Pursuing political agendas at the expense of national security
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Yahapalana President Maithripala Sirisena recently contradicted former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando as regards the latter’s statements before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P CoI) probing 2019 April 21 Easter Sunday attacks.
It was, in fact, Sirisena who appointed the P CoI several weeks before the end of his term.
Without realising the possibility of being pulled up for contempt of the PCoI, in a statement issued on Sept 19, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Polonnaruwa District lawmaker, who is also the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) rejected Fernando’s damning accusations, pertaining to the former President’s culpability as regards his government’s failure to thwart the deadly attacks.
There had never been an instance of a former President having to contradict a Defence Secretary, he himself appointed.
Fernando, who had been President Sirisena’s Chief of Staff squarely, faulted the President for lapses, as well as a brazen bid to cover up the humiliating failure to prevent nearly simultaneous suicide attacks.
Referring to a meeting, he had with President Sirisena on April 24, 2019, Fernando alleged that the President attempted to bribe disgraced IGP Pujitha Jayasundara.
During Sirisena’s tenure, as the President, he appointed no less than five Secretaries to the Ministry of Defence. That too must be a record for any Sri Lankan President. Hemasiri Fernando had been the fourth to serve as Secretary Defence during the disastrous yahapalana rule, followed by retired Army Commander Shantha Kottegoda, who received the appointment in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks. It would be pertinent to mention that President Sirisena held the defence portfolio by special arrangement, though his successor was to be deprived of the privilege in terms of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
Having won the 2015 January 8 presidential election, Sirisena named one-time environment and renewable energy Secretary B.M.U.D. Basnayake as Secretary to the Ministry of Defence (11.01.2015-08.09.2015). Subsequently, Karunasena Hettiarachchi (09.09.2015-05.07.2015), Kapila Waidyaratne (06.07.2017-30.10.2018), Hemasiri Fernando (30.10.2018-25.04.2019) and Gen. Shantha Kottegoda (24.04.2019-19-11.2019) received appointment as the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, amidst the massive turmoil caused by the Easter carnage.
Ex-top cop replaces ‘intel’ veteran
The yahapalana leaders also appointed a retired DIG as the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) – a special post created by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in late 2006, on the advice of the then Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to oversee all intelligence services, including the SIS (State Intelligence Service).
The Rajapaksas created the post of CNI, by way of a cabinet paper, especially for Maj. Gen. Kapila Hendavitharana, in the wake of his retirement. Hendavitharana, who had been deeply involved in clandestine operations against terrorists, knew what was going on in the war zone, elimination of high profile LTTE targets, or overall attempts to intercept LTTE arms shipments on the high seas et al. Even after the successful conclusion of the war, in May 2009, the CNI continued to play a significant role in the previous Rajapaksa government’s security strategy.
An operation, involving the Office of the CNI, and the Navy, to seize an LTTE ship, anchored in a foreign harbour, as well as apprehending Prabhakaran’s successor Kumaran Pathmanathan, alias ‘KP’, in Malaysia, and whisking him back to Colombo, under a web of secrecy, were some of the notable operations undertaken by them.
The yahapalana lot came to power determined to dismantle the security apparatus. The Office of CNI was handed over to the retired DIG Sisira Mendis, an experienced investigator, though he lacked experience in running such a high profile operation. On top of that, the yahapalana administration, on its own, worked overtime to undermine the intelligence services. Even the new CNI lacked swift access to political leadership.
The yahapalana administration was bent on destroying the intelligence outfits. Selected officers were used in the yahapalana administration, much to the dismay of the armed forces. Senior security forces officers were harassed. Among those who had been targeted was the then Commodore D.K.P. Dassanayake, who was recalled from overseas where he was taking part in a US-sponsored programme.
The SIS was brought under SSP Nilantha Jayawardena, in the first week of March 2015. The appointment was made by the then IGP N.K. Illangakoon, obviously on the instructions of the yahapalana grandees. Two years later, the National Police Commission cleared Jayawardena to hold the rank of DIG. The SIS Chief received the promotion, just a couple of weeks before the Easter Sunday carnage. In spite of him being implicated in the overall intelligence failure, rightly or wrongly, it did not prevent the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government in having Jayawardena as Senior DIG, in charge of the Eastern Range – a hot bed of Muslim extremism.
