Sri Lanka’s one and only Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka is very much in the news lately. The Gampaha District MP and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Chairman launched a People’s Revolution protest campaign against waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagementon August 11, 2023. This has led to strong speculation that the former Army Commander and ex-chief of Defence staff will act independently and throw his hat into the forthcoming Presidential Election ring.
The possibility of Sarath Fonseka being a presidential contender has revived memories of the 2010 Presidential Election. It may be recalled that Gardihewa Sarath Chandralal Fonseka then a four-star General retired from the Army and challenged the then incumbent President Mahendra Percy Rajapaksa at the 2010 Presidential poll as the common opposition candidate.
After a hectic election campaign marred by allegations of fraudulence, abuse of state resources and violence, the poll was held on January 26th 2010. Mahinda Rajapaksa came first with 6,015,934 or 57.88% of the vote Sarath Fonseka came second with 4,173,185 votes, or 40.15%. Mahinda Rajapaksa assumed office again as executive president.
Barely two weeks later on the night of February 8, 2010, the former Army Commander was arrested by members of the very same Army he had led only a few months ago.
When Sarath Fonseka was arrested there was very little media publicity about the manner and mode in which he was arrested.
Though information was scanty at the time of the arrest, this writer was then the first to report the circumstances of the ex-army chief’s arrest in English. This irritated the powers that be and their acolytes very much then. It is against this backdrop therefore that I am revisiting in this week’s column – with the aid of earlier writings – the arrest of Sarath Fonseka 13 years ago.
February 8, 2010
On that fateful night of February 8, 2010, the defeated presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka was in his political office at 1/3 Rajakeeya Mawatte (Formerly Reid Avenue) near Royal College in Colombo 7 discussing political strategies and campaign tactics for the forthcoming Parliamentary polls with a group of political allies.
Among those participating in the discussions were Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader and MP Rauff Hakeem, Democratic People’s Front (DPF) leader and MP Mano Ganesan, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Somawansa Amerasinghe and JVP Parliamentarian Sunil Handunnetti.
Fonseka’s Media Secretary S.H. A. Silva aka Shah Silva was also a participant. Senaka (SHA) Silva is a former major of the Sri Lanka Army.
The highly confidential discussions were conducted behind closed doors in Gen. Fonseka’s boardroom on the first floor of the two-storyed building.
The security personnel in charge of personal security for Parliamentarians like Hakeem, Ganesan and Handunnetti were waiting below on the ground floor and also in an outer enclosure at the entrance.
Even as these discussions were going on soldiers were preparing to launch a special operation targeting their former commander.
The operation was codenamed facetiously as “Operation Fonny” because Fonseka was nicknamed ‘Fonny’ in the Army. ‘Operation Fonny’s’ objective was taking into custody General Sarath Fonseka RWP, RSP, VSV, USP, RCDS, PSC.
World’s Best Military Commander
Rudiments of the operation to arrest Fonseka were planned by Brigadier Jagath Wijesiri, the then Army Provost Marshall of the military police and the then Colombo Operations Commander Major General Sumith Manawaduge. The top secret operation was sanctioned by the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa who once described Fonny as the “world’s best military commander”.
It was at 9 p.m. on February 8 that Operation Fonny got underway.
A contingent of over 200 men comprising military personnel from the Military Police Corps and Colombo Operations Command were deployed. The launching pad was the Sri Lanka Corps of Military Police Headquarters at Polhengoda. A team of sleuths from the Police CID also accompanied the soldiers to provide a “non-military veneer” to the exercise.
Soldiers travelling in four buses and eight other vehicles arrived at the Thunmulla Munidasa Kumaratunga Mawatha – Sir Ernest de Silva Mawatha – Rajakeeya Mawatha, three-cornered junction.
Dressed in battle fatigues and adorned with green berets the arms-wielding soldiers spread out rapidly in the area and sealed off all the roads. All vehicular traffic was blocked at vital points. Rajakeeya Mawatha was saturated with military personnel. Fonseka’s political office was cordoned off.
The time was about 9.40 p.m. when a squad consisting of military police, and military and police CID personnel entered the Rajakeeya Mawatha office premises. A contingent of military personnel swooped down on the premises in a commando-type manoeuvre.
Scores of soldiers took up positions around and inside the building. The gates were locked from the inside.
The Ministerial Security Division(MSD) officers entrusted with the task of ensuring security for opposition parliamentarians were all rounded up and forcibly disarmed. Two officers attempting to run upstairs were ordered to climb down at gunpoint. All of them were herded into two corners and detained. The CCTV cameras were switched off and recording equipment was removed. Some members of the special squad led by Brig. Wijesiri and Maj-Gen Manawaduge proceeded upstairs.
Initially, military police led by Brig. Wijesiru burst into the room where the meeting was going on. Upon entering the room the Provost-Marshal Brigadier Wijesiri introduced himself and asked the politicians to leave the room as the army had been instructed to detain and question General Fonseka and Senaka Silva. The politicians had objected to this high-handed action and politely refused to vacate the room and leave the General to the tender mercies of his erstwhile military subordinates.
