by Shamindra Ferdinando
Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, in a brief note, addressed to the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Jagath Jayasuriya emphasized the importance of some issues raised by US Secretary of State, John Kerry, during his two-day visit to Colombo.
The note to Gen. Jayasuriya, copied to Army Commander Lt. Gen. Crishanthe De Silva, Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Jayantha Perera, and Airforce Commander, Air Marshal Kolitha Gunatilleke, Premier Wickremesinghe highlighted some points, discussed by Kerry, in a public lecture delivered at the Taj Samudra.
Premier Wickremesinghe quoted US Secretary of State Kerry as having said: “None of us wants to live in a country where the military is stopping its own citizens at checkpoints. And Sri Lanka’s military has so much more to contribute, in defending this country, protecting vital sea lanes and taking part in UN peace keeping missions all over the world. And, as your armed forces make that transition, we are going to be very eager to work with you and to work with them and to tender help.”
In a sense, the missive, dated May, 7 is unprecedented, as no previous Premier had resorted to such a strategy.
Having drawn the attention of the top brass, to Kerry’s views, Wickremesinghe stressed that the new administration stand, on the post-war role of the armed forces, was compatible with that of the US. The CDS, as well as the three service chiefs, were to ensure that the Premier’s message reached all levels of command, and control structure, including those deployed on the ground.
It would be pertinent to mention that twice – premier, Wickremesinghe, during his first tenure (Dec 2001-April 2004) succeeded in having the world’s solitary superpower to examine the status of the Sri Lankan military. Having studied Sri Lanka’s preparedness for war, in Sept-Oct 2002, the US made a series of recommendations to further enhance fighting capabilities. This was made possible by Premier Wickremesinghe meeting President George W. Bush, in July 2002. The US help was sought five months after Wickremesinghe entered into a Norwegian-arranged ceasefire Agreement with the LTTE. Undoubtedly, even Sr Lanka hadn’t conduct such a thorough examination of her armed forces during the three – decade long war. The bottom line is that Wickremesinghe wouldn’t have to depend on President Maithripala Sirisena to seek Western support.
To Wickremesinghe’s credit, during his first term, as the Premier, Sri Lanka concluded an agreement on the acquisition of US Coast Guard vessel Courageous, though the SLN took delivery of the vessel in 2005. It took part in the hunting of LTTE vessels.
Before discussing Kerry’s visit, and its implications, it would be relevant to mention that he had served the US military, during the Vietnam war. Having joined the US forces, in Vietnam, in November, 1968, the then Lieutenant Kerry, of the US Navy, had earned the respect of his colleagues for volunteering to go on, what the US media called, forward killing patrols. “Counter-punch,” dubbed America’s best political newsletter explained the circumstances under which young Kerry had joined the battle in the wake of the Tet offensive. Jeffrey St Clair, in an article, titled What John Kerry really did in Vietnam, in the weekend edition of “Counter-punch,” of July 26-28, 2013 discussed controversial military action, codenamed ‘Operation Sea Lords’, meant to terrorize the Vietnamese population to such an extent, they would turn against the Viet Cong or National Liberation Front (NLF). The operation was, in addition to what the writer called an assassination programme, called Phoenix, launched following the Tet offensive. “Counter-punch” quoted one of Kerry’s colleagues, fellow lieutenants, James R. Wasser, as having described him (Kerry) admiringly in these words: “Kerry was an extremely aggressive officer and so was I. I liked that he took the fight to the enemy, that he was tough and gutsy–not afraid to spill blood for his country.”
Kerry, in his speech at the Taj Samudra, referred to his role as the Senator in charge of an investigation, established in the early 90s, to determine the fate of those missing US personnel, in Vietnam. The Vietnam veteran asserted that the US couldn’t have moved forward without having established the fate of those who fought for America in Vietnam. Kerry told his Colombo audience: “The families of those in America, whose loved ones had been lost, were desperately trying to get answers from the government and demanding answers, and they had every right to do so. And we knew that it was impossible for us to try to move forward if we didn’t try to provide those answers. So we did everything possible that there was to try to find out what happened to their loved ones. I traveled to Vietnam, something like 17 or 20 times, in the span of two years, working with the Vietnamese to let us into their history houses, to their museums, to their documents, even to interview with the generals that we had fought against to see if we could provide those answers.”
