President reviews US-Lanka defence agreements
Agreement signed in 2007 had only 7pages,the present one has 83 pages with 50 annexures
- Calls the Sunday Times Political Editor and former Defence Secretary to clarify matters amidst protests by even religious leaders
- PSC hearings and live telecast stir row; Sirisena calls Ranil, as relationship hits new low
- SLFP wants early talks with SLPP on common alliance; Sirisena still hopeful about him being common candidate for presidential poll, but chances remote
A trait in President Maithripala Sirisena, mostly unmatched by his political contemporaries, is his humility. That he is at the butt end of very heavy criticism, after the senseless Easter Sunday carnage, has not been a deterrent for him to turn the searchlight inwards.
On an exceptionally hot and humid last Sunday morning, I was woken up to a call. The operator said in Sinhala that his Excellency the President wished to speak. With the exchange of greetings over, he got to the subject. It was the political commentary in last week’s the Sunday Times headlined President tells UNF: No military deals with the United States. “Maawa gahalama daala neyda” or you have hit me hard,” he said laughingly.
Deng balanda, mulpitiuwey warthawa or see the front-page report, he noted and then declared “Oyage political kolom eka” or your political column.” He laughed again and exhorted “Mey dekama maawa kotu karannai karala thiyanney” or both are intended to corner me. I explained that the front-page account was not mine but a report from Courts. It spoke of IS backed extremist suicide bomber Zahran Hashim had an open warrant for his arrest long before the Easter Sunday carnage. I explained that the news report was a fact. In the political commentary there were of course comments based on facts, I said. He listened.
“Eka pethatha daamu ko” or let’s put that aside, he said very politely. President Sirisena then referred to the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) between the United States and Sri Lanka, much in the news through the Sunday Timesexclusive disclosures. His Defence Secretary number two, Engineer Karunasena Kodituwakku (now Sri Lanka Ambassador to Germany) had negotiated the agreement, as revealed last week. It was later signed by Defence Secretary number three Kapila Waidyaratne, who was earlier Senior Additional Solicitor General.
“Oya Gotabaya Rajapaksa athsang karapu ekatai, apey ekatai venasak nehe,” or there is no difference in the agreement (ACSA) signed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa (former Defence Secretary on July 4 2007) and ours, he claimed. I replied, “with all due respect Sir, there is a huge difference.” The 2007 ACSA under the previous administration, I pointed out, was only seven pages with the cover. I said, “Sir, the one negotiated by your second Defence Secretary and signed by your third Defence Secretary was precisely 83 pages.” I added that nowhere in the ACSA agreements signed earlier by the US with Sri Lanka contain any annexures. This time there were over 50 annexures. That gave the lists of US commands and military establishments which will be allowed the use of Sri Lanka’s airports and sea ports. The list was exclusively revealed in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) of May 19.
President Sirisena listened patiently as I explained how the earlier agreement was only for a period of seven years. The one negotiated by one Defence Secretary and signed by another is open ended, I pointed out. It says, “This agreement shall remain in force unless terminated by mutual written consent of the Parties or by either Party giving not less than 180 days’ notice in writing to the other Party of its intention to terminate….” Interestingly, President Sirisena kept on saying “Ehemada, Ehemada” or “Is that so, is that so,” when I kept explaining the difference between the previous (2007) and the present (2017) ACSA agreements. I told him it had been hurried through even before a thorough study had been done by the armed forces commanders or officials well versed in the matter.
President: Won’t betray the country
At the end, President Sirisena said he had already called for the copies of the two ACSA agreements in question that Sunday morning. He said he would also speak to officials who then dealt with the subject, including former Defence Secretary Hettiaratchchi, now Ambassador in Germany. This was to find out how the features in the 2017 ACSA were broadened and at whose behest. “Mama kavadavath mey vagey deval walata ida denney nehe. Mama magey rata paava denney nehe. Mama hoya gannang mokkada vuney kiyala,” or I will never allow room for such things to happen. I will find out. I will not betray my country, he asserted.
President Sirisena cannot be expected to remember every clause in a document that is approved by the Cabinet of Ministers. He has to be advised, guided and correctly directed by those in the know. On the other hand, if he has by any means followed no such advice, he should take the full responsibility as the Minister of Defence. That is why the post of Defence Secretary becomes important and cannot be held by all and sundry in the state administrative structure. It is as simple as saying a butcher cannot be a neuro surgeon. This reality has been lost on most politicians who believed that only personal loyalty to them, being supine and animosity to the Mahinda Rajapaksa family were qualifications enough.
