Tuesday, 18 June 2019

IMPACT on 2019 Prez poll

Easter Sunday attacks


Pictures of Zahran Hashim (centre) and other members of the Easter Sunday suicide squad with their faces covered was released soon after the coordinated attacks.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Lawmaker Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka on Sunday (June 16, 2019) contradicted Defence Secretary Gen. (retd) Shantha Kottegoda as regards the status of the current threat posed by the now proscribed National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) and allied organizations.

President Maithripala Sirisena, in May, banned Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim (JMI) and Willayath As Seylani in addition to the NTJ.

Responding to media query following a public event, war-winning Army Commander Fonseka pointed out the sharp discrepancy in Kottegoda’s much publicized assertion before the controversial Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) probing the Easter Sunday attacks and the actual security situation.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, MP, has ignored President Maithripala Sirisena’s demand to halt the PSC proceedings.

The PSC consists of Deputy Speaker Ananda Kumarasiri, Chairman (UNP/Moneragala District), Sarath Fonseka (Democratic Party/UNP National List), Ravi Karunanayake (UNP/Colombo District), Dr. Rajitha Senaratne (UNP/Kalutara District), Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne (LSSP/UNP National List), Prof. Ashu Marasinghe (UNP National List), Rauff Hakeem (SLMC/UNP Kandy District), M.A. Sumanthiran (TNA/Jaffna District) and Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa (JVP/Kalutara District).

The country’s one and only Field Marshal questioned the credibility of Kottegoda’s claim that 99 per cent of the problem had been taken care of in the wake of the recent apprehension of seven persons trained to carry out suicide attacks. The ungrateful government however, so far denied the equal rank to wartime Air Force and Navy Commanders, Roshan Gunatilleke and Wasantha Karannagoda, respectively. PSC member Fonseka declared that five persons who had been brought to Colombo from Saudi Arabia last week, and two arrested in Mahanuwara, were trained suicide cadres. Fonseka strongly countered Kottegoda’s assessment of the security situation. Former Minister Fonseka painted an extremely bleak picture of the situation, warning the public of serious security threats, posed by terrorists.

Fonseka lashed out at the current dispensation for not taking tangible measures to neutralize the grave terrorist threat, even after he explained as to how the NTJ challenge could be addressed. Fonseka didn’t mince his words when he declared that the new Defence Secretary was incapable of tackling the issue. It would be pertinent to mention how Fonseka, of the Sinha Regiment (SR), was appointed Commander of the Army, replacing then military chief Kottegoda of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI) by President Mahinda Rajapaksa as a result of the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s intervention. The change took place soon after the Nov 2005 presidential election.

Having won the presidential election, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in spite of strong opposition from many, accepted Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recommendation in respect of Fonseka. Although Kottegoda assured Gotabaya Rajapaksa he was ready to accept whatever task the Rajapaksa administration wanted the Army to do, by then the Rajapaksas had already decided to accommodate Fonseka as the Commander of the Army. Fonseka received the appointment less than a month before he was due to retire as the Chief of Staff of the Army.

Kottegoda succeeded Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, on July 01, 2004, during the Oslo-managed Ceasefire Agreement (CFA).

Fonseka survived an LTTE suicide attack, in April 2006, in the run-up to the outbreak of the Eelam war IV.

Nearly two months after the Easter Sunday carnage, the UNP government is still struggling to cope up with the crisis, with no consensus how to neutralize the NTJ challenge. The UNP is of the view the government efforts have been badly hampered due to President Sirisena depriving it of the law and order portfolio. In accordance with the Constitution, the President holds the defence portfolio.

With countrywide national elections-presidential in Dec 2019 and parliamentary in mid next year - President Sirisena is unlikely to give-up the law and order portfolio for obvious reasons.

Tamil-Muslim alliance

The Easter Sunday attacks will have a huge impact on the forthcoming presidential election. Veteran UNPer Ranjith Madduma Bandara (Moneragala District) recently ruled out the possibility of the UNP fielding a common candidate under any circumstances. Madduma Bandara emphasized that the party would definitely field a UNP candidate. The four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and those supportive of the TNA strategy, however is, expected to push for a common candidate, regardless of the consequences. In accordance with their strategy, they’ll explore ways and means of securing the support of the Muslim community in the run up to the presidential election. The crisis caused by the Easter attacks are being brazenly exploited to influence the Muslim community with the TNA and the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) turning a blind eye to the fact that the NTJ deliberately also targeted the Tamil community in the Easter Sunday carnage. The European Union, too, issued a statement meant to divert the attention.

The writer sought an explanation as to why the TNA refrained from commenting on the deaths of at least 60 Tamils in the NTJ suicide attacks which also caused injuries to over 100. The TNA is yet to respond to The Island query. Against the backdrop of the long delay in the TNA responding to The Island query, the writer received a statement from the UK-based GTF on the current situation. Interestingly, the GTF acknowledged that it had failed to secure the backing of the Australian Tamil Congress (ATC) to the statement. The GTF stated that the ATC ‘respectfully disagreed with some parts of this statement and chose to exclude from this particular statement.’

