25 May, 2012Mohamed HishamColombo,

Image courtesy CNN

It has been a couple of days since the former military commander of Sri Lankan Army and common opposition’s presidential candidate General Sarath Fonseka was released from the prisons and I can’t think of a better timing than this for me to express some of my thoughts related to these developments, which I am sure many here would share with me, at yet another crucial time for our nation.

First of all, many have correctly pointed out to me about the technicality of the use of the rank General when referring to Mr. Fonseka and it is my personal belief that it is one way for me to demonstrate my suspicion as to whether the so-called court martial was really working in a fair, transparent manner contrary how it would have been through a civilian court, while at the same time joining thousands of fellow Sri Lankans who aren’t ready to forget the existence of the first-ever four star General the Sri Lankan armed forces had, however much his photos are altered from frames or name is being erased from plaques. Thus, I shall continue to refer to him as General Sarath Fonseka out of respect, admiration and also in solidarity with many others who have been meted with injustices simply because of political, religious, racial or ethnic prejudices against them.

As I have mentioned openly in a few occasions before, I have always used my vote, be it local government, provincial, parliamentary or presidential elections, based on the policies of candidates rather than party affiliations. I still remember the reasons behind my decision to vote for Mr. Rajapakse in 2005 to be the President as much the reasons for my vote for General Fonseka during the 2010 Presidential elections, which I have already published an article on in Groundviews. But as we know, some of his close political confidantes back then are no longer to be seen along with him and the same way some of the blocs who voted for him also consider that moment as one-off. However, as much as some commentators try to bring arguments saying the presidential election votes for General Fonseka were merely protest votes against Mr. Rajapakse and he doesn’t have a political standing, it would be so naïve to de-value his influence given that he had been one of those people to have had a consistent policy from the moment he stepped on to politics and on top of it the visible public affection and/or the respect he has earned during the last 30 months both, in and out of prisons, as a politician. Therefore even though he himself can’t stand for elections (for at least the next 5 years, according to some legal experts) still the influence he will have on Sri Lankan politics is unquestionable. This is specially at a time when the main opposition party is having its own set of internal problems and almost all the other political parties having had their own share of splits within. In that context, some of the very first words of General Fonseka being trying to unite the opposition rather than craving for positions, while mobilizing people for their socio-economical rights, is a mature approach.

As a citizen and someone who has seen a bloody conflict almost all throughout my lifetime of closer to 3 decades, given that we have already wasted the last 3 years as a nation after the end of the military conflict without any serious initiatives to address the root causes of the conflict; in my opinion, the direction General Fonseka will take in the next weeks and months on key issues, will for sure decide for itself if we can be hopeful of a turning-tide towards challenging the system to make civil liberties, transparency, equality and rule of law as priorities or whether we all will passively see our motherland moving away from being a real Democracy towards a state which may be identified as more of a Autocracy due to power-hungry politicians trying to cling to power at any cost. This shouldn’t be misinterpreted as if this is a call for change of regime per-se, but if the authorities are willing to change and do what’s best for the country, that’s much better.

A welcome statement he did make within 24 hours of being released was on the conduct of the current administration in handling international calls for accountability on allegations leveled by various parties about the military conflict and General Fonseka quite correctly reminded his policy from day one being that Sri Lanka should not dodge the questions and imply guilt, rather cooperate to establish the truth, whatever it may be. I am sure he is not foolish to understand even such a call would not go well within some of the vote blocs out of the cities, still he had the courage to make that statement needs to be applauded, even though some opportunistic politicians have been trying to brand him as a ‘traitor’ again for this statement. As someone who has had friends and family members affected and lost lives due to the almost 3 decades of military conflict in our country, I see this as a positive, mature and responsible statement towards reconciliation. This is not just because of the fact that General Fonseka has taken a bold step of talking about something which is considered not even up for mention by Sinhala nationalists and thus defying some of the nationalistic elements who were believed to be also supporting him, but still giving a perfect example of how Mr. Rajapakse’s administration also could have, if his administration had the will, to have spoken about harsh realities related to reconciliation in an assertive manner given the popularity he had soon after end of the military conflict 3 years ago.

