Tuesday, 9 October 2018

How govt., ‘int’l community’ deliberately undermined reconciliation



By Shamindra Ferdinando

Two photographs - one taken on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon on the morning of May 19, 2009 and the other captured in Vishvamadu on June 10, 2018 - can be used to depict the gradual transformation of the northern community, since the demise of the conventional military capability of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) nearly a decade ago.

Although, both pictures accessible on line and published and telecast by private television channels, they had never been used side-by-side in a bid to strengthen post-war national reconciliation efforts though a section of the international community funded a range of activities to promote amity among the communities.

The picture of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, 54, carried by young infantrymen, who had been engaged in the last phase of offensive operations on the Vanni east front and ex-LTTE cadres and their families carrying Sinha Regiment officer Lt. Col. Ratnapriya Bandu, formerly of the Special Forces in a mark of respect underscored the urgent need for reappraisal of high profile and costly reconciliation efforts.

 The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government remains determined not to recognize and appreciate the transformation of the northern community. The government, the four-party Tamil National Alliance, Tamil Diaspora and Western powers had conveniently turned a blind eye to much improved relationship between the armed forces and the northern community over the years. There cannot be a better example than the unprecedented sending off given to Lt. Col. Ratnapriya Bandu by the Vishvamadu community. It would be pertinent to mention that the officer, who had been recently recognized by Derana Sri Lankan of the Year Awards, functioned as the Second-in-Command of a Sinha Regiment battalion attached to the 59 Division deployed on the Vanni east front.

As the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) celebrates its 69th anniversary today, the country is in a crossroads with the government unable to cope up with economic challenges. The Joint Opposition (JO) loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, too, has failed to give the required leadership, both in and outside parliament. The military, too, unfortunately, seems confused with its duties and responsibilities. Many an eyebrow was raised when Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake offered to deploy troops for operations to eradicate heroin trade. There cannot be a role for the SLA in such operations. The war-winning Army should remain clear of law enforcement operations under any circumstances. 

Media responsibility in post-war transition

The writer had an opportunity to make a brief presentation at the inauguration of a two-day seminar meant to discuss media responsibilities in post-war transition at the Colombo Hilton on Sept. 26. The Institute for Social Development, Kandy, and the Sri Lanka College of Journalism organised the seminar for the benefit of journalists from all parts of the country, including the Jaffna peninsula. The panel of speakers comprised South African media and rights activist Christine Karen Williams, Director General Government Information Department attorney-at-law Sudarshana Gunawardena, editor of Jaffna-based Kalai Kathir N. Vithyatharan and the writer. Journalist and leading commentator on social, cultural and political impacts on ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) Nalaka Gunawardene didn’t turn up though he was named as a panelist.

Muthulingan Periyasamy, Executive Director, Institute for Social Development, Kandy, delivered the introductory remarks. The welcome address was delivered by Shan Wijetunge, head of the Sri Lanka College of Journalism and a former colleague of the writer.

The writer made use of his presentation to underscore the inexcusable deliberate failure on the part of the government to counter lies propagated by interested parties to justify Geneva Resolution 30/1, adopted in Oct 2015. The gathering was told how the state-owned media, including the Army media, conveniently turned a blind eye to significant developments such as Vishvamadu sending off to Lt. Col. Ratnapriya Bandu, the senior officer in charge of rehabilitation of LTTE cadres after the war. The images from Nanthikadal and Vishvamadu were displayed on a large screen side-by-side along with dates they were taken. The audience, especially those from the North, never expected the screening of Prabhakaran’s body along with that of a military officer receiving appreciation of the Tamil community. The writer posed the query why the government and the Army media refrained from using the images from Vishvamadu in support of post-war reconciliation efforts. The gathering was reminded that the government did absolutely nothing to defend the country thereby allowed continuing humiliation of its armed forces.

The display of Nanthikadal and Vishvamadu images were followed by showing of the primary allegation directed at the Sri Lanka Army by UNSG Panel of Experts (PoE) report released on March 31, 2010. Let me reproduce the paragraph, bearing no 137, verbatim: "In the limited surveys that have been carried out in the aftermath of the conflict, the percentage of people reporting dead relatives is high. A number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. Two years, after the end of the war, there is no reliable figure for civilian deaths, but multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage. Only a proper investigation can lead to the identification of all of the victims and to the formulation of an accurate figure for the total number of civilian deaths." 

The UN never bothered to initiate what the PoE called a proper investigation to identify the victims and formulate an accurate figure for the total number of deaths. Sri Lanka co-sponsored Geneva Resolution in Oct 2015 on the basis of original accusations (1) killing of civilians through widespread shelling (2) Shelling of hospitals and other humanitarian objects (3) denial of humanitarian assistance (4) human rights violations suffered by victims and survivors of the conflict and finally (5) human rights violations outside the conflict zone.

The writer sought an explanation from the panel and those journalists present why a government that always takes pride in enactment of Right to Information (RTI) Law on June 23, 2016, shunned crucial information uncovered by a friend of Sri Lanka, Lord Naseby (Conservative Party) by way of UK Freedom of Information Act 2000..