One Defence Secretary was well known for his drinking binges at nights with a service commander. Another frequented a Moghul restaurant run by a casino king where food and drinks were given free, not only for him but his entire security detail. This prompted President Sirisena to once reprimand him and say he should behave like a judge and not a freebooter. In another recent instance, he warned a Defence Secretary to be more circumspect with his remarks and not to shoot his mouth off arrogantly at every turn.
After the conversation with me, President Sirisena spoke that Sunday with Shashikala Premawardena, just named Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner designate to Singapore. She was on secondment from the Foreign Ministry to the Defence Ministry and had been then handling matters relating to the ACSA.
However, the most revealing aspects of how the ACSA was rushed through came when President Sirisena telephoned Ambassador Hettiaratchchi in the German capital of Berlin. The Sunday Times has learned details of President Sirisena’s conversation from a high-ranking source. When he began the call, Sirisena laughed as he remarked Sunday Times eka maawa pethi kapala daala ney or the Sunday Times has cut me to slices. This in turn prompted the Sri Lanka Ambassador to laugh. President Sirisena’s conversation was revealing and laid bare the question whether some diplomats were being paid by the government of Sri Lanka to literally work for the United States. It also raised serious questions over how some Foreign Ministers conducted foreign policy, steering in the opposite direction from being non-aligned.
Ambassador Hettiaratchchi told President Sirisena that during the negotiations for the renewal of ACSA in 2017, he was under constant pressure from Prasad Kariyawasam, Sri Lanka’s then ambassador in the US, to expedite the passage of the ACSA. He had made many calls to ensure the draft ACSA be concluded and placed before the Cabinet of Ministers immediately, he said. Also telephoning him periodically over the same matter, Hettiaratchchi revealed to President Sirisena, was then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera.
That indeed, to say the least, was damning from a Sri Lankan Foreign Minister. Here is an instance where Samaraweera commits Sri Lanka to co-sponsor a US backed resolution before the UN Human Rights Council to probe violation of human rights, international humanitarian law and alleged commitment of war crimes by the country’s own troops. This is during the final stages of the separatist war in 2009. At the same time, Samaraweera and his then envoy in Washington DC, who was to later become Foreign Secretary, wants an open house in Sri Lanka for US troops and have included in the ACSA almost all US military establishments to gain access. Ironic enough, one of the elements in the ACSA is to teach Sri Lankan troops human rights, something that has been violated with impunity in some theatres of conflict by Washington’s own troops. What they did in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to terror suspects is just one glaring example. One rule for the Sri Lankan troops and another for their US counterparts.
Ironic enough, Hettiaratchchi told President Sirisena that both Kariyawasam and Samaraweera had pressured him at a time when the Defence Ministry had sought the observations of the Armed Forces Commanders on the ACSA deal. This was when, as reported last Sunday, President Sirisena declared when told that their (service chiefs) responses were being awaited Ekeng mata vedak nehe. Vahaama assang karanna lesthi karanna or I am not interested in all of that. Make arrangements to immediately sign it.
Thus, the draft went before the Cabinet on June 20, 2017 when armed forces commanders had not responded in full. Now, Ambassador Hettiaratchchi told President Sirisena that the then NAVY Commander, Admiral Ravi Wijegunaratne, had expressed serious reservations over some of the provisions in the ACSA. The power and pressure of the then Foreign Minister and his envoy and later Foreign Secretary put paid to all this. The Cabinet approved it. Some ministers did not even know what they had approved and the implications arising from it. They simply do not read lengthy memoranda.
The Sunday Times asked former Foreign Secretary and now the Speaker’s International Affairs Advisor, Prasad Kariyawasam for his comments on why he applied pressure for the early signing of the ACSA in 2017. His response: “I cannot say anything on speculative reports. I have performed duties as a public official and, therefore, cannot make any comment about functions performed during my service.”
President Sirisena asked Ambassador Hettiaratchchi as to what were the key elements of ACSA. He had explained that through it, the two countries had established basic terms, conditions and procedures to facilitate the reciprocal provision of Logistic Support, Supplies and Services. This will mean that a multitude of US military establishments covered by the ACSA (in terms of the Annexes) could use the country’s air and sea ports to “obtain logistics support, supplies and services” for a fee. Similarly, what is for Sri Lanka, President Sirisena queried. The Ambassador replied, “Sri Lanka could in return use the same facility in the US to seek the same privileges through those listed military establishments in the ACSA.” Why then was it not tabled in Parliament? No questions were asked nor answers given. That way the ACSA remains a secret notwithstanding claims that more than 100 countries have signed it with the US. Even if that is true, no two agreements are alike.
