Politics of truce mired in double talk

President Kumaratunga at last Thursday’s 54th anniversary commemoration of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Pic by Ishara S. Kodikara

From banana republics to nations bustling with a robust economy, national leaders are known for spelling out future visions for their fellow countrymen.

Some of the outstanding among them have carved a niche for themselves in history for their honest, dedicated leadership and patriotic zeal. Their sagacity in guiding the destinies of their nations has ensured a better quality of life and a safer environment for the people. Others who have been verbose, saying one thing yesterday and just the opposite today, have ended up in the dustbin of history or in the graveyard of political opportunists.

In Sri Lanka, the task for political historians is unenviable. In faithfully recording what has been going on in the past many years, they will, no doubt, ponder how future generations will judge their work on local leaders. That is during some of the momentous phases in the country's history. The events in the past weeks as well as those ahead are no exception.

One such instance is Tuesday's public declaration by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. She paid a glowing tribute to former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. "We wish to express our gratitude for the Ceasefire Agreement (with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) that he brought about," she said. Notwithstanding some setbacks and political killings, the country had gained economically as a result, she noted.

The occasion was a public rally to commemorate the 54th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). It also marked another significant event - the formal introduction to the public of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse as the party’s candidate at the upcoming presidential elections. Also present was his running mate for the Prime Ministerial post, Anura Bandaranaike.

To Mr. Wickremesinghe, Leader of the Opposition and the United National Party's presidential candidate, there could have been no better public testimonial. Not because that tribute came from his main political adversary during the launch of her party's own candidate. Nevertheless that was somewhat bizarre, for many at last Tuesday's meeting would have wondered whether she was inaugurating Mr. Wickremesinghe's campaign.

It was an unexpected and worthy reward for Mr. Wickremesinghe for another very good reason. It was President Kumaratunga, who in the past formed the fountain from which all the bitter criticism on the Ceasefire Agreement and related developments flowed. So much so, he was criticised for signing an "illegal" CFA. During the tenure of his United National Front (UNF) Government he lost the portfolios of three of his Cabinet Ministers - Defence, Interior and Mass Communication. Later, his UNF which was accused of "endangering national security" faced dissolution in Parliament. His party lost the general election that followed and returned to opposition benches to face further criticism over the CFA. See box story on this page for President Kumaratunga's comments then and this week.

Now, what more does Mr. Wickremesinghe need to tell voters that he has been vindicated by the very person who made all the allegations, some even bordering on treachery. All what his polls campaign staff have to do is play a video clip and a sound bite of President Kumaratunga's national tribute. Perhaps this prompted UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema to remark to a friend, though light heartedly, that his party need not exhaust itself with a major propaganda campaign. That was being done.

If she had made this declaration three years, six months and eight days earlier, the course of history in Sri Lanka would have changed. But on that occasion, on February 27, 2002 - just five days after the CFA was signed by Mr.Wickremesinghe at a highly publicised ceremony in Vavuniya - she charged that the agreement raised questions of legality. Alas, praise has come with just 107 days of President Kumaratunga's presidency remaining. Her remarks mean the economy would have made even greater strides if the UNF was allowed to remain in power. Hence, did she err?

In a nine-page letter then she said "it is my constitutional duty as Head of State, Head of Government, Head of the Cabinet and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces to scrutinize carefully any agreement that might affect the security of our people and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka". She noted that there were some Articles which could impinge on national security concerns. Some of the key points raised then over the CFA:

Article 1.2 refers to a number of prohibited military operations, including "offensive naval operations." This Article read with Article 1.3 which permits the Sri Lankan armed forces to continue to perform their legitimate task of safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka "without engaging in offensive operations against the LTTE," could create the impression that the Navy is prohibited from engaging LTTE boats even if they are suspected of carrying arms. It might then be argued that a naval interdiction in such circumstances would be a defensive, not an offensive, operation. What then would a prohibited naval operation be?
It would have been very much better to have an unambiguous provision on this point in the Agreement itself.

Articles 1.4, 1.5 and 1.6 deal with the "drawing up of demarcation lines" "regarding defence localities in all areas of contention." The parties are required to provide information to the Monitoring Mission about their defence localities. In the event of disagreement between the parties the demarcation lines will have to be drawn by the Head of the Monitoring Mission.

Article 2.7 refers to the establishment of checkpoints to facilitate the flow of goods, and the movement of civilians on the "line of control" - a highly evocative expression in our region and also elsewhere in the world where lines of control and demarcation have been an endless source of confusion, bitterness and tragedy.
I only draw your attention here to the immense problems emanating from the "Line of Control" established in Kashmir which have so severely strained Indo-Pakistan relations.

This is the first time in the history of post-independent Sri Lanka that a foreign government is being authorized to draw demarcation lines on the soil of Sri Lanka. The submission of such matters to the binding authority of a single individual appointed by a foreign government appears to be wholly inconsistent with the sovereignty of the people of Sri Lanka which is declared by the Constitution to be inalienable.

