by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Look over the edge of the abyss, and consider how close we are to losing what we have created here. Ask yourselves if the time has not arrived for us to come to our senses, to break out of our paralysis, to demand for ourselves, finally, the lives that we deserve to live” David Grossman (Rabin Memorial Lecture – 2006)
Last week, Lankan society was electrified by the news that the Rajapaksas regime would accord Gen. Sarath Fonseka an unconditional pardon, on Saturday the 19th. It would have been a fitting act indeed. The 3rd anniversary of defeating the LTTE fell on May 19th, and Gen. Fonseka, together with Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, comprised the politico-military triumvirate which led Lankan Forces to that historic victory.
Many believed that the President would announce a special pardon for the former army commander during his address to the nation on Saturday. That expectation made sense, even from a strictly pro-government perspective.
Not only would such an announcement have made excellent political theatre, something Mahinda Rajapaksa relishes in and is a past master at; it would also have demonstrated a sense of graciousness and decency, thereby bringing credit to both the government and the president.
The announcement never came. In Saturday’s public celebration of ‘war-heroes’, Sarath Fonseka continued to be the ‘elephant in the room’. Instead, the President used his speech to defend the status quo – from the huge military presence in the North (no military camps will be removed) to the deployment of the military in civilian spaces in the South (often in ‘menial’ capacities).
The message to the country and the world was clear: there will not be any course correction, because there is no need for one; Sri Lanka is on the right path.
Last week, External Affairs Minister GL Peiris, together with his monitoring parliamentarian, Sachin Vas Gunawardana, was in Washington, trying to woo American officials and politicians.
Their hard work seemed to have paid some dividends. Going by media reports, Minister Peiris had presented to the Americans a ‘detailed reconciliation plan’ which the US Secretary of State described as a ‘very serious plan’ and ‘a good plan’.
According to US State Department Spokesman Victoria Nuland, Ms. Clinton, after praising the plan, had told Minister Peiris, “Now you really need to make it public. Now you really need to show your people, the world, the concrete implementation steps going forward” (AFP – 19.5.2012).
In the same report, Minister Peiris is quoted saying that there was no plan as such; all he did was to explain to the Americans the work done by the government so far.
So did American officials imagine a plan where none existed?
Was the ‘serious’ and ‘good’ Rajapaksa plan a figment of Clintonian imagination?
Or is Minister Peiris lying?
Does a plan exist or not?
Is there a really-existing-document or is the ‘plan’ nothing more than a set of empty promises created just for American consumption?
Is the pledge to release Gen. Fonseka a part of that bogus plan?
Or is it a true undertaking?
According to a report in the website Sri Lankan Mirror, the pardoning of Gen. Fonseka could not be done on Saturday because the AG’s Department had suddenly realised that a presidential pardon cannot be accorded to Gen. Fonseka until he withdraws the appeals against his various convictions.
Whether the AG’s Department, now functioning under the President, has sunk to such a depth of inefficiency that it did not make this critical discovery until the very last moment is unclear. What is indubitable is that it gave the President not to issue the much awaited pardon on Saturday.
Of course, if the President so wished, he could have announced his intention of pardoning Gen. Fonseka in his speech. He did not.
Will Gen. Fonseka be released, sometime next week?
One hopes so, not only for the sake of the former army commander, his family, friends and supporters but also for the sake of the country. If Gen. Fonseka is accorded an unconditional pardon, it will constitute a potent signal that the Rajapaksa regime has not lost all sense of enlightened self-interest. If that pardon does not materialise, it means the Rajapaksas have no notion of what is in their own best interests.
And a country with rulers who cannot see beyond their collective noses is a country in peril.
For the regime, the advantages of releasing Sarath Fonseka could far outweigh the disadvantages. A pardon will bring the regime considerable credit, nationally and internationally. From a partisan political point of view too releasing Gen. Fonseka, now, can be of benefit to the regime.
The Fonseka-JVP alliance is over, and the former army commander seems to be gravitating politically towards the UNP rebels. Thus, a Gen. Fonseka free to engage in politics, is likely to become embroiled in conflicts with his erstwhile partners, the UNP and the JVP. In fact, releasing Gen. Fonseka at this juncture might be tantamount to setting a cat among pigeons.
It is also important to realise that the Sarath Fonseka of today is not the Sarath Fonseka who contested the Presidential election. Today’s Sarath Fonseka has lost most of the vibrancy and glamour the earlier Sarath Fonseka, fresh from defeating the LTTE, possessed in abundance. Events in the intervening period have demonstrated that though Gen. Fonseka was an outstanding military leader, he is far from being an astute political leader.
