SPECIAL REPORT : Part 170May 23, 2017, 12:00 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Controversy surrounds Sri Lanka’s decision to do away with the annual Victory Day parade in the wake of the change of government in January 2015.
Mathripala Sirisena was able to achieve what war winning Army chief General Sarath Fonseka failed in January 2010.
The previous government celebrated Sri Lanka’s triumph over LTTE terrorism with a magnificent armed forces and police parade. The annual event reflected the liberation of the Eastern Province (Aug 2006-July 2007) and the Northern Province (March 2007-May 2009).
Sri Lanka brought the war against the LTTE to a successful conclusion on May 19, 2009 on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. The Eelam war IV lasted two years and ten months.
Unfortunately, those who had achieved unprecedented victory and brought relief to the people and also removed regional security threat couldn’t resolve issues among themselves. Those who propagated the myth that the LTTE couldn’t be defeated exploited differences among opponents causing political chaos. Those who played politics with Sri Lanka’s finest victory forgot sacrifices made by the armed forces. Over 6,000 officers and men sacrificed their lives since the resumption of the war in 2006. Of them nearly 2,400 perished during January-May 2009 on the Vanni east front.
The conclusion of the conflict brought relief to the Tamil community. Eradication of the LTTE ended the despicable practice of forced recruitment of their children. It would be pertinent to mention that the LTTE continued child recruitment in spite of it promising the UN way back in 1998 to halt deploying of children in high intensity battles. Tamil speaking people had every reason to celebrate the elimination of the scourge of terrorism.
Within 24 hours after the final battle, the Army cremated several hundred bodies, including that of Prabhakaran and his family, and threw their ashes to the sea.
Inclement weather forced the previous government to cancel the first Victory Day parade by the tri-services, and the police, scheduled for May 20, 2010.
The Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) led Tamil National Alliance, foreign funded civil society organizations, as well as a section of the international community resented the Victory Day parade. They alleged that as such celebrations hurt the feelings of the Tamil speaking people, the government should cancel the annual event. In other words, they acknowledged that the LTTE consisted of almost all Tamil speaking Sri Lankans hellbent on driving out the Army from the Northern Province. The TNA conveniently forgot how the LTTE formed the grouping and then compelled it to recognize it as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people.
The war-winning Rajapaksa government quite rightly ignored their calls to cancel the much respected Victory Day parade. But those who had been wanting to haul Sri Lanka up before an international war crimes court/hybrid war crimes court strongly pushed for the cancellation of the event.
In the run-up to the 2014 Victory Day parade, in Matara, Canada publicly declared that it wouldn’t be represented. It was the fifth Victory Day parade held amidst stepped up international pressure.
Canadian High Commissioner in Colombo, Shelly Whiting, in a strongly worded statement, issued exclusively to ‘The Island’, explained the Canadian decision to boycott the event. The writer front-paged Whiting’s statement, in the May 16, 2014 edition of The Island. The then Military spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya explained Sri Lanka’s right to continue with the Victory Day parade, on the following day.
The following is the text of Shelly’s statement headlined ‘Canada to boycott Victory Day parade’ with strap line ‘such events won’t help post war national reconciliation’: "As in past years, heads of mission, resident in Sri Lanka, have recently received invitations to participate in this year’s Victory Parade, scheduled to be held, in Matara, on May 18. As Canadian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, part of my role includes celebrating the successes of the country, alongside the Sri Lankan people. However, I will not be attending the Victory Day Parade on May 18. Some commentators will no doubt rush to judge and erroneously conclude that I am doing so out of some misplaced nostalgia for the LTTE. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Let me be clear the LTTE was a scourge that brought untold suffering to this island nation and all its people.
Prior to arriving in Sri Lanka, my previous assignment was in Afghanistan where I saw first-hand the terrorist tactics (use of suicide bombers, IEDs) that are sadly the LTTE’s legacy to the world. The LTTE and its supporters were ruthless and single-minded, and did not faithfully represent the political aspirations of the communities they purported to represent. Canada joined the world in welcoming the defeat of the LTTE in 2009. In fact, the LTTE has been proscribed as a terrorist entity in Canada since 2006. To help stop the flow of funding to the LTTE, Canada further proscribed the World Tamil Movement (WTM) in 2008. Both of these organizations remain banned in Canada today.
However, five years after the end of the conflict, the time has arrived for Sri Lanka to move past wartime discourse and to start working seriously towards reconciliation. It is time to mend relations between communities and to ensure that all Sri Lankans can live in dignity and free from discrimination, based on ethnic, religious or linguistic identities. Fathers and daughters, sons and mothers, all were victims, who were killed or never returned home at the end of the conflict. No community here – whether Sinhalese or Tamil, Muslim or Burgher – was spared during the conflict. In this vein, Canada has encouraged the Government of Sri Lanka to retire its annual Victory Day Parade, which perpetuates roles of victors and vanquished within the country, for a day of remembrance for all those who suffered as a result of the conflict. Indeed, Sri Lanka’s own homegrown Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report recommends that a solemn day of remembrance for all victims of the war would be more conducive to sustaining peace here. Such a gesture would go a long way towards putting wartime posturing behind Sri Lanka.
I will not be in Matara, but I will be thinking and remembering all those who lost their loved ones over the thirty year conflict."
Let me also reproduce Whiting’s tweet on post-war reconciliation process:" Remembering all those affected by the decades long conflict and thinking of the families who still seek answers.
= As new policy states reconciliation and coexistence involves protecting the rights and interests of missing persons and their families.