At this point, General Fonseka said that if he was to be arrested for questioning then it had to be done in the proper way. He said that the Army could not arrest him as he was no longer in the Army and that only the Police could arrest him.
Fonseka’s media secretary Senaka Shah Silva also spoke in support of the General’s position and emphasised that he too could not be arrested by the Military Police as he was a retired major.
Provost Marshall Brigadier Wijesiri then said that the General had to be taken into custody by the military police for interrogation about certain offences committed by him while wearing the military uniform. Since they were military offences it was the Military Police that was entitled to arrest him, emphasised the Provost Marshall.
A Military Police Officer then rapidly read out his orders outlining the reasons for taking Sarath Fonseka into custody. The charges under which Fonseka was to be interrogated included-
a) Politicking whilst in uniform.
b) Conspiring against the Commander-in-Chief whilst in Service.
c) Harbouring more than 1,500 deserters whilst on service.
d) Corrupt practices relating to military procurements.
Sarath Fonseka then protested vehemently and asserted that he would not leave the office unless and until the Police took him into custody and that the Military Police had no authority to arrest him as he was now a civilian out of uniform.
The Military Police Officers seemed hesitant to proceed further in the face of the defiant stance adopted by Sarath Fonseka who reiterated that he was willing to submit to arrest by the Police but not to the Military Police.
Suddenly a fresh group of military personnel entered the room. They were led by Major-General Sumith Manawaduge, commanding officer of Colombo district operations in the army. Gen Manawaduge addressed Fonseka as Sir and told him I am only carrying out orders. Please come with us.
Fonseka reiterated that he was a civilian and could not be arrested by the Military Police. He said he was prepared to surrender to the Police.
Manawaduge then said the Police CID were downstairs and asked him to come. Fonseka retorted:
“Ask them to come up and show proof of their identity”.
At this point, Gen. Manawaduge lost his cool and replied harshly. This led to a heated exchange of words between Manawaduge and his former commander. Both gave as good as they got in the choicest Billingsgate lingo.
Major General Sumith Manawaduge then ordered the soldiers to seize the General and take him into custody. When the military personnel moved towards Fonseka, the ex-army chief shouted out Magey anghata atha thiyanna epa, (Don’t lay hands on my body).
Manawaduge then barked out orders to the military personnel to take hold of Fonseka. At one point he bellowed to hesitating soldiers “Ai balagana inne. Bellen allaganda” (Why are you just watching and waiting, grasp his neck).
Egged on by their commanding officer the soldiers then seized their former commander and tried to pull him out. But Fonseka held on to a table refusing to accompany them. He kept on shouting “Let the Police come. I will come then”.
The ex-army Commander who had experienced many clashes on the battlefront now struggled to prevent his forcible arrest at the hands of soldiers who were under his command only eight months earlier.
He ripped off the name tag of an officer trying to grasp him. Chairs were overturned in the melee. Teacups and saucers and a tray of short eats fell to the floor during the tussle.
When Senaka Silva began protesting, Maj-Gen Manawaduge ordered his men to arrest Silva and hand him over to the Police for further questioning. Senaka Silva was taken away separately and reportedly handed over to the police for questioning.
Sumith Manawaduge then ordered soldiers to drag the General (Adagena Yande). The soldiers then grasped the hands and legs of Sarath Fonseka and tried to forcibly drag him along.
The politicians witnessing this disgusting spectacle of an ex-army chief being humiliated in this way remonstrated with the army officers but to no avail as Maj-Gen Manawaduge simply ignored them saying he had his orders.
At one stage some soldiers moved menacingly towards Rauff Hakeem when he was arguing. Rauff Hakeem then told Gen Manawaduge to tell his men not to touch him. “There will be consequences if you touch me”, warned Hakeem. Manawaduge then scolded the soldiers and told them to move away from the parliamentarians.
The soldiers got hold of their former commander by his hands and legs and dragged him along the floor. Sarath Fonseka kept on shouting and struggling as he was forcibly dragged down the steps from the first floor.
Some of the soldiers dragging the General were seen hitting their former commander in a bid to restrain him. One soldier was seen delivering a powerful punch to the back of Sarath Fonseka’s head.
When the soldiers assaulted him the General retorted through colourful expressions and choice epithets in both the Sinhala and English languages. The battle-scarred General who had survived an LTTE suicide bomb attempt on his life in April 2006 was manhandled roughly by the soldiers.
At one point the struggling Fonseka’s flailing legs smashed into a window cracking the glass panes. After reaching ground level the General was handcuffed and then bodily carried towards a vehicle.
Walked Without Struggling
Fonseka then asked the soldiers to put him down saying he would walk without struggling. Thereafter, a handcuffed Fonseka walked a very short distance to the bullet-proof Land Rover jeep in which he was taken to Navy headquarters. The General was wearing brown trousers and a white shirt at the time of the arrest. He was detained in a chalet within the naval headquarters premises.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com