Tuesday, 5 February 2019

A war crimes dossier on ‘arguably the most important ground commander’

Foreign Ministry debacle on Geneva front (part III)



By Shamindra Ferdinando

Sri Lanka celebrated her 71st Independence Day on Monday (Feb.04), 2019) against the backdrop of a defamatory 137-page dossier on Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, the first General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the celebrated 58 Division of the Sri Lanka Army (SLA).

The 58 Division, formerly known as the Task Force I, played a significant role in eradicating the LTTE’s conventional fighting capability in the Vanni region. The Sri Lankan military brought the war to a successful conclusion, on the morning of May 19, 2009.

The report, dated January 29, 2019 by South Africa-based International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP), dealt with the 58 Division as regards its role in the Vanni offensive (late 2007-May 2009). The writer received the ITJP report from UK-based Suren Surendiran, the spokesperson for the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), affiliated with the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA). They formed an alliance in 2011, two years after the war. They closely work together to pressure Sri Lanka to adhere to Geneva Resolution 30/1, co-sponsored by Sri Lanka, in Oct 2015.

The report should be examined taking into consideration Sri Lanka’s pathetic failure to counter lies propagated by various interested parties since the LTTE’s defeat. The Foreign Ministry cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for this unfortunate situation. The writer dealt with the Foreign Ministry’s lukewarm response to war crimes allegations and related matters with the focus on its role in working out a tripartite agreement with the US on accountability mechanism on foreign judges and other personnel. ‘Sri Lanka at the mercy of a treacherous setup’ (published on 23.01.2019) and ‘A still valid tripartite agreement on foreign judges: Foreign Ministry’s role’ (published on 30.01.2019)," examined some aspects of the Foreign Ministry’s role.

The Island examined the Foreign Ministry’s role close on the heels of President’s Counsel Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana’s, recent advice to the Sri Lanka Foreign Service (SLFS) to enhance the country’s image overseas through efficient and effective execution of public diplomacy, utilizing its intrinsic brands such as Buddhism, gems, tea, spices, high-end export products and the warmth of traditional Sri Lankan hospitality.

The retired Attorney General was addressing the officers of the 2018 intake of the SLFS at a certificate-awarding ceremony, on January 11, 2019, at the ministry, following the conclusion of a two-week long public diplomacy and media relations training programme jointly organized with the collaboration of the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI).

At the onset of the Eelam War, during the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration, Mangala Samaraweera had held the foreign ministry portfolio. Samaraweera represented the SLFP/UPFA from the Matara electoral district and served as the foreign minister at the time the LTTE resumed large scale attacks, in August 2006. In the wake of a damaging political row with President Sirisena and serious differences with the then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Samaraweera was replaced, in early 2007. The Rajapaksas brought in Rohitha Bogollagama in place of Samaraweera. Turncoat Bogollagama served during the war and was replaced by Prof. G.L. Peiris in 2010. The academic held the vital portfolio until Rajapaksa’s defeat. Since the change of government, in January 2015, four held the foreign ministry portfolio, beginning with Mangala Samaraweera (January 2015-May 2017) Ravi Karunanayake (May 2017 to August 2017), Tilak Marapana (Aug 2017-Oct 2018), Dr Sarath Amunugama (Nov 2018-Dec 2018) and Tilak Marapana received the same portfolio in Dec 2018 after Maithripala Sirisena-Mahinda Rajapaksa gave up parliamentary power after failing to prove a simple majority in parliament.

Both the Rajapaksa administration and the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration and the current UNP administration neglected their responsibility. The 51-day Sirisena-Rajapaksa administration (Oct 26, 2018-Dec 15, 2018) didn’t even bother to examine the Geneva issue.

The ITJP, under the leadership of its Executive Director Yasmin Sooka, issued several damaging reports on the Sri Lankan military over the years. The latest report, issued from Johannesburg, is certainly the worst. The report has cost ITJP’s international sponsors a substantial amount of money.

The Rajapaksa administration has been accused of squandering taxpayers’ money on expensive US foreign relations firms et al. during Jaliya Wickramasuriya (2008-2014) tenure as Sri Lankan Ambassador there. Controversy surrounds the costly project meant to save Sri Lanka from the US as the solitary superpower, having played a role in the 2015 change of government and compelled the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government to co-sponsor Geneva Resolution in spite it being severely inimical to Sri Lanka’s interests.

Jaliya Wickramasuriya, a relative of President Rajapaksa, is under investigation for alleged fraudulent activities in the US. Wickramasuriya is also wanted in Colombo in respect of another case.

Recent revelation before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P CoI) on irregularities at SriLankan Air Lines, Sri Lankan Catering and Mihin Lanka on how Jaliya Wickramasuriya had ordered a chartered flight in 2013 April to fly from Washington to Mattala, via Dubai, and billed it to the Foreign Ministry, is evidence that those close to the powers that be, operated outside the law. Wickramasuriya’s case is just one instance of the Foreign Ministry losing control of a particular situation.