= Eight years after the end of the conflict, further progress towards the establishment of a functioning OMP is urgently needed."
Canadian statements essentially reflected the opinion expressed by all those who had backed Oct 1, 2015 Geneva Resolution co-sponsored by the yahapalana government. The yahapalana government reiterated its commitment to the same resolution in March 2017.
Those who couldn’t stomach Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE pursued war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa until they engineered his defeat in January 2015. Rajapaksa’s ouster resulted in the cancellation of the Victory Day parade. The LTTE was brought to its knees in its Mullaitivu stronghold less than six months after Canada-based political and defence analyst, D.B.S. Jeyaraj, asserted that the LTTE had the wherewithal to defeat the Army on the Vanni east front. Within 10 days after that prediction, the Army liberated Kilinochchi in Dec/Jan 2009. The LTTE rapidly retreated towards the Mullaitivu coast until it didn’t have any other option but to surrender. Over 10,000 LTTE cadres accepted Sri Lanka’s offer to surrender, while several hundred men and women perished, defending Prabhakaran.
Now, Yahapalana rulers have accepted unsubstantiated claims that celebrating triumph over LTTE terrorism undermined post-war national reconciliation. The undeniable truth is had the Army failed on the Vanni east front, TNA leader R. Sampanthan would be still taking orders from Prabhakaran. In Nov 2005, Sampanthan, at the behest of Prabhakaran, ordered northern Tamils not to exercise their franchise at the Nov 17 presidential poll that year. The move was meant to deprive UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe the Tamil vote and to ensure Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory. The LTTE-TNA set the stage for an all out war against the government, believing the new President lacked the strength to meet the LTTE challenge. The LTTE-TNA coalition would have probably succeeded in its project had the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa perished in suicide attacks in April and Dec 2006. President Rajapaksa’s team comprised Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka and Air Marshal Roshan Gunatilleke. They relentlessly pursued military operations until the LTTE lost its desire to fight after losing nearly 600 cadres, including most of its senior ground commanders, in April 2009, in the Anandapuram battle. The LTTE never recovered from that humiliating defeat and collapsed seven weeks later.
Having called the Rajapaksa brothers and Fonseka war criminals, in January 2010, the US forced the TNA to campaign for the war-winning Army Commander at the January 2010 presidential poll. The TNA ensured Fonseka comfortably won all northern and eastern electoral districts. Thanks to Wikileaks, we know the US effort, though it today complains of Russia interfering in its last presidential poll.
Although, no one could have challenged Fonseka’s decision to challenge Rajapaksa, the move obviously plunged the country into crisis. The UNP fielded Fonseka after having ridiculed his war effort and constantly propagating the myth that the LTTE couldn’t be militarily defeated.
In the wake of Fonseka’s defeat, the previous government pounced on the Sinha Regiment veteran.
The government arrested Fonseka, in early Feb 2010. Some senior army officers, believed to be close to him, were prematurely retired, while a few fled the country. An abortive attempt was also made to try Fonseka twice for the same offense. On that basis the Colombo High Court acquitted the failed presidential candidate of all charges in the Hicorp case. The case relates to army procurement during his tenure as Army Chief.
Fonseka was also convicted in two other cases and served jail terms. The war veteran was stripped of his rank and benefits.
In September 2010, an Army Tribunal pronounced him guilty of the Hicorp charges. Fonseka received a jail term of 30 months for the procurement consequent to the Army Tribunal verdict. In November 2011, he was again convicted for three years, in the "white flag case".
Fonseka was pardoned by President Rajapaksa and released in May 2012. He was behind bars when the country celebrated the war victory during the Rajapaksa administration.
Had all those responsible for waste, corruption and irregularities properly investigated and brought before courts many politicians representing the SLFP and the UNP would have ended up behind bars. Reports put out by COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) and PAC (Public Accounts Committee) have exposed many politicians, however absolutely no action was taken so far.
Former Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon in his memoirs, Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, commented on Fonseka’s political ambitions. The possibility of India influencing the former government’s position vis a vis Fonseka, can never be ruled out. Obviously, India hadn’t been enthusiastic about the project to make Fonseka President in January 2010. Menon’s following comment on Fonseka is revealing; "The other postwar issue that worried India was the civil military balance after 26 years of civil war in Sri Lanka. This was solved expeditiously if unconventionally by sacking and imprisoning Army Chief Sarath Fonseka. Fonseka’s political ambitious were the real motive behind Rajapaksa’s actions, but the effect in removing him was to take out of politics the victorious and domineering army, which had got used to playing a role in national politics."
Whatever the political factors, India would have appreciated the destruction of the group responsible for the deaths of over 1,000 Indian officers and men.
Interestingly, following Fonseka’s defeat at the January 2010 presidential poll, the UNP refrained from fielding him on party ticket at the subsequent general election. The celebrated soldier successfully contested on the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) ticket under JVP leadership though he was denied a Colombo District seat due to him being found guilty by an Army Tribunal.
The then Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena told the writer at his ministry how a Colombo based US diplomat passed a message to President Rajapaksa demanding the imprisoned General’s immediate release. Had there been an examination of various developments since the end of the war in May 2009, we would realise how interested parties manipulated decision makers leading to the present political crisis.
Subsequently, Fonseka received political recognition for his own party and contested the last general election. Having suffered a humiliating defeat, Fonseka entered parliament through UNP National List at the expense of his party. Eight years after the conclusion of the war, Fonseka’s National List appointment has been challenged in the Supreme Court, interestingly by a retired combat Major of the Sinha regiment Ajith Prasanna.