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Will Bonapartist Foneska outgrow Sri Lankan democracy?

November 17, 2009 20:16 IST
M K Bhadrakumar warns that former Sri Lankan army chief General Sarath Fonseka's entry into the country's political arena might alter the geo-political equations in South Asia permanently.

When a tea sapling was brought into Ceylon -- present-day Sri Lanka -- in 1824 from China and planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens, the British had no commercial interests in mind. It took another forty years before a plucky Scotsman planted the first seedling, which blossomed into the famous Ceylon Tea and became today's unshakeable pillar of Sri Lanka's economy.

The 'Emerald Island' has obscure tales to tell. That is why when a swash-buckling army chief by the improbable name Gardihewa Sarath Chandralal Fonseka abruptly discards the uniform and plunges into the country's steamy politics, it becomes no simple matter. Sri Lankan democracy may never be the same again.

Bonapartism isn't altogether new to the region. Pakistan's Ayub Khan showed the way back in the 1950s. Bangladesh followed twenty years later. Now Sri Lanka, an entrenched democracy, seems fatally attracted to it.

There is nothing necessarily fatal if a soldier develops a passion for politics. An Indian commentator pointed out that, after all, there is the precedent of Dwight Eisenhower. But then, the nagging worry remains whether in the South Asian clime, like the sapling brought in from distant China, Fonseka, a US Green Card holder, may blossom and outgrow the botanical garden that Sri Lankan democracy used to be.

On the face of it, there is nothing ingenious in the choice by the Sri Lankan Opposition parties led by the United National Party to field Fonseka as their common candidate against Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse who will be contesting the election for a second term for the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance.

Tapping into Sinhala nationalism

The Opposition is blatantly tapping into the reservoir of Sinhala chauvanism and triumphalism and contesting Rajapakse's monopoly claim about vanquishing the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the recently concluded war.

Actually, there is no fundamental difference between the UNP and the ruling alliance in their approach toward the Tamil problem. The UNP was never lagging behind in supporting the war against the LTTE or the draconian emergency regulations prevailing in the country. The UNP sees it primarily as tactical that Rajapakse can be possibly trumped if a 'war hero' is pitted against him.

Fonseka, former chief of the Sri Lankan armed forces's defence staff, fits the bill. He has no qualms about stoking the fires of Sinhala nationalism and is easily recognisable in local folklore as the warrior who hunted down the Tamil Tigers.

Unsurprisingly, Fonseka is a man of many parts. He hails from the Karava community, which dominates economic activities and comprises the new bourgeosie and is estimated to account for over one-third of the Sinhala population. Although caste controversy is never explicitly expressed in Sinhalese politics, there has been dialectic at work involving the land owning Goyigamas (who account for half the Sinhala population) and the merchant capitalist Karavas.

Though milder than its Indian counterpart and lacking in the stratifying ideology, caste organisations or caste endogamy of Hinduism, the Sinhalese caste system plays a role in politics, as most Sinhala people see caste as a positive principle of affiliation -- although like Hindus in neighbouring India, they fight shy of admitting it.

An achievement-oriented national elite based on education (knowledge of English) has accrued over time, but local elites continue to be dominated by powerful castes like the Goyigama and Karava.

Karavas are concentrated in the southern coastal towns like Moratuwa, Panadura, Ambalangoda (Fonseka's hometown), Kalutara, Galle, etc. Therefore, Rajapakse (who hails from Hambantota to the east of Galle) can no longer hope to trade on southern provincialism.

Fonseka brings into the Opposition presidential ticket a formidable caste combination insofar as the UNP already enjoys a strong Goyigama base. To boot it, Rajapakse hails from the upper caste landed gentry and is not part of the English-educated elite of Colombo, the capital.

With the mounting economic crisis in Sri Lanka, the support for the Rajapakse government has been fading as the recent provincial council elections signaled. Many factors -- Rajapakse's autocratic methods, austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund, unrest among salaried class and wage earners, price of cash crops -- have generated fluidity in the public mood that may result in a political backlash as the economic and social crisis deepens.

