Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Australia follows up with big exercise in the wake of US setting up ‘logistical hub’



By Shamindra Ferdinando

Nearly a decade after Sri Lanka brought the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to a successful conclusion, Australia, a key member of the US-led ‘military alliance,’ has included Sri Lanka in a major Indian Ocean military exercise - the first of its kind involving the war-winning military.

Sri Lanka crushed the LTTE, in May 2009, following a nonstop two years and 10 months long combined security forces offensive, launched in Sept. 2006.

Australia will launch the exercise, involving seven countries, here, on Saturday (March 23). The exercise gets underway immediately after the conclusion of the Geneva Human Rights Council sessions where Sri Lanka received two more years to fulfill obligations it made in Oct 2015.

About 1,000 Australian personnel are expected to participate in the unprecedented exercise, covering Colombo and Trincomalee harbours, as well as the Chinese-funded Mattala airport.

The Australian deployment for the exercise, codenamed Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 (IPE-19), comprises several vessels, landing helicopter dock and flagship of the Australian Navy HMAS Canberra, Adelaide-class guided-missile frigate HMAS Newcastle, Anzac-class frigate HMAS Paramatta and Durance-class multi-product replenishment oiler HMAS Success.

Other countries involved in the exercise are India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore - currently engaged in exercises conducted by the US Pacific Command. IPE 19 is obviously part of the overall military-political initiatives to counter growing Chinese power.

The media was briefed last Friday (March 15) of the IPE 19, at the residence of Acting Australian High Commissioner in Colombo Jon Philp.

Ahead of the IPE 19, two Australian Navy, vessels which were here since March 11, moved to Trincomalee last Sunday (March 17) to locate an Australian warship sunk off Batticaloa during World War II. The vessels are expected to leave today (March 20).

Australia wouldn’t have dared even to contemplate military exercise in Sri Lankan waters a decade ago. The LTTE’s naval unit, called Sea Tigers, targeted all Sri Lankan ports, with a section of the Indian media claiming Sea Tiger ‘suicide packs’ were planning attacks on Sri Lankan ports. Western powers deprived Sri Lanka of much needed support though the US provided critical backing during Eelam War IV (2006-2009).

The Australian move should be examined against the backdrop of the US Navy announcement of the setting up of what it called logistic hub in Sri Lanka to secure support, supplies and services at sea and the ‘Comprehensive Partnership’ between Japan and Sri Lanka reached after the change of government in January 2015. The growing US-Japan-India cooperation, too, is a matter for serious consideration.

The US Navy announcement was made towards the end of the first week of December, 2018, though the US Navy first operated the air logistic hub in late August 2018.

Karannagoda at the helm

The Sri Lanka Navy played a significant role in the near three-yearlong combined security forces campaign that enabled the country to attract Western powers. Unfortunately, they had sought a relationship with Sri Lanka at the expense of China, an all-weather friend whose continuous military support helped the country to withstand the LTTE. Had the Navy failed in its efforts to destroy floating LTTE arsenals, on the high seas, during the 2006/2007 period, the war couldn’t have been brought to an end! Of the eight LTTE ships, loaded with a range of arms, ammunition and equipment, four were sent to the bottom of the seas, thanks to specific intelligence received by the then Navy Chief Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda (2005-2009) from the US. Karannagoda skillfully obtained, with the help of the then US Ambassador in Colombo, Robert Blake, the required information to enable the Navy to deploy its assets purposefully. Karannagoda terminated the long standing ‘Varuna Kirana’ operation, meant to intercept weapons-carrying LTTE approaching the Mulliativu-Chalai coast. Instead, the Navy successfully hunted down LTTE ships to eliminate the continuous sea supply routes - weapons transfers from ships to LTTE boats launched from the Northern Province as well as supplies moved, via Tamil Nadu.

A decade after the conclusion of the war, Karannagoda is under investigation for allegedly being part of a clandestine Navy unit responsible for the abduction and disappearance of 11 youth during the 2007/2008 period. The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) questioned Karannagoda, on March 11 and 12, 2019, for hours following a directive issued by the Supreme Court, consequent to the former Navy Chief seeking the apex body’s intervention to prevent his arrest.

Karanngoda, through his lawyers, requested a national newspaper for space to contradict a news item published the day following the CID questioned him on March 11, 2019. In a letter, dated March 12, 2019, addressed to the Editor of the said newspaper, the lawyer for Karannagoda said: "I am instructed that you have published a news item in your Newspaper published yesterday, namely 12th March 2019, on front page, under the heading" Abduction and killing of 11 youth – Unit was under my command- Karannagoda "

I am instructed by my client to request from you as to who gave this information to the newspaper and/or who provided this information to the author of the news item. 

I am also instructed to inform you that by publishing this sort of news items you are interfering with the ongoing investigation. 

