The appointment of Maj.Gen.Shavendra Silva as the Sri Lankan Army Commander in succession to Lt.Gen. Mahesh Senanayake on Monday, has invoked sharp comments from the US embassy and the UN, both saying that it would have adverse consequences for ethnic justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
According to a Reuters report a senior U.S. State Department official warned on Tuesday that the appointment of a General accused of serious human rights violations as the head of its army could affect U.S. military cooperation and investment in the island nation.
The Washington official, speaking to reporters on background, said the appointment would have lasting implications for the Millenium Challenge Corporation US$ 480 million fund, aimed at modernizing Sri Lanka’s urban transport system and infrastructure. The agreement is awaiting approval by Sri Lanka’s cabinet.
“It is a highly charged political environment in which some political factions feel there is much to be gained by playing the nationalist card,” the official said.
“It is unfortunate that this card is being played through the promotion of a General about whom vivid and well documented human rights violations are on the record. We are deeply troubled.”
Silva is credited with successfully leading an army division against dissident Tamil Tigers in the final phases of the war. Thousands of civilians were killed in the last phases of the armed conflict, including in areas declared by the government to be ‘no fire zones’ that came under sustained army shelling, including hospitals. Silva, who joined the army in 1984 and was its chief of staff from January, has denied the accusations.
The U.S. official said there would be “limits to what we can do as we develop a stronger military relationship with Sri Lanka if the army chief is a known human rights violator.”
Lanka Objects To Interference
But Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry said that appointment of the Army Commander of Sri Lanka is a sovereign decision by the Head of State. It further said that foreign entities trying to influence the decisions and internal administrative processes of public service promotions in Sri Lanka is “unwarranted and unacceptable”.
“Articulating a position of concern on this appointment by certain bilateral partners and international organizations, based on allegations, is regrettable and contrary to the principles of natural justice espoused by all responsible members of the international community,” the Ministry said in a statemet.
Former Navy Chief and maritime security expert Adm.Dr.Jayanath Colombage pointed out that the US and other protestors should realize that the charges made against Gen.Silva are only allegations. In Western jurisprudence, a man cannot be dubbed guilty unless the allegations are proven.
“To date, there are no specific charges against Gen.Silva based on any investigation. The charges made by the UN are those made by the Tamil Diaspora. The Diaspora is using the money collected earlier at the behest of the LTTE, to continue pursuing the goal of an independent Tamil Eelam by lobbying Western governments,” Adm.Colombage said.
The former Lankan naval chief said President Maithripala Sirisena was right in appointing Gen.Silva as the Army chief because he is the most qualified and was in the line for promotion. During the 2006-2009 war, Gen.Silva was a frontline commander and was among those who brought it to a successful conclusion.
“The world should realize that with the destruction of the Liberation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by the Lankan armed forces, the right to life has been restored in Sri Lanka. From the beginning of the war in the 1980s to its end in 2019, over 200 people, including civilians from all ethnic groups, government troops, and militant cadres, were losing their lives every month. Thanks to the armed forces, all Sri Lankans are now enjoying the right to live, a right more fundamental than human rights because people should first live to enjoy human rights,” Adm.Colombage argued.
Adm Dr. Jayanath Colombage. Sri Lanka Navy official photo
Gen.Silva’s promotion to the post of Army Commander came through the proper channel. It is customary for the Chief of Staff to be promoted as Army Commander, Adm.Colombag said.
The former navy chief was surprised that Gen.Silva’s alleged involvement in war crimes was not raised either by the US or UN when he was appointed as Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative in the UN in 2010. Furthermore, he was appointed to the United Nations High-Level Advisory Panel on Peacekeeping Missions by the then UN Secretary General.
According to the Sri Lankan army website, as a result of Gen.Silva’s productive consultations, a salary increment was offered to the UN Peacekeepers at that time. Further, he was appointed as the Alternate Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations’ Special Political and Decolonization Committee which dealt with global territorial disputes as well as peacekeeping matters.
It was at Gen.Silva’s initiative that the Sri Lankan Air Force helicopters were used and Military Hospitals in the United Nations Missions in Central African Republic and South Sudan, were set up.
On top of it all, Gen.Silva is an alumni of Harvard University, and had successfully completed the “Senior Executives in National and International Security” program. He holds a Diploma in Human Resource Management and was qualified in ‘Psychological Operations’ in the US. He was also a visiting lecturer at the reputed Marine Corps War College in Quantico, Virginia.
On the question whether the US protest will affect Sri Lanka adversely, Adm.Colombage said that it will not, given the fact that the US needs Sri Lanka more than Sri Lanka needs the US as a result of America’s geo-political needs in the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific Regions. US is keen on being in Sri Lanka to checkmate challenger China.
According to Adm.Colombage, who is the author of a book on Asymmetrical Warfare in the Sea, US-Lanka relations had been pragmatic even during the war years when the US took the public stand that it would uphold human rights and not fully back Sri Lanka’s military campaign against the LTTE.
“The US gave us aircraft but not spares. It gave Bushmaster guns but without ammunition. We had to buy these from other sources at higher cost. But in 2007 the US gave us precise intelligence on the LTTE’s floating warehouses on the high seas, the destruction of which by the Lankan forces was a game changer in the war. Sri Lankans must acknowledge this,” the Admiral said.
He pointed out that it is the US which has been keen on signing a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) pact, the Access and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA) and the Millennium Challenge Cooperation Fund (MCC) agreement with Sri Lanka and not vice versa.
In the light of this, US objections to Gen.Silva’s appointment could be mere posturing.
In an editorial on Tuesday, Ceylon Today reminded the US that it had itself opted out of International Criminal Court and walked out of the UNHRC. The US makes no secret of it’s loathing for placing its military personnel under any non-US scrutiny.
The publicized stand of the US and UN stand on Gen.Silva’s appointment could however help the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist forces/candidates in the Presidential election due in November-December 2019, particularly the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) candidate , the war-time Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Gotabaya has made nationalism, sovereignty and security his principal election planks.
However, that is unlikely to put off the US, Adm. Colombage said. According to him, it is wrong to assume that the US is against Gotabaya.
“During the war, which the US disapproved of, Washington did not object to one of its citizens directing it from the very top. It also made no charges against Gotabaya,” Adm.Colombage recalled. Gotabaya was a dual citizen then.
It is also pointed that during his visit to Sri Lanka recently, former US Ambassador and Assistant Secretary of State, Robert Blake, had praised the organizational skills of Gotabaya and regretted that the US had cut off military ties with Sri Lanka for a period.
Suspension of military ties with Lanka and Pakistan was a setback for US defense interests in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, Blake said.
“The US lost touch with a whole generation of military officers who came to occupy senior positions later,” Blake explained.
It could therefore be concluded that US-Lanka military ties will prevail despite the jolt given by the skirmish over Gen.Silva’s appointment.