10 February 2016

The Sarath Fonseka of that other time

"On Fonseka’s arrest, sedition charges and the politics of (in)sanity" is the title of an article written for the Daily Mirror, published on February 11, 2010.  This was immediately following his arrest.  The article focused on the chain of events, the political motivation, the prerogatives of justice, the intrusion of reality into Fonseka's daydream and so on.  Today as he is being illegally hustled into Parliament and even illegally he finds his true political maximum, it is interesting to go back to that time.

On the 27th of February 1992 some policemen in plainclothes stormed a temple in Kaududuwa. The time was around 1 pm.  These officers, brandishing pistols, broke into a room where some 14 people, mostly undergraduates and young graduates were having a discussion.  After berating the group with foul language and slapping and kicking a couple of them, the officer, without any explanation, tied them up and bundled them into a white van. Two white vans, actually. 

They were taken to the Wadduwa Police Station, questioned, beaten regularly for 4 days and subsequently re-located to three separate facilities.  They were released three weeks later.  The group filed a fundamental rights case in the Supreme Court against the Attorney General. The Attorney General, in turn, charged them in the Panadura Court with sedition, for conspiring to overthrow the Government through means other than those enshrined in the constitution.  The purpose was to strike a deal of the following kind: ‘you withdraw your case and I will withdraw mine’.  They did nothing of the kind. Both cases were heard and in both instances the Attorney General lost. 

In the first instances, issues of illegal detention and torture were cited; it was considered a landmark determination by the Supreme Court and the case is cited many times in Justice A.R.B. Amarasinghe’s book on fundamental rights in Sri Lanka.  In the other case, i.e. the one heard in Panadura, what was furnished by way of evidence was laughable.  ‘Evidence’ included some Marxist literature, a black shirt and a biography of Adolf Hitler. 

Almost eighteen years later, a man called Sarath Fonseka is arrested and high ranking officials claim that there was evidence to the effect that he was conspiring not just to overthrow the Government but assassination as well.  One hopes that sanity will be employed at every turn and that due process will ensure that reason prevails over passion. 

One thing has to be kept in mind: if 14 people discussing a range of social issues including environmental degradation, sustainable development and human rights warranted arrest, calling on foreign powers intent on destabilizing Sri Lanka to ‘interfere’ in domestic issues and more seriously, the threat to ‘disclose’ what transpired in the last days of the war, then there is a case for concern.  The latter refers, let us be brutally frank, to allegations of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.  We don’t know what other evidence the authorities possess in relation to possible wrongdoing, but the above certainly constitutes reason for concern.

Now Fonseka is not some idealistic undergraduate.  He was the country’s Army Commander and a presidential candidate who secured 40% of the total vote cast.  His political fortunes have naturally dipped having lost; he is now just a (former) candidate without a party who is bad news for key players in the coalition that backed him during the campaign.  His political value could be said to have been 4 million people on January 26, 2010, but no one with any sense of the realpolitik would make that claim today.  He is ‘political capital’ to the JVP rump.  An up and about Fonseka is worth zilch to Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP. Indeed given his loose-mouthed ways, Fonseka in the midst of an opposition campaign, whether as an elephant or a swan or any other creature, would be a huge handicap.  This is perhaps why Ranil Wickremesinghe didn’t issue a directive to his party organizers to bring supporters to the Hyde Park rally last week.  Fonseka behind bars gives the opposition a slogan and one hopes that Fonseka realizes sooner rather than later that not only are there no permanent friends and enemies in politics, it takes years of experience to distinguish who is friend and who foe at a given moment. 

Forget all this. The anxieties of politicians and political parties are not my concern.  What is most important in this drama is the fact that Fonseka was the Army Commander. He claims he knew what was happening on the ground at all times.  He has demonstrated that he is happy to twist fact and lie in order to exact revenge from those he believes wronged him.  Whatever he says, regardless of truth-value, has greater indictment-value than something uttered by Sunanda Deshapriya or Channel 4.   Based on this fact alone, foreign governments can arrest and try anyone who served in the Army or was in someway associated with the decision-making process, from the President downwards in the commanding structure, even though Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the Treaty of Rome. Why, even Private Sirisoma would not have the out of pleading that he was merely carrying out the orders of a superior for this is not relevant when it comes to crimes against humanity ( as clearly established in the Nuremberg trials after World War II; people were tried, sentenced to death and duly executed).