Let me reproduce the entire GTF statement, headlined ‘Global Tamil Forum condemns violence and intimidation against the Muslim community in Sri Lanka’

The GTF statement: "The Global Tamil Forum (GTF) express its strong condemnation of the anti-Muslim hatred and hysteria being whipped up by sections of Sinhala Buddhist community, and call on the Sri Lankan authorities to take immediate steps to arrest this dangerous development.

"Following the end of the decades-long civil war in 2009, the Muslim community became the prime target of the extremist, elements among the Sinhala Buddhist community, and this was aided and abetted by powerful forces within the majority community. The emerging trend was unmissable – well-planned violence in the Kalutara district, in June 2014, highly-coordinated riots in the Ampara and Kandy districts, during February-March 2018, and the death and destruction in several towns across the North-West region, in May 2019.

"Muslim civilians lost lives; their homes, businesses and mosques were ransacked and burnt; and tens of thousands were displaced. Many of these attacks were carried out under the patronage of Buddhist monks and in the presence of security forces. The hatred against Muslims was systematically ramped up over recent years and the community has been harassed and intimidated in a multitude of ways – deceit and false propaganda, calls to boycott Muslim professionals and their businesses, and imposing dress codes in violation of basic human rights. Actions of the extremist Sinhala Buddhist elements thus resulted in the creation of a fertile ground for extremist Islamic elements to exploit. This is undoubtedly one factor that contributed to the Easter Sunday violence.

"A notable crescendo was the recent hunger strike by the Monk-Parliamentarian, Athuraliye Rathana, calling for the resignation of Muslim Ministers and Governors by implicating them to Easter Sunday violence. GTF supports a thorough investigation into Easter Sunday attacks to identify all those directly or indirectly contributed to that carnage and bring them to face the full force of the law. Unfortunately, pre-empting such a process with vague allegations and a hunger strike helped build mass momentum around these demands and created a tinderbox with potential for serious violence against the Muslim community.

"Sri Lankan law enforcement officials and politicians have failed to show leadership in arresting this dangerous trend. Hundreds of Muslims continue to be detained in suspicion of involvement in the Easter Sunday violence, whereas key persons behind the recent anti-Muslim violence were released without regards for due process. Galagoda Gnanasara, an extremist monk known for inciting violence against Muslims, was pardoned within a year of serving his six-year jail sentence by President Sirisena, who did not have the moral fortitude to express public sympathy or support for the beleaguered Muslim community and its leaders.

"Amidst these tense inter-communal relations, a stand-out is the collective decision made by all nine Muslim Ministers and two Muslim Provincial Governors to resign from their positions. As articulated by Minister Rauff Hakeem, their actions were aimed at easing the fear of the Muslim population that was ‘terrified’ and ‘feared bloodbath’; he also called on the government to expedite investigations into all accusations related to the recent violent incidents.

"For the Tamil people it is a sense of déjà vu from the fifties to the eighties – when discrimination and high-handed actions against Tamil civilians; mob violence with collusion of security forces and elements of the government; total impunity for perpetrators; and harassment and intimidation of their Parliamentarians, all the while Sinhala national leaders appeased Sinhala extremism. Such appalling failure alienated the Tamil community, which ultimately led to civil war, the impact of which will take many more years to overcome. It will be tragic if the Muslim community is subjected to the same fate and made to feel as second-class citizens in their own country.

"The hard-line Buddhist forces have historically played an abominable role in preventing ethnic harmony, equality, and political power sharing among various communities. The latest events took this a step further which resulted in the resignation of Ministers and gave the agitators a pseudo-veto in deciding who could be in the government. This set a dangerous new precedent.

"Our strong conviction is that the numerically minority communities and their political leaders need to work together and in partnership with progressive forces from the majority community to regain their safety, rights and pride of place in the country. The political and religious leaders representing the majority community need to act beyond pandering to extremist elements, with a vision to create equality among all communities. The international community too should play its part in ensuring that Sri Lanka does not slide into another dark age of ethnic and religious intolerance and violence. This is essential for peace in Sri Lanka".

European powers in

political project

The EU too played politics with the issue. The following statement was issued by the EU in Colombo after it and representatives of other like-minded diplomatic missions met Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last week.

The EU statement: "The Delegation of the European Union (EU) issues the following statement in agreement with the embassies of France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Romania and the UK High Commission, as well as the embassies of Norway and Switzerland.

"We are deeply concerned by political and religious pressure being directed at Sri Lanka’s Muslim community which is undermining peace and reconciliation in the country.  Prejudiced and unsubstantiated allegations repeatedly published by media serve only to fuel intolerance.

"We shared our views during a meeting today with the Prime Minister. On that occasion we welcomed the government’s commitment to address hate speech and to set up a religious reconciliation council.

