Puts a stop to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) Ambassador Kariyawasam present when President ordered signing of ACSA Sirisena wants early SLFP-SLPP talks Elections Chief meets President and Prime Minister   President Maithripala Sirisena last week forbade the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) from signing any defence or security related agreements with the United [...]


President tells UNF: No military deals with the United States


  • Puts a stop to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)
  • Ambassador Kariyawasam present when President ordered signing of ACSA
  • Sirisena wants early SLFP-SLPP talks
  • Elections Chief meets President and Prime Minister


President Maithripala Sirisena last week forbade the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) from signing any defence or security related agreements with the United States of America. He has said that any such agreement would have to receive his approval since he was the Minister of Defence.

These instructions were given to Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana soon after the President returned to Colombo from a visit to China last Thursday. Marapana was still in Washington DC discussing some clauses of the controversial draft Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Sri Lanka and the United States, when he conveyed his directive. Talks on this draft had earlier been going on in Colombo without the glare of any publicity with US Embassy officials pushing hard to clinch a deal soon. The UNF has been in favour of the move, with certain amendments.

Such an agreement, which would grant further unlimited access, facilities and concessions to the United States military, was taking shape. This was in addition to the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) between the two countries, signed on August 4, 2017. There a multitude of US military establishments have been given formal access to Sri Lanka through this, as exclusively revealed in these pages last week.

Foreign Minister Marapana was in the United States capital of Washington DC in a high-profile visit from May 15 to 17. He met Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton among others. The immediate purpose of the meeting was the US–Sri Lanka partnership dialogue. Marapana led the Sri Lankan side whilst Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, David Hale headed the US side. A joint statement released in Washington DC said, “the US and Sri Lanka agreed to expand military-to-military co-operation” but avoided any reference to the talks on SOFA. It added that “Both governments welcomed ongoing bilateral security sector cooperation, including US support for demining, joint military engagements, Sri Lanka’s peacekeeping operations, human rights training for Sri Lankan officers, and visits by US ships and military officials.”

The draft agreement prepared for then Defence Secretary Engineer Karunasena Hettiaratchchi (now Sri Lanka Ambassador to Germany). He was asked to relinquish office and the Agreement was signed by his successor, Defence Secretary Three, Kapila Waidyaratne.

House Leader and Minister Lakshman Kiriella threw some light on the SOFA when he spoke in Parliament on Thursday. The occasion was a debate on an adjournment motion by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). He said there were 15 paragraphs in the SOFA. There were two clauses which Minister Marapana sought to change during talks in Washington DC — one was diplomatic immunity for US troops who would be present in Sri Lanka and the other subjecting all their actions to US laws. He said there would be no checking of US vessels, they would receive tax free concessions, they could travel in uniform with their identity cards and they can carry weapons and telecommunications equipment.

If that were to become a reality, since independence 71 years ago, this would be the first-time foreign troops would be permitted to freely roam the country in uniform, carrying weapons and communications equipment. The only exceptions were the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) but they were confined entirely to the war-torn north and east during the separatist war. The other was the presence of foreign troops during the December 2005 tsunami but they were not allowed to carry weapons and given specific areas to undertake relief work.

Minister Kiriella admitted that there has been a letter of exchange between Sri Lanka and the US over the SOFA but “it has not been signed.” Was such a letter approved by the Cabinet? Was Parliament kept informed?  Since the US had ACSA with over 100 countries, Kiriella claimed, it was only for logistics purposes and not a military one. However, he did not table a copy of the ACSA between the US and Sri Lanka in Parliament so the Sri Lankan public may know. Strange enough, other than Kiriella, there was none from the UNF, or the Opposition who spoke.

On the one hand, the US is the sponsor of a resolution against Sri Lankan troops for violating human rights, international humanitarian law and alleged war crimes. Thanks to the then Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, Sri Lanka became a co-sponsor of the resolution. The very country that accused the troops and placed them under scrutiny before the UNHRC and blacklisted many military officers, now wants joint military ties. Who will be answerable for their actions in Sri Lanka since it is known that their troops also violated human rights, too? Ironically, the UNF which wanted action against the troops, now wants to give the US military a free run in Sri Lanka. Other than Kiriella, `none from the UNF nor the Joint Opposition chose to speak during the debate. Not when their local political interests are at stake.

