SPECIAL REPORT : Part 183September 12, 2017, 8:04 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The high profile launch of Eliya (light) by wartime Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa underscored Sri Lanka’s PATHETIC failure to counter unsubstantiated war crimes allegations, directed by a section of the international community, since the conclusion of the war, in May 2009.
Sri Lanka paid a very heavy price for its failure and the previous government can never absolve itself of the responsibility for the situation.
Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s Army brought the war to a successful conclusion, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, on the morning of May 19, 2009, when heavy caliber ammunition penetrated LTTE leader Velupillai’s Prabhakaran’s forehead. The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) has credited the Fourth Battalion of the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (4 VIR) for Prabhakaran’s killing. A not so celebrated infantry battalion was fortunate to secure unprecedented recognition.
The SLA would never have succeeded in pursuing Prabhakaran, successfully, if the Sri Lanka Navy and the Sri Lanka Air Force had failed to achieve their strategic objectives during Eelam War IV (Aug 2006-May 2009). Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda and Air Marshal Roshan Gunatilleke provided legendary leadership to the SLN and SLAF, respectively, whereas Defence Secretary Rajapaksa ensured an unstoppable offensive, over a period of three years, until the LTTE was brought to its knees. His role, in Sri Lanka’s victory over terrorism, can never be challenged or disputed.
But the failure on the part of the Rajapaksa administration to counter unsubstantiated war crimes allegations, certainly helped those who had been propagating war crimes allegations as well as accusations in respect of post-war incidents, leading to the change of government, in January, 2015.
The US, EU and India spearheaded the 2015 project in collaboration with the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA), one-time political arm of the LTTE.
Although a US led project failed, in January 2010, to oust President Rajapaksa, an identical mission succeeded in January 2015. On both occasions, they used those who had been close to President Rajapaksa, namely the then Gen. Sarath Fonseka and Minister Maithripala Sirisena as battering rams, in 2010 and 2015, respectively.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa facilitated the enemy project by calling presidential polls two years ahead of scheduled time. Among those who had officially requested President Rajapaksa not to do so were then SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena in April 2014 and D.E.W. Gunasekera, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Prof. Tissa Vitharana in Oct 2014. President Rajapaksa ignored their sensible advice.
Gajaba Regiment veteran Rajapaksa launched the Eliya project on Sept. 6, 2017, amidst the latest simmering dispute over war-winning Army Chief the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka accusing the then Vanni Security Forces Commander Maj. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya of atrocities.
The Eliya project, meant to thwart the ongoing bid to bring in a new Constitution, in accordance with Geneva Resolution 30/1, co-sponsored by the UNP-SLFP government, on Oct 1, 2015, received the backing of the civil society. Among them were distinguished non-career diplomats, Dayan Jayatilleka, who calls himself a Sri Lankan patriot, and also an internationalist, and Tamara Kunanayakam. Jayatilleka and Kunanayakam made brief presentations on behalf of Eliya. It would be pertinent to mention that the Rajapaksa administration unceremoniously removed both Jayatilleka and Kunanayakam, at the expense of Sri Lanka’s defence overseas. Now they are back, along with former MP Prof. Rajiva Wijesinghe, who switched his allegiance to Maithripala Sirisena at the onset of the operation against President Rajapaksa, in late 2014. Prof. Wijesinghe was also present at the launch of Eliya.
Among those who had been present at the launch of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s initiative, were twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa and brother Basil Rajapaksa accused of war crimes. They were among four leaders of the war-winning Rajapaksa team blamed by the then US Ambassador in Colombo Patricia Butenis for war crimes. The other accused are Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, on the podium, and now Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, Regional Development Minister in the UNP-SLFP coalition.
Fonseka’s entry into politics, in late 2009, triggered an unprecedented crisis and, unfortunately, divided the war-winning team. But, whatever political disputes, Sarath Fonseka had been a key member of the war-winning team, and his contribution to Sri Lanka’s war against terrorism can never be challenged. That is the undeniable truth. In fact, Sri Lanka’s triumph over terrorism or resultant war crimes allegations cannot be discussed, under any circumstances, without taking the Fonseka factor into consideration.
Those who had flayed Fonseka for accusations, directed at Jayasuriya, must not forget the Sinha Regiment veteran is also part of the solution, regardless of his political affiliations now.
