The perplexing political conduct of Sri Lankan President Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena has in recent times defied many norms and values of conventional politics. The turns, twists and turnarounds of the President are unfathomable to many. So uncertain have been Maithripala’s political moves and manoeuvres that the only certainty about Sirisena that anyone could be certain about is his uncertainty. He has been consistent in his inconsistency.
Many are his topsy – turvy contradictions and somersaults. A singular hallmark of his many pronouncements is the tendency to give warning in strong language of stern action being contemplated by him against those whom he perceives as evil doers. He threatened to use his “Sword” against corrupt elements. He wanted to re-introduce capital punishment against habitual sex offenders. After all the verbal fire and oral fury nothing ever happened. The people are kept in the dark about proposed presidential action. We do not know whether he drew blood or not. We don’t know whether he twirled his sword or not. We don’t know whether he has sheathed his sword or not. In fact we don’t even know whether he ever drew his “kaduwa” as promised or not. The initial sounds of threatened action end in total silence. Not even the proverbial whimper after a bang. At the end of it all we are left wondering as to why he softened his earlier hard position or whether he ever did really have a hardened stance in the first place and whether all the heat he emitted was only make believe.
The latest in this long line of “NATO” (No Action Talk Only) examples is the President’s declaration in Colombo of what he proposed to do at the 73rd United Nations General assembly meeting and what he actually delivered in New York. The hiatus between pledge and performance was vast indeed. President Sirisena’s mighty roar in Colombo turned into a virtual pipsqueak in New York. How and why this “transformation” came about is an interestingly illuminating tale indeed.
President Sirisena publicly revealed the essence of what he proposed to do at the UN conclave at a meeting with Media heads and Editors at a meeting held in Colombo on September 14th 2018. Instead of relying on media reports about what transpired at the meeting I will quote from the official communique issued by the Presidential secretariat itself on what happened. Here are the relevant excerpts –
“At the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, President Maithripala Sirisena will announce a set of new proposals for consideration at the March 2019 session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR). He will also submit these proposals to the United nations Secretary General António Guterres as well as Un High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. The President expects to meet both of them during his New York visit, in two weeks time.”
“Addressing the Media Heads, newspaper editors and Heads of audio visual media institutions at the President’s House in Colombo today (Sept 14), the President said that the proposals aimed at solving issues and provide relief without causing harm to the pride of the security forces and safeguard independence, sovereignty and national security. Furthermore these proposals would facilitate harmonious solutions to remaining issues with regard to the alleged acts of both sides during the conflict.”
United Nations General Assembly
“The President said that he will present the proposals to the UN General Assembly on September 25 and also intends to hand it over in writing to the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who he is expected to officially meet for the first time on the sidelines of the UNGA.”
The above excerpts indicate clearly that President Sirisena was planning to unveil a set of new proposals for consideration at the United Nations General assembly in New York. He wanted the proposals to be discussed at the forthcoming March 2019 session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR). He also intended to submit those proposals to the United Nations Secretary – General António Guterres as well as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet while in New York.The President emphasized that the proposals would facilitate harmonious solutions to remaining issues with regard to the alleged acts of both sides during the conflict.
It has been patently discernible for quite some time that President Sirisena has been extremely concerned and somewhat agitated over the arrests , detentions and on going legal action against members of the armed forces over criminal offences allegedly committed outside the arena of war. Most of the alleged offences related to matters like assassination, abduction for ransom, abduction and torture that had nothing to do with the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In some cases the victims were journalists.
There have been some instances where President Sirisena has been accused by members of the opposition of directly intervening and preventing or delaying the arrests of certain suspects. In fairness to President Sirisena it must be said that he did not condone the alleged offenders. His objection apparently was to the manner adopted in arresting ,detaining and interrogating. Arresting and detaining security personnel for lengthy periods for the purpose of interrogation without filing indictments irked Maithripala. He was particularly annoyed over the anticipated arrest of former Navy chief and present Chief of Defence Staff , Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne,So perturbed has President Sirisena been of the “wrongful” manner in which members of the armed forces were being treated that he even held an emergency cabinet meeting on September 13th to discuss the issue.
Sinhala and Tamil Schools of Thought
Apart from his discomfiture over the arrests of defence services personnel, President Sirisena also faces political pressure from two different quarters on related matters. One type of pressure is from the Sinhala school of thought opposing the notion of legal action being taken against serving or former members of the armed forces over alleged human rights violations,war crimes or crimes against humanity. This school of thought propagates the viewpoint that all service personnel or ex-service personnel who fought in the war against the LTTE are “War Heroes” above reproach possessing a special kind of immunity. Besides the policy adopted “officially” during the war was zero civilian casualties. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa went on record saying our soldiers fought with a weapon in one hand and the UN Human rights charter in the other hand with hearts full of love and food on the backs for the people. In that context this school of thought opines that no violations or crimes took place and the Govt has betrayed the armed forces by co-sponsoring the UN resolution of October 3oth 2015.