Kerry went on to say: “So we experienced the same emotions and the same search for answers that are present in your country today. And that is why it is so critical for your government to work with the ICRC and the UN in order to investigate missing person cases and try, wherever you can – I can’t guarantee it; nobody can that you’ll find the answer for sure – but try to find wherever the truth may lead. No matter how painful that truth is. It’s the right and the humane thing to do – and it is, believe it or not, an essential part of the healing process.”
Sri Lanka’s war winning Army Chief, the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, was on the front row of the audience. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera as well as one-time Foreign Secretary, H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, and Tamil National Alliance veteran, R. Sampanthan, who had recognized the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people, were among the audience. Veteran Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leader, V. Anandasangaree, sat a few rows behind.
The US government’s commitment to establish the fate of those who had fought for the country couldn’t be compared under any circumstances with Sri Lanka’s post-war responsibilities as well as accountability. There couldn’t be any comparison between the US war in Vietnam and Sri Lanka’s war against Tamil terrorists.
A comprehensive international investigation is required to establish the destabilization of Sri Lanka in the early 80s at the behest of the then Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, deployment of the Indian Army here (July 1987-March 1990), assassination of one-time Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in May, 1991, and years of bloody conflict leading to the annihilation of the LTTE, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, in May, 2009.
Perhaps the US war, in Vietnam, can be compared with India’s war against the LTTE, in Sri Lanka, on the basis that both the US and India were intervening in outside their territories. India lost over 1,500 officers and men and over 2,500 wounded. Although, many Indians, disappeared during the conflict, India never publicly acknowledged the number of missing.
Dixit on Indira
No less a person than one-time Indian Foreign Secretary, the late J.N. Dixit who had been the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, during the deployment of the Indian Army here, in his memoirs “Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun Roy to Yashwant Sinha’, blamed Indira Gandhi for intervening in Sri Lanka. Dixit said: “The two foreign policy decisions on which she could be faulted are: “her ambiguous response to the Russian intrusion into Afghanistan and her giving active support to Sri Lankan Tamil militants. Whatever the criticisms about these decisions, it cannot be denied that she took them on the basis of her assessments about India’s national interests.”
For some strange reason, Sri Lanka had never commissioned a comprehensive investigation into the country’s war against terrorism. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) wasn’t tasked for that purpose. A thorough investigation should examine the Indian trained People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) making an abortive bid, at regime change in the Maldives, in November, 1988. Today, the PLOTE is a key member of the TNA and both represented in parliament, and in control of the Northern Provincial Council.
Referring to his days in Vietnam, during the war, Kerry said: “Let me be very clear about this: It is sometimes necessary to go to war, despite the pain it brings. For all of my country’s disagreements with the previous government, in Sri Lanka, over how it fought the LTTE, we clearly understood the necessity of ridding this country of a murderous terrorist group and the fear that it sowed.
I believe that you learned in the final, bloody days of that struggle, what my country discovered to our own anguish during our civil war: There were no true victors – only victims. You saw, I trust, that it is obvious the value of ending wars in a way that builds a foundation for the peace to follow.”
The previous government couldn’t have finished off the LTTE in two years and the ten-month long non-stop offensive action, on multiple fronts, without support provided by the US. The US helped sinking four, out of eight LTTE ships, loaded with arms, ammunition and equipment, on the high seas, during Eelam war IV (Aug 2006 to May 2009), by providing specific intelligence.
The US also thwarted an LTTE attempt in 2006, to procure anti-aircraft missiles to engage Israeli Kfirs and Ukrainian MiG 27s, in service with the Sri Lanka Air Force in addition to a range of other assistance, including 30mm Bushmaster cannon to strengthen the Fast Attack Craft squadron. In fact, the US assisted Sri Lanka, throughout its war against terrorists, by paving the way for a close relationship between Israel and Sri Lanka in the 80s. Sri Lanka should be always grateful to the US for ensuring Israeli assistance at the onset of the conflict created by India.
