By Shamindra Ferdinando
For nearly a decade Sri Lanka neglected its responsibility to counter unsubstantiated war crimes allegations directed at its Army. War-winning Army, too, cannot under any circumstances absolve itself of its failure to address accountability issues. Having defeated the LTTE, in May 2009, the government and the Army never really bothered to examine war crimes accusations. Today, Sri Lanka accused of deliberately targeting the Vanni civilian population, with the Northern Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran alleging genocide.
War-winning Army Chief, the then Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s entry into politics, in late 2009, caused chaos with him accusing his troops of executing surrendering LTTE cadres on the Vanni east front.
Fonseka’s explosive declaration, made in an exclusive interview with the then Sunday Leader editor Fredrica Jansz, in Dec 2009, exposed Sri Lanka to war crimes charges. Fonseka repeated the accusations at a propaganda rally in Ratnapura.
The then Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was accused of issuing execution orders to the then General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the celebrated 58 Division Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva.
Sri Lanka never succeeded in countering allegations with a section of the local and international media propagating war crimes accusations. Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), appointed in 2010, was not really intended to address specific accountability issues.
In March 2011, UNSG Panel of Experts (PoE) comprising the US, South African and Indonesian accused the Army of indiscriminate indirect heavy artillery fire on civilians, attacks on hospitals and makeshift medical facilities and deliberate denial of basic supplies, both food and medicine, to treat the war wounded. Sri Lanka’s decision not to cooperate with the PoE resulted in the UN producing a one-sided report with the inclusion of a strict confidentiality clause that prevented the examination of evidence until 2031. Even then, the lifting of the confidentiality clause is subjected to fresh UN examination.
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.”
Just two months after the releasing of the PoE report, the US unexpectedly provided the required ‘ammunition’ to undermine the very basis of war crimes accusations. The US assertion disputed. The Sunday Leader report pertaining to the execution of surrendering LTTE cadres on the Vanni east battlefield.
The government and the Army, struggling to cope up with the PoE report against the backdrop of the LTTE rump demanding international judicial mechanism to probe Sri Lanka, turned a blind eye to the US statement.
The Island dealt exclusively with the revelation made by the US (Sri Lanka Defense symposium: Now, US suspects credibility of LTTE surrender offer-The Island, June 3, 2011) The then Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya, failed to take advantage of the US statement. Jayasuriya did absolutely nothing even after he received appointment as Chief of Defence Staff. Subsequently, he was rewarded with a top diplomatic posting. Jayasuriya served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Brazil till mid-2017.
The Army never exploited the bombshell statement made by the then US Defense attaché in Colombo, Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith.
The Defense Attaché intervened after an Indian delegate, Major General (retd) Ashok Mehta, who had served the Indian Army, deployed in Sri Lanka in the 80s, queried about the alleged surrender moves made by LTTE cadres. This is what Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith had to say in response to Metha’s question, directed at Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, whose troops fought their way from North of Mannar, brought Pooneryn under their control, then turned eastwards, captured Paranthan, before seizing Elephant Pass to the North and Kilinochchi in the South. The celebrated Division then proceeded across the eastern part of the Vanni to the eastern coast.
This is what the American had to say: “Hello, may I say something to a couple of questions raised. I’ve been the Defense Ataché here, at the US Embassy, since June 2008. Regarding the various versions of events that came out in the final hours and days of the conflict – from what I was privileged to hear and to see, the offers to surrender that, I am aware of, seemed to come from the mouthpieces of the LTTE – Nadesan, KP – people who weren’t and never had really demonstrated any control over the leadership or the combat power of the LTTE.
“So their offers were a bit suspect anyway, and they tended to vary in content, hour by hour, day by day. I think we need to examine the credibility of those offers before we leap to conclusions that such offers were in fact real.
“And I think the same is true for the version of events. It’s not so uncommon in combat operations, in the fog of war, as we all get our reports second, third and fourth hand from various commanders, at various levels, that the stories don’t seem to all quite match up.
“But, I can say that the version presented here so far in this is what I heard as I was here during that time. And I think I better leave it at that before I get into trouble. ”
The embarrassed US State Department tried to disassociate itself with Lt. Col. Smith’s statement. State Department’s Deputy Spokesman Mark C. Toner responded to questions based on The Island report.
QUESTION: I have one on Sri Lanka. The senior Defense Attaché at the U.S. Mission in Sri Lanka went public in the newspapers (inaudible) that he questioned the credibility of surrender offers made by senior LTTE leaders who was the head of the (inaudible) last year. Does this reflect any change in the U.S. position on the war crime victims?
TONER: Right. You’re talking about remarks that were made at a conference in Colombo?
QUESTION: Yes. Yeah.
TONER: Well, just to clarify, the U.S. did decline invitations to participate in that conference as either a conference speaker or panelist. My understanding is that the defense attaché was there as an observer and a note taker. His comments reflected his personal opinions. There’s no change in the policy of the United States, and his remarks do not reflect any change in our policy.
QUESTION: So that was a personal opinion?
