Forgotten war victory
Wartime General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the celebrated 58 Division and present Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva greeting visiting Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat at the entrance to the parade grounds at the Army Headquarters on Monday. The Indian Chief is on a week (May 13-18) long visit which coincided with Sri Lanka’s triumph over terrorism on May 19, nine years ago (pic courtesy army.lk)
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government has reduced the annual Victory Day parade to a mere commemoration ceremony for fallen officers and men, at Palaly, in the Jaffna peninsula.
Jointly organized by the Northern Province Governor Reginald Cooray’s Office and Ranaviru Seva Authority, in coordination with the Security Forces Headquarters, Jaffna, the brief ceremony, held on the morning of May 4, 2018, was certainly not quite enough to celebrate Sri Lanka’s biggest post-independence achievement.
Sri Lanka inaugurated the Victory Day parade, soon after bringing the war to a successful conclusion, on the morning of May 19, 2009, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, on the Vanni east front.
The annual event reflected the liberation of the Eastern Province (Aug 2006-July 2007) and the Northern Province (March 2007-May 2009).
The commemoration ceremony was held opposite the War Heroes’ monument, in Palaly, with the participation of Security Forces Commander Darshana Hettiarachchi. Northern Province Governor and former Member of Parliament Reginald Cooray, and Anoma Fonseka, wife of Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, now embroiled in a simmering controversy over his criticism of President and Commander-in-Chief Maithripala Sirisena, participated at the event.
Among the other invitees was Indian Consulate General in Jaffna, S. Balachandran. The decision to invite Jaffna-based Indian diplomat is debatable. Balachandran’s presence at the event was a grim reminder of the Indian covert and overt intervention in Sri Lanka, in the early ‘80s, leading to death and destruction on an unprecedented scale, before the eradication of terrorism, in the third week of May, nine years ago.
In fact, the recent Palaly commemoration ceremony can be compared with that of IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) officers and men killed at the hands of Indian-trained LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) terrorists in Oct. 1987.
Senior representatives of Security Forces headquarters, Mullaitivu and Security Forces headquarters, Kilinochchi, too, participated at the Palaly commemoration.
A report, headlined Northern Province remembers fallen war heroes, posted on army.lk four days after the event reflected the current thinking of the decision makers. The print media largely ignored the event. However, Northern Governor Cooray should be commended for recalling tremendous sacrifices made by the military to restore normalcy. Having underscored that peace wouldn’t have been a reality without the armed forces efforts, Cooray also referred to their post-war commitments.
Decision makers are of the opinion that separate low key commemoration ceremonies can be held at provincial level during May. The bottom line is that the shameless government gave in to Western pressure to do away with the annual Victory Parade. Some Colombo-based diplomats worked overtime to discourage the then government to call off the event.
Lanka succumbs to Western pressure
On behalf of all those, who had been pursuing war crimes allegations since the conclusion of the war, against the Sri Lankan military, Canada in 2014 demanded the cancellation of the parade. Sri Lanka quite rightly rejected that blatant Canadian interference in purely a domestic matter. Although The Island had carried a threatening Canadian statement, issued ahead of the fifth Victory Day parade to be held in Matara, let me reproduce the same again.
In the run-up to the 2014 Victory Day parade, in Matara, Canada publicly declared that it wouldn’t be represented. It was the fifth Victory Day parade held amidst stepped up international pressure.
Canadian High Commissioner in Colombo, Shelly Whiting, in a strongly worded statement, issued exclusively to ‘The Island’, explained the Canadian decision to boycott the event. The writer front-paged Whiting’s statement, in the May 16, 2014 edition of The Island. The then Military spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya explained Sri Lanka’s right to continue with the Victory Day parade, on the following day.
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.”
SLA in a dilemma
Joint Opposition (JO) never really challenged the government decision to cancel the Victory Day parade. Twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa, over the last weekend, referred to the cancellation at a function, held at a temple, though his political outfit was yet to take up the issue, forcefully.
