Several former military commanders called for meeting, but Fonseka and Gotabaya absent President not keen on PM’s proposal to pay Rs. 200,000 a month for MPs monitoring Gamperaliya Malik’s proposal for ministries to hire private lawyers also put on hold Not only Sri Lankans, but the whole world knows that it was under the then [...]


President Sirisena meets former military commanders to compile war history


Several former military commanders called for meeting, but Fonseka and Gotabaya absent

President not keen on PM’s proposal to pay Rs. 200,000 a month for MPs monitoring Gamperaliya

Malik’s proposal for ministries to hire private lawyers also put on hold

Not only Sri Lankans, but the whole world knows that it was under the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was militarily defeated. That has never remained in doubt or a matter of dispute.

Now, nine long years later, it is President Maithripala Sirisena, who wants to record the “history” of how that defeat came about. The reason – he has been made to believe by his advisors and officials, who were nowhere near a battlefield, that there is still “no proper historic record” of how the war ended. Sirisena cannot be faulted. He has been advised that the best way to obtain such a record would be to tap the experiences and views of retired armed forces commanders. All of them quit some ten years ago or more.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe opening a Gamperaliya project in Nikaweratiya. The President is objecting to his proposal to pay Rs. 200,000 a month to the project’s monitoring MPs.

Hence, Sirisena summoned a meeting last Monday night with a group of retired top officers. The first thing he did was to swear them into secrecy. He said what they were about to discuss should not be revealed to anyone outside. Even before the project to write “the correct history” got off the ground, some political colourations became clear.

Sarath Fonseka, on whom Sirisena conferred the rank of Sri Lanka’s only Field Marshal for leading troops to victory, was not present. That he had a vast knowledge of the enemy and was privy to every offensive operation that militarily destroyed Tiger guerrillas is all too well known. Even his staunch opponents in the military and outside acknowledge this ungrudgingly. His eccentricities and the deadly venomous invectives towards some officers notwithstanding, the credit due to him for his soldiery and leadership during the war cannot be ignored. The country owed it and even volumes of new stories cannot hide it. Fonseka, now a Cabinet Minister, by his own follies as a politician, has tarnished his image somewhat by lending his name to drug lords and unscrupulous businessmen now under investigation. His garrulous verbal assaults on all and sundry have also made him quite unpopular.

In the same way, another person’s input that has been invaluable towards recording the history of the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas is that of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. During the final stages of the war, Gotabaya needed Fonseka and vice versa. That became the winning combination. The former provided all the military wherewithal (some still remaining as surplus stocks) with the brother President Mahinda as Commander-in-chief refusing to provide little or nothing. The latter put them to use. Fonseka stayed late nights in his office at Army Headquarters and took only little time off after switching the red light on top of his door (to indicate he was engaged). That was when he was watching the television series Paba on ITN. On other occasions, too, the red light was on, but that was during strategy sessions and confidential briefings. Mahinda Rajapaksa scrupulously avoided telephone calls from western government leaders who wanted to ask him to stop the final offensive.

Both Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka are at present mired in serious controversy over many issues. They are at the centre of allegations over human rights violations during the war — an issue now before the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. They were accused of staging ‘white van’ attacks on dissidents including journalists, intimidating and threatening them. Yet, Gotabaya Rajapaksa still commands respect among many armed forces personnel and is a principal shareholder in the military defeat of the LTTE. That is also a truth that cannot be buried. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s demonstrated foray into politics with a speech at the Viyath Maga on plans for the country’s economy jolted the United National Party (UNP) government. It rushed to complain it was its ideas he was extolling.

He is now one of the front runners for the presidential election from the ‘Joint Opposition.’ He was also not invited for the President’s discussion. That he would not be needed when recording the history of the end of the war is akin to staging Shakespeare’s Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark or a play on the history of Sigiriya without King Kashyappa. But who needs his version for the new MoD’s search for history? Such efforts show that even in national efforts to change history, bureaucrats and politicians cannot stand together.

The message is very clear. Fighting the scourge of terrorism, which has left thousands of civilians and troops dead and others maimed, gets clouded politically. The fact that billions worth of property was destroyed and even a Tamil population in the north and east bore the brunt of it seems forgotten. The morbid fact is that politicians want to use the military gains to their own advantage and officials who want to please them go out of the way to ensure that. Amateurism at the Defence Ministry appears to be at its height. Not surprisingly when those unfamiliar with the workings of the military establishment or the conduct of a near-three-decade-long war advise their leaders.

There were some 25 persons present at Sirisena’s meeting. At the higher ranks of the retired, those present included former Army Commanders Generals Gerry de Silva and Lionel Balagalle. The Air Force had its senior most retired officers, Air Chief Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody and Air Chief Marshal Pathman (Paddy) Mendis. The Navy had one time Commander Admiral Daya Sandagiri, Admiral Deshamanya Basil Gunasekera and Admiral Cecil Tissera. There were a host of others, all of them who had quit many years earlier.

