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Fonseka: A Sri Lankan Phenomenon

[The Sunday Leader.lk, Saturday, 13 February 2010 19:36 No Comment]

ASD The light breeze on Hulftsdorp Hill was very pleasant around 10:35 a.m. on Wednesday last, the day that the Opposition Alliance had planned on a satyagraha style peaceful protest. They would protest what they perceived to be the unfairness of the arrest of their hero, the defeated presidential candidate, Sarath Fonseka.

A very heavy police presence along with a bus load of riot squad personnel, complete with tear gas and water cannons, gave the game away. Not to my untrained eye, but to my experienced colleague who took it upon herself to ‘show me the ropes.’ There was no rope in sight: there was however a number of steel barricades and even more policemen. In fact there were more policemen than people at 10:35.

The statute of the ‘common man’s President’ Ranasinghe Premadasa shone brightly in the bright sun and it was a lovely, crisp morning. There was little time to chat: within minutes – not more than 10 minutes since our arrival – a small crowd of supporters carrying Mahinda Rajapaksa’s photograph, started booing the opposition crowd who were making their way towards the court complex to participate in the peaceful protest.

The booing progressed to throwing stones. The police stood by quite undecided in what they were to do. Moments later it stopped but not before an innocent and unrelated young man, ferrying some documentation to the court, was caught up in the battle and whipped with a piece of angle iron, a wooden pole and kicked as well, for good measure.
The attackers, sensing perhaps that they may be overpowered, hid behind the police lines, by the parked buses. One man, a vociferous supporter of the government, who was in a wheel chair, kept taunting the opposition crowd. He seemed pre-occupied by his mobile phone, speaking frequently into it. Taking instructions or an intrepid reporter was my hunch. The policeman atop the building housing Standard Chartered Bank, was filming away. I hope he got a good clip of the young Buddhist monk who must have missed his real calling in life as a thug or underworld war lord:  he was stoning the crowds from within the “opposition side.”

All this while, the Sri Lanka flag fluttered majestically on its flagpole in the Supreme Court’s car park.

The opposition crowd was growing steadily and was made up by Fonseka’s supporters from all walks of life. It was clear that the mob of supporters coming in the cause of the government, were mainly budding thugs, dressed quite shabbily and who were, shall we say, in “high spirits”?

Within moments the whole scenario started again: the troops had closed off the road leading to the Hill but there were people on the hill at the time. The small group of perhaps 75 people carrying Mahinda Rajapaksa’s picture were next to the  Premadasa statue, with the riot police standing between them and the large opposition crowd, by now numbering perhaps 600.

The opposition crowds booed, the smaller crowd opposite responded with bricks, glass bottles, pebbles, rocks and yes, even the ubiquitous red brick, without which such peaceful demonstrations would simply not be fun. I had my instructions: run, now! I decided that running towards the main gates of the Supreme Court would surely be best. “You’re mad” was my colleague’s response as she directed me towards the car. And then it happened: the tear gas was fired with one canister falling close by near enough for me to stop, turn and peer at that.

But my amazement of Sri Lankan values and the politics of this country had gone straight out of the window. I simply could not believe that within sight of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, a place where passing motorists shall not toot lest it interfere with the sanctity of the Courts Complex, a pitched battle was taking place, with the police utterly lost and undecided. The opposition crowds chased their detractors away and the tear gas pushed the crowds back and some left. If that was the intention of the small band of thugs who made up government support, then they had indeed won.

On the other side of Hulftsdorp, the water cannon was used to quell the crowds. Our cameraman got what he described as a free “massage”: he was set upon by a gang who didn’t quite like the photographs he was taking.  In fact though they may have simply wanted to rob him of his expensive cameras.  The massage came to a premature end when a rather sensible sort from the crowd asked the others to stop. Thank God for small mercies.

What was unpalatable in the extreme was the fact that a very significant number of lawyers participated in this poorly thought and provoking demonstration, which the police certainly should not have permitted. They should have closed the area off and granted access only to bona fide visitors who had business within the courts complex.

Instead, without thinking of the repercussions or perhaps knowing very well the repercussions, the demonstrators from both sides were allowed to proceed up to the statue. When mayhem broke out the pictures say more than a thousand words: in the backdrop of the Supreme Court, with the Sri Lankan standard flying proudly, a mini battle was going on.

What a message to send to tourists who would now be planning their summer and winter holidays. Sri Lanka has the uncanny ability to shoot itself in the foot: with all the experience of quelling the LTTE and keeping tabs on them in Colombo, the police did very little active policing on the day – letting chaos rule the day. Precisely what I reminded General Fonseka would happen if he called people to come on the streets. There really is no such thing as a peaceful demonstration when both warring sides take each other on.

General Sarath Fonseka, Commander of the Sri Lankan Army and later Chief of Defence Staff, has had almost a spectacular military career.

Sri Lanka has a vibrant democracy – in fact has had for its full 62 years of Independence — and the failure of successive governments to identify the frustrations of its minority communities had disastrous results. S.W.R.D Bandaranaike shamelessly used the Sinhala-only nationalistic card to be elected in 1956 and the troubles simply escalated from then onwards. Dynastic politicians in Sri Lanka have proven to be the bane of this country: SWRD in 1956, Bandaranaike thereafter, J.R. Jayewardene and Kumaratunga. The one man who appeared to be able to break the mould, Ranasinghe Premadasa was gunned down, his political journey not complete.

The opposition parties did well to identify in General Sarath Fonseka a man who appeared to be able to hold and enthral the public at large. Claims that he was fit to run just the Salvation Army were quickly swept under the carpet and Mangala Samaraweera, Sri Lanka’s answer to Sir Thomas Moore, “the man for all seasons”, propelled and fanned the rather large and legendary ego Sarath Fonseka has.

Samaraweera commandeered the likes of the JVP – with whom he has previous experience — and in a bizarre partnership, managed to enlist the grudging support of Ranil Wickremesinghe, Leader of the Opposition and the United National Party (UNP).  Wickremesinghe, recognising his inability to defeat the incumbent President, quickly lent his support to the Fonseka candidacy, in the secure knowledge that in defeat the General would present little problems, and that his own position as Leader of the Opposition would be in tact.

General Fonseka made his ground quickly. Interspersed with veiled threats to “reveal all”  he traversed the country, attracting large crowds in most places. To be fair, his chances were always “50 50”. He as a novice, possibly misunderstood the crowds. The crowds no matter however large, do not always vote in the same ratio. There was also of course, the curiosity factor. The crowds around the country wanting to see and hear the Commander who knocked the LTTE out.

When finally the thrill of the race began to wane as it became clear from their own polls that the President was leading, coupled with the news that big business was unwilling to fund him in a significant manner due to the JVP presence, the dreams started to turn into nightmares.

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