SPECIAL REPORT : Part 302December 31, 2019, 7:05 pm
Lawmaker Dr. Rajitha Senaratne’s wife, Dr. Sujatha leaving the Colombo Magistrate court after her husband was granted bail, on Monday, Dec 30, pending further investigations. (Right) Swiss Embassy employee accompanying Garnier Banister Francis (face covered) in the wake of she, too, being given bail, also on the same day (pics by Kamal Bogoda)
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The UNP, struggling to cope up with a simmering crisis caused by the then Minister, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne’s, declaration, at a pre-presidential poll press conference, that some of those who had been abducted in ‘white vans’, at the behest of Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, were thrown into a tank in Moneragala, infested with crocodiles, received the backing of Tamil National Alliance (TNA).
The briefing was held on Nov 10 - less than a week before the presidential poll, in support of the candidature of UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa who contested on the New Democratic Front (NDF) ticket under the ‘swan’ symbol. A section of the media described the briefing as dramatic.
Many an eyebrow was raised when TNA spokesman and Jaffna District parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran, PC, appeared at an urgently called media briefing, at Sirikotha, last Thursday, Dec 26, to oppose what the UNP called politically motivated witch hunt directed at top opposition lawmakers.
In spite of joining the Sirikotha briefing, lawmaker Sumanthiran didn’t want to sit under the UNP name-board, at the usual place. The organizers had to shift the briefing to another room where the TNA heavyweight strongly defended his parliamentary colleague, the Kalutara District lawmaker, who was in hiding.
The UNP called the briefing several hours before MP Senaratne arrived at Lanka Hospital, Narahenpita, and got himself admitted. The rest is history.
What is the cost of lies?
Lawmaker Sumanthiran pointed out that allegations pertaining to ‘white van’ abductions were nothing new. The President’s Counsel said such accusations were first made over a decade ago. Flanked by lawmakers Ravi Karunanayake, Ajith P. Perera, Ravindra Samaraweera, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Eran Wickremaratne, Wijeyapala Hettiarachchi and Karunaratne Paranavitana, the President’s Counsel asserted that Dr. Senaratne couldn’t be held accountable for statements made by those invited to address the briefing. Later lawmaker Hirunika Premachandra joined the briefing, though she didn’t address the media.
As the war was brought to a successful conclusion, in May 2009 - over a decade ago - it would be interesting to ascertain as to when ‘white van’ abductions really began.
Referring to a couple of reported abductions, allegedly carried out by ‘white van’ squads, during Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s tenure as the Secretary, Ministry of Defence, lawmaker Sumanthiran emphasized the pivotal importance of a thorough inquiry. On the day of the special Sirikotha briefing, a group of civil society activists called another media briefing at NMSJ (National Movement for Social Justice) at Rajagiriya, on the top floor of the Keells building, to defend MP Senaratne. For the Rajagiriya briefing, the media received an invitation from health sector trade union activist, Saman Ratnapriya, who backed Sajith Premadasa’s candidature at the Nov 16, 2019 presidential election. However, Saman Ratnapriya wasn’t there.
Accusations regarding throwing bodies of abducted persons into a crocodile-infested tank, in Moneragala, were made by the then Minister Senaratne before his two guests (Anthony Douglas Fernando and Athula Sanjeewa Madanayake), at the briefing, repeated them. The writer was among those invited by the Minister’s media outfit, headed by Malith Wijenayake, to cover the briefing at the Prajathanthrawadi Jathika Viyaparaya office at Thimbirigasyaya. Soon after the launching of investigations into Dr. Senaratne’s claims, Wijenayake fled the country.
The police arrested Fernando and Madanayake, at Mahara, on Dec 13, 2019. They quickly admitted the truth. The suspects confessed they lied at the behest of Dr. Senaratne for a payment et al.
As lawmaker Sumanthiran quite rightly pointed out ‘white van’ allegations had been there for over a decade. Surprisingly, neither the war-winning government, nor the UNP-led coalition, ever inquired into there often repeated allegations.
The Irate media refrained from raising questions as the briefing was held over an hour later than the scheduled time.
It would be pertinent to mention the Thimbirigasyaya office had been previously used by those who managed presidential polls campaigns of common candidates, retired Army Commander Sarath Fonseka (2010) and Maithripala Sirisena (2015). Following Fonseka’s heavy defeat at the hands of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former used the Thimbirigasyaya office at the onset of the 2010 April general elections. Fonseka contested the general election, on the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) ticket, as its prime ministerial candidate. The JVP, too, contested the election on the DNA ticket. The DNA secured seven seats, including two National List slots. The group comprised Sarath Fonseka, Arjuna Ranatunga, businessman Tiran Alles and four JVPers, Anura Kunara Dissanayake, Vijitha Herath, Sunil Handunetti and Ajith Kumara.
