Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Sri Lanka’s ‘missing persons’ and relevance of a Norwegian suicide bomber of Somali origin

British Labour Party MP Siobhain McDonagh places the number of Tamils unaccounted for at 150,000



Premakumar Gunaratnam/Noel Mudalige with his wife, Champa, at their home in Australia picture courtesy Anthony Johnson of The Sydney Morning Herald.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

With the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) now set to initiate an investigation, targeting Sri Lanka, it would be pertinent to inquire into the basis of the major accountability issues confronted by President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government.

Undoubtedly, the alleged killing of over 40,000 Tamils, during the final phase of the conflict, would be the serious most issue, though the government faced a spate of accusations, ranging from use of cluster ammunition, against civilians, to systematic rape of Tamil women - both civilian as well as LTTE combatants.

The government would have to take tangible measures to identify those who had been included in the missing persons - lists hence presumed dead - while comfortably living abroad. In the absence of a cohesive strategy to counter LTTE and Western propagandists, the alleged killing of over 40,000 civilians remained an extremely serious issue. But a British Labour Party MP for Mitcham and Morden, Siobhain McDonagh, told British Parliament that fighting claimed the lives of 100,000 Tamil civilians and LTTE combatants. McDonagh recently alleged that the Sri Lankan military dropped cluster bombs on areas designated as no fire zone. The MP declared that even now nearly 150,000 Tamils remain unaccounted for. She was addressing the Westminster Hall debate on March 25, 2014.

How many of those unaccounted could be living in the UK, Canada, Norway or some other developed country. The growing influence the Sri Lankan Tamil community is having in Canada and the UK is due to more people receiving voting rights. No less person than former British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, acknowledged the increasing importance of the Tamil electorate. Miliband’s reasoning wouldn’t have come out if not for Wiki Leaks.

In spite of the government’s decision to shun the UN investigation, it would be necessary to launch a special project to identify those who had received foreign passports during Eelam War IV (August 2006 to May 2009) and the post-war period. A substantial number of persons, categorized as missing, could be living overseas, under different names. The possibility of some of them also having new identities, courtesy some ‘friendly’ countries, cannot be ruled out. Sri Lanka is in a quandary over Western powers refusal to help identify those who had been given new identities. Western powers had turned down Sri Lanka’s plea citing security reasons. Sri Lanka is not the only country facing a similar situation.

In March, 2014, Somali terrorist group Shebab identified suicide car bomber, Abdullahi Ahmed Abdulle, who had targeted a hotel at Buulo Burde, in southern Somalia, as a Norwegian of Somali origin. The AFP, in a Mogadishu datelined story, quoted Shebab military spokesman, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Abu Musab, as having said: "The attacker of Buulo Burde was a 60-year-old man who came from Norway to fight the enemies of Allah. He paid the sacrifice in order to be close to Allah by killing his enemies. The event is showing us that there is no age limit for Jihad."

Shebab mounted a car bomb attack in response to a large scale military operation launched by African Union forces. The Norwegian of Somali origin was perhaps the oldest person to carry out a suicide mission. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know the circumstances under which the Shebab terrorist had entered Norway, secured citizenship and subsequently returned to Somalia to launch a suicide mission on March 18, 2014 (Shebab says latest suicide bomber was 60-year-old from Norway-AFP, March 19, 2014). Did the Norwegian Foreign Service have any hand in helping the Shebab terrorist leave Somalia clandestinely? Sri Lanka should study such cases. In fact, the police should seek information from Somalia through relevant agencies as a country affected by terrorism. The government shouldn’t turn a blind eye to what was happening in other parts of the world. Had the Shebab killer received political asylum in Norway. Had he been involved in terrorism or engaged in activities against the state at the time he entered Norway. Commonwealth member state Kenya was another country badly threatened by foreign terrorists of Kenyan origin. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan government had never realized the need to examine similar threats faced by other countries.

