ACSA, SOFA and 2019 prez poll


Vietnam era US warship USCG Sherman is Sri Lanka’s largest platform. The vessel is pictured off Colombo harbour on the morning of May 12, 2019. President Sirisena will commission the vessel, P 626 tomorrow (June 06) at the Colombo harbour. Sherman is the second US vessel acquired by Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka acquired USCG Courageous in 2004. P 621 (SLNS Samudura) was part of task force responsible for the destruction of LTTE floating arsenals, beginning with the 2006 Sept. destruction of a vessel off Kalmunai (pic courtesy Navy)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The United States made an abortive bid, in 2002, to finalize an Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA), formerly known as ‘NATO Mutual Support Act’, with Sri Lanka. The attempt was made close on the heels of a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) signed by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, on Feb. 21. 2002. NATO member Norway arranged the CFA. Years later, Norway revealed its operation here had the backing of NATO by way of intelligence provided by the world’s most powerful military alliance (Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka).

The US, too, played a significant role in the Norway-led process as a member of the Sri Lanka Peace Co-Chairs. Peace Co-Chairs comprised the US, EU, Norway and Japan. At that time, India was on its way to become a fully-fledged member of the US-led club.

Today, nuclear capable, India is a key member of the US-led grouping taking on the Chinese challenge.

The US-Japan-Australia-India alliance wants Sri Lanka to be part of the team. Sri Lanka’s inclusion in Australian military exercise Indo Pacific Endeavour 2019 (IPE-19) and ‘Comprehensive Partnership’ between Japan and Sri Lanka, finalized in early Oct 2015, underscored their determination to bring Sri Lanka under their domain.

Having won the 2015 January presidential election, with the UNP’s backing, President Maithripala Sirisena endorsed ‘Comprehensive Partnership’ with Japan. The finalization of ‘Comprehensive Partnership’ took place less than a week after President Sirisena’s government co-sponsored a resolution at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) at the expense of the country’s own interest. A joint declaration issued in the immediate aftermath of Wickremesinghe’s four-day official visit (Oct 4-7, 2015) to Tokyo on the invitation of Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe, dealt with (1) promotion of investment and trade (2) co-operation on the national development plan in Sri Lanka (3) national reconciliation and peace building (4) political consultation and maritime cooperation (5) human resource development and people-to-people exchange (6) Co-operation in the international arena.

Political consultation and maritime cooperation were especially meant to enhance defence cooperation. Japan eyeing a permanent seat in the UN Security Council also expects Sri Lanka’s backing for that endeavour.

Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera, on August 22, 2018, visited strategically located Trincomalee and Hambantota ports. Unprecedented visits took place while a Japanese Destroyer ‘Ikazuchi’ was docked at the Trincomalee port. Onodera flew in to Colombo where he met President Sirisena, Premier Wickremesinghe and State Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene on the previous day after having visited New Delhi. Onodera raised Sri Lanka’s leasing of the Hambantota port to China with President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe.

Sri Lanka and China entered into a 99-year lease of the Hambantota port, in 2018, under controversial circumstances.

Onodera declared that Japan wants Hambantota port ‘free of military activities.’ Obviously, Onodera’s declaration was on behalf of the US-led group.

Onodera’s visit was followed by JS Kaga, the biggest warship built since the end of World War II. The visit took place ahead of Tokyo’s announcement that JS Kaga and sister ship Isumo would be transformed to enable them to launch US made F-35 B stealth fighters. Acquisition of such huge strike capability should be studied against the backdrop of Japan’s Constitution expressly forbids the use of offensive weapons following its defeat in World War II.

Japan, home for powerful US forces, plans to acquire 105 fighters - a big boost for the US defence industry.

US President Donald Trump, during last week’s state visit to Japan, was invited to tour JS Kaga. International media quoted Trump as having said on board the vessel: "And soon, this very ship will be upgraded to carry that cutting-edge aircraft. With this extraordinary new equipment, the JS Kaga will help our nations defend against a range of complex threats in the region and far beyond."

