Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Parliament let down armed forces

Out of 225 lawmakers, only 18 UNP and 4 UPFA vote for emergency



The Army marches in Kilinochchi on May 22, 2019 to celebrate Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE a decade ago. Maj. Gen. Vijitha Ravipriya, Security Forces Commander, Kilinochchi leads officers and men. Ravipriya was one of those who commanded troops on the Vanni front during Eelam War IV. The Kilinochchi Command took precautions to prevent any untoward incident against the backdrop of fresh threats to national security. The fall of Kilinochchi in early January 2009 paved the way for the swift collapse of LTTE defences east of the Kandy-Jaffna road. (Pic courtesy Army)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

In the absence of a tri-services National Victory Day parade, to cerebrate Sri Lanka’s triumph over ‘the world’s most ruthless terrorist organisation’, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on May 19, a decade ago, the armed forces marked the day with a series of events in Colombo and the provinces, three days later.

Seven Army Commands covering the country marked the day on May 22, 2019. 

The government celebrated the event, on the afternoon of May 19, 2019, at the War Heroes’ monument, at Battaramulla with the participation of President Maithripala Sirisena, Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe and Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP, whose resolute political leadership ensured Sri Lanka’s victory over the LTTE. Rajapaksa brought together a team that relentlessly conducted a nearly three-year long combined forces offensive, until the LTTE collapsed on the Vanni east front.

Rajapaksa successfully resisted intense Western pressure to call off the largest ever offensive undertaken by Sri Lanka to eradicate the LTTE. Rajapaksa launched his offensive in the first week of Sept 2006 at Sampur in the Eastern Sri Lanka and brought the Eastern Province under its control in July 2007. The Vanni offensive, launched in March 2007, was brought to a successful conclusion, in May 2009. 

The Victory Day events took place this year amidst ongoing military operations, directed at the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) et al in the wake of the Easter Sunday carnage - the worst ever single post-independence terrorist attack. The April 21 coordinated near-simultaneous-suicide-bombings, on three churches in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, and three Colombo hotels, claimed the lives of 260, including nearly 50 foreigners. About 500 received injuries.

The NTJ and its associates carried out the massacre on behalf of their ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

In response to the daunting terrorist challenge, Parliament, on 24th April, 2019, unanimously re-introduced emergency to pave the way for the armed forces’ deployment, in support of law enforcement authorities. One-time LTTE mouthpiece, the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA), too, endorsed the re-introduction of emergency. TNA leader R. Sampanthan, who once declared the LTTE as the Tamil people’s sole representative and steadfastly stood by Prabhakaran until the very end, had no option but to support the emergency. Sampanthan’s decision should be examined against the backdrop of the NTJ bombing of Zion Church, Batticaloa, and an alleged plan to attack St. Theresa’s Church, Kilinochchi, on April 21. However, the TNA changed its position on emergency the following month.

It would be pertinent to examine the response of political parties, represented in Parliament, to the first extension of the emergency that took place on May 24, 2019.

Parliament owe an explanation as to why nearly 200 out of 225 lawmakers skipped the vote on the extension of the emergency 

Parliament extended emergency for one month with a majority of 14 votes. A vote followed after TNA heavyweight and Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) leader Mavai Senathirajah (Jaffna District MP) called for a division.

Twenty two out of 30 MPs, who were present in the Chamber when the division was called, voted in favour of the extension of emergency. Eight MPs of the TNA voted against the resolution.

Gampaha District UNP MP Karu Jayasuriya was in the Speaker’s Chair.

The UNP and the UPFA voted in favour of the resolution. The JVP MPs were not present in the Chamber.

Gayantha Karunatileka, Lakshman Kiriella, Harsha de Silva, Lucky Jayawardena, Vadivel Suresh, Seyed Ali Zahir Maulana, Edward Gunasekara, Nalin Bandara Jayamaha, Anoma Gamage, Piyasena Gamage, Sidney Jayarathne, K. K Piyadasa, Hector Appuhamy, Thusitha Wijemanna, Rohini Wijerathna, Sandith Samarasinghe, Wijepala Hettiarachchi, Ashu Marasinghe, Duminda Dissanayake Lasantha Alagiyawanna and Shantha Bandara voted in favour of the Resolution while Mavai Senathirajah, Selvam Adaikkalanathan, Seenithamby Yoheswaran, S. Sritharan, Kaveendran Kodeswaran, Charles Nirmalanthan, Gnanamuthu Srinesan and Shanthi Sriskandarasa voted against.