After having helped the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa to get rid of the LTTE, the US took an extremely hostile approach vis-a-vis the previous government. The Rajapaksas earned the wrath of the US for ignoring its call to halt the offensive to facilitate the evacuation of LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and his family, along with senior cadres. Had Sri Lanka gave in to US pressure, Prabhakaran would have survived and possibly now headed the so called Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE) currently led by US – based V. Rudrakumaran, and the country would have been spared of a resolution at the Geneva-based UNHRC. A secret US diplomatic cable, authored by the then US ambassador in Colombo, Patricia Butenis, accused the Rajapaksa brothers (Mahinda, Gotabhaya and Basil) as well as General Sarath Fonseka of committing war crimes.
Thanks to Wiki leaks, we know about the Butenis’ cable, dated January 15, 2009, which accused Mahinda Rajapaksa and his main rival, war hero General (retd) Sarath Fonseka, of war crimes. Unfortunately, the previous government never bothered to closely examine Wiki leaks. Had the Rajapaksa administration realized the importance of the revelations, made by Wiki leaks pertaining to Eelam war IV, Sri Lanka would have had a better defence in Geneva.
While emphasizing the pivotal importance of Sri Lankans tackling the contentious national question, Kerry discussed four problems/issues the US was ready to assist and cooperate with the Maithripala-Wickremesinghe administration.
Kerry listed post-war national reconciliation as the most important issue the two countries could tackle, jointly. Asserting that reconciliation wasn’t possible unless Sri Lanka genuinely investigated the cases of disappeared, Kerry discussed ways and means of achieving post-war peace.
Unfortunately, Western powers have refused to cooperate with Sri Lanka’s efforts to track down missing persons. No less a person that Premier Wickremesinghe recently declared that those categorized as missing had been either killed during the war or now living overseas. However, Western powers have refused to cooperate with Sri Lanka’s efforts to establish the identities of those living abroad while their loved ones still alleged they are being held in secret detention camps. Recently, Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, and Justice Minister, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, PC strongly denied accusations as regards existence of secret detention camps. Some of those, still categorized as missing, live abroad, under new identities. The Island revelation of Sri Lankan Tamil Kumar Gunaratnam, leader of the Front-line Socialist Party (FSP), receiving a new identity (Noel Mudalige, Sinhala, Buddhist) courtesy the government of Australia, several years ago, is a case in point. But there couldn’t be a better example than the disappearance and re-appearance of engineer Kathiravelu Thayapararajah who had served as Director of the Vanni Tech Institute, run by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE). His disappearance was taken up by US Assistant Secretary of State, Robert O. Blake, after the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) was accused of killing him in September 2009. Much to the embarrassment of those propagating lies, Kathiravelu Thayapararajah appeared in Tamil Nadu, in early May, last year. The lie wouldn’t have been exposed if not for the Indian media publishing a photograph of Kathiravelu Thayapararajah, his wife Uthayakala, and three children and seeking asylum. The eldest was an orphaned child of Uthayakala’s sister who is now adopted by the couple.
According to Kerry, the second area of cooperation was on justice and accountability and the third being the advancement of human rights and, finally, strengthening of democratic institutions.
If the US is genuinely interested in establishing the truth and accountability, it should ensure proper examination of accusations made against the government of Sri Lanka as regards battlefield atrocities committed during Eelam War IV. In fact, the US moved a resolution against Sri Lanka, at the UNHRC, on the basis of unsubstantiated war crimes allegations contained in the report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, released in March, 2011. The UN had effectively prevented examination of unsubstantiated accusations by imposing a confidentiality clause for a period of 20 years. In other words, accusations cannot be verified, until March, 2031.
A new responsibility
It would be the responsibility of the new government to take tangible measures to clear Sri Lanka’s name at Geneva. The previous government failed, in its duty as well as responsibility, in defending Sri Lanka. The new government shouldn’t hesitate to fully cooperate with the international community to establish the truth. With the next Geneva session, scheduled for September, the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration should take meaningful measures, in spite of continuing political turmoil.
Kerry made a quite a mistake when he requested the government to release remaining POLITICAL PRISONERS while offering US expertise to bring the matter to a successful conclusion. Kerry wouldn’t have called, over 200 hardcore terrorists, in custody, political prisoners, without being advised by the US Embassy in Colombo. The Justice Ministry should brief the US Embassy as regards those still held in custody. The TNA, in spite of knowing the true identities of those still behind bars, continues to call them political prisoners.
With the new government having extremely close relations with Western powers, it has an opportunity to clear misconceptions and counter those propagating lies.