The Foreign Ministry lacked clear political direction and cohesive strategy to counter unsubstantiated war crimes allegations, even during the Rajapaksa administration. The Rajapaksa government squandered an opportunity, given by the US, in early June 2011, to counter UN war crimes allegations. The then US Defence Advisor Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith’s defence of Sri Lanka couldn’t have been made at a better time for the country. Sri Lanka’s defence could have been easily built on the US statement. The Rajapaksa government wasted that opportunity. The change of government made the situation worse. The Foreign Ministry, instead of countering allegations, played ball with accusers and finally in 2015 Oct co-sponsored resolution against the country.

Whatever our politicians say, Geneva Resolution, based on alleged UN findings, beginning with the Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, targeted the country.

Sooka’s project

ITJP stepped up its campaign against Shavendra Silva in the wake of him being appointed the Chief of Staff of the Army, in 2019 January. ITJP executive director Sooka functioned as a member of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka. Having played a role in the UNP project, she launched one of her own for financial gain. Her latest report, titled ‘Shavendra Silva, Chief of Army Staff, Sri Lanka’, urged the international community to charge the SLA’s No 02 with war crimes.

ITJP statement issued from Johannesburg quoted Sooka as having said: "There is a staggering amount of evidence in this dossier meticulously collected by my team over many years. Many successful cases at international tribunals or the International Criminal Court had less to work with. There is now no excuse for this man to remain as number two in the Sri Lanka Army: he must be suspended immediately and a criminal investigation instituted."

Sooka was further quoted as having said: This dossier is just a fraction of the information we hold."

The report, released in 2019 January, dealt with what Sooka called (1) indiscriminate and intentional attacks on civilians (2) attacks on hospitals and medical staff (3) attacks on No Fire Zone sand (4) deployment of prohibited and indiscriminate weapons.

At the beginning of the report, Sooka quoted Shavendra Silva as having said: "Our aim was not to gain ground but to have more kills.’ In fact, that should have been the motto of every Division, Brigade, Battalion and Company Commander regardless where his officers and men were deployed. Sri Lankan should be quite rightly proud of wiping out the LTTE in a sustained offensive that was launched in Sept 2006. The Eelam War IV lasted two years.

Having called Shavendra Silva arguably the most important ground commander in the 2008-2009 war in Sri Lanka, Sooka found fault with President Maithripala Sirisena for promoting the Gajaba Regiment officer, aligned to the Rajapaksa family, as the Chief of Staff of the Sri Lanka Army. Sooka conveniently disregarded war-winning Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s leadership role though reference was made to wartime Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The likes of Sooka wanted the world to forget Fonseka whose Army was accused of slaughtering men, women and children on the Vanni front, and received the blessings of the TNA at the 2010 January presidential election. Thanks to the TNA’s support, Fonseka won all predominately Tamil speaking districts, not only in the northern and eastern provinces but Nuwara-Eliya as well. Had the Tamil community believed Fonseka’s Army massacred 40,000, in 2009, the outcome of the presidential poll results would have been definitely different.

Sri Lanka’s defence further suffered for want of consensus between President Sirisena and the UNP over the accountability issue.

Counter arguments

Sooka’s latest report, released on January 29, 2019, should be examined and recommendations implemented keeping the following ‘developments’ in mind. Sooka ignored the following statements though she attributed various statements to nameless people. Sooka’s strategy reminds the writer of the UN panel, represented by her, declared that none of those accusers, quoted in the report, would be allowed to be questioned till 2031.

(1) Lt. Col. Smith’s defence of the SLA at the inaugural defence conference in Colombo in June 2011. The US statement made over two years after the end of the war was never contradicted by the US and the civil society

This is what Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith had to say.: "Hello, may I say something to a couple of questions raised. I’ve been the defense attache here at the US Embassy, since June 2008. Regarding the various versions of events that came out in the final hours and days of the conflict - from what I was privileged to hear and see, the offers to surrender, that I am aware of, seemed to come from the mouthpieces of the LTTE – Nadesan, and KP – people who weren’t and never had really demonstrated any control over the leadership or the combat power of the LTTE.

"So their offers were a bit suspect anyway, and they tended to vary in content hour by hour, day by day. I think we need to examine the credibility of those offers before we leap to conclusions that such offers were in fact real.

"And I think the same is true for the version of events. It’s not so uncommon in combat operations, in the fog of war, as we all get our reports second, third and fourth hand from various commanders at various levels that the stories don’t all seem to quite match up.

"But I can say that the version presented here so far in this is what I heard as I was here during that time. And I think I better leave it at that before I get into trouble."