A clandestine Norwegian project

Sri Lanka should take up with Norway the contentious issue of Norwegians of Sri Lankan origin. Norway cannot remain mum especially in the wake of one of its citizens of Somali origin carrying out a suicide mission targeting the army. A substantial number of Sri Lankans, including members of the LTTE had received Norwegian citizenship - hence the freedom to travel in Europe, as well as the Scandinavian region, without any hassle. Had some of them given new identities or in special cases changed ethnicity. Although Sri Lanka summoned the then Norwegian ambassador, Hilde Haraldstad, over a secret project to help Sri Lankans leave the country, the government never really pursued the case. The then Foreign Secretary, Karunathilake Amunugama, raised the issue on behalf of External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris (Helping 12 persons out of Sri Lanka: Government summons Norwegian envoy-The Island March 20, 2011). Denying any wrongdoing on Norway’s part, Haraldstad insisted she was not at liberty to discuss individual cases. The External Affairs Ministry never pursued the clandestine Norwegian project.

The Norwegian envoy was summoned in the wake of Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten, in its May 12, 2011, edition revealing Norwegian diplomatic mission in Colombo buying air tickets for twelve would be Sri Lankan asylum seekers deemed to be at risk in Sri Lanka. Aftenposten quoted one-time Norwegian peace envoy in Sri Lanka, Erik Solheim, as having endorsed the project undertaken by the Norwegian diplomatic staff in Colombo. Solheim also accused Sri Lanka of ex-judicial measures, including killings during the last phase of the conflict. Haraldsrad said that she couldn’t confirm the figure given by Aftenposten with regard to the number of Sri Lankans given political asylum in Norway. Although the number of Norwegians of Sri Lankan origin is relatively smaller when compared with communities in Canada or the UK, the Norwegian grouping is one of the most influential among pro-separatist Diaspora.

Gunaratnam/Mudalige affair

Now that Sri Lanka designated 16 groups and 424 individuals under United Nations Security Council Regulation 1373, the government should make every effort to identify Sri Lankans living abroad with new identities. There could be many such cases of Sri Lankans assuming new identities for political as well as economic reasons. There cannot be a better example than the permanent disappearance of one-time JVP heavyweight, Kumar Gunaratnam aka Premakumara Gunaratnam, in Sri Lanka to draw attention to Sri Lanka’s dilemma. The case of Gunaratnam, one-time Central Committee member of the JVP and the only CC member to survive the government crackdown except Somawansa Amarasinghe, is definitely not an isolated one. Having arrived secretly in Sri Lanka, Gunaratnam formed a breakaway JVP faction, called the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP). When Gunaratnam disappeared along with another activist, Ms. Dimuthu Attygalle, the FSP accused intelligence services of holding him at a secret detention facility (Government rejects allegation that rebel leaders are in custody-The Island April 8, 2012). But when he suddenly emerged without a scratch and wanted to leave the country, no less person than Australian High Commissioner in Colombo, Robyn Mudie, produced Gunaratnam’s passport issued courtesy the government of Australia bearing the name Noel Mudalige. Sri Lanka requested HC Mudie to prove Gunaratnam’s arrival in Sri Lanka after she sought Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s intervention to locate the missing man whom she identified as an Australian citizen. Sri Lanka requested the top Australian diplomat to prove Gunaratnam’s arrival in Sri Lanka as records at Bandaranaike International Airport didn’t show any Australian passport holder by that name entering the country (Australia asked to prove Gunaratnam’s return to Colombo-The Island April 9, 2012).

Australia alleged that the Gunaratnam/Mudalige was seized from a house at No 29, Gemunu Mawatha in the Kiribathgoda police area.

Among those who issued statements condemning the government over the disappearance of political activists was UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Wickremesinghe alleged that continuing disappearances, in spite of the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009 proved the deterioration of law and order and the government’s failure to tackle the situation (Ranil alleges 56 abductions so far this year-The Island April 9, 2012).

Gunaratnam’s brother, Ranjitham, a senior JVPer, was killed during the 1987-1990 insurgency.

The Australian of Sri Lankan origin was sent back to Australia on April 10, 2012. His Australian passport, bearing number of N 1016123, revealed that the Sri Lankan Tamil entered the country as Noel Mudalige on September 4, 2011 (Abductors grilled me on party’s future-FSP leader with two strap lines, Gunaratnam deported to Australia yesterday and Australian HC produces missing passport-The Island April 11, 2012).

