Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Army Chief faulted over inclusion of Dec 2009 statement in GR ad

... faces up to three years in jail and a fine


A smiling Army Chief Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva at the 36th anniversary celebrations of the celebrated Gajaba Regiment on Oct 14, 2019 at Saliyapura, Anuradhapura. The celebrations, at Saliyapura, took place amidst furore over a statement made a decade ago (pic courtesy Army hq)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The New Democratic Front (NDF) recently found fault with Army Chief Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva for endorsing war-winning Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa for the Nov 16, 2019 presidential election - the third since the successful conclusion of the war, in May 2009.

During Eelam War IV (Aug 2006-May 2009) the then Brigadier Shavendra Silva, commanded the celebrated Task Force I/58 Division. Silva's Division battled the LTTE across Vanni, from West to the East, until the very end of the largest ever ground offensive, conducted by the Army.

Non cabinet minister and attorney-at-law Ajith P. Perera complained to Election Commission (EC) regarding the Army Commander playing politics, in the run-up to the crucial poll. The complaint was made on Oct 14, 2019 regarding an advertisement, appearing in the Oct 13, 2019 edition of Sunday newspapers.

Having received the complaint, the EC acted swiftly and decisively. The EC sought an immediate explanation from the Army Chief.

The Army's Chief's endorsement of Gotabaya Rajapaksa's candidature was raised at a media briefing, on Oct 16, 2019, called by the EC, comprising its Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya, Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole and Anil Abeysekera, PC, at the Election Secretariat.

On the following day, the AFP dealt with the Army Chief's statement, at issue, in a story headlined 'Army Chief sparks uproar over political advertisement.' The Island, too, carried the AFP report on our front page, on Oct 17, 2019.

The following is the full text: Army Commander Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva came under fire yesterday after apparently endorsing Gotabaya Rajapaksa for next month’s presidential election, a day after the front-running candidate vowed to scrap a UN-sanctioned probe into alleged war crimes.

The November 16 elections have revived debate about the end of a long-running bloody separatist conflict, with Army troops accused of massacring up to 40,000 civilians, in 2009, while crushing the LTTE. 

The Elections Commission said it wanted Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva to explain his appearance, in full-page newspaper advertisements supporting Rajapaksa, who was Defence Secretary at the time of the alleged atrocities.

The advertisements, quoted Silva as saying, Rajapaksa was "extremely efficient" and "addressed the urgent need of the security forces...during the final stages of the conflict".

"It is an election law violation for a serving military officer to endorse a candidate and engage in political activity," Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya said.

Silva could face up to three years in jail and a fine over the advertisements.

Rajapaksa’s campaign team denied being behind the adverts, although they appeared with party colours in a newspaper that openly supports him.

There was no immediate comment from Silva.

Rajapaksa said Tuesday that if elected he would not honour commitments made to the UN by a previous government to investigate alleged atrocities committed while he was Defence Secretary, during his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decade as president.

At that time, Silva was a brigadier leading a relentless military thrust against the LTTE, which started from the Mannar rice bowl, and was known to be closely associated with the Rajapaksas.

Silva’s appointment, in August, sparked international outrage because of his links to alleged war crimes, and the UN suspended the recruitment of Sri Lankan troops for peacekeeping duties.

Furore over Dec. 2009 statement

The allegation regarding 40,000 killed has been factually countered with the help of accounts given by Western Defence attaches who served in Colombo at the time and even unofficial UN and ICRC accounts. Moreover, respected British peer Lord Naseby, through the use of the British Right to Information Act, has obtained highly redacted British Defence Attaché’s dispatches from Colombo, clearly proving otherwise.  

The statement at issue had been made on Dec 28, 2009 at an event organized by the Sri Lanka Insurance at the Taj Exotica. At that time, Silva had functioned as the GoC of the 58 Division, a principal fighting formation, deployed in the Vanni. Silva, had recalled how the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa immediately dispatched containers fitted with heaters for the use of officers and men fighting in the rain. At the time that speech was delivered, war-winning Army Chief Sarath Fonseka, having quit the post of CDS, on Dec 01, 2009, had challenged the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa. In fact, at the time the Taj Exotica event was held, seeking Presidential Office was certainly not in his wildest dreams. The statement at issue had been included in a full page advertisement which featured four brief comments made by Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karanngoda, in Feb 2009, in his capacity as the Commander of the Navy, Marshal of Air Force Roshan Goonatileke, in March 2009, in his capacity as the Commander of the Air Force, and Gen. Daya Ratnayake, in March 2015, and Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva, in Dec 2009, in his capacity as the General Officer Commanding 58 Division.

