Wednesday 4 September 2019

Civil society warns of ‘thunderstorm’ …..

In the wake of Shavendra’s appointment:




Geneva, March 2017: Dr. Jehan Perera (extreme right) seated with the Sri Lankan government delegation, headed by the then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. President Sirisena replaced Samaraweera with Ravi Karunanayake, in May 2017, before the treasury bond scams forced the President to bring in Tilak Marapana, in place of Karunanayake, in Aug 2017. Dr. Sarath Amunugama held the Foreign Ministry portfolio during the constitutional coup in Oct-Dec 2018. President Counsel Marapana regained the Foreign Affairs portfolio, in Dec 2018. From left: Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne, MP, Minister Mangala Samaraweera, Ravinatha Aryasinha, Mano Tittawela, ALA Azeez and Dr. Jehan Perera. FM spokesperson, Mahishini Colonne, and attorney-at-law Surein Fernando are seated behind (pic courtesy Foreign Ministry)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Apropos ‘A contentious military appointment in the run-up to the 2019 prez poll’, carried in the August 28th edition of The Island, the Executive Director of the National Peace Council (NPC) Dr. Jehan Perera has sent the writer the following statement, headlined ‘ESSENTIAL TO DEAL WITH ALLEGATIONS OF WAR-TIME VIOLATIONS’: The elevation of General Shavendra Silva to the position of commander of the Sri Lanka Army has become a matter of national and international controversy. The Tamil National Alliance has protested against this decision as has the UN Human Rights High Commissioner and the diplomatic missions of the United States, Canada and the European Union.

The controversy swirling around this matter brings into focus the need for a process to bring the allegations of what happened in the last phase of the war to a rest. Until this is done, there will be a cloud hanging over the country internationally, which can suddenly manifest itself as a thunderstorm as this appointment has done.

The National Peace Council calls on the government to revive the process of dealing with the past in a manner that meets the concerns of the Tamil polity, the international community, and the victims of all communities who trusted the process and had hoped that an effective and impartial inquiry into the allegations would take place and bring a closure to the allegations in the interest of everyone concerned.

Until the question of the past is settled, the Tamil polity will remain separate from the rest of the country and this will be a festering sore in the body politic. The government has acknowledged these concerns and agreed to probe the truth of these matters and hold those found guilty accountable through UN Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 of 2015. This inquiry can and should include earlier phases of the war and not only the last phase."

 Last week’s piece was based on the ‘Get Real’ interview, anchored by Mahieash Johnney, on Derana 24X7 on August 26. Dr. Perera and the writer presented two diverse views on the appointment of Shavendra Silva as the Commander of the Army against the backdrop of a section of the international community, the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and a section of the civil society bashing President Sirisena’s move.

 Dr. Perera in a brief note dated August 28th, to the writer, said: "Having read your strongly written article today on the views I expressed at the TV discussion, I think this media release would clarify why I said what I said at the discussion with you."

The writer really appreciates Dr. Perera’s assertion that the proposed inquiry should include earlier phases of the war. Earlier phases of the war cannot be inquired into without examining India’s role in the destabilization of Sri Lanka in the early ‘80s. India undermined Sri Lanka’s security to such an extent then President JR Jayewardene was forced to accept the deployment of the Indian Army in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. India quit Sri Lanka, in March 1990, having caused massive destruction. India caused irreparable damage by helping the transformation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to a lethal conventional fighting force, capable of taking on the Indian Army. India lost as many as 1,300 officers and men and double the number wounded in the North East battlefields.

Perhaps, the NPC should request the US-led coalition responsible for the UN Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 of 2015, as well as the current dispensation here, to take tangible measures to have India, too, investigated. The Sri Lanka war cannot be investigated leaving India out. Dr. Perera’s call for the expansion of the proposed accountability inquiry should be a matter examined by all political parties now gearing up for the crucial 2019 presidential election, followed by the parliamentary election.