TONER: Personal opinion. The United States – and just to reiterate that policy – remains deeply concerned by the allegations in the panel of experts report, and we’re committed to seeing a credible accounting of and accountability for violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. And we believe that the Sri Lankan Government must act quickly and credibly to address these allegations.
QUESTION: Who was the attaché?
TONER: I don’t have his name.
QUESTION: Is he still the attaché? (Laughter.) Was there any discussion —?
TONER: I believe he’s still there, but I’ll try to get an update.
The Army conveniently forgot the 2011 defense seminar. The second edition of the series was held in August 2012 under Lt. Gen. Jayasuriya’s leadership. The two-day event was titled: Towards lasting peace and stability. There was no reference to the US statement at the previous year’s seminar. In fact, Lt. Colonel Smith’s statement remains the most important so far made at subsequent defense seminars. Unfortunately, the Army NEVER examined the US official’s statement though many issues were discussed in 2013 (Post conflict Sri Lanka: Challenges and Regional Stability), 2014 (Sri Lanka: Challenges to a Rising Nation), 2015 (National Security in the Context of Emerging Global Threats), 2016 (Soft Power and its Influence on Global Issues), 2017 (Countering Violent Extremism: Global Trends). Jayasuriya’s successor, Lt. Gen. Daya Ratnayake and Lt Gen Crishanthe de Silva who succeeded Ratnayake, too, failed to capitalize on the US statement. Ratnayake and De Silva gave leadership to defense seminars in 2013 and 2014 and 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Incumbent Army Chief Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake, too, missed a golden opportunity, at last year’s defense seminar to address accountability issues. Would it be the same at this year’s seminar, titled ‘Security’, in an era of global disruptions too?
Against the backdrop of the PoE report, followed by another investigation undertaken by Geneva, Sri Lanka was told to implement far reaching reforms in the security sector. Geneva dictates also caused severe problems for overseas Sri Lankan military deployments under UN command. The government and the Army, for some reason, hesitated to defend Sri Lanka’s position. Political and Army leaderships struggled to cope up with evidence favourable to the country. The Foreign Ministry simply ignored Naseby’s revelations, though the importance of British conservative politician’s statement was repeatedly highlighted, since Oct 2017.
The previous Rajapaksa government shirked its responsibility. Instead of using all available information to defend the country, the previous government squandered USD millions on worthless propaganda projects. Hiring expensive US PR firms did not help Sri Lanka in any way. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, having co-sponsored Resolution 30/1, targeting its own military, in Oct. 2015, continues to evade its responsibility to bring in British dispatches (January-May 2009) which contradicted the main allegation, pertaining to the massacre of 40,000 civilians, to the notice of Geneva. The dispatches authored by the then British Defence Advisor Lt. Colonel Anthony Gash who served in Colombo at the time Lt. Colonel Smith was stationed here could have helped Sri Lanka to counter lies. In spite of Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, one time Attorney General, assuring parliament in Nov. 2017 that the government would use British dispatches at the appropriate time, such promises have failed to materialise. Lord Naseby presented heavily censored British dispatches in the House of Lords, pertaining to the final days of conflict, in Sri Lanka, in Oct. 2017.
According to army.lk posting, this year’s Colombo defense seminar too wouldn’t discuss what matters most to Sri Lanka.
According to the Army, the objectives of the seminar are (a) To create a forum for local and international scholars to discuss ‘Security in an Era of Global Disruptions’, focusing on the importance of security, remedial action and application of the concept in creating a wider discourse in international affairs.
(b) To promote intellectual connectivity amongst those who seek strategic, sub-regional, regional, and global partnerships through discussions by and with prominent and renowned national and international scholars, think tanks, and diplomats.
(c) To provide an opportunity for exchange of views, experiences and knowledge acquired by experienced nations on various aspects of the topic.
(d) To develop awareness of learning strategies on how to improve the mechanisms of security to deter global disruptions by means of statecraft.
(e) To offer challenging academic content that promotes, engaged learning and critical thinking on means of developing and sustaining the peace-building processes the world over through UN peacekeeping and peace-building missions.
(f) To initiate analytical dialogue on the vital need for stretching the influence of a country to be concern over security in an era of global disruptions through its initiatives as applicable to root causes of respective nations especially in the age of the return of geopolitics, and create a distinct mode of legitimacy and acceptance that may not be possible otherwise.
The writer examined the brochure issued by the Army at the defense seminar last year. The Army had gone into extraordinary length to prevent inclusion of a picture of one-time Commanding Officer of the celebrated First Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (1GR) Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who played a pivotal role in the government strategy leading to the annihilation of the LTTE in the booklet. Rajapaksa was not even in a group photograph.
