political pawns in the hands of a Field Marshal cum Minister cum politician. That role, without doubt, is also unique and the only one of its kind in the entire world. Others holding the title of Field Marshal are not politicians. That such situations do little or no good to the integrity of the armed forces is one thing. It is another when they are encouraged by politicians of all hues only to obtain votes at an election is another.
Local polls and SLFP
Fonseka’s tirade came in a week which saw increased political activity in many spheres. As revealed last week, amendments are being hurriedly drafted to make changes to laws governing Municipal Councils, Urban Councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas. Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya has told the Supreme Court which is examining the constitutionality of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution that some clauses are being further amended. President Sirisena chaired a meeting of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s Central Committee on Wednesday night to discuss the upcoming local government and provincial council elections.
He declared that all members of the party, irrespective of their divisions, could contest under the party name and symbol. The meeting came amidst moves to switch sides by five SLFP parliamentarians supporting Sirisena, including a Minister. A few others, however, have put on hold their decision until the end of the budget debate. Sirisena last Sunday also addressed the SLFP’s 66th anniversary rally in Campbell Park. The main thrust of his speech was how he avoided sanctions on Sri Lanka by the international community and saw through the withdrawal of the EU fishing ban and the restoration of the GSP plus. On the subject of restoring GSP, a team is in Sri Lanka reviewing whether the undertakings given by the Government have been fulfilled. Despite claims by organisers that 2,000 buses were used to draw crowds, the turnout fell short of the unprecedented crowds at Galle Face Green for the ‘Joint Opposition’ rally on May Day.
Deadline on constitutional reforms
Another significant development this week was the Wednesday (September 6) deadline for all political parties to submit their proposals on the planned constitutional changes. The proposals had to be submitted to the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly. Such proposals from political parties are based on the updated interim report which the Committee circulated on August 8.
The pro-Sirisena SLFP submitted an eight page document and urged the Steering Committee to publish its response as an annexure to the Committee’s upcoming report. The document in Sinhala has been signed by Nimal Siripala de Silva, Susil Premjayantha and Dilan Perera.
As exclusively revealed in these columns periodically, the pro-Sirisena SLFP has sought to retain the Executive Presidency in any constitutional changes to be made. Titled the “EXECUTIVE,” in the document, an English translation explains the reasons: “The opinion of the SLFP is that complete abolition of the Executive Presidency, that is present today is not wise. Considering various terrorist and extremist activities that happen in various countries in the world, the SLFP believes a President should be elected directly from the public mandate with a certain amount of powers to protect the unitary status of the country and to keep and to protect the stability of the country specially in a situation where a large volume of power is granted to the Provincial Councils.
“Thereby every ethnic group of the country without narrow ethnic, religious problems gets a political power by selecting a president and gets the opportunity to become a member of the presidential election process, and hence, it becomes a practical method for national reconciliation.
“The President who is elected, should be the chief of the Cabinet of Ministers, and the opportunity to hold the ministerial portfolios regarding national security, Tri forces and Police should be definitely guaranteed for him.
“We agree to the fact that (in the 10th Paragraph) of the draft, that not to dissolve Parliament during the first four and half years of the Parliament, except for a special situation. But it should be further discussed under which circumstances Parliament can be dissolved in between that time period. However, while implementing the concept that a government made of a majority of public representatives should govern the country, the constitution should be made ensuring opportunities for the public representatives to remove a government democratically.
“The SLFP proposes that the number of ministers should be restricted to 30 and the number of State and Deputy Ministers should be restricted to 30 by the Constitution and, ministries should be divided scientifically and those ministerial portfolios should be included to the Constitution along with the subject.
“The SLFP strongly believes the Prime Minister should be selected based on the Westminster method. Other proposals regarding the selection of the Prime Minister that do not suit, should be removed.”
The SLFP position over the Executive Presidency, described under the heading EXECUTIVE, has some important political connotations. If it is accepted, it will be Maithripala Sirisena who will contest for the second time the presidential elections in 2020. His main rival thus will be UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. The provisions also underscore the SLFP leadership’s disappointment over a key issue – the inability to dissolve Parliament and seek a fresh mandate. This is why the SLFP is seeking a further discussion on the current constitutional provision prohibiting dissolution of Parliament until a government had completed four and half years. Its plea that “it should be further discussed under which circumstances the Parliament can be dissolved in between that time period” reflects the current political mood. There is disenchantment among SLFP members over their relationship with the UNP and that has been made known to President Sirisena. However, he is now not armed constitutionally to take a decisive step in the form of a parliamentary election. More so at a time when the UNP’s fortunes are on a dip.
Some of the other highlights in the SLFP proposals:
CONSTITUTIONAL COUNCIL: The SLFP’s opinion is that a study should be conducted again regarding the composition of the Constitutional Council based on the way the Constitutional Council acted, the efficiency of the members and public opinion.
