SPECIAL REPORT : Part 54December 16, 2014, 6:40 pm
by Shamindra Ferdinando
In spite of helping President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government to bring its war, against the LTTE, to a successful conclusion, in May, 2009, the US stepped up pressure on Sri Lanka over accountability issues.
The US relentlessly pursued the accountability issues, in accordance with its overall strategy, meant to haul Sri Lanka up before the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The US project led to the launch of an external investigation into the conduct of Sri Lanka’s political and military leadership, consequent to 25th session, in Geneva, in March, last year.
The US, in late Nov 2011, warned, the then SLFP General Secretary and Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena, that the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) would be moved against Sri Lanka unless the defeated presidential candidate, General Sarath Fonseka, whom the US considered a political prisoner, is released from prison forthwith. The warning came soon after the former army chief was sentenced by a Trial-at-Bar, on Nov. 18, to three more years in prison.
The unprecedented warning was given during a meeting between a US diplomat and minister Maithripala Sirisena following the conclusion of the ‘White Flag’ case. Fonseka was found guilty of falsely accusing Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa of ordering General Officer Commanding the celebrated 58 Division to execute those LTTE cadres surrendering, carrying white flags. (Let me remind you again what the then US defence attache in Colombo, Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith, said in June, 2011, at an international conference, organized by the Sri Lankan Army. Smith was responding to retired Indian officer, Ashok Metha, who had been here, with the IPKF, during the 80s. "Hello, may I say something to a couple of questions raised. I’ve been the defence attaché, here at the US Embassy, since June, 2008. Regarding the various versions of events that came out in the final hours, and days, of the conflict – from what I was privileged to hear, and to see, the offers to surrender, that I am aware of seemed to come from the mouthpieces of the LTTE – Nadesan, KP – people who weren’t and never had really demonstrated any control over the leadership or the combat power of the LTTE.
So their offers were a bit suspect anyway, and they tended to vary in content hour by hour, day by day. I think we need to examine the credibility of those offers before we leap to conclusions that such offers were in fact real.
And I think the same is true for the version of events. It’s not so uncommon, in combat operations, in the fog of war, as we all get our reports second, third and fourth hand from various commanders, at various levels, that the stories don’t seem to all quite match up.
But I can say that the version presented here so far in this is what I heard as I was here during that time. And I think I better leave it at that before I get into trouble.")
Resolution moved in Geneva
The US diplomat told Maithripala Sirisena that a survey carried out by the US had revealed that the majority of Sri Lankans wanted Gen. Fonseka released.
The message was meant for President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The US moved a resolution, in Geneva, against Sri Lanka at the March, 2012, session. The resolution was adopted at the 19 session with 24 countries, including India, voting against Sri Lanka. Fifteen countries including China, Russia and Bangladesh, were among nations that voted against the resolution, while eight countries abstained from voting.
The diplomat asked the minister whether the government intended to pardon Gen. Fonseka. Its failure to do so would cause the US to raise the issue with the Geneva HRC, the envoy told the minister. He was representing the then US Ambassador, Patricia Butenis. Although Butenis had earlier sought a one-on-one with Health Minister, she had changed her mind at the eleventh hour and assigned a colleague handling political affairs (Govt. concerned about US meddling in domestic affairs, The Island, Nov 27, 2011).
The US diplomat also told the minister that the Tamil parliamentarians were not happy with what was going on. During a recent visit to Washington, the SLFP General Secretary took up the position that the TNA, though engaged in talks with the UPFA government in Colombo, was under intense pressure from the overseas LTTE activists. To the surprise of the minister, the diplomat unwittingly acknowledged that the TNA faced the same dilemma in Jaffna due the presence of ‘radicals’. The minister reminded the diplomat that those threatening the TNA weren’t radicals but terrorists.
The Island dealt with the meeting which took place at the Health Ministry, in an exclusive report, though Maithripala Sirisena nor, the venue weren’t mentioned. Maithripala Sirisena told the writer of his meeting with the US official, soon after delivering the message to President Rajapaksa. The US embassy never challenged the story, though some websites targeted the writer (E X C L U S I V E: US demands SF’s release with strap line… warns govt. through minister, The Island, Nov 25, 2011).