If the defence portfolio was taken over and later the UPFA Government was voted to power more than a year ago, these serious concerns were never addressed. A review of the CFA is now being called for on grounds relating to escalating violence. Here again, it is to examine its stricter enforceability and not to amend any provisions that have remained causes for serious concern over the past three and half years. Was it lack of vision then or lack of foresight now?

Either way, by praising the CFA now and Mr. Wickremesinghe for signing it, President Kumaratunga evidently regrets at least some of her previous actions and stances. The climate of "no war, no peace," without question, led to an air of "normalcy" and was greatly conducive for economic growth. It facilitated investment and enhanced job opportunities. More importantly it brought about a great sense of relief to the public who often complained of harassment at military check points. Innocent Tamil civilians also ceased to face arrest and detention - a situation that led to widespread corruption where monies were extorted to seek their release.

But during the same period, having acquired the defence portfolio and later formed a Government, there were some crucial issues that were before her. The LTTE had built a much stronger military machine and grown further in numerical terms. Besides the many concerns she raised with Mr. Wickremesinghe in her nine page letter three years ago and in correspondence thereafter, the guerrillas constructed a 1.2 kilometre long airstrip and acquired air capability. It is now known that shipments of military hardware are still coming in.

It is also now known that their sea going arm, the Sea Tigers has been further expanded. All this is in marked contrast to the Security Forces whose level of preparedness dropped drastically. Highlighting this is not to suggest a return to war. It is to point out that the Government failed to take a lesson even from the LTTE. Whilst talking peace the guerrillas have in the past three and half years built a formidable military machine and are continuing to enhance their fighting capabilities. President Kumaratunga and the National Security Council have deliberated on this on many occasions. This has made the bargaining position of the guerrillas stronger and given them the recourse to other options if peace efforts fail. This cannot be said of the Government.

In the event of a crisis, even a strong economy could collapse. This is if there are no concrete security plans to protect it from an enemy that has achieved greater sophistication. And such protection means a strong military. The option left now is to continue to remain supine in the wake of every LTTE action. This is being emphasised time and again in the national interest though such disclosures often irk key politicians. Those who point out become the enemy.

Therefore some of the fallout from the CFA, which have not been remedied, will continue to influence and even affect the future course of events. How they portend in the coming weeks and months assumes greater significance for two main reasons. First is the mounting violence with Tiger guerrilla attacks on security forces personnel and the Police. Troubled by this, Norwegian peace facilitators are now trying to get the Government and Tiger guerrillas to sit down for a meeting at the Bandaranaike International Airport. Their priority is to make sure the CFA is not further endangered. The LTTE is not in favour of the move and it has to be seen whether Norway, backed by the international community, will be able to persuade them.

Former Head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) retired Norwegian General Trond Furuhovde is arriving in Colombo as Special Envoy for talks with both sides. Though no date has been fixed it is said to take place within next month.

It was only on Wednesday that Norway proposed the BIA as a venue for these talks and won Government concurrence. The LTTE rejection came on Thursday afternoon. Barely an hour or two earlier, an Air Traffic Controller at the BIA received an anonymous telephone call. The caller who spoke in very fluent Sinhala said a Saudi Arabian Airlines Boeing 747 that was about to take off had a bomb on board. This call had been logged at 1.41 p.m. The Jumbo Jet had moved away from the apron and was rolling on the taxi way for take off when the Air Traffic Controller made contact with the pilot to convey the warning.

He returned to the apron after requesting for ramps. There was a long delay since drivers were scared to move the ramp towards the aircraft for fear of an explosion. Emergency chutes were opened. By accident or otherwise, a short chute meant for use in an emergency when they landed in water had also opened up. Some of the passengers who used it fell midway to the ground. One of them, a Sri Lankan housemaid, fell with her head facing the ground and died on the spot. At least five others who followed suit are seriously injured. A thorough search of the aircraft by Air Force bomb disposal teams showed no bomb. CID detectives probing the incident are trying to ascertain whether there were political motives behind this hoax.

Second, and equally important, is the upcoming presidential elections. The escalating violence, there are fears, could peak to levels where polls campaigns, particularly in the North and the East, may become difficult. The LTTE political offices in the North and East in Government held or "controlled" areas have begun shutting down. This is ostensibly on the grounds that neither the Security Forces nor the Police are able to ensure their safety. This is particularly in the context of the ongoing State of Emergency and the ruling party candidate Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapakse, forming an alliance with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) for the forthcoming presidential elections. The anti-LTTE stance reflected in this MoU has roused LTTE apprehensions.

State intelligence agencies fear the move is a prelude to heightened violence. They believe it may reach a point where the UPFA presidential candidate might find it difficult to carry out campaigns in the North or the East on the grounds that their policies were "against the aspirations of the Tamil people."

