March 22, 2015 / 5:03 PM / 3 years ago

Sri Lanka promotes former general who defeated Tigers to field marshal

COLOMBO (Reuters) - A former Sri Lankan army general who led the military to victory in a 26-year war against Tamil Tiger separatists and later served time in jail was elevated to become the nation’s first five-star field marshal on Sunday.

Former army chief and defeated presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka waves at his supporters during a political rally in Colombo October 18, 2012. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte/Files

Sarath Fonseka had won a pardon in January from newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena after being convicted by the government of former President Machinate Rajapaksa of offences ranging from corruption to engaging in politics in uniform.

Fonseka’s promotion could help Sirisena gain the confidence of the military and strengthen the president’s position versus Rajapaksa in a future election. Sirisena on Sunday formed a government with the main opposition party amid talk of a possible split in that party as Rajapaksa gains popularity.

The 64-year old veteran, dressed in his uniform, walked to a special red-carpeted stage in front of Sirisena to hear the reading of his 40 years of military achievements and receive the field marshal baton. The ceremony included the raising of a flag with a new symbol for five-star field marshal.

“He led the military to totally defeat and destroy the terrorists with the help of other security forces,” Sirisena told the gathering. “We got freedom and peace six years ago.”

“This (the promotion) will help Sirisena make sure that Fonseka or the military does not back Rajapaksa in a future election if Rajapaksa returns to active politics,” a political analyst said.

“But Sirisena has to make sure Fonseka does not intervene in military matters since he has already retired.”

Fonseka had challenged Rajapaksa in the presidential election of 2010 and lost the election by 18 percentage points.

Rajapaksa’s government accused him of planning a military coup and arrested him one month before his election defeat. Fonseka rejected the allegation.

He was sentenced to 30 months in jail and released in May 2012.

Fonseka headed a new opposition party while in jail and won a parliamentary seat in April 2010 elections but was stripped of the post after his sentencing.

Fonseka’s party backed Sirisena at the presidential polls on Jan. 8.

Fonseka has rejected local and international allegations that he was responsible for war crimes during the final phase of the war against the Tamil Tigers and has said he is willing to testify in any international court.

Reporting by Shihar Aneez; editing by Jane Baird

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