By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Revisiting the forcible arrest of Sarath Fonseka by the Army on Feb 8th 2010
ardihewa Sarath Chandralal Fonseka, Sri Lanka’s one and only Field Marshall is very much in the news these days. The former army chief who was once described as the “world’s best military commander” by former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is now a national list Parliamentarian of the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG). It is also being speculated widely that he would be allocated a cabinet portfolio in the days to come.
February 2016 apparently is a good month for Sarath Fonseka. It was on Feb 8th that the United National Party(UNP) working committee decided to nominate the Field Marshall as a national list MP to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Lands Minister M.K.A.D.S. Gunawardana in January. On February 9th ,the following day, Sarath Fonseka took his oaths before the Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. It is also very likely that the Field Marshall would be sworn in as a minister before the end of this month. All these positive developments seem to indicate that February is indeed a month of good fortune for Sarath Fonseka.
February however was not a good month at all for the ex-army chief six years ago.February 2010 was in fact a very bad month for him. It was on the night of February 8th 2010 that the former army commander was forcibly arrested by members of the very same army he had led only a few months ago. The Ambalangoda Lion did not “go out gently on that dark night” he instead “ raged with all his might against that falling of the light”.
When Sarath Fonseka was arrested there was very little media publicity about the manner and mode in which he was arrested. Though information was scanty at the time of the arrest, this writer was then the first to report the circumstances of the ex-army chief’s arrest in English. Most of the hypocrites howling protests now about perceived action against the war heroes were conspicuously silent when the greatest war hero of them all was wrongfully arrested then. In fact the arrest was ordered by the very same people who are now calling upon the country and people to rally around them and protect the war heroes.
Revealing the stark details of how soldiers arrested their erstwhile army commander and how the valiant soldire resisted arrest, exposed the cruel irony of the army being utilised as an instrument to victimise the retired army commander who had dared challenge the ruling clan by contesting as the common opposition candidate at the 2010 Presidential poll. Writing in detail about the arrest irritated the powers that be then. Nevertheless I also wrote in detail later about the court martial proceedings against Sarath Fonseka and argued against military justice for him. Subsequently Sarath Fonseka had to undergo mock trials of different types and was imprisoned in what was perceived as a flagrant travesty of justice. It is against this backdrop therefore that I am revisiting in this column the arrest of Sarath Fonseka six years ago.
The situation in the country then was rather volatile. It was in May 2009 that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE)met its Waterloo by the waters of the Nandhikkadal lagoon. The lion’s share of credit for the victory against the Tigers was apportioned to a triad at the helm.The triumvirate comprising President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Army Chief Sarath Fonseka was hailed for providing political, administrative and military leadership respectively in the triumphant war against the tigers.
Weren’t political cold-feet and cowardice the reasons to arrest and put away Gen Fonseka?
Triumphant Triumvirate Lay Fractured
Everything seemed to be hunky dory but there was an unexpected split within this trio shortly after the military conflict concluded. Barely six months after vanquishing the Tigers this triumphant triumvirate lay fractured as Lt. Gen Sarath Fonseka crossed swords with the other two in a bitter, divisive political battle fought fiercely.Sarath Fonseka then a four-star general retired from the army and entered the political fray. He contested the 2010 Presidential elections on the New Democratic Front ticket under the Swan symbol. He was backed as the common opposition candidate against the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa by several political parties including the UNP, JVP, TNA, SLMC and DPF. It was as if Bernard Montgomery had contested against Winston Churchill after World War 2 or Sam Manekshaw competed with Indira Gandhi after the Bangladesh war!
After a hectic elections campaign marred by allegations of fraudulence, abuse of state resources and violence, the poll was held on Jan 26th 2010. Mahinda Rajapaksa came first with 6,015,934 or 57.88% of the vote. Sarath Fonseka came second with 4,173,185 votes, or 40.15%. The results were hotly disputed and the opposition levelled charges of massive vote rigging. Notwithstanding these allegations, Mahinda Rajapaksa assumed office again as executive president. The country now began gearing up for Parliamentary elections.
As the chief opposition presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka was now a formidable political figure nationally. It was expected that he would be the key player leading opposition parties at the parliamentary poll scheduled for April.