Unlike the previous Rajapaksa administration, those who followed yahapalana polices always maintained the pivotal importance of freedom of information. They propagated that freedom of information should be exercised for the benefit of the people and since the enactment of the RTI Law in 2016; the government went out of its way to encourage the public to use the new law. However, the government turned a blind eye to revelations made by Lord Naseby, thanks to the UK Freedom of Information Act 2000. There hadn’t been a previous instance of a politician exercising Freedom of Information Act/Right to Information Law for the benefit of another country (Sri Lanka) but the latter has so far failed to utilize those findings to clear its own name.

Those present were reminded how the government dismissed authentic Naseby revelations based on severely censored wartime British High Commission dispatches from Colombo while the PoE report that denied Sri Lanka an opportunity at least to scrutinize accusers until 2031 were accepted. The PoE however violating universally accepted rules decreed that allegations that led to the estimation 40,000 killed cannot be examined for a period of 20 years from the day of the report issue nor can the accusers be identified, sometimes even after the 20 year period.

The government ensured that Naseby revelations were never made use of. The government bent backwards to appease Western powers by not exposing lies. The media collectively lacked courage to expose the despicable government operation. Foreign funded civil society groups for obvious reasons never found fault with the government for not bringing Naseby’s revelations officially to the notice of the members of the UNHRC. 

A South African experience

Christine Karen Williams shared her experience as a journalist, rights activist and international critic on political matters with the gathering. Essentially, Williams justified the ongoing post-war reconciliation process undertaken by Sri Lanka though some shortcomings were pointed out.

Sirisena-Wickremesinghe created history by co-sponsoring a resolution against itself in spite of it being severely inimical to its interests. The unprecedented resolution has paved the way for a new Constitution, in addition to implementing four specific measures meant to address accountability issues, namely (1) a judicial mechanism with a Special Counsel to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international human rights law (2) A Commission for truth, justice, reconciliation and non-recurrence (3) An Office for Missing Persons (MOP) and finally (4) An Office for reparations. 

At the end of Williams’ presentation, the writer posed the following query to Williams: You dealt with situations and developments in several countries pertaining to Truth Commissions. Reference was made to Charles Taylor, one time Liberian leader found guilty of UN-backed court. The UN found fault with Taylor causing death and destruction in the neighbouring country. Against that background, could you please explain accountability on the part of India over death and destruction on a massive scale in neighbouring Sri Lanka?

Taylor’s issue was raised as Williams made no reference to Taylor now being held in British custody.

Williams responded that it would entirely depend on the mandate given to the Truth Commission. The writer emailed the same query and an additional query to Williams within hours after the conclusion of the inauguration of the workshop seeking comprehensive answers. The following is the additional query: Do you think Truth Commissions should be established in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan devastated by US-led Western interventions?

Williams never responded. The writer made several attempts to secure her response through Shan Wijetunga without success.

Obviously, those wanting to find fault with Sri Lanka for what had happened conveniently forgot how India destabilized her neighbour over a period of time.

The writer in his presentation made before the South African’s keynote address emphasized the responsibility on the part of India in destroying Sri Lanka. India created several monstrous organizations in the 80s at the expense of democratic Tamil political system. For want of a comprehensive examination of the events leading to the outbreak of war in 1983, the despicable Indian intervention was never ever raised at the UNGA or Geneva. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LRRC) appointed in 2010 refrained from referring to the Indian role. Sri Lanka political leadership lacked strength to present Sri Lanka’s case at UNGA or Geneva much to the disappointment of the vast majority of people enjoying restoration of peace in May 2009.

The writer pointed out at the Hilton seminar that the four Geneva recommendations in respect of post-war reconciliation process in addition to the formulation of a new Constitution were necessitated on the assumption that the war-winning Sri Lanka military deliberately massacred 40,000 Tamil civilians. The writer underscored the importance of inquiring into the failure on the part of the international community, Sri Lanka, the civil society as well as the media as to why indisputable evidence unearthed by Lord Naseby were never used though Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, PC, assured parliament in late November last year that UK dispatches would be used appropriately. The Sunday Observer in a report dated Nov 26, 2017 quoted Marapana, a former Attorney General, as having said: "We are not saying that we will not use Lord Naseby’s statement. We certainly will use it at the proper time and at appropriate forums. There may be a time when the UNHRC will ask us to conduct investigations into the allegations of war crimes. We will use this statement when such a time comes. Otherwise, our opponents will find counter arguments so we must use it as an ace."

The UNP not only discarded Naseby’s revelations, the Grand Old Party managed so far to prevent reappraisal of Sri Lanka’s Geneva position against the backdrop of Naseby revelations. The Joint Opposition/Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), too, contributed to the UNP strategy by its extremely poor performance in parliament in defence of the country’s interest. The JO failed in its duty both in and outside parliament. For want of a clear strategy, the JO lacked foresight to examine a detailed report by Gerrard Tracey, Principal Advisor, Information Commissioner’s Office. The report accessible online dealt with Naseby’s efforts to obtain wartime dispatches from Colombo. The writer discussed decision notice dated May 4, 2016 issued by Tracey in terms of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) UK that dealt with Naseby’s query made to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) on Nov 6, 2014.

The decision notice revealed desperate efforts made by the FCO to prevent the releasing of wartime dispatches. According to Information Commissioner’s Office, the FCO censored sections of the British High Commission dispatches that were handed over to Lord Naseby under 27 (1) (a) of FOIA on the basis that full disclosure could prejudice relations between the UK and Sri Lanka. Can there be a bigger lie than this?

But the reality was that the disclosure could have certainly cleared the misunderstanding between two Commonwealth member states.