SPECIAL REPORT : Part 285August 27, 2019, 8:41 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Executive Director of the National Peace Council (NPC), Dr. Jehan Perera, was quite adamant that Army Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, in spite of being next in line for the top post, shouldn’t have been appointed the Commander of the Army.
The government should have been mindful of the grave consequences of such an appointment, Dr. Perera declared, asserting that the government couldn’t afford to accommodate Shavendra Silva at the expense of the country.
Dr. Perera was responding to ‘Get Real’ anchor Mahieash Johnney, in the latest edition of the programme, aired on Derana 24X7, on August 26.
Shavendra Silva succeeded Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake, who retired on Aug. 18, 2019, having served in that capacity, since June 27, 2017. Senanayake received the appointment in spite of being away overseas for several years. Gajaba veteran Shavendra Silva is the only General Officer Commanding (GoC) of a fighting Division engaged in the Eelam War IV (Aug 2006-May 2009) to receive the top post after the end of the conflict.
Dr. Perera, who had accompanied the then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera-led delegation to the 34th session of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), in March 2017, faulted President Maithripala Sirisena for what he depicted as a reckless decision.
Acknowledging the spearheading role played by Shavendra Silva on the Vanni front, Dr. Perera reiterated war crimes allegations directed at the then GoC of the much celebrated 58 Division. At the onset of the offensive, the formation was called Task Force I. TF I launched operations on the Mannar front, in Sept 2007, several months after the newly raised 57 Division began offensive action meant to capture Madhu. TF I/58 Division fought its way northwards, brought Pooneryn under its control, in Nov 2008, and then turned eastwards, secured Paranthan on the Kandy-Jaffna A 9 road, in late Dec 20, 2008, and swiftly evicted the LTTE from Elephant Pass and Kilinochchi. The 58 Division captured Kilinochchi north, whereas the 57 brought the other part under government control. Subsequently, the 58 Division fought its way across Vanni east, played, significant role in the Anandakulam double encirclement of powerful LTTE fighting force, along with the 53 Division, before the last phase of the operations. However, Vijayaba Infantry Regiment (VIR), attached to the 53 Division, killed Velupillai Prabhakaran, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, on the morning of May 19, 2009.
The top NPC spokesman accused the war-winning government of trying to deceive the world by propagating a ‘zero’ casualty policy. Dr. Perera said that as the Rajapaksa government provided different casualty figures it should accept responsibility for the current situation.
Johnney’s probing questions, at one point prompted Dr. Perera to speak of possible US/international sanctions in the wake of Shavendra Silva’s appointment. A section of the NGO community criticized his appointment as the Chief of Staff, in early January this year. South African NGO guru, Yasmin Zooka, a member of the UN Secretary General’s controversial Panel of Experts (PoE) on Accountability in Sri Lanka, spearheaded the January 2019 campaign against the officer.
Johnney focused on the statements issued by the US and the Delegation of the European Union (EU), in Colombo, in agreement with the embassies of Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, Norway and Switzerland and the UK High Commission. The UNHRC, too, condemned Sri Lanka over the appointment.
The writer, being the other guest on the programme, pointed out that the US had no qualms in backing war-winning Army Commander, the then Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s candidature at the 2010 January presidential election. While recollecting as to how the US advised the Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) led Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to vote for Gen. Fonseka, the writer emphasized that the Western powers continued to condemn the Sri Lankan military on the basis of the much-touted unsubstantiated war crimes accusations. Identities of those who provided information to the PoE remained classified. None of them mystery accusers had been cross-examined, in any court of law or independent investigative mechanism yet.
The absurdity in condemning a Division Commander after having backed his superior officer for the Office of the President was repeatedly stressed.
There had never been specific accusations directed against Shavendra Silva though a section of the international community blindly humiliated the Sri Lankan military on the basis of unproved accusations as if on a vendetta for defeating the "world’s most ruthless terrorist organisations", which they repeatedly touted over the years as being undefeatable by the Sri Lankan security forces. The so-called international community even tried to throw a lifeline to cornered Tigers during the last phase of fighting and literally twisted the arm of then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to halt military operations to allow a Western backed flotilla to rescue beleaguered LTTE by sea.
Senior officers, including Sarath Fonseka, were routinely denied visa (both official and private visits). Senior officers, including Shavendra Silva, were also deprived of prestigious courses since the end of the war. Overseas deployment of Army contingents, under UN command, too, was badly affected as a result of unsubstantiated allegations. The Army is still struggling to overcome punitive restrictions imposed by a biased UN system.
‘White flag’ killings
Dr. Perera was also reminded how, over two years after the conclusion of the war, the then US defense attaché, in Colombo, Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith contradicted war crime accusations, including the much advertised battlefield executions, dubbed ‘white flag’ killings. The US official denied the very basis of the anti-Sri Lanka project in the presence of senior military representatives from several dozen countries.