Also present were Education and Cultural Affairs Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Defence Secretary Kapila Waidyaratne and the country’s top four in the security establishment – Chief of Defence Staff Ravi Wijegunaratne, Commanders Lt Gen Mahesh Senanayake (Army), Vice Admiral Sirimevan Ranasinghe (Navy) and Air Marshal Kapila Jayampathi (Air Force).

Sirisena told the retired officers who gathered on Monday night that many books had been published since the Tiger guerrillas were militarily defeated. Those accounts were often incorrect and tended to only project the writer’s own image exaggerating the roles they played. “I don’t want to lose the knowledge you have,” Sirisena declared adding that the war had been given many twists. Behind the scenes, some MoD officials discussed the book of a retired Major General who led troops near a lagoon area. They spoke of a string of inaccuracies and the reflection of what they said were “self-importance” in most chapters. “He tried to project himself as the Sri Lankan Rambo,” one of them said.

The President is quite correct that some books written by senior officers spoke only of their ‘mighty heroism’ and how it would have been difficult to win the war without their role. In the process, plenty of real history has been re-written with new heroes emerging from the original episodes. It is true that there is thus no reliable, accurate and a cohesive record of the events leading to the downfall of the guerrillas. But does the answer lie in just asking a select group of retired commanders?

This is by no means a bad reflection on any of the retired officers who met the President on Monday night.  Yet, all of them were not directly involved in the final operations that led to the military defeat of the guerrillas. They could only relate their experiences during a particular phase of the separatist war in as far as it relates to them. Other than that, they could air their own views. Thus, it would raise a multitude of queries when the history of the war and the military defeat of guerrillas are projected from their perspective when they were not the participants. Eventually it would become the current Defence Ministry’s own history of the war and how it ended. That would naturally differ from the version under the MoD of the previous government. Even national issues are now shamefully politics. Is it only because the elections are round the corner?

There have been several serious drawbacks in the conduct of the separatist war. A substantial part has been under periodic censorship. The final stages of the battles, noteworthy enough, grounded the local media in Colombo. They had to report largely on news releases put out by the military or the MoD. The absence of a credible flow of information is one of the contributory causes that lent credibility to allegations of human rights violations and war crimes. Some in the west dubbed it the war without witnesses. In every armed conflict, the media are present. The exceptions are when their lives become hazardous. In such situations, like in Syria, a new breed of brave men served as members of the ‘White Helmets’ to evacuate the dead, rescue the injured and record how they became victims. The Assad regime packed them off only weeks earlier after what they continued to uncover embarrassed the regime. They were dubbed terrorists and US spies.

Among those who suffered grave injustice in Sri Lanka as a result were the troops — the real men and women who fought the war from the frontlines. Their mothers and fathers, leave alone their countrymen, are unaware of their acts of bravery and heroism. Only a handful of instances have come to the fore. One is reminded of the words of General Norman H. Schwarzkopf, the top US General who led troops in the Gulf War. In an interview with Barbara Walters of ABC he declared, “It doesn’t take hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who go into battle. Later, he used those words as the title of his book on the war. The military defeat of the guerrillas would not have been possible but for the sacrifice of the troops. They were the children of mostly poor families from the villages. Some of the funerals after death from combat could not be held in their tiny homes. A garage like aluminium shed had to be put up to allow the body to lie. Have they been forgotten?

It is a known fact that any military offensive is carried out according to operational (OP) orders formulated by the relevant command. It lists the plan for the re-capture of a particular area or accomplishing a target, details out to different officers the tasks they should execute with the personnel assigned to them, the code names for radio communications etc. All offensive operations to defeat the guerrillas militarily in May 2009 were carried out after OP orders were issued. That is a record of history by itself. There are also intelligence reports, both local and foreign. The latter became useful particularly during air attacks on LTTE installations, including ammunition dumps and weapons caches.

One is not sure whether the Defence Ministry would be aware that through such OP orders, it could identify the officers who had directed operational activity in the various sectors? Will they not be aware of the brave and heroic deeds of the men they commanded? Would they not know who died and who was maimed? Will not this be a credible basis if the Defence Ministry is truly keen to obtain a cohesive, chronological historic record of what happened in the battlefield? Why is the Defence Ministry resorting to secrecy on such a national issue that affected practically every Sri Lankan? Why is it saying that there is no credible account available at present? Is it because it is simply unaware? Imposing a veil of secrecy is not only most damning but unfair to troops too. Such an exercise, if needed, would have been carried out transparently after inviting all stakeholders to air their views and experience. Alas, there are no military historians in Sri Lanka and bureaucrats want to play that role. The damage they cause to the country and the people is irreparable.

