Thursday, 25 July 2019

Australia-Sri Lanka relations and the significance of Chundikuli meeting



by Shamindra Ferdinando

Australian High Commissioner, David Holly, must have been quite surprised by the unprecedented controversial advice he received from Northern Province Governor, Dr. Suren Raghavan, when they met at the Northern Province Governor’s official residence, at Chundikuli, in Jaffna, on July 16, 2019.

Holly succeeded Bryce Hutchesson, in late January 2019. Hutchesson took over the Colombo mission in Feb 2016. His predecessor was Robyn Mudie (January 2012 to Feb 2016). Mudie was preceded by Kathy Klugman (Feb 2008 to January 2012).

All of them worked hard to advance Australia’s interests in Colombo. Australia pursued tough strategy to prevent Sri Lanka being used as a launching pad for those seeking illegal entry into Australia. In fact, unprecedented Australia-Sri Lanka co-operation, on measures to thwart human smuggling, received Canberra’s commendation throughout this period. In line with the Australia-Sri Lanka strategy, HC Holly, at his meeting with Dr. Raghavan, has reiterated Australia’s commitment to thwart illegal migration from Sri Lanka. Dr. Raghavan, according to his Office, told HC Holly as to how Australia could retain its ‘place internationally by creating a policy on the humanitarian basis, in the case of refugees, like the Canadian government.’

Dr. Raghavan’s suggestion is obviously contrary to the Australian foreign policy and the Australia-Sri Lanka project meant to thwart illegal migration. In spite of the change of government, in January 2015, Sri Lanka followed the joint operation, agreed during the previous administration.

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, while announcing Holly’s appointment on January 29, 2019, referred to Australia’s Sri Lankan community of 170,000 people making a significant contribution to the Australian society.

Payne: "Our relationship encompasses development cooperation, education and close collaboration on countering people smuggling and transnational crime. Two-way trade reached a record $1.54 billion in 2017-18. We will continue to support Sri Lanka as it makes progress towards meaningful reconciliation. Australia and Sri Lanka work productively, together, to address shared challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, including through the Indian Ocean Rim Association."

The Foreign Ministry should explain Sri Lanka’s policy as regards a vital agreement/understanding with Australia. Sri Lanka cannot, under any circumstances, afford to undermine relations with major powers as a result of politicians and top officials taking different views on contentious issues.

Dr. Raghavan’s assertion that the Australian policy, towards refugees, is not on par with accepted international standards, is certainly disputable. The writer has never heard of any Sri Lankan politician, or official advising a top diplomatic representative that his country should follow policies of another nation. Australia is unlikely to consider such advice.

HC Holly, senior career officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, must have been dumfounded by the Sri Lankan’s advice.

Dr. Raghavan caused a strong rebuttal in March, this year, following the Geneva Human Rights Council sessions. UN High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, reacted angrily over a statement a section of the Sri Lankan media attributed to Dr. Raghavan.

Bachelet dismissed reports which quoted Dr. Raghavan as having said that the UN Rights Commissioner Bachelet "agreed" that certain facts, incorporated in the UNHRC (UN Human Rights Council) report against Sri Lanka, could not be condoned.

"I am deeply disappointed by the spin that has been put on my discussion with the Sri Lankan Government delegation," she said. She was responding to a statement made by Dr. Raghavan, in Colombo soon after the Sri Lankan delegation returned from Geneva.

Dr. Raghavan responded to Bachelet: "It was deeply regrettable and unfortunate that some portions of that interview – especially in the English media—had lost its original meaning and intention, either in language translation or for reasons unknown."

The statement further said "all discussions were conducted with full bilateral support"

"Madam Bachelet is an exemplary High Commissioner who displayed the highest order of diplomacy and skills which I valued so much," Dr. Raghavan said.

Dr. Raghavan recently secured a place in the newly set up National Security Advisory Board (NSAB). President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, in addition to being the Defence Minister, constituted NSAB to examine national security matters in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks and the ongoing controversy over the signing of the Acquisition and Cross Serving Agreement (ACSA) in August 2017, and the proposed finalization of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact Investment Programme.

The NSAB first met, under the patronage of President Sirisena. at his official residence. It consists of Dr. Sarath Amunugama (Chairman), President’s Counsels Kalinga Indratissa, President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, Nigel Hatch, Attorney-at-Law Javid Yusuf, Dr. Ram Manikkalingam, Dr. Suren Raghavan. Manikkalingam heads the Dialogue Advisory Group comprising NGO, INGO, government representatives as well as academics.

A statement issued by President Sirisena’s media office quoted him as having told the NSAB that it was meant to strengthen the process undertaken to ensure the national security by expressing its views and suggestions in an independent manner.