During Maithripala Sirisena’s 2014-2015 campaign, the Thimbirigasyaya office was used as their main office in Colombo. Among those who addressed the media there, at that time, were Patali Champika Ranawaka and Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa.
Accusations made at the Timbirigasyaya briefing pertaining to ‘white van’ abductions wouldn’t have caused such a huge crisis for the UNP, if not for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s triumph over Sajith Premadasa at the Nov 16 presidential poll.
Dr. Senaratne’s guests also alleged the Rajapaksas stole and moved approximately 7,000 tonnes of gold from the Northern Province to the South.
Mock’s claims countered
Accusations in respect of ‘white van’ abductions, and the massive gold robbery, should be examined also taking into consideration the unprecedented diplomatic crisis caused by high profile Swiss accusations over an alleged abduction of local Embassy employee, Garnier Banister Francis. Within days after the Swiss complained in respect of the alleged abduction, that they claimed had taken place on Nov 25, 2019, Sri Lanka furnished irrefutable evidence to prove the incident never took place. Foreign Secretary Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha, accompanied by Defence Secretary Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunartane, briefed Swiss Ambassador Mock as regards the findings, on Dec 01, 2019. Two weeks later, Ambassador Mock received an assurance from no less a person than President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that the alleged abduction never took place.
But by the time President Rajapaksa met Ambassador Mock, at the presidential secretariat, Dr. Senaratne was on record as having alleged that someone had thrust a pistol in Garnier’s mouth. Dr. Senaratne also declared that the purported victim’s health had deteriorated to such an extent she was not in a position to talk. Dr. Senaratne’s claim was proved wrong as Garnier, in spite of an abortive bid to fly her out of the country, in an air ambulance, remained holed up at the Swiss Embassy until she reported to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) on Dec 08 afternoon.
Swiss owed the Sri Lankan government an explanation as to why Garmier, allegedly abducted and released on Nov 25, was not presented before police till Dec 08 afternoon.
Weeks later, Dr. Senaratne had to admit himself to Lanka Hospitals as the government turned the heat on the former minister over propagating lies. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa moved quite speedily to counter propaganda projects. Having ruled out the Swiss proposal to move Garnier out of Sri Lanka without her being subjected to immigration formalities, President Rajapaksa took tangible measures to set the record straight. If not for President Rajapaksa’s hands on approach, the unthinkable could have happened. Had Sri Lanka succumbed to Swiss pressure, Garmier would have been moved out of Sri Lanka without an investigation. Garnier’s clandestine departure would have taken place close on the heels of Inspector Nishantha Silva, of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), his wife and three children, receiving refugee status in Switzerland, at lightning speed.
The government owed an explanation as to how it planned to tackle controversial Inspector Silva receiving asylum in Switzerland.
High profile political projects
The first media briefing, arranged at the Thimbirigasyaya political office, in the run-up to the Nov 16 presidential poll, was called off by Dr. Senaratne’s media outfit, claiming that those scheduled to join the Minister at the briefing couldn’t be contacted. There were a dozen representatives, from both print and electronic media, at the venue. The writer was among them.
The propaganda project, directed from the Thimbirigasyaya office, played a significant role in the overall strategy against Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Dr. Senaratne now embroiled in controversy over accusations pertaining to alleged ‘white van’ abductions, also in the run up to the Nov 16 poll, revealed civil society decision to move court against Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Dr. Seneratne didn’t mince his words when he declared that court would be moved against Gotabaya Rajapaksa over absence of his Sri Lankan citizenship. Civil society activists, Gamini Viyangoda and Prof. Chandragupta Thenuwara pursued the matter.
The UNP project was meant to demonize Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The former Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was routinely depicted as a person who resorted to ‘extra judicial practices.’ Having survived an LTTE assassination bid, on Dec 01, 2006, in Colombo, Gotabaya Rajapaksa dealt with the LTTE the way any sane person would do. Whatever the subsequent differences between the Rajapaksas and Fonseka that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the successful conclusion of the war, in May 2009, the wartime government successfully faced the conventional military challenge, in the North and East regions, and undercover terrorist units operating in the City and its suburbs.