Those backing a bigger Japanese role in US military project are working overtime to play down the significance of Tokyo acquiring a far reaching strike capability - a first for Japan since its formal surrender on Sept 02, 1945, months after Germany succumbed. Germany surrendered on May 07, 1945.

Interestingly, Kaga was the name of one of the aircraft carriers that launched planes to bomb US Pearl Harbour on Dec 07, 1941, which led to Washington’s entry into the conflict.

The developing Japanese military role should be examined taking into consideration the rapid expansion of her military capabilities. Japan recently intervened to save an understanding between Sri Lanka and India regarding the development of the East Container Terminal (ECT) at the Colombo port. Japan facilitated the agreement on ECT by becoming one of its joint venture partners last week. Sri Lanka, Japan and India finalized an agreement to jointly develop the ECT. The joint initiative is estimated to cost between $500 min and $700 mn.

The agreement followed months long battle between President Maithripala Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe over the ECT with the former strongly resisting a joint venture with India. President Sirisena seems to have no objection to joint venture involving India and Japan, having ‘openly’ clashed with Wickremesinghe in Oct 2018. President Sirisena perpetrated a constitutional coup on Oct 26, 2018, in the wake of his bitter battle with Wickremesinghe over ECT. President Sirisena sacked Premier Wickremesinghe in the wake of the arrest of an Indian national Marceli Thomas over his alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate him (Sirisena) and wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The US and its allies are seeking to further their interests with the world solitary super power, having successfully negotiated ACSA in Aug 2017, planning to enter in to far reaching SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement).

With Sri Lanka in deepening political turmoil, following the Easter Sunday carnage, blamed on the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ), the government is being exploited. The US seems to be hell-bent on securing an agreement on SOFA regardless of consequences. The NTJ operation, backed by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) obviously facilitated their operations here. Indian High Commissioner Taranjith Singh Sandhu offered India’s full support to Sri Lanka in dealing with the common threat of Jihadi terrorism in the third week of May. The assurance was given, separately, to Mahanayakes of Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters. US Ambassador Alaina Teplitz followed Sandhu. She was there to reassure the Mahanayakes that SOFA was not meant to take advantage of Sri Lanka. There hadn’t been a previous instance of a US Ambassador, or any other foreign envoy for that matter, making representations to Mahanayakes as regards security-political issues.

Armitage on ACSA

The Joint Opposition, the JVP and civil society organization ‘Yuthukama’, strongly protested against the signing of the ACSA. They revealed how the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration approved ACSA in Aug 2017. The UNP pointed out that the previous Rajapaksa administration entered into ACSA in March 2007. Therefore, what really happened in Aug 2017 was extending the agreement. Leader of the House, Senior Minister Lakshman Kiriella explained the UNP government’s stand, both in parliament and outside, in respect of the ACSA and SOFA. However, Kiriella made no reference to the first US attempt to negotiate ACSA, way back in 2002.

The US publicly revealed its desire to secure ACSA on Aug 22, 2002, in Colombo. The then US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, having visited Jaffna earlier in the day, followed by meetings with the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s envoy, Lakshman Kadirgamar, and Premier Wickremesinghe, declared the US intention to finalize the agreement. The writer was among those journalists presented when Vietnam veteran Armitage addressed the media. Armitage asserted that there was no problem in negotiating the agreement meant to formalize required facilities for US military (US-SL to finalize Access and Cross Servicing Agreement-The Island, Aug 23, 2002).

