Wartime seizure of UN workers and an abduction that never happened
By Shamindra Ferdinando
War winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa (Nov 2005-January 2015) addressed editors of national newspapers and senior representatives of the electronic media at Temple Trees. Formal meetings with the media began in his second term, beginning 2010. President Rajapaksa was always flanked by several ministers and in some instances, top officials. Finance Secretary Dr. P. B. Jayasundera and Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga had been present regularly at the meetings at Temple Trees.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s predecessor, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, during her tenure (Nov 1994-Nov 2005), never bothered to invite the media for formal briefings.
President Maithripala Sirisena (January 2015 to Nov 2019) invited the editors of national newspapers and senior representatives of the electronic media to the President’s House. At the beginning of the yahapalana government, President Sirisena was flanked by senior UNP ministers. The then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse had been among them. There had been junior politicians present on some occasions.
The writer had the opportunity to cover almost all the briefings given by Presidents Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena. President Sirisena didn’t bother to invite the media, after the April 2019 President’s House briefing, held in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks.
The then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake (July 2017-August 2019) and Northern Governor Dr. Suren Raghavan flanked President Sirisena. President Sirisena, who had been on a private visit to Singapore at the time of the near simultaneous suicide attacks which killed approximately 270, blamed the then IGP Pujith Jayasundera and Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando while Lt. Gen. Senanayake faulted the then Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) retired DIG Sisira Mendis of not sharing vital intelligence warning provided by New Delhi. The Army Chief’s assertion was the Easter Sunday carnage could have been thwarted if the CNI shared intelligence with the Army. The Army Chief refrained from explaining as to why the country’s premier intelligence outfit, the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), failed in its primary duty. Dr. Raghavan quite surprisingly asserted that the government should initiate a dialogue with those responsible for the Easter Sunday massacre.
One-time Director of the President’s Media said direct talks were necessary in the absence of an accepted mechanism to deal with such a situation. Dr. Raghavan declared that there was no model/framework to tackle such security threats.
No one should be surprised of President Sirisena’s decision not to invite the media after the April, 2019 meet. The pathetic failure on the part of the President and the UNP administration to thwart the suicide bombings ruined the UNP government. The Security crisis, caused by the previous administration, facilitated Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential bid. Having promised to restore stability, wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa comfortably won the Nov 16, 2019 presidential election. His closest rival Sajith Premadasa lost by a staggering 1.4 mn vote margin. Thirty-three other contestants, including JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake, couldn’t regain their deposits.
Within a week after his triumph over Sajith Premadasa, who contested on the New Democratic Front (NDF) ticket, those who couldn’t stomach the change of government hit back hard.
Swiss Embassy employee Garnier Banister Francis was used in a high profile project to tarnish the image of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Swiss Ambassador Hanspeter Mock, on behalf of Francis, complained to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa of the Embassy employee being abducted at gunpoint. In fact, the Swiss operation involved accommodating Inspector Nishantha Silva along with his family on their political asylum programme and using an alleged abduction to cause a debilitating setback to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Nishantha Silva fled the country, courtesy Switzerland Embassy, on Nov. 24, 2019. Francis claimed being abducted by five persons, in a Toyota Corolla car, on Nov. 25, 2019. Swiss Ambassador Mock complained to Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa on Nov 27. 2019. Defeated presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa, MP Dr. Rajitha Senaratne and the JVP faulted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government over the incident.
Those who planned the propaganda blitz certainly took into consideration a spate of still unsolved cases – the disappearance of 11 youths & in the hands of the Navy, mostly in 2008, torturing of Deputy Editor of The Nation, Keith Noyahr, on May 22, 2008, assassination of the founding Editor of The Sunday Leader, attorney-at-law, Lasantha Wickrematunga, in the morning of January 08, 2009, on Attidiya Road, near Bakery Junction, attempt on the life of Rivira editor, Upali Tennakoon, on January 23, 2009, at Imbulgoda, Gampaha, abduction and assault on well-known journalist and civil society activist, Poddala Jayantha, on June 1, 2009, near Embuldeniya Junction, in Nugegoda, and disappearance of media personality, Prageeth Ekneligoda, on the eve of the January 26, 2010, presidential poll. Keith Noyahr and Upali Tennakoon sought political asylum overseas.