‘White flag killings’ accusations were made by no less a person than Sarath Fonseka himself in the run-up to the 2010 presidential election. Having accused Fonseka of operating death squads, The Sunday Leader threw its weight behind common candidate Sarath Fonseka. The then editor of The Sunday Leader, Frederica Jansz, carried an exclusive interview with Fonseka, headlined "Gota Ordered Them to Be Shot" – Genaral Sarath Fonseka" on December 13, 2009.
Many an eyebrow was raised when Fonseka joined hands with the UNP, a party that constantly undermined the war effort and personally insulted and ridiculed Sarath Fonseka and his Army. The 2019 presidential aspirant, Lakshman Kiriella, declared any donkey could wage a war, whereas Ranil Wickremesinghe downplayed the capturing of Thoppigala. UNP Assistant Leader Ravi Karunanayake ridiculed the Army.
The writer sought an explanation from Dr. Perera as to why those who pursued high profile war crimes investigation on the basis of the PoE report, released in 2011 March, and a follow-up inquiry, supervised by one-time Amnesty official Sandra Beidas, never bothered to examine revelations favourable to Sri Lanka. A still confidential UN report, that placed the number of deaths due to conflict in the Vanni, from August 2008 to May 13, 2009, at 7,721, and Lord Naseby’s disclosures in House of Lords, in 2017 Oct, were cited by the writer. The Conservative politician efficiently challenged the primary accusation as regards the massacre of over 40,000 civilians on the Vanni east front and he said the military never deliberately targeted the civilian population.
The so called civil society, well-funded by Western powers, and other interested groups and the UN, never re-examined allegations, following Nasebys’ revelations. The writer raised this issue with the British High Commission in Colombo on several occasions.
The new Army Chief’s predicament should be examined against the backdrop of the failure on the part of successive governments and the current dispensation, betraying the war-winning military, by co-sponsoring a resolution in Oct 2015.
The government owed an explanation as to why Lord Naseby’s revelations, based on wartime dispatches from the British High Commission, in Colombo, were never taken up properly though reference was made to the same by Foreign Minister, Tilak Marapana, PC, at the last Geneva sessions.
The war-winning Rajapaksa administration too foolishly played politics with the accountability issue. The previous government was constantly on the denial mode. The government never realized though it had repeatedly rejected allegations, including the main accusation that as many as 40,000 civilians perished on the Vanni east front, the UN accepted them. In fact, the Vanni massacre is the main accusation among five allegations contained in the executive summary of the PoE report. Let me reproduce the relevant section verbatim (point number 137 in the report): "In the limited surveys that have been carried out in the aftermath of the conflict, the percentage of people reporting dead relatives is high. A number of credible sources have estimated that could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. Two years after the end of the war, there is still no reliable figure for civilian deaths, but multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage. Only a proper investigation can lead to the identification of all of the victims and to the formulation of an accurate figure for the total number of civilian deaths."
The writer pointed out that during the ‘Get Real’ discussion, as to how the UN deliberately deprived a proper examination of allegations by way of a confidential clause.
The panel recommended that the identities of those who had provided information to the PoE shouldn’t be revealed for 20 years, since the day of the releasing of the report. Even after that, the releasing of such information is subject to declassification review, the UN ruled.
Nothing can be as important as establishing the number of dead in the wake of various persons/organizations making varying wild claims as regards the loss of civilian life. It is of equal importance to establish the period, now called the final phase. Does the final phase consist of the last three days, five days, final two weeks or January 1 to May 19, 2009?
Vastly contradictory casualty figures
British Labour Party MP, Siobhan McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden-Labour), told the House of Commons, in September 2011, that 60,000 LTTE cadres and 40,000 Tamil civilians perished during January-May 2009 at the hands of the Sri Lankan military. She is the only person to make a specific reference at that time regarding the number of LTTE cadres killed during that period. Obviously, the British MP categorized the January-May 2009 period as the final phase of the conflict. The British High Commission declined to respond to a query from the writer regarding the MP’s claim. The MP didn’t even respond to The Island query regarding the same.
In September 2011, the London headquartered Amnesty International, in a special report, titled ‘When will they get justice?’: Failures of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’, placed the number of civilian deaths at 10,000. "Amnesty International’s conclusions, derived independently from eye witnesses testimony and information from aid workers, are that about 10,000 civilians were killed; that the LTTE used civilians as human shields and conscripted child soldiers; that the Sri Lankan army shelled areas it knew were densely populated by civilians; and that people trapped by fighting suffered severe and avoidable deprivation of food and medical care."
The government failed at least to point out the discrepancy in various figures quoted by the UN panel and Channel 4 News (40,000 civilians), MP Siobhan McDonagh (40,000 civilians and 60,000 LTTE cadres) and Amnesty International (10,000), all during 2011.
Instead, the previous government hired expensive foreign PR firms which did nothing to counter the lies. Tax payers’ money was squandered on foolish projects without undertaking a cohesive examination of all facts to pave the way for a robust defense. The possibility of those who had been in power receiving financial benefits through these PR deals cannot be ruled out. The writer is quite surprised that the yahapalana leaders never made an effort to investigate corruption in the above-mentioned transactions, running into millions of USD.