However, since you have published this, my client is compelled and thus I have been instructed to inform you that there was no questioning took place about this on 11th March at CID in the first place and therefore there was no occasion for my client to either admit or deny that there was such a unit under his command or under his direct supervision.

Therefore the information contained in the article is totally false. 

In the circumstances I am instructed to and I do hereby request you to publish a correction as stated in this letter stating that my client’s position that this news item is false and give the same prominence that was given to the article published yesterday.

Also let me know as to who provided this information to the newspaper and/or to the author of the article."

Karannagoda’s lawyer, under any circumstances, has no right to seek the identity of the person/persons who provided the information to the media though his right to clarify/contradict a matter ,on behalf of his client, cannot be challenged.

Karannagoda was again questioned by the CID yesterday (March 19).

Previous govt’s failure

The previous government owed an explanation as to why the disappearance case was not properly investigated, in spite of Karannagoda himself complaining to the police, way back in May 2009. Those who had repeatedly accused the UNP government and the CID of targeting Karannagoda should explain the failure on the part of the previous government to conclude the investigation. The previous government neglected its responsibilities until the disappearance case ended up in Geneva. As former Commander of the war-winning Army Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, MP, recently emphasized in parliament that the law of the land should apply to Karannagoda. Participating in the budget debate on March 8, 2019, the Sinha Regiment veteran said that though the government protected war heroes, criminals responsible for extra judicial killings should not be shielded. Fonseka said that if Karannagoda had been involved in wartime abductions he should be punished. No one can find fault with Fonseka for taking a principled stand that anyone responsible for crimes, if found guilty, should be punished.

However, many an eyebrow was raised when the much touted allegation that Vice Admiral Ravi Wijegunaratne, in his capacity as the Commander of the Navy, helped a key suspect in the disappearances case, Lt. Commander Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi, to leave the country in a Fast Attack Craft (FAC). This allegation was proved wrong when the CID arrested Hettiarachchi in Colombo after his return from overseas. The suspect repeatedly called ‘Navy Sampath,’ in a deliberate bid to deceive the public, had left the country by air and returned the same way. The CID admitted in the Fort Magistrate court that there was no basis for its earlier claim that Hettiarachchi left the country in a FAC. Close on the heels of Karannagoda moving the Supreme Court; the CID arrested retired Lt. Commander Sampath Munasinghe, the real ‘Navy Sampath’ allegedly responsible for the disappearances. One-time Navy spokesman Commodore D.K.P. Dassanayake, too, had been arrested in connection with this case, often referred to by UN officials, diplomats as well as the civil society. Dassanayake is on bail. Wijegunaratne’s case, too, is pending.

Sumanthiran’s comments

It would be pertinent to mention that the original accusation, with regard to Wijegunaratne helping Hettiarachchi to escape, was made at a meeting attended by several ministers and several others, including President’s Counsel J.C. Weliamuna. No less a person that TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran referred to the apprehension of the real ‘Navy Sampath’ in conversations with the writer on two different occasions. Sumanthiran during the debate in the expenditure heads of the President, the Prime Minister, Independent Commissions and the apex courts on March 13, 2019, underscored the need for foreign judges to inquire into war crimes and related cases on the basis of Karannagoda moving the Supreme Court.

Sumanthiran said: "The point I am trying to make is that even in a case where the abducted persons were not members of the LTTE, had nothing to do with the war, even so, because the suspects were members of an armed force – the Sri Lanka Navy - who were running an extortion racket they could not arrest the Navy Commander. This was abduction and extortion of money for ransom and it was revealed that the Navy Commander at that time knew about it and himself made a complaint to the police – the first complaint was by him. And because he was a war-time Commander, the petition was taken up in the SC that he is a war hero and that he should not be arrested. I wish to ask, if a person had been a Commander of the Armed Forces during the war, does that give him immunity from arrest? I did not see that happening in the case of Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka."

The high profile role played by the Navy during the conflict shouldn’t be an excuse for atrocities to be committed. Let there be proper investigations into all incidents, not directly related to the conflict, as well as war crimes. It would be pertinent to mention a statement issued by a top Japanese official as regards Karannagoda soon after he received appointment as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Tokyo. The following is The Island report, dated July 13, 2011: 

UN Law Commission: Karannagoda praised, western media criticized for post-Fukushima ‘conduct’

A Japanese member of the UN Law Commission, Shinya Murase, has paid a glowing tribute to newly appointed Sri Lankan Ambassador to Japan Admiral (Rtd) Wasantha Karannagoda for taking over the diplomatic mission in spite of radiation fears caused by the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear facility, on March 11, 2011.

Addressing the International Law Commission recently, regarding ways and means to tackle natural disasters in the aftermath of the Fukushima tragedy, Murase said that expression of solidarity could be as equally precious as material and financial support. Although Admiral Karannagoda hadn’t been named, Murase left no doubt as to which country he was referring to.

