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Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka, LTTE's nemesis

By Aditi Phadnis
Last updated on: February 02, 2009 13:54 IST
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'I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese but there are minority communities and we treat them like our people. We being the majority of the country (75 per cent), we will never give in and we have the right to protect this country. They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things,' said Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka, in an interview with Canadian magazine National Post on September 23, 2008.

Could a general in the Indian Army ever have made a statement to this effect? Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka is no ordinary general. He is the army commander in the Sri Lankan army and the man leading the military offensive in north Sri Lanka, which has virtually decimated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the world's most-dreaded guerrilla force today.

As the hunt for LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran enters its last lap, Fonseka has earned many accolades for taking the war in north Sri Lanka to this stage. Indian National Security Advisor MK Narayanan has been quoted as telling Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapakse that Fonseka "is the world's greatest army commander".

So who is this man? After surviving an attempt on his life in 2006 by LTTE, Fonseka is one of the rare officers of the Sri Lankan army who returned, vowing to hunt the organisation down.

In two years, along with the determined and unflagging support of the president and his brothers (two of the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse's seven brothers are directly involved in running the administration), the defence budget of the country was increased by 49 per cent.

Not only has Sri Lanka bought weaponry from the West, but also from Pakistan and China, after India refused to supply anything but non-lethal weapons to the island state to pursue its war against its Tamil minority.

The way the war is being run is both simple and ingenious. Having blocked LTTE's access to the sea and sweeping it from the northern plains, the army has now succeeded in boxing it into a 300 sq km jungle from which there is no way out.

The battle currently is between the Sri Lankan State and humanitarian agencies, which are saying that unarmed civilians should not become the casualties of war. Fonseka agrees, but has asserted at the same time that if the Tamil people allow themselves to be used as human shields by LTTE, they are no longer innocent bystanders.

You could argue about this but what is clear is that the pursuit of the military solution against a guerrilla group has resulted in the Sri Lankan society becoming so militarised that the straight-talking bluff soldier is not without critics.

Lankan newspapers slammed the recent purchase by the army of a new Mercedes Benz W221 (2006) S350L for its "senior leadership" even as soldiers were dying in the north. They also noted that when it came to nominating officers for service rewards last year, Fonseka recommended just one person for the highest Sri Lankan military honour, the Vishishta Seva Vibushanaya -- and that was himself.

These are not the views of the Tamils or Muslims, the beleaguered minorities in the north and east, but liberal Sinhala Buddhists who are watching with dismay where the war is taking Sri Lanka.

The recent daylight killing of respected editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, a strong critic of the government despite being a personal friend of President Rajapakse, is the clearest indication that the much-vaunted Sri Lankan democracy is being severely undermined by the spill-over of the war in the north.

There is no doubt that Fonseka is a fearless soldier, and no diplomat -- the government had to apologise recently over his remark, referring to politicians in Tamil Nadu as "jokers".

But if soldiers are employed to resolve political and ethnic problems, the democratic context has, inevitably, to head for trauma and turbulence. Fonseka is a catalyst in that process.

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Aditi Phadnis
Source: source