This is where the issue becomes laughable if not hilarious. Leave alone using such US facilities, for example, could the Sri Lanka Navy’s vessels dock into Camp H.M. Smith in Hawaii, thousands of miles away, where their Indo-Pacific Headquarters is located? Could the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) land any one of its air assets at the Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida? They simply do not have the required assets to do so? In that sense conceding those facilities only to US military establishments is totally one sided. That itself was proof that the US wanted a strong military foothold in Sri Lanka, though the agreement speaks of reciprocity. It was given to the US on a platter.
Why then was no thought given to these and other aspects? Why then were the reservations of the Navy not gone into? Is it in the belief that self-acclaimed super patriots would always protect the country’s interests and not promote the interests of other nations? Of course, there was also another factor then. The year preceding 2017 was a political honeymoon period with the US. President Sirisena who attended the UN General Assembly that year even shook hands with President Barrack Obama. Then Foreign Minister Samaraweera’s friendship with Samantha Power, the US envoy to the UN, had also blossomed. Now, it’s a different US government and a different US Embassy in Colombo. Long gone are the days of détente and diplomacy. There are Foreign Ministry officials, posted to other ministries with decorated titles. They are also advising foreign diplomats or travelling together to other parts of the country with them.
President Sirisena, as reported in these pages last week, also directed Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, whilst in the United States capital of Washington DC, not to proceed with the controversial Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States. The UNF government has been strongly backing the move. Such an agreement, as revealed last week, would have given an open licence for uniformed US troops with arms and communications equipment to roam any part of Sri Lanka.
The revelations in this regard last week did cause serious concerns in the defence and security establishment. They were of the view that in post-independence Sri Lanka, such a drastic move was halted by Sirisena at the eleventh hour did bring relief among them. Another area where there were signs of relief was at the highest levels of the Foreign Ministry. One official opined that there had been a move to rush through SOFA with Sri Lanka under cover whilst India was embroiled in parliamentary general elections. “Otherwise, the presence of foreign troops in the neighbourhood would have been a serious cause for concern for New Delhi,” the source said. Yet, letters have been exchanged in this regard suggesting formally that talks would continue.
Now, Clarke Cooper, Assistant Secretary of State for Political and Military Affairs in the State Department, is due in Colombo during a tour of Singapore and India. Diplomatic sources believe he will, during his talks with government leaders, broach the subject of SOFA despite President Sirisena’s directive not to go ahead. “There is likely to be some amount of diplomatic arm twisting but we will not change position,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official. Significantly, Colombo’s Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjit, during a significant visit met the Malwatter Chapter Mahanayake, the Most Ven. Thibbatuwawe Sri Sumangala Thera, and the Asgiriya Chapter Mahanayake, the Most Venerable Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thera, on Friday in Kandy. They issued a statement warning against the presence of foreign troops in Sri Lanka.
A high-ranking military official, conversant with the geopolitics of the Asian region and holding a senior command appointment said yesterday, “Why did we fight a separatist war for almost three decades. Many thousands were killed and more thousands wounded? It was to protect our sovereignty and national integrity. Our troops showed the world we could defeat a deadly terrorist enemy and ensure the writ of the government ran to every nook and corner of our beloved island. Why do we need foreign troops on our own soil? We have to safeguard what we have won in the battlefield and not to fritter them away for the greed of a few.”
President Sirisena was also livid on Wednesday over the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) that is probing the Easter Sunday attacks by IS-backed Muslim extremist groups. The parliamentary body made up of the UNF, TNA and JVP began sittings in the morning that day by directing Defence Secretary Shantha Kottegoda and former crime investigator, retired DIG Sisira Mendis, Chief of National Intelligence (CNI), to testify. They were broadcast live by the national broadcaster Rupavahini. As the programme was on air, security top brass and those in the Presidency expressed concerns to Sirisena that national security matters were being publicly aired. This was even before investigations into such matters had been concluded or fuller normalcy has been restored.
His first response was to immediately summon the Telecom Regulatory Commission (TRC) Chairman and Defence Secretary Kottegoda and the TRC’s Director General P.R.S.P. Jayatilleke. The idea was to immediately disconnect the live broadcast. The TRC comes under President Sirisena, However, by that time, the live coverage was over and the PSC had adjourned. Video clips of testimonies went viral thereafter in the social media highlighting the tragi-comedy that is being played out at the highest levels of government.