 Having repeatedly pushed for war crimes probe, Dr. Perera accompanied the Sri Lanka delegation to the UN Human Rights Council, in March 2017. So, let there be a consensus on a wider investigation on the Sri Lanka conflict.

The war-winning Rajapaksa government and the current dispensation lacked the strength, at least to mention, at the UN Human Rights Council, India’s role in the Sri Lanka conflict.

Jaffna lawmakers assassinated

 India assassinated lawmakers, representing the Jaffna peninsula, during the first phase of the conflict (July 1983-March 1990). India remained silent in the wake of MP Dharmalingham Siddarthan’s accusation that India assassinated his father, V. Dharmalingham, and M. Alalasundaram, both parliamentarians of the TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front) on the morning of Sept. 03, 1985. Siddarthan is on record as having told this writer, way back in 1997, as to how TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization) gunmen abducted and assassinated the two lawmakers at the behest of premier Indian Intelligence Service (RAW).

At the time Siddarthan made the accusation, he represented the PLOTE (People’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in parliament. Today, Siddarthan represents the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) pursuing war crimes investigation in terms of the UN Human Rights Council resolution, co-sponsored by Sri Lanka.

Perhaps Dr. Perera on behalf of the NPC may agree with the writer that the proposed inquiry should include the high profile Nov 1988 raid on the Maldives carried out by Indian trained Sri Lankan terrorists. Their bid to assassinate the then Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom went awry.

No less a person than former Indian Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit, in his memoirs ‘Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun to Yashwant Sinha’, in no uncertain terms blamed then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka.

It would be pertinent to ask Dr. Perera as to how he proposed to proceed with the inquiry in terms of the 2015 resolution as testimonies of those who had accused Sri Lanka of war crimes cannot be verified till 2031.

In fact, the UNSG’s Panel of Experts (PoE) comprising Marzuki Darsuman (Indonesia), Yasmin Sooka (South Africa) and Steven Ratner (US) owed Sri Lanka an explanation as to how the PoE reached conclusion that 40,000 perished in the final phase simply on the basis of unverified accusations.

The writer raised the contentious issue of confidentially of the PoE’s records with Dr. Perera on the ‘Get Real’ programme. Dr. Perera refrained from responding to the writer’s remark.

Let me reproduce the relevant section: "In some instances, the Panel received written and oral material on the condition of an assurance of absolute confidentiality in the subsequent use of the information. The Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) confirmed, through formal legal advice, that the provisions set out in the Secretary General’s Bulletin, on ‘information sensitivity, classification and handling’ (ST/SGB/2007/6), could be applied to its records. This Bulletin provides for classification of a document as ‘strictly confidential’ with correspondingly strict limits on any access for a period of 20 years, following which a declassification review may be undertaken that weighs the equities involved in retention or release. Moreover, OLA confirmed that, where necessary and appropriate for the Panel’s work, the Panel could give an undertaking of absolute confidentiality in the subsequent use. As a result, nearly all of the Panel’s substantive records will be classified as ‘strictly confidential’ with, in some cases, additional protections regarding future use."

Can this be considered fair under any circumstances? Can a country be faulted for murdering 40,000 of its own citizens without a proper investigation? The writer expects Dr. Perera on behalf of the NPC, to explain his stand on the controversial confidentially clause that dealt with the PoE’s records. Can proper investigation be held unless all accusations verified through a transparent process? Of course, the writer firmly believes participation of the international community is a must to ensure credibility of the process as stressed by a government appointed Consultation Task Force on reconciliation Mechanism (CTFRM). The outfit, in early January 2017, recommended the participation of foreign judges in war crimes courts to be established in accordance with 30/1 Geneva Resolution, adopted in Oct 2015. But, before that happens, the likes of Dr. Perera should help verify the original accusations directed at the war-winning Sri Lanka military.

The CTFRM, headed by Manouri Muttetuwegama, comprised Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Gamini Viyangoda, Visaka Dharmadasa, Shantha Abhimanasingham, PC, Prof Sitralega Maunaguru, K.W. Janaranjana, Prof. Daya Somasundaram, Dr. Farzana Haniffa, Prof. Gameela Samarasinghe and Mirak Raheem.

