Powwow over pows
Moves to clip president's military powers
For several days ahead of tomor row's historic peace talks in the
Thai coastal town of Sattahip, the United National Front Government stepped up efforts to conclude negotiations with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for exchange of prisoners.

Capt. Boyagoda and the six soldiers in LTTE custody

For the Government, it was to seek the release of senior Navy officer Captain Ajit Boyagoda and six soldiers. In exchange, they were to offer a group of Tiger guerrillas. The dispute was over numbers.

During secret negotiations through the good offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), approved by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the LTTE forwarded different lists of names for release. Some of them, it turned out, had been freed. Confirmation came from ICRC records.

The last list to arrive during a lengthy dialogue contained 24 names. Even some from that list had been released. Some others were facing serious charges in Courts and drew strong objections from then acting Attorney General C.R. de Silva. A planned exchange ceremony, a precursor to the Thailand peace talks, did not materialise. More dialogue followed. The good news came when the LTTE agreed to leave out those difficult cases and accept the others.

Udugampola courts trouble
It was morning on Wednesday, August 27 when ASP Kulasiri Udugampola and two Police Sergeants arrived at an Intelligence Cell of the Army's Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) at Kohuwala.

Armed with a Court order, Mr. Udugampola, who conducted the controversial Police raid on the Army's Safe House at the Millennium City in Athurugiriya on January 2, this year, examined documents including some Movement Orders.

A week later, (on September 3), the Kandy Police Special Crime Investigation and Operation unit headed by Mr. Udugampola filed action before Chief Magistrate (Kandy), Leon Seneviratne against Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, Brigadier Kapila

Hendavithana, Director of Military Intelligence and six soldiers charging them for keeping explosives in stock without adequate care and precaution at the Safe House.

This is the first time in Sri Lanka's post independent history that a serving Army Commander has been charged together with the head of Military Intelligence. The Chief Magistrate issued notice on the Army Commander and the others to be present in Court on November 12.

The news has angered Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. He has directed that the case be withdrawn immediately.

It has now come to light that Mr. Udugampola has filed action in the Magistrate's Court without any prior approval or concurrence from his own Superintendent of Police, Deputy Inspector General in charge of the Central Range, the IGP or the Attorney General's Department.

On Friday, the Attorney General's Department wrote to the Inspector General of Police, T.E. Anandarajah, directing that disciplinary action be taken against ASP Udugampola. The Department has also called for the case record from the Magistrate's Court in Kandy to ascertain complaints that this Court did not have the jurisdiction to hear the matter since the incident occurred in Athurugiriya.

The Sunday Times learns that Mr. Anandarajah also telephoned Lt. Gen . Balagalle and apologised on behalf of the Police service for the actions of Mr. Udugampola. He had also assured that the Police would take disciplinary action.

Interior Minister John Amaratunga told The Sunday Times before departure to United States that he did not give any instructions to Mr. Udugampola to file action against the Army Commander and the others in the Magistrate's Court. He said H.M.G.B. Kotakadeniya, Senior DIG has also forwarded a report to him on Mr. Udugampola's conduct.

It was Mr. Kotakadeniya whom Interior Minister Amaratunga appointed to probe the raid, with the help of the CID, on the Safe House at Athurugiriya. He concluded that the Safe House was used for legitimate purposes. However, in the absence of an official statement from the Government clarifying matters, a powerful lobby has continued a campaign, using various ruses, to claim that the Safe House was used for illegitimate purposes including political activity. However, UNF Government leaders do not endorse this view.

In a report to Interior Minister Amaratunga and Police Chief Anandarajah, this is what Mr. Kotakadeniya says:

"ASP Mr. K. Udugampola of Kandy Police has in his report dated 2002.09.03 by his No ASP/1/OU/710 addressed to the IG Police communicated the filing of plaint in M C Kandy against the Army Commander and 7 others in connection with the above detection.

"The offences alleged to have been committed are under Section 279 of the Penal Code, viz., Negligent Conduct with Respect to any Explosive Substance.