The US intervention should be examined in the backdrop of Butenis herself calling Fonseka a war criminal, even after the UNP-JVP-TNA-SLMC combine decided to field Fonseka as the common candidate, at the January 26, 2010, presidential poll. In fact, US embassy officials deliberated the decision to field Fonseka, with senior Opposition figures, including the TNA leader, R. Sampanthan, who privately favoured Rajapaksa over Fonseka though ultimately throwing his weight behind the war - winning army chief.
Butenis, in a cable, dated January 15, 2010, dealt with the contentious issue of war crimes accountability. Butenis implicated President Rajapaksa, his brothers, Gotabhaya and Basil, and Gen. Sarath Fonseka. Butenis pointed out "that responsibility for many of the alleged war crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa, and his brothers, and opposition candidate.
But subsequently, the US dropped Fonseka from that list, hence the decision to call him a political prisoner.
Fonseka’s release surprised those who thrived on his misery. In fact, some felt that Fonseka’s imprisonment would strengthened their efforts to invoke international intervention. UNP MP Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, PC, was an exception, whose efforts to secure an early release could have succeeded if Fonseka cooperated with him.
Today, Fonseka is backing Maithripala Sirisena to achieve victory over Rajapaksa after having suffered, losing the last poll, by 1.8 mn votes. The US embassy was represented when Fonseka addressed supporters and the media at Nawala Solis hall, to announce his future plans.
Maithripala given defence portfolio
The then SLFP General Secretary, Maithripala Sirisena, MP, had been the acting Defence Minister, at the time the military brought the Vanni offensive to a successful conclusion, during the third week of May, 2009. LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was shot dead, on the morning of May 19, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. Having appointed Minister Maithripala Sirisena to oversee the defence portfolio in the absence of the then Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wickremenayake, who was also out of the country, President Rajapaksa left for Jordan on May 15. The then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, too, had been on an overseas visit to the People’s Republic of China. Perhaps both Rajapaksa and Fonseka wouldn’t have left the country if they realized the LTTE’s collapse was imminent. Polonnaruwa district MP Maithripala Sirisena in his memoirs, Aththai Saththai (Truth, Confirming Truth) talked with pride of him being given the opportunity to oversee the defence portfolio. Maithripala Sirisena launched his memoirs in March, 2010, a month ahead of the last parliamentary polls. Minister Sirisena distributed copies at the final UPFA briefing before the poll held at the Mahaweli Centre. The writer was among the journalists who received a copy, personally from the SLFP General Secretary. Opposition presidential candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, distributed more copies when he met a group of newspaper editors at Solis hall in Pita Kotte, recently. It would be pertinent to talk about Maithripala Sirisena’s memoirs as he battled incumbent president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, for presidency.
Maithripala Sirisena recalled embracing President Rajapaksa at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) when the SLFP leader returned to the country, on the morning of May 17.
President Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena handed over their nominations to Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya on Dec 8, 2015. Among those present at the Election Secretariat, at Rajagiriya, was Fonseka.
Having switched his allegiance to Maithripala Sirisena, UPFA Nuwara Eliya District MP Navin Dissanayake underscored the importance of Maithripala Sirisena being the acting Defence Minister on more than one occasion. Maithripala Sirisena, too, referred to him being the acting Defence Minister during mopping up operations on the Vanni east front, though he never acknowledged President Rajapaksa returning home before the final confrontation, between troops and Prabhakaran, on the morning of May 19, 2009.
The army credited the fourth battalion of the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (4VIR) with the killing of the terrorist leader, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, in the Puthukudirippu area.