"The soldiers got hold of their former commander by his hands and legs and dragged him along the floor.Sarath Fonseka kept on shouting and struggling as he was forcibly dragged down the steps from the first floor"
On that fateful night of February 8th 2010 the defeated presidential contender Sarath Fonseka was in his political office at 1/3 Rajakeeya Mawatte ( formerly Reid avenue) near Royal College in Colombo 7 discussing political strategies and campaign tactics for the forthcoming parliamentary polls with a group of political allies.Among those participating in the discussions were Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC)leader and MP Rauff Hakeem, Democratic Peoples Front (DPF)leader and MP Mano Ganesan, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Somawansa Amerasinghe and JVP Parliamentarian Sunil Handunnetti. Fonseka’s media secretary S.H. A. Silva a.k.a “Shah” Silva was also a participant. Senaka (SHA)Silva is a former major of the Sri Lanka Army.
The highly confidential discussions were conducted behind closed doors in Gen. Fonseka’s boardroom on the first floor of the two-storeyed building.The security personnel in charge of personal security for parliamentarians like Hakeem, Ganesan and Handunnetti were waiting below on the ground floor and also in an outer enclosure at the entrance.
Even as the discussions were going on between political leaders and the military commander turned political leader soldiers of the army that had at one time been led by Sarath Fonseka were preparing to launch a special operation targeting their former commander. The operation codenamed facetiously as “Operation Fonny” had the objective of taking into custody General Sarath Fonseka RWP, RSP, VSV, USP, rcds, psc . Rudiments of the operation to arrest Fonseka was planned by Brigadier Jagath Wijesiri ,the then Army Provost Marshall of the military police and Colombo Operations Commander Major General Sumith Manawaduge. The top secret operation was sanctioned by the upper echelons of the defence establishment.
“Operation Fonny Got Underway”
It was at 9 pm on Feb 8th that “Operation Fonny” got underway. A contingent of over 200 men comprising military personnel from the Military Police Corps and Colombo Operations Command were deployed. The launching pad was the Sri Lanka Corps of Military Police headquarters at Polhengoda. A team of sleuths from the Police CID also accompanied the soldiers to provide a “non-military veneer” to the exercise.
Soldiers travelling in four buses and eight other vehicles arrived at the Munidasa Kumaratunga Mawatha-Sir Ernest de Silva Mawatha- Rajakeeya Mawatha three-cornered junction . Dressed in battle fatigues and adorned with green berets the arms wielding soldiers spread out rapidly in the area and sealed off all the roads. All vehicular traffic was blocked at vital points. Some soldiers even positioned themselves at the Bauddhaloka Mawatha- Havelock Road junction. Rajakeeya Mawatha was saturated with military personnel. Fonseka’s political office was cordoned off.
The time was about 9.40 pm when a squad consisting of military police, military and police CID personnel entered the Rajakeeya Mawatha office premises.Prior to that a contingent of military personnel had swooped down on the premises in a commando type raid. Scores of soldiers took up positions around and inside the building . The gates were locked from the inside.The Ministerial Security Division(MSD) officers entrusted with the task of ensuring security for opposition parliamentarians were all rounded up and forcibly disarmed. Two officers attempting to run upstairs were ordered to climb down at gun point. All of them were herded into two corners and detained. The CCTV cameras were switched off and recording equipment removed.
"When Sarath Fonseka was arrested there was very little media publicity about the manner and mode in which it was carried out"
Some members of the special squad led by Brig. Wijesiri and Maj-Gen Manawaduge proceeded upstairs. Initially military police led by Brig. Wijesiru burst into the room where the meeting was going on.Upon entering the room the Military Police, Provost-Marshal Brigadier Wijesiri had introduced himself and asked the politicial leaders to leave the room as the army had been instructed to detain and question General Fonseka and Senaka Silva.The political leaders had objected to this high-handed action and politely refused to vacate the room and leave the General to the tender mercies of his erstwhile military subordinates.
At this point General Fonseka had said that if he was to be arrested for questioning then it had to be done in the proper way. He said that the army could not arrest him as he was no longer in the army and that only the police could arrest him.Fonseka’s media secretary Senaka Silva had also spoken in support of the General’s position and had emphasised that he too could not be arrested by the military police as he was a retired major.When the political representatives tried to intervene they were curtly ordered to remain silent and not interfere in a matter of national security.
Provost Marshall Brigadier Wijesiri
Provost Marshall Brigadier Wijesiri then said that the General had to be taken into custody by the military police for interrogation about certain offences committed by him while wearing the military uniform.Since they were military offences it was the military police that was entitled to arrest him, emphasised the Provost Marshall.A military police officer then rapidly read out from his orders outlining the reasons for taking Sarath Fonseka into custody.The charges under which Fonseka was to be interrogated included-
a) Politicking whilst in uniform.
b) Conspiring against the Commander-in-Chief whilst in Service.
c) Harbouring more than 1,500 deserters whilst on service.
d) Corrupt practices relating to military procurements.