"The circumstances under which an inquiry was conducted by Mr. Udugampola was to ascertain whether the safe house at Athurugiriya was established to conduct an illegal operation. Mr. Udugampola has now manifestly deviated from this objective and has contrived to launch prosecution for offences, the nature of which looks ludicrous. This kind of irresponsible behaviour and action by a Police Officer against the Army High Command would cause disaster to the cordial relationship which we have enjoyed with a fundamentally important arm of the security establishment. The ASP should have been aware that safety measures when explosives are stored are taken as a routine measure by the Army who have experts to handle that responsibility.

"I had the occasion to speak to the Hon. Prime Minister on this issue and he is of the view that the case should be withdrawn. ASP, Mr. Udugampola, in my view, has acted maliciously and has not consulted any superior officer before embarking on this adventurous and controversial action.

"Forwarded for urgent necessary action, please"

The Sunday Times learns that Police investigations into Mr. Udugampola's conduct have already commenced.

The guerrilla list was pruned down to 15 names. There was still some controversy over Kennedy. He was the leader of a group of nine guerrilla suicide cadres who infiltrated the Palaly defence complex on August 2, 1994 and fired Rocket Propelled Grenades at Air Force Helicopters. Seven guerrillas were killed in the incident. Two were captured. One died later and Kennedy was the lone survivor.

On Friday, Attorney General K.C. Kamalasabeyson, who has since returned to Sri Lanka, gave approval for his release. All indictments against him are to be withdrawn.

That was how the curtain was brought down on a secret dialogue that has been going on for four long months on the prisoner exchange. It was the direct outcome of the LTTE granting access to The Sunday Times to meet the Navy officer and six soldiers in custody, for the first time since they were taken prisoner seven years ago. Their account headlined "Forgotten prisoners speak out" appeared exclusively in the Situation Report of June 2, this year.

The move saw the Army, with the approval of Premier Wickremesinghe, initiating a dialogue with the LTTE leadership. Besides Army sources, the deputy leader of the LTTE Political Wing, Puli Thevan, confirmed the dialogue began after The Sunday Times disclosure.

Though the exchange of prisoners will not materialise before tomorrow's peace talks since a few procedural formalities will have to be cleared, an official announcement on the conclusion of talks to exchange prisoners is likely anytime now. If this in itself is a significant step in confidence building since the UNF Government signed an agreement with the LTTE, a greater significance lies in some of the matters arising out of the prisoner exchange.

One is expected to be a possible public declaration by the LTTE to assert that it holds no more prisoners. It will not only obviate criticism against the UNF Government that it had only obtained the release of seven men, but also pressures on the LTTE to release others who are being reportedly held by them. Numbers of such persons have varied from hundreds to a staggering 2,000 claimed by a local NGO which deals with security forces and police personnel reported missing in action.

Though more than seven prisoners were declared to the ICRC and held in custody, numbers detained by the LTTE were much more in the years past. However, beginning with the launch of "Operation Riviresa" to re-capture the Jaffna peninsula in 1995 and the subsequent offensive military operations kept the guerrillas on the move. This posed serious logistical problems for the LTTE. Providing sustenance and guards to prevent prisoners from escaping became difficult. The prisoners were abandoned in many ways.

A conference at the Ministry of Defence on Wednesday to discuss matters relating to the exchange of prisoners was to result in a significant diversion. Midway through the conference, aides put a call through to Defence Secretary Austin Fernando. It was from a reporter in a newspaper asking whether the term of office of the Army Commander Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, had been extended. Mr. Fernando, who appeared unaware, was still keen to find the answer to the media query. He handed over the telephone receiver to Lt. Gen. Balagalle. The latter said he had no knowledge and it was a surprise to him.

Needless to say the news drew the attention of others present at the conference. They were Markus Brudermann, head of delegation of the ICRC, S.C.J. Bandaragama, acting Commissioner General of Prisons and Brigadier Mohanti Peiris, Director (Legal) in the Army.

How did news of an extended term for Lt. Gen. Balagalle circulate even before official intimation arrived at the Ministry of Defence? Secretary Austin Fernando learnt from another reporter that the story had been leaked to the media by Janadasa Peiris, Director General (Media) at the Presidential Secretariat.

