General Sarath Fonseka

Question : Was General Fonseka’s arrest expected?

Col R Hariharan : Actually the government had taken a series of actions to build up a case against him ever since he announced his intention to contest the presidential poll. The irritation brewing up within the ruling coalition against him turned into hostility after his poll decision. First there were media attempts to blacken his reputation in military procurements made during his tenure as army commander. Then during the run up to the election stories of sleaze were expanded and attacks became personal. After the election results were out, security forces and police were deployed around the hotel where the General was staying ostensibly to search for deserters carrying arms holed up there.

They were allegedly plotting a coup to overthrow President Rajapaksa. There was also a talk of a conspiracy to assassinate the President. His office was raided and his aides arrested. In all three dozen people, mostly retired servicemen, who were helping him have been arrested. His secretary was hounded and 15 army officers were given walking papers for supporting him.

So a strong case of conspiracy to overthrow the government and assassinate the President was in the making. Therefore arrest of Fonseka was not unexpected. But the serious allegations against him and the timing of the arrest, after the parliamentary poll has been scheduled on April 8, does come as a surprise as the action now assumes a political context.

Question : What could be the “real” reason behind his arrest?

Col R Hariharan : While I am not privy to any official information, I think basically the President’s camp probably sees him as a serious political threat – one who could damage the hard won reputation for defeating the LTTE with allegations of war crimes and human rights violations in the conduct of war. This issue has gathered more mass internationally and the government has become extremely sensitive to it. So arresting him would put a clamp on him during the parliamentary poll. And if allegations of conspiracy and plot against the President are proved it would serve the purpose even better.

General’s challenge to the government to arrest him a day earlier probably triggered the process. Having interrogated the detainees, apparently the government has built up enough evidence to back its allegations. So when the General is arraigned before the court when the case comes up there would be enough material to keep him out of circulation. And trying him under Army Act on a very serious charge would make it difficult for him to secure bail.

Question : What do you think of the allegations of conspiracy to overthrow the government and plotting to kill the President?

Col R Hariharan : The serious allegations would warrant severe punishment under the Army Act. The government spokesman has said the General would be tried by a Court Martial. Court Martial proceedings would be faster than civilian courts.

General Fonseka, who had built his reputation as a professional soldier, conspiring to overthrow the government and kill the President sounds incredible. Presumably that is why the military spokesman while speaking about the General’s arrest had talked of charging him for “military offences.” In any case the government will have to present a water tight case against him and carry it out in an open manner. So the government will have to present a water tight case against him and carry out the trial in an open manner.

It is doubtful whether the government would do this. As a popular personality will be on trial, if it is carried out openly it would carry more credibility. Indian army had been doing this to ensure transparency. Media access has been provided to the proceedings now underway against Lt General Avadesh Prakash, one of the seven PSOs of the Indian army chief.

General Fonseka by emerging as a challenger to the President’s re-election for a second term has gained global attention. The U.S. and the European Union which had levelled allegations of human rights violations would be watching the proceedings of the court martial closely. The U.S. State Department spokesman commenting on the arrest has emphasised the need for the government to heal the split within Sri Lankan society, and not to exacerbate it. Already UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has appealed to all parties in Sri Lanka and their supporters to show restraint and refrain from violence after the reported arrest of Fonseka.

We can also expect the government to gather evidence on allegations of corruption against the General. His son-in-law is allegedly involved in this deal.

Question : What will be the impact of the arrest of General Fonseka on the army?

Col R Hariharan : Already loyalty of some of the army personnel had come under cloud over the issue of support to General Fonseka. The sacking of 15 officers including five Generals and two brigadiers carried out earlier would have already created a sense of fear among military personnel. The General’s arrest would further increase it. So they would be wary of committing any action that could be construed as anti-government.

Increase in the feeling of insecurity within the armed forces could be an unhappy fall out of the arrest. It could affect the homogeneity of army.

What could be the political impact of the arrest? What happens to the General’s image as a political personality after the arrest?

Politically the arrest substantiates opposition’s allegations of witch hunting by the government. General Fonseka’s fortunes were down after his electoral defeat and it was doubtful whether he could have contributed to the sustenance of the JVP-UNP marriage of convenience till the parliamentary elections.

However, after his arrest once again he becomes a focal point for opposition parties to come together during the parliamentary elections. From this point of view, by arresting Fonseka the government have provided some common ground for the opposition to come together against the President. But parliamentary polls are qualitatively and quantitatively different from electing the president as many local and personality factors govern the support of people.