Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Country at a crossroads as SLA celebrates 68th anniversary



As the SLA surrounded the LTTE fighting cadre, on the Vanni east front, India stepped up pressure on President Mahinda Rajapaksa to stop using heavy weapons. Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon and Mayankote Kelath Narayanan insisted and secured agreement that compelled President Rajapaksa to direct the SLA to cease using heavy weapons and also suspend air strikes. The US-backed Indian move was meant to save civilians held hostage by retreating LTTE fighting cadre. During the final phase of the offensive, Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva’s celebrated 58 Division and Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne’s 53 Division fought on the Vanni east front. Fourth battalion of the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR) attached to the 53 Division was credited with the killing of Prabhakaran. 4VIR hadn’t been a famous battalion like some of the other formations engaged in the battle. It was however lucky to bag Prabhakaran at the conclusion of the offensive, which involved five infantry divisions (57, 58, 59, 53 and 55) plus Task Forces. During January-May 19, 2009, the SLA lost nearly 2,500 personnel. The SLA could have minimized losses if it had deployed heavy weapons and jets without taking civilian factor into consideration. A few years after the conclusion of the war, a confidential US diplomatic cable sent from its Geneva mission to State Department included the following statement: "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."

That statement was based on a meeting the then US Ambassador to Geneva, Clint Williamson, had with Jacques de Maio, ICRC’s head of operations for South Asia, on July 15, 2009.

Would you believe the SLA, Foreign Ministry or any other ministry never exploited that US statement. They never bothered to examine Wiki Leaks cables pertaining to Sri Lanka until President Rajapaksa expanded the scope of the Paranagama Commission to include foreign experts. Unfortunately, that decision was taken in July 2014, six years after the conclusion of the war. Due to grave omissions on the part of the SLA / previous administration, the country paid a very stiff price. Sri Lanka was deprived of proper defence, much to the disappointment of the armed forces.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Sri Lanka Army (SLA) celebrated its 68th anniversary yesterday (Oct 10) in the wake of the country celebrating 70 years of parliamentary democracy.

Under the auspices of Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake, the SLA organised a series of religious events, with the focus on the traditional flag blessing ceremony, at Sri Maha Bodhi, Anuradhapura, to invoke blessings on formations.

Senanayake’s return to the SLA, in time for the 68th anniversary celebrations is a grim reminder of the events leading to the late 2009 split, following Sri Lanka’s triumph over terrorism.

It would be pertinent to examine the SLA’s role in preserving parliamentary democracy by defeating two Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led insurgencies in April 1971 and 1987-1990 and the LTTE in May 2009, as it celebrated its 9th post-war anniversary. The SLA spearheaded all three campaigns. For the SLA, defeating the JVP, which comprised almost 100 per cent Sinhala Buddhists and in spite of it (SLA) also being overwhelmingly Sinhala Buddhist is not a simple achievement. The JVP never managed to influence the SLA, particularly the fighting formations though, at the onset of its second insurgency, the Marxist group believed a substantial section would switch their allegiance. Instead, the SLA butchered the JVP.

Rajarata Rifles mutiny in the early 80s shook the SLA. However, in the wake of that roughly dealt situation, the SLA raised the First Battalion of the celebrated Gajaba Regiment by amalgamating a section of Rajarata Rifles officers and men with Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment.

During the deployment of the Indian Army (July 1987-March 1990) under the Indo-Lanka Accord, the SLA was confined to barracks. The LTTE went on the rampage in the eastern Trincomalee District soon after that while the SLA was confined to barracks. Indian Army blocked entry/exit points of SLA bases.

During direct negotiations, between President Ranasinghe Premadasa and the LTTE (May 1989-June 1990), there had been a tacit understanding between the LTTE and the SLA to enable the former to hunt down rival Tamil groups. The LTTE killed several hundred members of the Tamil National Army (TNA), established by India soon before Varatharaja Perumal’s North East administration collapsed. At President Premadasa’s behest, the SLA also provided arms, ammunition and equipment to the LTTE. Premadasa provided millions of rupees to the LTTE as part of his efforts to strengthen the group. In June, 1990, it was the SLA turn to be at the receiving end. Within days after the resumption of Eelam War II that month, the SLA lost the overland route to Jaffna. SLA couldn’t regain the road until January 2009.