Of the 22 lawmakers who voted for the emergency, only four, namely Duminda Dissanayake (Anuradhapura) Lasantha Alagiyawanna (Gampaha), Piyasena Gamage (Galle) and Shantha Bandara (National List) represented the UPFA. Piyasena Gamage switched his allegiance to the UNP in the wake of the Oct 2018 constitutional coup.

Notable absentees were UNP leader and Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, Deputy UNP leader Sajith Premadasa, State Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene, Mangala Samaraweera, Tilak Marapana, PC, and MP Sarath Fonseka, who had been very critical of the government handling of the post-Easter Sunday carnage situation,

Many an eyebrow was raised over the Joint Opposition’s (JO) failure to vote for emergency required to sustain military operations. None of those loyal to war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa voted for the emergency. Lawmaker Mahinda Rajapaksa should explain as to why he withheld support for emergency. The JO’s decision cannot be justified under any circumstances and leading members, including Rajapaksa himself, should be ashamed of their failure. 

Having handed over a No-Confidence Motion (NCM) against Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen over his alleged involvement with those responsible for the April 21 bombings, the JO skipped the vote. Shame on those lawmakers! The JO certainly owed an explanation as to why its members skipped the crucial vote on the emergency. By throwing its full weight behind the emergency, the JO could have given a message to the country, struggling to come to terms with the devastating April 21 bombings. 

The UPFA (JO/SLPP and SLFP groups) can never absolve itself of responsibility for failing to throw its full weight behind the armed forces.

The JO could have reiterated its commitment to a sustained military campaign by overwhelmingly voting for emergency. Why didn’t JO vote for the emergency? Did UPFA constituents discuss its stand on emergency before May 24 vote? 

Parliament comprised the UNP, UPFA, TNA and JVP groups. In addition to them, the SLMC and EPDP are represented by a lawmaker each. At the last parliamentary election, in Aug 2015, the UNP secured 106 seats, the UPFA obtained 95, the TNA 16 and the JVP 06. In addition, there are two persons elected on the SLMC and the EPDP tickets. 

Having re-introduced emergency unanimously a month ago, can political parties, represented in Parliament, explain as to why a consensus couldn’t be reached on continuous deployment of the military?

Did President Maithripala Sirisena, in his capacity as the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and the Minister in charge of the Defence portfolio take up the emergency vote with Premier and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe at the National Security Council? 

Of the UNP parliamentary group, numbering over 100, only 18 voted for it. All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader Bathiudeen’s inability to vote for emergency is understandable. The five-member ACMC parliamentary group is a constituent of the government group. In fact, Muslim MPs could have been excused if they felt uncomfortable in voting for the emergency.

Of the seven-member SLMC parliamentary group, its National List MP and State Minister for Social Empowerment, Seyed Ali Zahir Moulana, voted for emergency. Moulana, a former UNP MP from Batticaloa, set a sterling example by voting for it. Moulana, the only Muslim MP to back emergency, told the writer last Sunday (May 26) that as a lawmaker it was his duty to vote for the emergency. All government members had to support emergency as it was part of the current dispensation’s moves to meet the unprecedented security threat.

 "In fact, I tried to contact several members. They didn’t respond," Moulana said. The State Minister emphasized that the national security couldn’t be compromised under any circumstances. Asked whether the SLMC and the UNP-led UNF discussed the impending vote on emergency, Moulana said that though they didn’t formally discuss the matter he always believed the government members should back emergency.

Moulana lost his parliamentary seat in mid-2003 over his role in helping the head of breakaway LTTE faction Karuna to leave Batticaloa following his battle with the LTTE’s Kilinochchi group. The top UNP leadership asked Moulana to resign his seat and take refuge overseas.

The JVP parliamentary group, too, skipped the vote. Can the former Marxist party explain its decision? It would be pertinent to mention whatever the differences among the UNP, the TNA and the JVP; they worked together for Maithripala Sirisena’s victory at the January 2015 presidential election. The same coalition backed General Sarath Fonseka at the previous presidential election, in January 2010. The JVP continues to play politics with national security.

Having backed the re-introduction of emergency, in April 2019, the TNA called for a division the following month. The TNA too obviously played politics with the issue with its national leadership still unable to cope up with the situation. The NTJ infiltration of the Parliament sent shock waves through the government and the security establishment. Arresting of an interpreter, on the Parliament staff with direct links to the NTJ, underscored the threat posed by extremists. The TNA seems unable to back the emergency used against fresh extremist threat without compromising its stand against the armed forces. The TNA still holds the armed forces responsible for eradicating the LTTE’s conventional military power.

