Hold! ‘Betrayal’ by Fonseka! Listen to this

Former Ambassador

(Courtesy of The Island)

Whether or not General (Rtd) Sarath Fonseka said it in respect of the killing of Pulidevan (head of LTTE peace secretariat), Nadesan (LTTE police chief along with his Sinhalese wife) and Ramesh who are said to have approached the Sri Lankan Army with a white flag, orders to kill those coming with a white flag is not something unusual in conflict situations. Fonseka has in a subsequent media interview stated that he has been quoted out of context by the Sunday Leader and has denied that the three LTTE leaders ever sought to surrender to the Army. (Lankadeepa of December 15). He has taken full responsibility for the Army’s action under his command.

As Dr Carl J Schneider and Dr Dorothy Schneider documented in their book An Eyewitness History of the World War II (2006), in war, no nation could be quoted having played by the rules all the time, every army having had its sadists. But that could not be applied In the case of Sri Lanka where it was an internecine war among people of the same country where, therefore, more circumspection was called for.

There should also be repentance more than triumphalism which has as once again raised its ugly head as displayed in building a what the Defence Ministry website of December 9, 2009 called a “victory monument” in Pudukudirippu where Prabhakaran finally fell.

If the idea of cremating Prabhakaran’s mortal remains and scattering the ashes in the sea was to prevent as it was done with Adolf Hitler’s remains which were exhumed in 1970, incinerated and ashes sprinkled over a river in Germany to his grave becoming a spot for ritual, the Victory Memorial could now serve the very purpose that the earlier action sought to efface. That is if it will not be a thorn in the eyes of the Tamil people. Who will want to visit this desolate place? Even now it is time to demolish it and build a national monument to the fallen in this desultory war in a more appropriate place.

Following our national cultural values as demonstrated by our national hero of all times, King Dutugemunu who after he had been victorious over Tamil usurper Elara, suffered remorse over the deaths of millions in the war on both sides, there should never have been rejoicing over the victory in our country unless, of course, the intention was to play to the baser values of man as now being demonstrated by the government’s ‘hit man’ Mervyn Silva.

King Dutugemunu undertook meritorious work like building the Mahathupa after giving a right royal cremation to his fallen adversary and building a monument to him where he ordained that no prince in future shall pass it playing music or riding in a chariot. As Maj Davy, the British Army Medical officer wrote, the practice was observed in 1848 when Keppetipola fleeing the British troops after the failure of the Uva Rebellion got off his litter and walked until he had passed the monument. Dr James Rutnam commenting on it called it Dutugemunu’s chivalry!

This is no plea for such treatment as Dutugemunu accorded to the Just-King Elara to the megalomaniac Prabhakaran. It is best that his memory is allowed to fade as that of Adolf Hitler.

‘Order to kill’ under the white flag

We have the glaring case closer at home documented by no less a person than General (Rtd) Harkirat Singh who was the first GOC of the Indian Peacekeeping Force in Sri Lanka where he refers to the direction he received from the then Indian High Commissioner, J N Dixit, on the night of 14/15 September 1987 asking him to arrest or shoot Prabhakaran when he came for the meeting called for September 17 at the Palaly headquarters of the GOC which was to be presided by Dixit. [Harkirat Singh: Intervention in Sri Lanka (2006), p 57 and 60].

The sequence of events is intriguing and very much relevant to the current debate following the disclosures attributed by The Sunday Leader of December 14 to General (Rtd) Fonseka [which the General has since claimed to be a misrepresentation of what he said].

The Indian analogy demonstrably showcases the conflict between the ideas of the political leadership and a disciplined orthodox Army. The war in Sri Lanka also brought to focus this conflict of interest between the two sections quite vividly as Sumanasiri Liyanage brought to our attention in his recent article published in The Island. Liyanage’s intention was to emphasise a different situation, however.

The direction given by the former Indian High Commissioner J.N.Dixit, [quoting Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi] to the GOC of IPKF, General Harkirat Singh to arrest or shoot Prabhakran points to the political approach to the problem; while the response of the GOC of refusal to obey the direction of the High commissioner/ Prime Minister which he conveyed to Dixit after consulting with Lt. General Dipendar Singh, OFC who had directed him to tell Dixit that “we as an orthodox Army, did not shoot people in the back when they were coming for a meeting under the white flag” points to the view of a disciplined orthodox Army.

The matter does not end there. General (Rtd) Harikirat Singh documents that General Sunderji was annoyed over this matter but it can be understood from subsequent events that Sunderji had expected the GOC to follow the political direction. Strange indeed!

There is also another interesting observation by the GOC where he records the Indian Deputy High Commissioner Nirupen Sen who arrived in Palaly telling him on September 19 that “policies on the political and military action are not complementary. The bureaucrats, it appears, are doubtful about the hard political posture vis-a-vis soft military action or vice versa.” (Harikirat Singh: p.60).

That is a point whose relevance to the Sri Lankan situation will be examined closely by students of history in the future. Perhaps, the ups and downs one saw in the Eelam war over a period of three decades could be explained in terms of the political and military see-sawing over the war including political indecision.

I am speaking with the practical experience as a small time participant in helping the Army in procurement of arms and not as an arm-chair observer.

I saw the difficulties the army faced then. As I write, last night a visiting Chinese journalist from Hong Kong domiciled in Japan asked me why this war took so long to finish off. What was lacking was the ‘will of the nation’ as I once wrote in these columns and the Sinhalese newspapers published a translation of it. President Mahinda Rajapaksa understood that and he found the right men in right places willing to co-operate to the hilt. That is all there is to that. No room for any “Kawda raja?-Mamay-raja” claims by anyone. Let that be left to future historians to decide.

