Feast of a President

On Feb. 3 2010, I wrote here about how Sri Lanka stepped into post-war peace over one of the most violent presidential elections ever recorded. However, I never thought post-war peace and new rule of law would grow up to be strong enough to make the united opposition presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka end up in jail. Sarath Fonseka, the four-star general who survived two suicide bomb attacks from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, apparently made clear political mistakes during the presidential election. First, he stressed the importance of political reconciliation among former enemies in the war. Second, he openly said that he will testify in the International Court of Justice that no military officer in the Sri Lankan army gave orders to any soldier to shoot rebels surrendering with white flags if that had ever happened, as foreign media reported. He affirmed that if such a thing had happened, it must have been due to some non-military authority giving orders to do so. While trying to make the point that Sri Lankan civilization is built on moral values of forgiveness, compassion, and loving, kindness, he gave a clear boost to Rajapakse’s campaign, based on patriotism and euphoria of a military victory over Tamil Tigers.

Sarath Fonseka lost the presidential election, and Mahinda Rajapakse started his way of enjoying the victory. On Feb. 8 2010, a battalion of army personnel was sent to arrest Sarath Fonseka. The commanding officer of this battalion had apparent conflict of interest because he had been an officer punished by General Fonseka for wrongdoing. Eyewitnesses reported that the scene of the arrest was a very bitter one, where the once-decorated army commander had been dragged along the floor by the neck. Mahinda Rajapakse, as the commander-in-chief of the three forces, appointed a panel of military judges to hear two court martial cases. Apparent irregularities in this process were challenged several times, and the composition of judges had to be changed several times. General Fonseka, who was suffering from severe internal injuries due to the suicide bomb attacks on him, was kept in a cell without adequate ventilation. Doctors had made it mandatory for him to breathe fresh air and exercise regularly. Somehow his personal doctor was given the opportunity to see him, and his health situation was brought under control. This courageous man won a parliamentary seat from Colombo district while in custody. Though several breath-taking political maneuvers kept him from attending the parliamentary sessions, the voice of the united opposition won his fundamental rights as a people’s representative. Though I do not endorse economic policies of the party who gave political leadership to General Fonseka, I respect his battle to win respect for fundamental human rights, which he believed to be the basis to build a peaceful society free from frequent armed uprisings.

The military court found a window of opportunity on Aug. 13 2010, when Sarath Fonseka’s defense lawyers were on vacation. The court assembled and convicted General Fonseka for engaging in politics while in uniform. Witnesses included a government minister who had recently crossed over to the ruling side. President Mahinda Rajapakse, as the commander-in-chief wasted no time to sign the judgment. Retired General Sarath Fonseka was stripped of all medals of honor, military ranks, and faced a dishonorable discharge of duties. State media was quick to harp on the great victory for President Rajapakse through a fair process of judiciary. However, state media did not question why one of the president’s sons, a Navy officer, was not given the same punishment for getting on the political stage to support his father’s campaign while in uniform. Pardon my ignorance of law applicable to the first family.

In the meantime, a second court martial gave its verdict that Sarath Fonseka is guilty of financial misconduct because he had authorized to purchase several items from a company in which his son-in-law had some interest. Again, President Rajapakse wasted no time to sign the sentence that sends this decorated army commander for rigorous imprisonment for 30 months in the notorious Walikada prison. Though the prime-minister of the country made a statement in the parliament that effectively nullified this allegation, some tragic turn of rule of law took the last privilege Sarath Fonseka had—the status as a member in the parliament—and made him a convicted criminal with compulsory rigorous laborious duties in prison premises.

Civilized world, I wrote this article because I knew you would get to hear this story from various other sources and jump into generalized conclusions about Sri Lankans. One might even say Sri Lankans must be barbarians to send a man who is suffering from severe internal injuries due to two suicide bomb attacks while in duty to defend a country to rigorous imprisonment. Please note that the majority Sri Lankans do not belong to that category. Even after a bitter war with LTTE, most of them supported Sarath Fonseka’s reconciliation agenda. However, here we are, doomed in a vicious feast of a president. The world at large can play their role to do justice to this victimized majority. Please do your part in the most peaceful and democratic way you can think of contributing. We do not need too many Aung Saan Suu Kyi type tragedies, do we?


Thrishantha Nanayakkara was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study from 2008-2009, co-sponsored by the Harvard Committee on Human Rights. He is on the faculty of King’s College, London.