sri lanka

‘He used the military for personal gains’

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President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s younger brother and Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was in New Delhi recently. He told Open that former army chief General Sarath Fonseka, who had contested the presidential elections, will be tried for treason and for politicising the army.

Q What is the government’s thinking on General Sarath Fonseka’s entry into politics?

A The commander succumbed to personal ambitions. He worked with us for four and half years as a team member. Then without any justifiable reason he teamed up with the very opposition that had been so critical of him and the army’s war against terror. He teamed up with people and groups that were critical of the military campaign against the LTTE. He teamed up with people who were against him. He betrayed our national cause for his personal ambition.

Q The Sri Lankan government says Fonseka has committed treason…

A From the day he decided to come into politics, he began projecting the military campaign in a manner that could gain public sympathy.

Q Is that the reason why he has been arrested?

A The action taken by the government is not based on politics. We are just doing the right thing. Any person has the right to come into politics. But when you exercise that right, there are rules and regulations, rights and wrongs to follow.

Q What will Fonseka be charged with?

A The biggest damage he did was to the military. Our military was out of politics for so many years. Army, navy and air force were apolitical. Unfortunately, Sarath Fonseka politicised the army. He should have joined politics after making a clear break from the army. Military is such an important institution. He served it for 38 years. He commanded the army. As the Commander of the Army, he constantly talked about discipline. But for his personal and political advantage he used the military. He used the military for personal gains. He used senior officers in his political campaign. He even started his political campaign from the army commander’s official residence. He kept the military resources allocated to him by the government because of his status as the Commander of the Army and used them for political purposes. He has committed several illegal acts. Just because he contested the presidential election, one cannot turn a blind eye to them.

Q So by arresting Fonseka, is the government signalling its intention to purge the army of politics?

A It is the responsibility of the government, senior officers of the military, and mine, to roll back and reverse the politicisation of the army. If no action is taken, it will send a wrong message to the military. Taking legal action against Sarath Fonseka may not be wise politically. But to do the right thing is important.

Q President Mahinda Rajapaksa eventually won the presidential elections quite comfortably. What’s the first priority of the government?

A The damage done by LTTE’s terrorism over the past 30 years is visible to everyone. The hidden part of this damage was the stagnation of economic development. While the world has technologically advanced, Sri Lanka remained bereft of this advantage because the entire national attention was focussed on combating terror. The first port of call for investors visiting Colombo is the office of the Secretary of Defence! I have had to meet with several investors concerned about the safety of their investments. Over the past five years, I have met investors who wanted to know whether we could defeat terror.

Q So the investors interested in Sri Lanka would be feeling reassured now?

A Real victory will be achieved when we bring the economy on track and move towards a high rate of growth. Real victory will be achieved when we pass the benefits of a booming economy to the Sri Lankan people. We have to focus on the rural economy. It is the rural areas that need to be developed and it is principally in these regions where development initiatives must be focussed.

Q Why focus so disproportionately on the rural economy?

A Most of our soldiers are from rural areas. They are our real heroes. Eighty-four per cent of people who died in the war were soldiers who had one month to two years of service. Almost all of them were from rural areas.

Q Is this a conscious effort to keep the military happy?

A Sri Lanka’s armed forces have made so many sacrifices. In the past 30 years, 30,000 military personnel were killed in action and 20,000 disabled.

Q Clearly, the government is keen to keep the military operationally ready. Why?

A We cannot allow LTTE terror to come back. The first phase of the war is over. The LTTE’s war machinery, its fighting ability and its leadership in Vanni have been decimated. The second phase of the war will take a different form. So we can’t relax. Our operational preparedness must be high, but invisible. Our security strategy has to take a different form.

Q Is keeping peace is more difficult than fighting a war?

A We have to develop superior intelligence-gathering abilities and mechanisms. We have to develop military intelligence. We have to develop a national intelligence-gathering infrastructure. We must dominate the jungles, and prevent the remaining LTTE members or supporters and sympathisers from setting up bases. We have to dominate the coastal belt to ensure that weapons and ammunition are not brought in from the sea. We now know how much weaponry and artillery was brought in from the sea by LTTE ships. So maritime surveillance is of utmost importance to prevent any new group that takes up the mantle of LTTE to bring weapons into the country. At the same time, we want to bring normalcy. We had imposed a lot of restrictions that affected our economy: like the restrictions on fishing. We want to change the image of Sri Lanka. We are removing bunkers and toning down security presence on the streets. Our security presence will now be largely invisible with a strong emphasis on gathering real-time tactical, technical and human intelligence.

Q Do the remnants of the LTTE organisation outside Sri Lanka continue to be a threat?

The LTTE has developed a good network outside Sri Lanka. They have a good network in Europe, America and Southeast Asia. Over the past three decades, they have also developed fund raising capabilities. There is a strong Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in several countries. Within this diaspora, there is a significant pro-LTTE section. They have the ability to raise funds. They have a good shipping network. They have a good arms procurement network. They have a good propaganda network. There are several LTTE assets invested in legitimate businesses in countries with a sizeable diasporic presence. Though the LTTE is destroyed in Sri Lanka, there are still several LTTE operatives active in countries outside Sri Lanka. With the help of foreign governments, we’ve been successful in getting KP (Selvarasa Pathmanathan alias Kumaran Pathmanathan) and Rajan. [The Terrorist Investigation Division announced Rajan’s arrest on 28 January 2010. He was involved in procurement of military hardware for the LTTE.]

Q Colombo’s quiet diplomacy seems to be paying off…

A There is international interest in dismantling the LTTE’s network spread over several countries and liquidating their assets. The only stumbling block is the Tamil diaspora in several Western countries.