UKAsian Editor's Note; General Sarath Fonseka - the man who helped vanquish the LTTE and bring to an end Sri Lanka's bloody 30-year Civil war in 2009, and who was subsequently imprisoned for daring to challenge the country's president at the ballot box - was released from prison last week.
The career military man, a war hero to many, had been jailed after standing against his former masters - President Mahinda Rajapakse and his brother Gotabhaya, the powerful defence secretary - at the general election which followed in the aftermath of one of history's most violent and crippling ethnic conflicts.
General Fonseka's imprisonment attracted widespread criticism - nationally and internationally - and was seen as yet another ploy by the ruling Rajapakse family to suppress dissent and extend its' hegemony over the picturesque island.
Some say the general's release was a way for the Rajapakse regime to counter waning support home and abroad. In spite of Sri Lanka's booming economy, the country continues to be dogged by myriad troubles: from the often brutal suppression of opposition to the government to the skyrocketing cost of living.
It is still unclear whether General Fonseka will re-enter politics. Even if he does, he is not seen as an immediate political threat as the next presidential election is due to take place in 2016.
The BBC's Charles Haviland was the first journalist to interview General Fonseka following his release from the notorious Welikada prison in Colombo.
Following is the full transcript of the interview.
The BBC met Sarath Fonseka on Tuesday morning at the rented house where the family now stays on the outskirts of Colombo. Two restless barking dogs – a Dalmation and a Dachshund – calmed down by the time we started filming and the place was peaceful, the only extraneous noise being the occasional lowing of cattle in an adjoining field. The former army chief looked tired but was due to set off to pay homage at Buddhist temples in the provinces the same afternoon.
Charles Haviland: Why do you think you’ve been released now?
Sarath Fonseka: There’s a lot of pressure on the people who were behind putting me behind bars – internally, the local aspirations of the people, the sentiments of the people, the pressure was building up. Then internationally we know that there was unlimited pressure. The international community did a great job by maintaining continuous pressure on them. Because they were interested to see proper democracy in this country. With that in mind, they I think exercised a fair amount of pressure on the people who were behind my incarceration.
CH: You have your differences with President Rajapaksa but are you grateful to him for signing the papers for your release?
SF: I will ask you the same question. If I put you behind bars, later on I put you out, what would you feel about it?
CH: Are the terms of your release unconditional – will you be allowed to go back to politics?
SF: As yet I have not seen this legal document. Unless they have remitted the prison sentence which I have completed already, unless they do that I can’t do politics. I can do politics but I can’t vote or contest. So as it is, we don’t know exactly what is there in the document but we’ll come to know.
CH: There’s still another charge outstanding against you, of harbouring army deserters. Could you still go back to court and be sentenced again or is that out of the question?
SF: Yes naturally they want to hold on to it, thinking they can put pressure on me by maintaining that. But that’s another case as far as I’m concerned. Obviously we don’t agree with the charges. If they think they can put me behind bars again using that, most probably they are repeating the same mistake.
CH: Would you like ideally to go back to politics again and challenge the president in an election once more?
SF: Umm – yes, it’s not that I want to become the president of the country or something. My intention and my agenda is not to contest for the presidential and become the president of the country only. I have a political agenda: to change the corrupt political culture in this country. As far as I can do that, I don’t mind not becoming president or not being an MP. But we’ll definitely try to gather all the forces together for that purpose. So when we go ahead with that, they will already be confronting us, obviously.
CH: How do you see yourself in terms of being an opposition leader in this country? Do you think perhaps you are the best placed to be such a leader?
SF: It’s not a case of whether I am the best or anyone else is the best. It’s a case of who is really interested, genuinely interested, about the country’s interest. Let the people decide that. The people who think that this government is not doing their job and if they think there is a change required now then they will have to decide basically who is the best person or who are the best people to do that. Otherwise I don’t want to get into a leadership clash or fighting for appointments or something.
CH: I’d like to talk about human rights issues starting with the international angle. In March the US sponsored a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva which was critical of Sri Lanka on human rights. It was adopted, India supported it, and it basically said Sri Lanka should do more to implement reconciliation recommendations which came from within Sri Lanka and should do more about accountability in respect of alleged war crimes. Were you happy to see that resolution passed?
SF: Yes – because – on certain issues in that resolution we straight away we agree – the violations of human rights, the reconciliation, yes, it’s a must, but the war crimes – there are various different opinions. So we have to argue with that, argue it out and clarify any doubts so that those who are pointing out any issues – I always believe that they must point out specific issues, then we are ready to answer them, we can clarify anything. I don’t want to hide and wait. The way some people are trying to hide their face when it comes to war crimes and other issues – it gives the impression to the rest of the world that these people are guilty of something. I have always said that I am ready to answer for any allegations about the war crimes in relation to the military operations, so that is my position.