It is also unfair to those men and women who have sacrificed their lives or the troops who are still serving. If the MoD wanted to draw the services of retired service chiefs or officers, there are number of areas where they could be of immense assistance. One that is most wanting is for a panel of them to advise MoD bureaucrats on the basics of how the defence establishment works and the different nuances in their activities. Otherwise, heavy damage is done when they finish their term learning in office. It was demonstrated once before under this coalition. This way such a panel can ensure there is sanity and order in what they are doing for the national interest and for a national cause. The retired senior officers also made use of the opportunity to urge Sirisena to have one standard pension for different ranks. Defence Secretary Kapila Waidyaratne replied that it was not possible due to the lack of financial resources.

The night after his meeting with retired commanders, President Sirisena chaired the weekly cabinet meeting the next (Tuesday) morning. He put on hold two important issues, one a proposal by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the other by Minister Malik Samarawickrema. Wickremesinghe, who had called a halt to a Rs 100,000 pay increase to MPs had sent in a memorandum — a report by an official committee and his recommendation to now pay Rs 200,000 a month to MPs who will be involved in the Gamperaliya projects. The Committee headed by PM’s Secretary Saman Ekanayake had been appointed by Wickremesinghe. This was a fee, according to his recommendation, for monitoring different aspects of the projects.

Ministers Rajitha Senaratne and Gayantha Karunatilleke, who were spokespersons at Wednesday’s news briefing on the cabinet meeting avoided references to Premier Wickremesinghe. This is how they dealt with the subject:

Q: Isn’t the gap between the President and the Prime Minster widening? There have been reports that a cabinet paper submitted by the Prime Minister has been rejected by the Cabinet.

Senaratne: The cabinet paper was not rejected. It will be taken up for discussion again. The cabinet paper had details about the facilities to be provided. The discussion was on that.

Karunatilleke:  It was a proposal put forward by an official committee. Particularly, the Gamperaliya programme is a major one where a multitude of development projects are being carried out. Since the Divisional Secretaries are not in a position to oversee these projects, a committee recommended that MPs assisted by some staff can oversee the project.  The proposal was put forward by Prime Minister’s Secretary, the Finance Ministry Secretary and the Parliamentary Affairs Secretary. The proposal will be further discussed. It was postponed for next week.

Q: Is this for all MPs or Government MPs.

Senaratne: Opposition MPs do not get involved as supervising (Monitoring) MPs.

The fact that the project was a pre-election initiative of the UNP and the payment of a fee for MPs was coupled with it was not lost on Sirisena. He did not favour the idea. He said that the projects (under Gamperaliya) could easily be monitored by the present District Co-ordinating Committees (DCC). Usually headed by Cabinet Ministers, the DCCs include all MPs of a district. Sirisena said that the matter could be examined on a later occasion. Some media reports, however, declared Sirisena had rejected the proposal. This is not the accurate position. A senior UNPer said they would raise issue again at the next cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

Another issue Sirisena did not favour was a cabinet memorandum submitted by Development Strategies and International Trade Malik Samarawickrema. He has sought approval for ministries to hire private counsel. Payment is to be made by the state. Samarawickrema produced a letter at the cabinet meeting to say that the Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya had consented to the proposal in the light of his department’s workload. “That he has written to you is one thing. He has told me another,” declared Sirisena. He said the matter would have to be clarified with the AG since he has made clear to the President that staff in his office could easily undertake the work which Samarawickrema wants to give private counsel. The matter has now been put on hold until things are clarified with AG Jayasuriya.

The fact that proposals advantageous to one side and disadvantageous to the other are frequently coming before cabinet appears to have become a cause for concern for Sirisena. On Tuesday, he told the SLFP parliamentary group of 23 MPs that “we have to be more vigilant.” He said they should get together every two weeks before Parliament met. They would have to discuss issues relating to ministries and those coming up before Parliament. He said it was regrettable that Parliament had to be adjourned abruptly due to lack of quorum. There were also different positions taken by the UNP and the SLFP. They would have to be identified and corrected, Sirisena declared adding that the media gave a different picture.

Earlier on Tuesday, Sirisena chaired a meeting of the party’s committee making preparations for the annual conference. This time it will be held in Colombo though the exact date in September is yet to be determined. One of the members who took part in the meeting said Sirisena was keen to ensure that a very large crowd attended — an indication that he plans to contest the upcoming presidential election for a second term. Further confirmation came during the SLFP Central Committee meeting on Wednesday. It centred on the setting up and immediate completion of more Bala Mandalayas. These are grassroots level party organs.

