Thursday, February 11, 2010

SRI LANKA : Danger signal

B. Muralidhar Reddy - The single largest negative fallout of former Sri Lanka Army (SLA) chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s decision to join the just-concluded presidential race is the politicisation of the nation’s military like never before. A series of developments – including what has been dubbed the biggest purge in the higher echelons of the military and the detention of a number of former military officers and soldiers – after the defeat of Fonseka, in the early hours of January 27, bear ample testimony to the sad state of affairs. A section of the media has quoted an unnamed military official as saying that it was the Army’s biggest-ever purge after the 1962 shake-up following a coup attempt by volunteer officers against Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike.

Even if one were to concede the opposition’s charge that President Mahinda Rajapaksa has launched a witch-hunt after registering a landslide victory, those who fuelled the presidential ambitions of the retired general cannot escape responsibility for the situation. The opposition has launched a high-pitched campaign against the government, obviously with an eye on the parliamentary elections scheduled for April, and it has done little by way of counselling Fonseka to exercise restraint.

That there was no love lost between the President and the general even before he became the rallying point for Rajapaksa’s political foes is well known. Fonseka himself went public with his much-publicised letter citing 16 reasons that prompted him to part company with the Sri Lanka Army after nearly four decades of association with it.

In his November 13 resignation letter, Fonseka claimed that on Rajapaksa’s request the Indian armed forces were put on high alert in mid-October on suspicion that elements loyal to him were plotting a coup against the President. According to him, the Sri Lankan establishment got in touch with New Delhi through the Indian High Commission in Colombo, conveyed its apprehensions, and sought help.

He complained in the letter that the government’s action tarnished the image of the Army. “… it was noted that the same Army which gained victory for the nation was suspected of staging a coup and thereby alerting the Government of India once again on the 15th of October, 2009, unnecessarily placing the Indian troops on high alert. This action did tarnish the image and reputation gained by the SLA… This suspicion would have been due to the loyalty of the SLA towards me as its past Commander who led the Army to the historic victory.” New Delhi denied the claim in a matter-of-fact fashion.

He alleged that various agencies misled Rajapaksa about “a possible coup immediately after the victory over the LTTE which obviously led to a change of command in spite of my request to be in command until the Army celebrated its 60th anniversary. This fear psychosis of a coup is well known among the defence circle.”

Hotel drama

It is against this backdrop that the current developments involving some military men and close associates of Fonseka have to be viewed and judged. The drama began within hours after the counting of ballot commenced on the night of January 26, and Fonseka, along with his security contingent and a number of prominent opposition leaders, moved to a five-star hotel in the heart of Colombo citing security reasons. Till date there is no cohesive explanation from either Fonseka or the opposition leaders as to what prompted them to hire the whole floor of a five-star hotel. Their account that it was meant to pre-empt an operation by the government to round up the general and all the other leaders either in their offices or in their homes only leads to more questions.

If the intelligence agencies were keeping vigil outside their offices and homes, how did the opposition leaders assume that they could move into a five-star hotel without being noticed? Their justification was that they were convinced of victory at the polls and they believed that their collective presence in the hotel would upset the plans of the Rajapaksa regime to stage a political coup and prevent a smooth transfer of power.

But this makes little sense. No political leader with a basic understanding of the ground realities could be expected to move to the luxurious environs of a hotel leaving the counting centres entirely to the charge of second- and third-rung leaders in an election that was considered a do-or-die battle for Rajapaksa.

Little wonder, then, that once the election results started trickling in, the opposition alleged that while the voting was a peaceful affair, there was massive fraud during counting. Fonseka charged that by a single click of the mouse on a computer, 1.4 million votes he had polled were transferred into the kitty of the President. The charge has been categorically denied by those connected closely with the counting process, including Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayaka.

This correspondent, who was one of the few journalists who met Fonseka in the wee hours of January 27, heard no such complaint from the general in the course of a 10-minute informal conversation. “So far, only the results of postal ballots from a few districts have been declared. They are no more than 40,000. Just wait and watch for the results. I am winning,” were his parting words.

Within hours after it became clear that Rajapaksa was headed for a thumping victory, hordes of reporters from the electronic and print media descended on the hotel premises for an audience with the general. Surfacing only after keeping them waiting for hours, he insisted that he was the choice of the people of Sri Lanka and that Rajapaksa had “stolen the verdict”.

The military surrounded the hotel with hundreds of heavily armed troops and police and checked everyone entering or leaving it. But there was no restriction on the entry or exit of people, and throughout the day the hotel had international and national media personnel seeking an audience with the general.

Rajapaksa, in his first informal interaction with the media outside the Election Commission office on the evening of January 27, dismissed the opposition’s claims as ridiculous. “What is the problem of the general? If he has any issues relating to his security, he can always contact me directly. After all, he was my former Army chief,” he told Frontline.

