SF’s new career: Performing for the press ?June 16, 2012, 6:39 pm
Last Thursday, the recently released Sarath Fonseka held a press conference to announce his future course of action to the public. After being released from jail, except for interviews granted to the BBC and the Sudaroli, and of course to the Ceylon Today group, he had not called a general press conference to explain what he would do with his new found freedom, and understandably, there was much interest in his first press conference. It was scheduled to start at 10.00am on Thursday at the Taj Samudra Hotel but commenced only at 11.00. Given the fact that this was SF’s first press conference after his release, one would have thought that the place would be full of supporters.
But at the venue, the only people present were reporters and cameramen and the only non-journalist that the present writer saw except for the hotel employees, was Upali Jayasekera, a former activist of the UNP who is now with General Fonseka. At 11.00 am, Fonseka turned up accompanied by a small entourage which included Mrs Fonseka, Jayantha Ketagoda and Kalutara district UNP parliamentarian Palitha Thavarapperuma. Tiran Alles and Arjuna Ranatunga, both DNA parliamentarians were notable by their absence and no explanation was proffered for their non-attendance. In his opening comments SF said that the building in which the press conference was being held was where he had passed another important milestone in his life - his marriage to Anoma. He fed the anticipation that he was going to make a momentous announcement that day by saying that the task at hand was as important as the milestone he had marked in the same building decades ago.
He said that he had to go through a very difficult period as a result of having come into democratic politics, "I came into politics, and then became a victim of confrontational politics. I was jailed and kept away from my family and the press. I had to face harassment (vada hinsa) and eat pol sambol and rice in the morning with rice, dried fish, beans and brinjals for lunch. I don’t curse or hate those who put me into such a situation but the task of replying to the injustice that I had to face, I entrust to the public. The press too will have a role to play in that process. It was not just myself, but my family too that was subject to suppression. I saw my elder daughter after three years, I saw my younger daughter on two or three occasions. I saw my wife only once a month. Despite the hardships I had to face, I am not prepared to give up the political journey that I undertook on behalf of the people of this country. I will continue that journey with even greater determination and energy than I started it."
"I am thankful to those who tried to harass me and suppress me. I think I was able to mature and learn a few things (parinatha wenna) that I could not learn as an army commander or as a chief of defence staff or as a candidate at a presidential election. I know that the future may bring many obstacles, and hardships. I may even be sent back to jail and have to wear the ‘jumper’ again. But I will face all that and work towards changing the present political culture even if I have to sacrifice my life in the process. I know that even in the midst of hardships, the people will be with me in this journey."
He thanked the maha sangha, the international community for having done what they did to get him out of jail and he expressed a special word of thanks to Tiran Alles who did the negotiations that finally got him out. Thereafter, his speech concentrated on explaining his political stand saying for example that he will take a non ideological approach to politics and concentrate on what is good for the people. He also spoke about the undemocratic path taken by the government and made a few brief comments about his economic policy.
The first policy priority he announced was to eliminate corruption and nepotism from the country. The second priority was to abolish the presidential system of government. Among his economic policies, priority would be given to enhancing the value of the rupee. In the course of his speech, Fonseka took a swipe at the opposition as well. He said that on one occasion when he asked one opposition politician why they are not doing anything about one issue or another, that MP had said "General, we can’t afford to antagonise these people (meaning ruling party parliamentarians). When we ask them for favours they always oblige." He said that he felt ashamed to be in parliament on hearing such a thing from an opposition politician.
Drawing a parallel between Sri Lanka and Nazi Germany, SF said that in Germany too Hitler used patriotism to control the people and patriotism was elevated even above religion. He said that history was perverted and a new history written and that this country should not be allowed to go down the same road and that what was needed was not paying lip service to patriotism or using patriotism to serve one own needs. He also said that the 17th amendment had to be reintroduced and the independent commissions reinstituted.
In concluding his speech he scotched rumours to the effect that he was going to join the government. He said that he will be within a united opposition and work towards toppling the corrupt government. He said that who was going to lead the united opposition is not a relevant question and that the people will select a leader for the common opposition (podu vipaksaya). SF also defended Tiran Alles to the hilt and said that the allegation that he agreed to various conditions was incorrct and that Alles had applied himself to the task of getting him released with the utmost dedication.
By and large, SF’s Thursday speech judged by the standards he set during the 2010 presidential election was very restrained and sober. It did appear that he had become more ‘parinatha’ now as he himself claimed at the start of his speech. The cost of being ‘parinatha’ however was that his speech was definitely not what the press had come there for. Some journalists were muttering under their breath that there was nothing new and that this was a precious morning wasted. Perhaps the fault lay with Fonseka himself. For the past couple of years, he had got the journalistic community used to hearing only venomous, barbed, blood and guts comments from him. Then his brief comments made hurriedly to the TV cameras during his numerous hospital and court visits were concentrated pellets of forceful anti-government rhetoric. Even after he came out of prison the two interviews he gave to the BBC and the Sudaroli (Tamil weekly) made waves.
