As Sri Lanka celebrates 72nd Independence Day
SPECIAL REPORT : Part 307
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, flanked by Lt. Gen.Shavendra Silva and Vice Admiral Piyal de Silva, at the 72nd Independence Day celebrations, on Feb 4, 2020, at the Independence Square, touches his medals.(pic by Kamal Bogoda)
By Shamindra Ferdinando
In January, 2015, Sri Lanka gave up its right to celebrate the victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), undoubtedly the country’s greatest post-independence achievement.
Having defeated war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa, at the January 08, 2015 presidential poll, the UNP-led coalition had no option but to appease those who had backed the change of government. The four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA), wartime mouthpiece of the LTTE, opposed the annual ‘Victory Day’ parade, inaugurated in May 2009.
Sections of the civil society, too, opposed the ‘Victory Parade.’ On behalf of all those who opposed the ‘Victory Parade,’ Canada demanded the cancellation of the annual event, scheduled to be held in Matara. The then Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, quite rightly dismissed the Canadian demand. The then Military Spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya explained as to why Sri Lanka couldn’t heed the Canadian demand. Wanigasooriya, current Security Forces Commander, Jaffna, quite clearly emphasized Sri Lanka’s right to go ahead with the scheduled parade, in Matara.
Last ‘Victory Day’ parade
On a Canadian High Commission request, The Island exclusively front-paged the then Canadian High Commissioner Shelly Whiting’s strongly worded letter to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government to cancel the combined security forces parade, or face the consequences.
The following is the text of Shelly’s statement, headlined ‘Canada to boycott Victory Day parade’ with strap line ‘such events won’t help post-war national reconciliation’:
"As in past years, heads of mission, resident in Sri Lanka, have recently received invitations to participate in this year’s Victory Parade, scheduled to be held, in Matara, on May 18. As Canadian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, part of my role includes celebrating the successes of the country, alongside the Sri Lankan people. However, I will not be attending the Victory Day Parade on May 18. Some commentators will no doubt rush to judge and erroneously conclude that I am doing so out of some misplaced nostalgia for the LTTE. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"Let me be clear the LTTE was a scourge that brought untold suffering to this island nation and all its people.
"Prior to arriving in Sri Lanka, my previous assignment was in Afghanistan where I saw first-hand the terrorist tactics (use of suicide bombers, IEDs) that are sadly the LTTE’s legacy to the world. The LTTE and its supporters were ruthless and single-minded, and did not faithfully represent the political aspirations of the communities they purported to represent. Canada joined the world in welcoming the defeat of the LTTE, in 2009. In fact, the LTTE has been proscribed as a terrorist entity, in Canada, since 2006. To help stop the flow of funding to the LTTE, Canada further proscribed the World Tamil Movement (WTM) in 2008. Both of these organizations remain banned in Canada today.
"However, five years after the end of the conflict, the time has arrived for Sri Lanka to move past wartime discourse and to start working seriously towards reconciliation. It is time to mend relations between communities and to ensure that all Sri Lankans can live in dignity and free from discrimination, based on ethnic, religious or linguistic identities. Fathers and daughters, sons and mothers, all were victims, who were killed or never returned home at the end of the conflict. No community here – whether Sinhalese or Tamil, Muslim or Burgher – was spared during the conflict. In this vein, Canada has encouraged the Government of Sri Lanka to retire its annual Victory Day Parade, which perpetuates roles of victors and vanquished within the country, for a day of remembrance for all those who suffered as a result of the conflict. Indeed, Sri Lanka’s own homegrown Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report recommends that a solemn day of remembrance for all victims of the war would be more conducive to sustaining peace here. Such a gesture would go a long way towards putting wartime posturing behind Sri Lanka.
"I will not be in Matara, but I will be thinking and remembering all those who lost their loved ones over the 30-year conflict."
First military parade since
Sri Lanka celebrated her 72nd Independence Day yesterday, Tuesday, Feb 04, 2020, at the Independence Avenue, with a combined security forces parade. Over a decade after the conclusion of the conflict, the war-winning armed forces remained accused of killing over 40,000 Tamils on the Vanni east front. The Canadian boycott of the ‘Victory Day’ parade, in 2014, should be examined against the backdrop of high profile war crimes accusations directed at the Sri Lankan military.
Kfirs and MiG 27 squadrons, which played a crucial role in bringing the LTTE down to its knees, were not on fly-past.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government unceremoniously cancelled off the May 2015 ‘Victory Day’ parade. The cancellation was clearly part of the then government initiatives to appease those who could not stomach Sri Lanka’s victory over the LTTE. The government bent backwards to appease the lot, regardless of the consequences. President Sirisena, in his capacity as the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and the Minister of Defence, never really opposed the treacherous UNP strategies. President Sirisena cannot absolve himself of the responsibility for the situation created by the UNP. Actually, lawmaker Ranil Wickremesinghe and former President Sirisena certainly owed an explanation as to why their administration cancelled the ‘Victory Day’ parade. It would be pertinent to ask whether the then government at least discussed the decision to do away with the annual event at cabinet level or the parliamentary group. Did the National Security Council ever take up this issue?