But, Lt. Gen. Silva has been accused of throwing his weight behind Gotabaya Rajapaksa, immediately after the SLPP candidate declared, at a packed media briefing, at Shangri-La, on Oct 15, 2019, he would not, under any circumstances, respect the highly controversial  Geneva Resolution, co-sponsored by the government, on Oct 01, 2015. The accusers conveniently forgot Gotabaya Rajapaksa held his inaugural media briefing two days after the full page newspaper advertisement that endorsed the one-time Gajaba Regiment veteran.

Contrary to accusations, Sri Lanka hadn't been found fault in Geneva at the time Shavendra Silva commented on Gotabaya Rajapaksa's qualities. It would be pertinent to mention that a Panel of Experts (PoE), appointed by the then UN Chief Ban ki-moon, released its report on March 31, 2011. The report accused the Army of massacring 40,000 civilians in the final phase of the offensive, as referred to in the AFP report.

Having faulted the Army on three major counts, the PoE accused Sri Lanka of massacring at least 40,000 civilians. Let me reproduce the paragraph, bearing no 137, verbatim: "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 there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. Two years after the end of the war, there is 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."

Fonseka receives TNA endorsement

In spite of the Army being widely accused of deliberately targeting civilians, the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) endorsed General Sarath Fonseka as the common candidate at the January 2010 presidential poll. Having recognized the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people, the TNA, at the behest of the US, threw its weight behind Sarath Fonseka. Direct US role in coalition building in Sri Lanka would never have come to light if not for Wiki Leaks. The disclosure of a confidential cable, sent from the US mission, in Colombo, to the State Department in the run–up to the fifth presidential poll, exposed foreign interference at the highest level. Those who demanded an explanation from Lt. Gen. Silva for inclusion of a brief statement he made a decade ago, in an advertisement published in support of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, never bothered at least to inquire about US interference. The writer never received a proper answer from the Election Department/EC though the issue was raised on several occasions.

Thanks to the TNA backing, General Fonseka overwhelmingly won all electoral districts in the northern and eastern provinces, though Mahinda Rajapaksa won the contest by a staggering 1.8 mn votes. The Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) led TNA included former terrorist groups sponsored by India, namely the TELO, PLOTE and the EPRLF.

The TNA never explained as to why the outfit threw its weight behind the war-winning General after having accused his Army of indiscriminate killings.

 The 2010 coalition, that backed Fonseka, comprised the UNP, the JVP, the TNA and the SLMC. Fonseka was fielded on the NDF ticket under the 'swan' symbol.

The Rajapaksas never bothered to examine the larger picture that in a way facilitated the despicable projects undertaken by various interested parties. Their failure paved the way for the same coalition, under the same symbol, to field Maithripala Sirisena at the last presidential poll. Sirisena, a longtime General Secretary of the SLFP ,polled 6.2 mn votes to thwart a determined bid by Mahinda Rajapaksa to secure a third term. Twice President Rajapaksa managed to obtain 5.8 mn votes.

Having backed Fonseka and Sirisena at the 2010 and 2015 presidential polls, the TNA has declared 13 pre-conditions to extend its support to leading candidates Sajith Premadasa (NDF) and Gotabaya Rajapaksa (SLPP) at the forthcoming poll.

Among their demands are a federal constitution, at the expense of Sri Lanka's unitary status, and exclusive foreign investigation into accountability issues.

The following is the text of the statement issued by the political grouping, through the Jaffna University students:

Having realized that the final solution to the longstanding Tamil Ethnic issue, which has remained in the Island of Sri Lanka as an unresolved National Question for several decades and been the cause for the war, which extended for over three decades, would be the

1. Acceptance of the political aspirations of the Tamil Nation;

2. Recognition of the merged Northern and Eastern Provinces as the historical habitat and the traditional homelands of the Tamil Nation;

3. Acknowledgment of the sovereignty of the Tamil Nation and

4. Realization of the fact that the Tamil People, under the provisions of International Law, are entitled to the right of self-determination, accordingly the creation of federal rule in the merged Northern and Eastern Provinces, would be our considered Political standpoint.
With the hope and expectation that a final solution to the continuing problems faced by the Tamils consequent to the effects of the concluded war and yet continuing effects of such war, could be found, we the members of Political Parties that represent the Tamil People do hereby submit hereunder to the Presidential Candidates representing major Political Parties and to their respective Party Leadership the following requests -

1. A solution to the Sri Lankan Tamil issue must be found by setting up a new federal constitution rejecting the heretofore unitary constitution accepting the nationhood of the Sri Lankan Tamils and recognizing its sovereignty and also accepting that Tamils under the provisions of International Law are entitled to the right of self-determination.

