Fonnie Plays The Green Card

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Sunday, October 5th, 2008

Army Commander Sarath Fonseka has been much in the news recently, not so much for his military exploits, but for his assertions of Sinhala supremacy. Pouring oil into a blazing inferno, Fonseka recently recalled a childhood traumatised by belligerent Tamils: "I can still remember how the villagers used to run to a rocky cliff when the Tamils attack our village. We spen(t) two to three days there until the situation (came) back to normal." Luckily for the Army Commander, no one jumped off that cliff.

No wonder then, that he's cross, though no doubt grateful that now he's a big boy and he can teach those naughty Tamils a lesson. Mess with me, he seems to say, and I'll smack you on the hooter. Fonseka has in his fifty-something years been disproportionately a victim of Tamil persecution. There he was, on April 25, 2006, minding his own business when a Tamil Tiger attacked his car, causing him grievous bodily harm. First those childhood attacks, now this.

Repeated harassment at the hands ill-willed Tamils has left its mark on Fonseka, who is clearly not about to turn the other cheek. It has brought out the Sinhala nationalist in him, making him the darling of the Hela Urumaya, the local equivalent of the Hitler Youth. "This country will be ruled by the Sinhalese community," he said recently, "which is the majority, representing 74 percent of the population." Tamils, Muslims, Malays, Burghers... well, they're also-rans.

Having said that, Fonseka quickly realised he was on a roll. Clearly, he had rung bells in his boss's belfry. That boss, Gotabaya Rajapakse (who too, is the survivor of an LTTE suicide attack), himself recently shrugged off the targeting of Tamil civilians by his armed forces with the following gem: "We know all Tamil people are not terrorists" he said. "That is true. But almost all terrorists are Tamil. Ninety-eight percent of the terrorists are Tamil... When you do operations, of course, the Tamil community will get targeted." Fonseka and Rajapakse now find themselves blithely singing off the same hymn sheet, and in heavenly harmony, to boot.

"I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese," Fonseka told Canada's National Post newspaper recently. "But there are minority communities and we treat them like our people." Gracious of him, you must admit. The Tamil and Muslim communities must be touched.

Fonseka and Rajapakse are not without their supporters. Predictably, the Hela Urumaya has stepped into the breach. Fonseka's claim of Sinhala hegemony over Sri Lanka is, according to the Party's General Secretary, Omalpe Sobitha Thera, "nothing but a fact proven by intellectuals and researchers...  Sri Lanka is the country of Sinhala people who built its history and civilisation. People of all other ethnic groups have citizenship rights here, but Sinhala people have the unique national right in this country." He has hitherto failed to vouchsafe in us what a "national right" is, or divulge the names of those august intellectuals and researchers.

As he so often does, Sobitha Thero's sidekick, Environment Minister Champika Ranawaka too, chipped in his two-cents worth, pouring scorn on Muslim opposition politicians Rauf Hakeem and Kabir Hashim, who had found the temerity to take issue with Fonseka. "People who had entered into secret pacts with the LTTE had absolutely no right to comment on the Army Commander's comments," he maintains.

If Sri Lanka must, according to Fonseka's logic, be ruled by the majority community of 74 percent, then how is it, you may ask, that Barack Obama, a man who represents a minority of just 13.4 percent of Americans who are black, has got within striking distance of the presidency of the United States? And no one even mentions the fact that his face is the colour of Fonseka's armpit, or that he is a second-generation immigrant. We do not know what Fonseka's views are on that matter, but we salute the Democratic Party for having at least nominated Obama, regardless of whether or not he is elected come November 4.

And Fonseka should know better, because he himself - in a supreme act of selfless patriotism - applied to emigrate to the United States, leaving his beloved Sri Lanka and his majority Sinhalese brethren. And you know what? The Americans gave him a Green Card, the technical term for which is - wait for it - a Diversity Visa. Fonseka the patriot is probably the only serving military commander in the world who has applied for and taken a residence-visa in a foreign country. And it is this same man who has been awarded the highest honours Sri Lanka has to offer for patriotic service: the RWP (Rana Wickrama Padakkama), the PBP (Poorna Bhoomi Padakkama), the DPS (Desha Putra Sammanaya) and now the coveted GMGC (Give Me a Green Card).

Given that the United States is 74 percent white (just as Sri Lanka is 74 percent Sinhalese), one presumes Fonseka had no qualms about being, according to his own definition, a second-class citizen there. Sorry, Fonny, we do not see you as a patriotic son of the soil. By our scorecard its USA-1, Fonseka-0.