Low key armed forces victory celebrations 

Four persons, namely Wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the then Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, Navy Chief Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda and SLAF Chief Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonatileke, weren’t among the guests at the Battaramulla event. Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE would never have been possible without their leadership. A furious Fonseka is believed to have turned down the invitation whereas others didn’t receive invitations. Their unparalleled contribution made the victory possible though current dispensation felt uncomfortable in inviting them. The government definitely ignored all top ex-Generals/Officers who spearheaded the successful war effort. The government should be appreciated for promoting Fonseka to the rank of Field Marshal, but it deprived Karannagoda and Goonatileke promotions to the rank of Admiral of the Fleet and Marshal of the Air Force, respectively. 

The government earned public wrath for not inviting those who made Sri Lanka’s greatest victory possible. The government deprived Sri Lanka’s right to celebrate war victory with a National Victory Day parade in Colombo. Had there been a proper parade, each service would have had a headquarters element and separate sections for Wanni, Eastern and Northern theatres. Instead Army Commands for Wanni, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Jaffna, East, West and Central, marked the day with a march on main roads. The Kilinochchi Command marched from Karadiyapokku bridge to War Heroes monument in Kilinochchi. The print and electronic media didn’t even bother to report events organized by the Army at Command level. The Navy had its main commemorative event at its Welisara base while the Air Force had none.

Canada, on behalf of a section of the international community, the TNA and the Tamil Diaspora, in 2014, made an attempt to abolish the National Victory Day parade. 

The then Canadian High Commissioner in Colombo, Shelly Whiting, in a strongly worded statement, issued exclusively to ‘The Island’, explained the Canadian decision to boycott the event. The writer front-paged Whiting’s statement, on the May 16, 2014 edition of The Island. The then Military spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya explained that it was Sri Lanka’s prerogative to engage in such celebrations. The Rajapaksa administration rejected the Canadian demand. The then government went ahead with the Matara parade.

The following is the text of Shelly’s statement, headlined ‘Canada to boycott Victory Day parade’ with strap line ‘such events won’t help post war national reconciliation’: "As in past years, heads of mission, resident in Sri Lanka, have recently received invitations to participate in this year’s Victory Parade, scheduled to be held, in Matara, on May 18. As Canadian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, part of my role includes celebrating the successes of the country, alongside the Sri Lankan people. However, I will not be attending the Victory Day Parade on May 18. Some commentators will no doubt rush to judge and erroneously conclude that I am doing so out of some misplaced nostalgia for the LTTE. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"Let me be clear the LTTE was a scourge that brought untold suffering to this island nation and all its people.

"Prior to arriving in Sri Lanka, my previous assignment was in Afghanistan where I saw first-hand the terrorist tactics (use of suicide bombers, IEDs) that are sadly the LTTE’s legacy to the world. The LTTE and its supporters were ruthless and single-minded, and did not faithfully represent the political aspirations of the communities they purported to represent. Canada joined the world in welcoming the defeat of the LTTE, in 2009. In fact, the LTTE has been proscribed as a terrorist entity in Canada since 2006. To help stop the flow of funding to the LTTE, Canada further proscribed the World Tamil Movement (WTM) in 2008. Both of these organizations remain banned in Canada today.

"However, five years after the end of the conflict, the time has arrived for Sri Lanka to move past wartime discourse and to start working seriously towards reconciliation. It is time to mend relations between communities and to ensure that all Sri Lankans can live in dignity and free from discrimination, based on ethnic, religious or linguistic identities. Fathers and daughters, sons and mothers, all were victims, who were killed or never returned home at the end of the conflict. No community here – whether Sinhalese or Tamil, Muslim or Burgher – was spared during the conflict. In this vein, Canada has encouraged the Government of Sri Lanka to retire its annual Victory Day Parade, which perpetuates roles of victors and vanquished within the country, for a day of remembrance for all those who suffered as a result of the conflict. Indeed, Sri Lanka’s own homegrown Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report recommends that a solemn day of remembrance for all victims of the war would be more conducive to sustaining peace here. Such a gesture would go a long way towards putting wartime posturing behind Sri Lanka.

"I will not be in Matara, but I will be thinking and remembering all those who lost their loved ones over the 30-year conflict."

Soon after the change of government, in January 2015, the Yahapalana leadership accepted the international call for the cancellation of the Victory Day parade. For five years Sri Lanka didn’t have a military parade with politicians taking the centre stage much to the disappointment of those who recognize the true heroes.