The Defence Ministry, during Sirisena’s tenure as the President, simply turned a blind eye to what was going on with the political leadership, working overtime to haul up the war-winning Sri Lankan military before the Geneva-based Human Rights Council. The Geneva betrayal was far worse than the intelligence failure that allowed the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) to mount a coordinated terror campaign, in April 2019. The Defence Ministry conveniently refrained from representing the interests of the armed forces and the police. Instead, the Defence Ministry provided the backing required for the political leadership to proceed, with a despicable operation that finally led to President Sirisena’s government co-sponsoring an accountability resolution against one’s own country. In spite of President Sirisena, publicly blaming it on the UNP, on numerous occasions, he did nothing to reverse the Geneva process. The government failure to thwart the Easter Sunday attacks shouldn’t be examined in isolation. Instead, the Easter Sunday catastrophe should be studied as part of a comprehensive study on the Yahapalana government’s defence policy/strategy.
Perhaps, the P CoI should scrutinize the overall security failure to recognize what really went wrong on April 21, 2019. Having won the presidential election in January 2015, the UNP, in spite of not having 50 members in parliament, received the premiership. The badly shaken UPFA handed over parliamentary control to the UNP, while President Sirisena took over the SLFP.
The stage was set for the first mega Treasury bond scam, in late Feb 2015, after the dissolution of parliament, in late June 2015, and the general election, two months later. The June 2015 dissolution was meant to save the UNP from a massive embarrassment, in case the parliamentary watchdog committee, COPE, handed over its report on the first Treasury bond scam to parliament. President Sirisena delivered a stunning blow to his own party by declaring that Mahinda Rajapaksa wouldn’t be appointed the Premier, even if they won the 2015 August general election.
The President’s contemptible announcement, almost on the eve of the election, obviously even discouraged some UPFA supporters from casting their vote. The President’s bid was meant to give the UNP an advantage over his own party. The treacherous move could be only compared with Sirisena switching allegiance to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, in Dec 2014, to bring an end to the Rajapaksa era.
Having won the general election, with rival leader Sirisena’s support, the UNP formed a coalition that betrayed the armed forces, in Geneva, a few weeks later, with the President conveniently looking the other way. The UNP-SLFP coalition should take the responsibility for the Geneva betrayal, though the SLFP always denied having a hand in it. Those who masterminded the Easter Sunday massacre must have taken the political situation into consideration in planning the terror project.
A role for the late Mano
The UNP-SLFP coalition created a special post for overseeing the Geneva operation. The late Mano Tittawella, in his capacity as the Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM), instructed Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva, A. L. A. Azeez, in March 2019, to accept resolution 40/1 on behalf of the government of Sri Lanka.
Tittawella received his appointment, on March 29, 2016, around the time the UNP perpetrated the second and much bigger Treasury bond scam.
The UNP-UPFA coalition established the SCRM, under the Prime Minister’s Office in terms of a Cabinet decision, dated Dec 18, 2015.
The Secretary General reported directly to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Knowing Tittawella was carrying out Wickremesinghe’s directives, the President lambasted him publicly, but never challenged Wickremesinghe’s authority, granted by way of a cabinet decision. Addressing a public gathering at Meegahatenna, in late March 2019, President Sirisena accused Azeez of having betrayed the country and its armed forces.
The Oct 01, 2015 resolution had been endorsed by Ambassador Azeez’s predecessor, Ravinatha Aryasinha (our next Ambassador to Washington). Azeez took over the Geneva mission, in April 2018. Aryasinha signed the March 2017 resolution, which gave Sri Lanka two more years to fulfill its Geneva commitments.
Mangala Samaraweera functioned as the Foreign Minister (January 2015 to May 2017), followed by Ravi Karunanayake (May 2017 to August 2017), Tilak Marapana PC (Aug 2017 to Oct 2018), Dr. Sarath Amunugama (Oct 2018 to Dec 2018) and Minister Marapana took over again before the change of government, in Nov 2019.
Both Defence and Foreign Ministries actively contributed to the campaign against the war-winning armed forces. By the time NTJ mounted its deadly operations, the State security apparatus was in chaos. In late January 2019, Defence Secretary Fernando caused quite a controversy when he called for Tamil Diaspora to cooperate with government investigations into alleged war crimes, as well as other high profile cases, such as the disappearance of 11 Tamils, blamed on the Navy. Fernando, an old boy of Nalanda College, called for Tamil Diaspora support at an event organized by the Nalanda College Ranaviru Society to felicitate him. Thereby, the former Volunteer Navy officer reiterated the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government policy as regards the post-war accountability issues though, by then, the yahapalana arrangement was in tatters.