Meanwhile, the Tamil problem festers. No worthwhile initiative has been taken to address the root problems leading to Tamil separatism. Tamil detainees herded into camps ('welfare villages') -- numbering 255,551 according to the United Nations -- live in appalling conditions. Entry into the camps is barred to the media and aid organisations operate under severe restrictions.

A visionary army general

In short, Fonseka's candidature can gain traction. For a fleeting moment, it seems Sri Lankan democracy may be the gainer. However, Fonseka introduces a dangerous streak. Consider his resignation letter dated November 12 addressed to Rajapakse. He wrote:

"I would not be exaggerating to state that I was instrumental in leading the Army to this historic victory (over the LTTE), of course, with Your Excellency's political support, which helped to materialise this heroic action. Though the field commanders, men and all members of the Army worked towards this common goal, it is with my vision, command and leadership that this yeoman task was achieved.'

>Fonseka went on to allege that Rajapakse dishonoured the Sri Lankan army's reputation by encouraging cronyism, which has 'already led to a deterioration of the high standards I (Fonseka) was capable of introducing to the army.' With an eye on the growing disaffection within the officer corps, Fonseka taunted Rajapakse:

'Your Excellency has commenced mistrusting your own loyal Army which attained the unimaginable victory just a week ago... the same army which gained victory for the Nation was suspected of staging a coup and thereby alerting the Government of India once again on the 15th of October 2009, unnecessarily placing the Indian troops on high alert. This action did tarnish the image and reputation gained by the Sri Lanka Army as a competent and professional organisation... in the eyes of the World. This suspicion would have been due to the loyalty of the Sri Lanka Army towards me as its past Commander who led the Army to the historic victory.'

'(The) Army which I toiled to transform into a highly professional outfit is now losing its way. Increased desertionsÂ…disciplinary problems... indicate an unprofessional organization in the offing. During the last two months, the members (who) deserted are higher than the recruitment.'

Surely, he didn't fail to accuse the president of gross all-round misgovernance -- neglecting the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Tamil refugees displaced during the war; mismanaging the economy, promoting 'waste and corruption', curtailing 'media freedom and other democratic rights', etc.

What explains it all? Fonseka only recently derided Indian politicians as 'a bunch of jokers'. Temperamentally and by reputation, he is not cut out for politics. In his resignation letter, Fonseka listed out his post-retirement benefits:

'Your Excellency would be kind enough to grant me sufficient security which includes trained combat soldiers, a suitable vehicle with sufficient protection (bullet proof) and escort vehicles for my conveyances... I wish to bring to Your Excellency's kind notice that over 100 men, six escort vehicles and a bullet proof vehicle have been placed at the convenience of the former Commander of the Navy... I presume that such arrangements would be made available to me...'

Indian Ocean geopolitics

No aspiring politician ever likes to be seen as self-seeking. Indeed, what prompts someone like Fonseka to dive into the dangerous depths of politics? Is he acting on own volition? If so, what is his agenda? If not, who is promoting him?

The geopolitics of the Indian Ocean region does seem to provide the backdrop to the engrossing power play. The UNP, which props him up, is traditionally right-leaning and favors neo-liberal market-oriented policies. It consistently toed a pro-Western (pro-US) orientation in foreign policy. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe enjoyed close equations with the George W Bush administration.

The US has been stepping up pressure on the ruling circles in Colombo, especially on Defence Minister Gotabhaya Rajapaske, the president's brother (who is a US citizen), as to any involvement in policy matters that constituted human rights violations in the conduct of the war against the LTTE.

The Rajapakse government is deeply concerned that Fonseka, who is a US Green Card holder, has darkly hinted he is privy to 'very highly sensitive' issues related to the final stages of the war that are known only to a handful in the top echelons of the defence establishment. Indeed, the last phase of a brutal war can never stand the scrutiny of covenants regarding Prisoner Of Wars.

The US agenda goes beyond concerns over war crimes and human rights abuses. Washington has been feeling uneasy about Rajapakse's growing economic and political ties with China. A malleable power structure in Colombo is crucial for US geo-strategic interests in the Indian Ocean that connects the Persian Gulf with the South China Sea.

A Bonapartist may just be the crowbar Washington needs to rudely tear apart the social contract on which Rajapakse based his political fortunes brilliantly so far.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat.

M K Bhadrakumar