Maithripala on CBK
Maithripala, in his memoirs, discussed how twice-president, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, undermined the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign at the Nov 17, 2005, presidential election. According to Maithripala Sirisena, the SLFP had been under heavy pressure to name its candidate in the wake of the UNP declaring Ranil Wickremesinghe as its presidential candidate. President Kumaratunga had been severely agitated due to the Supreme Court intervention leading to the poll being called in late 2005, instead of 2006, as she desired. The Supreme Court intervention jeopardized her plans to name her brother, Anura, as her successor. Mrs Kumaratunga pushed for Anura as the SLFP candidate, whereas the majority in the SLFP, as well as those who had been opposed to Wickremesinghe, backed Rajapaksa. Maithripala Sirisena, too, had thrown his weight behind Rajapaksa. The SLFP Central Committee had met, in August, 2005 at the President’s House, to decide on the SLFP candidate. Western Province Chief Minister Alavi Moulana proposed Rajapaksa as the SLFP candidate as well as Mrs. Kumaratunga’s successor. Moulana’s proposal received the unanimously backing of the Central Committee. The decision wasn’t to Mrs Kumaratunga’s liking. Before the Supreme Court intervention, she had, on numerous occasions, expressed the opinion that Rajapaksa would lose popularity among the electorate and eventually Anura could be named the SLFP candidate. Although Anura had been in poor health, Mrs Kumaratunga believed his condition would improve, in time for the presidential election. Mrs. Kumaratunga refrained from naming Rajapaksa, as her successor, at a massive public rally organized to commemorate the 54th anniversary of the SLFP. Mrs Kumaratunga went to the extent of triggering a heated exchange of words with Rajapaksa. In spite of Maithripala pleading with Mrs Kumaratunga to stop, especially because of the presence of media, she continued. Mrs Kumaratunga had been flanked by Rajapaksa and Maithripala with Anura seated next to the SLFP General Secretary. Even at that time, Mrs Kumaratunga felt that the Supreme Court ruling wouldn’t interfere with her plan to field Anura at the next presidential election, in 2006.
A few days after the SLFP anniversary meeting, the Supreme Court declared that the presidential poll should take place in 2005. Rajapaksa immediately launched his campaign. Mrs Kumaratunga addressed only seven public meetings in support of Rajapaksa. She made her first appearance at Wariyapola. However, she refrained from urging the SLFP to vote for Rajapaksa at any of the meetings. Kumaratunga said that whoever won the election, the new president would take oaths only after Nov 23, 2005. Maithripala quoted Anura as having claimed at Rajapaksa’s final rally, at Kandy, that the Supreme Court ruling had been politically motivated. Bandaranaike attacked, what he called, Supreme Court decision to advance the presidential poll from 2006 to 2005.
The UNP further complicated the situation by declaring that some of Kumaratunga’s ministers would accept ministerial portfolios at the next UNP government. Some ministers refrained from backing Rajapaksa’s campaign. Some left on overseas jaunts. Maithripala played a pivotal role in the campaign. Mrs Kumaratunga had returned to Sri Lanka after having participated in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit, in Dhaka, Bangladesh less than a week before the Nov 17, 2005 presidential election. Kumaratunga summoned Maithripala to Colombo and inquired about the status of Rajapaksa’s campaign. When Maithripala asserted that Rajapaksa would definitely emerge victorious, Mrs Kumaratunga shot back: "A victory for Mahinda would be good for the party. But a victory for Ranil would be better for me."
Maithripala responded to CBK: How could Ranil’s victory benefit you. CBK: A victory for Ranil is better than Mahinda securing the presidency.
Maithripala: I couldn’t help Ranil win. I would do everything possible to ensure Mahinda’s victory. Having left the President’s House, Maithripala rushed to Temple Trees where he told Basil Rajapaksa that their leadership wanted to engineer Mahinda’s defeat, though he didn’t mention his conversation with Mrs Kumaratunga as he feared a major crisis.
Maithripala Sirisena recalled the circumstances under which the JVP withdrew support to the government. The JVP’s move caused uncertainty and political turmoil. President Rajapaksa had no option but to seek an understanding with the UNP leading to an unprecedented agreement between them. However, the pact signed by Maithripala Sirisena and Malik Samarawickrema, on behalf of the UPFA and the UNP, respectively, lasted four months due to the UNP declaring that it intended to form a government of its own by April, 2006.
The stage was set for the LTTE to launch eelam war IV in mid 2006, though it had been engaged in limited operations since early Dec 2005.