Vultures circling overhead
The Thursday speech was however very restrained and sober and the rhetoric (what little there was of it) was not more than what one would hear at an average UNP press conference. At times, UNP statements made by people like Dayasiri Jayasekera may even be deemed to be far more radical than the speech made by Fonseka. All of us had come for that press conference to see blood and it was clear that some were determined not to go back without getting what they came for. All the comments that the press later reported on were obtained not from his speech but from the responses he gave to questions asked by journalists. In his speech he was so restrained that the still photographers had trouble getting a photo of him in an aggressive, confident looking quintessentially ‘Fonseka’ pose. So whenever he raised a finger or held up a hand with spread fingers, the still photographers – dozens of them – all waiting with their cameras, would start clicking away for all they were worth. At one point, Fonseka raised his thumb and photographers started clicking away and Fonseka held the thumb up for a while for the photographers to get their shots. All those photos were really out of context.
The pose sought was one conveying aggression or confidence, but the photos were obtained when Fonseka was explaining some humdrum point, not when he was fulminating against the government. At the end of the press conference, I was left wondering whether Fonseka had not become a victim of the press. The press came there to get something and by the time they left, some at least had what they wanted. During his speech, he posited as one of the first objectives of his re-launched political career, ‘the eradication of corruption’. But the press did not want bland statements like that. What they really wanted from him came only when he was responding to questions. Answering another question related to the rumour whether he will work with the government if invited, SF said that he had worked closely with the president for some years and that he knows how he thinks and the kind of politics that comes naturally to him. SF said that corruption was ‘in the genes’ of the present set of rulers and that they had not become corrupt just the other day, but that it had entered their systems after centuries (shathawarsha ganan) of doing politics!!
Now this latter kind of comment is really going tick off the big boss. This after all is a man who has just been released from jail on a presidential pardon. For an opposition politician to talk about corruption in the government is one thing, but to say that corruption is in the genes of the present set of rulers is perhaps unwarranted especially if he was not going to offer the public any specific instances where a prima facie case for a crooked deal had been established.
This perhaps may be why Tiran Alles was a notably absent at that press conference. He perhaps did not know what would be said there and he wanted to be able to continue to go to Temple Trees! This comment about corruption being in the genes of the present set of rulers especially when said in Sinhala, was exactly the kind of comment that the press came there for. But the question in my mind is, did Fonseka say this of his own accord or was that kind of comment massaged and coaxed out of him by the press? Fonseka is obviously new the press game and someone like him can easily be worked on, so that he may end up saying things he may not have intended to say. I for one, would have been much more comfortable if this ‘corruption in the genes of the powers that be’ comment had been made in the body of his speech. That would have been a clear indication that he intended to say it.
But when it comes as a response to a question, it does give one the impression that the comment was got out of him. This impression is enhanced when one sees that there is a clear difference between tone of what he said in the speech and what he said by way of answers to questions. Now when it came to those brief comments made to the TV cameras every time he came out of jail, there was no doubt that he himself wanted to make those comments and he came prepared and after rehearsing exactly what he wanted to say. But at this press conference when Fonseka himself claimed to be more ‘parinatha’ now than when he was a presidential candidate, and in fact made a fairly ‘parinatha’ speech, to hear unrestrained and venomous comments as in the old days, leaves one with the uncomfortable question whether he gave answers that he did not intend phrasing in quite that manner.
Rubbing people the wrong way
I am not blaming my colleagues in the press. We are all vultures and we need carrion to feed on. Those who face the press are supposed to know this and act accordingly. For example, that interview with the Colombo BBC correspondent less than 24 hours after he was released was a scoop for the BBC but for Fonseka it was a disaster. If he had any chance of forming a broad coalition of opposition parties, that possibility was blown because of his comments on the war crimes tribunal. People are now wary about getting involved in controversies they have no control over and want no part of. This is where Fonseka also probably has to reform his act. He has to give the correct answer when he is asked a question. For example, when asked about war crimes tribunals, if he simply answered that no war crimes were committed, and there is no need for any war crimes tribunal and even if one was instituted, he would refuse to testify before it, nobody will ask him any more questions about it.
But when he insists on saying things that are guaranteed to raise controversy or even anger, journalists are definitely going to seek such comments and they cannot be blamed for that. After all the public has a right to know what exactly a politician has in his mind – not just what he chooses to divulge.
In the body of his speech the only reference that SF made to the present status of war heroes was when he said that the government opposed further recruitment to the army at the first security council meeting. But when he was asked a question about the role being played by the army in the development work that we see around us, he came out firing from the hip stating that when he was army commander he never allowed a soldier even to be transferred due to a politician’s request. But now soldiers were seen covered in mud, wearing dirty clothes and doing the work of Colombo municipal workers which sight causes him great pain of mind. He said that the self respect of the soldier has to be protected. When he wears a uniform, that soldier should be seen as a figure of authority. He said that soldiers cannot be cleaning drains today and be seen issuing orders to people with regard to security tomorrow.
