‘Sri Lanka: The New Country’
SPECIAL REPORT : Part 211
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Veteran Indian journalist Padma Rao Sundarji’s ‘Sri Lanka: The New Country,’ authored during the tail end of war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term, expertly dealt with Sri Lanka’s conflict that was brought to a successful conclusion, in May 2009. Rao, who had been to the northern part of Sri Lanka, at the time the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was in control, as well as during the post-war period, discussed the conflict, certainly without bias. By and large, Rao addressed conflict and post-war issues, fairly, and much more objectively than some Sri Lankan commentators.
Rao hadn’t been reluctant to blame New Delhi for arming, training and assisting the LTTE with its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran receiving the privileged treatment as a state guest of India in the ‘80s. Rao asserted that New Delhi intervened in Sri Lanka because of growing relationship between the US and Sri Lanka against the backdrop of India’s close partnership with the then Soviet Union.
One-time Indian High Commissioner in Colombo (1985-1989), Foreign Secretary (1991-1994) and National Security Advisor (2004-2005) J.N. Dixit, in his memoirs ‘Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun Roy to Yashwant Sinha,’ in 2004, over a decade before Rao’s declaration, stated that New Delhi’s strategy in respect of Sri Lanka should be examined taking into consideration the then regional and international environment between 1980-1984. Dixit alleged that the US and Pakistan exploited Tamil terrorism to create, what he called, a politico-strategic pressure point against India. Dixit suffered a fatal heart attack, in January 2005.
It would be pertinent to mention that Rao finalized ‘Sri Lanka: The New Country’ in January, 2015, as Sri Lanka brought Rajapaksa’s reign to an end with substantial outside inputs.
India has been widely accused of facilitating the US-spearheaded project to thwart Rajapaksa securing a third term.
Dixit on Indian intervention
Let me reproduce verbatim Dixit’s comment on Indian intervention during Indira Gandhi’s tenure as the Prime Minister of India: "The two foreign policy decisions on which she could be faulted are: her ambiguous response to the Russian intrusion into Afghanistan and her giving active support to Sri Lankan Tamil militants. Whatever the criticisms about these decisions, it cannot be denied that she took them on the basis of her assessments about India’s national interests. Her logic was that she could not openly alienate the former Soviet Union when India was so dependent on that country for defence supplies and technologies. Similarly, she couldn’t afford the emergence of Tamil separatism in India by refusing to support the aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils. These aspirations were legitimate in the context of nearly fifty years of Sinhalese discrimination against Sri Lankan Tamils."
‘Sri Lanka: The New Country’ was launched in New Delhi, in April 2015, with the distinguished presence of former Indian High Commissioner in Colombo Nirupama Rao (2004-2006) followed by he Colombo launch, in July 2015. The then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera had been among those present at the Colombo event that took place two months before the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, at the behest of the US, co-sponsored Geneva Resolution 30/1 in spite of it being severely inimical to Sri Lanka. The Yahapalana leaders co-sponsored Geneva Resolution 30/1 just over a week after the outgoing Sri Lanka Permanent Representative in Geneva, Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha, strongly objected to the wording at an informal discussion there.
Strangely, Sri Lankan politicians and officialdom never bothered to examine Dixit’s work, or that of Rao, an internationally recognized journalist whose contribution could have been efficiently used to counter those propagating lies. Rao is perhaps one of the few fearless scribes at the top in our part of the world to take on the powerful Western media. She had done that much to the appreciation of the vast majority of Sri Lankans. Rao commented on Western media double standards in respect of war and post-conflict reportage.
Rao was the South Asia bureau chief of German news magazine Der Spiegel. She has also worked with ARD German Television Network in New York, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, Geo magazine and Deutsche Presse-Agentur. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and the Herald Tribune. She lives in New Delhi and freelances for German, Swiss and Austrian dailies.
Obviously, Rao, like Lord Naseby, must have been shocked at the way the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe had neglected its responsibility to defend Sri Lanka at the recently concluded 37 Sessions of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
The writer felt the urgent need to peruse Rao’s work in the wake of her exclusive with Lord Naseby outside the British parliament last year following the Conservative politician’s dramatic revelations and assertions on the basis of wartime British High Commission dispatches from Colombo. But Naseby’s bombshell, in Oct. 2017, couldn’t move the yahapalana (good governance) administration at the Geneva sessions. Having defended Sri Lanka in the House of Lords, Lord Naseby went to the extent of personally bringing relevant dispatches to the attention of Geneva though Sri Lanka conveniently refrained from at least referring to the latest developments. Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative there, Ambassador Aryasinha, and leader of the ministerial delegation Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, PC, were silent on the Naseby issue. Those who had believed President Maithripala Sirisena would intervene on Sri Lanka’s behalf to ensure that UNHRC was appraised of the latest developments were quite disappointed and angry.