Sirisena spent considerable time examining the workings of these bodies in various electorates. He said the constitution of these bodies in areas it did not exist now should be completed before the party’s annual sessions. Former Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera made a presentation on how to re-organise the party to win public support. A committee headed by General Secretary Prof. Rohana Luxman Piyadasa was appointed to further develop the concept. Jayasekera’s concept was on the old cliché of Sangha, Veda. Guru, Govi Kamkaaru – or clergy, native physicians, teachers, farmers and workers. For example, the slogans are being modernised. Where there is a reference to Sangha (Buddhist Clergy) it is to be defined to include all religious groups. Thus, the new Pancha Maha Balavegaya (the five giant forces) will also focus on Pradeshiya Sabhas and district level organisations among other improvements.

Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva and former State Minister Dilan Perera, who are SLFP members on the Steering Committee that is involved in the formulation of a new Constitution gave the latest position. De Silva said that the Committee had forwarded five different reports and they were now being studied. This time, however, the reports by the panel of experts had not been signed, suggesting there were disagreements. At the next meeting of the Central Committee, a decision is to be made on which provisions could be approved and which are not consistent with SLFP policies.

The SLFP position that the Executive Presidency should remain was endorsed again. This is in the light of the drafts going on the basis that there should be no Executive Presidency.

Next Tuesday, President Sirisena faces a test of strength at the cabinet. UNP Ministers plan to push once again for Premier Wickremesinghe’s proposal for a monthly allowance of Rs 200,000 to MPs to “monitor” the Gamperaliya project. All indications are that he will put his foot down for the move as it will place at disadvantage the 23 SLFP MPs who are supporting him. The next is Minister Samarawickrema’s proposal for ministries to hire private counsel. That move too is not likely to see the light of day. Not when Sirisena believes that the Attorney General’s Department could handle those cases.

With elections round the corner, political parties need more money not only to keep their politicians happy but also for related expenses. Sirisena has argued with his confidants that such money should not be tapped from state sources under whatever pretext. Thus, there is at least a modicum of checks and balances being ensured by him though his countrymen would have wished there was more.

Paisley affair: Full probe by Parliamentary Committee

The Parliament’s Sectoral Oversight Committee on International Relations has initiated a probe on the Ian Paisley affair revealed extensively in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) of July 29.

The Committee has called for a full report from the Foreign Ministry on who invited the British MP, now suspended from the House of Commons, for two different all expenses paid holidays fit enough for a head of state. One was in April 2013 and the other in July 2013.

The directive was given after the Committee summoned four top officials from the Foreign Ministry. They were Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam, Chief Accountant U.G.C. Abeyratne, Chief of Protocol M.R. Hassen and Sarath Dissanayake, who was then Deputy Chief of Protocol.

The Committee’s Chairman and State Minister Ranjith Aluvihare told the four Foreign Ministry officials that their report should be comprehensive since further action was being contemplated. Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) parliamentarian Bimal Ratnayake also raised a series of questions on how such a visit violated all norms.

The Sunday Times learnt that Foreign Secretary Kariyawasam has in turn called for a full report from Majintha Jayasinghe who was the then Chief of Protocol. He is currently Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in Malaysia. Foreign Ministry sources said Jayasinghe had said that the request to make arrangements for Paisely had come from the then Sri Lanka High Commissioner in Britain, Dr Chris Nonis. He had obtained approval of the then Foreign Secretary, the late Romesh Jayasinghe.

However, as revealed in these columns, the visit originated after Paisely sent an e-mail to Sajin de Vass Gunawardena, who was then Monitoring MP for the Foreign Ministry. In fact Mr Jayasinghe had quoted that e-mail in the process of confirming the request and making other arrangements.

Other issues surfaced in the process, the Sunday Times learnt were similar visits arranged for at least ten or more persons from United States public relations firms. One such person has been the driver of a car which transported the Sri Lankan director of one such PR firm.

This issue has placed Foreign Secretary Kariyawasam in a dilemma. The visits passed through his hands then as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United States. It was during the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration. Now, serving under President Maithripala Sirisena, he may have to look into these cases too if the Committee decides to probe the matter.

Members of the Sectoral Oversight Committee on International Relations are:

Ranjith Aluvihare (Chairman), Indika Bandaranayake, Dunesh Gankanda, Ajith P. Perera,  Eran Wickramaratne, Tharanath Basnayaka, Anuradha Jayaratne, Dinesh Gunawardena, S.M. Chandrasena,  Bimal Rathnayake, Annamalai Nadesu Sivasakthi,  Lakshman Ananda Wijemanne,  Namal Rajapaksa,  Nalaka Prasad Colonne,  Malith Jayathilake, (Dr.) Kavinda Heshan Jayawardana,  Mayantha Yaswanth Dissanayake, S.M. Marikkar, Prasanna Ranatunga and Chaminda Wijesiri.

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