Digging through the archives: Following Sarath Fonseka Part 1 (pre-election)

With Former Army General Sarath Fonseka been released from prison on Monday the 21st of May 2012 I thought it was an apt time to revisit the time I spent following him during his presidential campaign in 2010 for my digging through the archives series.

Now for those unfamiliar let me try & summarise very quickly a bit about the man. The former Army General played a pivotal in ending Sri Lanka’s 26 year civil war.  Once the war was over, President Mahinda Rajapakse some argue in an attempt to sideline him from political activity gave Fonseka the post of ‘Chief of Defence Staff’, not long after Fonseka quit the post & officially announced his candidature in the 2010 Sri Lankan presidential election that he subsequently lost.  Two weeks after his loss he was arrested & found guilty for “committing military offences”; charges could best be described as dubious & varied from corrupt arms deals to plots to overthrow the government while in uniform. To date his has pleaded his innocence.  Fonseka was imprisoned for 3 years but was given a presidential pardon after serving just over 2 years & released on Monday.

For me id be lying if there wasn’t some sentimental feeling about his release, back in 2010 I had left Australia to try & forge a career as a photojournalist, I took up a post at the Sri Lankan Sunday paper ‘The Sunday Leader’. My first major assignment was to follow Fonseka on his presidential campaign. For over a month I travelled around the island from rallies in the outstations to the major cities, from press conferences to ‘kissing the babies’ opportunities.  It was exciting for a young ‘PJ’ , especially coming from Australia where I find election campaigns or politics in general dull by comparison; this campaign had a heavy weight boxing match spirit to it. In a sign of defiance against the Rajapaksa regime Fonseka not only formed his own party but had the backing & support of the major opposition party the right leaning United National Party (UNP) & oddly enough the Marxist ‘Peoples Liberation Front’ known as the JVP.

While there was minor difference in policy, the presidential battle was becoming increasingly spiteful & acrimonious. Election violence was becoming progressively worse with “pro-governement thugs” threatening & terrorising opposition supporters. The homes of opposition party members were being firebombed, buses of fonseka supporters were shot at & political rallies in themselves became violent battlegrounds between supporters.   People were getting killed & severely attacked on a daily basis.

As the campaign drew to its end you couldn’t help but feel something big was going to happen, it was a very tense time, many sleepless nights, clutching onto my phone in anticipation for a big story to cover. From a photographic perspective it was a great learning curve in terms of covering large gatherings & rallies, as a foreigner one thing that stood out for me was how passionate supporters of the various parties are, in Australia its seems rather contrived by comparison.  Capturing this ‘passion’ was equally as important as getting a good photo of Fonseka himself.

Election day arrived, people went to the polls & I sneaked my way into the polling booths (media arent allowed inside the polling halls). By midday I had got my photos & had been warned enough by army personal not to enter any more polling booths. By mid afternoon I was back at the newsdesk going through my work from the month. The only things left in the campaign were taking photos of the victor & the loser the following day…so I thought.

Part 2 to come…