The Sunday Times learnt it was only on Wednesday morning that Kusumsiri Balapatabendi, Secretary to the President, had signed, on behalf of President Kumaratunga, the documents relating to the extended term for Lt. Gen. Balagalle. The papers arrived at the Ministry of Defence only on Thursday. Just three days before that, (on Sunday), Lt. Gen. Balagalle had a meeting with Premier Wickremesinghe on matters relating to the upcoming prisoner exchange.

According to a "Temple Trees" source, Lt. Gen. Balagalle, who had been conducting the dialogue with the LTTE over the prisoner swap, had told Mr. Wickremesinghe, he wanted the exchange completed before he went on retirement on September 30, this year. The Premier is learnt to have told him he had another post waiting for the retiring Army Commander.

He had later told Defence Minister Tilak Marapana, to name him acting Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) until legislation is passed in Parliament to create a new Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee where Lt. Gen. Balagalle would be appointed Chairman. After the Sunday meeting, the same source said Premier Wickremesinghe had told Mr. Marapana to expedite the matter by writing to the President.

Evidently, the role played by Lt. Gen. Balagalle in the dialogue with the LTTE for the prisoner exchange had won him recognition to serve the UNF Government in an elevated position. The post of Chief of Defence Staff fell vacant after General Rohan de S. Daluwatte, relinquished office on June 1. He is now Sri Lanka's Ambassador in Brazil.

In what reflected to be both a lackadaisical and incohesive approach by the UNF Government to the defence establishment, including the Police, Defence Secretary Austin Fernando, was named to play the role of acting Chief of Defence Staff. Leave alone Sri Lanka, nowhere in the world is such a high military office that encompasses operational matters placed in the hands of a non-military person. Even last Monday he chaired a conference of service commanders and intelligence officials where operational matters including reported ceasefire violations by Tiger guerrillas were discussed.

As the name implies, the main task of a head of a Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH) is to co-ordinate military operations, an essential requirement not only during war but in peacetime too. The move has also come as a precedent, that one can argue, to justify the appointment of a non-military person as the Commander of the Army, Navy or Air Force. In reality, it smacks of an acute lack of sensitivity, awareness of the nuances or the finer points on matters military by those responsible.

Sadly, this is reflected in the recent months not only in respect of the JOH but on many a matter concerning the armed forces and the Police. Clearly, there is no cohesive control and direction from the upper echelons, a phenomenon that can be ruinous to national security interests if it continues unchecked. A glaring example of this phenomenon in the recent weeks has been the goings on in the Sri Lanka Navy. The inability of the Ministry of Defence to bring matters under control has led to battles being fought publicly in Courts.

Another example is the Police raid on the Army Safe House in Athurugiriya. When it became clear that the use of the Safe House was legitimate, an official statement would have put paid to the issue. Over the past nine months it has become a political controversy with serious damage being done to the Army's image in the minds of the public. See box story on this page for the latest development.
Conditions in the security forces and the Police have been reaching disturbing levels in the past many months. The only salutary aspect is that it happens at a time when there is a truce. But there is no gainsaying that to ensure stability for economic growth and greater normalcy, the security forces and the Police have an important role to play.

In this backdrop, a letter from Minister Marapana to President Kumaratunga, recommending the appointment of Lt. Gen. Balagalle as acting Chief of Defence Staff, could not reach the President by last Wednesday morning. Instead, President Kumaratunga extended Lt. Gen. Balagalle's term as Army Commander until December 31, 2003.

The immediate outcome of this extended term is the fact that five senior officers in the chain command, just below the Army Commander, will have to relinquish office before December 31, 2003 or by the time Lt. Gen. Balagalle completes his tenure.

This includes Maj. Gen. Lohan Gunawardena, Chief of Staff, whom the UNF Government wants to appoint as the next Commander. The fact that he is their choice, The Sunday Times learnt, had already been conveyed to him by Defence Minister Marapana. Here is the line up of those who are affected:

1. Maj. Gen. Lohan Gunawardena (Intake 2) - Date of retirement November 22, 2003. He was confirmed in his substantive rank on December 4, 1997. He completed his mandatory three-year maximum period in the rank on December 4, 2000. He is on his second extended tenure, which is due to end on December 4, 2002.