Had the Swiss managed to force the government to allow Francis to leave the country, in an air ambulance, without being subject to immigration formalities, as planned, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would have been in serious trouble today. Their plan was to get the worker out of Sri Lanka, claiming rapidly deteriorating health. Had the government succumbed to Western pressure, Francis would have been most probably moved out of Sri Lanka during President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first official visit to New Delhi. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was away on Nov. 28 and 29.
Having blocked the Swiss move, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered no holds barred investigation into the Swiss saga. Investigations proved conclusively that the alleged abduction never took place. Foreign Secretary Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasingha and Defence Secretary Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne briefed Ambassador Mock of the findings in the evening of Dec 01.
By the time President Rajapaksa met Ambassador Mock at the Presidential Secretariat before he addressed the media, the Swiss mystery was bared. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa highlighted the New York Times coverage of the incident to justify his assertion that he was the target of a diabolical project. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn’t mince his words when he questioned Sajith Premadasa’s statement on the alleged incident. The writer was among those present on the occasion where a quite satisfied President declared his government defeated the high profile propaganda initiative.
The scribes were quite surprised to see President Gotabaya Rajapaksa joining the queue to serve himself buffet style lunch.
Analysis of telephone data revealed that Francis had been in touch with Inspector Nishantha Silva before the latter left the country. She had also been in touch with several others. There had never been a previous case of Sri Lanka successfully countering lies propagated by international players. The writer dealt in previous articles (Alleged abduction of embassy employee: Swiss jolted by GR govt response, The Island, Dec 04, 2019 and Swiss mystery underscores need to examine wider picture, The Island, Dec 11, 2019) as to how previous governments failed to properly counter lies.
The writer discussed how Norway-led SLMM (Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission) reversed death toll after The Island challenged its unsubstantiated claims, unverified accusations in respect of 40,000 civilians killed, in 2009, the Mannar mass graves, Man killed by DMI arrested in India, Australian identity for high profile JVPer, Missing LTTE cadre in the French movie, Sri Lanka Navy blamed for killings carried out by the LTTE, and over 100 LTTE cadres in government custody being poisoned.
Except the accusation made in August 2018 with regard to poisoning of ex-LTTE combatants and the Mannar mass graves, all other failures took place during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration. Sri Lanka never bothered to probe these accusations. But President Gotabaya Rajapaksa handled the Swiss accusations entirely differently.
The new government strategy placed Western powers in an embarrassing situation. Western powers expressed concern over the way the government handled the situation. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pointed out he had no option but to set the record straight.
A controversial UN bid
Let me examine the UN having secret talks with the LTTE in a bid to secure the release of two local Tamil workers, detained by the LTTE, against the backdrop of the Swiss taking up cudgels for its worker. Sri Lanka never really inquired into the matter. The government was not bothered at all. The Island exposed the secret UN pow-vow with the LTTE, in early 2007, as the Army was battling the LTTE on the Vanni west and the Eastern Province.
UN Panel of Experts (PoE) report on Accountability in Sri Lanka called for a comprehensive review of actions by the UN during the war in Sri Lanka. The probe was meant to examine the implementation of the UN’s humanitarian and protection mandates.
It was the final recommendation made by the three-member PoE (Panel of Experts), comprising former Attorney General of Indonesia Marzuki Darusman (Chairman), US attorney-at-law Steven R. Ratner and NGO activist Yasmin Sooka. The PoE released its report on March 31, 2011.
For want of a cohesive strategy, Sri Lanka never exploited the PoE’s recommendation to push for a thorough inquiry into the conduct of UN personnel here. Had there been a proper strategy, Sri Lanka could have exposed the sordid relationship between the UN mission in Colombo and the LTTE. Even a decade after the conclusion of the conflict, Sri Lanka is yet to examine as to how the UN and other UN agencies, as well as the NGO community, prolonged the war. Did the UN system in Sri Lanka facilitate Western strategy? Did they work closely together to save the LTTE?
