Mahanayakes for Fonseka?

In this country no issue remains at the forefront of the public consciousness for long. The arrest of General Sarath Fonseka last week basically put an end to the election rigging circus. Now nobody is talking about election rigging and everybody is talking about Fonseka. A new twist to events that emerged with the arrest of Fonseka is the comments that the Ven Mahanayake of the Malwatte chapter made about the arrest and about democracy in the country in general. Many people may be wondering what that is about. The vast majority of the Sinhala voters and the Buddhist voters especially, voted deliberately for Mahinda Rajapaksa in the pursuance of a national objective just last month. Why now does it appear that the Mahanayake’s are taking a stand against Mahinda? Some think it may be because wrong information about Fonseka’s arrest had been fed to them.

 But the fact is that the alienation of the Ven Malwatte Mahanayake has less to do with Fonseka or democracy than with the parochial interests of the Buddha sasana. When President Mahinda Rajapaksa assumed office in 2005, he brought the various religious affairs ministries, the Bauddha Sasana Ministry and the Ministries for Hindu Cultural Affairs, Christian Affairs and Muslim Affairs into one ‘sarva agamika’ ministry styled the Ministry of Religious Affairs and he appointed himself as the minister in charge. For the past four years there has been no Bauddha Sasana Ministry and the Mahanayakes had requested that it should be re-established, obviously on the grounds that the Sri Lanka constitution gives foremost place to Buddhism and that it should not share a ministry with the other religions. But the president did not respond favourably. This is why the Malwatte Mahanayake complains that what they say is not taken note of by the powers that be. With the commencement of Eelam War IV from around mid 2006, other events overtook the simmering dispute and it remained unresolved.

Now the president has been re-elected for the second time, parliament has been dissolved, and a new government is to be elected into power. Obviously this is the time to strike, so that when the new cabinet is sworn there will be a Bauddha Sasana Ministry as requested by the Mahanayakes. There is no harm in the president being flexible on this matter. Having separate ministries for the various religions may not be a bad idea because that would create more goodies to hand out and senior ministers from the minority communities can be kept happy by giving them the portfolio for their religion as it may give them an edge in getting the votes of their community. Some may see this as pandering to parochialism. But then that is what politics is all about. On the part of the Mahanayakes, it may be prudent for them to consult the attorney general, the military authorities and the government itself before they make any commitments on the Fonseka issue.

When General Fonseka entered politics, he was a decorated war hero held in high esteem by the whole country and especially by the Sinhala public. Yet the present columnist was bold enough to predict that not only was he going to lose to Mahinda, but that he would not get even the votes polled by Ranil Wickremesinghe - the so called signer of the ceasefire agreement and the ‘betrayer’ of the country. In similar manner, what seems to be clear is that if the Mahanayakes seek to confront the present government, they are not going to come out on top. What last month’s presidential election showed in a magnitude unanticipated even by the present columnist is that there is an overarching national interest profoundly etched in the minds of the Sinhala Buddhist voter which they will pursue regardless of whoever opposes it. One thing that the people don’t want to see is the joint opposition which has just been resoundingly rejected by the people going to the Ven Mahanayake’s in a delegation and Rauff Hakeem telling the Mahanayakes that the opposition was now helpless - ‘asarana wela inne’ and asking the Mahanayake of the Malwatte chapter to start a process under his venerable leadership to restore democracy. This is precisely what they did to Sarath Fonseka as well. They went in delegation to him, and tried to use his credentials with the Sinhala public to further their own political project – and it did not succeed.

Having failed in that, they now go in delegation to the Ven Mahanayakes and tell them to assume leadership of their project. When the joint opposition meets the heads of foreign missions, that is always done behind closed doors. But when they meet the Mahanayakes, it’s always with TV crews in attendance. Over the past few weeks, how many times did we see members of the joint opposition going to see the Ven Mahanayake of the Malwatte chapter in particular, carrying tales (kelang) against the government? Never before have we ever had a situation in the country, where the opposition has tried to get the Mahanayakes to confront the government in this manner. But then again, never before have we had a situation where the opposition would get the senior most serving soldier in the Army to resign from active service to confront his own commander in chief! These are strange times when strange things happen. The people of this country and especially the Sinhala Buddhist public are not going to react positively to this attempt to recruit the Ven Mahanayakes to carry on from where Fonseka left off.

 Unsurprising finale

The arrest of General Fonseka was an unpleasant but unsurprising finale to the whole sorry misadventure that began with the joint opposition fielding him as their common candidate against President Mahinda Rajapaksa. We often hear people saying that political parties should be mindful about whom they field at elections and that unsuitable people should not be given nominations. The joint opposition was clearly not careful about whom they fielded at the last presidential elections. Given his temperament, Fonseka was a most unsuitable presidential candidate. This whole episode was a costly misadventure for Fonseka. Never have we seen a downfall of a man so complete. After the election, I have not yet met a UNPer who is disappointed that Sarath Fonseka lost. Those who saw SF at work at close quarters and knew what kind of plans he had if he won the election, are those who are most relieved that he lost. The problem is that when UNPers go to see the Ven Mahanayakes they don’t tell the monks how relieved they are that the voting public delivered them from Fonseka! What they are now trying desperately to do is to look for a replacement – preferably someone in robes!