The writer had an opportunity to take up a range of issues, pertaining to accountability issues, during Balaya, a weekly live programme, hosted by Sudewa Hettiarachchi, Director News, Hiru, on Sept 7, 2017, the day after the launch of ‘Eliya.’ The timing of Balaya couldn’t have been better with naval veteran Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera (former Deputy Minister, UPFA), who had addressed the gathering at the ‘Eliya’ launch on the previous, on the ‘Balaya’ panel. The writer teamed up with Weerasekera, whereas the opposing team comprised Gamini Viyangoda of Purawesi Balaya, an influential civil society organization that had forcefully campaigned for President Rajapaksa’s ouster, and Dr. Jehan Perera, executive Director of the National Peace Council (NPC), the foremost NGO funded by successive Norwegian governments, and the recipient of substantial funding from other foreign ‘sources.’
Perera, accompanied the Sri Lankan delegation to the Geneva Human Rights Council sessions, in March 2017. He backed Sri Lanka’s request for an additional two-year period to implement Resolution 30/1.
The debate dealt with war crimes allegations in the wake of Fonseka’s latest outburst directed at Jayasuriya.
Essentially, Viyangoda, a member of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTFRM) and Perera strongly pushed for a thorough investigation into accountability issues. Viyangoda reiterated his backing for CTFRM recommendation for foreign judges in domestic war crimes court, in line with Resolution 30/1. Perera threw his weight behind Viyangoda, while faulting the previous government for excessive loss of civilian lives during the Vanni offensive and detention of over 300,000 people at the conclusion of the fighting. They asserted that international intervention could have been averted had the Rajapaksa administration swiftly and decisively addressed human rights concerns. They squarely placed the blame on the previous government for the current crisis, while underscoring the responsibility on the part of Sri Lanka to address domestic as well as international concerns in respect of wartime conduct of political and military leaderships.
Weerasekera lucidly explained how the ongoing Geneva project relentlessly undermined Sri Lanka with the focus on immense sacrifices made by the armed forces and the people. The naval veteran also discussed the failure on the part of the international community to intervene and take punitive action against the LTTE at an earlier stage. Weerasekera recalled the atrocities that had been committed by the LTTE over a period of time while explaining their own efforts to protect civilians. Weerasekera cited the rescue of Sea Tiger leader Soosai’s wife and children by the navy on May 16, 2009, as they were fleeing in a boat towards Tamil Nadu as an example of their approach towards non-combatants. Weerasekera proved that Resolution 30/1, that had been co-sponsored by the current government, was based on the report of the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka, aka OISL, though Viyangoda took a contrary view.
Weerasekera strongly opposed foreign judges as well as other foreign personnel in proposed judicial mechanism whereas the writer expressed the opinion that proper defence strategy following fresh reappraisal of the entire gamut of issues will enable Sri Lanka to successfully counter allegations even before foreign judges. It would be pertinent to stress that the responsibility in proving allegations directed at Sri Lanka lies with those pushing for war crimes probe. The writer asserted that foreign judges wouldn’t be an issue if Sri Lanka, forcefully brought out all relevant factors.
The writer raised the following issues with the panelists.
The pivotal importance of establishing the circumstances leading to the resumption of war, in Aug 2006. Sivakamy Sivasubramaniyam alias Thamilini, in her memoirs, Thiyuni Asipathaka Sevana Yata (Under the shadow of a sword), launched in May 2016, following her death in Oct 2015, briefly explained how Prabhakaran had wanted to facilitate Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory, at the Nov 2005 presidential poll, to enable the LTTE to resume war and bring his campaign to a successful end. There cannot be any dispute over Thamilini’s assertions as regards the LTTE creating an environment for resumption of all out war and the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, in Aug. 2005, on specific orders given by Prabhakaran as Thamilini’s book was launched by artiste, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, on her husband Jeyakumar’s request. Viyangoda and senior lecturer Swaminadan Wimal had addressed the gathering at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI). Dharmasiri Bandaranayake or Viyangoda wouldn’t have done anything under any circumstances to justify the war against the LTTE, hence the need to seriously examine Thamilini’s revelations.