In the wake of the Easter Sunday carnage, Dr. Raghavan called for talks with the NTJ. The declaration was made in the presence of President Sirisena and Army Chief Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake at the President’s House. The Northern Governor said so after the President and Army Commander vowed to eradicate the NTJ and its allies at any cost. The writer was among those present at the President’s House media briefing – the first given by President Sirisena on his return from Singapore. The President was away at the time the NTJ, and its allies, carried out suicide bombings in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa.

Sri Lanka should keep in mind Australian assistance provided to the Sri Lanka Navy, over the years, in recognition of its efforts to block illegal migration. In April 2014, Australia and Sri Lanka signed an agreement to transfer two Bay Class patrol boats to the SLN. Sri Lanka took delivery of the two boats in April and June 2014.

Dr. Raghvan cannot be unaware of the special understanding between Australia and Sri Lanka as regards human smuggling. The Foreign Ministry needs to brief both parliament, as well as other senior officials, as regards key policy matters.

The academic-one time director of the presidential media received appointment as the Northern Province Governor, in early January 2019. Dr. Raghavan’s appointment was made along with that of M.L.A.M. Hizbullah and Azath Salley as Governors of Eastern and Western Provinces, respectively. Both Hizbullah and Salley quit their posts, on June 03, 2019, consequent to protests over their alleged backing of the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday carnage.

Sri Lanka needs to speak in one voice on matters of national and international importance. Continuation of an agreement with Australia on anti-human smuggling operation is crucial to bilateral relationship. In fact, whoever is at the helm in Canberra, high profile operation to prevent boats carrying refugees leaving Sri Lanka will continue to be a priority. Therefore, Australia cannot be expected to follow the Canadian politicians who always played politics with Sri Lanka’s issue for personal benefit. Sri Lanka should appreciate the Australian stand instead of playing politics here at the overall expense of Sri Lanka’s national interests.

Good governance activist

named HC to Australia

Recently, the parliamentary high posts committee cleared the appointment of President’s Counsel J.C. Weliamuna as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Australia.

Good governance activist Weliamuna succeeded Somasundaram Skandakumar.

Weliamuna played a critical role in the yahapalana campaign to oust the previous Rajapaksa administration. The first Executive Director of the Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) Weliamuna served the organization for almost nine years, till Dec 2010. Weliamuna campaigned against the previous administration in spite of repeated threats to his life. In late September 2008, two hand grenades were thrown at his residence, situated near the Kohuwela police station. The then government received the wrath of both local and international organizations for attack on Weliamuna’s residence also its failure to punish those responsible. Although successive governments provided plum diplomatic posts to non-career diplomats, there hadn’t been a previous instance of a human rights activist receiving an opportunity to head a key mission.

The then Minister of Ports, Shipping & Aviation, Arjuna Ranatunga, in February 2015, appointed a Board of Inquiry, headed by Weliamuna, to conduct a preliminary investigation and ascertain whether there was prima facie evidence of the following (a) Abuse of power by the Board of Directors and the Senior Management of SriLankan Airlines prior to the appointment of the current Board of Directors, in February 2015.(b) Irregularities in the procurement/or leasing of Aircraft and (c) Whether due process has been followed in the procurement of goods and services by SriLankan Airlines, valued at over LKR 25 mn.

The inquiry team comprised attorney-at-law Weliamuna (head), U.H. Palihakkara, B.A.W. Abeywardane and M.K. Bandara. The Colombo Telegraph, in early May 2015, revealed as to how the inquiry team was paid Rs 3.5 mn in taxpayers’ money for the one-and-half month long inquiry. The appointing authority owed an explanation as to how the first yahapalana report cost the taxpayer Rs 3.5 mn.

Weliamuna is the strongest critic of the previous administration, the military and Sri Lanka’s human rights record, to receive such a high diplomatic post. Close on the heels of Sri Lanka co-sponsoring the accountability resolution, on Oct 01, 2015, in Geneva, Weliamuna declared his support for foreign judges in a local judicial mechanism. Weliamuna declared that foreign participation in the proposed war crimes court, was a must.

Weliamuna said so at a media briefing organized at the Information Department, in collaboration with Rupavahini. Weliamuna said that Parliament would have to make the required amendments to pave the way for international participation in the process.

Then Deputy Foreign Minister, Dr Harsha de Silva and Rupavahini Chairman Ravi Jayawardena flanked Weliamuna at the briefing.

Weliamuna insisted that Sri Lanka needed foreign expertise to meet the challenging task of inquiring into accountability issues. Post-war Sri Lanka required international expertise though some extremists sought to cause chaos. Quoting from a UN report that dealt with Sri Lanka, Weliamuna said that the local judiciary lacked the capacity to investigate system crimes (Foreign participation in ‘domestic mechanism’ confirmed with strap line Weliamuna reiterates Lanka lacks expertise to investigate ‘system crimes’-The Island Oct 13, 2015) and (Hitherto unknown ‘war crimes witnesses’ likely to testify before proposed court-Weliamuna - The Island, Oct 14, 2015).