2. Maj. Gen. Anton Wijendra (Intake 3) - Date of retirement August 30, 2003. He was confirmed in his substantive rank on February 24, 1999. He completes his mandatory three-year maximum period in the rank on February 24, 2003.

3. Maj. Gen. Shantha Kottegoda (Intake 3) - Date of retirement November 5, 2004. He was confirmed in his substantive rank on February 24, 1999. He completes his mandatory three-year maximum period in the rank on February 24, 2003.

4. Maj. Gen. Chula Seneviratne (Intake 3) - Date of retirement December 9, 2004. He was confirmed in his substantive rank on February 24, 1999. He completes his mandatory three-year maximum period in the rank on February 24, 2003.

5. Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka (Intake 3) - Date of retirement December 17, 2005. He was confirmed in his substantive rank on April 2, 1999. He completes his mandatory three- year maximum period in the rank on February 24, 2003.

The only way in which the five senior officers mentioned above could remain in service is if they are granted extended terms by the President who is the Commander-in-Chief. Herein lies a knotty problem.

Maj. Gen. Neil Dias was groomed by the PA Government to become Army Commander after Lt. Gen. Balagalle, who was then due to retire. He was even sent hurriedly for a defence management course at the United States Post Naval Graduate School in California. The course is tailor made for those aspiring to hold command positions. When he returned in December, last year, Maj. Gen. Dias had less than three weeks to serve. President Kumaratunga granted an extension of tenure until April 12, 2002.

Maj. Gen. Dias sought a further extension of service. It was, however, turned down by the UNF Government. Defence Minister Tilak Marapana, is learnt to have told President Kumaratunga it was not the UNF policy to grant extensions of service to those reaching the mandatory maximum period or their age of retirement. Hence, Maj. Gen. Dias had to retire.

The matter came to the fore again when the UNF Government had to fill the post of Chief of Staff rendered vacant for over five months following the retirement of Maj. Gen. Dias. President Kumaratunga agreed to appoint Maj. Gen. Lohan Gunawardena as the Chief of Staff but reminded that she would adhere to the policy (of the UNF Government) of not granting extensions. Hence Maj. Gen. Gunawardena's appointment as Chief of Staff is until his extended term expires on December 4, 2002.

Four weeks before she granted a 15 month extended tenure to Lt. Gen. Balagalle, President Kumaratunga extended the tenure of office of Navy Commander Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, for a period of three years. He was due to retire on September 1, this year. This affected the promotional prospects of six senior officers (Situation Report - August 18)

There were indications that the UNF Government may try to persuade both Vice Admiral Sandagiri and Lt. Gen. Balagalle to voluntarily conclude their terms early in a bid to accommodate others. Whilst Vice Admiral Sandagiri is to be offered another position (a diplomatic posting is not ruled out), Lt. Gen. Balagalle is to be called upon to take up the post of acting Chief of Defence Staff until he is appointed Chairman of Joint Chief of Staff. That is after legislation is introduced in Parliament. Here again, the move raises more questions than it answers. The changes will require the approval of the President who is Commander-in-Chief.

But a more serious development seems to come from a Government Committee that reviewed the functioning of defence organisations. In its Interim Report it has recommended the establishment of a Joint Chief of Staff Committee headed by a Chairman to function directly under the Minister of Defence - a move which PA defence advisors interpret as a move to clip the President's powers as Commander-in-Chief.

Already faced with the threat posed by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution to take away her powers to dissolve Parliament after a year, moves to erode her powers as Commander-in-Chief are bound to draw an angry response.

Already President Kumaratunga has in a letter to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Thursday raised issues on the dangers to national security. It drew a response from Defence Minister Marapana on Friday.

Whether her warning is a precursor to taking over the Defence Ministry (and even the Interior Ministry) under her wing now remains a crucial question. More so with the UNF's plans for legislation to overhaul the nation's defence mechanism and thus deny to the Commander-in-Chief some of the powers that office enjoys now.

If the truce has brought a halt to one protracted war, many appear to be waging in the defence establishment. The debilitating effect it has on the security forces and the Police seems to be buried deep in the euphoria of a truce. The billion-dollar question is whether those responsible are aware.

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