The second form of pressure is from the Tamil school of thought which re-iterates the demand for accountability and the need to investigate allegations of human rights violations,war crimes and crimes against humanity. In order to have credibility of being just and fair, the judicial processes must have international participation. This school of thought feels true reconciliation is possible only if such alleged offences are genuinely probed and justice is done. At the same time in what appears to be an ironic contradiction , the Tamil school of thought wants all Tamils convicted or undergoing trial or being detained over violent acts or alleged offences to be released. The war ended nearly ten years ago and these incarcerated or detained persons should be released is their stance. The detenues themselves have been engaging in several protests for their release. Likewise family members and concerned citizens have also frequently demonstrated in support of their release.
In one more indication of the fractured state of the Sri Lankan nation this issue is viewed in opposite directions by significant sections on either side of the ethnic divide. To many Sinhalese the armed services are heroes and therefore must be treated as holy cows. But to many Tamils not all members of the armed services are war heroes. Some at least – if not all – have committed alleged war crimes and human rights violations. To many Tamils those convicted or being detained for allegedly committing acts of violence are all “political”prisoners who need to be released. But to many Sinhalese they are not political prisoners but “terrorists” who have committed or allegedly committed violent acts. There is significant backing for these viewpoints from the vociferous groups in both ethnicities. The rest of the people forming the “Silent Majority” within both the Sinhalese and Tamils remain silent but seem to sanction the respective viewpoints by their silence. Politicians on both sides assess the prevailing mood from different perspectives and exploit the issue to advance their different interests.
It is against this backdrop that President Sirisena in his wisdom had what he thought was a very good idea to satisfy both the Sinhala and Tamil schools of thought and also extricate the country from a tricky situation internationally. What he thought of was a grand amnesty to both sides that would absolve both the armed forces and LTTE from legal action or penalization in the future. He briefly referred to these ideas as a “Mechanism” he was envisaging at the emergency cabinet meeting on Sep 13th and instructed ministers to refrain from discussing it publicly. On the following day’s meeting with media heads and Editors the President revealed his plan to submit his new proposals to the UN during the course of his address to the UN General Assembly in New York on September 25th. He also said that he would incorporate these proposals in the form of a document and present it to both the UN Secretary -General and UN Human Rights Commissioner.
JHU Leader Champika Ranawaka
On the morning of September 16th ., Tamil Progressive Alliance(TPA) leader and minister of National Integration, Reconciliation and Official Languages, Mano Ganesan issued a special announcement in Tamil. In that Mano Ganesan said that Jathika Hela Urumaya(JHU) leader and minister of Megapolis and Western Development, Champika Ranawaka had had discussions with him about declaring a general amnesty for those who were still under detention for alleged offences committed during the war. Minister Mano said that he and minister Champika were engaged in a series of discussions about how to progress forward instead of languishing in the past and that this round of talks was part of that process. Ganesan said that Ranawaka would make a public announcement later in the day and expressed cautious optimism about waiting to see what he would say. Mano Ganesan further said that if a “consensus” could be built around a general amnesty concept a cabinet paper could be prepared and presented.
JHU leader and Cabinet minister Champika Ranawaka held a press conference later on Sep 16th and announced his plan of declaring a general amnesty to members and ex-members of the armed forces and ex-members of the LTTE. The JHU outined a five point plan in this regard. The five areas of the scheme were
1.A classification/categorization of crimes by LTTE, military and para military groups currently in custody in terms of whether they were related to the conflict and whether they were in the pursuit of personal matters.
2. All military persons currently in custody in relation to war-related incidents should be give a general amnesty.
3.Similarly, the approximately 60 former LTTE cadres currently in custody should be released immediately on a general amnesty.
4.Charge immediately those who have been arrested on account of rape, abduction, murder etc.
5.Once all this is done, we should not return to this particular issue or aspect of the conflict.
It was proposed that the Government should appoint a committee comprising specialists under the aegis of the Attorney General’s Department, to identify differences between war crimes and the crimes committed for private motives, during the civil war. Ranawaka said the members of Tamil parties that helped the military should also be granted an amnesty under this.He further said that the consent of all the Tamil political parties should be secured in this regard.