The yahapalana government has indicated that it will never, under any circumstances, seek a review of Geneva Resolutions 30/1 or 34/1 though Lord Naseby showed the way. Sri Lanka refrained from taking up the issue for obvious reasons. Instead, the Sri Lankan delegation reiterated commitment to fully implementing the Geneva Resolution 30/1. The state managed media painted a rosy picture though Sri Lanka essentially acknowledged its culpability.
Rao, at the time she had concluded ‘Sri Lanka: The New Country,’ wouldn’t have, under any circumstances, envisaged Colombo accepting responsibility for war crimes it never committed during Eelam war IV. Rao explicitly discussed the entire gamut of issues and key events such as media briefing given by Velupillai Prabhakaran to over 150 journalists in Kilinochchi. Rao recalled how the LTTE applied ‘whites-first’ policy in taking questions from those gathered there resulting in a section of the Indian scribes loudly complaining to British citizen of Sri Lankan origin Anton Balasingham, who was seated next to Prabhakaran. Rao’s work provided readers an opportunity to know the origins of India-sponsored terrorism, the growth of LTTE, conventional military challenge, failed peace efforts, successful war against the LTTE, post-war developments and Maihripala Sirisena’s emergence as Mahinda Rajapaksa’s successor.
A forgotten TNA project
However, Rao has completely missed the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) led Tamil National Alliance (TNA) role in the first US managed project in 2009-2010 to thwart Mahinda Rajapaksa from securing a second presidential term, at the 2010 January polls. In spite of her close watch over Sri Lankan affairs, the Indian, obviously, had been completely in the dark in respect of the abortive operation in 2009-2010 to help war-winning Army Chief, General Sarath Fonseka, beat Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Janatha Vikukthi Peramuna (JVP) as well as the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), too, had been involved in the anti-Rajapaksa project, on both occasions.
In spite of calling Fonseka a ‘war criminal,’ in January 2010, the US Embassy, in Colombo, worked overtime to arrange a coalition to ensure his victory over Rajapaksa at the January 2010 polls. The US played a critically important role in forming the coalition under the ‘swan’ symbol. Thanks to Wiki Leaks, confidential US diplomatic cables that dealt with US efforts to form a political grouping capable of defeating Rajapaksa, is in the public domain. Maithripala Sirisena, too, contested the 2015 presidential poll, under the same symbol. Last year, the leader of the ‘swan’ party, Shalila Munasinghe, was arrested, along with Janaka Nammuni , son of retired Maj. Gen. Jaliya Nammuni, one-time Chief of Staff, SLA, over defrauding USD 2.1 mn from a Taiwanese bank, last Oct. Nammuni held dual British and Sri Lankan citizenship while Munasinghe carried a British passport.
Sri Lanka certainly could have benefited from the exposure of confidential US diplomatic cables, originating from Colombo. Unfortunately, successive administrations never bothered to examine those cables, thereby lost chance to exploit them. The US guaranteed the TNA support to Fonseka. Although, the US-led plan went awry, in January 2010, an almost identical project succeeded in January 2015 to oust President Rajapaksa. It would be pertinent to keep in mind that the then staunch Rajapaksa loyalist Maithripala Sirisena had held the defence portfolio at a crucial stage of the final battle (May 2009 third week) on the Vanni east front where unsubstantiated accusations were made in respect of battlefield executions.
In January 2010, Tamils voted for Fonseka amidst widespread wild allegations that the armed forces had massacred over 40,000 civilians on the Vanni east front and substantial number of LTTE cadres too executed. Whatever the TNA leadership said, northern Tamils wouldn’t have voted for Gen. Fonseka if they really resented him and held him accountable for civilian deaths.
Had the Tamil community really felt conquered and overwhelmed by the military presence, in the Northern Province, they wouldn’t have exercised their franchise in support of General Fonseka. All northern and eastern districts overwhelmingly voted for Gen Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena at the 2010 and 2015 presidential polls.