In the light of conflicts and controversies surrounding conflict situations round the world there need not be over-excitement as has now emerged if there had been a conflict of interest between the political leadership, represented in this case by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan Army over some details of the conduct of the last phase of the war like how to treat the LTTE leaders who may have wanted to surrender to the Army.

What cannot be denied is that the government was under heavy pressure from the international community at the time including the UN to negotiate a ceasefire with the LTTE ostensibly in view of the humanitarian crisis that had arisen. Many including myself saw this as undue influence in an attempt to save the LTTE which was badly cornered; and supported the government’s stand of opting for a ‘fight-to-finish’ military offensive against the LTTE.

It has to be admitted that in war errors are made and these have to be looked into in the post-war situation and remedial measures taken which could range from repentance, apologies, paying compensation, ‘bridge-building’ and reconciliation. Now that the war is over it is the right time for everyone to reflect if any excesses had been committed during the war and take appropriate action including punishment for such excesses and cases of violation of human dignity like rape et al. it is also time to remove curtailment of civil liberties the enforcement of which became a necessary expedient during the war.

The effect of such action should promote clear the national conscience which is the totality of the individual conscience many of us harbor seeing some of our own people being subject to suffer disabilities on account of war. I myself protested when the US and others were trying to proffer war crimes charges on the Army. That was in defence of our honour and independence.

But I was very pleased when the President took a decision to appoint an independent investigating team to conduct such an investigation. That was with the expectation that such an investigation might constitute a complete investigation conducted with transparency.

As Assistant Secretary Robert Blake indicated during the recent visit, the US administration which was in the forefront demanding a war crime investigation on the conduct of the last phase of the war may now not want to proceed with the demand but that has to be understood as he said in the light of the institution of an independent local inquiry.

It has to be remembered that the US herself would not allow her citizens to be brought up before the International Court of War Crimes as I wrote in these columns earlier. So, everyone is now awaiting the speedy implementation of the President’s undertaking to conduct a proper independent investigations into the allegations.

The Island editorial of December 15 titled “Of that war crime charge” deserves to be studied carefully in this context.

If I may make a comment on that editorial, it seems to me that what the former Army Commander has said quoting media sources is nothing new.

I myself like many others read in the media that some LTTE leaders wanted to surrender and discussions had taken place between the ICRC and others and former foreign secretary Dr Palitha Kohona on the steps to be taken in that regard. It is on record that Dr Kohona had told the parties that those who wanted to surrender could go with a white flag raising their arms (showing no hostile intentions). As a former legal consultant of the UN Dr Kohona, undoubtedly quoted the accepted customary international practice followed when combatants wanted to surrender to the opposing party if he did not consult the higher command in the Army on the specific situation. As I remember nearly three days ensued over this discussion. Later, I remember [an embarrassed?] Dr Kohona explaining that things had moved so swiftly that it had been too late for communications to cross! One can sympathise with this top bureaucrat in the Foreign Office at that time trying to maintain a vestige of his credibility under fast changing circumstances in the battlefield. But is that enough? Doesn’t the situation call to question the credibility of the whole country over this last minute moves?

As a former senior Foreign Office man who held responsible office as Ambassador to several important countries I had some reservations in my own mind over the way things developed in the final stage of the battle and I still harbor these reservations deeply. This is no accusation on anyone. To quote from the Schneiders again, in war armies moving fast could not be bothered [taking] with prisoners or sparing men to guard them. Though the Sri Lankan Army had acted with unprecedented reserve that no other army in the world could ever claim in the face of an enemy using a massive human shield and firing artillery and mortars at them, and fighting a hand-to-hand battle in heavily-mined land without naval or air support at the crucial moment [not due to any service jealousies but because of orders by the President (Commander-in-Chief) not to use heavy guns to fire at the No-fire zone’ which the enemy was using fire at the Army], yet one could not be sure what happened in the last three days of the war from May 17 to 19 is palatable. As Pulidevan described to the Australian Radio interviewer over a satellite phone, “it was hell”. He said no more obviously because he was hoping to surrender himself!

I fully agree with the Island editorial that if the government intends to take legal action against Fonseka over the allegation at issue, as Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told the media recently, Fonseka is bound to defend himself and the issue is sure to evolve into a protracted legal wrangle where more revelations may take place which could cause further embarrassment to the government and only benefit those awaiting on the side pressing for war crime investigations.

As the learned editor suggested, the best course is for the war crimes alleged by the US administration and others and particularly the allegation of [what seems like a political order] to the Army to kill those who came under the white flag which has once again taken cenre-stage, be investigated immediately.

As the editorial said the issue has prospects of the names of Defence Secretary Rajapaksa and Maj-Gen Shavendra de Silva being taken up at a different forum [like the International Criminal Court (of War Crimes)] in the future. As the editorial stated, Gotabhaya and Shavendra will also have to live with the stigma attached to war crimes indefinitely.

Our national heritage

Our national cultural ethos in victory which is etched in golden letters in our national chronicle Mahavamsa which Dr James Rutnam eloquently quoted in his lecture on “Elara Sohona” delivered to the Jaffna Archaeological Society some time before his death to which reference was made at the outset needs to be repeated in this context.

Let not the campaign on the Presidential stakes which has now taken a very ugly turn with the misuse of state resources, the media sparing not even religion and caste, be allowed to tarnish our historical national image as a cultured people.

by Bandu de Silva

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