When Champika Ranawaka came out with these suggestions regarding a general amnesty , there was much speculation in political circles that the JHU leader was being a mouthpiece of President Sirisena in this exercise. It was believed that a general amnesty to both sides was the basic framework of the “mechanism” President Sirisena was referring to in earlier meetings with ministers and media personnel. It was suspected that Champika Ranawaka was being used as a sounding board by Maithripala Sirisena to gauge the public mood and reception to this idea.
TNA Spokesperson MA Sumanthiran
The JHU leader at the press conference had said that the consent of Tamil parties would be obtained for the 5 point plan but the response from the Tamil National Alliance(TNA) was negative. The premier political configuration of the Sri Lankan Tamils was opposed to the idea of equating the armed forces with ex-members of the LTTE. TNA spokesperson and Jaffna district parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran rejected the proposals outright. Sumanthiran pointed out in an interview with the “Daily Mirror” that Tamil political prisoners had been arrested and held up for long years as their cases were not over. “They are being dragged on,” he said. Sumanthiran said these prisoners had been arrested on forced confessions made by them and detained for a long time. He further stated the unidentified atrocities perpetrated by the military could not be equated with those of Tamil political prisoners. Sumanthiran suggested there should be a truth-seeking mechanism in place to trace the kind of crimes committed before considering any amnesty.
Meanwhile there was much concern and confusion in political and diplomatic circles about the what President Sirisena proposed to do at the UN in New York and how he would go about it. It was feared that the President would criticize the UN 30/1 resolution and call for it to be withdrawn or amended. Some were worried that he may announce Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship unilaterally. Furthermore what President Sirisena envisaged seemed to be a complete “U” turn of what had been promised in his election manifesto as well as a partial reversal of what he had stated in his first address to the UN General Assembly in 2015. After all provision No 93 of President Sirisena’s manifesto in the January 2015 election said that if elected, he would “address issues of accountability through national independent judicial mechanisms.” No Amnesty was proposed then
Moreover the proposal amounted to Sri Lanka backing out of what the country had committed itself to by co -sponsoring the US initiated resolution passed unanimously at the UNHRC in Geneva on October 30 2015. Any attempt to declare a general amnesty without adhering to the UN resolution amounted to Sri Lanka flouting its own co-sponsored resolution and not honouring its commitments. Besides the Sri Lankan Govt had committed itself fully to the UN resolution and co-sponsored it with the full knowledge and sanction of the head of Govt and state President Sirisena.
UN Resolution Key Provisions
Some of the key provisions (5 to 9) regarding Sri Lanka’s commitments are as follows –
5. Recognizes the need for a process of accountability and reconciliation for the violations and abuses committed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as highlighted in the report of the Office of the High Commissioner on its investigation on Sri Lanka;
6. Welcomes the recognition by the Government of Sri Lanka that accountability is essential to uphold the rule of law and to build confidence in the people of all communities of Sri Lanka in the justice system, notes with appreciation the proposal of the Government of Sri Lanka to establish a judicial mechanism with a special counsel to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law, as applicable; affirms that a credible justice process should include independent judicial and prosecutorial institutions led by individuals known for their integrity and impartiality; and also affirms in this regard the importance of participation in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism, including the special counsel’s office, of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators;
7. Encourages the Government of Sri Lanka to reform its domestic law to ensure that it can implement effectively its own commitments, the recommendations made in the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, as well as the recommendations of the report of the Office of the High Commissioner,1 including by allowing for, in a manner consistent with its international obligations, the trial and punishment of those most responsible for the full range of crimes under the general principles of law recognized by the community of nations relevant to violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law, including during the period covered by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission;
8. Also encourages the Government of Sri Lanka to introduce effective security sector reforms as part of its transitional justice process, which will help to enhance the reputation and professionalism of the military and include ensuring that no scope exists for retention in or recruitment into the security forces of anyone credibly implicated through a fair administrative process in serious crimes involving human rights violations or abuses or violations of international humanitarian law, including members of the security and intelligence units; and also to increase training and incentives focused on the promotion and protection of human rights of all Sri Lankans;
9. Welcomes the recent passage by the Government of Sri Lanka of an updated witness and victim protection law and its commitment to review the law, and encourages the Government to strengthen these essential protections by making specific accommodations to protect effectively witnesses and victims, investigators, prosecutors and judges;
Procedural Difficulties at UN
President Sirisena’s brainchild therefore was clearly going against the grain of the UN resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka regarding the need to probe alleged violations of International humanitarian law as well as alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. Besides there were procedural difficulties in what President Sirisena proposed to do. Placing his own proposals before the UN by President Sirisena was easier said than done.Our sister paper the “Sunday Times” touched upon this aspect in an article. Here are relevant excerpts – “The same sources said that besides incorporating his (Sirisena) proposals in his UNGA address due during the high level segment on Tuesday (September 25), the President was earlier expected to submit a document to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on the same matter. Yet, the question remained whether the UNHRC is bound to accept that document for discussion.“For all purposes, it was to come from a country which is named in the US resolution – i.e. Sri Lanka. Hence, it is up to Sri Lanka’s representative, if indeed there were any proposals, to present the government’s position for discussion at UNHRC session,” said a Colombo-based diplomat who did not wish to be identified. “There are no precedents in the Council for a head of state or government to present an overriding position before the Council on a resolution that has been adopted (unanimously) by member nations,” the diplomat said.”
