Visit to Moscow amid US travel ban

General Shavendra Silva and wife Sujeewa Nelson at the Mikhailovskaya Military Artillery School(pic courtesy Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation)

General Shavendra Silva’s recently concluded visit (Oct 23 to Oct 30) to Russia should be examined against the backdrop of an unprecedented travel ban by the United States on the Sri Lanka Army Commander over hearsay war crimes accusations, including extrajudicial killings, during the last phase of the Vanni offensive.

Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion on the morning of May 19, 2009, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, despite a chorus of ‘expert’ opinion generated by the West over the years claiming that the country’s armed forces were incapable of defeating the LTTE and they had literally elevated the Tigers to a mythical and invincible status.

Combined Sri Lankan armed forces, however, conducted a relentless campaign, over a period of two years and 10 months, until Velupillai Prabhakaran was trapped in the one-time LTTE stronghold Mullaitivu. Prabhakaran was killed the day after the then General Sarath Fonseka’s Army declared the end of the war, on May 18, 2009. The Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR) was credited with the killing of Prabhakaran and recovery of his body more or less intact.

The US, one of the worst violators of human rights in many conflict zones, in the world, imposed a politically-motivated travel ban on General Silva, the first General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the much-celebrated 58 Division (formerly Task Force I).

Having launched offensive operations in early Sept 2007, from the Western front, the area popularly known as the Mannar rice bowl, the TF 1 troops fought their way northwards, captured Pooneryn (late Nov 2008) and then turned eastwards, crossed the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road, at Paranthan, and in quick succession stormed enemy defences at Elephant Pass and also brought Kilinochchi South under their control by early January 2009. With the fall of Kilinochchi, the Army stepped up offensive action leading to the final confrontation with Prabhakaran on May 19, 2009 in the environs of the Nanthikadal lagoon.

It must be noted here that Fonseka’s Army changed overall tactics in the northern and eastern theatres. The enemy simply had no answer to several fighting formations advancing on its bases and troops causing havoc, deep inside enemy held territory.

It would be pertinent to mention that the Army-raised TF 1 comprising two infantry Brigades on August 31, 2007, at Irattaperiyakulam camp under the leadership of the then Brigadier Chagie Gallage who carried out the first successful mission which resulted in the liberation of Silavathurai.

Earlier in April of that year, men Gallage led, captured the Thoppigala base of the Tigers, which some thought was impregnable. After its capture, ironically, then Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe tried to denigrate the victory as just the capture of a rock outcrop. We can recall that when Brig. Gallage went to announce the capture of the Tiger Jungle base at Toppigala he drove his own jeep like an ordinary soldier with a staff officer next to him also dressed like an ordinary soldier, but the media that had converged at his base close to the Black Bridge Batticaloa were not aware of the important if not symbolic achievement till it was announced over the TV and radio that night.In fact, Gallage spearheaded the Eastern campaign except the action at Mavilaru, conducted by the then Brigadier Prasanna Silva.

While TF 1 was steadily advancing from the Mannar Rice Bowl, Brig. Gallage suffered a heart attack in the Vanni west, Gallage had to undergo emergency surgery in Colombo. Fonseka brought in Shavendra Silva to command TF 1. The Army never revealed at that time military strategist Gallage suffered a heart attack on Oct 22, 2007, the day the LTTE mounted a commando-style raid on the Anuradhapura air base. Because of the calamity at the air base, Gallage had to be taken by chopper to Sigiriya air base and then flown to Ratmalana air base in a fixed aircraft. The rest is history.

Army Chief blacklisted

The US blacklisted Gen. Silva close on the heels of Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Ground Forces, General Oleg Salyukov’s five-day visit to Colombo in early Feb 2020 on the invitation of his Sri Lankan counterpart the then Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva. General Salyukov extended an invitation to General Silva to visit Russia though the eruption of Covid-19 epidemic prevented him from leaving the country as he was appointed as the head of the Task Force appointed to prevent the spread of the pandemic.

General Silva’s wife, Sujeewa Nelson accompanied him on his second foreign visit since the imposition of the US travel ban. Their first overseas visit was in March 2021 to Islamabad on the invitation of the country’s all-weather friend Pakistan. General Silva and Sujeewa Nelson were invitees at Pakistan’s national military parade. A section of the foreign media condemned and disputed Pakistan’s invitation to General Silva on the basis of him being among those accused of war crimes.

Having solidly defended Sri Lanka at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), both Pakistan and Russia have absolutely no qualms in inviting General Silva. Both countries voted against anti-Sri Lanka resolutions spearheaded by the West moved in Geneva.

The timing of the US ban underscored the Superpower’s intention to meddle in local politics. The announcement was made between the last presidential election held in mid-November 2019 and the parliamentary polls in August 2020. It would be pertinent to mention that the parliamentary polls, scheduled for April 25, 2020, had to be put off to August due to the Covid-19 eruption. The UNP suffered a very heavy defeat with the over 70 year-old party that had 106 MPs in Parliament (2015-2019) being reduced to a solitary National List slot.