In fact, parliament never really challenged the war crimes accusations propagated by various interested parties since the conclusion of the conflict and inquired into the circumstances leading to the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration decision to co-sponsor Geneva Resolution on Oct 1. 2015. The shameless decision to cancel the Victory Day parade should be examined against the backdrop of the unanimous adoption of the Resolution: Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has, subsequently, and repeatedly, reiterated its commitment to the 30/1. Sri Lanka never sought to challenge unsubstantiated war crimes allegations even after the revelation of war time British High Commission dispatches that contradicted the very basis for the Geneva Resolution.
Sri Lanka meekly gave up its right to celebrate its greatest achievement. By doing so even before agreeing to co-sponsor the Geneva Resolution, the current government betrayed the armed forces. The War-winning Rajapaksa government, too, should accept responsibility for the unfortunate situation. The Rajapaksa administration lacked a clear strategy to address accountability issues, thereby unintentionally facilitated high profile project meant to bring in selected armed forces officers, regiments and fighting formations to disrepute. The previous government didn’t at least bother to closely examine specific allegations directed at the military and the political leadership. The Rajapaksas’ failure certainly helped Western powers and their associates here to trap Sri Lanka. Their despicable project succeeded in January 2015. Soon after the change of government and the massive robbery at the Central Bank, the military was told of the decision to cancel the Victory Day parade. The government never explained why the Victory Day parade cannot be held.
Although President Maithripala Sirisena repeatedly claimed that he had been able to save the armed forces from UN strictures and action taken by individual countries, the Sri Lanka Army is now struggling to cope up with war crimes accusations.
President Sirisena, in the presence of Army Chief Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake and Defence Secretary Kapila Waidyaratne, last November assured the Army that tangible action would be taken to sort out problems. Presidential assurance was given in the wake of Australia denying a visa to Gajaba Regiment veteran Maj. Gen. Chagi Gallage for commanding the 59 Division on the Vanni east front. Gallage took over the Division on May 7, 2009-12 days before the conclusion of the conflict.
In response to inquiries made by Gallage, the Australian High Commission has stated that troops under his command certainly committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection has extensively cited Report of the OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) on Sri Lanka (OISL) to turn down Gallege’s visa. On the basis of the OISL report, Geneva adopted Resolution 30/1 to pave the way for foreign judges in a domestic judicial mechanism.
Australia also cited the UNSG Panel of Experts (PoE) report on accountability issues released on March 31, 2011. POE accused Sri Lanka of massacring over 40,000 civilians and depriving the Vanni population of their basic needs. The combined security forces brought the war to a successful conclusion on May 19, 2009.
The government turned a blind eye to Gallage’s predicament. Since then the situation has worsened, further with now the Army struggling to save its mission in Lebanon. Interested parties had protested against the appointment of Lt. Col. Rathnappuli Wasantha Kumara Hewage as the Commanding Officer of the 12th Force Protection Company (FPC) for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). They had found fault with Hewage for being involved in operations in the Vanni region. They had also accused Sri Lanka of not subjecting some of those personnel already dispatched to Lebanon to vetting procedures carried out by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL). In addition to those already sent to Lebanon in trouble over not being subjected to HRCSL vetting, the 101-strong contingent, assigned for Lebanon, is yet to leave on its assignment.
Recent statement attributed to Lt. Gen. Senanayake clearly indicated SLA’s frustration as well as lack of understanding of the situation. Let me reproduce an AFP piece by Amal Jayasinghe based on Senanayake’s address to Colombo-based foreign correspondents: “The Sri Lankan army has formed a special unit to defend itself against allegations of grave human rights abuses at the end of the country’s decades-long ethnic war.
Army chief Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake said the group would collate local and international reports, and establish the truth to clear the military’s name.
International rights groups accuse the military of killing 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final months of the war which ended in May 2009. The government of the time said not one civilian was killed.