Thus it could be seen that President Sirisena’s well -intentioned plan to resolve a prickly issue was likely to create more problem rather than provide solutions. There was trepidation that the president would lash out at the UN openly and call for the removal of some provisions in the UN resolution. There was a fear that he would announce a unilateral withdrawal of co-sponsorship of the UN resolution by Sri Lanka. Events however began over taking.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) instead of reacting passively to the president’s unorthodox moves adopted a proactive stance. The TNA faces political difficulties within its support base due to its perceived affinity towards the Sirisena – Wickremesinghe Govt. The TNA lost more than 40% of the votes it garnered at the 2015 August Parliamentary elections at the recent Local Authority elections in February 2018. The TNA may face further problems if rival political parties form a common front with controversial Northern chief minister CV Wigneswaran spearheading it at a future poll. If President Sirisena went through with his “U’ turn at the UN, that would be detrimental to the TNA. Wigneswaran and other hawkish cohorts could exploit it to their advantage if and when Provincial elections are held.
TNA Diplomatic Counter Offensive
Thus the TNA without any fanfare or fuss began interacting with diplomats from Western nations in Colombo and also with officials in charge of Sri Lankan affairs in their respective countries. The TNA also interacted with UN officials. In addition to this diplomatic “counter offensive”, the TNA also communicated with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on the issue and explained they would have to change their political stance if President Sirisena went ahead with his plans. The TNA would have no choice other than to adopt a confrontational course with the Govt. This would mean voting against the Govt on the Budget. It must be noted that the TNA has voted for the budget ever since the coalition Govt assumed office and has been criticized by many for it. Furthermore with rumours circulating about political moves being undertaken by the Mahinda Rajapaksa camp to defeat the Govt during budget vote this year, the role of the TNA could prove crucial if large -scale defections from Govt ranks are engineered.
Under these circumstances a high -powered diplomatic delegation comprising representatives from Europe and North America met with President Sirisena and briefed him in detail about the ramifications and implications of what he proposed to do. They impressed upon him that the salient provisions of the UN resolution initiated by the US and co-sponsored by Sri Lanka would be negated if the president went ahead with his plans. If that happened Sri Lanka would be viewed as having flouted the UN resolution co-sponsored by it. This could have many repercussions including a review of GSP plus concessions. Notwithstanding the Donald Trump presidency, the US may respond strongly. It may also result in very harsh measures being mooted against Lanka at the UNHRC next year.Therefore President Sirisena was respectfully urged to re-consider his position.
On another level Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had an unpublicized meeting with President Sirisena where this issue was discussed in full. Despite the prevailing differences of opinion between the President and Premier on many counts both Maithripala and Ranil held frank and cordial talks on the matter, President Sirisena listened attentively to what the Prime Minister said. Although he gave no word about what he proposed to do, it appeared that the president had now realized the potential fall-out of his contemplated action and was having second thoughts.
Cabinet Minister Mano Ganesan
Meanwhile TPA leader and cabinet minister Mano Ganesan also began having second thoughts about accompanying the Presdent to the UN in New York.
Though Ganesan was receptive to the idea mooted by Ranawaka about an amnesty for Tamil political prisoners the shrewed Colombo district MP realized the negative consequences of the UN resolution being flouted by the President in New York. Ganesan was reluctant to be a part of the Govt delegation in that context. Minister Ganesan met with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and discussed the situation. The PM however urged the minister to proceed to New York and expressed confidence that the President would not rock the boat as feared. Ranil also told Mano that he was representing the Tamil community within the delegation and stressed upon the importance of going to New York. The PM suggested to the minister that he could discuss the matter further with the President enroute to the US.
