Page last updated at 12:51 GMT, Monday, 7 June 2010 13:51 UK

Sri Lanka threatens to execute General Sarath Fonseka

Gotabaya Rajapaksa: 'He (Fonseka) is betraying the country'

By Stephen Sackur
Presenter, BBC HARDtalk

The Sri Lankan government has threatened to execute Sarath Fonseka, the army commander who delivered victory over the Tamil Tigers, if he continues to suggest top officials may have ordered war crimes during the final hours of the Tamil war.

General Fonseka
General Fonseka wants to testify before an independent investigation

The threat, issued by Sri Lanka's powerful defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is the latest sign of a bitter and intensifying feud within the Sri Lankan political establishment, little more than a year after the end of the Tamil war.

Mr Rajapaksa, who worked closely with General Fonseka on the aggressive military strategy which crushed the Tigers, told the BBC's HARDtalk programme that the general had proved himself to be a liar and a traitor.

Gen Fonseka quit the military soon after the final defeat of the Tigers. He was the main opposition candidate in last January's presidential election.

Within days of his defeat the former war hero was arrested and is currently in military detention facing a court martial on charges of corruption and politicking while in uniform.

That's a treason. We will hang him (Fonseka) if he do that
Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabya Rajapaksa

Gen Fonseka roused the fury of the ruling Rajapaksa clan when he joined the opposition. The rift deepened when Gen Fonseka suggested there was eyewitness evidence of the defence secretary ordering army officers to shoot and kill surrendering Tamil Tiger leaders at the end of the war.

Government enemy

That eyewitness is said to be a Sri Lankan journalist who is now in hiding overseas.

The very fact that Gen Fonseka has heard the account and gives it credence makes him a dangerous enemy of the current government.

Gen Fonseka told me, in a clandestine telephone interview, that he would be prepared to testify before any independent investigation of alleged abuses during the Tamil war. "I will not hide anything," he said.

When I put this possibility to Mr Rajapaksa he responded with an extraordinary tirade. "He can't do that. He was the commander," he said. "That's a treason. We will hang him if he do that. I'm telling you… How can he betray the country? He is a liar, liar, liar."

Political fallout

The suggestion that Gen Fonseka could be executed is likely to cause a political storm in Sri Lanka. Fonseka is an elected MP and he garnered 40% of the vote in the presidential election. Capital punishment has not been used on the island for 34 years.

Defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa also ruled out any possibility of an independent, third-party investigation of alleged war crimes committed by both the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers in the final phase of the war.

"We are an independent country, we have the ability to investigate all these things," he said.

Colombo insists that no civilians were killed by the army during their final assault on the Tiger's last redoubt, despite evidence from the UN and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which points to thousands of civilian deaths.

With a strong electoral mandate and a big majority in Parliament President Mahinda Rajapaksa seems intent on ruling post-war Sri Lanka without heed to critics at home or abroad.

Powerful family

He has turned his administration into something of a family business. As well as his brother who is the defence secretary, another brother is minister of economic development, another is speaker of the parliament, and his son is a newly elected MP.

In all, the Rajapaksas are responsible for spending more than two-thirds of the state budget.

The dominance of the family is "dangerous and unsustainable," says Vijayadasa Rajapaksa (no relation), a leading Sinhalese barrister and the president's former friend and personal lawyer.

Sri Lanka's defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Gotabaya Rajapaksa said General Fonseka was "a liar and a traitor"

He joined the opposition after becoming disillusioned with the president's failure to act on repeated warnings about corruption and waste in the public sector.

Sri Lanka's budget deficit, at some 8% of GDP is significantly above targets set by the IMF in return for a $2.6bn (£1.79bn) loan package, but the Rajapaksa government is committed to a massive programme of post-war spending.

In and around Kilinochchi, the former capital of the Tamil Tiger northern fiefdom it is easy to see where the money should be going.

Houses are destroyed, farmland is lost to jungle and still swathes of territory are off-limits to civilians as the Sri Lankan army continues to clear mines.

At least the de facto internment camp at Menic Farm, which was filled with almost 300,000 Tamil civilians a year ago is now emptying fast. Every day families line up for hours in the sticky heat for buses heading to their home villages across the northern Vanni region.

We want to bring normalcy to this country, but we have suffered from terrorism for 30 years, so it has to happen gradually
Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa

But they wait with precious little sense of anticipation.

Farmer and father of three, Thambirasa Karunamurthy, told me: "We came here with one plastic bag of belongings and we're going home with no money, no assets, nothing. We have to start life again in a barren land. We don't know what we are going to do."

On every road and around every settlement Sri Lankan soldiers man guard posts and checkpoints. The government has promised to fully integrate the north into the national economy. It has ruled out significant Tamil autonomy.

"If there is no political solution the conclusion will be that the government wants to impose military victory on the Tamil people, and that the Tamils will never accept," says veteran leader of the Tamil National Alliance Rajavarothiam Sampanthan.

He talks of "organising and resisting through non-violent means".

But Sampanthan speaks from a comfortable office in Colombo. In the ruined villages of the north resistance of any sort seems like a thing of the past.

New struggle

The Tamil Tigers, for years the brutal masters of the Vanni, appear to have been finished for good. Those that were not killed in the war's brutal end-game were rounded up and detained. Just a handful of fighters managed to escape. I spoke to one man now in hiding who was a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) bomb-maker for more than a decade.

This ex-combatant, who was badly wounded earlier in the war, was twitchy with nerves and deep in denial. He denied reports that Tiger cadres forcibly held Tamil civilians in their last redoubt.

He denied the irrefutable evidence that the Tigers conscripted child soldiers and ruthlessly silenced Tamil dissent. And he denied that the war was over.

"You will see, within the next two or three years these very same Tamil people will begin a new armed struggle," he told me. "A new war led by a new leadership."

But before he hobbled away from our covert encounter - he added something else. "I am not afraid to die, but my only worry is that the Tamil people will slowly disappear."

Sri Lankans still live under a state of emergency. The war is over but the government insists Sri Lanka's security is still at risk, whether it be from Tamil "terrorist organisations" overseas, or "traitors" at home.

"We want to bring normalcy to this country, but we have suffered from terrorism for 30 years, so it has to happen gradually," says Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Too gradually, it seems, for his former friend Sarath Fonseka.

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