Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Missing persons: How Ranil set the record straight in 2015


President Gotabaya Rajapaksa speaking with UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe at the India House on Monday evening, January 27, while outgoing Indian High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu looks on (Pic by Jude Denzil Pathiraja)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

A once UK-based friend of mine reacted to Midweek piece headlined ‘Alleged war crimes lame excuse to introduce new Constitution’ in the January 15 edition of The Island. Referring to a 10-point summary, at the end of the piece, the writer was reminded of a critically important aspect, not touched at all. The writer, in point form, dealt with issues that had to be critically examined by the incumbent government, ahead of the Feb-March sessions of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council.

In an e-mail, addressed to the writer, the concerned party, now back in-land like no other,’ stressed: "We should not forget how the UN Panel of Experts (PoE) gathered data." The reference was to the ‘Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka,’ officially released on March 31, 2011.

Sri Lanka never really examined how the UN panel comprising Marzuki Darusman (Indonesia), Steven R Ratner (US) and Yasmin Sooka (South Africa) reached the controversial conclusion that 40,000 civilians perished in the final assault on the Vanni east front.

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."

The UN never revealed these so-called credible sources. Successive governments, including the war-winning Rajapaksa administration, conveniently refrained from raising the contentious issue of mysterious sources. The PoE (paragraph 17, 19 and 23) dealt with/revealed three crucial issues. As the public the response to PoE appeal hadn’t been satisfactory, the Dec 15, 2010 deadline was extended till Dec 31, 2010. The PoE received over 4,000 submissions, from 2,300 persons. The PoE admitted that as the submissions hadn’t been verified, they weren’t used as ‘direct sources’ and finally submissions would remain classified for a period of 20 years, from March 31, 2011.

The way the UN collected war crimes allegations, from hidden sources, in the absence of sufficient information, revealed its bias.

Gotabaya on missing persons

Against Sri Lanka’s pathetic failure to address the post-war issues, even a decade after the successful conclusion of the war, it would be pertinent to discuss two issues (1) reportage of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent meeting with UN Resident Representative Hanaa Singer at the Presidential Secretariat, and (ii) former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe interview with South India’s Thanthi TV, in March 2015 as well as a statement by Wickremesinghe, at Rukmale Sri Dharmasoka Vijayaloka Maha Viharaya, on March 1, 2015. Both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe dealt with the war dead/missing.

A section of the media declared wartime Defence Secretary Incumbent President, acknowledged for the first time that more than 23,000 people missing for a decade since the end of the conflict, were dead. The AFP, in a Colombo, datelined report ‘Sri Lanka President acknowledges thousands of war missing as dead’ discussed the outcome of the President’s meet with UN Resident Representative, Hanaa Singer.

Aljazeera reported President Gotabaya Rajapaksa statement under the following headline ‘President Rajapaksa says Sri Lanka to treat war missing as dead’

The BBC reported ‘Sri Lanka civil war: Rajapaksa says thousands missing are dead.’

However, the Presidential Secretariat subsequently stated that the statement, attributed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been taken out of context. The Presidential Secretariat emphasized that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa never acknowledged that more than 20,000 missing were dead. "President Gotabaya Rajapaksa did not make any such acknowledgement nor did he make a reference to a number as missing or dead", - the Presidential Secretariat said.

Two important statements

The 2015 presidential election brought an end to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rule. His government was repeatedly accused of running secret detention facilities. Western powers, too, subscribed to these unsubstantiated allegations. In spite of change of the government, in 2015, accusations persisted. In the run-up to the 2015 Geneva sessions, Sri Lanka was accused of still operating secret detention facilities. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe chose to set the record straight, at a ceremony at Rukmale Sri Dharmaloka Vijayaloka Maha Viharaya on March 01, 2015, to felicitate the newly appointed Maha Nayaka Thera Ven. Ittapane Dharmalankara. Among those present was Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo.

Premier Wickremesinghe declared that as all those who had been taken into custody, during the war, and the post-conflict period, were being held in legally run facilities all detainees/prisoners could be accounted for. The UNP leader didn’t mince his words when he emphasized that those missing, but not listed among those in government custody, had either perished during the conflict or were living overseas (Prime Minister denies existence of secret detention camps with strap line Those not among prison population either perished during the war or living overseas, The Island March 04, 2015.’

Several days later, Premier Wickremesinghe challenged the much-touted UN claim of over 40,000 civilians killed on the Vanni east front. Wickremesinghe also stressed the urgent need to verify UN claims, as well as, various other accusations.