The cover of the 83 page ACSA

“The government should not get into agreements with countries and organisations that use them to interfere in internal affairs of the country as well as engage in activities detrimental to the sovereignty and security. The government should submit all the information about such agreements before and after April 21 (Easter Sunday attacks) to the House,” declared JVP’s Vijitha Herath. He said countries including the US were using the insecure situation in Sri Lanka to intervene “in the internal affairs of the country.” There were only three speakers and the big guns vociferous on other issues kept away.

What is significant in President Sirisena’s directive to Foreign Minister Marapana is twofold. The first, as revealed last week, is the grim reality that the ACSA with the US running into exactly 83 pages was entered into under the tutelage of President Sirisena himself. I reported last week that the second Defence Secretary under President Sirisena, Engineer Karunasena Hettiartchchi (now Sri Lanka Ambassador to Germany) signed the ACSA with the then US Ambassador Atul Keshap. Engineer Hettiaratchchi was solely responsible for talks to conclude the ACSA. In fact, the Cabinet Paper submitted by President Sirisena dated June 30, 2017 contained the draft bearing the name of Hettiaratchchi as Defence Secretary. See montage on this page. However, he was asked to relinquish office by President Sirisena before the signing. As a result, it was Kapila Waidyaratne, his successor as Defence Secretary who placed his signature just a month after assuming office. The latter was earlier Senior Additional Solicitor General in the Attorney General’s Department. He took over on July 4, 2017 and was also asked to relinquish office later.

Don’t delay

It has now come to light that one of those who influenced the President to sign the ACSA was Prasad Kariyawasam, Sri Lanka’s onetime ambassador to the United States. The career diplomat later became Foreign Secretary.

Sometime in 2017, President Sirisena had summoned a meeting to ask why there was a delay in the signing of the ACSA. He was informed that the comments of heads of the armed forces were still being awaited. He asked that the blame for the delay not be put on the heads of the armed forces. Kariyawasam who was Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the US was called to the meeting from an ante-room of the Presidential Secretariat. The President was told that the draft contained several annexures. President Sirisena exhorted “Ekeng mata vedak nehe. Vahaama assang karanna lesthi keranna” or I am not interested in all of that. Make arrangements immediately to sign it.

The ACSA became a fait accompli. The US military gained its first formal military foothold in Sri Lanka. Retaliatory attacks from local extremists, avenging attacks on the ISIS in Syria by US trained Syrian forces, led to the Easter Sunday massacre – one of the worst in the country. Not having stopped at the ACSA, the US was pushing for a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). All to combat terrorism, a phenomenon the US’s own actions elsewhere have caused.

Though he faltered on entering into ACSA and its adverse impact on Sri Lanka, with the country becoming a breeding ground for Muslim extremists, President Sirisena should still be commended for being wise this time. He had at least denied IS a recruiting base but more needs to be done. That could also include a re-scrutiny of the ACSA to determine whether the provisions, still a secret, are beneficial to Sri Lanka. If not, there is provision in the ACSA to amend them. He should do so. It is pertinent to mention that the ACSA signed by former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was only eight pages with the cover. It did not contain annexures to allow different US military establishments a foothold in Sri Lanka. Hence the claim by Minister Kiriella that the previous administration too signed the ACSA is grossly misleading. It is reminiscent of the pithy Sinhala saying Kanna uvamana vunama Kabarayath Thalagoya wenawa or when one seeks to eat, even the monitor lizard becomes an iguana. One is not consumed whilst the other is.

However, this time, President Sirisena has been thrust into the eye of a serious controversy, both in Sri Lanka and abroad, after signing a Defence Agreement with China. This was during a three-day visit. The most significant part of this arrangement preceded a one-on-one meeting between President Sirisena and Chinese President Xi Jinping. One source said their talks covered a multitude of defence and security issues besides the Easter Sunday carnage.