Various opinions have been expressed as to whether Fonseka should have been arrested or not. However, the present columnist fails to see how an arrest could have been avoided. On the night of Fonseka’s arrest, the director of the BBC’s Tamil service Tirumalai Madubalan came on the BBC’s Asia Today programme and wondered aloud whether General Fonseka’s earlier statement to the BBC that he was willing to testify at an international war crimes tribunal, had anything to do with the arrest. Fonseka’s repeated assertion to almost anybody who was willing to listen that he was willing to testify before an international tribunal on war crimes and his repeated accusation that the defence secretary had given wrong instructions to the ground commanders to shoot surrendering LTTE leaders obviously had much to do with his arrest. Some people feel that the government should be magnanimous in victory, and ignore such remarks. If the International Criminal Court gives Sri Lanka a written guarantee that they will not regard anything said by Sarath Fonseka as admissible evidence against Sri Lanka but as the hate filled ravings of a defeated and thwarted politician, motivated by the need to bring his victorious opponents down, then I suppose the government can afford to be magnanimous and ignore Fonseka’s remarks.

But so long as he is not officially certified by the ICC as ineligible or incompetent to testify before a war crimes tribunal, you can expect the government to keep Fonseka safely locked up and gagged. Once a former army commander makes accusation such as those made by Fonseka against a serving defense secretary, and serving senior army officers, no country can ignore it. No nation can tolerate a former military officer turned politician who openly says he is willing to testify against his former superiors and subordinates who have since become his political opponents at an international war crimes tribunal as such ‘evidence’ will inevitably be coloured by the over-determining need to bring his political opponents down . This is the first time in living memory that any country in the world has had a former army commander like this - a point that the Ven Mahanayakes appear to have missed when considering Fonseka’s arrest

All this started because of Fonseka’s clearly demonstrated tendency to loose control of his tongue when he sees a crowd. At a felicitation ceremony held in Ambalangoda after the victory against the LTTE, Fonseka shot his mouth off and said that in prosecuting this war, they had to overlook the usual norms of war and shoot even surrendering LTTE leaders who came out with white flags. The Americans picked this up and featured it in their US state department report to Congress on war crimes allegations in Sri Lanka. Fonseka is a US green card holder and his family lives there. When he went to the US late last year, this obviously would have figured prominently in the interview he had to face for the renewal of his green card.

Obviously in order to get himself out of a sticky situation, he palmed off the blame on the defence secretary whom he accused of having given wrong instructions to the field commanders over his head. That statement he made to the Sunday Leader was in my view given deliberately to exonerate himself in the eyes of the USA. Later, when pressure mounted on him to retract it, he did so only half heartedly and kept returning to the issue on the public stage where he repeatedly accused the defense secretary of having given wrong instructions to ground commanders and asserted he was not willing to sacrifice himself to protect those who gave such wrong instructions to field commanders. What he was in essence saying was that he was willing to rat on both his superiors who were supposed to have given such instructions and his subordinates suspected of having carried them out at an international war crimes tribunal. This is not an issue that the Ven Mahanayakes can solve. There is no way that they can get Fonseka to shut up or to give the war heroes a guarantee that he wouldn’t rat on them to the international community. Only the International Criminal Court can solve this by either classifying Fonseka as incompetent to testify or declaring that whatever evidence he gives is tainted because he is a now a politician and his evidence will be against his political opponents.

 Puthujjana reprisals

 One must also not forget the fact that Fonseka is the only presidential or prime ministerial candidate in the post independence history of this country who publicly sought a mandate to put virtually all his opponents in jail if he is elected. If one examines the speeches he made during his campaign and counts the number of times he mentioned the Rs 10,000 pay hike for example, and compares that with the number of times he promised to put those who oppose him in jail, one sees that he campaigned mainly on a platform to put half the population in jail. In such circumstances, to expect his opponents who narrowly escaped being marched off to jail not to come down hard on him is to expect too much. The Rajapakse’s are ‘putujjanas’ (ordinary unenlightened people) like the rest of us and not arahants. My personal opinion is that a sojourn behind bars will always do a politician good, and every politician should be made to spend at least three to six months in an ordinary jail in Sri Lanka. President Rajapaksa spent three months in jail in the 1980s and this obviously is one major reason why he never tried to put any opponent in jail after he assumed power. In the case of Fonseka, threats to put other people rolled off his tongue far too readily for comfort and the present unpleasant experience it is hoped, will help him to become a better man.

