President rattled by denial of visas to Army

By Shamindra Ferdinando


President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Maithripala Sirisena, has explained his position pertaining to post-war accountability issues and alleged attempts made by his opponents to exploit the situation at the expense of political stability.


It would be pertinent to mention that the President addressed the Army top brass at the auditorium of the Army Hospital, Narahenpita, last Thursday afternoon, as his Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera delivered the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s third budget.


President Sirisena’s absence in parliament during the presentation of the budget raised many an eyebrow as he was present on previous presentations by the then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake.


Among the audience were Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva and Director General, Infantry, Maj. Gen. Chagi Gallage, both of the Gajaba Regiment, now under fire by South African Yasmin Sooka, a member of the then UNSG Ban K-moon’s Panel of Experts (PoE) which dealt with alleged accountability issues here.


In his address, President Sirisena referred to some Western powers refusing to issue visas to both retired and serving officers on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations. President Sirisena emphasized the pivotal importance of rectifying the situation. The Commander-in-Chief called for tangible measures to change Western governments’ decision.


President Sirisena’s message was transmitted live to Security Forces Headquarters, Divisions and other formations where approximately 30,000 officers and men received it.


Fonseka’s dilemma


Obviously, President Sirisena was reacting to recent reports pertaining to Western powers refusing to issue visas to both retired and serving officers. Although President Sirisena refrained from mentioning names, war-winning Army Chief, the then Gen. Sarath Fonseka, is among those who had been affected.


Field Marshal Fonseka, in September, alleged that he had been denied a visa to attend the UNGA 2017 because of unresolved war crime allegations against the Army. Sri Lanka’s most successful Army Commander, who is now Minister of Regional Development, said he was due to travel to New York but he was the only one in the Sri Lankan delegation not issued a visa by the US. Fonseka said he could not accompany President Sirisena to the UNGA.


Field Marshal Fonseka has repeatedly underscored the pivotal importance of a comprehensive investigation into accountability issues to clear Sri Lanka’s name.


Although President Sirisena has never referred to the contentious issue, many senior officers, in some instances those, who had never been in actual combat or directly involved in military operations, were denied visas.


Defence Secretary Kapila Waidyaratne, who had previously been the Senior Additional Solicitor General in the Attorney General’s Department and was with President Sirisena on the podium at the auditorium of the Army Hospital, Narahenpita, can explain to the President the circumstances under which Western powers acted against the military. Waidyaratne and Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, PC, who had been one-time Attorney General, I’m sure, can advise the government on ways and means of addressing accountability issues raised by Western powers.


There is no need to remind the current Sri Lankan leadership that imposition of travel restrictions is based on the outcome of UN investigation run by Sandra Beidas, formerly of Amnesty International. As long as Sri Lanka is unable to disprove UN accusations, travel restrictions will remain on those who had risked their lives for the country.


Gallage’s predicament


There cannot be a better example than that of Maj. Gen. Gallage, a key strategist who had earned the admiration of officers and men over the years.


Australia callously deprived Gallage of an opportunity to visit his brother, an Australian citizen, after the change of government, in January 2015.


Australia found fault with Gallage for being in command of the 59 Division, from May 7, 2009, to July 20, 2009.


The Australian High Commission asserted that a visa couldn’t be issued as the Division, under his command, had certainly committed war crimes, and crimes against humanity.


The Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection has extensively cited the Report of the OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) on Sri Lanka (OISL) to turn down Gallege’s visa. On the basis of the OISL report, Geneva adopted Resolution 30/1 to pave the way for foreign judges in a domestic judicial mechanism, though the government still tries to defend its decision to co-sponsor the Resolution. Geneva released OISL report on Sept. 16, 2015. Sri Lanka co-sponsored Geneva Resolution 30/1 on Oct. 1, 2015 in spite of Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva, Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha, rejecting the draft resolution. The government dismissed Ambassador Aryasinha’s concerns. President Sirisena never intervened in the UNP’s strategy.


Australia also cited the PoE report on accountability issues released on March 31, 2011. POE accused Sri Lanka of massacring over 40,000 civilians and depriving the Vanni population of their basic needs.


Australia also cited a statement attributed to General Officer Commanding (GOC) 58 Division Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) real time footage had been made available to ground commanders marking targets, to justify its decision. On the basis of Maj. Gen. Silva’s statement, Australia has alleged that Maj. Gen. Gallage had been aware of artillery strikes on third no fire zone.


Can there be any justification in the Australian assessment?