For want of a cohesive strategy to address accountability issues, senior military officers received degrading treatment at foreign missions. In spite of backing Fonseka’s presidential bid in 2010, the US has denied a visa to General/Field Marshal Fonseka. Strategist Maj. Gen. Chagie Gallage was denied an Australian visa on the basis of UN allegations. Gallage was found guilty by Australians for commanding the 59 Division at the final phase of Vanni conflict on the Vanni east front. Gajaba veteran Gallage, one of the finest officers to serve the Army, retired recently. Although, President Maithripala Sirisena promised, in Nov 2017, to take up the issue with Western missions, the government has done nothing so far. Reference to the visa matter was made in the presence of Lt. Gen Senanayake and Defense Secretary Kapila Waidyaratne, formerly of the Attorney General’s Department.
President Sirisena referred to some Western powers refusing to issue visas to both retired and serving officers on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations. President Sirisena emphasized the pivotal importance of rectifying the situation. The Commander-in-Chief called for tangible measures to change Western governments’ decision.
President owes an explanation as to why absolutely no action has been taken since his well-received speech delivered at the military hospital, Narahenpita.
Field Marshal Fonseka, in September, 2017, alleged that he had been denied a visa to attend the UNGA 2017 because of unresolved war crime allegations against the Army. Sri Lanka’s most successful Army Commander, who is now a Minister, said he was due to travel to New York but he was the only one in the Sri Lankan delegation, not issued a visa by the US. Fonseka said he could not accompany President Sirisena to the UNGA.
Field Marshal Fonseka has repeatedly underscored the pivotal importance of a comprehensive investigation into accountability issues to clear Sri Lanka’s name.
Political and Army leadership pathetically failed to exploit leaked US diplomatic cables to counter lies. Nearly a decade after the successful conclusion of the war, the government and the Army are yet to properly record evidence provided by various parties, including those countries who couldn’t stomach Sri Lanka’s triumph over terrorism. The UK went out of its way to prevent the disclosure of wartime dispatches from Colombo only for that reason. The UK knew its dispatches would contradict two primary accusations – the massacre of 40,000 civilians and the political leadership deliberately targeted those trapped on the Vanni front.
Had the Army studied Wikileaks cables, originating from Colombo, New Delhi, London, Geneva et al, it would have found the following cable, perhaps the most important one that could have been the basis for Sri Lanka’s defense. The Army never bothered to examine them.
The cable dated July 15, 2009 signed by the then Geneva based US Ambassador Clint Williamson cleared the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) of crimes against humanity during the Vanni offensive. 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 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.”
The Kotelawala Defence University and the Navy, too, could have played a significant role in addressing accountability issues. Unfortunately they never did. In addition to them Army organized defense seminar series, the Galle Dialogue, conducted by the Navy, as well as the annual research conference, organized by the General Sir John Kotelawela Defence University, too, failed to focus on real challenges faced by Sri Lanka. For some strange reason, Sri Lanka never wanted to set the record straight. Even the much touted Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was denied the required mandate to conduct a comprehensive inquiry. The Kadirgamar Institute and the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, too, avoided the issue. For nearly a decade, the Parliament and various other institutes, responsible for countering massive propaganda project against Sri Lanka, NEVER took up the real challenge. Experts invited by them for various forums discussed everything except what really affected Sri Lanka.
All those involved in Sri Lanka appeared to have extensively examined Wikileaks, except us.
Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka (1997-2009) commissioned by the Norwegian government largely dealt with Eelam war IV. The report, officially released in September 2011 by Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI) and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) examined a series of classified US diplomatic cables that shed light on the situation here. The evaluation team which commenced data collection in September 2010 included Gunnar M. Sørbø (Social anthropologist, team leader), Jonathan Goodhand (Development studies, deputy team leader), Bart Klem (Geographer, conflict analysis, monitoring and mediation), Ada Elisabeth Nissen (Historian, archival studies) and Hilde Beate Selbervik (Historian, overview of Norwegian aid to Sri Lanka).
The evaluation team, in its final report, acknowledged that the examination of confidential US diplomatic cables, relating to Sri Lanka, had been useful. However, the team admitted that Wiki Leaks released what it called new material of relevance to assess the situation in Sri Lanka and that such information couldn’t be evaluated. Sri Lanka never properly examined Wikileaks. Shame on those responsible for the obvious deliberate negligence. But nothing could have shamed the government and the Army than their shocking decision not to exploit the unprecedented salutation received by Lt. Colonel Ratnapriya Bandu, the senior officer who had been in charge of rehabilitated LTTE cadres in the northern region, since 2012, until recently. Outgoing DIG Vavuniya Deshabandu Tennakoon, too, recently received a similar reception. The reception received by Lt. Col Bandu is an honour for the institution but unfortunately those responsible for Sri Lanka’s defense in Geneva ignored the images from Vishvamadu. There couldn’t have been a better picture to adorn the defense seminar 2018 than those of ex-LTTE cadres and their families carrying the former Special Forces officer.
Had the Army and the Foreign Ministry made a genuine effort, they could have shed light on the culpability of the UN in the unprecedented Vanni hostage crisis. For want of cohesive strategy, and negligence on the part of the previous government, and treacherous incumbent administration, Sri Lanka was denied proper defense in Geneva.
(To be continued Aug 22)