Those who couldn’t stomach Sri Lanka’s victory over the LTTE a decade ago, still propagate the lie that innocent people were abducted in white vans. All arrests made by security forces and law enforcement authorities are depicted as abductions. The TNA continues to call those who had been convicted over terrorism and those detained in remand custody, pending conclusion of their cases, political prisoners. Having recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamils, way back in 2001, the TNA remained committed to Velupillai Prabhakaran’s macabre cause until the very end.
To former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s credit, the UNP leader publicly rejected widespread claims the government held political prisoners. The then Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, too, strongly denied accusations as regards secret detention facilities. During the conflict and post-war period, the Rajapaksa administration was repeatedly accused of running secret detention facilities. Sri Lanka never denied conducting military operations against terrorists and taking tangible measures to neutralize threats posed by covert operatives. Sri Lanka should be proud of eradicating the LTTE - definitely its single biggest post-independence achievement.
The TNA threw its weight behind the UNP’s bid to discourage the government from pursuing the case against Dr. Senaratne. But, did the TNA at least publicly request the LTTE to release as many as 300,000 civilians forcibly held on the Vanni east front, in 2009, as a human shield as it was being routed militarily?
Within months after the elimination of the LTTE, the TNA teamed up with the UNP and the JVP to back war-winning Army Commander Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 presidential poll. The TNA conveniently forgot its accusations of grave human rights violations directed at Fonseka’s army. Although Mahinda Rajapaksa comfortably defeated Fonseka, with a margin of 1.8 mn votes, the TNA delivered northern and eastern electoral districts to the former Army Chief.
Similarly, the TNA managed to ensure that Maithripala Sirisena and Sajith Premadasa secured the northern and eastern electoral districts regardless of the results in areas outside the once temporarily merged Northern and Eastern Provinces. Let me remind you that on all three occasions (2010, 2015 and 2019 presidential polls) candidates backed by UNP-led coalitions contested on the New Democratic Front ticket. In spite of the NDF not being represented at Local Government, Provincial Council and parliament, they fielded main presidential candidates thrice since the introduction of the presidential system. Having backed the UNP-led coalition at 2010 and 2015 presidential polls, the JVP contested 2019 presidential on its own. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake couldn’t even save his deposit made ahead of handing over nominations.
Why did the TNA join the Sirikotha media briefing? Political weekly Ravaya, in its Dec 29, 2019 edition, quoted Jaffna District MP Mavai Senathirajah, General Secretary of the Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi, as having said that the TNA was yet to decide on its stand at the 2020 parliamentary election. Lawmaker Senathirajah contradicted recent media reports to the effect the TNA would help the UNP form the next government. MP Sumanthiran recently declared TNA’s backing for the UNP at the forthcoming parliamentary poll.
The TNA is obviously divided over its strategy though an influential section seems hell-bent on continuing its alliance with the UNP. Against this backdrop, Colombo District UNP lawmaker Mujibur Rahuman, on Sunday, Dec 29, made quite a frank admission at a media briefing. Responding to a query at the Sirikotha briefing, MP Rahuman admitted the party leadership had been aware of the ‘white van’ accusations that were to be made at Thimbirigasyaya on Nov 10. Lawmaker Rahuman revealed that Dr. Senaratne, as a senior leader of the UNP, briefed the party leadership regarding the claims that were going to make headlines. In addition to the top UNP leadership, had those who backed Sajith Premadasa’s candidature been informed of the Thimbirigasyaya propaganda project, based on total lies?
Throughout the war, and after the conclusion of the conflict, over a decade ago, interested parties propagated lies to undermine Sri Lanka. The Rajapaksas were accused of mass slaughter on the Vanni front. In the wake of 2015 presidential poll, Sri Lanka co-sponsored an accountability resolution at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Oct 2015.
The Geneva resolution was adopted on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations pertaining to killings on the Vanni front. The primary accusation was the massacre of 40,000 civilians. In case of the Nov 10, 2019 media briefing, at Thimbirigasyaya, the identity of accusers is known, whereas those who alleged 40,000 Tamil civilian killings remain unknown though the accusation was made in March 2011. The UN certainly applies strange legal standards when it comes to weak and small countries.
Let me reproduce the UN accusation verbatim. Having faulted the Army on three major counts, the UN Panel of Experts (much more like a kangaroo court) accused Sri Lanka of massacring at least 40,000 Tamil 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."
Sri Lanka squandered a golden opportunity to seek a review of Geneva resolution, in late 2017, on the basis of official British military wartime dispatches from Colombo in 2009.