PoE vs Lord Naseby

 The writer raised Lord Naseby, on the basis of wartime British High Commission dispatches (January-May 2009), in Oct 2017, disputing the PoE claim of 40,000 civilian killings on the Vanni front with Dr. Perera. The academic refrained from commenting on Lord Naseby’s disclosure, undoubtedly the most significant revelations made by a foreign dignitary on the basis of official records that dealt with the Vanni offensive after treacherous current dispensation co-sponsored the resolution against its own armed forces.

The NPC and like-minded groups, as well as all those opposed to the appointment of Shavendra Silva as the Commander of the Army remained silent on the Naseby disclosure.

 Lord Naseby’s revalation not only disputed the UN claim but gave much credence to a confidential UN report that placed the total number of civilian and LTTE combatant deaths at 7,721 and 18,479 wounded during this period (PoE report section 134). Perhaps Dr. Perera should request the UN to release the report based on information received from the staff of the UN, NGOs deployed there, the ICRC, clergy et al. The difference between the preposterous PoE report released in March 2011 and the one available immediately at the end of the conflict was that the former entirely depended on still anonymous sources.

 Various interested parties played politics with war casualties. The media was no exception. A section of the media, and the Norway-led Scandinavian truce monitoring mission, called the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), deliberately deceived the public as regards the loss of lives. The Island exposed one such despicable attempt at the onset of the war in 2006. The Rajapaksa administration was too busy to inquire into media project. The war-winning Army never bothered to really examine the threat during the conflict or thereafter.

(The writer intends to soon discuss the futility in squandering precious public funds on Defense Seminar, an annual event inaugurated in June 2011.) Sri Lanka lacked a thorough plan to counter lies, propagated by a section of the civil society and various other elements hell-bent on undermining - first the war effort and then post-war reconciliation process.

The 2006 SLMM bid was meant to undermine the war effort. Having facilitated the LTTE build-up throughout the Ceasefire Agreement in operation since Feb 21, 2002, the SLMM blamed the heavy loss of civilian life on the resumption of war.

Kadirgamar assassination

‘tragic but inevitable’

The foreign-funded civil society ignored the circumstances leading to the war. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination of the then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in August 2005, Dr. Perera on behalf of the NPC asserted that the killing was tragic but inevitable. Any other country would have abrogated the Ceasefire Agreement immediately and taken steps to liquidate the threat. Instead Sri Lanka reiterated its commitment to the Norway-led peace process.

Having assassinated Kadirgamar at his residence, the LTTE made an abortive bid to blast Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka within the army headquarters. President Rajapaksa authorized limited retaliatory air strikes but reiterated his commitment to the Norway-led process.

Even after the LTTE confronted the Army at Mavil aru, President Rajapaksa remained committed to the peace process.

The then President finally declared all-out war in the aftermath of massive LTTE attack on the northern frontline.

Western powers exploited the situation. The SLMM issued a controversial statement to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the Ceasefire Agreement, signed in 2002. The SLMM declared that nearly 4,000 people had been killed since Mahinda Rajapaksa won the presidency in Nov 2005, whereas 130 persons perished during the remaining period, covered by the CFA (Feb 2002-Nov 2005).

 The SLMM declared that it had arrived at a death toll of 4,000 on the basis of daily reports from truce monitors, based in the northern and eastern districts where every case, related to the conflict were recorded. The SLMM conveniently refrained from differentiating the number of civilian deaths.

By not making any reference to combatants, the truce monitoring mission implied the dead were civilians. 

(The mission was terminated on January 16, 2008, following the abrogation of the CFA by Sri Lanka, and the organization ceased to exist by the end of 2008, following an administrative termination in the Nordic countries).