Sarath Fonseka then protested vehemently and asserted that he would not leave the office unless and until the police took him into custody and that the military Police had no authority to arrest him as he was now a civilian out of uniform.The military police officials seemed hesitant to proceed further in the face of the defiant stance adopted by Sarath Fonseka who reiterated that he was willing to submit to arrest by the police but not to the military Police.
Suddenly a fresh group of military personnel entered the room. They were led by Major-General Sumith Manawaduge, commanding officer of Colombo district operations in the army. Incidently it was Maj-Gen Manawaduge who was in charge of an earlier operation on January 26th-27th 2010 when a contingent of troops encircled the Lakeside Cinnamon Hotel where Sarath Fonseka and some associates were staying.
Gen Manawaduge addressed Fonseka as “Sir” and told him “I am only carrying out orders.Please come with us”. Fonseka reiterated that he was a civilian and could not be arrested by the military police. He said he was prepared to surrender to the police. Manawaduge then said the Police CID were downstairs and asked him to come. Fonseka retorted; “Ask them to come up and show proof of their identity”. At this point Gen. Manawaduge lost his cool and replied harshly. This led to a heated exchange of words between Manawaduge and his former commander. Both gave as good as they got in the choicest “Billingsgate” language.
At that juncture SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem asked Brig Wijesiri to explain what the offences allegedly committed by General Fonseka were in order to ascertain whether they warranted an arrest by the police or military Police. Brig. Wijesiri obliged by asking his officials to read out the charge sheet again. When a military official began reading them again, an impatient Gen. Manawaduge cut in rudely saying “there is no time to be reading things here. We have to arrest him and take him out”.
Major General Sumith Manawaduge
Major General Sumith Manawaduge then ordered the soldiers to seize the General and take him into custody. When the military personnel moved towards Fonseka the ex-army chief shouted out “Magey anghata atha thiyanna epa,” (Don’t lay hands on my body).Manawaduge then barked out orders to the military personnel to take hold of Fonseka . At one point he rasped to hesitating soldiers “Ai balagana inne. Bellen allaganda” (Why are you just watching and waiting, grasp his throat).
Egged on by their commanding officer the soldiers then seized their former commander and tried to pull him out. But Fonseka held on to a table refusing to accompany them. He kept on shouting “Let the police come. I will come then”. The ex-army commander who had experienced many skirmishes on the battlefront now struggled to prevent his forcible arrest at the hands of soldiers who were under his command only eight months befere. He ripped off the name tag of an officer trying to grasp him. Chairs were overturned in the melee. Tea cups and saucers and a tray of short eats fell to the floor during the tussle.
When Senaka Silva began protesting , Maj-Gen Manawaduge ordered his men to arrest Fonseka and hand him over to the police for further questioning. Senaka Silva was taken away separately and reportedly handed over to the police for questioning.Sumith Manawaduge then ordered soldiers to drag the General (adagena yande). The soldiers then grasped the hands and legs of Sarath Fonseka and tried to forcibly drag him along.
The politicians witnessing this disgusting spectacle of an ex-army chief being humiliated in this way remonstrated with the army officers but to no avail as Maj-Gen Manawaduge simply ignored them saying he had his orders. At one stage some soldiers moved menacingly towards Rauff Hakeem when he was arguing . Rauff Hakeem then told Gen Manawaduge to tell his men not to touch him. “There will be consequences if you touch me”,warned Hakeem. Manawaduge then scolded the soldiers and told them to move away from the parliamentarians.
The soldiers got hold of their former commander by his hands and legs and dragged him along the floor.Sarath Fonseka kept on shouting and struggling as he was forcibly dragged down the steps from the first floor. Some of the soldiers dragging the General were seen hitting their former commander in a bid to restrain him.One soldier was seen delivering a powerful punch to the back of Sarath Fonseka’s head.
Colourful Expressions and Choice Epithets
When the soldiers assaulted him the General retorted through colourful expressions and choice epithets in both the Sinhala and English languages.The 59-year old General who had survived an LTTE suicide bomb attempt on his life in April 2006 was manhandled roughly by the soldiers. At one point the struggling Fonseka’s flailing legs smashed into a window cracking the glass panes. After reaching ground level the General was handcuffed and then bodily carried towards a vehicle.