President Sirisena departed from Sri Lanka on Sep 22nd to attend the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly(UNGA) in New York. The theme of the 73rd UNGA was “Making the United Nations Relevant to All People: Global Leadership and Shared Responsibilities for Peaceful, Equitable and Sustainable Societies.” President Sirisena who had attended the UNGA’s of 2015, 2016 &2017 was going for the 4th consecutive time to the UN in New York.Among those who accompanied President Sirisena were Cabinet ministers Rajitha Senaratne, Tilak Marapane, Champika Ranawaka, Mano Ganesan, Central Province Chief Minister Sarath Ekanayake, State Minister Palitha Range Bandara and UNP parliamentarian S.M. Marikkar.
During the flight between Doha and NY, ministers Rajitha Senaratne and Mano Ganesan spent a lot of time talking with the President. One of the topics they delved into in detail was President Sirisena’s plan to submit new proposals to the UN. Both ministers urged caution and restraint. Sirisena did not commit himself either way to both and kept playing his cards close to his chest. Although the president kept mum, saner counsel had prevailed even before he had embarked on the flight. After the talks with the diplomats and Prime Minister, the President had communicated with a few trusted, knowledgeable persons and discussed the issue further. Thereafter President Sirisena decided to abandon his objective of announcing an amnesty as a reconciliation mechanism at the UNGA in New York. The necessary changes were made in the text of his address. The documents prepared to be given to the UN Sec-Gen and UN Human Rights chief became redundant.
President Sirisena Issues Clarion Call
President Maithripala Sirisena addressed the UN General assembly on Sep 25th(Sep 26th morning Sri Lanka time). There was no mention of a new set of proposals for the consideration of the UN in his speech.There were no references to a general amnesty for members of the armed forces and Ex-LTTE members either. Expected crackers at the UN had become damp squibs. There was no bang. The anticipated roar had turned into a virtual bleat.
However President Sirisena did issue a clarion call to the International community in his speech. He called upon the international community to look at Sri Lanka with a fresh perspective and consider the tremendous progress made by the government towards reconciliation, restoration of democratic freedoms, human rights and the rule of law and extend the fullest support to the build a progressive, democratic, free and equal society. President Sirisena said, Sri Lanka is taking action to consolidate peace and forge ahead to develop the economy, and such a nation deserves the support and understanding of the international community. “I urge the international community to allow Sri Lankan people to solve their problems on their own. As an independent country we do not want any foreign power to exert influence on us. We want to appeal to the international community to give us the room to resolve the problems that we are facing so that the right of the Sri Lankan people to find solutions to their problems is respected” said President Sirisena.
After the UN speech was concluded, President Sirisena met with the cabinet ministers who went along with him to New York. He placed hs arm around Mano Ganesan’s shoulder and asked him in Sinhala “Minister Mano Ganesan, Nothing controversial in my speech no? You are satisfied now?”. Mano Ganesan concurred with the president and then quipped in Sinhala “ Mr. President, you wanted the international community to look upon Sri Lanka with a fresh perspective. But you did not say what the new perspective should be. Please explain about the new perspective after we return to Sri Lanka” amidst laughter all round. When the news of President Sirisena’s speech became known in Sri Lanka there was much relief in political and diplomatic circles.
Later Mano Ganesan was to post about this exchange on his Facebook. More importantly he stated in Tamil “ Unmayil Janaadhipathy Aatra Vantha Urai Ithuvalla. Aanaal Iruthi Thinangalil Urai vadivam Maatrappattathu. Athu Eppadi, Aen endra vibarangalai pahirangamaaha Solla mudiyaathu. Sonnaalum Palarukkup Puriyaathu”.(Actually this was not the speech that the President intended cdelivering first. The text of the speech was changed in the final days. I am unable to relate in public how or why this happened. Even if I do so many people wont be able to understand)
Leonine Roar Became Caprine Bleat
This then is the story of President Sirisena’s plan for a general amnesty to the armed forces and LTTE as part of a mechanism to bring about reconciliation without foreign interference. Though he indicated in Sri Lanka that he would reveal details in his address to the UN General assembly that did not happen. The anticipated leonine roar became a caprine bleat. Whatever his intentions, it became clear through his actions, that it is not so easy to change positions on matters where solemn commitments have been made to the international community. Sri Lanka crossed the rubicon when it co-sponsored the US initiated US resolution in the UNHRC on October 3o 2015. This is the stark reality that cannot be lost sight of.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was written for the “DBS Jeyaraj Column” appearing in the “Daily Mirror” of October 6, 2018. It can be reached via this link: