Situation Report
By Iqbal Athas
17th March 2002
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Govt. focuses on security forces changes as talks on talks loom

Almost a month after the signing of the ceasefire agreement between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), both sides have begun to focus on follow up action - preparing the ground work for upcoming peace talks. A significant aspect in this regard will be the arrival in Colombo of LTTE's Chief Negotiator, Anton Balasingham. He is due on March 25, accompanied by officials of the Norwegian Government and is to proceed to the Wanni for talks with his leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Premier Wickremesinghe with US State Department's South Asia Bureau Chief Christina  Rocca, in Jaffna. On their right are Ministers Tilak Marapana and Milinda Moragoda.Premier Wickremesinghe with US State Department's South Asia Bureau Chief Christina  Rocca, in Jaffna. On their right are Ministers Tilak Marapana and Milinda Moragoda.

With his presence in Colombo, accompanied by Norwegian mediators, as against their earlier identification as facilitators, the spotlight will turn to resolving other outstanding issues ahead of peace talks. Main among them is learnt to be two crucial matters, the LTTE demand for de-proscription and an interim administration in areas dominated by it. Formulation of modalities concerning the two issues, said to be crucial, will pave the way for a decision on the venue and dates for peace talks. The task will weigh heavily on the Norwegians and seems as crucial as the ceasefire agreement.

The LTTE is learnt to have favoured a venue in Thailand, contrary to unfounded claims that it would be in the Maldives - a proposal which is almost certain to meet Government acceptance. However, diplomatic initiatives to secure such a location is yet to be finalised. Moreover, the dates and venue would have to await till the other issues are resolved.

These portending events come in the backdrop of political developments linked to the open ended ceasefire and its aftermath. Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe's triumphal tour of the Jaffna peninsula on Thursday and Friday, appears to have matched, in the South, the LTTE's own public relations efforts through Pongu Thamil, the cultural re-awakening programmes in the North. On Tuesday (March 19), the programme extends to the east with an elaborate event planned in Trincomalee by the LTTE. Besides the glare of the confidence building campaigns, both sides are busy behind-the-scenes working out their own priorities. State intelligence agencies are closely monitoring developments in LTTE dominated areas and are briefing the Government's Secretariat for peace talks. A very brief summary this week is as follows:

JAFFNA – Infiltration of Tiger guerrilla cadres to the Security Forces controlled peninsula continues. Fund raising, particularly from the business community, is at a pace. Arrangements are also under way to open LTTE political offices and enrol membership.

WANNI – Political cadres from guerrilla dominated Wanni have arrived in Security Forces controlled Vavuniya to open a string of political offices and enrol membership.

BATTICALOA – Cadres recruited through stepped up campaigns in Trincomalee and Batticaloa are now being put through training. Fund raising is going on at a high pace. Procurement of goods, power generators, motor cycles, cycles, medical supplies and other goods have increased. Large stocks are being taken to uncontrolled areas.

These developments, though formally denied by the Government's political leaders, clearly bear out the charge by the United States Embassy in Colombo early this week that the LTTE is engaged in activities that could jeopardize the ceasefire. A statement on Monday said increased recruitment, including children, kidnapping and extortion, though on the decrease, were the causes. Another was the credible report that the guerrillas were continuing smuggling of weapons, which the US Embassy warned, could undermine the trust needed to move from a cessation of hostilities to a lasting peace.

A response to the statement from Defence Minister Tilak Marapana, to the BBC's Sinhala service Sandesaya, has earned him the ire of some overseas Sri Lankan groups. He said he had not heard of any adverse reports against the guerrillas over the ceasefire. He had described charges of child conscription, abduction and extortion by guerrilla cadres as "unconfirmed" reports. Websites of these groups, however, cited official press releases issued by the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence, which gave specific instances of guerrilla abductions and extortions.

If LTTE Chief Spokesman Anton Balasingham, respond-ed to the US Embassy statement by only asserting that they were adhering to the ceasefire, their view was more strongly reflected in an editorial in the Tamil Guardian. The pro-LTTE weekly, though grudgingly, paid a compliment to the Government over matters relating to the ceasefire in an editorial titled "Crying Wolf" in its issue of March 13. Some relevant highlights:

"In the past week, the tangible benefits of the permanent ceasefire established three weeks ago between the Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lanka government continued to accrue. The Sri Lankan Government ended the despicable practices of registering Tamil residents of Colombo and removed the discriminatory restrictions on the movement of people from the north and east to the south.

"Fortifications are dismantled to allow civilian access. Formal aspects of the ceasefire agreement the most important of which are the commencement of duties by the international team of monitors and the government's disarming of Tamil paramilitaries working alongside the Sri Lanka Army – continue to be implemented. With tensions easing across the island, the ominous statement on Monday by the United States Embassy alleging the ceasefire was being violated understandably created apprehension and alarm.

"……The US Embassy's statement is notable for several reasons. Firstly, the Sri Lankan Government has itself not protested about violations of the permanent ceasefire by the LTTE…. Secondly, the proper authority to raise any violations of the ceasefire is the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, whose head, Trond Furuhovede, was last week on a tour of the LTTE-held Wanni region. …… most Sri Lankans and Mr. Furuhovede's monitors – had little reason to assume the de-escalation of the island's conflict was not going smoothly and surprisingly quickly….."

Despite intelligence warnings, the fact that the Government did not raise issue on matters of ceasefire violations, it is clear, is not because they did not or do not occur. As one senior official involved in the peace process admitted "we don't want to rock the boat at this stage. Our commitment is to get the peace talks started as soon as possible." He said that the "Peace Secretariat" was documenting all incidents that affect the ceasefire based on reports received from the Police, Security Forces and State intelligence agencies. Heads of all these agencies have been ordered to brief veteran diplomats B.A.B. Gunatilleke, (Sri Lanka's Ambassador to China) who heads the Secretariat and H.M.G.S. Palihakkara (Ambassador to Thailand), his deputy, on a daily basis.

Whatever the reasons may be, if it fell on the United States Government to voice the concerns of the Government of Sri Lanka (through its Embassy in Colombo), a further boost came with the arrival in Colombo of Ms. Christina Rocca, head of the South Asian Affairs Bureau in the State Department in Washington. It also co-incided with the arrival of Brigadier General Timothy Ghormley, Commanding General of the US Army's Third Marine Expeditionary Force. The former arrived in Colombo in a commercial flight whilst the senior Marines officer, whose Third Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters is based in Okinawa, Japan, came in a Hercules C 130 transport aircraft. But, the single largest Marine field command is located at Marine Corps base in Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii.

Since Premier Wickre-mesinghe was touring Jaffna, a meeting for Ms. Rocca was arranged for there. Similarly, a call by Brig. Gen. Ghormley on the Premier, was also slotted in the northern capital, a move welcomed by the Premier's aides since it gave greater weightage to the event and sent a further message that the US was firmly behind the UNF government. However, there were logistical problems about flying the US dignitaries in a Sri Lanka Air Force aircraft. Its only Hercules C-130 aircraft was fitted with seats obtained on loan from SriLankan Airlines to seat Premier Wickremesinghe and other VIPs. Other aircraft were assigned to carry the media and Premier Wickremesinghe's entourage including senior Government officials.The Government granted permission for the US Navy's C-130 aircraft to fly from Colombo to Palaly with Ms. Rocca and Brig. Gen. Ghormley. It came only after they were given a security brief and it was ascertained whether their aircraft had counter missile systems in the unlikely event of any attack. The US authorities had assured they were fully equipped to meet any air threats. Yesterday, Brig. Gen. Ghormley and his party flew to Trincomalee – a segment of the programme which was to raise questions in sections of the Colombo based diplomatic community. Previous visits by US military leaders and others coupled together with yesterday's had fuelled speculation of a US interest in Trincomalee Port, including the World War II oil tank farms, and a growing alliance between Washington and the United Front Government.

However, senior US officials in Colombo insisted there is no such interest. The visit to Sri Lanka by Brig. Gen. Ghormley they say was to review the working of "Operation Balanced Style" and "Operation Flash Style," two joint military assistance programmes conducted periodically in Sri Lanka by the US Pacific Command, whose area of responsibility covers more than half the earth's surface and 60 per cent of the world's population. Under the joint military assistance programmes, which have continued for over seven years, the US Special Forces and Navy Seals are among those training their Sri Lankan equivalents.

Interestingly, the United States did not show particular interest when the previous Government not only offered the use of the port of Trincomalee but also the unlimited use of Sri Lankan airspace and re-fuelling facilities for US military aircraft last year. This was after the US declared war on terrorism with attacks in Afghanistan. The offer, however, drew an appreciative response from Secretary of State Colin Powell, who thanked the Government for this gesture.

Another matter which is receiving the Government's attention whilst calm remains on the battlefields of the north and east, is the subject of modernising and strengthening the Security Forces, a move prompted more by the need to correct existing shortcomings and ensure the maximum utilisation of resources. One of those who is closely looking at the task is the new Defence Secretary Austin Fernando, a veteran public service officer who has come in for full praise by those in the security establishment for his deft handling of day to day matters.

The coming weeks and months will also see significant changes in top positions in the security establishment. The Government is to release Chief of Defence Staff, General Rohan de S. Daluwatte, to take over the diplomatic assignment given to him by the previous Government as Sri Lanka's Ambassador to Brazil. The Foreign Ministry is now learnt to be processing his papers and he is to take up position by late next month or early June. 

The re-composition of the High Posts Committee in Parliament, which screens top level appointments, appears to be the cause of the only delay. Whilst Gen. Daluwatte is sure to be cleared, particularly with the blessings of the UNF, the delay is only in view of a move to re-constitute the Committee. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe wants to step down as its Chairman and call upon the Speaker Joseph Michael Perera, to serve as its head.