But he also said that soldiers participating in development is something that happens all over the world. If there is no war in the country, the army should participate in development work. The engineering regiments can build bridges or the Signals Corps can be used for IT work. But today if some drain stinks somewhere, what comes immediately to mind is the army. If there is a shortage of vegetables, it’s once again the army that people are reminded of. And that he went to Oyamaduwa (the Deyata Kurula site in Anuradhapura) where it is reported that the army will be starting a dairy farm and that the army has been given one grain store to buy up and store paddy. He said with a sneer that the army commander will fill the store somehow, otherwise he will have to go home! This kind of comment is going to rub the defence secretary on the wrong side. So we see that he was more aggressive and unrestrained in answering questions than in making his speech.
Another example of this is that he did not say anything about war crimes tribunals in the body of his speech, but at question time, this controversial topic was brought up and he ended up giving the same answer that deprived him of political support that he would otherwise have had. Talking about the need for accountability, he once again reiterated that if allegations are being made against Sri Lanka, he was prepared to face such an inquiry and to clear Sri Lanka’s name. He said that he will come forward to do it on behalf of the country and the nation. He was asked about a statement that Wijedasa Rajapaksa had made to the effect that his saying that he was willing to testify at a war crimes tribunal is a case of inviting a war crimes tribunal to be instituted. SF said that there is nothing left for him to do in that regard because the government got Ban Ki- moon down and signed an agreement with him where it was said that if such crimes have occurred, an investigation would be carried out. Then again in the LLRC report, they had written about these things and even used the word accountability and said that allegations had to be investigated. And that therefore there is nothing left to do by way of inviting the setting up of a war crimes tribunal. Fonseka also said that they had now got resolutions passed and that they will ‘definitely carry out the inquiry’ (aniwaryenma karanawa).
What all this means is that there is no alternative to a politician knowing what stand to take or not to take, what to say or what not to say. Restraint and ‘parinatha bava’ has to be internalised. You can’t have a veneer of restraint, a ‘parinatha bava’ applied externally which gets washed away with the first question asked and you forget yourself and let fly, baring your innermost thoughts. Anyway, the moral of the story about Thursday’s press conference is – "God help the politician who is not media-savvy!" If he is not careful, Fonseka may end up with a career not in politics but in performing for the press so that they will have entertaining tit bits for their news pages.
A few ‘parinatha’ answers
It has also to be said that he handled some questions well without damaging his own interests. SF was asked by one reporter about a news report on a website controlled by an opposition party that he had pocketed a large sum of money from the contributions he had received for the presidential election. Even though this was a very personal question, Fonseka did not lose his cool. He replied that funds had been received and spent. The total figure he gave was 600 million. He also brushed aside the allegation that Tiran Alles had pocketed the remaining money saying that Alles has enough money and that rather than taking money, he had contributed money to the campaign.
Asked about the removal of army camps from the north, SF took a more tactful stand to that which he had expressed in the interview he gave to the Sudaroli some days ago. In answering this question, he appeared to be a typical politician. He was trying to please both the southern as well as northern constituencies. What he said here was that about 12,000 rehabilitated LTTE cadres have been released and that there may be a few more perhaps 200-300 cadres who were never caught and therefore have not been rehabilitated. In such circumstances, withdrawing the army may encourage certain elements to engage in wrong activities. So the army should be kept there with the correct intention (hari chethanava). But that the army should not interfere in civilian administration. He said that for example, when there were too many checkpoints in the south that proved to be a nuisance to the public. He said that even though a proper time frame cannot be determined by him now, the camps should be removed as soon as possible. He said that when he was the commander, he had given the government a plan to restore normalcy to the north by 2010 December.
Another question he was asked was that since he had expressed the intention of toppling the government, how does he intend going about doing that and the specific steps that he will be taking to achieve that aim. To this, SF gave the cryptic answer that to overthrow the government you have to get the vote of the people and that there was no other way. Here at least, Fonseka did not fall for the question and say anything that would have damaged his political prospects. Obviously, a newsworthy answer to this question would have been something else!
One of the questions asked by a reporter, (not of the Upali Group) was that a book called Gota’s War was launched last month and what he has to say about it. SF said that he has not read the book and wanted to know if there was anybody who had read it who could explain why it was named in that way. (Ae nama dala tiyenne mokada?) Upali Jayasekera who was sitting behind me, shouted across the room, "Sir The author is here!" Fonseka heard Jayasekera very clearly, but he did not invite me to explain to the audience why I called my book Gota’s War.
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Last Updated May 21 2013 | 06:02 pm