2. Full-fledged independent impartial International mechanisms through the International Criminal Court /International Arbitration Tribunal must be set up to inquire into the War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity and Genocide committed during the final stages of the war.

3. The Prevention of Terrorism Act must be withdrawn.

4. (Consequently) All Tamil Political Prisoners must be freed unconditionally.

5. Justice must be found for those affected by the enforced disappearance of persons through appropriate International mechanisms.

6. The Governmental Forces occupying private and state lands / buildings in the Northern and Eastern Province which were occupied by Tamils before the war must be withdrawn, the lands released and resettlement process must be immediately set in motion.

7. Sinhalization, Buddhistization and Sinhala Colonization taking place in the Northern and Eastern Provinces presently with State assistance must be stopped immediately.

8. Since the Mahaweli Development Authority is engaged in planned Sinhala Colonization in the Northern Province under the pretext of redirecting the Mahaweli River to the North, the jurisdiction of the said Authority in the Northern Province must forthwith be terminated. Also the planned Sinhala Colonization taking place in the Eastern Province under the Mahaweli Development Scheme must also be terminated.

9. The Moragaskande Irrigation Scheme recently introduced is indulging in planned Sinhala Colonization in the Vanni Region. All such Sinhala Colonization must forthwith be terminated.

10. The expropriation of lands and areas of religious worship by Government Departments including Archeology Department, Wild Life Department, Forests’ Department must forthwith be stopped. Those lands and places of worship already expropriated through these Departments must be freed from the effect of the Gazette Notifications which so expropriated them.

11.Those affected in the Northern and Eastern Provinces by the War, wanting to economically improve themselves or youth wanting to enhance their job opportunities receiving direct investments from our Diaspora and elsewhere must have all legal obstacles faced removed so that handling lands and finances here would be easy and quick.

12.Priority must be given to those belonging to the Northern and Eastern Provinces in Governmental and Private Sector job opportunities in the said two Provinces.

13.An independent mechanism must be set up under the supervision of Elected Representatives of the people of the Northern and Eastern Provinces to handle all finances for Development in the said two Provinces, after proclaiming the Northern and Eastern Provinces as areas affected by the War.
How to tackle TNA strategy?

The Tamil grouping threat should be examined against the backdrop of the same lot ordering the northern electorate not to exercise their franchise at the Nov 2005 presidential election. The TNA, on behalf of the LTTE, issued the directive, in Kilinochchi, about a week ahead of the Nov 17, 2005 poll. They confirmed their decision when the writer raised the issue with the late Batticaloa District MP Joseph Pararajasingham and Trincomalee District lawmaker R. Sampanthan.

The announcement was made on Nov 10, 2005 after the LTTE and the TNA leaders held talks in Kilinochchi. Confirming the LTTE -TNA decision, Pararajasingham and Sampanthan told the writer, on the night of November 15, 2005, that nothing worthwhile could be achieved by supporting either of the two leading candidates (TNA refuses to change polls boycott stance-The Island November 16, 2005).

The government allowed the TNA to proceed with its joint strategy with the LTTE. The Rajapaksa administration, and those state arms responsible for ensuring the public right to vote, did absolutely nothing to thwart LTTE-TNA project. The TNA was never asked to explain its despicable conduct though today its top leadership acts as if the LTTE never existed. Having challenged the two major parties to sacrifice post-war Sri Lanka's unitary status for political gain, ITAK leader Mavai Senathiraja MP, and top TNA spokesman President's Counsel M.A. Sumanthiran, MP, joined President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe at the opening of the Jaffna International Airport, on Oct 17, 2019. President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe should respond to the TNA's challenge. President Sirisena's SLFP finalized two agreements - one with the SLPP and another with SLPP presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The UNP leads a coalition backing Sajith Premadasa. Both parties should reveal their stand on the controversial 13-point plan meant to divide the country on ethnic lines. Both groups, under any circumstances, cannot make commitments on such far reaching proposals to secure the support of the Tamil electorate. It would be the responsibility of the EC to ensure the Tamil grouping didn't interfere/hinder the right of the Tamil people to exercise their franchise. Election monitoring groups and the civil society, too, should take tangible measures to prevent the TNA led grouping advancing its political strategy at the expense of voters right.

Sri Lanka did nothing to prevent the LTTE-TNA combine preventing the Tamil electorate exercising their franchise at the 2005 presidential poll. At the general election in April previous year, the TNA won 22 seats, thanks to the LTTE unleashing violence on rival political parties. Don't forget at that time, the LTTE functioned as the sole representative of Tamil speaking people - a title it relinquished involuntarily six years later on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon as it was crushed militarily.