A Defence Secy. before LLRC
Hemasiri Fernando’s accusations, directed at former President Sirisena, reminded the writer of one of Fernando’s predecessors, Austin Fernando, appearing before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), in August 2010. One time top civil servant, Austin Fernando, acknowledged that there hadn’t been proper consultations between the government and the military before the finalization of Oslo-arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). Testifying before LLRC, headed by one-time Attorney General C.R. de Silva, Austin Fernando claimed in spite of him being the Secretary Ministry of Defence he didn’t enjoy the authority to intervene, though the CFA dealt with national security matters. Fernando also denied having a hand in preparing the CFA. Fernando took up the position that, in spite of serious concerns expressed by the top brass, the UNF government of Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe went ahead with the Norwegian hatched project regardless of the consequences.
The writer covered the LLRC throughout its sittings at the Kadirgamar Institute. At one point when Fernando claimed that he hadn’t been involved in drafting the CFA, LLRC Chairman shot back “no Sri Lankan was involved in the process.” Austin Fernando also blamed the Norwegians and the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) for failing to implement the CFA properly (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission: Now ex-Defence Secy slams CFA – The Island, August 19, 2010).
The UNP proceeded with the CFA agreement, at the expense of national security, and jeopardising the country’s fate. The government bent backwards to appease the LTTE, following the signing of the CFA. The government, on March 31, 2002, closed down ‘Wanni Sevaya’ which was in operation for the benefit of the armed forces and the police, while allowing the LTTE to import state-of-the-art equipment to expand its radio.
When Security Forces Commander, Jaffna Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka strongly opposed the reduction of high security zones in the north, without the required security guarantees, from the LTTE, the government engaged a retired Indian General to review the ground situation in the Jaffna peninsula. The government move drew widespread condemnation though Wickremesinghe blindly pushed ahead with it, believing the self-appointed international community.
Merril G on security fiasco
The UNP took national security lightly. The party played politics with vital security issues. The handling of matters, related to the CFA et al, was quite knowledgeably discussed by retired Senior DIG Merril Gunaratne, who had also functioned as the Director General of Intelligence during his long police career. Gunaratne’s ‘COP IN THE CROSSFIRE’ first launched in 2011, expertly dealt with the perilous way the UNP handled national security matters. The Chapter titled ‘On the Ministry of Defence with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’ described the Premier’s response to security matters. Gunaratne should send a copy of ‘COP IN THE CROSSFIRE’ to the P CoI. Perusing Gunaratne’s work would certainly help those interested in knowing the truth or understanding the ground situation at the time of the Easter Sunday attacks, as well as the UNP thinking. The writer focused on the Premier and the Secretary Defence.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government refused to take action against extremist Muslim groups for political reasons, between the 2015 and 2019 period, leading to the massive Easter Sunday attacks.
Similarly, Wickremesinghe, at the onset of the CFA, declined to act on information provided by his own intelligence services. Gunaratne explained how the Premier dismissed their assessment as regards the rapid LTTE build-up on the basis of what the Indian Intelligence told him. Gunaratne quoted Wickremesinghe as having told a special security meeting; “even the Indians think the numbers were highly exaggerated.”
Gunaratne criticized Wickremesinghe over leaking of intelligence reports by way of a weekly column in the ‘Sunday Observer’ as well as opening up regular sensitive intelligence meetings, to a foreigner, at the expense of national security. The situation during the periods 2002 to 2003 (UNF) and 2015 to 2019 (yahapalana) administrations, can be easily compared. During the Oslo-run CFA, the UNP was seriously scared of the LTTE quitting the negotiating table. Wickremesinghe believed the success of his political future depended on having the LTTE at the negotiating table, at any cost. The UNP felt comfortable even after the LTTE forced the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi-led Tamil National Alliance to recognize them as the sole representative of Tamils. Although the TULF later pulled out of the coalition, it remained loyal to the LTTE until the group’s annihilation militarily on the Vanni east front.
During the yahapalana fiasco, the UNP, and even President Sirisena, didn’t want to do anything to ruffle the feathers of Muslim political parties, as well as those outside parliament, but wielded immense power. National Congress leader A.L.M. Athaulla’s somewhat controversial assertion that those who had a hand in engineering Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat, at the 2015 presidential, were also responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks, should be carefully examined. Western powers are alleged to have pushed for Rajapaksa’s ouster, in 2015, as part of their efforts to counter the growing Chinese influence in Colombo. Addressing the media last Sunday, lawmaker Athaulla explained how violence, directed at the Muslim community, in June 2014, transformed the Muslim community into an anti-Rajapaksa movement. Perhaps, the post-Easter Sunday situation should be examined, taking into consideration the ‘Mission Impossible’ type internal and external engineering, by hidden forces, that may have contributed to an explosive situation – causing unprecedented chaos, a decade after the conclusion of the war.