Mixed reactions to arrest of General Fonseka

An opposition in disarray gets a hot slogan for general election

  • The government says that it has evidence in its possession that a group of retired and serving army officers including General Fonseka had conspired to assassinate President Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and several others
  • The alleged conspirators had prepared lists of heads of government institutions to be arrested and another group of officials to be sacked
  • General Fonseka’s wife, Anoma Fonseka filed a fundamental rights petition in supreme court challenging the arrest of her husband
  • Gen. Fonseka had told BBC that he was prepared to testify before an international inquiry on alleged war crimes committed in Sri Lanka
The arrest of General Fonseka, the runner up in the recent presidential election, by Military Police last Monday night has become a highly sensational talking point, not only in political circles here, but also among the international community.

Media saw it coming
Certain sections of mass media had, in fact, well in advance, carried reports pointing to the possibility of General Fonseka being arrested at any moment, in view of certain statements he had allegedly made in the run up to the presidential election, and certain treasonable acts which had reportedly been committed with his involvement after the election.

General Fonseka speaks to BBC
Meanwhile, General Fonseka, in a statement made to the BBC, had said that he was prepared to testify in a trial conducted by an international court of law on alleged war crimes committed in Sri Lanka. He had said, “I am not going to save anyone who had committed war crimes. I am definitely going to reveal what I know, what I was told and what I had heard. Anyone, who has committed war crimes, should definitely be brought in to courts. Those who reveal the truth are not traitors.”

A statement General Fonseka had made to the English national weekly, The Sunday Leader, earlier too had triggered a furore in the country. He had told this newspaper that a group of LTTE leaders who had come forward to surrender, carrying white flags were summarily executed by the troops on the orders issued by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. When a controversy was raging in the country, over this statement, General Fonseka had said that he made that statement on the basis of information provided to him by a journalist.

The international human rights organisations and certain Western countries that were waiting for a chance to put Sri Lankan government in the dock, found in this statement a new weapon to use against Sri Lanka. Following this statement, Sri Lanka Army was deprived of the opportunities for military training programmes that were being offered to it as a matter of course, army sources said.

The war crime charges against Sri Lanka have now come up before the UNHRC as well. Human Rights and Disaster Management Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe and Attorney General, Mohan Peiris met UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay in Geneva last week to file answers to these charges. Meanwhile, the EU has decided to suspend granting the GSP+ duty concession to Sri Lanka.

Who assaulted whom?
The Military Police had called at the Colombo Rajakeeya Mawatha office of General Fonseka about 9 p.m. on Monday to arrest him. At that time, he was at a discussion with certain opposition party leaders including SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem, JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe, JVP MP Sunil Handunnetti and People’s Democratic Party leader Mano Ganesan.

Military Police personnel, who entered the scene, had moved to arrest General Fonseka after reading out the charge sheet against him. Fonseka, who had resisted arrest, had protested that the Military Police had no authority to arrest him as he is now a civilian and if there was a need to arrest him it should be done by Police. General Fonseka had assaulted the Military Police personnel who went to arrest him. But the Military Police had not manhandled him. They had only carried him away. But Mano Ganesan told the media that General Fonseka was dragged away by his limbs.

However, Military spokesman Major General Prasad Samarasinghe rejected the charges that General Fonseka was assaulted while being taken into custody by the Military Police. He also said that the General is now being held in the Senior Officers quarters at the Navy headquarters and all necessary amenities have been placed at his disposal.

General Fonseka’s wife Anoma Fonseka filed a fundamental rights petition in Supreme Court challenging the arrest of her husband by Military Police and meanwhile, the joint opposition alliance led by the UNP and JVP activists staged a protest opposite the Aluthkade courts complex. However, a clash ensued when a group of government supporters staged a counter-protest against General Fonseka at the same place. Later, Police dispersed the crowds using tear gas and water jets on the combatants.

Protests against the arrest of General Fonseka
The JVP staged protests in Kalutara, Galle, Matara, and Ampara on the same day against the arrest of General Fonseka. Police had to tear-gas to disperse the crowds at all these places except at Kalutara.
The UNP and JVP members at several PC and Pradeshiya Sabha meetings had registered their protest against the arrest of General Fonseka by staging walk- outs after making statements.
The United States had expressed its concern over the arrest of General Fonseka. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had spoken to President Mahinda Rajapaksa over the phone and asked him to provide adequate security to General Fonseka.

Meanwhile, the opposition, led by the UNP and the JVP, had on Tuesday told a group of foreign diplomats in Colombo that the government had arrested General Fonseka in a bid to prevent him from filing an election petition against President Rajapaksa. India’s national English daily The Hindu, The Caliph Times of the Mid-East and Wall Street Journal of the United States carried editorials criticising the Sri Lankan government for arresting General Fonseka.

