11/18/2009

The latest conspiracy theory


By Kath Noble -


It has taken less than six months for Sarath Fonseka’s relationship with Mahinda Rajapaksa to break down. One moment they were congratulating each other on their spectacular victory over the LTTE, and the next the former Army Commander was giving up his post as Chief of Defence Staff with invitations in hand from both the UNP and the JVP to run against the President in the upcoming election. They have gone from the closest of partnerships to what looks like developing into a bitter rivalry with very little in the way of warning.

The falling out has been so spectacular that the reasons behind it are now one of the hottest topics of debate in Colombo, and it is quite fascinating. We all love conspiracy theories.

Mahinda Rajapaksa hasn’t said much about it as yet, but Sarath Fonseka’s resignation letter claims that it all began with suspicions that he was planning to overthrow the Government. He was moved on in an unseemly hurry, it seems, and his recommendation of Major General Chandrasiri as a successor was overlooked. Various other unnecessary internal changes were made. The President simply didn’t trust him, he says. His Sinha Regiment was even removed from security duties at the Ministry of Defence.

I find this assertion pretty hard to believe. Coups just don’t happen in Sri Lanka.

The only attempt was made way back in 1962. That was around the time that French generals were plotting to overthrow the administration of Charles de Gaulle to stop him negotiating the end of colonial rule in Algeria. Nobody would dream of using that incident as a precedent to suggest that Nicolas Sarkozy could be in danger.

It was a different era. What happened fifty years ago has no bearing on the current situation.Sri Lanka is a committed democracy, whatever its other failings. People wouldn’t stand for a dictatorship, and budding Pinochets know it. They are too used to debate and demonstrations. Politics is in their blood. Despite three uprisings and seemingly endless years of fighting, nothing has changed. People still want to vote. However much they despair of the candidates who put themselves forward for election to Parliament, Provincial Councils and whatever other bodies are created, they remain engaged.

If there is any truth in what Sarath Fonseka says, I can only think that it comes from spending too much time in the company of the military leaders of other countries. Getting close to people who have used brute force to come to power might well have made the Government paranoid.

I started thinking about this gratuitous hanging out with despots a few weeks ago, when it was reported that a group of Sri Lankan judges were going off to work in Fiji. Like most people, I don’t know a great deal about that country, which is located at the other side of the world to where I come from and has a population only a bit larger than the city of Colombo. However, I do recall that it is under military rule.

Commodore Bainimarama is rather keen on coups. He has led two since he was appointed Commander of the Armed Forces in 1999. The first was barely a year later, in 2000, and the second in 2006, in which he despatched the Prime Minister he had helped into power earlier.

This doesn’t sound promising, and the situation actually turns out to be much worse. Finding out more about Fiji is somewhat of a challenge, seeing as the international media only bothers to report a couple of paragraphs on it every six months or so, usually reminding us that the country is probably going to disappear under the sea in another few decades, but that’s no excuse.

The reason Fiji needs Sri Lankan judges is that Commodore Bainimarama sacked the ones it had when they declared illegal the so-called interim administration that he has led as Prime Minister since the military takeover. At the same time, he abrogated the Constitution, declared a State of Emergency, sacked a bunch of senior bureaucrats he thought might not be so keen on his new plan of holding elections sometime in 2014 or thereabouts, and despatched the Police to newsrooms to censor any unfavourable stories.

That was several months ago. I am curious to find out what made him think of Mahinda Rajapaksa when he started looking for replacements.

As if this news about Sri Lanka propping up the regime in Fiji weren’t bad enough, only days later came an announcement about the visit of Senior General Than Shwe. This man has been in charge of Burma since 1992, taking over the reins of an administration that has been in the hands of the military for decades.
We know how enthusiastic they are about dissent. Their response to the various protests that have come up over the years has made their attitude to controlling the people only too clear.

The military had a brief and unproductive dalliance with elections in 1990, deciding to cancel them when the party they supported lost. The winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, is still under house arrest and will be ineligible to stand in the poll that the authorities currently intend to hold next year. This time they have made sure to reserve a quarter of the seats in the Parliament for themselves, and it remains to be seen whether they will allow the result to stand if they don’t like what emerges.

This story is too well known for me to waste any more space on the details, and not just because Burma is a sizeable country. It is a popular cause.

Mahinda Rajapaksa clearly knows about it, and I am not sure why he thought that it was a good idea to ask Senior General Than Shwe to tour the country and even meditate at the Sri Dalada Maligawa. He may not believe in interfering in the domestic affairs of Burma, but we aren’t talking about sanctions that would hurt its people. This is a case of the President going out of his way to help General Than Shwe, providing him with an opportunity to look acceptable and even a bit good. He is being projected as a guardian of Buddhism, of all things. Mahinda Rajapaksa didn’t have to do that. He could have neglected the invitation, as his predecessors did.

Amidst such characters, it is possible that the Government has lost sight of reality. It has certainly forgotten its principles.

I suspect that it is just as likely that the assertion was a ruse on the part of Sarath Fonseka to present his actions in a favourable light. It wouldn’t have looked good if he’d said things with Mahinda Rajapaksa had gone wrong simply because he’d let success go to his head. He comes across much better if he presents himself as wronged by the President and honourable to the last.

Conspiracy theories aren’t usually true, after all. I generally prefer to believe the most obvious explanation of a set of circumstances and not one that requires an unusually large serving of imagination.

This exchange gives us an indication of what is going to happen once the political battle kicks off in earnest, if Sarath Fonseka really is going to take up the challenge of running against the President. It will be ugly. He and Mahinda Rajapaksa will attack each other with as much determination as they demonstrated when their common target was Prabhakaran. What’s more, there is plenty of ammunition at hand. War makes for great horror stories. Meanwhile, the UNP and the JVP will sit back and enjoy the show, not really minding who comes out on top, just looking forward to facing a weakened UPFA in the next round. It is a bit sad.

(First published in The Island)

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