There have never been specific allegations against Maj. Gen. Gallage before.


Contrary to the Australian assessment, the deployment of Israeli built UAVs was meant to direct attacks on the enemy. Colombo-based foreign military attaches were invited to Air Force headquarters to observe real time video footage provided at crucial stages of the Vanni offensive.


Australia has accused Maj. Gen. Gallage of planning, implementing and supporting war crimes and crimes against humanity. Australia also held him responsible, as the serving officer, for failing to prevent troops, under his command, from committing war crimes.


The Australian report, while identifying Gallage as ‘potential controversial visit’, alleged that the SLA committed atrocities, even after the conclusion of the war.


Gallage has been screened by Australian authorities following him seeking a visa for a month long visit.


The Australian stand on this visa matter meant that it believed the Sri Lankan army carried out systematic attacks against Tamil civilians.


Australia has identified the 59 Division, credited with wresting control of the LTTE Mullaitivu bastion, in late January 2009, as one of the formations responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.


Formed in Jan, 2008, the 59 Division, deployed on the eastern flank, aka the Weli Oya front, fought under then Brig. Nandana Udawatte’s command, for one year, to cross the Anandakulam and Nagacholai forest reserves, which served as natural defences for the LTTE Mullaitivu stronghold.


Over the years, the US and some other countries have denied visas to senior commanders, on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations. In the case of Maj. Gen. Sudantha Ranasinghe, the US refused to accommodate him on a programme as he commanded the elite 53 Division in peacetime. The 53 Division killed LTTE leader Prabhakaran.


The situation, faced by the Army, can certainly be described as a crisis. The bottom line is that any officer, attached to those formations, involved in operations, either in peace or wartime, can be denied a visa on the basis of unsubstantiated UN allegations. Western restrictions, now in place, can affect those who had served the 57 Division, Task Force I /58 Div, 59 Div, 53 Div, 55 Div as well as other Task Forces deployed on the Vanni front. The same unreasonable rule can be applied on those taking over command of the Divisions or Brigades or Battalions attached to them as part UN measures directed at Sri Lanka


Confused US position


Now that President Sirisena has referred to the visa matter, it would be the responsibility of the Foreign and Defence Ministries to make representations to Western powers, without further delay. The government can begin its effort by taking up the issue with US and Australia in the wake of Lord Naseby disputing the Vanni death toll on the basis of wartime military dispatches from the British Embassy in Colombo. The Shocking revelation that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had desperately tried to withhold information, sought by Lord Naseby, on the basis of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), underscores the need to revisit the Sri Lanka issue.


Let us hope Army headquarters ensures that the relevant ministries take tangible measures. Having pathetically failed to counter the lies, propagated by interested parties, since Gen Fonseka’s abrupt removal, Army headquarters should take advantage of this opportunity.


The US refusal to issue a visa to Field Marshal Fonseka should be examined against the backdrop of three critically important factors: (a) The US backed Fonseka’s candidature at the 2010 January presidential poll. The US formed a political alliance, that included the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) led by R. Sampanthan, current Leader of the Opposition. There cannot be any dispute over the US role in that poll in the wake of Wiki Leaks revelation, pertaining to secret discussions between the Colombo-based US diplomat and Sampanthan. Sampanthan gave into US pressure though he had initially resisted the proposal. The Tamil leader must have been deeply embarrassed to publicly urge Tamils to vote for Fonseka, after having accused his Army of killing thousands of civilians, raping Tamil women and disappearances. The Tamil electorate obliged. Fonseka was able to secure the predominately Tamil administrative districts, including Jaffna, though he suffered a heavy defeat at the presidential poll. (b) The US picked Fonseka as the common presidential candidate in spite of the then US Ambassador Patricia Butenis calling him a war criminal along with the Rajapaksa brothers, Mahinda, Basil and Gotabhaya. (c) Colombo-based US Defence Attache Lt Col. Lawrence Smith’s declaration in June 2011 (over two years after the conclusion of the war) that there had never been an agreement between the Army and the LTTE regarding an organized surrender on the Vanni east front. The US official disputed widespread claims of battlefield executions in spite of an arranged surrender of LTTE cadre to the advancing Army.


The US also deprived Majors General Prasanna Silva, wartime GoC, 55 Division and Jaffna Security Forces Commander Mahinda Hathurusinghe of an opportunity to join programmes. Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva was denied entry into US War College though he functioned as Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative in New York.


