Importance of safeguarding Sri Lanka war heroes
Posted on February 25th, 2019

By N. Sathiya Moorthy -The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi.

In calling upon President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, to ensure that soldiers who neutralised the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) so very completely were not penalised in the name of ‘war crimes probes,’ three veteran commanders may have taken back from the political class what might have belonged to men in uniform, now or earlier. This could well mean a new chapter in Sri Lanka’s tryst with the co-sponsored resolution of the 2015 kind, when the multi-Nation United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) takes up the mandated follow-up for review, in the upcoming March session.

In a way, it was waiting to happen, as Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetileke, General Daya Ratnayake, and Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe spoke to the Media, in Colombo, recently. In the absence of a strong defence of the service personnel in Geneva and elsewhere by the Government and the political class, as seemed and deemed to have been the case almost since the end of the conclusive ‘Eelam War IV’ in May 2009,  the three commanders, representing the tri-services have stepped in. Among them, Air Chief Marshal Goonetileke is also a former Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).

There was no doubting whom they were firing at, though that need not automatically mean that they were firing from somebody else’s shoulders. They told the Media that since the incumbent Government came to power in January 2015, 700 personnel of the services had been investigated (for war crimes), 67 officers, and 637 holding other ranks. They put the number of Army and Navy Officers arrested since at 15 and 35, respectively, with seven each of both categories currently in prison. What’s more, one Officer and one soldier have been sentenced to death, they pointed out.

Goonetileke emphasised that post-war national reconciliation couldn’t be achieved at the expense of the armed forces.

Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda

Specific to their own command-levels, they expressed concern over the reported attempts to arrest war-time Navy Commander Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda over some ‘disappearance’ allegations in 2007-2008, when the war was still raging. Admiral Karannagoda was the Navy Commander from September 2005 (before war-time President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time) till July 2009, until after the end of the war.

As Media reports said about the news conference, Air Chief Marshal Goonetileke claimed that those who could not stomach the LTTE’s defeat were seeking revenge. In the case of Admiral Karannagoda, they claimed that he was being targeted for changing the naval strategy, leading to the liquidation of the LTTE’s powerful ‘Sea Tiger’ wing.

They had conveniently forgotten how the armed forces had treated members of the defeated terrorist organisation,” Goonetileke reportedly said, adding how over 12,000 LTTE cadres/members were ‘rehabilitated and released’ within years, after the war. The three called upon the Government ‘not to appease’ foreign powers responsible for the Geneva Resolution against the Nation. They were even more seriously concerned about those forces targeting the military, General Ratnayake said.

As may be recalled, General Ratnayake was the first Commissioner-General of Rehabilitation. Some of the post-war credit for providing immediate relief for tens of thousands of Tamil civilians held hostage and/or as human shields by the LTTE at Mullivaikkal during the conclusive phase of the war reportedly owed to his team, according to local Media at the time. He was also the first post-war Army Commander after the ‘war-victor’ (Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka). Though they have since come out in the open, defending the forces, the three veterans seemed to have problems trying to rope him in.

Debilitating impact

Going by Media reports, the veterans did not address substantive issues that have since been thrown at the armed forces in the name of ‘war crimes.’ According to the three-member Darusman Report, a private/secret study purportedly for the then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, but promptly leaked to the Media, around 40,000 innocent Tamil civilians had lost their lives. Local Tamil community-centric ‘census’ figures put the death at a high 180,000.  Ban Ki-moon forwarded the ‘unofficial report’ to the UNHRC, forming the basis for all resolutions on Sri Lanka war-crimes, since.

Years after the end of the war, and only fewer after the passage of the first UNHRC resolution in 2012, followed by the co-authored one three years hence, no real progress seems to have been made on the Government standing by this part of the commitment. The veterans indicated that they were not against punishing the guilty, and said that their demand was only for treating the military with respect.

In context, they claimed that Admiral Karannagoda had reported the case of ‘missing persons’ to the Police station concerned, but no action was taken on his complaint. Though the veterans did not say it, there has been a lingering apprehension in sections of the veterans’ community, if not in the serving ranks, that the Police were in ‘witch-hunt mode’ against the armed forces. This can have a ‘debilitating impact’ on the forces,” they said.