In spite of setbacks, in some instances with massive loss of lives and equipment (example July 1996 overrunning of Mullaitivu base), the SLA retained offensive capability.

There had been shocking lapses on the part of the SLA that caused heavy losses. Debacles at Pooneryn (Nov 1993), Mullaitivu (July 1996) and collapse of the entire Vanni east front in late 1999 were caused by lapses on the part of the SLA. Only in the case of Pooneryn, the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Cecil Waidyaratne took responsibility and quit.

There had been excesses in all three campaigns. There is absolutely no point in denying the SLA had committed atrocities. For want of the previous government’s refusal to inquire into alleged atrocities, as well as unsubstantiated war crimes allegations, Sri Lanka is under international scrutiny.

The LTTE infiltrated the SLA at various levels. The failed attempt on the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka was made in late April 2006 with inside help. Investigators identified the Army’ chief’s cook as the LTTE’s conduit. The suspect subsequently committed suicide while in the custody of the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID).

The SLA-led offensive action resulted in the Vanni east front being blamed for causing the deaths of over 40,000 people, thousands of disappearances and systematic and continuing abuse of Tamil civilians. For want of a cohesive plan and the failure on the part of the previous administration, the SLA pathetically failed to address accountability issues. Sri Lanka’s defence has been so weak, it couldn’t even exploit vast discrepancy in figures quoted by the UN, Amnesty International and various others, including the British parliament.

Had the SLA failed, the JVP and the LTTE would have definitely succeeded. However, achieving success by itself wouldn’t have been possible under any circumstances. The SLA battlefield and counter-insurgency accomplishments should be examined taking into consideration significant contributions made by the Navy and the Air Force, as well as the Police.

SLA brought Jaffna under its control in Dec 1995. It was certainly its biggest achievement until successful conclusion of the Vanni campaign (March 2007-May 2009).

During the war against the LTTE, the SLA also suffered debilitating battlefield losses and massive reversals which threatened to disintegrate the country. The SLA faced its worst crisis, in April 2000, in the wake of the shocking defeat at Elephant Pass. The failure on the part of the fully fledged 54 Division to thwart a sustained LTTE offensive shocked the nation. The situation had been so bad, the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga sought Indian intervention to evacuate the SLA from the Jaffna peninsula. Had India consented to Kumaratunga’s desperate plea, Eelam would have been granted and the country divided on ethnic lines.

But 19 years after the Elephant Pass debacle, the SLA achieved what Western powers, India and the vast majority of Sri Lankans believed not possible. In fact, in the third week of Dec 2008, Canada-based veteran political analyst, D.B.S. Jeyaraj, who had been with The Island when this writer joined the editorial, in June 1987, asserted the LTTE could force the SLA to reverse. Within two weeks, after Jeyaraj’s prediction, the SLA brought Prabhakaran’s administrative center Kilinochchi under its control.

Unfortunately, the parliament at least failed to mention the immense sacrifices made by the SLA in special session on Oct 3 to mark 70 years of parliamentary democracy. Among those special invitees were representatives from India, responsible for causing terrorism here, and ‘all weather friend’ Pakistan. The SLA throughout the war received Pakistan support. The SLA immensely benefited by Pakistani training which was crucial to its overall buildup.

The SLA brought the war to an end on the morning of May 19, 2009 on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon when troops recovered LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s body following a gunfight.

But, sadly, the eradication of terrorism didn’t result in peace and stability the people desired. Soon after the combined armed forces had defeated the LTTE’s conventional military challenge, sharp differences emerged among members of war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s team.

Simmering hostility between Fonseka and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, one-time Commanding Officer of the IGR (First Battalion Gajaba Regiment) sent shock waves through the establishment. Their battle disheartened vast majority of Sri Lankans, who realized the immense contribution made by them in Eelam War IV.