Earlier, in the day, Armitage, accompanied by US Ambassador Ashley Wills, flew in to Palaly airbase where he was welcomed by the then Jaffna Security Forces Commander Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka. The CFA was in place at that time. Otherwise, Armitage wouldn’t have risked flying in an AN 32 transport plane due to threat posed by the LTTE. Fonseka accompanied the US duo to army front-line at Muhamalai. Jaffna front-line extended from Kilali to Nagarkovil on the Vadamaratchchy east coast via Muhamalai. The attempt was made amidst political chaos caused by the CFA. The UNP finalized the agreement sans President Kumaratunga’s consent. The push to establish North-East Interim Council further deteriorated the ground situation. Following his meeting with Armitage, Kadirgamar told a selected group of journalists, at his heavily guarded Wijerama Mawatha residence, that the proposed administrative body should be deeply rooted in the Constitution. "It must not be allowed to have a life of its own," Kadirgamar told the media. The writer was among the group of journalists present (N-E Interim Council ‘must be deeply rooted in Constitution’, says Kadirgamar-The Island, August 23, 2002)

Armitage was the senior most US official to visit Colombo since Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ visit five decades ago. The LTTE assassinated Kadirgamar in August three years later.

Armitage announced plans for ACSA over a month after Premier Wickremesinghe met US President George W. Bush in Washington. In fact, the ACSA was to be finalized in July 2002. Following their meetings, the US undertook a comprehensive study of Sri Lankan military as well as economic institutions. The project was meant to strengthen the military though the UNP never expected the LTTE to leave the negotiating table. The LTTE quit the negotiating table in April 2003.

It would be pertinent to mention that the US accommodated Sri Lanka in various military exercises following Kumaratunga’s election as the president in Nov 1994. Even at the time Armitage visited Colombo the US military was engaged in exercises with Sri Lankan Special Forces, including the Navy’s elite SBS (Special Boat Squadron).

Then Minister Milinda Moragoda, being close to the US, played a high profile role in the project.

In Dec 2002, Ambassador Wills revealed the possibility of the US seeking Sri Lankan ports and air space to invade Iraq. US-UK led forces invaded Iraq in March 2003 on false intelligence claims of Saddam Hussein having what the Western media dubbed Weapons of Mass destruction (WMDs). Then Foreign Minister the late Tyronne Fernando explained the difficulty in giving into US request (SL in dilemma over help for US-The Island, Dec 22, 2002). At the end, the US didn’t request for Sri Lankan bases (No request for Lankan bases-The Island, March 23, 2003).

During Fernando’s tenure as the Foreign Minister, Sri Lanka entered into an agreement with the US not to surrender each other’s nationals to the International Criminal Court (ICC) without the consent of each other. The US secured the same agreements with India, Pakistan and Nepal.

Lanka enters into ACSA

The US could have secured ACSA if not for the LTTE destabilizing the UNP government by undermining the CFA. The UNP lacked the political will to go ahead with ACSA. The LTTE strategy paved the way for President Kumaratunga to take over several key portfolios, including defence in the following year and then sack Wickremesinghe’s administration. Kumaratunga called early general election. Her move enabled the People’s Alliance she led to win the April 2004 parliamentary polls. The PA also won the Nov 2005 presidential polls. The LTTE resumed large scale offensive operations in the second week of August 2006 a few months after making an abortive bid to assassinate the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Fonseka. Had the LTTE succeeded in assassinating Fonseka in late April 2006, Sri Lanka could have succumbed to LTTE pressure. Sri Lanka launched a counter offensive in the first week of Sept 2006 and by March 2007 was in a commanding position in the Eastern theater of operations though LTTE combat formations remained intact in the Northern region. The LTTE suffered a second major setback when Gotabaya Rajapaksa survived suicide attack on Dec 01, 2006. By March, 2007, the LTTE was retreating in the Eastern Province. In the first week of March, 2007 Sri Lanka entered in to ACSA with the US. Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ambassador Robert O. Blake signed on behalf of Sri Lanka and the US, respectively. President Rajapaksa, in his capacity as the Defence Minister, authorized ACSA. The Rajapaksas never bothered to inform parliament of the agreement. Having signed ACSA, Gotabaya Rajapaksa reiterated Sri Lanka’s commitment to defeat the LTTE, militarily, in talks with top State Department official Stevan Mann, when the latter met him at the Defence Ministry. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s move eased US pressure as the Army opened a new front on the Vanni east front (No halt on offensive against LTTE: Lanka seeks more US support to stop arms flow-The Island, March 11, 2007).