Fonseka then asked the soldiers to put him down saying he would walk without struggling.Thereafter a handcuffed Fonseka walked a very short distance to the bullet-proof Land Rover jeep in which he was taken to Navy headquarters. The General was wearing brown trousers and a white shirt at the time of arrest.He was detained in a chalet within the naval headquarters premises.
The political leaders at Fonseka’s office were prevented from leaving the place for about 45 minutes by the army.The politicians used their mobile. phones to alert other party leaders and the media as to what had happened. The army however blocked media persons from photographing the “arrest” and reportedly confiscated digital chips and cameras from photojournalists working for domestic and foreign media.
"It was at 9 pm on Feb 8th that “Operation Fonny” got underway. A contingent of over 200 men comprising military personnel from the Military Police Corps and Colombo Operations Command were deployed"
The SLMC,DPF and JVP leaders who helplessly witnessed the deplorable drama kept informing media persons of what had exactly happened “He was dragged away in a very disgraceful manner in front of our own eyes” Rauff Hakeem told Reuters.Hakeem described the act as “authoritarian and vindictive”.A JVP spokesman told Agency France-Presse (AFP) “The General refused to be taken away.They grabbed him and virtually carried him away after threatening the others.There must have been over a hundred soldiers”.DPF leader Mano Ganesan told the Tamil newspaper “Virakesari” that the General was “Dragged out bodily like a dog, taken downstairs,handcuffed and put into a vehicle”.
In a related development a bunch of investigative sleuths from the police went to the General’s private residence on Queens Road and removed his personal revolver after an intensive search of the premises. This happened immediately after Fonseka’s arrest.Hearing about the arrest an agitated Mrs. Anoma Fonseka stated that she was very worried about her husband’s health as he has been deprived of medication. Fonseka has to take specified medicine every six hours due to internal injuries sustained when a woman suicide bomber had exploded herself at army headquarters in an abortive assassination attempt she explained. She had neither been informed of the arrest of her husband or where he was being detained, Mrs. Fonseka said.
Though Sarath Fonseka had been arrested on the night of Feb 8th the crackdown against him and his followers had begun on the night of the Jan 26th presidential election itself. On election night (26th) Fonseka, family members, key opposition figures, security personnel , office aides etc moved into the Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel where 70 rooms had been booked. The hotel was formerly the Trans Asia Hotel. In a previous avatar it was the Ramada Renaissance hotel.After moving in to the hotel the General was so happy about the environment that he told his associates “this is going to be my headquarters”!
Surrounded The Lakeside Cinnamon Hotel.
The state media began regaling the Nation about a coup being plotted by Fonseka and 400 armed deserters at the hotel. It was also alleged that an assassination plot to kill the President and his siblings was being hatched there.The defence establishment struck!In a pre-dawn operation a contingent of troops and commandos surrounded the Lakeside Cinnamon Hotel. Maj-Gen Sumith Manawaduge was in charge of the operation. People were allowed to move in and out though some were checked. It was in a way a pre-emptive strike to curtail Fonseka’s movement.
The military personnel who had allegedly violated discipline and tied up with Fonseka were asked to surrender. After much wrangling they did so. They were made to kneel down on the road and humiliated.Other Fonseka loyalists slipped out gradually. Finally the General himself was allowed to drive out to his residence on Queens Road. Fonseka’s election office on Rajakeeya Mawatha was raided. Six retired army officers and nine soldiers working as Fonseka’s elections staff were arrested. All the computers in the office were seized.