 When Fonseka was endorsed as the UNP’s choice as presidential candidate by the UNP working committee around three months ago, we heard even the party chairman saying that 99% of his constituents wanted Fonseka as the presidential candidate. At that working committee, only a few like S.B.Dissanayake, Johnston Fernando, and Azath Salley opposed the decision. However at the working committee meeting held on Wednesday last week, not one member said that the broad opposition alliance that was formed under Fonseka should be continued. The decision to contest the parliamentary elections under the elephant symbol (and therefore under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe) was unanimous. Just three months ago, everybody in the UNP wanted to contest the presidential elections under the leadership of General Fonseka but today not a single member of the UNP working committee wants to contest the parliamentary elections under him. Why this change?

 The UNP’s experiment with Fonseka has been the costliest political misadventure in the history of the party. The gap of 180,000 votes between the UPFA and the UNP which we saw at the 2005 presidential elections has now widened tenfold to a whopping 1.8 million. Usually, when a party loses power and goes into the opposition, it has to improve its performance at the next major election. When the UNP lost power in 1994, they got close to 3.5 million votes. At the next major election they faced, the presidential elections of 1999, this had gone up to something in excess of 3.6 million votes. It is this incremental progress that helped the UNP to push the PA out and come into power at the parliamentary elections of 2001, getting over 4 million votes.

 In 1977, when the SLFP lost, they got 1.8 million votes. At the next ensuing major election, which was the presidential elections of 1982, they managed to increase this to 2.5 million. (At the presidential elections of 1989, the SLFP got a little less with only 2.2 million votes mainly because of the disturbed conditions under which that election was held. The UNP’s votes also declined even more precipitously at that election.) However, it was this incremental progression that helped the SLFP to come back into power in 1994 with 3.8 million votes. A party in opposition failing to increase its vote at the next major election after being voted out of power is a phenomenon that we have not seen before. What we saw last month is that the UNP has gone backwards at a rate unprecedented in our post independence history – which is why no UNPer today talks of contesting the parliamentary election under the leadership of Fonseka.

 A tragedy of errors

 All the minority leaders who supported Fonseka have also been floored. The JVP is worse off after having supported Fonseka than they would have been if they had fielded their own candidate and contested separately. If Rauff Hakeem and Mano Ganesan thought Fonseka was their ticket to power, all that has happened is that their sojourn in the opposition has been extended by another clear seven years with no light at the end of the tunnel. It will be Wickremesinghe who will contest the presidential elections in 2017, and there is no guarantee that he will win. So those allied with the UNP like Hakeem, Mangala Samaraweera and Mano Ganesan are obviously in a bind. They have run out of options. They put all their eggs into one basket by fielding Fonseka and with the failure of this gamble, they have come up against a rock wall which is why they have now started working on the Ven Mahanayakes.

The dream of all minority political parties in this country is to split the Sinhala vote and to become kingmakers by backing the side that is most amenable to their demands. The very reason why minority parties like the TNA, SLMC and the Ganesan group supported Fonseka is because they thought he would be able to split the patriotic Sinhala vote and thus make the minority vote the decisive factor in the election. However, the Sinhala voter had proved for the second time that this moth eaten old strategy will not work. In 2005 there was at least the doubt that had the Tamils of the north been allowed to vote, the minority vote may have brought Wickremesinghe into power. At last month’s presidential election however, even if every minority party in the country had supported Fonseka they would still not have succeeded in winning.

 But one wonders whether any lessons have been learnt from this. Rauff Hakeem and Mano Ganesan, are still among the most ardent supporters of Fonseka even after his defeat. They are among those who are keen to preserve the grand opposition alliance. The reason for this is, that if the alliance continues for the parliamentary elections as well, the leader of the outfit will be Fonseka who is much more amenable to various demands than is the UNP. For example, Ganesan and Hakeem will both want a certain number of parliamentary slots in the Colombo district which the UNP will not grant them; but Fonseka will. If Ganesan wanted the UNP to sideline his better placed rival Alagan Digambaram in the Nuwara Eliya district, Ranil would have none of it but Fonseka obliged. So these minority parties will prefer Ranil to Mahinda because they will get more from Ranil than Mahinda and they will prefer Fonseka to Ranil because they will be able to get more from Fonseka than from Ranil! The TNA preferred Fonseka to Mahinda for much the same reason. This is an unholy game of communal one upmanship against proximate rivals within the ethnic community at one level and with the majority community at another level. The minority parties will not hesitate to use the strength of the majority community party against their rivals within their own community. The TNA will support a Sinhala majority party that pledges to sideline Douglas Devananda even though he too is as Tamil as they are. Over the years, the SLMC has destroyed the UNP’s Muslim base, which was an integral part of the grand old party from its very inception, by forcing them to sideline UNP Muslims in exchange for SLMC support at elections.

None of this really has anything to do with minority rights. Rather it’s a political industry, which does no good for the country. The significance of last month’s presidential election is that this industry has ceased to be profitable. What this election showed was that the sight of minority leaders ganging up on one side is going to panic the Sinhala voter into voting for the other side so that minority leaders who try to make use of the split in the Sinhala vote for their purposes will always be left holding the short end of the stick. The Sinhala voter has now convincingly demonstrated that they will overwhelmingly vote for one side if they feel threatened.

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