Sri Lanka: Long-simmering suspicions led to Fonseka's arrest

The government grew concerned about the political ambitions of former Army chief Sarath Fonseka – who was arrested on Monday – long before he ran for president last month.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Reuters
A supporter of former army commander General Sarath Fonseka gestures to police during a protest in the Colombo suburb, Maharagama, Thursday.

Sri Lankan authorities have yet to charge former Army chief Sarath Fonseka, the opposition candidate defeated in last month’s presidential election and arrested on Monday. But already the general has been accused of divulging official secrets, recruiting deserters, and even plotting to overthrow President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

In fact, the allegations against Fonseka predate the election campaign. They stem from his ambitions in the aftermath of last May’s victory over Tamil Tiger rebels. At the time, Fonseka proposed a doubling of the Army’s manpower and claimed credit for defeating the Tigers. That stirred unease in the administration, which began to sideline him within the military command.

In an interview this week with Singapore’s Straits Times, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, claimed that Fonseka was planning on “military rule” while he was Army commander. He was trying “to isolate the politics and take the country on a different path.”

(In the same interview, Rajapaksa accused "Western countries," such as the US and Norway, as backing Fonseka. Both countries denied the accusation Thursday.)

A senior Western diplomat in Colombo says that the concern at the time seemed to be less an imminent coup than an expansion of military power under Fonseka. "If you don’t try to control this politically, no one knows where it would end,” he says.

Fonseka’s election campaign, which played up his role as a war hero and his support within the military, highlighted the growing politicization in the ranks. But the military is also influential in policymaking, particularly in the north and east where the provincial governors are both retired generals, says Alan Keenan, a senior analyst in London for the International Crisis Group.

“This is as worrisome or more worrisome than the question of whether officers support particular politicians,” he says.

During the campaign, Fonseka was challenged over his democratic credentials and asked if he would rely on the military to rule. He told Colombo’s Sunday Times newspaper that it made no sense to run for office with such an agenda. “When I was in the Army I had full control over the military. During the war I could have done it without any problem,” he said.

On the night of the election, government troops besieged the hotel in Colombo where Fonseka was staying. officials claimed to have uncovered a plan to assassinate the president. Fonseka and his supporters denied these claims, and the standoff ended.

Last week, the government purged the senior ranks of the Army, removing several pro-Foneska generals. This purge is now seen as a prelude to his arrest as it cleared the way for military investigators to build their case.

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