Victor Ivan’s disclosure
Former Ravaya Editor Victor Ivan, in a special article on ‘Jeyaraj’, published in Sept 2011, in memory of Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, assassinated in April 2008, revealed how President Rajapaksa had sent Seva Lanka chief Harsha Navaratne to reach an understanding with the LTTE soon after Prabhakaran launched claymore attacks in Dec 2005. The then presidential secretary Lalith Weeratunga had accompanied Harsha Kumara Navaratne. President Rajapaksa had sent Harsha Navaratne again with Fernandopulle to make representations to the LTTE, on his behalf, in the wake of the Mavilaru crisis, caused by the LTTE in June/July 2006. According to Victor Ivan, Navaratne had made the revelations a few months after Fernandopulle’s assassination at Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe’s residence. Among those present had been Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne (then an influential member of the Rajapaksa cabinet), TNA leader R. Sampanthan and TNA members of parliament, Suresh Premachandran and Mavai Senathirajah. Victor Ivan also quoted Sampanthan as having said that the war couldn’t be called genocide though he wasn’t prepared to admit that publicly. Victor Ivan underscored that Harsha Kumara Navaratne had made the revelation after the TNA accused President Rajapaksa of resorting to war without making an effort to negotiate with the LTTE.
The LTTE realized the requirement to deprive President Rajapaksa of Lt. Gen. Fonseka and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa at a very early stage of eelam war IV. Had Prabhakaran succeeded in eliminating Fonseka, in April 2006, and Rajapaksa, in Oct 2006, the war effort would have failed. Fonseka had the strength to declare that he wouldn’t leave the war to his successor, while Gotabhaya told Norwegians the problem could be definitely settled through military means, according to Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka released in Sept 2011. Let me reproduce verbatim the relevant section: "On April 6, 2006, Norwegian Special Envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer and Norwegian Ambassador Hans Brattskar have a tense meeting with Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. In response to a question about whether the ethnic and political problems could be solved by military means Gotabhaya answers, ‘yes.’
Had Prabhakaran succeeded, the outcome of the war could have been different. The split in the Rajapaksa camp obviously delighted those elements wanting to divide the country on ethnic lines.
Denial of ‘white flag’ allegations
Reappraisal of specific allegation in respect of execution of LTTE cadres on the Vanni east front in mid May 2009 against the backdrop of a public statement made by Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith, US defence attache, in Colombo, in June 2011, regarding the allegation. Lt. Col. Smith denied the allegation at the inaugural Defence Seminar organized by the SLA at the Ramada. Interestingly, the US State Department never denied Lt. Col’s statement, though it declared the officer didn’t make that statement on behalf of the US.
Discrepancy in numbers killed
Requirement to establish the number of civilians killed during the final phase. The UN Panel of Experts (PoE) estimated the number of killed at over 40,000, in March 2011, whereas the Amnesty International, in Sept 2011, placed the number of civilian deaths at 10,000. In Sept. 2011, the British parliament was told of 60,000 civilians and 40,000 LTTE cadres killed during January-May 2009. These vastly different figures should be examined taking into consideration still confidential UN report that placed the number of persons killed in areas under LTTE control during Aug 2008 – May 2009 at 7,721 and 18,479 wounded. The war ended a week after the UN stopped collecting data due to the intensity of the fighting.
Inquire into TNA’s partnership with the LTTE since 2001 when the former came into being. The EU alleged that the TNA secured the lion’s share of electorates/seats in the Northern and Eastern electorates at the April 2004 parliamentary polls, thanks to violence unleashed by the LTTE on those opposed to the TNA and former stuffing ballot boxes of the latter. Having declared the LTTE sole representative of Tamils in 2001, the TNA faithfully served the terrorist group, both in and outside parliament, until the SLA put a bullet through Prabhakaran’s head.
Allegations against the SLA should be probed taking into consideration the TNA support for Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena at the January 2010, January 2015 presidential polls, respectively. Fonseka had commanded the victorious SLA accused of indiscriminate killings while Maithripala Sirisena held the defence portfolio in the last week of Vanni offensive. The TNA had no qualms in throwing its weight behind them in spite of war crimes allegations. Would Sampanthan have backed them, especially Fonseka, if he really believed in his own accusations?
Wiki leaks revelations
Although, the Paranagama Commission, in its second mandate, referred to Wiki leaks, for some strange reason, the previous government never made use of US diplomatic cables. One such cable, revealed top ICRC official asserting how SLA could have finished off the LTTE quicker if it didn’t take civilian factor into consideration.
