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Gota speaks out on Fonseka issue

Responding to criticism of an alleged attempt to sideline Chief of Defence Staff General Sarath Fonseka and to deny the war veteran the credit he deserves for spearheading the war against the LTTE, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa says a group of bankrupt politicians are now working overtime to destabilise the country.

"This is nothing but a despicable plot being hatched at the expense of the entire country," Rajapaksa says.

Unlike the previous moves by the Opposition to weaken an elected government, this is an attempt to sow dissension among the country’s battle-hardened armed forces, the Defence Secretary alleges. Those who play politics with national security in a post-LTTE era will incur the wrath of Gods and voters at the forthcoming elections, he says.

In an exclusive interview with The Island, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa, who played a pivotal role in destroying the LTTE, said that they (the Rajapaksas) had been accused of clipping General’s Fonseka’s wings by appointing him as the CDS. Dismissing that allegation as a canard, he said, whoever held that post had enormous

powers and influence over the entire security establishment. In fact, the CDS chaired a powerful committee comprising the three service chiefs and other officials, who handled the country’s defence, he said.

With the consent of the President, the Chief of Defence Staff may hold the post for two years and be given extensions in service biannually.

The CDS is tasked with issuing orders regarding strategies of the armed forces, assisting the Defence Minister, developing a strategy for overall work of the armed forces, coordinating intelligence activities among the armed forces, assessing the strength of potential enemies, preparation and evaluation of plans related to the armed forces, preparation of policies for the training of joint armed forces and preparation of policy for the UN peacekeeping operations etc.

An irate Defence Secretary rejected the Opposition allegation that the former Army Commander had been ill-treated by the government: "Let me tell you that General Fonseka was appointed as CDS with his consent. Although, I haven’t discussed this issue publicly before, I have no option but to reveal what really transpired."

Rajapaksa said: "Once the army had wiped out Velupillai Prabhakaran on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon on May 18, we focussed on the proposed changes at the top command and the control structure of the armed forces. The President had to promote Navy Chief of Staff Rear Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe as the Commander before June 16, when he was due to retire. There were not many options. One of them was to appoint the then Navy Commander Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda as the CDS, thereby making the senior most serving navy officer Chairman of the apex defence committee."

Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said that after taking General Fonseka’s opinion into consideration, the President had appointed the former army Chief as the CDS. General Fonseka succeeded Air Chief Marshal Donald Perera, who received top diplomatic posting to Tel Aviv.

The President had had no alternative but to move Admiral Karannagoda to a civilian post though the government very much wanted to retain him in the defence field, Rajapaksa said. There had been absolutely no effort, he said, to sideline any army officer. But unfortunately, the Opposition and a section of the media had gone to the extent of blaming the government for offering plum diplomatic posts to serving officers.

Responding to our queries, the Defence Secretary said that an influential section of the international community, too, had thrown its weight behind the Opposition campaign. Although the media had a right to criticise the government and support any political party, attempts to propagate lies could not be allowed.

The Defence Secretary said that then President J. R. Jayewardene had brought back Cyril Ranatunga from retirement to lead counter-terrorism operations. Gen. Ranatunga had executed the famous Operation Liberation in the Jaffna peninsula. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who commanded Gajaba troops in that operation, recalled the then Army Commander Lt. General Nalin Seneviratne telling troops that he only provided officers and men needed for the offensive. Successive governments had similar positions but none had gone so far as to institutionalise the post of the CDS through a parliamentary Act, Rajapaksa said.

"Don’t forget that I made critical changes. The Army Act and the Pension Code, too, were changed," Rajapaksa said. But, perhaps the most important change was to enable a serving officer to take over the CDS post, whereas all previous appointees had been retired officers, he said.

Dismissing allegations the CDS appointment had been an ad-hoc, the Defence Secretary said that a committee headed by veteran civil servant M. D. D. Peiris had taken over two years to finalise the proposal. "The committee interviewed all service commanders and many other senior military officials and also researched similar structures in other parts of the world before making submissions to the Attorney General’s Department as well as the Legal Draftsman," he said. According to him, the final report had been reviewed by the defence top brass again before approval was granted.

The Defence Secretary said that process had been parallel to the war against terror.

He said anyone who had doubts was free to make inquiries from the committee. Nothing could be as bad as an attempt to claim that his appointment as CDS was a comedown for the General, Rajapaksa said adding that if one cared to go through the list of serving officers assigned to CDS, one would see that the argument being peddled by the detractors of the government did not hold water.

The Defence Secretary revealed that a section of the officialdom, too, had been uneasy about the creation of such a post. "In fact, some questioned the need for such a powerful institution," he said. "But I was confident that there would be no trouble and that the government had utmost faith in the armed forces."

While declining to comment on security provided to senior military leaders in keeping with the government policy, the Defence Secretary said that no one should take the Opposition’s claim of lack of security for military leaders, seriously. "We have adopted unprecedented measures to protect the military leadership. They are given the best of security," he said.

Rajapaksa said there was nothing wrong in military personnel entering politics but definitely not in uniform. He said that their triumph over the LTTE had been the result of a joint effort spearheaded by the army. He said one of the most important decisions taken by the government had been to double the strength of the army while bolstering the the ranks of navy, air force, police, STF and Civil Defence Force.

Defence Secretary Rajapaksa, who survived an LTTE suicide attack within months of General Fonseka escaping death in a suicide strike, said the Opposition seemed to be making a desperate bid to challenge the President whose popularity was at its zenith. He said that the government was fully confident of meeting the threat and taking whatever action necessary to ensure peace and stability in the country.

Rajapaksa emphasised that the country’s triumph over the LTTE was evidence that it was capable of facing any other threat successfully.

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