UNP leader Wickremesinghe said so in an exclusive interview with Thanthi TV in which he insisted that figures, quoted by the UN or other organizations, couldn’t be accepted without being verified. The March 6, 2015, interview couldn’t have been conducted at a better time, though Wickremesinghe did nothing subsequently to examine the Vanni death toll. Instead, Wickremesinghe gave the then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera the go ahead to co-sponsor the accountability resolution, in Geneva, on Oct 01, 2015. The rest is history.

When the interviewer, S.A. Hariharan pointed out that the Tamil Diaspora had estimated the number of civilian deaths closer to 100,000; Wickremesinghe asserted that it wouldn’t even come up to 40,000.

Wickremesinghe pointed out that, in addition to the PoE report, there had been other official reports that dealt with accountability issues. The Premier emphasized the pivotal importance of verifying such accusations to establish the number of civilian deaths. The Premier said that some official reports placed the number of civilian deaths at 5,000.

The UNP leader has never called for the verification of the UN report before. But, unfortunately, Wickremesinghe didn’t take follow-up action. The then government refrained from using heavy ammunition provided by Lord Naseby, in Oct 2017, to counter the PoE report.

For some strange reason, the Mahinda Rajapaksa  government refused to push for the re-examination/verification of the UN claim of over 40,000 killed. In fact, that administration never realized the need to counter specific allegations. It also ignored discrepancy in the number of civilians killed, as quoted by various interested parties.

Sri Lanka never bothered with the confidentiality clause of PoE report, which does not even give us, as the accused the basic right to either face the accusers or to cross examine them. Sri Lanka refrained from raising the issue during the Geneva sessions to date. Even after 20 years, the release of Sri Lanka records by the UN is subject to yet another mystery de-classification review. This is certainly not the way for a world body to behave. It only goes to show it has once again done a hatchet job against a weaker nation, like Sri Lanka, at the behest of the West.

So, no wonder, after the invasion of Iraq, on the trumped up excuse of going after Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, despite UN experts failing to find any there, after scouring the country, one of the first things that the rebels there did was to blow up the UN compound in Baghdad.

Premier Wickremesinghe didn’t mince his words when he repeatedly declared, during the exclusive interview with Thanthi TV, that all available information/allegations should be thoroughly and speedily inquired into to establish the truth. Wickremesinghe certainly owed an explanation as to why he didn’t take tangible action to have the UN claims verified.

Wickremesinghe performed magnificently when Thanthi TV’s Hariharan pressed him over Sri Lanka’s accountability, as well as related issues. The interviewer was somewhat taken aback when Wickremesinghe reminded him that Tamil, speaking people died in the hands of the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force). The LTTE and its followers called the IPKF ‘the people killing force’. Until then Hariharan was careful not to discuss India’s culpability for atrocities committed on Sri Lanka’s soil.

Premier Wickremesinghe’s remarks on the IPKF should be examined, taking into consideration what one-time Indian Foreign Secretary, J.N. Dixit’s admission in his memoirs, "Makers of India’s Foreign Policy", that India trained terrorists here and deployed them on a large scale destabilization project. Dixit faulted the then Indian Premier Indira Gandhi for setting up terrorist groups in the ‘80s. Dixit went on to say that launching a terrorist war in Sri Lanka was one of the two foreign policy blunders made by Mrs Gandhi, the other being India’s failure to condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Obviously, the Indian destabilization project was meant to pave the way for direct military intervention here.

Premier Wickremesinghe reminded the interviewer that terrorists, particularly the LTTE, wiped out the Tamil political leadership. Lambasting Northern Province Chief Minister, retired Supreme Court judge, C.V. Wigneswaran, for calling for a wider UN probe of genocide of Tamil speaking people, since 1948, the Premier accused him of acting irresponsibly. Recollecting the circumstances under which Tamil terrorists annihilated the Jaffna political leadership, Premier Wickremesinghe told the interviewer, Wigneswaran wouldn’t have been taken from Colombo and made the Chief Minister of the Northern Province if not for the vacuum caused by a spate of political assassinations, by the LTTE. Wickremesinghe emphasized two critical points during the interview.

The UNP leader said that the then President Rajapaksa couldn’t have brought the war to a successful conclusion without India’s support. When the interviewer pointed out that India had categorically denied helping the Rajapaksa government to defeat the LTTE, a smiling Premier Wickremesinghe said: "amnesia is, you know, very common among politicians."

Alleging that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran ensured Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory at the Nov. 2005, presidential poll, by depriving the northern electorate from voting for him (Wickremesinghe), the UNP leader asserted that had Prabhakaran allowed the electoral process to continue without interference, the Vanni deaths could have been avoided.