Incidentally, the three veterans did not come up with any counter-suggestion or proposal of any kind to offset the impact of the UNHRC resolutions, and at the same time bring out the truth.

The war-time Rajapaksa presidency did set up the Paranagama Commission, as if under international pressure and averted the UNHRC resolutions of the kind that has been hanging over Sri Lanka’s head, since, but nothing substantial came out of it.

If, however, the erstwhile regime had any serious plans to follow-up on some of the recommendations of the commission, the current Government chucked the report into the dustbin, and took the UNHRC route, with the possible hope of stalling the same.

The irony is that President Sirisena, to whom the three veterans have appealed since to save the dignity of the armed forces, was at the helm of all Government decisions on the UNHRC front, all the same.

Confusion galore

Independent of the veterans’ pleadings to the President, the Government seems to be more confused than ever on the UNHRC front than even the Rajapaksa regime was in its time. For starters, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who together, approved of the 2015 resolution, are now daggers drawn at each other.

In practical terms, President Sirisena heads the Cabinet in which he does not have a second supporter. The Prime Minister, who has a majority in Cabinet, cannot do much without the formal approval of the President as the Chair. The President being the Head of State, and partially at least of the Government even after the 19th Amendment, and definitely the unquestioned Commander-in-Chief, arriving at a consensus to re-work the resolution with the international community is not going to be an easy task, as in 2015.

At the UNHRC, the US has quietly slipped out from the position as the original proposer of the 2012/2015 resolutions, handing over the baton to the British ally from across the Atlantic. Equally powerful Western allies like Germany and Canada have sought to add weight, but a lot will depend on the ability of the Wickremesinghe Government to develop a consensus from within, and/or the willingness of the Western interlocutors to go forward.

Then, there is the unmentioned ‘India factor,’ which possibly turned the tables on 2012, and did do so again in 2015, which of course was easier, thanks to the Sri Lankan readiness to co-author the draft with the prime Western movers. With Parliament elections due in India in May this year, and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the Centre, too, having signed a poll-pact with counterpart All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in the ‘ethnically sensitive’ southern Tamil Nadu state, the international community may have second thoughts for the March session.

Then, would follow the long and arduous ‘poll season’ in Sri Lanka itself, where, the much-delayed Provincial Council Polls may not be delayed any further. It would have to be followed, or even preceded, by the Presidential Polls in December this year, and the Parliamentary Elections in August 2020. A new President may have the pleasure of dissolving the House by mid-March 2020, at the end of four and a half years of the five-year term, as permitted by the 19th Amendment.

Where does it all leave the UNHRC review and resolution of March at? Either the West would have to go ahead with the resolution, without involving Sri Lanka in particular, but India, too, otherwise. It could thus risk greater involvement of China, Russia, and possibly Pakistan, all those powers that were arraigned behind Sri Lanka, ahead of the post-war 2009 resolution first, and in 2012, later on.

That should put the UNHRC’s September 2020 session as a safe bet, but a September 2021 session as a comfort zone for the Colombo Government, that is if there is still a ‘friendly leadership’ willing to continue working with the West on a co-authored resolution. If nothing else, that could also give the Government the much-needed time to re-work not only its strategy for the UNHRC, but also its approach to ‘war-crimes probes’ through a consensus mode, especially now that the veteran voices of the armed forces, apart from the victimised Tamil community, too has come to be heard in public!

For now, news reports indicate the Government intends talking to the United Kingdom-led ‘core group’ of prime-movers now at the UNHRC, for implementing the 2015 resolution. In turn, the ‘UNHRC Five,’ namely, the United Kingdom (UK), Canada, Germany, Macedonia, and Montenegro too had announced such a resolution was likely to be moved. The simplicity of the draft will influence a consensual Government decision on co-sponsoring the same, but for which President Sirisena could be expected to put his foot down, or, so it seems.

About the writer:

The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi.

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