clash hits Army
90 minute meet ing last Monday be tween President Chandrika Bandaranaike
Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickre-mesinghe, largely to
discuss proposed defence reforms has seen the birth of the latest
"war" between the United National Front Government and
the People's Alliance.
The UNF, which
has launched a high-pitched media campaign, is accusing President
Kumaratunga of refusing or stalling extended terms for a group of
Majors General in the Army, whose statutory terms of retirement
are due in the coming months.
If not bizarre,
paradoxical enough, backing for the UNF campaign is also coming
from a most unexpected quarter - from Tiger guerrilla military wing
leader for Batticaloa and Ampara, Muralitharan Vinayagamoorthy alias
Karuna, now in Thailand as a member of the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam team for the peace talks.
Karuna is regarded
as one of the toughest and highly rated military wing leaders in
the LTTE. He has led a number of guerrilla attacks on Army camps
in the east, including Vavunativu in 1993, Kattamuruvikulam in 1995
and Pillumalai in 1996. He also led the guerrilla team that rounded
up over 600 policemen who later disappeared in the Kanjikudichiaru
jungles in the Batticaloa district soon after peace talks with the
LTTE broke down during the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa's
Government in 1990.
the nation's national television network, reported in their news
bulletin on Friday night Karuna's declaration that the Sri Lanka
Army would be seriously affected if the Majors General concerned
are not granted their extended terms. He had said so to Major General
Shantha Kottegoda, according to the broadcast. Other media reports
yesterday went further. They said Maj. Gen. Kottegoda had talks
with Karuna, where he had declared even the peace process would
be affected by such a move.
Maj. Gen. Kottegoda,
Director General, General Staff at Army Headquarters, is the military
representative in the Sri Lanka delegation at the current round
of peace talks in Thailand. He is also in the group of senior Army
officers for whom the UNF Government is seeking extended terms of
has refuted the UNF charge. If a press release from the Presidential
Secretariat is any indication, she is girding herself to lock horns
with the UNF over the latest controversy. She says the responsibility
for granting extensions of service to senior officers (other than
Commanders) lay in the hands of the Minister of Defence in consultation
with the President. She makes clear that she is "willing to
extend the service of officers in the Army on the basis of their
honesty and efficiency" but charges that "the Prime Minister
and Defence Minister are of a different view."
Why have the
extensions of service of senior Army officers, a routine matter,
which successive Governments have carried out both on merit and
for political reasons, over the years, suddenly become a controversial
issue, one that distracts from other priorities? The answers lay
in two different issues.
The first was
the case of the then Chief of Staff of the Army, Maj. Gen. Neil
Dias, who was groomed by the former People's Alliance Government
to be the Commander. When his retirement was due on April 12, 2002,
President Kumaratunga wanted to extend his term. Defence Minister
Tilak Marapana, took up the position that it was not the policy
of the UNF Government to grant extensions of service to those reaching
the mandatory maximum period in their rank or their age of retirement.
Hence Maj. Gen. Dias had to retire.
to Maj. Gen. Dias, as Chief of Staff, was not appointed for over
five months as the Ministry of Defence and the Presidential Secretariat
haggled over the matter. It was resolved only after President Kumaratunga,
citing Minister Marapana's own argument of UNF Government policy,
appointed Maj. Gen. Lohan Gunawardena, an experienced officer, as
Chief of Staff, to serve only until December 4, 2002, when his already
extended term will expire.
issue is the now controversial subject of defence reforms. After
the three member Committee's first report on recommendations for
Higher Defence Control (Situation
Report - September 29), Defence Minister Tilak Marapana,
held a two hour long discussion with President Kumaratunga. However,
he failed to win her endorsement for the recommendations.
at the request of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, President
Kumaratunga, held a conference at the Presidential Secretariat to
further discuss defence reforms. A day ahead of the conference,
(on Sunday) state run electronic media reported that a decision
by President Kumaratunga to send several senior Majors General on
retirement had caused discontent in the Army. State run print media
followed the next day.
reports are designed to prejudice the Army against the President,"
charged her Director General (Media) Janadasa Peiris. But UNF sources
strongly denied the charge and said there was an "urgent"
need to retain the services of a number of senior officers.
raised issue over these reports at Monday's conference. She denied
she had refused extended terms to any senior Army officer since
no recommendations had been made to her. She directed Defence Secretary
Austin Fernando, to issue a denial to the media. Later the same
day, the absence of a Defence Ministry denial, saw the Presidential
Secretariat issuing one.
It was Premier
Wickremesinghe who made the case for extended terms for the senior
Army officers during the conference. Explaining the position, this
is what the Presidential Secretariat press release said on Friday:
retirement of senior Army Officers over 55 years of age and those
who have reached the maximum rank was discussed about five months
ago at a meeting between the President and the Defence Minister.