The Australian High Commission never responded to The Island reports.

None of those who had expressed concern over the disappearance of the FSP leader bothered to examine the Australian hand in the sordid project. The FSP never explained why its leader had obtained Australian citizenship in spite of heading a political party. A few hours after Gunaratnam/Mudalige’s deportation, External Affairs Minister Prof. Peiris told the writer: "It was unfortunate that whenever someone had withdrawn from society for personal reasons, or gone underground deliberately to cause embarrassment to the government of Sri Lanka, an accusing finger was always pointed at the administration."

After returning to Australia, Gunaratnam/Mudalige alleged that he was handcuffed, blindfolded and physically and sexually tortured during the three-day detention. The Australian never made such allegation when the police recorded his statement in the presence of Australian diplomatic staff at the CCD headquarters at Dematagoda.

Many of those listed missing during the war could have obtained new identities courtesy foreign governments. Some could have obtained new passports by producing forged documents or received passports with the intervention of Foreign Service as in the case of Norwegian diplomatic staff in Colombo facilitating some persons to leave the country secretly. If not for the revelation made by the Norwegian media, Sri Lanka would never have heard of the clandestine operation. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka squandered an opportunity to conduct a thorough investigation into the Norwegian affair.

The shocking intervention made by the British High Commission following the arrest of a Canadian of Sri Lankan origin involved in the smuggling of heroin into Sri Lanka from Pakistan highlighted the need to be on alert. The British sought freedom for the Canadian on the basis of him being an informant of theirs ‘run’ by the British High Commission in New Delhi (UK intervenes on behalf of Canadian held for heroin smuggling with strap line Man from Delhi in Colombo for ‘rescue’ bid-The Island April 10, 2014) The Canadian government acknowledged the arrest though it declined to discuss the issue. Canada is reluctant to share information as regards the suspect. Although the suspect carried a passport bearing the name of a Muslim his real identity can be different (Canada confirms arrest, won’t release details with strap line UK’s Canadian informant in custody over heroin charge-The Island April 18, 2014) Sri Lanka needs the support of the international community to identify those living abroad while being listed as missing.

A paradigm shift in Australian position

Australian Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, last week revealed plans to expel a group of Sri Lankan asylum seekers who had reached Australia before the last parliamentary polls. The revelation was made at a meeting of the Australia-Sri Lanka Joint Working Group tasked with tackling illicit migration. Minister Morrison said that the Sri Lankans had reached Australia through other countries. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa spearheading Sri Lanka’s efforts against the LTTE rump led the Sri Lankan delegation at the Canberra talks. Australia has expelled well over thousand illegal immigrants of all communities over the past few years, while the UK too, repatriated over 1,000 asylum seekers since the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009.

Some of those who had been categorized as missing due to the conflict here could have perished while trying to reach Australia during the past five years. Australia believes that hundreds of people of different nationalities died on their way to Australia. Australia as well as ‘source’ countries like Sri Lanka never made a genuine attempt to identify victims. Families of those who had disappeared on their way to Australia in boats remained silent. Those who have been strongly critical of tough Australian laws meant to discourage would be asylum seekers turn a blind eye to people drowning in rough seas. Had there been closer operation among countries in the region, those fleeing Sri Lanka couldn’t have reached Australia to secure political asylum on false grounds. Fortunately, since the change of Australian government last year there has been a sharp change in Australian attitude. Australia no longer tolerates bogus asylum seekers trying to exploit Australian laws to their advantage. Australian leader Tony Abbott during his visit to Colombo last November declared that Australia would do everything possible to stop boat loads of bogus asylum seekers reaching Australia. Unfortunately, none of the other countries, which attracted bogus asylum seekers, seemed to be interested in taking a tougher position. Obviously, their position is influenced by the electorate. The forthcoming parliamentary polls in Canada and the UK will further strengthen the hands of those trying to use the growing Tamil electorate as a political tool.