Sri Lanka paid a huge price for neglecting its responsibilities. There had never been a proper study, at least, of specific accusations directed by the PoE. In its executive summary, the PoE alleged that tens of thousands lost their lives, from January to May 2009, many of whom died anonymously in the carnage of the final few days. The panel categorized the following as the five main violations committed by President Rajapaksa’s government: (1) killing of civilians due to heavy shelling (2) systematic attacks on hospitals and other civilian targets (3) denial of food, medicine and other essential items to the Vanni population (4) violation of human rights of those who had survived the war, including LTTE cadres and (5) violations committed outside the war zone, including suppression of the media.
The PoE also accused the LTTE of (1) using civilians as a human buffer between its cadres and the advancing Army, (2) killing those attempting to flee the rapidly shrinking area under its control (3) deployment of military equipment in close proximity to civilians (4) deployment of children for combat operations (5) forced labour (6) launching suicide attacks on civilians fleeing the area under its control.
Sri Lanka never exploited Wiki Leaks revelations, and ICRC statements, to defend its armed forces. Army headquarters, too, sat on vital evidence. The rift between the Rajapaksas and Fonseka caused irreparable damage to Sri Lanka’s reputation. With both the SLPP and the UNP seeking the Tamil vote, at the 2019 presidential poll, the accountability issue is certainly going to be a major issue.
Sri Lanka’s lapses enabled Western powers to manipulate the Geneva process to achieve their objectives. They achieved the primary objective - a new Constitution meant to do away with the unitary status of the country ostensibly in the name of achieving post-war national reconciliation.
The first indication that the US and its allies brazenly manipulated the process, to the advantage of the TNA project, came to light, in June 2011, when Lt. Col. Smith revealed the truth. The Island exclusively reported the US contradiction of UN accusations at the inaugural ‘Colombo Defence Seminar 2011.’ The US disclosure was made in response to a query raised by IPKF veteran Maj. Gen. (retd.) Ashok Mehta from the then Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva. Army headquarters and the previous political leadership for unknown reasons or through sheer foolishness ignored it. It would be pertinent to reproduce the US official’s statement verbatim.
A wasted opportunity
Much to the disappointment of those who had backed the successful offensive, the military never launched a special project to disapprove unsubstantiated allegations. The Army failed to capitalize on a statement made by the then US Defence Advisor in Colombo, Lt. Col. Smith. It would be pertinent to mention that the comment was made two years after the conclusion of the conflict. The Island dealt exclusively with the revelation made by the senior US military officer (Sri Lanka Defence symposium: Now, US suspects credibility of LTTE surrender offer - The Island, June 3, 2011) The then Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya, failed to take advantage of the US statement. The External Affairs Ministry never appreciated the US statement. The previous government simply ignored the US statement. Sri Lanka lacked the capacity to pursue the matter to its advantage. There couldn’t have been a better defence for Sri Lanka than a top US representative publicly denouncing propaganda directed at Sri Lanka.
The Defence Attaché intervened after an Indian delegate, Major General (retd) Ashok Mehta, who had served as an IPKF commander during late ‘80s, queried about the alleged surrender moves by LTTE cadres. This is what Lt. Col. Smith had to say in response to Metha’s question, directed at Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva:
"Hello, may I say something to a couple of questions raised. I’ve been the defence attaché 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 to see, the offers to surrender, that I am aware of, seemed to come from the mouthpieces of the LTTE – Nadesan, 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 seem to all 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."
Lt. Col. Smith earned the wrath of the US establishment straight-away. In Washington, no sooner, The Island published his remarks, the State Department disassociated itself with Lt. Col. Smith’s statement. The State Department’s then Deputy Spokesman Mark. C. Toner, was to answer a series of questions. This is how the Question and Answer session went.
QUESTION: I have one on Sri Lanka. The senior Defense Attaché, at the U.S. Mission, in Sri Lanka, went public in the newspapers that he questioned the credibility of surrender offers made by senior LTTE leaders who was the head of the (inaudible) last year. Does this reflect any change in the U.S. position on the war crime victims
TONER: Right. You’re talking about remarks that were made at a conference in Colombo?
QUESTION: Yes. Yeah.
TONER: Well, just to clarify, the U.S. did decline invitations to participate in that conference as either a conference speaker or panelist. My understanding is that the defense attaché was there as an observer and a note taker. His comments reflected his personal opinions. There’s no change in the policy of the United States, and his remarks do not reflect any change in our policy.
QUESTION: So that was a personal opinion?
TONER: Personal opinion. The United States – and just to reiterate that policy – remains deeply concerned by the allegations in the panel of experts report, and we’re committed to seeing a credible accounting of, and accountability for, violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. And we believe that the Sri Lankan Government must act quickly and credibly to address these allegations.
QUESTION: Who was the attaché?
TONER: I don’t have his name.
QUESTION: Is he still the attaché? (Laughter.) Was there any discussion?
TONER: I believe he’s still there, but I’ll try to get an update.
Shortly thereafter Lt. Col Smith left Colombo Whoever wins the 2019 presidential election, it would be his responsibility to seek a fresh examination of still unproved war crimes accusations