Truce monitors lie

 As the writer felt that there couldn’t be any basis for the SLMM’s claim, a clarification was sought from its headquarters in Colombo, in early March 2007. After a series of telephone calls, the mission admitted that the dead included combatants and civilians. However, the mission refused to provide a breakdown of the number of persons killed during the 15-month period. The mission claimed that the revelation of such information wouldn’t be favourable to its role in Sri Lanka. However, the mission brought down the number of civilian deaths at 1,500 (Deaths due to the conflict: SLMM backs down on breakdown, with strap line Changes figure to 1,500 from 4,000 - ‘The Island’ March 12, 2007).

The SLMM statement was meant to draw attention to the fact that there was a sharp escalation of violence since November 5, 2005, following the election of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the fifth executive president of Sri Lanka.

The monitoring mission also refused to divulge its sources.

Both the local and international media gave wide coverage to the monitoring mission’s claim. But they never rectified the deliberate bid to deceive the public. The SLMM too, conveniently refrained from correcting its original statement for obvious reasons.

The government never sought a clarification from the monitoring mission, or the Norwegian peace facilitators.

The army headquarters however in response to a query by The Island, insisted that there had been only 694 civilian deaths during the November 2005 –March 2007 period. Army headquarters rejected truce monitors’ claim of 1500 civilian deaths during this period. But the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) accepted the controversial figures in spite of the Army contradicting the figures quoted by the SLMM. The military acknowledged that the government’s failure to challenge the truce monitors, over the false report, was damaging, especially in the backdrop of growing international scrutiny on upholding of human rights.

The Army, too, would have remained silent if The Island didn’t challenge the Nordic mission. The government never felt the need to challenge the SLMM.

Interestingly, other print and electronic media never bothered to take up this issue. Those who had reported the original SLMM statement ignored the issue, even after the disclosure of its agenda.

Who authorized that statement? Did the then head of the SLMM mission consult the Norwegian Ambassador in Colombo before issuing the statement? Had there been at least an attempt on the then government’s part to establish the motive for issuing exaggerated figures?

The SLMM spokesperson repeatedly declined to discuss where these 4,000 killings took place and why there was absolutely no reference to such large scale violence in previous statements issued by the monitoring mission. The spokesperson also refused to estimate the death toll due to direct military action, or crossfire, between the armed forces and the LTTE.

The then government squandered an excellent opportunity to expose the Nordic mission. In fact, the previous government never felt the requirement to systematically counter lies, propagated by the international community or a section of the media that had faith in the LTTE’s military prowess. It is nothing but strange that the Joint Opposition members of parliament, loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, were still reluctant to examine the previous administration’s failure on the media front. They haven’t still realised that the previous government’s failure paved the way for Western powers and India to facilitate the regime change operation, in 2015 January. Almost a similar project went awry in January 2010 when war-winning Army Chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of then Commander-in-Chief Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The largest recipient of Norwegian funding, the NPC, never commented on the SLMM statement issued on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Ceasefire Agreement. Sri Lanka should call for a comprehensive inquiry with full participation of foreign personnel, including judges. However, the blatant PoE lie that the Army massacred 40,000 based on still mysterious accusers, cannot be the basis of the inquiry. Instead, a fresh examination of facts, including Lord Naseby’s disclosure, still confidential UN report, US Defence Attaché Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith’s assertion, and ICRC reports along with the PoE dozier should pave the way for a thorough inquiry to ascertain the truth.

It wouldn’t be fair to categorize the Sri Lanka Army a criminal organization on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations. Accusing Sri Lanka of war crimes over the years has become a lucrative industry for many local and foreign organizations. For the amount of massive foreign funding received by them, they wouldn’t even hesitate to name even Shavendra Silva’s parents war criminals.  If the Army was called a criminal organization how would the civil society call the TNA which recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamils, way back in 2001 and continued to defend it to the hilt despite all its atrocities, till it was militarily defeated by the security forces. The LTTE remained the Tamils sole representative until the Army, at the end of a successful combined forces offensive, eliminated Prabhakaran on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon on the morning of May 19, 2009.