President Rajapaksa wouldn’t have expected a political challenge, under any circumstances, from Sinha Regiment veteran Fonseka. Seasoned politician Rajapaksa wouldn’t have expected any political arrangement between Fonseka, whom the UNP despised at that time, and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. But, Fonseka and the UNP reached an accord much to the surprise of the Rajapaksas. Many an eyebrow was raised when they also received the blessings of the JVP that had been twice crushed by the SLA. The JVP conveniently forgot how the SLA had killed its beloved leader Rohana Wijeweera and wiped out hundreds of cadres. Having accused the SLA of massacring thousands of Tamils during the conflict, especially during fighting on the Vanni east front, in early 2009, the TNA, too, threw its weight behind Fonseka, at the behest of the US. Thanks to whistle-blowing wiki leaks, the US role in forming the coalition that had unsuccessfully campaigned for Rajapaksa’s ouster in January 2010 is well known. Common presidential candidate Fonseka, too, forgot how the TNA contributed to terrorism since its formation by Prabhakaran in late 2001. Veteran politician R. Sampanthan, having recognized Prabhakaran as the sole representative of the Tamils during the war, urged his people to exercise their franchise in support of Fonseka, within a year after the SLA killed the LTTE leader.

Unprecedented political crisis ruined the war-winning Army. Swift change of command in July 2009, with wartime Security Forces Commander, Vanni, the then Maj. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya taking over the 200,000 SLA caused dismay among some sections. The then government resorted to measures to dilute Fonseka’s hold though he was named the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). Fonseka quit in late 2009 to contest the presidential election, an unthinkable situation made possible by the LTTE’s eradication. Fonseka, having been fully occupied with the war, didn’t even bother to register himself as a voter hence his inability to exercise franchise at the presidential poll, where he was the common opposition candidate.

In spite of a general belief that the SLA would back Fonseka at the presidential, it didn’t materialize leading to his heavy defeat, though Sampanthan delivered the northern and eastern electorates to the war hero. Fonseka contested under the Swan symbol.

Having suffered defeat at the presidential, Fonseka, had no option but to contest the parliamentary polls in 2010 on the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) ticket. The DNA, under Fonseka’s leadership secured five seats, including two National List slots. Influential businessman Tiran Alles filled one of the NL slots while the JVP obtained the other seat. Elected members included Fonseka and former national cricket captain Arjuna Ranatunga.

The UNP’s refusal to contest the general election, under the Swan symbol, prompted the JVP to contest under the Swan symbol.

Perhaps, the SLA’s most humiliating experience was the arrest of Fonseka soon after his defeat at the presidential poll. Then he was deprived of his parliamentary seat. But, Fonseka, himself, had caused massive damage in the run-up to the presidential poll. The Sunday Leader quoted Fonseka as having alleged that wartime Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ordered surrendering LTTE cadres executed on the Vanni east front, in May 2009. Fonseka repeated the allegation at Ratnapura, soon thereafter.

The then Maj. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake was one of those who had been at the receiving end due to his alleged loyalty to Fonseka. Having fled the country, in the wake of Fonseka’s defeat, Senanayake returned soon after President Rajapaksa’s failure to secure a third term, in January 2015. Reinstated, Senanayake succeeded Lt. Gen. Crishanthe de Silva last August. Senanayake received public appreciation, when he declared that he wasn’t a political victim. The Special Forces officer declared in no uncertain terms that he didn’t engage in politics for him to be politically victimized. Senanayake proved his mettle again when he publicly urged now Field Marshal Fonseka not to issue statements at the expense of the SLA. The SLA Chief made unexpected intervention close on the heels of the damaging battle between Fonseka and Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya, who received the backing of the Joint Opposition and various nationalist organizations.

Their ‘battle’ centered on Gen. Jayasuriya’s war time conduct as Security Forces Commander, Vanni. Although, Gen. Jayasuriya had never commanded fighting formations deployed on the Vanni front, Fonseka’s allegation that crimes were committed under Jayasuriya’s watch received media attention with interested parties exploiting the situation.