The general soon moved to a “safe house” in one of the posh localities of the national capital. For the next 48 hours, the house became the hub of opposition parleys.

Addressing a news conference there, Fonseka claimed that the Department of Immigration and Emigration had been instructed to prevent him, his son-in-law Danuna Tillekeratne and several other people from leaving the country. He argued that there was a move to assassinate him and that the security accorded to him had been reduced from 90 soldiers to one police inspector and three constables. He said there were no democratic rights in the country: “You can’t go to the police or the courts. You can be arrested at any time. There’s no media freedom.”

Fonseka warned that if he were killed the government’s “secrets would be exposed through an affidavit prepared by him, which would be made public on his death. He added that Brigadier Duminda Keppetiwalana had been arrested on charges that he had a role in the murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga in January last year. Keppetiwalana, the current Commandant of the Army Training School in Ampara, served as Fonseka’s military assistant when he was Army chief. Wickrematunga, a critic of the Rajapaksa government, was killed in broad daylight while he was driving to work.

Major-General Daya Ratnayake, who served as Commissioner General (Rehabilitation) under the Ministry of Defence, has been appointed the new Chief of Staff, the second most important position in the military after the post of the Army commander. He replaces Major-General Mendaka Samarasinghe, who has been shunted to an administrative post as Director General (Joint Plans).

On January 30, the Director General of the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS), Lakshman Hulugalle, came up with a startling disclosure. He said Fonseka and some Army deserters with him had hatched a conspiracy to stage a military coup and assassinate Rajapaksa and his brothers, including Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa and Senior Presidential Adviser Basil Rajapaksa.

Simultaneously, a massive raid was conducted on the election office of Fonseka and over 15 former military officers and the general’s aides were taken into custody in connection with the alleged conspiracy. Moreover, a major reshuffle was carried out in the top ranks of the military and all those suspected of being close to Fonseka were transferred.

As of February 4, at least 37 people were held in Sri Lanka in connection with the alleged plot to assassinate the President. The state-owned English newspaper Daily News reported that most of those detained under emergency regulations were military officers.

A day earlier, 14 officers, including five holding the rank of major-general, were sent on compulsory retirement on the grounds that they had dabbled in politics.

Daily News said the police were also holding two Tamils, who had allegedly supplied the arms found in a central Colombo temple. An opposition politician, Jayalath Jayawardena, told the BBC the charge was a fabricated one and that the weapons were planted by government supporters to harass the chief monk of the temple who had supported Fonseka. Reports say the monk is among those arrested.

The first official acknowledgement of the military purge came in the form of a brief statement from the MCNS. It said: “Officers who served as political party members during the presidential election, breaching military discipline will be sent on mandatory retirement.”

The MCNS claimed that there was confirmation that several military officers had been involved in the activities of political parties during and after the election. “Retaining the officers who had interfered in political activities during their service period will have a direct impact on the country’s security,” it said. A crackdown on the non-government media is continuing. On January 30, the police detained Chandana Sirimalwatta, editor of the Sinhalese newspaper Lanka Irida, reportedly to investigate his involvement in the “coup” attempt. The offices and printing press of the newspaper were sealed.

Some prominent journalists considered to be pro-Fonseka were also at the receiving end. The BBC reported: “It is now 10 days since a writer with an outspoken website, Prageeth Eknaligoda, disappeared, and there has been no indication of his whereabouts.”

Amid international criticism, the government on February 2 reversed its decision to expel Karin Wenger, the South Asia correspondent for the Swiss radio DRS. Karin Wenger said the decision to expel her was probably because she had been asking “inconvenient questions”.

All these developments do not augur well for the nearly 21 million people of the island nation. A 2006 study by the Mumbai-based think tank Strategic Foresight Group (SFG) reiterated that Sri Lanka was one of the most militarised societies in South Asia.

The study, titled the “Cost of conflict in Sri Lanka”, said the island nation had 8,000 military personnel per one million people. Even Pakistan – of which it is said that while every country has an army, the Pakistan Army has a country – has only half that number. The corresponding figures for other South Asian countries are: Nepal 2,700; India 1,300; and Bangladesh 1,000.

In terms of military expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) too, Sri Lanka spent the most – 4.1 per cent. For Pakistan it is 3.5 per cent, India and Nepal 2.5 per cent, and Bangladesh 1.5 per cent.

The SFG researchers say: “The possibility of it [Sri Lanka] becoming less militarised lies only after 2011, conditional on the resolution of internal conflict before 2006-07.” Hopefully, both the parties in power and those in the opposition will realise the dangers of needlessly dragging the military into politics.

© Frontline

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