It would be important to keep in mind that UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe led the coalition against Rajapaksa, both at the 2010 and then at the 2015 presidential polls, he didn’t contest. Rao clearly missed that the TNA played a leading role in the 2010 operation to bring Rajapaksa’s reign to an end. Rao’s assertion that twice president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga returned from retirement to prop ‘the new coalition’ behind Maithripala Sirisena, too, is inaccurate. Kumaratunga backed Gen Fonseka’s presidential bid.
None of those whom Rao had spoken to in Colombo, including Wickremesinghe and TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran, in the run-up to the January 8, 2015 presidential poll, obviously didn’t tell her about the TNA role in the 2010 project. Even after Rao had pointed out to Sumanthiran, two days before the presidential polls, that the ‘TNA’s astounding support for Sirisena found his party on the same side as Sinhalese nationalist parties JVP and JHU, the TNA spokesman didn’t bother to tell her their role in Gen. Fonseka’s bid. The author could have missed it. That could have happened to any writer but Sri Lankans couldn’t be excused for failing to mention the TNA-SF project. Surprisingly, Rajapaksas’s side, too, remained silent. That is obviously negligence.
The writer sought an explanation from top lawyer, the late Kandiah Neelakandan, President of the All Ceylon Hindu Congress, during a ceremony in Vavuniya, in the run up to the January 2010 presidential poll, how he felt about Tamils having to choose between Gen Fonseka and President Rajapaksa whose political leadership made Sri Lanka’s victory possible. President Rajapaksa was there to personally release some rehabilitated LTTE cadres, and top ACHC representatives were among those invited to participate at the event. Neelakandan acknowledged the paradox of the situation. Then Minister Milinda Moragoda played a pivotal role in securing the support of the ACHC in a bid to dispel fears among the Tamil community that those who had surrendered and were captured, on the Vanni front, were to be executed.
The TNA has always played down its involvement in Gen. Fonseka’s campaign. Having had accused the Rajapaksa administration of atrocities and deliberate killings, on the Vanni east front, the TNA voted for the General, who conducted the actual war and was called a war criminal by the then US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Patricia Butenis.
Rao’s anecdotal narrative received superb reviews with Vinod Metha, Editorial Chairman, Outlook Group, India asserting, "Padma Rao Sundarji’s superb account of post-conflict Sri Lanka is written with impeccable objectivity. This is, I believe, the first independent attempt to tell the story largely from ‘other’ side...Must read."
Obviously, those Sri Lankans who had been in touch with Rao were determined to keep TNA’s shocking relationship with Gen. Fonseka under wraps. In fact, the writer, on numerous occasions, including on electronic media, underscored the pivotal importance of examining the 2010 electoral agreement against the backdrop of the TNA still pursuing war crimes inquiry. While Sri Lanka meekly again reiterated its commitment to Resolution 30/1 in Geneva, TNA heavyweight Sumanthiran was in the US to secure continued UN, US and Norwegian backing to pressure Sri Lanka. Sumanthiran was accompanied by senior representatives of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) as well as several other Diaspora organizations. Many an eyebrow was raised in June 2016 when Sumanthiran revealed in Washington about having a tripartite agreement involving the US, Sri Lanka and the TNA for the full implementation of the 2015 Geneva Resolution. Sumanthiran went to the extent of declaring that the agreement specifically settled the contentious issue of foreign judges in hybrid war crimes court.
Attorney-at-law Sumanthiran told American ‘Congressional Caucus for Ethnic and Religious Freedom in Sri Lanka’, in Washington, that the government of Sri Lanka, the TNA and the US had been involved in the negotiations leading to the agreement. The declaration was made in the presence of Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Washington, Prasad Kariyawasam. The Island reported the Washington meet in its June 28, 2016 edition. The story was headlined ‘Constitution no bar to foreign judges in war crimes court - TNA’
In fact, the TNA statement was meant to pressure the government, and to remind the Yahapalana leadership that it wouldn’t give up, or dilute arrangement, over foreign judges.