The war-winning SLA had pathetically failed to address accountability issues, thereby causing a situation extremely inimical to Sri Lanka. Overall failure of political and SLA leadership finally led to the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition, in Sep 2015, to sponsor Resolution 30/1 at the Geneva-based Human Rights Council. Based on that Resolution, Western powers, through former Jordanian diplomat, Zeid bin Ra’ad al Hussein prescribed in June 2016, a new Constitution for Sri Lanka. The Jordanian, in no uncertain terms called for a new Constitution, subject to a referendum. Obviously, the Geneva prescription is also acceptable to the TNA and those elements who had strongly believed in the LTTE’s prowess until the very end.

Can there be anything as unfortunate as Sri Lanka’s victory over terrorism paving the way for a division of the country on ethnic lines?

Eradication of the LTTE, finally, has restored the Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) led TNA status as the dominant Tamil grouping. TNA leader Sampanthan last week reiterated his call for re-merger of the Eastern and Northern Provinces when he met the UK Minister of State for Asia and Pacific, Mark Field at Westminster House, Colombo.

Sampanthan’s call is all part of the overall strategy meant to create an autonomous region in an area covering eight administrative districts. As Sri Lanka celebrated 70 years of parliamentary democracy and SLA’s 68th anniversary, post-war Sri Lanka is at cross roads with the fate of its unitary status under  serious threat. The emerging threat is far bigger than the conventional military challenge posed by the LTTE. The TNA is applying pressure on the government, both in and out of parliament. In parliament, the TNA works closely with the government to ensure stability. Recently, the TNA voted for the controversial Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Act to provide a two-thirds majority required for its passage. Its passage, in contravention of the Supreme Court ruling, meant to thwart the government’s Provincial Council polls delaying project, dealt a deadly blow to democracy.

Those who had been worried about good governance during the previous administration conveniently turned a blind eye to what was happening for obvious reasons. They are certainly of the view Local Government and Provincial Council polls can undermine their primary objective, namely a new Constitution with federal features.

Although there are policy differences between the Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran and the Colombo based TNA leadership, the former is relentlessly pushing for further reduction of the SLA in the Jaffna peninsula as well as the Vanni region. In case Sri Lanka amalgamated the two provinces, the TNA leadership will certainly take up the SLA deployment in the entire region. Can Sri Lanka subject deployment of her armed forces to the dictates of a political grouping that once represented the interests of the LTTE, both in and outside parliament?

The writer recently sought an explanation from former Supreme Court judge Wigneswaran as to his strong opposition to the SLA presence in the North. Wigneswaran suggested that government pulled out the SLA entirely from the Northern Province to pave the way for an enhanced police presence. Wigneswaran alleged that the SLA was maintaining an overbearing presence. The Chief Minister’s statement should be examined against the backdrop of Zeid bin Ra’ad al Hussein‘s declaration in Colombo. At the conclusion of the visit, the Jordanian said that the size of the military forces in the North and the East could be reduced to a level that is less intrusive and intimidating as a first step in security reforms.

In the name of security reforms, recommended by Geneva, a section of the international community had taken punitive measures against senior SLA officers. Australia found fault with Gajaba Regiment veteran Maj. Gen. Chagi Gallage for commanding the 59 Division on the Vanni east front. On the basis of that Division being involved in the Vanni offensive, Australia turned down Gallage’s visa request. Australia simply ignored the fact that none of the allegations had been proved in a court of law or at least thoroughly examined. But Australia had never been bothered when Australian Adele Balasingham and her husband Anton Balasingham, British passport holder and LTTE theoretician, promoted terrorism.

The UK based Balsinghams supervised LTTE’s unbridled terror in Sri Lanka. The UK or any other country, or those well-funded civil society organization, never bothered to raise the issue publicly. They remained silent even after the LTTE assassinated Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar in Aug 2005. Balasingham, who had been a British High Commission employee, in Colombo, enjoyed special status in the UK during the conflict. Years later, a leaked US diplomatic cable revealed how top Norwegian diplomats met Balasingham in London to discuss implications of Kadirgamar’s assassination. Today, Mrs Balasingham, who had encouraged the use of child soldiers against the SLA, lives peacefully in the UK.