The UN turned a blind eye to what was happening on the ground. The LTTE made a strong bid to prevent civilians from crossing the front lines, on the Western front, in early 2007.
The LTTE obviously needed the cover of civilians, primarily to discourage the military from using heavy weapons. Secondly, the LTTE leadership felt the need of the population to ensure a steady supply of fresh recruits. (Remember, the forced recruitment of children continued until the very end. The PoE, too, confirmed this fact.) Instead of taking tangible action to thwart the LTTE move, the UN propagated lies that the Sri Lankan military was recruiting child soldiers on behalf of the breakaway LTTE faction led by one-time Batticaloa commander, Karuna.
Tamils started fleeing LTTE-held areas as the 57 Division gradually stepped up pressure on the Vanni west front. Although the UN knew of the LTTE bid to stop the exodus of people, the world body remained quiet for obvious reasons.
The UN mission in Colombo stayed silent even after the LTTE detained two of its Tamil employees for helping civilians to flee the war zone. The LTTE refused to release them in spite of the UN repeatedly appealing to the top LTTE leadership. The so-called human rights champions remained tight lipped. No one dared to voice concern over the new development. The Co-chairs to Sri Lanka’s peace process, namely Norway, the US, EU and Japan, conveniently remained silent even after The Island revealed the unprecedented detention of UN workers While confirming the high handed LTTE action, the then Foreign Secretary, Dr. Palitha Kohona, alleged that those who accused the government of death and destruction at the drop of a hat ignored what was happening in the Vanni mainland (LTTE detains UN workers-The Island April 20, 2007).
The UN mission in Colombo declined to respond to The Island report. Those Colombo-based foreign correspondents, as well as locals working for the international media, ignored the incident. The Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) led Tamil National Alliance (TNA), too, disregarded The Island revelation. Obviously, they felt the story would be inimical to the LTTE’s interest, and none of them wanted to cause an uproar.
Further inquiries by The Island revealed as to how the UN engaged in secret negotiations with the LTTE in a bid to secure the release of its employees. An influential section of the Colombo-based diplomatic community tried to resolve the issue without bringing it to the notice of the then government. The UN alerted the government only after the LTTE refused to release its workers. The LTTE went to the extent of warning the UN that anyone disregarding its authority would have to face the consequences (UN had talks with the Tigers on the sly with strap line UN workers in LTTE custody-The Island April 23). Human rights champions remained mum.
The then Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in a brief interview with the writer, strongly criticized the Colombo-based UN bigwigs for having secret talks with the LTTE, following the abduction of two UN workers, in February 2007. The issue took centre stage at a meeting chaired by Human Rights Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe, to discuss the situation in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Among those present were Colombo-based heads of diplomatic missions, including the then US Ambassador, Robert O. Blake and senior officials representing the UN and other agencies. During the meeting, the UN acknowledged that it had decided against going public, believing the LTTE would eventually release them (Lanka urges UN not to shield Tigers-The Island April 25, 2007).
Swiss mystery bared:
On the day The Island published Defence Secretary Rajapaksa’s criticism of UN action, the issue was raised at the daily media briefing, in New York. Responding to queries, UNSG moon’s spokesperson, Michele Montas revealed that the UN mission hadn’t informed New York of the kidnapping. Montas was speaking on the kidnapping over 10 weeks after the incident. Wouldn’t it be interesting to examine the accountability on the part of UN mission in Colombo? Referring to The Island exposure, Montas said: “We don’t have any confirmation of that newspaper report. We have heard them. As soon as we have a confirmation, we’ll get something for you on that. I am checking with the UN presence in Sri Lanka”. Stressing that the UN mission in Colombo hadn’t confirmed the newspaper reports, Montas said: “I don’t know. We don’t have any confirmation. They haven’t confirmed those reports. I heard them through the press. (UN HQ admits Colombo office kept it in the dark with strap line SL government criticizes UN inaction-The Island April 28, 2007).
The UN cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for the LTTE forcing the entire Vanni population to retreat towards the Mullaitivu coast where the group finally collapsed in May 2009.