Now, that Weliamuna has been named Sri Lanka’s HC in Canberra, it would be interesting to examine the learned President’s Counsel’s stand in respect of the accountability issues. Those who now represented the Joint Opposition/Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna had no right whatsoever to voice concern over diplomatic appointments, having packed the foreign service with wholly unsuitable persons. Weliamuna, whatever his politics, is qualified to represent the country at the highest level.

It would be pertinent to mention as to how Australia treated one of Sri Lanka’s top General’s, during Skandakumar’s tenure as Sri Lanka’s HC to Australia. Sri Lanka never took up Maj. Gen. Chagie Gallage’s case though Australia unfairly prevented him visiting his brother (an Australian passport holder) living Down Under. Australia refused visa to Gallage on unsubstantiated war crimes allegations directed at the Sri Lankan military. In spite of President Maithripala Sirisena, publicly expressing concern over senior military officials being denied visa over war crimes allegations, his government did absolutely nothing yet to remedy the situation.

The parliament is responsible for making key appointments to Sri Lankan missions overseas. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the parliament to ensure those appointed to overseas missions represent Sri Lanka’s interests, regardless of their personal convictions. The Foreign Ministry owed an explanation as to how it intended to address the contentious issue of senior military commanders being denied visa on unsubstantiated allegations.

Contradictory positions

Sri Lanka’s failure to take up Gen. Gallage’s visa issue should be examined against the backdrop of Northern Governor Dr. Raghavan seeking a change of Australian policy towards illegal immigrants. In terms of the 13th Amendment, forced on Sri Lanka by India in the 80s, The Governor of a province is the President’s representative in a particular region. Therefore, President exercised executive powers through Governors.

Australia found fault with Gallage for being in command of the 59 Division from May 7, 2009 to July 20, 2009.

The Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection has extensively cited Report of the OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) on Sri Lanka (OISL) to turn down Gallage’s visa. On the basis of the OISL report, Geneva adopted Resolution 30/1 to pave the way for foreign judges in a domestic judicial mechanism.

Australia also cited the UNSG Panel of Experts (PoE) report on accountability issues released on March 31, 2011. POE accused Sri Lanka of massacring over 40,000 civilians and depriving the Vanni population of their basic needs. The combined security forces brought the war to a successful conclusion on May 19, 2009.

There have never been specific allegations against Maj. Gen. Gallage before.

Australia accused Maj. Gen. Gallage of planning, implementing and supporting war crimes and crimes against humanity. Australia also held him responsible as the serving officer for failing to prevent troops, under his command, from committing war crimes.

The Australian report, while identifying Gallage as ‘potential controversial visit’, alleges that the SLA committed atrocities even after the conclusion of the war.

Australia identified the 59 Division, credited with wresting control of LTTE’s Mullaitivu bastion, in late January 2009, as one of the formations responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Over the years, the US and some other countries have denied visas to senior commanders on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations. In the case of Maj. Gen. Sudantha Ranasinghe, the US refused to accommodate him on a programme as he commanded the elite 53 Division in peacetime.

The writer revealed Gallage’s predicament in March 23, 2017 edition of The Island in a front-page lead story headlined Chagie denied Australian visa over ‘war crimes’ allegations with strap line Unsubstantiated UN claim cited as reason.

Having retired on Aug 31, 2018, Gallage delivered his farewell speech, a week later at Gajaba home in Saliyapura, Anuradhapura. Gallage dealt with a range of issues on his retirement and it was on the eve of the 35th anniversary of the Gajaba Regiment. There had never been a previous instance of an officer having the courage to declare at a farewell banquet, him being categorized as a war criminal for want of government strategy to safeguard the military interests. The political leadership should examine as why an irate Gallage declared: "So, I’m happy to be retired being a tiny particle of that proud chapter of the history, though designated as a ‘War Criminal.’

The Foreign Ministry neglected its responsibility, over the years, primarily for want of a desired political leadership. During the Rajapaksa administration, the Foreign Ministry was always in denial mode. The previous administration never felt the requirement to mount a proper defence in Geneva. Instead, the ruling coalition played politics with the issue. The then President Rajapaksa sought political mileage by repeatedly claiming that he risked ‘electric chair’ and was prepared to face it for the sake of the people.

The ongoing controversy over former Foreign Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam being the beneficiary of the US largesse shouldn’t be examined in isolation but comprehensively studied, taking into consideration the larger picture. Many had conveniently forgotten today as to how Kariyawasam ended up as an advisor to the parliament. The writer, on more than one occasion, discussed the circumstances leading to Kariyawasam’s appointment. Having served the country as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Washington (2014 to 2017), Kariyawasam functioned as the Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before taking up the post in parliament in Dec 2018 in accordance with an agreement between Sri Lanka parliament and the UN finalized in Sept 2016.