Former Navy Commander Karannagoda succeeded career diplomat Esala Weerakoon. The government is under heavy Opposition fire for appointing retired and serving military officers as heads of missions as well as to lesser diplomatic positions. External Affairs Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris strongly defended the government decision in this regard in a response to a query raised by the Chief Opposition Whip, John Amaratunga, in Parliament.

During his illustrious career, Admiral Karannagoda supervised the destruction of eight LTTE ships on the high seas during Eelam war IV causing the rapid collapse of the enemy’s firepower.

Karannagoda’s action brought honour to Sri Lanka before national cricketer Kumar Sangakkara took advantage of the annual Sir Colin Cowdrey lecture to praise Sri Lanka’s military victory over LTTE terrorism in May 2009. Government sources told The Island that such praise couldn’t have come at a better time as a section of the international community targets the country on the human rights front.

While emphasizing the importance of international cooperation to tackle natural disasters, Murase told the UN Law Commission: "Just to mention one example without naming the country, there was a new Ambassador from a small Island country in Asia who had been appointed to serve in Japan from March. When the earthquake hit Japan, he was advised that he could postpone his assignment until the situation in Japan normalized. However, he arrived in Tokyo on schedule, because he thought it important to show his and his country’s solidarity with the Japanese people. His country itself was hit by a devastating tsunami in 2004. His arrival in Tokyo coincided with the week in March when so many embassy staff members of other countries were fleeing the city for fear of radioactive contamination (which, incidentally, had been largely exaggerated in the Western media). The mass exodus of foreign diplomats and business people had left the feeling among the Japanese, that they had been abandoned."

Murase went onto say: "But this ambassador was different. Right after his arrival, he visited the evacuation centers in the affected area with his fellow countrymen, cooking and serving hot food that was much appreciated by the evacuees who had been living under freezing temperatures without heat. His government donated the victims a huge amount of money for this small country, as well as 3 million bags of tea produced in his country. Furthermore, he led some 15 military personnel from his country to clean-up the debris in the tsunami-stricken area. These actions went well beyond his basic diplomatic duties, but his efforts were immensely appreciated."

Murase said Japan had received assistance from 161 countries and 43 international organizations following the tragedy. "We received immense quantities of relief supplies, substantial monetary donations, and hands-on assistance of a great number of relief teams from a great many countries, regions, and organizations, for all of which we are truly grateful. The Japanese people will never forget that the world stood by us when we were most in need."

The Rajapaksa government turned a blind eye to Sangakkara’s defence of the Sri Lankan military in London at a time the UK was busy formulating plans to haul up Sri Lanka before an international war crimes tribunal. Sangakkara’s was the best possible defence by a world renowned Sri Lankan, not influenced by the corrupt political setup here.

The writer is grateful to Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Wijegunaratne for reminding him of the Murase’s statement at the International Law Commission.

COMEAST under fire

During the second year of the Ceasefire Agreement, signed in Feb 2002, Karannagoda received the wrath of the then UNP government for warning of a large scale LTTE built-up against the strategic Trincomalee Navy base. The then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was accused of making up ‘stories’ on the basis of information provided by Karannagoda, the then COMEAST, the senior most security forces officer in the region. The military solidly backed Kadirgamar’s assertion. In spite of heavy political pressure, Navy headquarters strongly approved of Kadirgamar declaration that the LTTE posed a formidable threat to Trincomalee unless remedial measures were taken. The then Navy spokesman Captain Jayantha Perera (later Commander of the Navy) explained the circumstances how Kadirgamar reached the conclusion as regards the LTTE plans (Navy backs Kadir’s claims of LTTE Trinco threat-The Sunday Island, Sept 7, 2003).

A section of the state-owned media mercilessly targeted Karannagoda over his stand on Trincomalee. Karannagoda challenged a news programme aired on Sept. 05, 2003 asserting it was defamatory of him. The COMEAST described the coverage as distorted and politically motivated. The then government found fault with Karannagoda for taking a position that it felt undermined the Oslo-led peace process. In his letter of demand, Karannagoda underscored that he stood by the presentation made to Kadirgamar at the President’s House on Aug. 04, 2003. Karannagoda, the then No 03 of the Navy, counting 32 years of experience, emphasized that Kadirgamar was briefed on the basis of ‘all possible information and intelligence gathered by the Navy, Army and Air Force.’

The task of denying Karannagoda fell on the then top government spokesperson Prof. G.L. Peiris. Prof. Peiris denied Kadirgamar’s claim of a threat on Trincomalee while assuring the public of a contingency plan to meet a crisis in the East (COMET to sue on Trinco issue-The Sunday Island,  Sept. 14, 2003).