This kind of a statement, at least, gives an opportunity to make justice for people who had to make the ultimate sacrifice during the war be it a Tamil like Nilukshan Sahadevan, my colleague from Sri Lankan Youth Parliament and a young budding journalist gunned down in the middle of the night in Jaffna at his home or a Sinhala youth like Captain Sandun Chanaka of Sinha Regiment, my class-mate for years at Richmond College in Galle, who was killed in Pudukudiyiruppu South in the last stages of the war or a Muslim like one of my relatives, who was also a provincial media person from North Central province killed along with his sibling and her husband in a suicide bomb blast a few years ago. And I wonder what a difference we could have made to our tiny island if sanity prevailed to the rulers 3 years ago as soon as the military conflict was over rather than the arrogance shown since then, on a victor’s mentality. So, I respect General Fonseka for making that statement which I am sure is not an easy task for himself being the commander of the army and chief strategist during the final few years of the war.

As a person having a huge popularity among the Sinhala community as well as the minorities and then the blocs who are already fed-up with economic hardships in the face of a near impunity for huge levels of corruption in the country and daily challenges to civil, political rights as citizens; I believe it is equally important for General Fonseka to make a bold statement about Sri Lankan society being multi-religious, multi-ethnic nature given the cautious distance some of the Tamils and Muslims have been maintaining from General Fonseka partly due to the apparently mis-quoted statement attributed to him, supposedly saying that the minority communities are ‘tourists’ in this country. A strong statement on that nature will not only make him more admired as a straight-talking leader but also will be of immense value to condemn the minority of violent extremists within the country who are trying to create challenges for religious harmony in our nation with situations like what happened in Dambulla recently and afterwards carried out by chauvinistic elements. After all I am sure General Fonseka himself will know how some of these politically or financially motivated monks make real Buddhists embarrassed by bigoted actions including the example of how his own framed pictures in the Nagadeepa Viharaya which were hanging for a long time suddenly went ‘missing’ soon after he was imprisoned, for reasons known only to the people or monks who did that, while it’s not really a mystery for anybody to guess in terms of the motivation behind them.

Having done this, on the challenge of uniting the opposition to make Sri Lankan politics towards a vibrant democracy rather than going towards like some of the single-party autocracies in other parts of the world; no one believes it is going to be an easy task. Yet, he will have to manage the charisma, admiration and respect he commands across the country and importantly from every part of the society to maneuver through the rough political terrains in bringing together , the young and old, ambitious and reserved, Northern and Southern, rich and poor, friends and old-friends, young people and the intellects, Marxists and the capitalists, and the list goes on; the same way he was able to strategise and restructure a whole military outfit with its own share of divisions and internal politics amidst challenging conditions to successfully complete a military conflict. In this sense, I personally like his idea of giving importance to civic education among the masses as a key factor and clearly stating how he would like to work on a broad level with all parties rather than trying to further divide an already fractured opposition.

And if we have a strong opposition it will help the country to be steered in the right direction by keeping the government in power (whoever it may be) in check and holding them responsible for every single action for the betterment of our own country. Crucially, he will also have to have an inclusive and responsible approach to be implemented in the aftermath of the mobilization of the opposition political parties and people towards their civic rights. If not, it would be like winning a war which many thought will never end but not being able to move towards establishing a long lasting peaceful, inclusive society just the same way it is now because of the policy of not having a real policy as shown over the last 3 years by the present administration. We have already had enough of our lifetimes wasted due to petty political ideological mistakes which have cost the nation immensely and we surely can’t afford to be passive observers when it is yet to be corrected.

I also have a feeling that we Sri Lankans have been quite selfish here by expecting a 61 year old gentleman who has done a lot for his country over four decades with dedication to do more rather than enjoying his life in retirement with his family. But General Fonseka himself says that he is ready to dedicate his life to correct the political system of this country for the sake of making sure we don’t lose any more for the years and generations to come.

And I don’t believe that he is going to be the miracle-man to push the government to do the right thing or get the opposition be strong to make it a vibrant democracy; rather we Sri Lankans lacked a voice to rally behind to challenge when we thought things weren’t right and we have finally got a straight-talking individual who is ready to take the leadership, despite the risks and challenges inherent to the role, to give a voice to the unheard, in a louder manner than before.

In that sense, I believe we as citizens are in desperate need of getting back our lost identity of being part of a Democratic, Inclusive, Transparent, Just Sri Lanka as much as a four star General stripped of his ranks and perks after 40 years of selfless service to the nation is desperately trying to justify to himself that he wants to make sure he will still do his part to hold politicians accountable for their actions for the sake of future generations.

And as long as that desire is fulfilled regardless of whether it is by forcing the current political leaders taking bold, decisive actions for the future of the country or by people democratically asking a different set of leaders to do the same; I am sure we all can be prouder to be Sri Lankans and do justice to all who made sacrifices in the last decades for causes which they believed were correct and selfless, in their own ways.

Welcome back to freedom, General Fonseka!