President chides PM
President Sirisena, a source said, thereafter made a telephone call to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. He charged that he had not been consulted on the appointment of a PSC or about live broadcasts. According to the source, President Sirisens had also contended that the live television coverage was to embarrass him and the armed forces. He had cautioned that “serious consequences would follow” if the practice was continued. The PSC is set to meet on June 4 again. A UNP source confirmed the call and added that Premier Wickremesinghe “listened to what President Sirisena said” and he did not make any comments. President Sirisena has, in the meanwhile, directed that no state broadcasters should televise live proceedings. The UNF is defiant and will not call off the PSC or inviting those concerned to testify.
This telephone call between the two leaders of Sri Lanka illustrates personal and working relationships have deteriorated. More worrying is the blame game over the Easter Sunday massacre. President Sirisena insists he was unaware of intelligence warnings. The UNF leadership seems wanting to demonstrate that he, in fact, was. There is no way President Sirisena could put a halt to the PSC process though the entire exercise is driven by the United National Front government together with its two proxies, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Hence, there is a likelihood that the acrimony would rise as more security forces personnel are invited to testify.
In fact, the Presidential Media Division on Thursday contradicted remarks attributed to retired DIG Sisira Mendis, Chief of National Intelligence, who testified before the PSC. It said media reports had quoted him as saying that the National Security Council (NSC) did not meet after the Easter Sunday massacre. The statement claimed that the “NSA has been meeting every two weeks, and on some occasions” the President had convened it every week. The statement said on April 8 the President “convened the monthly meeting of the IGP and senior Police officers……none of the police officers informed the President that advance reports on a possible terrorist attack had been received.” Who is right? President Sirisena or his Chief of Intelligence?
Retired DIG Mendis’ testimony, besides those challenged by the President’s Office, had raised some issues in the intelligence community. One of the key questions being raised is why he did not use his right as a witness to testify before the PSC in camera – that is without the presence of the media. The man who holds the office of Chief of National Intelligence (CNI), the highest-ranking intelligence officer in the country, it is common sense, deals with matters of national security and issues of a secretive nature.
Such conduct impacts on public morale, in the confidence of the business sector that is clamouring for foreign investment or the tourism sector struggling to survive. There is also another strong message – if not for the Easter Sunday carnage, the chaotic state of the national intelligence mechanism, where there is gross incompetence and acute inadequacies, would not have surfaced. It is no secret that personal loyalty becomes the reward for promotions and perks in this important sector responsible for the well-being of the community and the nation.
At the PSC hearing, controversial minister Ravi Karunanayake asked Mendis what the meaning of “Eyes Only” was. His reply: “It is a term used in intelligence circles. It was from them that I learned it…..” The term “Eyes Only” means the matter is of utmost importance…” He was not quite right. In intelligence parlance in any part of the world, it is a secret or confidential communication to be seen only by the person to whom it is directed. That is fundamental.
Referring to CNI Mendis, former Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundera, now under suspension, in a Fundamental Rights Application filed by him, said that he received a letter on April 9, 2019 from Sisira Mendis, Chief of National Intelligence. It enclosed certain contents of a letter by the Director, State Intelligence Service (DIG Nilantha Jayawardena) containing information regarding a planned attack by Zaharan Hashim and associates. The letter had said “secret inquiries” were being conducted and concluded “it is important to alert the Law Enforcement agencies to be vigilant concerning the information.”
Jayasundera’s petition claims that the warnings from Mendis as well as the SIS did not contain “any indication of the urgency of the situation, nor did they contain a classification to indicate the urgency or priority level, whereas the usual practice is to mark relevant letters “Top Priority” or “Top Urgent.” It is the Supreme Court that will eventually determine the validity of the claims. However, one factor that comes out is very clear. Retired DIG Mendis is not an intelligence officer and is not trained in intelligence work. He was a criminal investigator and spent more of his time at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Thus intelligence was an unfamiliar terrain for him. There are many others who find themselves in this situation. For more than a month, they have neither been identified nor has any form of action been taken for colossal failures.