The cable, dated July 15, 2009, signed by the then Geneva-based US ambassador, Clint Williamson, cleared the SLA of crimes against humanity during the Vanni offensive. The cable, addressed to the US State Department, was based on a confidential conversation Ambassador Williamson had with the then ICRC head of operations for South Asia, Jacque de Maio on July 9, 2009. Ambassador Williamson wrote: "The army was determined not to let the LTTE escape from its shrinking territory, even though this meant the civilians being kept hostage by the LTTE were at an increasing risk. So, de Maio said, while one could safely say that there were ‘serious, widespread violations of international humanitarian law,’ by the Sri Lankan forces, it didn’t amount to genocide. He could cite examples of where the army had stopped shelling when the ICRC informed them it was killing civilians. In fact, the army actually could have won the military battle faster with higher civilian casualties, yet chose a slower approach which led to a greater number of Sri Lankan military deaths. He concluded however, by asserting that the GoSL failed to recognize its obligation to protect civilians, despite the approach leading to higher military casualties."
SLA lost 2,400 officers and men in 2009 though the war ended in May 2009.
In response to Viyangoda’s assertion that 90 per cent of victims were Tamils, the writer pointed out the need to inquire into circumstances under which that community suffered since the Indian military intervention in 1980s. A thorough inquiry should examine the deaths due to Indian Army operations in Sri Lanka (1987-1990), fighting among Indian sponsored Tamil groups, sea borne Tamil terrorist raid on the Maldives in Nov 1988, LTTE executing its own for allegedly plotting against its leader and political killings. It wouldn’t be right to restrict investigations into allegations blamed on Sri Lanka. TNA MP Dharmalingham Siddarthan, Chairman of Center-Periphery Relations Sub Committee that recommended far reaching constitutional reforms meant to weaken the 1978 Constitution is on record as having said that two TULF MPs including his father were abducted and executed by Indian sponsored TELO terrorists at the behest of RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) in 1985.
Proposed accountability mechanism should seek clarification from foreign powers and INGOs in respect of supplies that had been moved overland and then by sea to the area under LTTE control up to the second week of May 2009. The previous government lacked even a basic plan to prepare solid defence to counter lies and to cleverly use vital information provided by foreign sources such as the US (Lt Col. Lawrence Smith) and UN (PoE report). Let India inform the proposed accountability mechanism how its personnel, based at Pulmoddai, north of Trincomalee, received wounded men, women and children evacuated by the ICRC. The writer had the opportunity to visit a makeshift Indian medical facility in late April 2009. The evacuation operation allowed nearly 15,000 civilians, both wounded and relatives to reach Pulmoddai. The accusation that Sri Lanka had waged genocidal war should be investigated keeping in mind how the wounded were evacuated even in the second week of May 2009. War ended on the morning of May 19, 2009.
Role for Norway
Proposed accountability mechanism should thoroughly inquire into efforts made by the international community to save civilians. The then MP and presidential advisor, Basil Rajapaksa, received a one-page missive, on Feb. 16, 2009, from then Norwegian ambassador, Tore Hattrem. The Norwegian embassy delivered the letter to Basil Rajapaksa in the wake of Ambassador Hattrem discussing the situation on the Vanni east front with President Rajapaksa’s brother. Basil Rajapaksa had been exploring ways and means of securing the release of the Vanni population, held hostage by the LTTE, and was in touch with Western diplomatic missions in Colombo, in this regard.
Hattrem’s note to Basil Rajapaksa revealed Norway’s serious concern over the LTTE’s refusal to release the civilians. The Island received a copy of the hitherto unknown Norwegian note, headlined ‘Offer/Proposal to the LTTE’, personally signed by Ambassador Hattrem. The Norwegian envoy was writing to Basil Rajapaksa on behalf of those countries trying to negotiate a ceasefire between the government and the LTTE, to facilitate the release of civilians, held hostage by the latter.
The following is the text of Ambassador Hattrem’s letter, addressed to Basil Rajapaksa:
"I refer to our telephone conversation today. The proposal to the LTTE on how to release the civilian population, now trapped in the LTTE controlled area, has been transmitted to the LTTE through several channels. So far, there has been, regrettably, no response from the LTTE and it does not seem to be likely that the LTTE will agree with this in the near future."
Those who really want to clear Sri Lanka’s name should face the accusers in a court of law. It would be pertinent to stress that it would be their responsibility and challenge to prove still unproven allegations on which Geneva wanted our Constitution changed to pave the way for a federal structure.