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 Post subject: From Hero to villain: The rise and fall of general fonseka
 Post Posted: Sat Mar 20, 2010 6:47 am 
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From Hero to villain: The rise and fall of general fonseka
We are destined to be governed by a bunch of thieves for some time to come

Sunday Leader / Mar 14th, 2010

His biggest weakness was his inability to forget or forgive those he perceived to have crossed him. In fact his reputation for taking revenge from anyone who crossed him was legendary. If General Fonseka had retired gracefully as Chief of Defence Staff he would have become a major historical figure of modern Sri Lanka and seen as a real hero by generations to come. Ever ambitious Fonseka, with a huge ego, could not contain himself. Fonseka’s rise and fall from hero to villain reflects a lot about our society. Our heroes do not know when to quit gracefully!


One of the first appointments made by Mahinda Rajapaksa soon after winning the presidential election in 2005 was that of Defence Secretary. His younger brother Gotabaya, an American citizen who had taken leave from his job to help in his brothers’ election campaign, was asked to take over the Defence Ministry immediately.

Gotabaya started by removing highly respected Army Commander Lieutenant General Shantha Kottegoda. General Kottegoda, an officer and a gentleman was sent off as the Ambassador to Brazil and Major General Sarath Fonseka was appointed as Army Commander. General Fonseka was just three weeks away from retirement.

That fateful decision by Gotabaya was to have dramatic consequences for Sri Lanka. The military capabilities of General Fonseka were never in doubt. He was highly respected and liked by the rank and file. Wherever he was in command, he took care of the soldiers but it is among the officer corps that he was unpopular. He was highly respected by his peers and seniors as an officer with ability but never as a gentleman.

From the early days of his career he faced many inquiries into indiscipline, especially pertaining to his behaviour with women. His biggest weakness was his inability to forget or forgive those he perceived to have crossed him. In fact his reputation for taking revenge from anyone who crossed him was legendary. Despite his abilities he was never earmarked as a possible army commander. Politicians feared him because he was known to be extremely ambitious and a difficult man to control.

As Commander of the Army, all of these qualities of General Fonseka came to the forefront. He transformed the army by introducing new training methods and bringing in younger, battle-hardened officers to lead the brigades and the battalions. Ground commanders were given specific targets to achieve within a specific period of time. A hard task master, his motto was “deliver or depart”. Even in the midst of a battle, senior ground commanders were removed overnight when they failed to deliver. Highly respected military analysts, both local and foreign, failed to understand his tactics and strategy and till very late in to the war were skeptical that the LTTE could be militarily defeated. The LTTE made no such mistake. The failed assassination attempts on General Fonseka and the Defence Secretary early in the war were a clear indication that the LTTE had identified the threat posed by them. If any one of the assassination attempts succeeded, it may have delivered a crippling blow to the war effort.

Even in the midst of a do-or-die battle Fonseka could not curtail his major weaknesses. Capable officers with proven track records were sidelined because they at some point in his long military career had crossed him.

Some senior officers whose careers were destroyed by Fonseka up to date do not know what they had done to anger him. His inability to face criticism led to many journalists being brutally assaulted and allegedly at least one of them, the Editor of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge being killed. The government was well aware of all this but remained silent. It was, to say the least, ‘inconvenient’ for the government to take their Army Commander to task. After all he was not doing anything that others in the government were not.

Despite claims to the contrary in recent months by the President and Gotabaya, there is very little doubt that General Sarath Fonseka played a key role in ending the war. If General Fonseka had retired gracefully as Chief of Defence Staff he would have become a major historical figure of modern Sri Lanka and seen as a real hero by generations to come.

Most people would have been satisfied with such a rare achievement. But the ever ambitious General Fonseka, now with a huge ego to add to it, could not contain himself. The man who so brilliantly led the war, badly misread public opinion and more importantly the ability of a government to destroy the credibility of an opponent who themselves once called the “best army commander in the world”.

What is amazing is that fully knowing the skeletons in his cupboard, Fonseka thought he could protect his ‘War Hero” image and be a credible presidential candidate for “change”. It is equally puzzling as to what made Fonseka calculate that he would defeat a sitting president at the height of his popularity with the backing of a motley bunch of discredited politicians. Also unimaginable was that Fonseka thought the government would not bare the skeletons in public view.

During the war, Fonseka repeatedly announced how he had brought to an end corruption in the army and most people believed that. Therefore his campaign rhetoric that he would end corruption in the country was believed by many despite being backed by a group of politicians and an ex chief justice who were perceived corrupt in differing ways when they were in power.

The current allegations of massive corruption with the help of his son-in-law, whether proved in court or not has destroyed his reputation to such an extent that he can never again be the crusader against corruption — the image he projected in the presidential campaign.

It is obvious that his popularity has hit rock bottom. Even if he wins a seat in parliament he will be seen as just another unsavory politician, and god forbid, we have a surfeit of them, already.

Sitting in his “semi luxury” prison at Navy Headquarters, Fonseka has ample time on his hands to ponder how and why the war hero of a few months ago is now facing the real possibility of a long jail term (if not many jail terms).

Fonseka’s rise and fall from hero to villain reflects a lot about our society. Our heroes do not know when to quit gracefully and we as a people are left desperately looking for a credible, committed leader who at the minimum can keep his hands off the till. What this whole episode has made clear is that we are destined to be governed by a bunch of thieves for some time to come.


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