The UN was careful not to interfere with LTTE operations, though it knew the lives of UN workers as well as their dependents were in jeopardy. Still the UN decided to secretly negotiate with the LTTE instead of demanding their immediate release. The plight of UN workers and their families came to light again in late September 2009 when Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered UN international staff as well as foreign representatives of other INGOs to vacate the Vanni region. Having agreed to complete the withdrawal within three weeks, the then Resident Representative, Neil Bhune, tried to evacuate families of local UN staff (Government wants UN, INGO pullout completed by September 29 –The Island September 17, 2008).
Although the LTTE rejected the UN’s move, its Colombo mission didn’t make a big fuss. Human rights defenders, too, turned a blind eye to the rapidly deteriorating situation. In spite of the UN seeking three weeks to complete the withdrawal, except the project manager of an INGO called ZOA, all representatives quit the war zone by September 16, 2008. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee, which represented all UN agencies and other INGOs active in Sri Lanka, acknowledged the LTTE’s refusal to allow over 500 local staffers of INGOs to leave (Attempt to evacuate Tamil INGO, UN workers thwarted – The Island September 29, 2008). Subsequently, the ZOA manager returned to Vavuniya on September 26, 2008, over a week after all other foreign nationals quit the LTTE-held area. The then ZOA Country Director, Bernard Jaspers Faijer made a desperate attempt to shield ZOA employee accused of joining the LTTE (ZOA defends employee facing expulsion-The Island September 29, 2008). The Island reportage included a front page lead story headlined INGO kingpin with Italian passport joins LTTE as a fighter with a strap line ZOA informs Defence Ministry of its project Manager’s decision on September 27, 2008.
The UN never objected to the LTTE strategy. The TNA as well as NGOs, who were shedding crocodile tears for Tamil civilians, never asked the LTTE to release them. The LTTE knew it wouldn’t have lasted a week if it allowed the civilians to leave. By March/April 2009, the LTTE fighting cadre had been trapped in the Mullaitivu district.
Let me reproduce what the PoE said in its report on the LTTE’s refusal to release civilians (Page 28/Point 98): “In spite of the futility of their military situation, the LTTE not only refused to surrender, but also continued to prevent civilians from leaving the area, ensuring their continued presence as a human buffer. It forced civilians to help build military installations and fortifications or undertake other forced labour. It also intensified its practice of forced recruitment, including children, to swell their dwindling ranks. As the LTTE recruitment increased, parents actively resisted, and families took increasingly desperate measures to protect their children from recruitment. (Page 28/Point 99) “…Beginning February 2009, the LTTE commenced a policy of shooting civilians who attempted to escape, and, to this end, cadres took up positions where they could spot civilians who might try to break out.”
One of Sri Lanka’s famed diplomats discussed the issue of accountability when he addressed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), headed by one-time Attorney General the late C. R. de Silva on Aug 25, 2010. Dhanapala, in his submissions said: “Now I think it is important for us to expand that concept to bring in the culpability of those members of the international community who have subscribed to the situation that has caused injury to the civilians of a nation. I talk about the way in which terrorist groups are given sanctuary; harboured; and supplied with arms and training by some countries with regard to their neighbours or with regard to other countries. We know that in our case this has happened, and I don’t want to name countries, but even countries which have allowed their financial procedures and systems to be abused in such a way that money can flow from their countries in order to buy arms and ammunition that cause deaths, maiming and destruction of property in Sri Lanka are to blame and there is therefore a responsibility to protect our civilians and the civilians of other nations from that kind of behaviour on the part of members of the international community. And I think this is something that will echo within many countries in the Non-Aligned Movement, where Sri Lanka has a much respected position and where I hope we will be able to raise this issue.”
Dhanapala also stressed on the accountability on the part of Western governments, which conveniently turned a blind eye to massive fund raising operations in their countries in support of LTTE operations. It is no secret that the LTTE would never have been able to emerge as a conventional fighting force without having adequate funds to procure arms, ammunition and equipment.
The Swiss allegation is nothing but a continuation of overall project to undermine Sri Lanka.
(To be continued on Dec 25)