Cohabitation clash hits Army
A near 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.

Rupavahini, 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 service.

President Kumaratunga 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.

A successor 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.

The second 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.

Last Monday, 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.

"These 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.

President Kumaratunga 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:

"The 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.

"The 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, 2003, respectively.

In addition 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 efficiency…" That clearly is a shift in position from the UNF policy enunciated earlier by Minister Marapana.

Yet, President 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.

Mr. Fernando 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 security issues.

President Kumaratunga 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.

By VIP 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.

LTTE's negotiating team with their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Seated 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".

Tamilselvan is escorted by members of the LTTE's Political Wing to the SLAF helicopter. Helpers carry his baggage.

Police patrol cars, with sirens wailing, escorted them from the grounds through Stanley Wijesundera Mawatha and cut into heavy traffic at Bullers Road.

Within minutes the motorcade wound its way to the Gregory's Road residence of Jon Westborg, Norwegian Ambassador in Sri Lanka.

That 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.

The first 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.

Reports 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.

Since 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.

Both the Norwegian facilitators and the Government can make available a more efficient medical facility in Jaffna than in the Wanni.

The Thai 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 so.

The remarks 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.

Hence, they say, the Norwegian capital of Oslo is to be the venue for the next round.

Besides 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.

Raja 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 baggage.

It had been cleared and loaded on board a Cathay Pacific airways flight to Hong Kong with a stop over in Bangkok.

The motorcade 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.

Before 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.

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