At this meeting the President expressed her view that the promotions
and extensions of service of Army Officers should be based on their
qualifications, namely, their training and field performance.
extension of service of senior military officers other than the
Army Commander is the responsibility of the Minister of Defence
in concurrence with the President. Although the President is willing
to extend the service of officers in the Army on the basis of their
honesty and efficiency, the Prime Minister and Defence Minister
are of a different view."
Even if there
was no serious crisis over the subject of extended terms, some concern
over the matter has arisen out of President Kumaratunga's decision
to extend the term of office of Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Balagalle,
until December 31, next year. He was to have retired on September
30 and the UNF had wanted to recommend Maj. Gen. Lohan Gunawardena
to succeed him. The urgency arose only because Maj. Gen. Gunawardena
would have to retire on December 4. In addition, four other senior
officers in the Army chain of command would have to retire before
December 31, 2003 when Lt. Gen. Balagalle is due to relinquish office.
The UNF wants their terms extended too.
In the process
of seeking to campaign for the extensions of service to Majors General
who are due to retire, UNF leaders appear to have ignored another
aspect- the case of Brigadiers and Colonels, many of them well experienced,
who will also be forced to retire when they reach their maximum
mandatory period of service in the rank.
If they are
also to be granted extensions, what about those in the same ranks
who await their promotions ? They may not receive them unless there
are vacancies in the approved cadre. The snowballing effect, as
a result, on subordinate ranks,will no doubt cause problems of morale.
Hence, there is a compelling need to strike a correct balance and
to avoid granting extensions purely on political and party considerations.
It is customary
for the Commander of the Army to advise the Ministry of Defence
only three months ahead of the retirement of a senior officer, either
after he or she reaches the maximum mandatory period in the rank,
or is due for retirement at the age of 55 years. Such advice is
often accompanied by recommendations for an extended term.
The Sunday Times
learnt Army Commander Lt. Gen. Balagalle had in September, this
year, recommended to the Ministry of Defence an extended term for
Maj. Gen. Gunawardena. However, this recommendation, according Ministry
sources, had not been forwarded to the Presidential Secretariat
so far. Whether it had been held back on the grounds that it would
be rejected, is not clear.
As for three
other senior Army officers, they are due to retire on February 24
next year, after reaching their maximum mandatory period of three
years in the rank. They are Maj. Gen. Anton Wijendra, Maj. Gen.
Shantha Kottegoda and Maj. Gen. Chula Seneviratne. Maj. Gen. Sarath
Fonseka, is due to reach his maximum mandatory period in the rank
and retire on April 2, 2003. Hence, recommendations for extensions
of service for them are not due until November 24 and February 2,
three more senior Army officers are due to retire much later. Maj.
Gen. Susil Chandrapala is due to reach his three year mandatory
maximum period of service in the current rank on March 1, 2003,
Maj. Gen. Nanda Mallawaratchchi on March 24, 2003 and Maj. Gen.
D.S.K. Wijesuriya on June 15, 2003. Recommendations for extended
terms for them are not due until just three months ahead of their
statutory dates of retirement.
In the circumstances,
it becomes clear that Premier Wickremesinghe has sought to ensure
a commitment from President Kumaratunga that extensions would be
considered when recommendations are made - a position that President
Kumaratunga has acknowledged. She says she would extend "the
service of officers in the Army on the basis of their honesty and
" That clearly is a shift in position from
the UNF policy enunciated earlier by Minister Marapana.
Kumaratunga's assertion makes clear though she will grant the extensions,
it is she who will determine the "honesty and efficiency"
of those who will receive recommendations for extended terms. That
in itself is an assertion of her powers as Commander-in-Chief -
powers which the proposed defence reforms and a subsequent draft
bill seek to divest from her.
At last Monday's
conference President Kumaratunga referred to last week's The Sunday
Times report about the proposed Joint Chiefs of Staff Bill to strip
her military powers. The bill is based on recommendations made by
the Defence Reforms Committee.
It fell on
Defence Secretary Austin Fernando, Chairman of the Defence Reforms
Committee, to give an expert opinion on the recommendations on Higher
Defence Control. It was not without comical moments.
said the Committee had recommended an expanded National Security
Council to handle many broader issues besides matters of national
security. They covered subjects like floods, natural disasters and
even a possible HIV epidemic. He did not, however, explain how he
envisaged an HIV epidemic of any worrying proportions in Sri Lanka,
whether it came from intelligence reports or from any warning by
health authorities. It was a Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee headed
by the Defence Minister that was to deal with day to day national
has said she would respond to the recommendations on Higher Defence
Control in two weeks. That is whilst she awaits the recommendations
of the Ministry of Defence on extended terms for senior Army officers.
