General who beat Tamil Tigers quits to challenge the President

Author: By Andrew Buncombe, Asia Correspondent

General Sarath Fonseka yesterday confirmed that he had stood down from his position as chief of the defence staff but declined to detail his future plans. “I gave my retirement papers,” the general told reporters after performing religious rituals at a Buddhist temple near Colombo. “I have been serving my country in the past and I will serve the country in future as well.”

Last week, it was announced that the main opposition, the United National Party, had formed an alliance with nine smaller groups to challenge President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose current term ends in April. They said their main aim was to scrap the country’s powerful presidency and increase the say of parliament under a prime minister.

Now, as evidence mounts about a falling-out between the general on the one hand and the President and his brother ? who heads the defence department ? on the other, there have been a flurry of reports in the Sri Lankan media that General Fonseka is in talks with the new coalition to stand as its presidential candidate.

“I can’t comment as I am still in uniform,” the general said yesterday. “I will decide my future once my retirement comes into effect at the end of this month. I have the same basic right as anybody else.”

Some Sri Lankan observers say General Fonseka believes the Rajapaksa brothers have stolen the glory for defeating the LTTE, who had waged a bitter 25-year war, while his own role has been largely overlooked. Indeed, two months after the last of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels were crushed in May, the 59-year-old general was moved from his position as army head to the largely ceremonial position of chief of the defence staff.

While the war triggered widespread international consternation about the number of civilians caught up in the violence ? the UN estimated that 10,000 may have lost their lives ? it provided a considerable boost to Mr Rajapaksa’s popularity. Seeking to capitalise on this, the government announced last month that it would call early presidential and parliamentary polls.

“The opposition has not been able to come up with anyone else,” said one Colombo-based analyst who asked not to be identified. “But if Fonseka is the candidate it could mean that the election and run-up to the elections sees some violence. It could mean there is a split in the security forces.”

Observers say that General Fonseka is as much a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist as the Rajapaksas. Earlier this year, as LTTE troops were cornered in the far north of the island and international aid groups were warning of the threat to Tamil civilians caught up in the violence, General Fonseka said that Sri Lanka “belongs to the Sinhalese… [minorities] can live in this country with us. But they must not try to ? under the pretext of being a minority ? demand undue things”.

Last month it was reported that General Fonseka, who holds a US green card, had been asked by officials from the Department of Homeland Security to attend an interview when he was in America visiting his daughters. Reports in Sri Lanka suggested officials wanted to question him about the war against the LTTE and the role of Defence Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Sri Lankan government complained to the US embassy in Colombo about what it claimed was a breach of protocol. General Fonseka was never questioned.

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