How the coup attempt foiled
However, the government says that it has evidence in its possession that a group of retired and serving army officers including General Fonseka had conspired to assassinate President Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and several others and also arrest another large number of VIPs in a coup bid to overthrow the government.

The alleged conspirators had prepared lists of heads of government institutions to be arrested and another group of officials to be sacked. Government sources also say that the alleged conspirators had hatched a separate plot on the election day night after having learnt that General Fonseka was heavily losing, to get a senior elections department official to announce the General as the winner. This was to be done after getting the Elections Commissioner arrested by an army detail for holding him prisoner at Waters Edge hotel to make way for computerising the manipulated elections results.

The group of conspirators, allegedly led by General Fonseka, had reserved 70 suites in Hotel Cinnamon Lakeside as part of their preparations to set up an Operations Room and a Secretariat for the time being. According to government sources, there is evidence that they had also put in place an arrangement to transmit the manipulated election results to foreign media through a group of foreign journalists and they had secured satellite telephone facility too for the purpose.

The leaders of political parties in the joint opposition alliance had not been privy to the coup attempt. The General had shared the secret only with a handful of intimates. However, one of these intimates had spilled the beans to a government minister who had immediately apprised the higher authorities of the impending disaster. The troops surrounded the Hotel Cinnamon Lakeside later in the same night and thus, the conspiracy was nipped in the bud.

However, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe told a media briefing in Colombo on Thursday that the arrest of General Fonseka was illegal. Ranil Wickremesinghe had pointed out that General Fonseka retired from the army in June last year, and he cannot be arrested under the provisions of the Army Act as the relevant six-month period since his retirement has now expired. Government says that disciplinary action can be taken against an army officer within six months from the date of his retirement under the provisions of the Army Act.

The joint opposition alliance led by the UNP and the JVP had found themselves in virtual political wilderness following the resounding victory of President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the January 26 presidential poll. They were clueless as to how they could recover from the ignominious defeat they had suffered. Meanwhile, sharp differences over how they should contest the upcoming general election had surfaced. The UNP leaders, including Ranil Wickremesinghe and Karu Jayasuriya held the view that the party should go it alone at the general election under the `elephant’ symbol. They shared the view that if the party contested the presidential election under the `elephant’ symbol, they could have mustered more votes than those polled by General Fonseka.

However, the leaders of the JVP, SLFP (M), and DPF had all along been keen on contesting under the `swan’ symbol as they did at the presidential election. General Fonseka not only subscribed to this viewpoint, but also offered to shoulder the leadership of the Joint Opposition Alliance. The UNP refused to contest under the leadership of General Fonseka. Therefore, General Fonseka had reached an agreement with the JVP and the SLFP (M) to contest under the common `swan’ symbol. Later they invited the SLMC and the DPF also to throw in their lot with their new alliance.
It was this issue that the party leaders had been discussing at the time the Military Police entered the scene to arrest the General.

Opposition gets an elixir
However, the proposal to contest the general election under the `swan’ symbol, has gained more acceptance after the arrest of General Fonseka. In the face of emerging opposition unity following the arrest of General Fonseka, even UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe might veer to the idea of contesting under the `swan’ symbol, say political analysts.
The arrest of General Fonseka has provided an undreamt of elixir to an opposition which had come as a godsend when they were in disarray and in a state of utter confusion and were unable to think of a new slogan that they could easily sell to the people.

Applause for decision to contest under `elephant’ symbol
A large majority of UNP members have hailed the decision taken by the party’s Working Committee last Thursday to contest the upcoming April 8 general election as the United National Front under the `elephant’ symbol. They feel that this decision will go a long way in securing the future of the party as well as the political future of the party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The senior UNP members point out that most party members are used to vote for the `elephant’ symbol and this accounts for General Fonseka as the common opposition candidate contesting under the `swan’ symbol receiving a poor 4.1 million votes, down from the 4.7 million polled by Ranil Wickremesinghe contesting under the `elephant’ symbol at the 2005 presidential election.

If General Fonseka won the January 26 election, he would certainly have secured the leadership of the UNP, pushing Ranil Wickremesinghe down to a lower position in the party hierarchy. The conduct of General Fonseka after the election serves as a pointer to this possibility.

General Fonseka claims opposition leadership
UNP leader Wickremesinghe participated in a discussion at the Queen’s Street residence of General Fonseka on February 6, Saturday- the day prior to his departure for India. General Fonseka, Karu Jayasuriya, Tissa Attanayake, Mano Ganesan and Rauff Hakeem were the other participants. General Fonseka at this meeting invited the UNP to contest under the `swan’ symbol as part of the Joint Opposition Alliance at the coming general election as well. His argument was that the UNP, after a series of electoral defeats had attained some stability by contesting under the `swan’ symbol of the Joint Opposition Alliance. Ranil, who disagreed, said that the party had taken a majority decision to go it alone under the `elephant’ symbol at the coming election. He explained that the party’s vote base is irrevocably linked to the party symbol. He also pointed out that the JVP too would not agree to contest under the `swan’ symbol.