"We stand by all Sri Lankans working to preserve the peaceful coexistence between all communities, and expect religious and other community leaders to support them and speak out against violence.

"We urge the President, Prime Minister, and all political leaders to reassert the state’s commitment to mutual respect, tolerance, and equal treatment under the law for all, irrespective of faith or ethnicity."

The EU had no qualms in backing Geneva Resolution on the basis of unsubstantiated war crimes allegations with the killing of 40,000 civilians being the primary accusation.

The GTF, too, conveniently forgot the suffering experienced by the Tamil community as a result of the Easter Sunday attacks for obvious reasons. Western powers and civil society realize the importance of retaining the support of the Muslim community for the candidate whom they expect to support at the 2019 presidential poll. Their overall strategy is geared to bring Tamil and Muslim electorates together. In spite of setbacks caused by the Easter Sunday attacks, the TNA, even at the expense of its own community, extended its support to the Muslim political leadership. The Muslim leadership, too, remained silent over deliberate attacks carried out on the Tamil community. Tamil and Muslim leaderships are resorting to despicable tactics for political reasons.

It would be certainly interesting to know why the Australian Tamil Congress declined to endorse the GTF statement. However, we should appreciate the public acknowledgment of the difference of opinion between the GTF and its Australian partner - an extremely healthy situation our political parties and civil society groups, too, should follow.

Perhaps the GTF wouldn’t have achieved its current status if the LTTE managed to survive the war on the Vanni east front and reached some sort of arrangement with international backing.

Common candidate still a reality

In spite of Minister Madduma Bandara vowing to field a UNP candidate, the top party leadership will do everything possible to retain the UNP-TNA-JVP-SLMC combine that ensured Maithripala Sirisena’s victory at the last presidential election, in January 2015. The Easter Sunday strike has caused a serious setback to efforts meant to save the UNP-led alliance. The UNP-TNA-JVP-SLMC combine, backed by a section of the international community and civil society failed at 2010 presidential election. The same grouping succeeded at the last presidential election. In fact, the then General Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena had never been part of the grouping though they were fielded in 2010 and 2015, respectively. Both Fonseka and Sirisena contested under the swan symbol belonging to British passport holder Shalila Moonesinghe, who later received appointment as the Chairman of state enterprise Litro Gas in return for services rendered to yahapalana movement.

Moonesinghe’s New Democratic Front (NDF) received special treatment from Wickremesinghe’s government for facilitating its project. In Oct 2017, Moonesinghe ended up in police custody after he was caught in a massive international scam. Moonesinghe lost his lucrative job over fraudulent transfer of a large sum of USD from Far Eastern International Bank in Taiwan to Sri Lanka. His accomplice was Janaka Chaminda Nammuni, son of one time Chief-of-Staff of the Army Maj. Gen. Jaliya Nammuni. The fraud ended Moonesinghe’s chances of a high profile political role. Even if the UNP and its allies somehow manage to reach a consensus on a common candidate, at the next presidential, they are unlikely to consider NDF as a platform for their candidate.

The UNP last fielded a candidate on the party ticket at the 2005 presidential election at the height of the LTTE power. Wickremesinghe could have comfortably won the election if not for the LTTE-TNA combine sabotaging the UNP leader’s bid. The LTTE-TNA combine deprived Wickremesinghe of the northern vote in spite of some UNPers and the late lawmaker Nadaraja Raviraj appealing to the LTTE. The LTTE and an influential section of the TNA believed a victory for Wickremesinghe could undermine their military project. They believed Rajapaksa’s victory would justify resumption of war. The LTTE resumed hostilities in early Dec 2005 with claymore mine attacks on the military, deployed in the Jaffna peninsula. In the following month, the LTTE blasted a Fast Attack Craft (FAC) off Trincomalee and an abortive bid to assassinate Army Chief Fonseka, three months later, proved their project was on track.

If the LTTE succeeded in assassinating Fonseka, in April 2006, and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in December, of the same year, the outcome of the Eelam War IV would have been different. Sri Lanka could have lost the war. But, the LTTE’s partner, the TNA, had no qualms in backing Fonseka at the 2010 presidential election, after having accused his Army of butchering thousands of Tamil civilians. Although the TNA hesitated, initially, the grouping played its role, beautifully. It ensured Fonseka received the highest vote in all northern and eastern electoral districts, including Digamadulla. The TNA project wouldn’t have succeeded if not for the Muslim political outfits being part of the operation backed by the US. Thanks to Wiki Leaks, the role played by the US in Fonseka’s bid is in the public domain.

With the US bent on somehow finalizing SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) in the run up to 2019 presidential election, having secured ACSA (Acquiring and Cross Servicing Agreement) in Aug 2018, the Trump administration, and its allies in Asia, will go all out to ensure the continuation of the current dispensation, regardless of possible changes at the top.