Not only what transpired at the PSC, President Sirisena’s anger spilled over to other areas, too. At Sirisena’s request, key players in the now troubled Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) held a news conference on Thursday. “National security must not be compromised by revealing intelligence information to the public. It would only lead the country to an unstable situation,” declared Senior Deputy SLFP leader, Nimal Siripala de Silva. UPFA General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera added, “Revealing intelligence information is a very dangerous thing. In no other country is such a practice followed.” Both were missing the point. They appear to have blissfully forgotten that a monumental intelligence failure cost the lives of more than 250 men, women and children. A further 450 were injured. The whole world is talking about it, besides Sri Lankans. Instead of parroting inanities they should have focused on the damage caused to national interest by what is unfolding before the PSC and the resultant public exposure. That there is politics is not a secret.
It is in this backdrop that President Sirisena was to cope with a number of other issues this week. Important among them was a meeting of the SLFP Central Committee on Monday. A variety of political issues came up for discussion.
One is the re-introduction of criminal defamation laws to deal with what was claimed to be reporting by the electronic media. It was agreed that draft laws should be formulated by the Parliamentary Oversight Committee headed by Malith Jayatileke MP. It oversees defence matters. Thereafter, the draft is to be discussed with leaders of political parties and civil society groups. Such a new law, it was agreed, should also encompass provisions to ban hate speech and related matters. Despite the faithful commitments, whether these laws would become a reality before this year’s presidential election remains unlikely. This is in view of the time taken to draft, discuss, formulate a final draft and later present it to Parliament.
Opinion of the SC
There were also some proposals, which, to say the least, were laughable. One such proposal to come in the form of new laws under Higher Education is to closely monitor all Sri Lanka youth who return to their country after studies abroad. The learned rationale behind this is to determine whether those students have undergone any mental inculcation and would become suicide bombers. That the country’s politicians could think of such things is more repulsive than putting their plans into action. “Thank god they are not talking of brain surgery,” said a former SLFP minister who took part in the meeting. Another agreed but added “it is these jokers who keep us going.”
It was also agreed that steps should be taken to stop the desegregation of schools on religious basis. Together with this move, there will be no separate ministers in charge of Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim Affairs. All those subjects, it was agreed, should be brought under the President. Public representations are to be invited in this regard before giving effect to the move. The Muslim Marriages Act is to be amended to prevent underage marriages. It will require adherence to the 18-year age limit. The report of a Committee now studying the matter is being awaited.
Uva Province Chief Minister Chamara Sampath surprised those present by proposing that President Sirisena should seek an opinion from the Supreme Court in terms of the Constitution. He lost his six-year tenure in office to five after the 19th Amendment. He has every right to ask whether his office for five years took effect from the day he took his oaths, or when the Speaker of Parliament gave his assent to the 19A, he argued. There was no decision on the matter and President Sirisena remained non-committal when the proposal was made.
The most important subject of discussion at the Central Committee meeting was the eagerness of the SLFP to resume early talks with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). As revealed in these pages last week, the talks set for June 30 have now been advanced to June 8 at President Sirisena’s request. The talks that originally began with the objective of forming a joint alliance had veered away to other issues as they progressed. Speakers at the meeting expressed concern over this and wanted specific issues discussed since the presidential election was only five months away. “They will need us and we will need them,” said one of the speakers. Sirisena agreed when a speaker declared, “We cannot make it alone.” Another remarked, “We are the deciding factor.” It was agreed that SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera should discuss the main aspects of a joint alliance – its structure, a common symbol, office bearers and formulation of lists for nominations at a parliamentary election. Jayasekera was asked to conclude the talks within one or two months. Whether it is in concert or not is unclear. But a smaller section in the Joint Opposition is also voicing the same view — expedite the formation of a joint alliance.
It is relevant to note President Sirisena’s remarks to the media during his New Delhi visit for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration. He said he had not yet decided whether he would contest. He is obviously focusing on reviving talks for an alliance and trying to explore whether there still a chance for his joint candidacy.
However, it is not going to be easy. It is near impossible. Firstly, any such prospect has already been ruled out. Those at the higher levels of the SLPP are confident they could win even if they go it alone. Thus, there are clear indications that they would place their own set of demands to the SLFP and declare “take it or leave it.” One of the main reasons for this is President Sirisena’s vacillations and SLFP General Secretary Jayasekera’s aggressive stance towards the SLPP earlier.
Whilst the SLFP is leaning towards the SLPP, its proxy war with the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) is escalating over the Easter Sunday carnage. The battle is over who is responsible? The words of Sir Winston Churchill, the war time Prime Minister of Britain, ring true: The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.