SRI LANKA: the Intended Target is Not Sarath Fonseka But the General Population
Even some analysts supporting the president have stated that the arrest of the common candidate for the opposition,
Sarath Fonseka, was unwise. They have said that this action will create unfavourable impressions of the president. The
glory earned by the president’s electoral majority may be slighted by such actions. Others have gone on to say that the
arrest was unbecoming of a victor. It lacks grace and gives the unpleasant view that the victor is engaging in revenge
on a defeated opponent. They cite the example of Dutugamunu and Elara; according to legend, Dutugamunu treated the
defeated Elara with grace.
Perhaps such analysis fails to understand the basic rationale behind the arrest and detention of Sarath Fonseka. It is
meant to give a different impression. It is meant to give the impression of toughness and create the impression of the
beginning of a period where there would be no room for mercy. That the coming period is going to be an aggressive one
against anyone who dares to oppose, in any shape or form, the government seems to be the impression that the government
wants to create at its very inception.
The target in the present arrest and detention is not Sarath Fonseka himself. The general population is the intended
target. The message in this arrest and detention and that message is that Sarath Fonseka is merely a symbol for carrying
that message forcefully.
He is suitable candidate for conveying that message. He was the former commander of the military, a person who was
second only to the president himself. Besides this, he is a military man who enjoys a great popularity. After all, from
the point of view of the election he received the largest number of votes apart from the president. The simple message
is that however tough you may be and however, popular you may be, you are of very little importance. The government will
be tough and it will take whatever steps it thinks necessary and that is the basic message that is being sent to the
population as a whole.
Why is such a message necessary at this stage? The repression that is unfolding now is different to the earlier forms of
repression witnessed in the country in the recent decades. In both the JVP rebellions the victims were mostly those who
were from a rural background and who were mostly poor and unemployed youth. Their social influence, when taken
individually, was weak. They were persons who became victims of forced disappearances or long term detainees who had
hardly any personal influence of any sort.
In the case of the victims amongst the Tamils it was different. It was a combination of young people from Tamil origin
as well as the Tamil population as a whole. While the dead might have been from a similar social background amongst the
disappeared from the JVP groups amongst those who otherwise became victims were large sections of the middle class and
even the upper class. Many of the middle and upper classes in the north and the east no longer live in those areas.
Among the shattered families are not only the poor but also the middle and upper class Tamils. The repression affected
the entire community. In the past, such was not the situation regarding the repression of the Sinhalese community.
The target of the repression in the coming period will be primarily the middle and upper classes in Colombo. Amongst
those already under arrest is not only the retired commander of the armed forces but also some of the senior officers of
the army. Also, a large number of them were dismissed from their posts. Others arrested for supporting Sarath Fonseka
are also not from the poorer section of Sri Lankan society but are from various layers of the middle classes. This is
the beginning of a different kind of repression.
Repression against the urban sector
Throughout the presidential elections those who engaged in propaganda for the government clearly indicated that they are
seeking the support the rural sector of Sri Lankan society and that they do not expect much support from the urban
sector in the Sinhalese areas. That much of the open support for Sarath Fonseka came from the middle and upper classes
in Sri Lanka is quite well known. That too was not accidental.
There is a feeling of the property systems in the country being threatened by the economic policies and practices
pursued by the Rajapakse regime. Many of the perceptions of corruption do not related to individuals benefitting from
bribery but of a more fundamental type of corruption which affects the country’s property system as a whole. That the
power of the government will be used to acquire influence to affect the very system of property holding is a real fear
that is spreading amongst the middle and upper classes.
Undermining the professionals
Another apprehension amongst the professional layers is that a meritocracy of any sort will disappear and that
connections with the ruling family will be the basis on which important positions may be obtained within the government.
The fate of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution clearly indicates the complete abandonment of any kind of meritocracy
in the country. Thus, the impression that in order to gain positions in the country connections will be an important
factor also has a disabling influence on professionals that want to maintain the pride that whatever acquisitions they
make in their society is on the basis of their professional achievements and merit. Having to demean themselves to seek
political favours in order to gain positions is a fundamentally disabling factor within the middle classes. It affects
the very pride of the people to place themselves in such a position that they and their children will have to find ways
of gaining political influence in order to make advancements in society.
Thus, there is a perception within society that the very fundamentals of society will undergo changes for the worst.
That reliance on the basic law for security has been lost and now the very place of the law in society is doubted. How
much reliance can there be in courts in the defense of one’s rights, including property rights, is very much in doubt
amongst the larger sections of the educated classes of society. There is hardly any faith in the Sri Lankan police to
maintain law and order. The policing institution has created the impression of being the most inefficient and unreliable
service within society. The fact that this institution can be manipulated, not only for political purposes but also by
criminal elements and others for the achievement of various objectives is one of the most destabilizing that can exist
within a society. Such a situation now exists in Sri Lanka.
The principle of equal lawlessness and arbitrariness
To all those who have pressed for the release of General Fonseka, the government replies that all are equal are equal
before law and that General Fonseka is no exception. Ironically, what this means is that in Sri Lanka everyone is
treated as having no rights before law. In fact, law does not mean much anymore. What the government wants to do, it
does; however arbitrary its action may be. The distinction between legality and illegality is no longer significant.
There is no distinction also between what is legal and arbitrary. The citizen is told to go to court if they like, but
there too you will be told that what the government does is always right. This is the new kind of equality that the
executive presidential system has brought about in the country. Big or small, everyone is treated with equal
arbitrariness. That’s the way things are done and do not ask anyone to be treated any better. That is the rule of the
Preparing the minds of people to accept a situation where the presidential power is beyond any challenge and the
decisions of the regime, of whatever nature, are beyond dispute, is the impression that the government now wants to
create for the new period. It is therefore no surprise that it has begun with the most popular political figure next to
the president himself being arrested, detained and subjected to a military tribunal depriving him of any kind of due
process under the normal law of the country. What the people are being exposed to is an introduction to a new set of
perspectives which, they are told, will be better for them.