President Sirisena’s directive to Foreign Minister Marapana effectively lays to rest any UNF moves to support even an amended SOFA. However, his China deal, one need hardly say, would become a major irritant or even a bigger thorn in Indo-Sri Lanka relations. More so after the resounding victory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP). India has been incensed over remarks by a military leader that at least two senior cadres of the IS backed Muslim extremists trained in their soil — a charge which New Delhi has vehemently denied. Efforts by their diplomatic channels to obtain specific details had not proved successful prompting fears at the highest levels in New Delhi. Then came a comment from the President that Sri Lankan Intelligence was sufficient to handle situations, which was strange considering the fact that it was an Indian Intelligence agency that warned of something about to happen around Easter Sunday, and nothing was done about it. Now the defence deal with China has become a subject of bigger worry for India.

President Sirisena, the Sunday Times learnt, has also made clear to those at the Defence Ministry and heads of armed forces that no defence or security deals involving Sri Lanka with any foreign country should be endorsed by them. Since he was the Minister of Defence, he has said, such matters should be brought to his attention first. It is on this basis that Army Commander, Lt General Mahesh Senanayake, made the unusual and strong declaration that he would not place his signature on such agreements — a view endorsed by even his colleagues at higher levels. Not that Army Commander’s signature is required for such agreements, but he was echoing a message from the Commander-in-chief. Thus, at least until this year’s Presidential election is over, there is little chance of a finality of the SOFA. President Sirisena has put a stop to it despite covert pressure from the UNF.

Meeting with Deshapriya

However, President Sirisena is still under pressure over many other issues. This week, National Election Commission (NEC) Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya met him to give a reminder of the impending presidential election. According to an official source, he had pointed out that any announcement by the President of a presidential election would have to be made on or before October 20 and the polls held on or before December 8. In the event, the President plans to complete his full term (ending January 8, 2020) an announcement has to be made on or before November 9 and the polls held by December 8. Deshapriya also had a similar meeting with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Perhaps with this in mind, President Sirisena is once again keen on early re-opening the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s (SLFP) talks with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). After their brief round of talks last month (just after the Easter Sunday massacre) they decided to meet again on June 30. It has now been advanced to June 8 amidst growing speculation that President Sirisena was again keen to strike a deal before the presidential election and also talk more about his future plans.

Modi’s APP

This is whilst the SLPP is in the process of finalising its campaign arrangements for the presidential election. A very interesting feature is the introduction of a new app used by the BJP campaign group in India. The group was headed by the BJP leader Amit Shah, a close ally of Premier Modi. A Sri Lankan with varied interests worked with the group studying how the Modi campaign worked gifted the app to the SLPP architect Basil Rajapaksa. He, together with the SLPP de facto leader Mahinda Rajapaksa met their district organisers in 25 districts during three days this week. The app was put into operation and tested. The duo also met separately with former members of Provincial Councils and local authorities to brief them on poll arrangements.

Mahinda Rajapaksa also agreed to an invitation by President Sirisena to serve in a National Security Advisory Council (NSAC) which will function parallel to the National Security Council (NSC). Rajapaksa is going on the basis that he cannot turn down an invitation extended to him as Leader of the Opposition since it concerns national security. There was a time though, as Prime Minister under President Chandrika Kumaratunga, he did not deem it fit to attend the National Security Council meetings. There were other party leaders strongly opposed to the move on the grounds that the composition did not fully represent those in the Opposition. The fact that non-civilians were being regularly invited to NSC meetings drew strong criticism in military circles since this apex security body is considered sacrosanct in view of the sensitive nature of matters discussed. The first NSAC meeting took place on Friday.

The appointment of a new NSAC by itself has in no way lowered the heat or tensions caused by the Easter Sunday massacre. The mammoth intelligence failure, coupled together with inaction by those concerned, has caused much concern at various levels including the Colombo-based diplomatic community. It is now over a month since the massacres. The only two things that have happened is the resignation of the former Defence Secretary (number four) Hemasiri Fernando and sending on compulsory leave of then Police Chief Pujith Jayasundera. The latter still occupies the IGP’s residence at Wijerama Mawatha and enjoys some official perks.