The cancellation of the ‘Victory Day’ parade was nothing but a slur on those who perished and wounded in the battle against northern and southern terrorism. The Sri Lankan military can be quite proud of quelling both the northern and southern terror groups.
The cancellation of the event didn’t really upset the then Joint Opposition (those now in power). The JO remained largely silent about the despicable UNP decision. There had never been any concerted JO effort against the cancellation of the ‘Victory Day’ parade, during the 2015-2019 period. The termination of the largest combined forces event, in May, 2015, paved the way for the co-sponsorship of the accountability resolution at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council. The cancellation of the annual May event and the Geneva co-sponsorship should be examined against the backdrop of the TNA strategy. Having backed the LTTE, until the very end, in May 2009, the TNA, in consultation with the US, threw its weight behind the UNP-led campaign to oust Mahinda Rajapaksa. They made an abortive bid at the 2010 January 26 presidential election. Interestingly, the JVP, too, joined the UNP-led grouping. Having accused the war-winning Army of war crimes, they had no qualms in fielding its former commander Sarath Fonseka as the common candidate on the New Democratic Front (NDF) ticket. Fonseka suffered a humiliating defeat. The UNP-led grouping succeeded in ousting Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2015 January 08 presidential poll. The stage was set to implement their 100-day programme, before calling early general election. The government perpetrated the first Treasury Bond scam, on Feb 27, 2015, causing a major rift between President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe.
In March, 2015, Premier Wickremesinghe, on two occasions, questioned the validity of war crimes accusations. The UNP leader disputed even the primary accusation regarding the massacre of 40,000 on the Vanni east front, in 2009, though his government unceremoniously stopped the ‘Victory Day’ parade.
A treacherous coalition
Cancellation of the ‘Victory Day’ parade was followed by acceptance of high profile allegations as regards war crimes by way of accountability resolution at the Geneva body, in Oct 2015.
Western powers acted on those unsubstantiated allegations though the US and the TNA didn’t have an issue in backing General Fonseka, at the 2010 presidential election, having accused his army of killing civilians. It would be pertinent to reproduce what the then US Ambassador Patricia Butenis said in a classified cable of the war-winning Army Commander. Thanks to Wikileaks, this cable, dated January 15, 2010, authored by Butenis, is in public the domain. Headlined ‘SRI LANKA WAR-CRIMES ACCOUNTABILITY: THE TAMIL PERSPECTIVE’, Butenis said: "There are no examples we know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power. In Sri Lanka, this is further complicated by the fact that responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa and his brothers and opposition candidate General Fonseka."
But, Butenis perception didn’t prevent her country advising the TNA to back Fonseka at the 2010 presidential poll.
Ranil quotes Kerry
In the run-up to the co-sponsorship of the Geneva resolution, the then US Secretary of State, John Kerry, visited Colombo. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government was keen to follow the US. The US and Sri Lanka political leaderships sought closer relationship/cooperation while the interests of the Sri Lankan military were disregarded. Following Kerry’s visit, Premier Wickremesinghe, in a brief note, addressed to the then Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Jagath Jayasuriya, emphasized the importance of some issues raised by the top US official during his two-day visit to Colombo.
In the note to Gen. Jayasuriya, copied to Army Commander Lt. Gen. Crishanthe De Silva, Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Jayantha Perera, and Airforce Commander, Air Marshal Kolitha Gunatilleke, Premier Wickremesinghe highlighted some points, discussed by Kerry, in a public lecture delivered at the Taj Samudra.
Premier Wickremesinghe quoted Kerry as having said: "None of us wants to live in a country where the military is stopping its own citizens at checkpoints. And Sri Lanka’s military has so much more to contribute, in defending this country, protecting vital sea lanes and taking part in UN peacekeeping missions all over the world. And, as your armed forces make that transition, we are going to be very eager to work with you and to work with them and to tender help."
In a sense, the missive, dated May, 7, 2015, is unprecedented, as no previous Premier/President had issued such a note to the military.
Having drawn the attention of the top brass, to Kerry’s views, Wickremesinghe stressed that the new administration’s stand, on the post-war role of the armed forces, was compatible with that of the US. The CDS, as well as the three service chiefs, were to ensure that the Premier’s message reached all levels of command, and control structure, including those deployed on the ground.
