General Sarath Fonseka and President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
SRI LANKA in 2009 saw momentous events that riveted the world’s attention on the island nation. A few key events of the first 11 months were the end of a war and the beginning of what looks like the mother of all political battles fought in the country; the death of the legendary/notorious Velupillai Prabakaran, supremo of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); the birth of a transnational Eelam; the arrest of the richest Sri Lanka-born United States business tycoon by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); a request by the Obama administration to quiz the man who led Eelam War IV; and the passing of an unprecedented, near-unanimous resolution by the U.S. House of Representatives on the island nation.
The obsessive pursuit of Sri Lanka-related issues by Washington at a juncture when President Barack Obama is grappling with crucial issues such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, North Korea and Iran is unbelievable. It all began on October 21 with the State Department of the world’s sole superpower delivering to the Congressional Appropriations Committee a document titled “Report to Congress on Incidents During the Recent Conflict in Sri Lanka”.
It was a follow-up to the Joint Explanatory Statement accompanying the Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2009, which directed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to submit a report detailing the incidents during the recent conflict in Sri Lanka (the last phase of the fight between the security forces and the LTTE from January to May). The brief was to detail incidents that may have constituted violations of international humanitarian law or crimes against humanity, and, to the extent practicable, identify the parties responsible.
The 68-page State Department report lists 170 alleged incidents and acknowledges that it does not provide, nor is it intended to be, a comprehensive portrayal of the conflict. It further concedes that the report does not reach legal conclusions as to whether the incidents described actually constitute violations of international humanitarian law, crimes against humanity or other violations of international law and whether the alleged incidents actually occurred.
The report contains details of alleged “atrocities” by both the military and the Tigers during the final stages of the war in May and is prepared by the War Crimes Office in the State Department. It lists incidents between May 2 and 18, based mostly on internal reports to Washington from the U.S. Embassy in Colombo, satellite imagery, reports of international relief organisations and media accounts. It alleges that thousands of Tamil civilians were gunned down by Tiger cadre seeking to use them as human shields or were killed in what it calls “indiscriminate government shelling”. Stephen Rapp, the U.S. Ambassador at large for war crimes issues, has said that the Government of Sri Lanka should investigate the allegations.
The issues and incidents that figure in the report include the conscription of children by the Tigers; the alleged death of an unknown number of civilians in the no-fire zone (NFZ) in shelling by security forces; the use of civilians as human shield by the LTTE; the use of force to prevent them from leaving the war zone; the killing of Tiger captives or combatants seeking to surrender; abductions by military and paramilitary (in the Sri Lankan context the term means non-state actors) forces; and the conditions in the welfare camps for the nearly three lakh people displaced by the war.
The most controversial aspect relates to the confusion over the sequence of events in the final days of the war and the debate on whether a section of the Tigers who walked out with a white flag were killed at point-blank range. The report says, “A number of sources alleged that the GSL [Government of Sri Lanka] committed unlawful killings. Multiple reports alleged that in the final few days of fighting, senior LTTE leaders contacted international representatives in an effort to broker surrender but were killed after they allegedly reached a surrender agreement with the GSL.”
In its immediate response to the report, Colombo said that it “appears to be unsubstantiated and devoid of corroborative evidence” and accused vested interests of endeavouring to bring the government into disrepute through “fabricated allegations and concocted stories”.
Curiously, in a press statement issued a day after the report was submitted, the State Department said that the U.S. recognised a state’s inherent right to defend itself from armed attacks, including those by non-state actors, such as a terrorist group like the LTTE, and expected states and non-state actors to comply with their international legal obligations, including the obligation to protect civilians in armed conflict.
“Accountability is an essential component of national reconciliation. The United States looks to the Government of Sri Lanka to identify an appropriate and credible mechanism and initiate a process for accountability,” the release said.
On October 28, on the basis of the State Department report, the U.S. authorities summoned Sri Lanka’s Chief of Defence Staff Sarath Fonseka for questioning on November 4. General Fonseka, who led the war against the LTTE as the Army chief, is a U.S. Green Card holder and was on a private visit, using his diplomatic passport, to see his daughters in the State of Oklahoma. The general was told by the Attorney that his statement during the scheduled November 8 interview could be used as possible evidence against Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa over charges of excesses by the security forces and the LTTE during the 34-month war.
Displaced Tamil civilians queueing up for food in a camp on the outskirts of Vavuniya in the north of the country in May 2009.
The general telephoned the Sri Lanka High Commissioner in the U.S., Jaliya Wickremasuriya, on the request and he in turn reached the island nation’s Defence Secretary, and all hell broke loose in Colombo. The panic in the corridors of power was understandable as the Defence Secretary is no ordinary person. Besides being the President’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is an American citizen. Twenty years ago, after retiring as a colonel in the Sri Lanka Army, he left for the U.S. and settled down there. He came to Sri Lanka on his brother’s invitation to help him in the 2005 presidential election and subsequently took charge as Defence Secretary. Throughout Eelam War IV, he was in charge of defence and General Fonseka was the Army chief.