Most probably the US never expected the then Maj. Gen. Silva to receive an opportunity to command the Sri Lanka Army. Had that happened, the US wouldn’t have had to blacklist the highly decorated soldier. Obviously, the UNP-led government and the then President Maithripala Sirisena didn’t agree on how to deal with Silva.

The failed constitutional coup in late Oct 2018 ruined the political relationship between President Sirisena and Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe. Therefore, no one would have been surprised by the yahapalana leaders’ disagreement on the Army Commander’s appointment.

President Sirisena appointed the distinguished ground combat commander as the 23rd Commander of the Army on August 18, 2019. Maj. Gen. Silva was also elevated to the rank of Lieutenant General effective the same date. Had efforts to deprive Silva of the top position succeeded, the US wouldn’t have had to play politics with the Sri Lankan military by imposing a controversial travel ban on him. Or had the Presidency been in the hands of the UNP it would have appointed one of its uniformed ‘yes’ men as the new Army Commander and definitely not one who helped to defeat the most ruthless terror outfit in the world.

Whatever the reasons, the stand taken by President Sirisena, the Commanding-in-Chief of the armed forces as well as the Defence Minister should be appreciated.

Following wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s triumph at the Nov 2019 presidential election, Silva was promoted to the rank of a 4-star General on Dec 28, 2020. With the retirement of Admiral Ravi Wijegunaratne on Dec 31, 2019, Gen. Silva was named the Chief of Defence Staff. Six weeks later the US categorised General Silva as a war criminal.

Denigration of an Army Chief

Why did the US categorise General Silva a war criminal well over a decade after the conclusion of the war? Let me remind the reader that Silva, in 2010, received the appointment as Deputy Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, in New York. Silva is the one and only serving military officer in Sri Lanka’s history to be promoted to an ‘Ambassadorial’ rank in the country’s Foreign Service. Most importantly, why on earth the US found it necessary to declare Silva a war criminal having backed the war-winning General Sarath Fonseka’s candidature at the 2010 January presidential election.

In fact, the US played a significant role in building up a UNP-led coalition that included the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in support of Fonseka. War crimes accusations against the Army seemed ridiculous against the backdrop of all predominantly Tamil speaking electoral districts in the North and the East voting overwhelmingly for Fonseka. But, incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa polled 1.8 mn votes more than Fonseka. The silly Opposition blamed Fonseka’s defeat on what the late JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe called a computer jilmart.

When the then government arrested Fonseka under controversial circumstances and was sentenced, the US intervened on the retired General’s behalf despite then US Ambassador Patricia Butenis having named Fonseka a war criminal along with the Rajapaksa brothers, Mahinda, Basil and Gotabaya. Butenis assertion is in the public domain thanks to secret Wiki Leaks. Butenis’ cable sent just weeks before the January 2010 presidential election underscored duplicitous US strategy.

Ten years after the 2010 presidential election, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted: “I am designating Shavendra Silva making him ineligible for entry into the US due to his involvement in extrajudicial killings during Sri Lanka’s Civil War. The US will not waver in its pursuit of accountability for those who commit war crimes and violate human rights.”

Designation of the Army Chief took place soon after Pompeo declared the US looked forward to deepening ties with Sri Lanka. How did the US expect to improve ties by blacklisting a hugely popular Army Chief?

In a previous statement, Pompeo said that allegations of gross human rights violations against Shavendra Silva had been documented by the United Nations and other organisations. US sanctions barred both Silva and his immediate family members from entering the US.

“The Government of Sri Lanka takes strong objection to the imposition of travel restrictions on Lieutenant General Silva and his immediate family members by the Government of the United States, based on independently unverified information,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Lanka responds to US

Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Washington Rodney Perera declared that the US decision hadn’t been based on independently verified information, but on the much-disputed OISL Report of 2015 and accusations propagated by various other organisations.

Ambassador Perera urged the US to verify the authenticity of its sources of information. Ambassador Perera said so addressing the American Foreign Service Association Club in Washington D.C. The gathering included several former U.S. Ambassadors and senior officials who served in Colombo.

Commenting on the inclusion of the family members of the Army Commander on the blacklist, Ambassador Perera declared: “Even though we are now in the 21st Century, even members of his family who have not been accused of any wrongdoing, have been subjected to a collective punishment reminiscent of the practice in medieval Europe.”

The career diplomat assured Sri Lanka would remain strongly engaged on this issue with the United States to have it review its decision. The assurance was given about a week after the US blacklisted the much decorated soldier. What have we done since then to disapprove unsubstantiated war crimes allegations against General Silva? In fact, the despicable project against the Commander of the Army is nothing but an affront to the country. Parliament never really took up the Western powers’ campaign against the war-winning military here. During Karu Jauasuriya’s tenure as the Speaker, the UNP politician never bothered to take it up with Western diplomats. One shouldn’t be surprised over that, as his party betrayed the military by co-sponsoring an accountability resolution on Oct.01, 2015. However, the failure on the part of incumbent Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to speak on behalf of the military when foreign diplomats called on him, cannot be justified.