General Fonseka suggested that the differences between the constituent parties of the alliance could be resolved if they agreed to contest together under the swan’ symbol and under his leadership. The meeting ended without taking any hard decision.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, Rauff Hakeem, and Anura Kumara Dissanayake attended another meeting held with a view to inviting the JVP to join a UNF-led alliance. Ranil told the JVP that they were welcome to contest under the `elephant’ symbol. Anura Kumara Dissanayake said that the former UNP MPs are not willing to contest on the same list with the JVP candidates as they are afraid that the JVP candidates would be a threat to their chances of winning a seat. “The UNP candidates fear that three JVP candidates would be fielded on each district list of the opposition alliance. We would be satisfied with fielding one candidate on each district list. What is more important at this juncture is not winning the maximum possible seats, but making a concerted effort to safeguard democracy,” said Anura Kumara Dissanayake.

Meanwhile, General Fonseka evinced a keen interest in forming a joint opposition alliance even without the UNP to contest the general election under the `swan’ symbol. He invited the leaders of all opposition political parties to join his alliance. He also invited P. Digamparam, a trade union leader in the estate sector, who once had been a member of the CWC, and now a UNP activist, to join the alliance to contest the upcoming general election under the `swan’ symbol. Digamparam had replied that he proposed to contest only under the `elephant’ symbol of the UNP. The General had made a similar overture to S. Sathasivam, another trade union leader in the estate sector, who too had joined the UNP. Sathasivam, in his reply had explained that as a person, who had learnt bitter lessons in politics, he had decided to contest only under the `elephant’ symbol. Later General Fonseka had invited a UNP leader in Gampaha and another UNP leader in Badulla to join the alliance he had planned to form. These two leaders had later informed the party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe about the overture made by General Fonseka.

Attempts being made by General Fonseka to woo the UNPers over to his alliance angered Ranil who worked hard for the victory of General Fonseka at the presidential election after sacrificing his own candidacy for his sake.

Ranil seeks Mangala’s mediation to resolve crisis
A highly concerned Ranil Wickremesinghe apprised Mangala Samaraweera who was abroad at the time of the new development and requested him to return home soon to resolve the issue. Mangala, who rushed back home, first called on Ranil and later visited the General to work out a compromise. Mangala suggested that General Fonseka accept the office of Deputy Leader of the UNF and contest under the `elephant’ symbol, conceding the premiership to Ranil Wickremesinghe in the event of the UNF winning the general election. However, General Fonseka flatly turned down this suggestion. He took up the position that he increased the UNP vote base up to 4.1 million at the presidential election from the meager 2.5 million the party recorded at the PC elections and invited the UNP to contest in alliance with him under the `swan’ symbol. He invited Mangala also to join his alliance adding that the JVP had already agreed to throw in their lot with him. However, Mangala Samaraweera made no response to this invitation.

On Monday evening, General Fonseka held a discussion with SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem, JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe and Democratic People’s Front leader Mano Ganeshan at his Rajakeeya Mawatha office. They were having a lengthy discussion when the Military Police stormed in to arrest the General, bringing the proceedings to an abrupt end.

The UNP Working Committee met at the Sirikotha party headquarters last Thursday with party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in the chair. The proposal adopted at the recent meeting of electorate level organisers calling on the party to contest the upcoming general election under the `elephant’ symbol was soon presented and it received the unanimous approval which was greeted with several rounds of applause. The Working Committee also decided to continue to be part of the Joint Opposition Front and invite the other constituents to contest under the `elephant’ symbol. Political analysts consider the UNP’s return to the `elephant’ symbol as a sign of the consolidation of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership in the party.

The JVP had presented a set of proposals to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe early on Thursday before the commencement of the Working Committee proceedings. The proposals are based on the following decisions that had been taken by the JVP.

*The JVP accepts Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Ministerial candidate of the opposition at the upcoming election,
* Two candidates each from the JVP should be accommodated on Colombo, Gampaha and Kurunegala district lists, one candidate each on all other district lists.
* All opposition parties should contest the general election under the banner of a common alliance and a symbol other than the `elephant’ symbol. However, it is not known whether the UNP leader had presented the JVP proposals at the Working Committee for the consideration of the membership.
JVP takes initiative to form a new combine
Meanwhile, it is learnt that the JVP is holding talks with a number of opposition political parties to form a new political alliance with the main objective of securing the release of General Fonseka. The party has so far held discussions with Mangala Samaraweera, Rauff Hakeem, Mano Ganeshan, Siritunga Jayasuriya, Dr. Wickramabahu Karunaratne and several anti-Ranil UNP MPs.