What the likes of Sarath Fonseka simply do not get is that their parochial world view has gone out of fashion just about everywhere else. The world is becoming an increasingly small place, and one in which diversity is celebrated, not denigrated. That is why that sticker Fonseka has stamped on his passport is called a Diversity Visa. The United States welcomes oddballs - yes, even alien army commanders - because they feel it enriches their society. All they need is a secondary education.

Whichever way Fonseka slices his arguments, the fact is that he too, is a product of diversity. Take his name, 'Fonseka,' a bastardisation of 'da Fonseca,' a reminder of its roots in the time Sri Lanka's maritime provinces were governed by the Portuguese. No shame in that, and we certainly do not think he is less Sri Lankan for his foreign name. But it must be remembered, come to that, that Yogalingam, Selvanathan and Arumugam are unquestionably more Sri Lankan than is Fonseka. After all, the Tamils were here way before the Portuguese. Da Fonseca, forsooth!

Fonseka's views are not unique, neither are they new. Just last week we buried Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, whose views closely paralleled those of Fonseka. Wijetunga, an outspoken Sinhala chauvinist, is best remembered as the Sarah Palin of Sri Lanka, having been made Prime Minister by Ranasinghe Premadasa with hardly an elementary education behind him. On Premadasa's death Wijetunge ascended to the presidency and was arguably the most ineffectual president Sri Lanka ever had (and that is saying a mouthful). At no time before him had corruption been worse, and his small mind too, strove to score brownie points with the Sinhala nationalists.

"The majority race should be safeguarded for the livelihood of the minority races," President Wijetunge famously said. "When the tree is safe, the vines can get entangled in it and grow." Needless to say, the Tamil community did not take kindly to being likened to creepers and lianas, and they voted solidly against the UNP in the general election Wijetunge called later that year, sending that party into 14 years of oblivion, 20 at least, if Mahinda Rajapakse plays his cards right. It was not for nothing then, that DBW was affectionately referred to as "Ata Pass," an allusion to his eighth-grade educational horizon. The man who wanted to be remembered as a maverick is remembered as little more than a clown.

The tragedy of the eviscerated UNP that Wijetunge left behind  (yes, the same one that keeps threatening to get on the streets but is clearly more at home in the city's banquet halls) is that it has gone a full circle, allowing itself to be painted into the 'unpatriotic,'  pro-Tamil corner of the Sri Lankan polity. Amazingly, that is a label that has stuck despite the Tamil community having voted en bloc against the UNP or boycotted in every election in the past seven years. The UNP, it seems, are gluttons for punishment, too indolent to defend themselves, wallowing in self-inflicted misery like crippled hippopotami.

With Fonseka's and Gotabaya Rajapakse's vituperative statements widely publicised in the media, the UNP maintained a stoic silence, and when forced to respond, sent poor Kabir Hashim out to face the wolves. The party's Sinhala leadership stayed well clear of the battle zone. For his part, Hashim went out and, wringing his hands apologetically, issued the mildest possible rebuke to the Army Commander, actually thanking him for liberating the Muslims of the east. Whether or not the Muslims of the east feel liberated is a question Hashim would do well to ask them. He evidently has not.

Even now, the UNP is undergoing a process of reform as it prepares to appoint an assistant leader and a shadow cabinet. The few MPs remaining in the party are jostling for position, elbowing one another with truly Sinhala enthusiasm. What the public (who, remember, pay the opposition's salaries, too) would like to know is, what do the UNP bigwigs have to say about Fonseka's claims to Sinhala domination of the Sri Lankan polity? Ranil Wickremesinghe, Tissa Attanayake, Rukman Senanayake, S.B. Dissanayake, Sajith Premadasa: bleat louder, we can't hear you.

Then again, maybe they turned the page already.

We at The Sunday Leader have never needed to be cheered on by the majority, or for that matter the minority. We say it as we see it. And of Fonseka's disgraceful statements we wish to record our shame. With high officials of his ilk - and an opposition that has a spine of which a jellyfish would be ashamed - it comes as no surprise that Sri Lanka finds itself in the predicament it does. Thankfully the Supreme Court at least is making some headway in ensuring good governance and accountability in public office. It is time Sarath Fonseka was told to put his Diversity Visa to good use and go unless he tenders an unqualified apology to all the peoples' of Sri Lanka.