The Government has reasons to worry about Fonseka, but that’s the Government’s business.  Fonseka will do whatever Fonseka wants. He can think he is doing it in the national interest, that’s his right.  The law has to determine whether his statements and actions constitute reason for concern of a kind that warrants arrest and detention and no doubt an FR application will elicit relevant determination from the Supreme Court.  No one is above the law and the fact of being a presidential candidate or holding high office does not give a person some kind of immunity; before the law, Sarath Fonseka is as big (or small) as M.D. Daniel, then 60 years of age, arrested in Wadduwa on February 27, 1992, activist, former Maoist, humble and principled citizen. 

On the other hand, Fonseka is a citizen of this country and all rights that issue from that status have to be granted him.  It could not have been an easy decision to arrest this man, considering his profile and what kind of international fallout can be generated by the arrest.  The only way to keep those forces praying that political stability in Sri Lanka is severely compromised away is to ensure that there is due process, that there is transparency and that charges be filed swiftly in the appropriate manner. 

There is another important thing that the Government should understand.  Fonseka has an axe to grind and even his most ardent supporter will acknowledge this.  The Government has to understand that if Fonseka has done something wrong, it is Fonseka who should be taken to task and not those who voted for him or campaigned for him for there can be many reasons to offer support to a particular candidate and that does not amount to complicity in crimes against the state, for example. 

The Government would not be doing itself any favours by harassing Fonseka loyalists.  If there is adequate proof that anyone has been guilty of some crime then the law should be applied as appropriate, but in the absence of such evidence, it should be realized that there are no Fonseka-Citizens or Rajapaksa-Citizens, but only Sri Lankan Citizens. 

Let me mention one case I am acquainted with.  The name is Shantha Karunaratne.  ‘Shantha’ is a common name and there are thousands and thousands of Karunaratnes in Sri Lanka. To his children, wife, mother and friends, though, there is only one Shantha Karunaratne: father, husband, son and friend.  This is how former Sri Lankan cricket captain Marvan Atapattu spoke of Shantha: ‘People may think that Arjuna Ranatunga and Marvan Atapattu are the best batsmen Ananda College has produced, but no, it was Shantha Karunaratne’.  Anuruddha Polonnovita, I am told, once said that there were two Anandians who ought to have played for Sri Lanka but did not. One was Shantha and I forget the other name.  Shantha was the top scorer at the annual Battle of the Maroons in 1983.  He also captained Ananda at Chess, again in 1983. 

Life and Shantha did not get along well with each other and he was forced by dint of circumstances to move from one odd job to another just to go from today to tomorrow.  He worked for Thilanga Sumathipala during the Western Provincial Council election. ‘Worked’ in the sense that he got paid.  Someone in Sarath Fonseka’s campaign had approached him a couple of months ago suggesting that he switch loyalties.  Shantha had more things to worry about that ideological purity or political loyalty. He ‘switched’. He worked hard.  He bought the hype, believed the propaganda.  He was distraught when he called me on the 27th.  He said his piece. I said mine. That was it. 

Those who arrested Shantha would not know all this.  They would see him as ‘One of SF’s men’.  I am not blaming anyone for not taking chances if indeed there is proof of wrongdoing and in this it has to be kept in mind that unless everything hinges on circumstantial evidence a person’s history does not count.  I don’t know what kind of evidence there is but I can’t see Shantha as an assassin or even a party to such a plot.  I am not giving him a clean bill of health, no, I am merely saying ‘get some perspective, have a sense of proportion’.

Hatred does not quell hatred, Lord Buddha taught us.  Insanity, one could likewise argue, does not cure insanity; only sanity does.  I am hopeful that sanity will prevail.  Indeed, I insist that sanity prevails because I don’t want anyone, not even Fonseka, to suffer the kind of inconvenience, harassment, pain of mind and verbal and physical abuse that those 14 persons arrested close to 18 years ago suffered in Wadduwa.  For the record, I was one of them.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malinsene@gmail.com