GoC, 57 Division Maj Gen Jagath Dias, and Military Secretary Sudantha Ranasinghe, too, were denied the chance to participate in US programmes. Ranasinghe’s application was turned down in spite of him receiving command of the 53 Division after the end of the conflict. The then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa personally brought the situation to the notice of the US Embassy though he couldn’t achieve the desired policy change.


In late, 2010, the Tamil Diaspora activists made a failed bid to secure a warrant, in the UK, to detain Gallage who was at that time the head of President Rajapaksa’s security. Although, they couldn’t move the British judiciary against the officer, the move underscored the need to address high profile international campaign meant to portray the Army as a criminal organization.


A recent letter, written by PoE member Sooka, to US multinational Coca Cola, for sponsoring the Gajaba Super-Cross 2017, organized by Maj. Gen. Silva, in his capacity as the Colonel Commandant of the celebrated Regiment, must jolt the Army and the government to take remedial measures. Having called the most successful GoC, a notorious war criminal, the NGO guru demanded explanation from Coca Cola why it financed a project undertaken by Silva. Sooka called both the Gajaba Regiment as well as 58 Division criminal organizations on the basis of UN reports. The Foreign Ministry, for some strange reason, turned a blind eye to Sooka’s attack. The same ministry recently issued a lengthy statement in response to adverse reportage of the controversial visit undertaken by Pablo de Greiff, UN Special Rapporteur, on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence.


At the conclusion of his two-week long visit, Colombian de Greiff went to the extent of even humiliating President Sirisena.


UN ridicules Lanka’s stand


Greiff, in an obvious reference to often repeated President Sirisena’s remark, expressed concern over the use of rhetoric such as ‘war heroes will never be brought to trial.’


The UN official said that the promise regarding ‘war heroes’ is a legally unenforceable political statement, and therefore couldn’t offer any real security.


The official said: “In order to make it effective it would ultimately require a violation of the principle of the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, amongst others. Moreover, needless to say, it offers absolutely no warranty internationally. As the recent case presented in Brazil against a former member of the Armed Forces demonstrates, accountability will be sought either here or abroad. In my opinion, this is an additional reason for the country, with the full support of the Armed Forces – who stand a lot to gain from this process – to establish a robust and credible comprehensive transitional justice policy.”


The Colombian declared that those who had perpetrated human rights violations or laws pertaining to conflict/war didn’t deserve to be called heroes.


Sri Lanka cannot ignore the UN challenge. Sri Lanka shouldn’t allow the UN to continue its despicable operation.


So far, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration hasn’t taken up the unfair decision to deny visas to senior military officers on the basis of the unsubstantiated OISL report. It covered the period from 21 February 2002 to 15 November 2011.


In June 2014, the then High Commissioner Navi Pillai appointed three Martti Ahtisaari, former President of Finland, Ms. Silvia Cartwright, former High Court judge of New Zealand, and Ms. Asma Jahangir, former President of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, to play a supportive and advisory role, as well as independent verification throughout the investigation. Obviously, they were expected to simply endorse the project. They did that.


The previous government declined to make representations to the OISL probe, headed by Beidas, though it had the wherewithal to counter the lies propagated by interested parties.


Those who now accuse the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government of betraying the armed forces should also accept responsibility for their pathetic failure to counter lies. They owed an explanation to the nation.


Interestingly, President Sirisena’s Nov 9 address to the Army caused some concern among his advisors handling the media. They issued two separate media releases on Nov 10, with the second one leaving out some critically important sections pertaining to the Geneva intervention. The Island also compared the statements issued by the President’s Media Division with the one posted on the Army website. The Army website report headlined “No War Hero would be Subjected to Appear before Any Foreign Tribunals” – President Assures Meeting Army Personnel dealt with the issues at hand.


Basically, the first statement that had been issued by the President’s Media Division tallied with the Army headquarters post in respect of the Geneva issue. The second statement issued by the President’s Media Division conveniently left out sections that may attract attention of the UN pushing hard at Sri Lanka to implement Geneva Resolution 30/1.


Sri Lanka needs to take a clear stand on Geneva Resolution. The government should reexamine Aryasinha’s statement and explore the possibility of initiating a dialogue with Geneva in respect of concerns raised by Lord Naseby.


What really surprised the writer is the absence of any reference to Naseby’s defence of the Sri Lanka Army and the political leadership in the House of Lords in President Sirisena’s historic address to the Army top brass. There had never been an instance a President having the opportunity to address a representative gathering of more than 350 Commanding Officers (COs), Adjutants and Regimental Sergeant Majors (RSMs) of the Army.

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