Newer issues are undoubtedly placing co-habitation to more tests.
chopper from Wanni to the heart of Colombo
Dusk began to envelope the City when two Bell 412 helicopters
of the Sri Lanka Air Force VIP Squadron touched down last
Tuesday at Thurstan College grounds. Their rotors whirred
whilst nine VIPs disembarked to board two waiting vehicles.
negotiating team with their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
in plastic chairs, the LTTE team awaits the arrival
of the helicopters for their flight to Colombo. To the
far right is Karuna. To his right are "Col"
Banu, "Special Commander" of "Kuttisri
Mortar Unit," "Col" Theepan "Northern
Commander", Dr. Jay Maheswaran, Para, "Head
of the Tamil Eelam Judiciary", Balakumar, a senior
LTTE official, Mr. Ilamparithi, "Head of the LTTE's
Political Section" in Jaffna, Pappa, a senior LTTE
official, S.P. Tamilselvan, Head of the LTTE's Political
Wing, Dr. Balasingham, Adele Balasingham, Secretary
to the LTTE negotiating team, "Col" Vithusa,
"Special Commander of the " 2nd Lt. Malathy
Unit", "Col" Thurka, "Special Commander"
of the "Major Sothiya Unit" and Thamilini,
Head of the Women's Political Wing. In camouflage and
seated in the foreground is Nadesan, "Chief of
Tamil Eelam Police".
is escorted by members of the LTTE's Political Wing
to the SLAF helicopter. Helpers carry his baggage.
patrol cars, with sirens wailing, escorted them from the grounds
through Stanley Wijesundera Mawatha and cut into heavy traffic
at Bullers Road.
minutes the motorcade wound its way to the Gregory's Road
residence of Jon Westborg, Norwegian Ambassador in Sri Lanka.
was how the Tiger guerrilla negotiating team arrived in the
Colombo City, for the first time since the February 22 ceasefire.
If venues in Thailand became necessary for peace talks mainly
due to apprehensions of personal security, things seem to
be gradually changing. That is underscored by the visits of
some senior guerrilla leaders.
was Puli Thevan, deputy leader of the Political Wing of the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who entered a leading
Colombo private hospital for treatment. Plainclothed security
personnel provided him close protection. Failing to reach
Wanni through other routes, (via Maldives and India), Chief
Negotiator, Anton Balasingham and wife Adele Anne, arrived
at the Bandaranaike International Airport in a SriLankan Airlines
flight from London. They later boarded an SLAF VIP helicopter
to fly to Puthukkudiyiruppu.
that Thailand may encounter difficulty in hosting the next
round of talks in that country later next month has raised
an important issue - whether a Sri Lankan venue is not suitable
for such an event. This is particularly in view of guerrilla
leaders now acknowledging, through their visits, the safety
of Colombo and the satisfactory personal protection given
to them. Several locations are available, like the northern
capital of Jaffna, Vavuniya, Trincomalee or even Nuwara Eliya.
Dr. Balasingham is ailing and may require medical attention
at short notice, the closest venue to Wanni where he spent
two weeks before flying to Bangkok last Wednesday, Jaffna
would be an obvious choice.
the Norwegian facilitators and the Government can make available
a more efficient medical facility in Jaffna than in the Wanni.
Government's inability to host next month's talks is said
to be due to several royal and national functions. Thailand's
state radio in a news bulletin quoted Sananchart Devahasin,
head of South Asian Affairs in the Foreign Ministry, as saying
fuelled speculation whether fears of security, following the
devastating Bali bomb explosions, prompted the move. More
so, since the talks were essentially a low key event for the
Thais and required only limited security and other official
commitments. However, both Government and Norwegian sources
dismissed such reports.
they say, the Norwegian capital of Oslo is to be the venue
for the next round.
Dr. Balasingham and his wife, Ambassador Westborg's guests
on Tuesday night included Political Wing leader, S.P. Tamilselvan,
Military Wing leader for Batticaloa-Ampara, Muralitharan Vinayagamoorthy
alias "Colonel" Karuna, V. Rudrakumar and Dr. Jay
Maheswaran. Three other aides - Sivapalan, Sivaparan and Muthukumaru
- were also in the team. After an informal dinner, the nine-member
LTTE team was driven in a motorcade escorted by Police patrol
cars to the Bandaranaike International Airport in Katunayake.
Wickremasinghe, a retired Air Force officer now attached to
the Peace Secretariat, who flew in one of the helicopters
to escort the LTTE team to Colombo had taken care of the delegation's
been cleared and loaded on board a Cathay Pacific airways
flight to Hong Kong with a stop over in Bangkok.
drove right up to the tarmac. As the LTTE team alighted, an
official from the Airport and Aviation Services, greeted them
and handed over their respective passports. He had earlier
ensured officials of the Department of Immigration stamped
them after the airport taxes were duly paid.
boarding the two Air Force VIP helicopters from the "Malathie"
Grounds (named after the first Tiger guerrilla cadre who died
in a confrontation with Indian Peace Keeping troops in 1987)
in Mullaitivu, the LTTE delegation had a photo opportunity
with their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.