National security is becoming another term that is exhausted on the political stage, especially after the Easter Sunday bombings. Other topics such as protecting democracy, putting an end to corruption and serving justice to politically motivated murders and abductions seem to have been sidelined. With the time ticking towards the much looked forward to Presidential Polls, candidates have been nominated from an alliance and a party. But people are awaiting the announcement of the candidate from the United National Party (UNP). While speculation is rife, Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka recently opened up to the media and said that if the UNP considers national security as a priority then he is the most suitable candidate. In a candid interview with the Daily Mirror, Field Marshall Fonseka expressed his concerns regarding those who manned the country’s defence mechanism and his thoughts on where things went wrong for the UNP. Excerpts :
They never felt the requirement that the military should be on their toes all the time
Parties are full of self-oriented politicians, especially seniors
Those who are responsible have thousands to guard them
Maybe Gotabaya is the only hope they have
We’re an independent country and have the right to appoint
After coming to power, those interested in putting an end to corruption weren’t interested afterwards
Q As a senior military officer, are you satisfied with the present defence structure in the country?
There’s nothing wrong with the defence structure. It was the same structure we had even during the height of the war. What matters is not the structure, but the people manning those positions and how it is being controlled by the topmost person. If he has no proper control, the mechanism would not work properly and there would be breakdowns. Then you would be facing unfavourable consequences.
Q What were your thoughts on the status of national security prior to the attacks?
From the time I left I knew that things weren’t happening in the proper line, even before our Government assumed power. Even five years after our Government came to power, certain people manning various positions weren’t suitable for those positions. As a result, the military and certain other areas didn’t have a proper readiness. Especially after the war concluded, they were enjoying the perks and privileges offered to those in these positions, but they never felt that there was a responsibility vested on them. They never felt the requirement that the military should be on their toes all the time. In fact, all areas were neglected. Some people appointed to various positions came with favouratism and political influences, but they weren’t the ideal people.
These days you can see various people talking about national security. Some say national security is not only with the bullet; others say that national security includes food security, the foreign policy, economic stability and so on
Q In what ways could we have strengthened national security?
These days you can see various people talking about national security. Some say national security is not only with the bullet ; others say that national security includes food security, the foreign policy, economic stability and so on. Yes, but those are as in our country were never on the correct line. In fact, we failed in those areas. But now, especially after the explosions, people are more concerned about the defence mechanism of the country. Areas such as territorial integrity, sovereignty, physical security of the people, Government property and freedom and security of people need to be looked into. But some people are holding the wrong end of the stick and are more concerned about other securities such as food security. Since the physical defence of the country was neglected, we faced the consequences and a new wave of terrorism has swept in. This was never there in the country and you could see that the people responsible are taking the public for a ride. For the past three months they were saying that 99% of terrorists has been captured, but every other day you can see that those who were trained to kill, those who have undergone weapon training, those who were trained to commit suicide are being arrested. When we try to point these things out they think we are trying to instill a fear psychosis in people. So this shows that they are still on the wrong track.
Q Let’s talk about the Parliamentary Select Committee to probe on the Easter Sunday attack. The President still didn’t appear for hearings. Why is that?
He was not summoned, but we were under the impression that he was going to be summoned during this session of the Parliament. But I think the Chairman of the Committee hasn’t delivered the letters to him so far. However, he would be given the letters one of these days. We were not very keen on indicating a particular day to him. Anyway we have to finish hearings by end of next month. So he shouldn’t wait till the last moment. By this time he should have volunteered to come.
Q Is he using his immunity as an excuse?
Those things are not forever. They exist only until one is in power. Thereafter, things like contempt of Parliament and contempt of court follow you throughout.
From the time I left I knew that things weren’t happening in the proper lines, even before our Government assumed power. Certain people manning various positions weren’t suitable for those positions
Q Do you have any concerns regarding the appointment of Shavendra Silva as the Army Commander?
He wasn’t known to the people before I took over the Army. At the time he was a Colonel. Then I got hold of him and put him into various positions of responsibility. There were ups and downs, but later on he started catching up and he did some good work in the field. After that they were in various positions without much work after the war concluded. He has been appointed over a few others. There were some good officers in the list because the Army will not have just one good officer, but many. But finally it’s the President’s decision. He is a capable officer and what matters is not what he has been doing in the past, but what he would do in future.
Q The US, EU and some other countries have expressed their concerns over his appointment. What is your opinion?
Traditionally it’s not correct for other countries to expect another country to listen to them before they appoint their Army Commander. We are an independent country and we have the right to appoint. Their concerns may have been there. They even have concerns about me. This is why I don’t get visas to go to some of those countries. The US and even though UK has not said that they will not give me visa, they discouraged me to go for a seminar when I was wildlife minister and said that it wasn’t the ideal time for me to go. I don’t know if they have any straightforward evidence or whether they have got enough proof about various complaints against these people. If they have concerns about you just because you were a member of the team who was fighting the war then I don’t think those concerns could be accepted.