But human rights violations, yes, and the intimidation, the people are under pressure, terrified, terrorised, all due to the abuse of power by the government – I fully agree that if there is a dictatorship, ongoing dictatorship, or someone looking forward for a dictatorship, tyrannical politics – if people’s interest is not looked after, people are intimidated, if the opposition is suppressed – then obviously if things go beyond the control of the law-enforcing agencies in the country, if the judiciary is being pressurised, influenced – then obviously the accepted thing in the whole world – the rest of the world must also take some interest in those issues to help a country out.
CH: So you say the judiciary is intimidated, that there is intimidation in wider society, threats, etc? Is this what you are saying?
SF: Yeah that’s true. Judiciary – although it is not direct intimidation there’s a certain amount of influence on judiciary because after the 18th Amendment was brought in [taking away limits to presidential terms and providing the president with numerous new powers] – Powerful, and the judges and everybody else in the judiciary, Attorney-General’s Department, everybody [is] vulnerable for a one-man show. So obviously they can’t be independent, they can’t take decisions. They themselves are human beings who have to look after their families, who have to look after their jobs. So indirectly they are pressurising the judiciary and judiciary cannot be independent under a situation like this.
CH: You’re saying that’s because the president has the power to directly appoint so many of these people?
SF: Yes. Everybody knows in this country and he’s not doing it sincerely.
CH: Before you left the army some people accused you of taking part in that same kind of culture of intimidation and threats.
SF: That is also the fault of the government. When there were incidents here and there, the government did not come out and face the criticism and settle those issues, then the people formed their own opinion. If someone is killed in Colombo or a journalist is attacked or killed, then if the government does not find the culprits, the people, the opposition will point the finger at the government and those who are – the military and the police, the people who have power. As the people who are responsible. In fact this president, very unfortunate, I know at certain media briefings , after some incident took place in relation to a media personnel, he has been saying “don’t disturb the military, if you disturb the military we will not be able to look after you” – and words like that. So obviously the people were suspicious about everybody else, not only the army I mean, the servicemen – the intelligence –
CH: So you deny having taken part in those kind of violations in the past?
SF: I had more important things to do. I was full time to ensure [indistinct word] fighting a huge war. Rather than going behind one or two people in Colombo which didn’t matter to me at all. If that is the case now, the way they are criticising me, the mud-slinging, I must start attacking each and every man in the government, if I had that frame of psychology.
CH: On the subject of the war – we’ve referred to it already – a panel appointed by Ban Ki-Moon said there might have been up to 40,000 civilian casualties – civilian casualties on a mass scale. The government absolutely rejects that. Where do you stand on this?
SF: I totally reject, refuse the numbers given that thousands of civilians died. Because I knew exactly how the battle was fought. How the military was moving forward. The reaction of the civilians. What were the civilians doing. Of course a certain amount of casualties would have been there because everybody knows the civilians were also manning the LTTE bunker lines. Civilians – there were pictures and the video footage to show that even elderly women aged 60 or 70 going through weapon training. So there is no question – of a few civilians getting killed obviously but you can’t blame the military for that – because civilians were given weapons and put in the front line, it would not be possible for the military to identify such people. But the large figures of 30,000, 40,000, dying, it was not practicable. The way we conducted the war, the type of weapons systems we used, the manuals we made, we were always concerned about the security of the civilians.
CH: So what’s your view of the idea that there should be an international independent investigation of those claims?
SF: That is up to the international community – if they have any doubts, if they have any questions they can do it. I think they have all the right and freedom to do it. Then it’s our business to confront them, meet them and discuss with them and thrash out any doubts.
CH: And Sri Lanka should be open to that?
SF: Definitely, yes.
CH: And you would be open to that even if you were to come under the spotlight of investigation?
SF: I’ve said from the very beginning, to safeguard the name of the military, those who sacrificed their lives, those who conducted that operation, I’ll come out at any time, I’m not scared to come before anybody.
CH: Who was really in charge of the war effort in the last months or years – you or the defence secretary or the president?
SF: If I could run it for two years and eight months, there was no reason for take over during the last month. Nobody else would have had the knowledge about what’s happening on the ground more than me at that time. Of course everybody wants to say, “we conducted the war”. I don’t know what they have been talking, what they have been doing. If they were discussing things without my knowledge without my presence, I don’t know. They are themselves saying they planned certain things, they worked out certain strategies, they have to answer for that then. They must say what they exactly did.
CH: But you were in overall charge?
SF: Yeah, definitely.
CH: Sarath Fonseka, thank you very much for speaking to us.
SF: Thank you very much. You take my message to the international community also. We want them to be with us, to build the country, and clear the name of the image of this country. And we need their assistance. And we are ready to cooperate and work with the rest of the world any time. Thank you.