With their preparedness lowered during three and half years of ceasefire, Security Forces will find themselves in a dilemma. Most of their equipment needs are yet to be met. They have to not only cope with the rising violence but help the Police in the conduct of the poll. This gains greater importance in the North and the East where violent incidents are rapidly on the increase. It was only on Thursday guerrillas shot dead a commando of the Police Special Task Force (STF) in the East. The move prompted President Kumaratunga to ask the STF Commandant, DIG Nimal Lewke to proceed to the area and ensure the situation remains under control.

In the backdrop of a presidential poll, President Kumaratunga is due to make some important decisions on the leadership of the armed forces.
Two weeks ago, she took a shock decision over the Sri Lanka Navy by appointing its number three, now Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda as the Commander. This meant, the number two, Rear Admiral Mohan Wijewickrema, who has the record of being the longest serving Chief of Staff of any armed force in Sri Lanka, was sidelined. With a 34 year long career, Rear Admiral Wijewickrema had served as Chief of Staff of the Navy for four and half years. He had acted as Commander of the Navy on 18 different occasions. He was away on an official assignment in Hawaii, United States when the new appointment was made without his knowledge and is awaiting approval to go on leave prior to retirement.

Decisions are now pending in respect of top positions in the Army and the Air Force too. In the Army, its Commander Lt. Gen. Shantha Kottegoda completes his annual extension on November 5, this year. Unless he is given an extension after his 56th birthday on November 6, this year, he would have to retire.

The next in line is Chief of Staff, Major General Sarath Fonseka. His extended term of one year expires on December 17, 2005. The third in line, Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Susil Chandrapala is due to retire on October 29, this year. He will be 55 years on this date. Due to move up as Deputy Chief of Staff thereafter will be Major General Nanda Mallawaratchchi, now Director General - General Staff at Army Headquarters. His extended one-year term of office expires on March 24, 2006.

In the case of Sri Lanka Air Force, its Commander, Air Marshal Donald Perera reaches 55 years on November 30 this year. However, if he is allowed a full four year term in office, that would end only on July 15, 2006. He assumed office as Commander on July 16, 2002.
Next in line is Air Vice Marshal Laksan Salgado. Born on January 8, 1952 he was appointed to the present rank on January 1, 2003. The third in line is Air Commodore Roshan Gunathilake. Born on February 28, 1956 he was appointed to the present rank on January 1 2005.

Since he quit as Commander of the Navy, Admiral Daya Sandagiri continues to function as the Chief of Defence Staff. He has located himself at the Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH) inside Army Headquarters. Before departure from the Navy, he has assigned to his new post 17 vehicles from Navy Headquarters, seven Navy officers and 82 sailors.

As pointed out earlier, before the outcome of the presidential polls, some of the top slots in the armed forces may have to be filled by President Kumaratunga. As for other events that portend, a quote from President Kumaratunga's address to the nation on November 11, 2003 after taking over defence, interior and mass communication portfolios is appropriate, like to herself, for anyone who wins the upcoming elections.

She said "It is the President who will some day be held exclusively responsible for all acts of commissions and omissions, the successes and failures of defence and national security policy."

Quotable or questionable quotes?
Hailing ceasefire
President Kumaratunga on September 8 at the 54th anniversary of the SLFP at the former Colombo Race Course.
"We wish to express our gratitude to Ranil Wickremesinghe for the Ceasefire Agreement that he brought about.
"Despite some setbacks and political killings the country had gained economically…"

Ceasefire under fire
President Kumaratunga on November 11, 2003
Address to the nation after take over of Defence, Interior and Mass Communication portfolios from the then UNF government
"….the sovereignty of the State of Sri Lanka, its territorial integrity and the security of the Nation has been placed in grave danger by acts of wilful commission and other acts of careless omission… numerous shipments of arms have been permitted to be brought into the country…

"Forcible recruitment of children was permitted by the defence authorities to the point that the LTTE's hardcore cadres have increased from 6,000 to 18,000 during the ceasefire period. The LTTE was allowed to construct armed camp after camp, in complete violation of the country's laws and even the Ceasefire Agreement and to kill innocent Muslim civilians, abduct and demand ransom….

"The Defence authorities permitted the Norwegian facilitators and their monitors, during the ceasefire period to suggest to the armed forces of the Government of Sri Lanka to agree to remove strategically crucial military camps and to recognise the LTTE's illegal naval unit, before even commencing talks with the LTTE on the de-commissioning of arms, giving up politics of terror, violence and above all, give up the call for a separate state, under whatever name it may be called….. It is up to the Government of Sri Lanka and the Government alone to resolve the problem of the LTTE or any illegally armed group setting up armed camps within the territory of Sri Lanka….

"Another serious act of irresponsibility was the neglect of the Armed Forces and thus rendering them unprepared to execute their duties effectively…..At the time when negotiations broke down between the LTTE and the (UNF) Government, 16 months after the Government came into power, about 60 % of the attack craft of the Navy and Air Force were out of operation due to lack of spare parts for regular maintenance. At the end of 2002, the Army possessed less than one month's requirements of ammunition. In other countries all these would amount to a serious dereliction of duty by those in authority…….."

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