Before General Silva undertook the visit to Russia, Chief of Indian Army Staff General Manoj Mukund Naravane was here. In spite of India being a US ally, New Delhi went ahead with its Army Chief’s visit to Colombo. Naravane had been here with the Indian Peace Keeping Force during its deployment in terms of the Indo-Lanka Accord and had been based in Trincomalee. Now, the issue is how is it that those countries demanding action against the Sri Lankan military for eradicating terrorism on its soil are silent on India’s accountability issues here. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka lacked the political will to present its case properly before the international community.

Failure on the part of successive Sri Lankan governments to address accountability issues since the end of the conflict has underscored utter irresponsibility on the country’s part. Against that pathetic background, the Russian invitation extended to Gen. Silva is of paramount importance.

Considered to be one of the highest honours, presented in recent times, the formal and elegant Guard of Honour parade with four squads of the Russian Land Forces, together with a Russian Army band distinctively featured the significance and the recognition the Russian Land Forces attach to the visiting Sri Lankan Army Chief.

General Silva after formal honours was ushered to pay floral tribute to the monument at Alexandrovsky Garden of Moscow Kremlin where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stands.

During General Shavendra Silva’s stay in the Russian Federation, he visited the Moscow Higher Combined Arms Command School and met its Commandant, Major General Roman Binyukov, Division Commander of the 4th Guards Tank Division in Naro-Fominsk and the Commandant at Mikhailovskaya before he visited the Military Artillery Academy, Military Medical Academy and several other places of military and tourist attractions.

Saliyapura bombshell

The writer earlier mentioned the change of command of the TF 1 in Oct 2007 following Gallage’s predicament, but what is of far more importance is what he said at Saliyapura Gajaba Regimental headquarters in the first week of Sept 2018 as his farewell speech when he retired from the service after an illustrious military career, much of it having spent leading combat troops. Gajaba veteran General Gallage didn’t mince his words when he questioned how having served the Army for well over 30 years he was compelled to retire being categorised as a war criminal. Why did Gallage have to say that? Gallage had sought a visa in Sept 2016 to visit his brother living in Australia. He wanted to visit Australia from Dec. 2016 to January 2017. Gallage’s brother, an Australian citizen of Sri Lankan origin, had visited Colombo especially to make representations to the Australian HC.

Following that meeting the Australian department of Immigration and Border Protection issued a report titled ‘Potential Controversial Visitor’ citing war crimes and crimes against humanity as reasons for denying Gallage a visa.

In the absence of specific accusations against Gallage, Australia found fault with him for giving leadership to the 59 Division after the conclusion of the war. In other words, those who commanded fighting formations during the war (Divisions 58, 59, 57, 53, 55 et al) on the Vanni front and after can be humiliated. Gallage’s is a case in point.

Interestingly, the Army celebrated its 72 anniversary at the Saliyapura base last Oct with the participation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa formerly of the Gajaba Regiment. In his speech at Saliyapura, Rajapaksa, who retired having achieved Lieutenant Colonel’s rank (1971-1992), acknowledged shortcomings on the part of his government. The government should examine the aptness of its response to war crimes accusations. President Rajapaksa made reference on Nov 6 to Sri Lanka having to face Geneva accusations though in a different context.

Designation of the Army Chief should be examined taking into consideration overall war crimes accusations directed at Sri Lanka. How can the government forget the US declined to issue a visa to Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and the circumstances?

Haven’t those in authority observed how Canada and Italy rejected retired Air Force Commander Air Marshal Sumangala Dias as Sri Lanka’s top diplomatic envoy?

British Conservative politician Lord Naseby in an interview with this writer in late Sept 2019 questioned Sri Lanka’s response to the accountability issue (Naseby disappointed in Lanka’s collective failure to use ‘Gash reports’ for its defence-Sept 25, 2019, The Island.’

Why didn’t Sri Lanka continue to refrain from effectively using British cables that had been obtained by Lord Naseby after near a three-year legal battle and wartime US Defence Advisor Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith’s taking a view 100 percent contrary to the US and its allies as regards the accountability issue, at the 2011 Colombo Defence seminar? Nothing can be as important as the US official’s statement exclusively reported by The Island as it was made just two months after the much debated highly controversial Darusman report’s release. The split in the war-winning team with Fonseka’s entry into politics in late 2009, too, also contributed to Sri Lanka’s overall failure. Instead of countering lies, the first Rajapaksa administration squandered millions of USD in foolish image building projects.

Sri Lanka’s relations with the world should be examined in the context of Quad strategies and new trilateral security partnership AUKUS under which Australia would get a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines for the first time and Sri Lanka’s strong partnership with China. The ongoing controversy over Sri Lanka moving the Colombo Commercial Court against top Chinese fertiliser company, its local agent and the People’s Bank to stop payment for carbonic fertiliser consignment shouldn’t be allowed to ruin relations between the two countries. Like Pakistan, the emerging world power China is an all-weather friend, whose continuing support to Colombo is essential. Therefore, the issue at hand should be dealt carefully taking into consideration all factors. But, under no circumstances, should corruption be allowed to undermine Lanka-China relations.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

(Courtesy of The Island)



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