UNHRC and Swiss projects

Attorney-at-law Kalyananda Thiranagama recently compared the Geneva project with the fatal Swiss bid to implicate President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government in the abduction of Swiss Embassy local employee Garnier Banister Francis. Addressing the media, at the Rajagiriya Office of the Federation of National Organizations (FNO) recently, Thiranagama explained how the UN and Western powers stepped-up pressure on Sri Lanka through devious ways.

The Swiss almost succeeded in evacuating Francis in an air ambulance in the last week of Nov 2019 following high profile accusations of Francis being abducted at gunpoint and sexually abused in a Toyota Corolla car. Had that happened, Sri Lanka would have been placed in an extremely dicey situation against the backdrop of Inspector Nishantha Silva, of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), securing political asylum in Switzerland.

The names of one-time Observer editor Dharisha Bastians, who served the New York Times as its correspondent in Colombo, Lakna Paranamana of the Agence France Press and former Lake House Chairman Crishantha Cooray, a friend of the writer, transpired in the ongoing investigation/court proceedings into the Garnier affair. Bastians left the country in the wake of Garnier’s arrest and days after the New York Times posted misleading report on the Nov 25 abduction that never happened. Paranamana had been an Information Assistant of the US Embassy, in Colombo, for three and half years, before joining the AFP, in May 2019.

Unexpected disclosure of UNP lawmaker Ranjan Ramanayake’s audio and video clips also revealed clandestine link between the MP and fugitive Inspector Nishantha Silva. The fact that MP Ramanayake offered his smart phone to Wickremesinghe also to speak with the CID officer made matters worse.  Ramanayake also exposed another foreign correspondent Azzam Ameen of the BBC Sinhala service, whose leaked conversation led to him being discontinued by the BBC. The BBC faulted Ameen for advising the UNPer regarding political strategy to defeat Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Nov 2019 presidential election.

Did UN accept sample letters?

For want of sufficient number of complaints received by the UN Panel of Experts, those seeking to haul Sri Lanka up before an international war crimes court launched a special project to collect evidence. Remember, the original bid was to move an exclusive international court against Sri Lanka. They cajoled people to lodge complaints with the PoE. On Dec 08, 2010, seven days before the expiry of the first deadline to submit complaints, ‘Eelam View’ website appealed for more complaints with specific request that those not directly affected by the conflict or crimes against humanity perpetrated by Sri Lankan political leadership and the military case also submit. In a bid to facilitate the project undertaken by the PoE on behalf of the UN, ‘Eelam View’ posted 25 sample letters to be submitted to the three member panel. The UN extended the deadline to Dec 31, 2010 for want of Diaspora interests. UN confidentiality clause so far effectively prevented examination of evidence presented against Sri Lanka though on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations Geneva moved accountability resolution. Sri Lanka lacked spine at least to voice its concern at the UNHRC over the way Western powers in consultation with the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) handled the Sri Lanka war crimes issue. Click the line below to access sample letters.


Nearly a decade after the PoE released its highly disputed report, Sri Lanka does not know as to how the UN reached the conclusion that 40,000 civilians perished on the Vanni east front. But, now we know 40,000 did not die there as alleged. Thanks to Wiki Leaks, we are aware the Army conducted the final assault cautiously at its own expense.

A cable dated July 15, 2009 signed by the then Geneva-based US Ambassador Clint Williamson cleared the Sri Lankan Army of crimes against humanity. The cable addressed to the US State Department was based on a confidential conversation Ambassador Williamson had with the then ICRC head of operations for South Asia, Jacque de Maio, on July 9, 2009. Ambassador Williamson wrote: "The Army was determined not to let the LTTE escape from its shrinking territory, even though this meant the civilians being kept hostage by the LTTE were at an increasing risk. So, de Maio said, while one could safely say that there were ‘serious, widespread violations of international humanitarian law,’ by the Sri Lankan forces, it didn’t amount to genocide. He could cite examples of where the army had stopped shelling when the ICRC informed them it was killing civilians. In fact, the army actually could have won the military battle faster with higher civilian casualties, yet they chose a slower approach which led to a greater number of Sri Lankan military deaths. He concluded however, by asserting that the GoSL failed to recognize its obligation to protect civilians, despite the approach leading to higher military casualties."

Sri Lanka never bothered at least to mention this in its defence in Geneva or any other forum. Perhaps, an internal investigation is required to ascertain whether politicians, officials and the military deliberately denied Sri Lanka proper defence to facilitate the Geneva project. Actually Geneva project is political. There is absolutely no doubt about it. Western powers exploited Geneva to push Sri Lanka to engage in constitutional reforms process meant to abolish the country’s unitary status.