Currently, as a symbol of resistance to Rajapaksa despotism, Gen. Fonseka can do little wrong; and none in the opposition would dare to be critical of him. But released back into the bewildering eddies of Lankan politics, he is likely to antagonise many and create for himself plenty of opponents.
In brief, apart from a couple of bruised egos, setting Gen. Fonseka free at this juncture can become a win-win move for the Rajapaksas.
So will Gen. Fonseka get his unconditional pardon?
Or will this promising development turn out to nothing more than a political shooting star, set off by the government to appease the Americans during Minister GL Peiris’s crucial sojourn in Washington?
Is the promise of a presidential pardon a serious expression of intent, or something to be taken with more than a pinch of salt, such as President Rajapaksa’s extravagant praise of Sri Lanka’s return to normalcy and lawfulness?
That white-vanning is a state-owned enterprise is common knowledge. According to the Chief Prelate of the Asgiriya Chapter, Ven. Udugama Sri Buddharakkitha Thero, “Excavating treasure under the guise of resurrecting ancient history is not done without the consent of high-ranking government officials
The prelate added that these were historically important relics, although nothing of financial value, adding that the many historic items stolen from the National Museum in Colombo have still not been recovered.
‘These thefts were not done without the knowledge of the officials at the Museum,’ he added. The prelate added that even excavating machines are used for digging treasures. ‘The average man can’t dig with backhoes, and even if the underlings are caught, the big guns behind these crimes still manage to be safe,’ he said….” (Ceylon Today – 18.5.2012).
Is this the Rajapaksa idea of normalcy and lawfulness?
In his speech, the President claimed that Lankan war-heroes are the best treated and the best looked-after in the world. Just hours before the President made that claim, a soldier killed a girl who refused to have an affair with him as well as her mother and tried to kill her father. This latest incident is one more indication of the prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the Lankan Forces a condition which the regime neither acknowledges nor tries to resolve.
Bogus claims and empty promises apart, what is Sri Lanka’s real destination?
Nearly thirty years, innumerable deaths and immeasurable destruction later, the Tamil struggle for a separate state ended in complete and utter defeat, three years ago. In those thirty years, the LTTE turned a community historically renowned for its academic and cultural achievements into purveyors of murderous-suicide.
Some Tamils resisted the LTTE’s campaign of turning the North and the East into a land of loyal Tamils who did everything the Tiger way, but many others went along, because the Tigers, for all their sins, were ‘getting things done’.
They did not ask how the Tigers were doing things, and whether the means employed were just or not. Asking uncomfortable questions is not an easy task at the best of times; under Tiger rule it was a very dangerous thing to do.
When Vellupillai Pirapaharan was Thambi, in the early years of the struggle, it was still possible for his close confidantes to point out the mistakes in his perceptions and decisions. As he became transformed first into Annai, and then into Surya Thevan, this capacity evaporated, because his confidantes too had to transfer themselves into acolytes who obeyed the ‘Master’ unquestioningly.
Citizens have the right to criticise and oppose their leaders; subjects do not.
Others may have seen the disaster looming, especially towards the end. But given the leader-veneration in the LTTE, none would have dared to point it out to Mr. Pirapaharan.
These multiple transformations, of the idea of Eelam, of the nature of the LTTE, of the role of Vellupillai Pirapaharan and the place of Tamils did not happen in a day or even a year, but over a period of three decades+.
The evolutionary nature of the change meant that it was hard to discern it while it was happening, particularly since the LTTE made liberal use of denials, excuses, justifications and alternate explanations, which many Tamils opted to accept, perhaps because the reality was too horrific to acknowledge.
Perhaps Archibishop Desmond Tutu, a hero of anti-Apartheid struggle and Nobel Laureate, put it best in his recent criticism of the ANC over its sabotaging of a visit by Dalai Lama to appease the Chinese: “The ANC of today is not quite the ANC of Nelson Mandela. Though its end-shape is hard to predict, it is transforming itself into something which in many ways seem an antithesis of the early ANC” (AP – 10.4.2011).
This transformation of liberating heroes into their opposites is very evident in the neighbouring Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe, a man who fought and sacrificed for the freedom of his country and his people from white rule, has become a tyrant who lives in a counterfactual reality of his own creation and insists on clinging to power at any cost.
It is a historical lesson we Lankans can forget only at our own peril.