Was Commander-in-Chief and Defence Minister President Maithripala Sirisena aware of Premier Wickremesinghe’s massive? The UNP never explained as to why its stand on our armed forces’ post-war role should be compatible with that of the US. The Premier’s note should be studied against the backdrop of his government co-sponsoring the resolution in Geneva, meant to undermine the war-winning Army.
Western powers resorted to punitive action against senior military commanders in terms of unsubstantiated war crimes allegations. Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka was among those who had been humiliated by way of denial of visa. Fonseka, in spite of being considered by the US to be suitable to be the President, was repeatedly denied US visa. Veteran ground commander, Chagie Gallage, was another victim. Australia denied him visa over unsubstantiated war crimes accusations. The Gajaba Regiment veteran hit back hard, soon after his retirement.
"Gajaba was engraved in golden letters of the annals of the history of the Sri Lanka Army, if not in the history of Sri Lanka … and I’m certain it will never be reversed by any. So, I’m happy to be retired being a tiny particle of that proud chapter of the history, though designated as a ‘War Criminal."
In a few lines, Gallage dealt a devastating attack on all those who had shirked their responsibility in defending the war-winning military. Their failure led to the sections of the Army being categorized criminal. Gallage’s was a case in point. The Gajaba veteran retired, on Aug 31, 2018, three years after yahapalana administration co-sponsored the Geneva resolution.
A week after retirement, Gallage delivered his farewell speech at the Gajaba home in Saliyapura, Anuradhapura. Gallage dealt with a range of issues 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, that he had been categorized as a war criminal. It would be pertinent to examine why 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 writer revealed Gallage’s predicament in the March 23, 2017 edition in a front-page lead story headlined Chagie denied Australian visa over ‘war crimes’ allegations with strap line Unsubstantiated UN claim cited as reason.
Australia found fault with Gallage commanding the 59 Division, from May 7, 2009 to July 20, 2009.
The then treacherous government never intervened on behalf of those officers unfairly treated by Western powers. President Maithripala Sirisena, in spite of assuring the Army he would take tangible measures in this regard, did nothing to reverse the situation. Sri Lanka never took up this issue with Western powers. The Foreign Ministry refrained from taking it up. The head of a mission who served in a country that denied visa selected officers told the writer recently that he never received instructions from Colombo regarding to countering of war crimes accusations.
The Yahapalana administration ruined the reputation of Sri Lanka’s armed forces. The wartime acquisition of MiG 27 was relentlessly attacked until sections of the public really believed the aircraft didn’t help the war effort. The Katunayake-based No 12 squadron caused irreparable damage to the LTTE. The "Once proud No 12 MiG squadron is no more" can be accessed at http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=200462)
On the basis of unsubstantiated war crimes, the UN caused obstacles to Sri Lankan peacekeeping missions overseas. Finally, the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission was tasked to clear the peacekeepers bound for UN missions.
The US reaction to the appointment of Shavendra Silva, as the Commander of the Army last year underscored Sri Lanka’s pathetic failure to counter the high profile political project meant to demoralize the military. Unfortunately, the political leadership lacked a strategy to counter the Western project. There had never been a determined effort so far to clear the military of bogus accusations. However, individual cases should be investigated thoroughly and wrongdoers punished. There cannot be any dispute over Sri Lanka’s responsibility in dealing with cases. Let me reproduce the statement issued by the US in the wake of Shavendra Silva’s appointment to highlight negligence on the part of Sri Lanka to address accountably charges. The strongly worded US statement, issued on August 19, 2019, questioned the appointment given to the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the celebrated 58 Division. The US statement: "The allegations of gross human rights violations against him, documented by the United Nations and other organizations, are serious and credible. This appointment undermines Sri Lanka’s international reputation and its commitments to promote justice and accountability, especially at a time when the need for reconciliation and social unity is paramount."
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, too, expressed serious concerns about Shavendra Silva’s appointment. "I am deeply troubled by the appointment of Lieutenant-General Shavendra Silva as Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, despite the serious allegations of gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law against him and his troops during the war," Bachelet said. It would be pertinent to mention that Bachelet described Silva’s previous appointment as Army Chief of Staff as a ‘worrying development’ in her last report to the Human Rights Council, in March 2019. "The promotion of Lieutenant-General General Silva severely compromises Sri Lanka’s commitment to promote justice and accountability in the context of Human Rights Council resolution 30/1," Bachelet said. "It undermines reconciliation efforts, particularly in the eyes of victims and survivors who suffered greatly in the war. It also sets back security sector reform, and is likely to impact on Sri Lanka’s ability to continue contributing to UN peacekeeping efforts."
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government needs to undertake reappraisal of the entire gamut of issues before the forthcoming Geneva sessions. Sri Lanka is unlikely to get another opportunity to present its case in Geneva if the country squandered the available opportunity.