As a matter of policy, the UNF does not want to grant extensions of service to Security Forces officers who had reached their retirement age or are the end of their tenure on extended terms. In view of this, the Army's Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Neil Dias, is expected to be called upon to retire when his current extended term expires on April 12. Although the power to promulgate Regulations to grant such extensions now rests with the Minister of Defence, Government sources say policy considerations will prevent it from exercising these provisions.The Sunday Times has learnt that the Government is likely to offer the post of Chief of Defence Staff to the current Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle. His extended tenure as Commander ends on June 15 this year. However, sources close to him said he did not favour the new post and preferred to continue in his current position for a further period. With Maj. Gen. Dias's expected retirement next month, the Army's Deputy Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Lohan Gunawardena, a man credited with running the day to day affairs of the Army, will succeed as Chief of Staff. His term in this office is likely to be short lived since he is being strongly tipped to assume the office of Commander of the Army any time after late next month. The Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, is due to retire on September 1 this year, when he reaches the retirement age of 55. However, he has favoured a proposal supported by a few other senior Security Forces officers that service commanders should be allowed to serve a term of four years –notwithstanding their retirement age-a matter which may run counter to the current UNF policy. Moreover, UNF leaders believe that the promotional prospects of other officers should not be unduly blocked by granting ad hoc extensions of service to those on the verge of reaching retirement age or are at the end of their tenure of duty.

Another area where changes are imminent is in the State intelligence arms. A veteran intelligence man, former DIG Merril Gunaratne, took over last Monday as Defence Advisor to the Government – a position hand picked by Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Intelligence services have been brought under his purview and are likely to see some significant changes.

Whilst focusing on peace initiatives, it seems Government leaders have now found the time to attend to serious issues facing the security forces.Meanwhile, hardly 12 hours since the Security Forces Chiefs returned to Colombo on Friday night after accompanying Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, on his tour of Jaffna, they were summoned for a conference at Janadipathi Mandiraya by President Chandrika Bandaranaike.

She is learnt to have complained to them about alleged harassment of People's Alliance supporters campaigning for Local Government elections and stressed the need for enhanced security. Besides the Commanders of the Army (Lt. Gen. Balagalle), Navy (Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri) and Air Force (Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakody), others who took part at last morning's conference included acting Inspector General of Police T.E. Anandarajah and DIG (Elections) Gamini Navaratne.

Three member Court Martial for sex assault case

A three member Sri Lanka Navy Court Martial will hear charges against a Navy sailor accused of sexually assaulting a female officer. 

It is headed by Vice Admiral L.D. Dharmapriya, Commander, Western Naval Area and comprises Commodore Upali Ranaweera, Commander, Southern Naval Area and J.C. Hettigama, Deputy Director, Naval Electric and Electronic Engineering. According to a Navy general signal issued on March 12, Captain A.R. Amerasinghe, Deputy Director, Naval Intelligence and Media Spokesman for Navy, will serve as alternate if any member of the Court Martial is not available. 

The composition of the Court Martial has been made by Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri. State Counsel Shamindra Fernando, who holds the rank of Captain in the Volunteer Navy will serve as Prosecutor whilst Commodore Palitha Fernando, also of the Attorney General's Department is the Judge Advocate General. He holds the rank of Commodore in the Volunteer Navy. 

Donning Navy ceremonial uniform No 1, the three member Court will commence sittings at SLNS Gemunu in Welisara. The Court is to be told of the charges against the accused sailor only on the day of the sittings. The Sunday Times learns that the sailor is being indicted on grounds of sexual molestation and other charges. 

As revealed in these columns last week (Situation Report – March 10), the sailor, a Mess Assistant, had allegedly carried out a sexual assault on a female Staff Duty Officer at pre dawn on March 3. 

The incident had occurred after a cocktail party by the Association of Retired Flag Rank Officers (ARFRO) had ended at the Officer's Mess at Navy Headquarters. This was when the Staff Duty Officer, who had by then been off duty, had retired to her cabinet, a floor above the Officer's Mess. 

Vice Admiral Sandagiri appointed a one man Board of Inquiry – Commodore Tissera Samarasinghe – to record summary of evidence. He reported that a prima facie case existed against the Mess Assistant. 

Meanwhile two ten member teams of the Sri Lanka Navy, comprising Sub-Lieutenants, are to undertake a 21 day long familiarisation tour of India this week. Costs for the trip are being borne by the Navy which will pay each Sub-Lieutenant US $ 110 per day in addition to air fare. However, the inclusion of two high ranking officers, both directors at Headquarters, has posed a problem of protocol. At the rank of Commodore, it has been pointed out that they were of too high a rank to undertake the task since they would be dealing with much lower ranks during the visit. The matter remains to be resolved in the coming week before the tour gets under way. 

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