Sampanthan, on January 6, 2010, in parliament, pledged his support for Fonseka. Sampanthan declared that the decision following consultations with candidates, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Fonseka. The TNA chief asserted that Rajapaksa’s re-election wouldn’t be in the best interests of the country, nor the Tamil community. The TNA made its surprising announcement with the knowledge of the US Embassy, in Colombo, soon after the grouping reached an agreement with Fonseka. Like the tripartite agreement worked out to pave the way for hybrid war crimes court, the US arranged the TNA-Fonseka pact, titled ‘Immediate Relief Measures for War Affected Persons and Areas or Peace’
I. Restoration of Civil Administration and Normalcy
1. Full restoration of all institutions of Civil Administration from the Office of Grama Sevaka upwards – free from Military, Police and Political interference. 2. Committees for each District headed by the respective District Secretary (GA) and comprising: - Nominee of the President -Divisional Secretaries -Other Officials (Representatives of such Officials) -Members of Parliament/Their Representatives -Representatives of Local Authorities -Judicial Officers -Security Forces/Commanders/Officers North/East -DIG — Police /Officers -Civil Society Representatives To prepare Plan of Action for immediate implementation within one month Monthly Reports on progress to be submitted to the President, Cabinet and Parliament. A dedicated Secretariat to be established under the President to monitor progress and ensure implementation. 3. The immediate measures stated herein to be implemented through Presidential Orders, including appointing Presidential Task Forces therefor. 4. Security Forces to be stationed at strategic locations only, taking into consideration national security. High Security Zones to be dismantled in keeping with the COLOMBO 00000017 003.4 OF 005 re-location of the Security Forces. 5. Free movement of all persons to be guaranteed without being impeded by Security and Police personnel. 6. Police to be manned, as far as practicable, by Officers who are conversant in Tamil.
II. Prohibition of ‘para-military cadres’ and armed groups (self-styled ‘War Lords’)
1. All ‘para-military cadres’ and armed groups to be disarmed forthwith. 2. Areas of civilian activity to be free of weapons. 3. Except the Security Forces and Police, only persons with permits under the Firearms Ordinance would be entitled to possess firearms.
III. Re-settlement and rehabilitation of internally displaced persons
1. De-mining of areas to be speedily concluded through De-Mining Units. 2. Displaced persons to be returned to their original homes, and where homes have been destroyed alternative accommodation to be provided, with financial support to establish themselves and develop livelihoods. 3. Social infrastructure requirements, such as provision of essential Foods, Medical Centers, Hospitals, Schools, Transport etc to be provided.
IV. Land and Agriculture
1. Restoration of possession of private land and buildings, now occupied by Security Forces/Police/ Government Agencies, to those lawfully entitled to such land and buildings. 2. Committees referred to in 1.2 above to arrange for such restoration. 3. Committees to submit a Scheme to the Government for payment of compensation for damage caused to buildings. 4. a. Eviction of persons legitimately entitled to State Land from such Lands; b. Other instances of deprivation of legitimate title holders of State Lands; and c. Unlawful occupation of State Lands to be reviewed and the position regularized on lawful and just basis. 5. Indiscriminate alienation of State Lands to be terminated. Allocations thus far made to be reviewed and cancelled, where such allocation -has not been transparent, or -lacked equal opportunity to all concerned, or -lacked proper consultation with the elected Representatives of the areas concerned, or -are unwarranted, or -has been on a corrupt basis. 6. Relief packages for full cultivation of lands. 7. A special law to be enacted to decide on disputes, as to ownership and succession of lands.
1. Full restoration of fishing rights. 2. Joint Committees to be set up of Representatives of those engaged in the fishing industry and the Navy to ensure security.
VI. Trade and Commerce
1. All barriers in respect of transport of passengers, goods, agricultural and fisheries produce to be eliminated forthwith. 2. No payments (‘Kappang’) to be levied by anyone. Stringent action to be taken against those who do so.
1. Trains service to be restored, without delay, within the Jaffna peninsula, i.e. Elephant Pass to Point Pedro. 2. All impediments for shipping and air transport to be removed, with effective facilities which would ensure a reduction of costs and shipping and air transport. 3. Establishment of a new rail line, with private sector participation, from Point Pedro to Trincomalee.
VIII. Special Relief Packages
1. For dependents of all persons who have lost their lives during the war, including military and police personnel, and civilians. 2. For persons disabled as a result of the war.
IX. Persons in Detention
1. Release of all persons in detention, within a period of one month against whom there is no evidence, and on the basis that such detention would not be a stigma or setback for their future. 2. Rehabilitation of those persons, who had been engaged in war activities, on the basis of a general amnesty.
X. [State of Emergency]
As an overall measure affecting all Sri Lankans, the State of Emergency presently in force and the Regulations made thereunder to be terminated, since it affects the liberties and fundamental rights of all People, in accordance with my Pledges.