Q In several places you have mentioned that you are willing to contest the Presidential Polls if the UNP is ready to field you as a candidate. Some others say you are the ideal person to contest against Gotabaya Rajapaksa. How ready are you for this post?
I spoke mainly considering the present requirement of the country. That is why I said that the Rajapaksha’s decided to field Gotabaya because they thought the security of the country should be given priority. I’m not saying he’s the best person, but that was the reason for them to nominate Gotabaya rather than appoint Basil or Chamal Rajapaksa. Maybe Gotabaya is the only hope they have. I think even the UNP would have to give the right priority when they think of their candidate. We had the Presidential election where people went round the country promising various things but they never delivered. Some of the things they have been saying have been repeatedly said during the past many years as well. Without security, nothing will happen in the country. If the security is threatened, then there would be terrorism in the country and they would not be able to deliver anything they promised. So I thought that the UNP should also think on the same lines. Some people have spoken to me and have encouraged me to come forward if there’s a requirement. If security is the priority, I think I’m the person because I’m the only person who has been in the military. So if that is the national requirement I don’t think I would say no.
Q What about his economic vision and his ability to garner votes from the minorities?
I think the minorities can generate over a million votes. Some think that by provoking the Sinhala Buddhists that they could get those votes, but it would not happen. Even if you get 30% of Sinhala Buddhist votes and if you get minority votes after that, then you would get more votes than your opponent. Minorities are also citizens of this country and it’s good if someone can keep them in the mainstream and win their confidence too rather than trying to
promote extremist thinking.
Q The UNP is still indecisive about the Presidential candidate and it’s a known fact that there is an internal crisis. Why does it reflect badly on a Party that was once hailed as the most powerful single party?
It reflects badly on the discipline of the Party. If the Party lacks discipline they would be facing many problems. There’s a Party Constitution, a Party Leader and office bearers, but here is a situation where the Chairman of the Party is saying no to the Leader of the Party. This is because the political culture that this Party and various other Parties have been going through is mainly self-oriented. Parties are full of self-oriented politicians, especially seniors. 80% of the seniors are more concerned about their political future than the future of the country. As a result they form gangs within the Party and try to promote some individual to pursue their own individual agendas. None of these things is in line with the national agenda.
I thought that the UNP should also think on the same lines. Some people have spoken to me and have encouraged me to come forward if there’s a requirement. So if that is the national requirement I don’t think I would say no
Q Where do you think things went wrong for the UNP?
Finally you have to say that if there are problems within the Party it is the Leader’s responsibility to rectify them. Most probably it didn’t happen at the right place and as a result things have been aggravated now. The Leader should have been doing it intelligently. Now we are in a bit of chaos. Apart from a few we are still cooperating with him. For example, some state ministers are not agreeing with the Leader since they weren’t given Cabinet portfolios. Some Ministers are angry because they weren’t given powerful ministries. Finally the leader has to face the music and at least now he must put his foot down, take stern action and try to clear this problem. Forget about winning the election for the time being; first the House must be put in order.
Q Names of Lasantha Wikrematunga, Thajudeen and other murders became political topics. This was the same with the Easter attack. What are your thoughts?
It shouldn’t happen like that. Even we were on stage shouting against murder, corruption and abductions, but after coming to power, those interested in putting an end to corruption weren’t interested afterwards. For example there was a lot of obvious evidence for the Wasim Thajudeen murder, but still the cases are not progressing. Definitely proper action must be taken. In future if at least the media is sincere, they too should promote the correct people. The media too are backing wrong people for their personal gains. In fact the media are very much responsible for this mess. The day the media are on the right line, many things would happen properly.
Q The topic of corruption has been sidelined from the political stage. Why is that?
That is because these people have deals. Whatever the Party that they are members of, whether they are in the Government or opposition, many of them have deals. For example, these days you can see some people criticizing Gotabaya in the evening and two hours afterwards they go to his place to wish him well. It’s happening in all Parties. In order to correct this situation a lot of commitment must be shown by the media.
Finally you have to say that if there are problems within the Party it is the Leader’s responsibility to rectify them
Q How could we focus on strengthening national security while ensuring people’s freedom?
In order to ensure the freedom, you need to ensure the security of the people and society. If there is terrorism and if you have been sleeping until terrorism raised its ugly head, even if you want to suppress it obviously people would face hardships. There will be restrictions, security checks, control of movement etc. This is why you should ensure that terrorism never returns. Even now, people have freedom, but terrorists are free. The politicians are safe and those who are responsible have thousands to guard them. The STF has a strength of 8000 people and 1/4th of it is guarding two VIPs. People can’t fight alone unless the media back them. But what we see is that the media are still trying to cover up some culprits who were responsible for this mess and give a different impression to the people.