As revealed earlier, even the ongoing investigations are all into the operational aspects – about who did what, how it was done and which laws they have violated. Other than that, the larger aspects have still not been gone into. There are politicians including those in the UNF. Only a proper probe that would clearly identify those promoters, funders, sympathisers and those who bankrolled it.

UNF probe on Easter
Sunday massacre

In this backdrop, the UNF’s action to stall a move by the Opposition to bring a vote of no confidence against Minister Rishad Bathiudeen assumes greater significance. At first, the UNF asked President Sirisena that it be given the Law and Order Ministry. That did not materialise. With the Police not with the UNF to probe the Easter Sunday carnage, it successfully moved for a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC). The main opposition backed out, but the TNA and the JVP have a member each.

So, it is a probe by the UNF, a TNA member and a JVP member into the events on April 21 including the role of Rishad Bathiudeen. The no-confidence motion will come thereafter on June 18 and 19. For them, it appears to be all about the loss of Muslim votes which Bathiudeen commands in the north western seaboard. What the educated UNF strategists, including a few from abroad, failed to discern is disturbing. The UNF has already alienated a substantial chunk of the Catholic vote. Through this greed for Muslim votes, the UNF would similarly lose another volume of the Sinhala vote. Such fundamentals do not register and are dismissed with ease by the leadership.

At the UNF parliamentary group meeting this week, Bathiudeen threatened to resign. However, it was Premier Wickremesinghe, the UNF leader, who declared he should not do so until the PSC sittings were concluded. It would decide on who is guilty or not and would complete its interim report within two weeks, he declared. Whilst in no way casting any aspersions on members of the PSC, there are issues that need to be pointed out in the national interest. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has publicly admitted “collective responsibility” for government failures over the Easter Sunday carnage. Now, he will be sitting in judgement together with his front-line members and allies over who is responsible. Senior Opposition members ask whether this PSC would also go the same way the PSC on the Central Bank bond scam probe went. There, unabashedly, the government members came up with a string of footnotes to show the public that they were right and the accusers were wrong. Fiction was replaced by facts only later.

What followed thereafter was even more shocking. President Sirisena appointed a Commission of Inquiry. Its findings went counter to those of the PSC on the bond scam. It did come to light that some in the UNF were indeed involved. The main culprit the Central Bank’s former Governor Arjuna Mahendran is still avoiding the long arm of the law, which is not long enough to catch him. Action in almost all cases is still pending. Some top Police officials are now pointing the finger at the former Police Chief Pujith Jayasundera for the slowdown. President Sirisena’s backers say Jayasundera received protection from sections of the UNF government and therefore continued with impunity.

First to the text of the No Confidence Motion against Minister Bathiudeen, Minister of Industry & Commerce, Resettlement of Protracted Displaced Persons, Co-operative Development and Vocational Training & Skills Development.

“Whereas it has been stated by the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army to the ‘Silumina’ newspaper on 5th May 2019 that pressure was exerted on him to release the suspects apprehended in connection with the terrorist attacks known as the Easter Sunday terrorist attack on nine locations including Christian churches and hotels on 21st April 2019;

“And whereas the factory owned by Imshan Ahmed Ibrahim who carried out the suicide bomb attack on Cinnamon Grand Hotel has been supplied with empty cartridges by the Ministry of Trade and Commerce in breach of procedures;

“And whereas reasonable suspicions have arisen that there had been political influence by allowing the workers of the company which is believed to have used for manufacturing bombs to be released on bail on 06.05.2019 by not producing them to the court under the Prevention of Terrorism Act by the Sri Lanka Police which produced war heroes to the court under the Prevention of Terrorism Act permitting them to be remanded for more than a year;

“And whereas, no action was taken against, though legal action could have been constituted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act against S. K. P. Alahudeen, the Treasurer of the All Ceylon People’s Congress led by Minister Rishad Bathiudeen for not disclosing the attempts of terrorists to authorities despite being aware of same;

“And whereas two sons of Alhaj Mohammad Ibrahim Yusuf Ibrahim, a close associate of the Minister had carried out suicide attacks;

