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Sarath season or Rajapaksa return?

It is alternately nauseating and hilarious that some who have never looked violent death in the face say or heavily hint that General Sarath Fonseka who has shed blood copiously for the Sri Lankan cause, carries enemy lead in his body, and was the driving force of the main force – the army – of the historic victory against the Tamil tigers, is a traitor. What gives them the moral right and authority to do so? Who has the right to determine who is and isn’t a traitor, and by what criteria? Furthermore, what is the relevance of this terminology anyway? The war is over and won, thanks far more to Sarath Fonseka than to any of those people, so what is the relevance of traitors and patriots except in the historic sense of who was and wasn’t pro-Tiger when the war was on?

I rather doubt that this rhetoric of an international conspiracy and General Fonseka as a traitor is going to cut much ice with the Sri Lankan voter who is a pretty sophisticated political animal. Conspiracies are secret and what is happening is out there is in the open, in the Western and Lankan media. There is a crisis in our external relations with a very important part of the world, including the world’s only superpower, led by one of the world’s most popular personalities. Any conspiracy is located within this crisis and is a byproduct of it.

Let us, however, return to the issue at hand, the choices at the Presidential election of 2010. Of the pro-Mahinda and anti-Fonseka critiques I have read, the best by far was by young Muthu Padmakumara writing in the Daily News ( Dec 4), and making a welcome contrast to the sermon on the same subject in the same paper by an omnipresent columnist. She raises the most relevant point of all: work experience for the job and the absolute lack of it.

That’s my point of departure, too: anyone who hopes for the top slot in any enterprise be it in the corporate or state sector, must either have a track record of some success in that broad area or possess academic training and qualifications in that subject, or have a combination (e.g. Barack Obama: academic and intellectual, community organizer, writer, Senator). A soldier of forty years experience, Gen Fonseka is seeking the top spot in the country with no experience in politics or civilian life. Dwight Eisenhower was President in 1953 not 1945 and in the intervening years he was President of Columbia University one of the Ivy League universities in the USA and one of the best in the world. Susilo Bangbang Yudhyono came from within the Indonesian military which had governed Indonesia since 1965 until 2000. Gen Colin Powell was once regarded as a possible Presidential candidate but that was after he was Secretary of State. Gen. David Petraeus of the US army is seen as a possible US Presidential candidate next time around, but he is known as a warrior scholar, a student of History with a PhD from Princeton (and protégé of the renowned progressive scholar of international law and international relations, Richard Falk). Sarath Fonseka does not qualify on either count, though I might add that with a term in Parliament as an MP or Minister he may qualify for serious consideration as a Presidential candidate.

There are many interpretations of what came between Rajapaksa and Fonseka. Some able commentators have speculated that it was dynastic rule. While there is indeed such a dismal prospect (as during the Bandaranaike years 1970-77), I do not believe that was the issue. To my mind the central issue was the balance of power between the civilian and military wings as represented by Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gen. Sarath Fonseka. During the war there was a shift in that balance, which Gen. Fonseka sought to prolong, make permanent or take to the next level in the post war period, in peacetime, while Mahinda Rajapaksa pushed back to reassert civilian control and the supremacy of the elected Executive. The critical issue was whether Gen. Fonseka would exert veto power over decision making as the military did for decades in Pakistan before the restoration of democracy. The Army would dominate the armed services, and the former Army commander turned CDS would determine the processes within the army and the military as a whole, while determining the parameters of national policy under the rubric of national security. The issues of a vastly expanded postwar military, the fate of the IDPs and the 13th amendment/devolution were cases in point, and the faint contours of a "National Security state" became discernible.

Fortunately, for democracy these issues are now out in the open, not hidden within the state structure where they could have exploded in extra Constitutional violence. Now, it is the people of all communities, who by their free choice at the ballot box will determine the trajectory of the country.

Gen. Fonseka claims that the military victory was his, while he acknowledges the "support" extended by President Rajapaksa. History however, rightly credits Lincoln over Grant and Sherman, Lenin over Trotsky, Stalin over Zhukhov, Churchill over Montgomery, Roosevelt over Patton and MacArthur, Mao over Zhu Deh and Lin Biao, and Ho Chi Minh over Gen Giap. This is because the role of overall political leadership and the necessary political will is the most vital single element in the conduct of war.