It should be reviewed how much of the expected function has been fulfilled from the Constitutional Council established under the current Constitution. Therefore, there should be re-think regarding the appointing process of the composition of the Constitutional Council.
PRINCIPLES FOR DEVOLUTION OF POWER: The SLFP is in agreement to the proposal to devolve powers to the local government institutions as proposed by the drafting committee.
However, it cannot be agreed to have Divisional Secretary offices based on ethnic composition as it could lead to communal disharmony and would be an obstacle to maintain ethnic and religious reconciliation.
The main unit to devolve powers should be the Province. There is agreement to implement the 13th Amendment on devolving powers. The SLFP is in agreement that the unit to devolve powers should be the province. There should be no entitlement to amalgamate two or more provinces and create a province. The SLFP proposes that any existing opportunity of such amalgamation mentioned in the Constitution and the provincial council laws should be removed. The proposal on creating ‘Jana Sabha’ units should be further discussed.
INTER PROVINCIAL CO-OPERATION: The concept of inter-provincial co-operation is accepted, but collective decisions and amalgamation of provinces should not take place.
PROTECTION AGAINST SEPARATION: It should be clearly stated about the unitary status and mention made that the country remains ‘undivided and cannot be divided.’ The Constitution should mention that it will be a serious offence to declare a part of the country as a separate state. The Constitution should also mention that extremist ideas based on community or religion are prohibited.
GOVERNOR: The SLFP is not in agreement with the proposal that the Governor should only perform ceremonial functions. The Governor, under the Constitution should be vested with powers as a representative of the President to act in instances when the Provincial Council is defunct, in the event of the collapse of law and order situation, in a situation where peaceful environment needs to be maintained or if there is an any attempt to break away from the Central Government. The power for the Governor to act immediately, to reject if any attempt is made by a Provincial Council or a Chief Minister to violate the unitary status of the country or declare a separate state or an autonomous region should be vested with him. The position that the constitutionality of certain Provincial Council resolutions should be decided upon by a Supreme Court appointed Constitutional Court is accepted.
NATIONAL SECURITY OR LAND NEEDED FOR SECURITY PURPOSES: The paragraph (17) relating to this, should be amended, as based on the advice of the Prime Minister or with or without his advice when the President is satisfied with it.
Paragraph (18) which said it should be based on the advice of the Prime Minister should be removed.
The Executive’s decisions taken regarding national security or lands for security purposes, should not be challenged in any courts, is the opinion of the SLFP.
= SECOND CHAMBER: There is an agreement in principle regarding the establishment of a second assembly. The process of selecting members should be democratic and demonstrate public consent. We agree with the concept that those members should be well known and honest among public and have showcased their professional talents.
The stance of the SLFP is that the Second Chamber should comprise 36 members who will be selected from Provincial Council representation and 19 members selected from Parliament representation. It is appropriate to appoint two members of the Second Chamber as members of the Cabinet of Ministers.
PUBLIC SECURITY: (i) should read as when enforcing an emergency, the President… (ii) In this paragraph, the word Prime Minister should be amended as President. However, in both of the above situations those decisions should not be subjected to a court review. As it is not practical to get Parliamentary approval to declare emergency law when the President is advised to declare it by the Governor of a province, our stance is that it is not necessary. (iii) We can agree to the facts in the lines (from 1 to 12) but for that the President should be given the power to enforce, with or without the advice of the Prime Minister. (iv) Such a declaration should not be subjected to Parliament approval or court review. Therefore the SLFP does not agree to that paragraph.
STRENGTHENING WOMEN’S RIGHTS: The SLFP strongly believes that a procedure should be prepared by reviewing the results of the Provincial Council elections and the background, to strengthen women’s rights in the Constitution and to give a higher representation for women in Parliament. In addition the SLFP believes a principal provision should be included in the Constitution to strengthen rights of women and children. The facts related to this procedure should be included in the Constitution after broad discussions.
It is clear from the document forwarded by the SLFP for constitutional changes, the party is seeking to reduce the role of a Prime Minister. This is by deleting new provisions that have been included.
The ‘Joint Opposition’ too has handed in its set of proposals. A new body “Eliya” under the leadership of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa vowed this week to campaign against the constitutional changes. All ‘JO’ leaders were present at the inaugural meeting in Boralesgamuwa on Wednesday.
The week’s political developments make clear that challenges for President Sirisena are on the rise. He has to resolve the uncertainty over local government and provincial council elections in the light of the ongoing amendments to laws. Those polls will sure be the first major test for his coalition government. This is whilst coping with the fallout from a bond scam and other mega deals where allegations of corruption are on the rise.