“And whereas Abdul Hanuth, a Pradeshiya Sabha member of the All Ceylon People’s Congress and claimed to be a Coordinating Secretary of the Minister has been arrested as a terrorist suspect;

“And whereas a Mavulavi who claims to be an advisor to the Minister has been arrested as a terrorist suspect;

“And whereas Rifkan Bathiudeen, one of the Minister’s brothers, when handed over to the police after being arrested by the army, was released without producing him before the Court, as a result of pressure exerted;

“And whereas a very strong opinion prevails in society based on the information provided by the officers of the security forces and the police that the Minister is exerting undue pressure on the investigations in relation to the Easter Sunday terrorist attack;

“And whereas the Minister holding the portfolio is deemed to be an obstacle for investigations as the police has so far failed to question the Minister in this regard despite the strong suspicion about a powerful link between the Minister and the terrorists;

“That this Parliament resolves that it has no confidence in the competence of Hon. Rishad Bathiudeen, Minister of Industry & Commerce, Resettlement of Protracted Displaced Persons, Co-operative Development and Vocational Training & Skills Development, to function as a Cabinet Minister any longer.”

This motion has been signed by 53 Opposition MPs (former UPFA), three SLFP MPs, two from the UNP, one from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and an independent (Ven. Athureliye Rathana Thera).

That Minister Bathiudeen was popular even in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) circles emerged when President Sirisena chaired a meeting of SLFP MPs this week. Questions were raised on why three of their members – S.B. Dissanayake,   Thilanga Sumathipala and Dilan Perera – were signatories to the motion when the party had not taken a decision. Dissanayake was absent and Sumathipala maintained that the list only contained his name as an attendee at a discussion. This prompted President Sirisena to summon a meeting of the SLFP Central Committee at 6.30 p.m. tomorrow for a discussion on the matter. Even in the UNP, there were members who sought a conscience vote. Kavinda Jayawardena, who was named to the PSC, withdrew his name and declared he would not serve in it.

JVP’s no-faith motion

Amidst this, it was literally manna from heaven for the UNF when the JVP declared it would move a No Confidence Motion (NCM) against the government over the Easter Sunday massacres. Was it prompted by the UNP?  JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake told the Sunday Times “there is no purpose blaming individuals. The entire government is culpable.” An English translation of the motion from leader Dissanayake and five others, makes clear, it is against the Prime Minister. It quotes him as telling Parliament that the IS had maintained relations with local Muslim extremist groups since 2014 but no action has been taken. If one may use cricketing parlance to describe the situation, that is indeed a full toss. Wickremesinghe could well say that the security forces and the Police are under President Sirisena and the responsibility lies fairly and squarely on his shoulders. This is what the UNP-led UNF leaders have all been saying. This is notwithstanding the fact that when the IS influence invaded Sri Lanka, there were two UNP Law and Order Ministers – Sagala Ratnayake and Ranjit Madduma Bandara. The JVP’s no confidence motion also takes note of “foreign countries” being allowed to intervene in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka.

Opinion is sharply divided in political circles over this NCM. Some believe the JVP, has been acting as a proxy for the UNP in the recent years, and wanted to deflect issues and ensure unity within the latter’s ranks. At the same time, there was also a compulsion on the JVP leadership to bolster its dwindling image within the rank and file.  Still others claimed it was a “joint exercise” by Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa to “strike back” at President Sirisena though such a move is unlikely. This is through a debate where they could highlight alleged lapses. At least one partner leader in the Opposition was sarcastic in his comments though he did not wish to be named. He said “You can call the JVP all kind of names. But you cannot say they are an ungrateful party. They are very grateful to the UNP.”

The Easter Sunday carnage has changed the country’s history and the direction it is moving. It is a different story for those who govern. They are fighting each other, placing stumbling blocks at one another and are at war for votes and political survival. They seem to believe in the morbid thought that over 250 men, women and children have been massacred is a thing of the past. Life goes on as they make deliver pious vows, time and again, for a new era — one without terrorism, with economic prosperity and all the freedoms. They are forgotten even before the ink dries in the newspapers where these reports appear.

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