A clean up exercise amounting to a witch hunt was on.Section 39 of Army Regulations Act of 1992 was invoked by the then army chief to send five majors-general, five brigadiers,One colonel, one Lt.colonel and two captains on compulsory retirement with effect from Feb 1st 2010. This was the largest ever group of officers to be dealt with in this way. All of them were regarded as Fonseka loyalists.The officers were-
1.Major General Jammika Liyanage who was Commandant of the Army Volunteer Force 2.Major General Rajitha de Silva who was attached to the Office of the Chief of Defence Staff (OCDS);
3.Major General Jayanath Perera who was re-called from the National Defence Academy in China where he was following a course
4. Major General Samantha Sooriyabandara who was at one time Defence Attache at the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington D.C. He was last serving at the Security Force Headquarters, Jaffna;
5. Major General Mahesh Senanayake. Who was attached to Army Headquarters
6.Brigadier Bimal Dias who was attached to Security Force Headquarters, Mullaitivu 7.Brigadier Duminda Keppetiwalana who was Commandant of the Army Combat Training School, Amparai
8.Brigadier Janaka Mohotti who was Logistics Co-ordinator of Army’s 22 Division 9.Brigadier Athula Hennedige who was Commander of the 221 Brigade
10,Brigadier Wasantha Kumarapperuma who was Commander, 553 Brigade
11.Colonel Tilak Ubeywardena who was attached to the Military Police
12.Lt.Colonel L.J.M.C.P. Jayasundera of the Vijayaba Infantry Regiment (VIR)
13.Captain R.M.R. Ranaweera of the Vijayaba Infantry Regiment (VIR)
14. Captain B. Krishantha of the Sri Lanka National Guard (SLNG).
The United National Front (UNF) head and Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe was in India when Fonseka was arrested. His deputy, Karu Jayasuriya, telephoned him and gave him the news about the arrest. Wickremesinghe said he would shorten his visit and return to Colombo as early as possible. On Tuesday Feb 9th the constituent members of the UNF issued a joint statement. It was signed by Karu Jayasuriya(UNP) Somawansa Amerasinghe (JVP), Rauff Hakeem (SLMC), Mano Ganeshan (NDF) and Mangala Samaraweera (SLFP - Mahajana Wing). It was a hard hitting statement . Here are some relevant excerpts.–
“World’s Best Army Commander”
“The military arrest of Gen. Fonseka who is a retired army official and therefore a civilian is not only unlawful but barbaric and extrajudicial and is a clear sounding of the death knell of democracy in this country. We have good reason to believe that the extrajudicial arrest of Gen. Fonseka may be followed up with an assassination while in custody on a trumped-up charge that he was attempting to escape or attack. Therefore we demand that the government ensures the safety and security of Gen. Sarath Fonseka, the army commander who led our troops to victory over the LTTE less than a year ago. How can the government treat a war hero and a commander they once glorified so vividly? In this despicable manner, today the “World’s best Army Commander” in the words of the Defence Secretary has been arrested and dragged off by his feet like a common criminal. President Mahinda Rajapaksa campaigned on a platform of gratitude but he has proved today that he himself did not know the meaning of the word”
“We believe this act is one of vengeance aimed at punishing Gen. Fonseka for daring to contest at the presidential election held last month, challenging the incumbent. The arrest follows a fortnight of intense post-poll violence unleashed by government supporters and sweeping moves to purge the government service and the armed forces of would-be opposition supporters. Gen. Fonseka’s arrest marks the climax of this unprecedented witch-hunt of the opposition in the election aftermath and we condemn this dictatorial and anti-democratic move in the strongest possible terms”.
“We, the joint opposition, call upon the people to rise up against this injustice and let your voices be heard. They may have the might, but we persist in holding the numbers. It is only unity and popular support that can pose any kind of threat to this dictatorial administration. We urge all those who believe in the need to keep democracy alive in Sri Lanka to join us and rally against this ruling junta and do whatever it takes to protect our motherland from destruction. In the past, Sarath Fonseka and his soldiers fought in the blood drenched battlefields of this country to keep us safe. The time has come for us to rise up and return the favour”.
Much water has flowed under the Kelaniya Bridge since Sarath Fonseka was arrested, detained, probed, prosecuted,convicted, imprisoned, freed and finally restored to grace as field marshal. He has also been appointed to Parliament and is now on the threshold of a challenging new assignment as minister in the Cabinet of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The dark days of his past where the former army commander was wrongfully arrested and persecuted seem to be fading away as a bad memory.
Double Standards and a Hypocritical Nature
The purpose of revisiting the arrest of Sarath Fonseka at this point of time may help to focus attention on prevailing double standards of a hypocritical nature. A tremendous outcry is now being raised by interested parties that our war heroes should be protected. The bitter irony is that some of those at the forefront of this campaign were responsible then for the arrest and imprisonment of Sarath Fonseka ! Furthermore the army was utilised to arrest the former army commander.Where were all these patriotic souls now ranting and railing on behalf of the armed forces when the ex-soldier described as the best military commander in the world was cruelly victimised and punished? Why were all these voices shouting themselves hoarse now about potential action against Sri Lankan war heroes, deafeningly silent during the wrongful arrest and vengeful persecution of the greatest war hero of them all?
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org