On November 1, Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama summoned the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Patricia Buteni, and conveyed a message asking Washington to “desist from any endeavour to interview” General Fonseka.
“I have invited you to meet with me this afternoon, to emphasise in my capacity of Foreign Minister that the President and the Government of Sri Lanka stand firmly behind the Office of the CDS of Sri Lanka. We will not allow that high post to be denigrated or made vulnerable,” he told a news conference after his interaction with the U.S. envoy. The Minister argued that Gotabaya’s duties required dealing with a situation of grave onslaught by the LTTE that threatened the integrity of Sri Lanka and that the allegations levelled against him affected the government’s vital interests.
In response to a question, Bogollagama disclosed that the Defence Secretary had already been questioned by U.S. Immigration authorities on his arrival in the U.S. in September as a member of the Sri Lankan delegation for the U.N. General Assembly session. The disclosure led to questions on why the government objected to Fonseka being interviewed by the U.S. authorities when it raised no questions in the Defence Secretary’s case. Bogollagama’s answer was that the Defence Secretary, unlike Fonseka, was not asked to testify against anyone.
The matter is not that simple. Managers of President Rajapaksa smell a rat in the entire episode as Fonseka is being openly projected by opposition parties as a possible consensus presidential candidate if an election is called by Rajapaksa. Fonseka’s political ambitions and unhappiness with the Rajapaksa regime surfaced during his stay in the U.S. when he told Sri Lankan expatriates at a function that he would step out of uniform to bring the country back on track “if it continues to go on the wrong path even after defeating terrorism”.
The tense stand-off between Washington and Colombo ended on November 3 as Fonseka returned to the island nation on the day the Department of Homeland Security interview was to have taken place. Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry said no American government agency had questioned him before his departure.
Tensions at home, however, did not abate. As if acting on a pre-written script, Fonseka, on the afternoon of November 12, sent his letter of resignation to Lalit Weeratunga, Secretary to the President, within hours after former Prime Minister and Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who heads the 12-party opposition alliance, returned to the island nation after consultations with New Delhi on the current developments in Sri Lanka. The latter has come out in support of Fonseka contesting the presidential election. The timing of the resignation, a consequence of the rift between Fonseka and President Rajapaksa in post-Prabakaran Sri Lanka, is significant as Rajapaksa is scheduled to announce the dates for the general elections and a possible presidential election at the convention of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) on November 15.
Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena is on record as having said that Rajapaksa would be the only candidate of the ruling combine in the presidential election. Opposition parties have been engaged in talks with Fonseka on fielding him against Rajapaksa. The first official confirmation of the move came on November 11 from the leader of Sri Lanka’s Western People’s Front (WPF) and Colombo district parliamentarian, Mano Ganeshan.
In a lengthy response to a criticism by a Sri Lanka columnist in Groundviews, Sri Lanka’s first citizen’s journalism website, on how a party which claims to represent the aspirations and concerns of Tamils could even consider the general who spearheaded Eelam War IV as a possible presidential candidate, Ganeshan had said his party had sent a set of questions to Fonseka and was awaiting his response ( http://www.groundviews.org/).
“Until then we will say that if his [General Fonseka’s] answers satisfy us we will decide positively. It is logical. Isn’t it? First let him answer. We are also discussing with the main opposition for alternative candidates. We are also discussing among the Tamil and Muslim parties. There are some efforts made from the government side too for some discussions with me,” Ganeshan said. He also said that a “deadly” silence was being maintained by all Tamil leaders after Fonseka’s name was proposed as the common opposition candidate. “But we spoke at the appropriate time and initiated a national dialogue in the media, street corners, households, offices and among the political parties.” The Economist wrote, “The government’s obvious anxiety about General Fonseka’s possible candidacy is a consequence of Mr Rajapaksa’s plans to call a presidential election in early 2010, nearly two years before the end of his six-year term. He naturally wants to capitalise on the popularity generated by the military victory. But this strategy may backfire if he is challenged by the former army commander, who is hugely popular among the President’s main support base, the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.”
In what was seen as an exercise to minimise any adverse impact of the State Department report on Eelam War IV, President Rajapaksa on November 6 appointed a five-member “independent committee” to study the issue comprehensively and formulate by December 31 recommendations for his consideration on the charges of human rights violations as recounted in the report to the U.S. Congress on October 22.
The group was constituted a day after the U.S. House of Representatives, in an uncommon move, approved a non-binding resolution urging Colombo to guarantee the safety and quick release of nearly 3,00,000 Tamils and other war-displaced people.
Sri Lanka’s Minister for Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe, disclosed at a news conference in Colombo that the presidential committee on the U.S. report was chaired by D.S. Wijesinghe, President’s Counsel. The other members on it are Nihal Jayamanna and C.R. De Silva, both President’s Counsel, and former Attorney General Manoramanadan, formerly Senior Legal Draftsman, and S. Jesima Ismail, former Vice-Chancellor of Eastern Province University and the Principal of Muslim Ladies College.
Sri Lankan politics will continue to be in a state of flux until at least the third week of November, and both sides are stirring the pot.
(Letters to the Editor should carry the full postal address)
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