“Different people have been saying different things, but our voice has not been heard.”
“That is why I set up the special directorate of overseas operations to prepare our position.”
Senanayake distanced the military from the previous claims that no civilians died, and acknowledged there may have been individual excesses.
“If someone says they know of specific instances (of rights violations) we are ready to investigate,” Senanayake said. “I am not going to look the other way. I want to clear the name of the army.” He said there were conflicting claims of casualties from the 37-year-old Tamil separatist war.
“Different units of the army involved in the final offensive maintained figures of casualties. I want to collate all that.
“I know the (then) government said no civilian was killed, but it was not our voice. We never said that. This time, we want to come back with our story.”
He said the 236,000-strong army wanted to clear its name and play a bigger role in UN international peacekeeping.
The government has said it lost at least 26,000 soldiers in the war with another 37,000 wounded. About 20,000 of the injured ended up with a permanent disability.
The Tamil Tiger rebels also lost heavily and the entire guerrilla leadership was wiped out in the military onslaught.
The government under then president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who ordered the offensive, faced international censure for refusing to acknowledge what the UN called credible allegations.
The administration which came to power in January 2015 said it was willing to investigate and pay reparations to victims, but progress has been extremely slow.”
Colombo page quoted Senanayake as having said in the absence of adequate support from those outside the army, the army considers it necessary to have an organization or a think tank of its own, to defend the institution in the context of the grave charges and the defense has to be carried out with facts and figures.
“That is why I set up the special directorate of overseas operations to prepare our position,” Senanayake said acknowledging that there may have been individual excesses.
Current Army leadership should be first convinced that systematic massacre of Vanni civilians didn’t take place as alleged by the UN on the basis of unproved and uncorroborated allegations. It’ll have to convince the political leadership to take up its case as the matter should be taken up in Geneva. The Army cannot ignore the fact that its dealings with the HRCSL will be guided by current UN assessment as regards the Army on the basis of war crimes allegations.
The British High Commission wartime dispatches from Sri Lanka should be the basis for its defence though the government turned a blind eye to immensely valuable revelations, along with those foreign news agencies that routinely refer to unsubstantiated war crimes allegations and continues to remain silent on Lord Naseby’s revelations.
The Army should examine those British dispatches along with wartime US Defence attache Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith’s statement as regards ‘white flag’ executions and alleged surrender agreement between the then government and the LTTE, made over two years after the conclusion of the war.
It would be interesting to know whether the Army would explore the possibility of obtaining a copy of UN report on the Vanni war that dealt with loss of lives from Aug 2008 to May 13, 2009, Wiki Leaks cables on Sri Lanka war as well as correspondence between the government and various diplomatic missions. Let me reproduce one such critically important letter dated Feb. 16, 2009 written by the then Norwegian Ambassador Tore Hattrem to presidential advisor Basil Rajapaksa.
The following is the text of Ambassador Hattrem’s letter, addressed to Basil Rajapaksa: “I refer to our telephone conversation today. The proposal to the LTTE on how to release the civilian population, now trapped in the LTTE controlled area, has been transmitted to the LTTE through several channels. So far, there has been, regrettably, no response from the LTTE and it doesn’t seem to be likely that the LTTE will agree with this in the near future.”
In last week’s piece headlined ‘How UK manipulated RTI law to deny Lanka chance to counter war crimes allegations’ it was inadvertently mentioned that Lord Naseby requested Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) for classified wartime dispatches from the British High Commission in Colombo on Nov. 6, 2016, a year after the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government co-sponsored Geneva Resolution against Sri Lanka, and seven years after the successful conclusion of the war. The request was made on Nov 6, 2014, nearly a year before Sri Lanka co-sponsored Geneva Resolution 30/1, much to the disappointment of the country, and five years after the end of the conflict.
(To be continued on May 23)
By Shamindra Ferdinando