Sarath Fonseka was a vitally indispensable factor in the victory. There may not – or probably would not -- have been one without him. But there definitely would not have been a victory without Mahinda Rajapaksa. If we had only Gen. Fonseka as Army commander and no Mahinda Rajapaksa as President -- and no Mahinda as President would have meant no Gotabhaya as Secy Defence—we might have had a Jayasikuru writ very large. Having fought under President Kumaratunga, who permitted Mangala Samaraweera’s Sudu Nelum movement and the Saama Thavalama to roam the countryside spreading antiwar propaganda precisely at the same time that the army was struggling to recruit men for the ongoing war that had been imposed by Prabhakaran, Gen. Fonseka should perhaps be more aware than most, of the vital role played by political will and commitment to victory at the top, the level of the Executive and Commander in Chief, i.e. by the Rajapaksa Presidency. While Gen. Fonseka was the driving force of the ground war, the prime motivator of the soldiery, this was a combined arms war in which tactical airpower was more important and effective than ever before and the Navy crippled the logistics of the Tigers. Montgomery defeated Rommel by targeting his petroleum supplies, reducing the efficacy of his splendid tank force. If the Tigers had been able to bring down the on the Sri Lankan infantrymen, the kind of ordnance they were able to during Jayasikuru, the war would still have been on. This does not mean that Admiral Karannagoda and Air Marshal Goonetilleke were more important than Gen. Fonseka, but it does mean that the victory was a superb collective effort, and that collectivity of effort, overcoming inter-service rivalry and indeed intra-army rivalry was made possible by Mahinda Rajapaksa through the "General Manager" Gotabhaya Rajapakse, who also secured the necessary external inputs, material and more qualitative.

It was his 40 years in the army that turned Sarath Fonseka into what he was: the warrior capable of providing inspiring leadership to his men to win the war. It is precisely those 40 years that disqualify him from holding the topmost civilian job in the land; a job that requires consultation, compromise and consensus, three qualities that are necessarily lacking in the army, and which Gen. Fonseka was never renowned for during his military career.

Four Presidents – Jayewardene, Premadasa, Wijetuga and Kumaratunga—failed to win the war. Mahinda Rajapaksa did. By what logic or morality can we fail to reward him with a second term? By what logic or ethics can the Sri Lankan voter, who gave a second term to a president who failed to win the war and abandoned efforts to do so, should turf out after one term a President who won the war, or if you prefer, on whose watch the war was won?

Mahinda Rajapaksa has exactly the same years of experience, forty, in civilian politics that Gen. Fonseka has in military life. That makes him at the moment – a moment where Gen. Fonseka has not yet accumulated any civilian experience--the better man for the presidency. He is not the visionary we need to take the country united into the 21st century but as a populist he is preferable to an authoritarian persona.

Let’s not make the same mistake as the Tamil people did. Out of profound dissatisfaction, they abandoned, turned their backs on their civilian lawyer-politician leaders and opted for a warrior-warlord as their "national leader". This has led them to the brink of destruction as a community. Do the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims collectively wish to make the same disastrous choice or its equivalent? We needed a tough, ruthless, driven, army commander to beat an enemy as ruthless as the Tigers but do we need him to lead us and rule us?

If you wish to change the analogy, the end of the Tamil nationalist cause commenced with the Karuna breakaway and the challenge to his leader. Karuna has proved his point about being the match winning commander for the Tigers: they lost the only war in which he did not fight and indeed fought on the other side. Is Sarath Fonseka our Karuna equivalent? Karuna is good for Sri Lanka as a whole but that was because he went up against Prabhakaran, not a democratically elected nationalist leader. What would be the effect on the national interest of a Karuna rebellion on our side? Do we wish to reward it with electoral success?

None of this means that the country doesn’t need change, accelerated and socially responsive economic progress, an enlightened charter for multi-ethnicity and a vastly improved style of governance. Someone should just look at the UNDP’s Human Development report figures for Sri Lanka over the past few years, including the Gini Coefficient. Rajapaksa rule does indeed need reining in, but the answer does not reside in General Fonseka as President; it does not lie in the Presidential election at all. It resides in the doctrines of "balance of power", "containment" and more concretely, "checks and balances". The parliamentary election is to be held shortly after the Presidential. We must not confuse the two. We the citizens, get an opportunity to throw the rascals out at the Parliamentary election, either (i) electing the UNP (which is unlikely if the party leadership remains unchanged) or (ii) reducing the strength of the SLFP led coalition and having a strong UNP Opposition or (iii) simply throwing out by means of preference votes, those existing sleazy, incompetent Ministers and sitting MPs.

As between Rajapaksa and Fonseka, continuity is better than change; within the government change is imperative, and as between the Government and the Opposition, change may be better than continuity. Observing the vital distinction between the two elections, presidential and Parliamentary, enables Sri Lanka’s citizens to get the best deal available.

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