(2) The GoSL never bothered to take advantage of leaked US diplomatic cables (Wikileaks) in spite of them being crucial for its defense. One leaked cable dealt with a discussion Geneva-based US Ambassador Clint Williamson had with ICRC Head for Operations for South Asia Jacques de Maio. The US envoy declared on July 15, 2009, that the Army actually could have won the battle faster with higher civilian casualties, yet chosen a slower approach which led to a greater number of Sri Lankan military deaths.

The Army lost nearly 2,500 officers and men during January-May 19, 2009. Thousands suffered injuries.

In fact, the previous government should be held responsible for depriving the maximum possible firepower required on the Vanni east front to overwhelm the enemy.

(3) Deployment of Indian medical team at Pulmoddai, north of Trincomalee, to receive the wounded, transferred from Puthumathalan, under ICRC supervision. The Indian team remained there until the conclusion of the war. The Indian team received several thousand wounded civilians during February-May, 2009, via sea. The government commenced transferring the war wounded by sea soon after fighting blocked overland routes to and from Vanni east. The vessels deployed to evacuate the wounded transported several thousands of essential supplies to Puthumathalan. Foreign relief workers were also allowed to go ashore.

(4) A confidential UN report placed the number of dead and the wounded, including LTTE combatants at 7,721 and 18,479, respectively. The report dealt with the situation in the Vanni, from August 2008 to May 13, 2009. The war ended a week after the UN stopped collecting data due to intensity of fighting. The vast majority of the wounded civilians were evacuated by the ICRC.

(5) Wartime Norwegian Ambassador in Colombo Tore Hattrem on February 16, 2009 asserted that the LTTE was unlikely to release civilians held on the Vanni east front. The following is the text of the Norwegian’s missive addressed to the then presidential advisor Basil Rajapaksa: "I refer to our telephone conversation today. The proposal to the LTTE 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 regrettably been no response from the LTTE and it does not seem to be likely that the LTTE will agree to this in the near future."

(6) Sooka also ignored Lord Naseby’s revelations in the House of Commons in Oct 2017. The Conservative party politician, on the basis of dispatches to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office by the wartime Resident British Defence Advisor in Colombo Lt Col. Gash, debunked the main UN allegation as regards the massacre of 40,000 civilians. The Britisher estimated the number of maximum dead at 7,000-8,000 with one fourth of them being LTTE personnel. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government also turned a blind eye to Naseby’s declaration in the House of Commons that Sri Lankan political or military leadership never deliberately targeted the civilian community.

(7) Sooka made no reference to the memoirs of ‘Lt. Col. Thamilini’ (Subramaniam Sivakamy), the senior most LTTE cadre to undergo rehabilitation under the military. Thamilini’s husband (British citizen) and two strongest critics of the Rajapaksa administration, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake and Gamini Viyangoda, launched the book in 2016 March. Thamilini’s succumbed to cancer in 2015 Oct.

Foreign Ministry responsibility

The Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTFRM) in early 2017 called for full participation of foreign judges, and other foreign personnel, including defense lawyers, prosecutors and investigators, in transitional justice mechanism to address accountability issues. CTFRM endorsed the Oct 2015 Geneva Resolution recommendation in respect of foreign judges. Last week, the writer dealt with how the TNA, the government, and the US, agreed on tripartite agreement on foreign judges et al.

The Naseby’s revelation basically confirmed still the confidential UN report as well as US assessment (Lt. Col. Smith’s in 2011 June). Minister Marapana is yet to officially brief the Geneva-based UNHRC as regards Sri Lanka’s case. The minister appeared to have conveniently forgotten his much publicized promise to Parliament, in 2017 Nov., that he would use Naseby’s revelation at an appropriate time. Having wasted the opportunity given by Lord Naseby, Marapana has chosen to urge the 2018 SLFS batch and others to engage in public diplomacy.

The real problem is not having foreign judges and other international experts but the refusal on the part of the government to bring all relevant facts before the Geneva council. Parliament, too, has failed to inquire into this matter, especially against the backdrop of three former ministers, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, Mahinda Samarasinghe and Dayasiri Jayasekera, in response to queries raised by the writer on separate occasions, admitting that Naseby’s disclosure was never taken up at cabinet level.

Incumbent Foreign Minister President’s Counsel Marapana certainly owed an explanation as to why Sri Lanka refrained from using Naseby’s disclosure usefully in Geneva. Similarly, Prof. Peiris, as well as the then presidential human rights envoy Mahinda Samarasinghe, should some time explain why the Rajapaksa government turned a blind eye to US defence advisor’s Colombo statement. It could have been the base for Sri Lanka’s defence. There is no previous example of a government deliberately facilitating a campaign against the country to appease foreign powers and their local agents.

The ITJP’s dossier on Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva is a glaring example of Sri Lanka’s treacherous and deliberate failure, since 2011, to organize proper defence of the country. Had there been proper defence Sri Lanka wouldn’t have been in current dilemma in Geneva. The war-winning government, and those in power today, must share the blame for the sorry state of affairs in every sector. Foreign affairs is no exception.