The Rajapaksa government ignored the left parties’ call to table the agreement in parliament. The government dismissed their concerns (LSSP wants military agreement with US published-The Island, March 11, 2007).

Interestingly, Kiriella, who strongly defended Sri Lanka signing ACSA and negotiating SOFA, lambasted the Rajapaksa when Gotabaya Rajapaksa signed the original agreement. In the wake of the original agreement, finalized on March 05, 2007, Ambassador Blake went to the extent of personally meeting JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe to reassure the US didn’t pursue a hidden agenda here. Blake assured that ACSA wouldn’t pave the way for US bases here. They also discussed the ethnic issue and ongoing efforts to militarily defeat the LTTE. Amarasinghe reiterated his party’s belief that LTTE terrorism should be defeated militarily (Somawansa-Bake pow-wow-The Island, April 06, 2007).

US changes course of war

Sri Lanka received valuable US support, particularly during Eelam War IV that enabled the Rajapaksa government to gradually overcome the LTTE. At the onset of the Eelam War IV, the US thwarted an LTTE bid to procure SA 18 missiles. Subsequently, the US provided specific intelligence on ‘floating LTTE arsenals’ to Sri Lanka on a request made by wartime Navy Chief Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda. Karannagoda move enabled the destruction of four LTTE vessels on the high seas, thereby hastened the collapse of the LTTE. In addition to those vessels that had been hunted down on the basis of intelligence provided by the US, the Navy hit several other LTTE ships during Eelam War IV.

Those interested in knowing it all should peruse Karannagoda’s memoirs titled Adistanaya released in Nov 2014, just two months before the change of government. Although Karannagoda, made no reference to ACSA, it would be pertinent to stress that the US, perhaps reluctantly, provided critically important intelligence following the finalization of the agreement on March 05, 2007. Several weeks after the signing of the agreement, Karannagoda had sought a meeting with the then US defence attaché in Colombo. Karannagoda has requested for US assistance to track down the remaining LTTE vessels as the superpower was engaged in worldwide campaign against terrorism. That meeting at Karannagda’s office led to a meeting with Ambassador Blake, also at the same venue in late May 2007. In late August 2007, the US provided the required information secured from a satellite to the Navy. The US verified the positioning of four vessels about two weeks later. They had been at the same position as two weeks before. In fact, the US had queried whether Karannagoda’s Navy had the wherewithal to destroy four ships so far away from Sri Lanka. Karannagoda dispatched naval task force comprising six vessels on Sept 2007 from Colombo, Trincomalee and Galle. Karannagoda, in his memoirs revealed how an Indian diplomat based at its High Commission in Colombo made a despicable attempt to misdirect the Navy by providing information contrary to that of the Americans. Karannagoda unhesitatingly named the Indian as a representative of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Subsequently, the Indian had been exposed as a Chinese agent. Acting on US intelligence, the Navy destroyed three out of four LTTE vessels in the second week of Sept. 2007. The US again provided specific intelligence in late Sept. 2007 regarding the LTTE vessel that escaped during Sept. 2007 operation. The fourth vessel was destroyed on Oct 7, 2007.

At an earlier stage of the Eelam War IV, the US provided 30 mm Bushmaster cannon to upgrade the Fast Attack Craft (FAC) flotilla. The replacement of 23 mm with 30 mm US weapon transformed the FAC flotilla. Having helped Sri Lanka to defeat the LTTE, the US later moved against the Rajapaksa administration as part of its strategy to counter China. The US hell-bent on depriving China overseas bases, worked overtime to facilitate a change of government. Current developments should be examined against the backdrop of the US backing Gen. Fonseka’s candidature at the 2010 presidential poll and Sirisena’s at the last presidential election. The forthcoming presidential election, scheduled for later this year, will surely attract US interests as it battled Chinese moves. Sri Lanka shouldn’t forget what former US Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited Colombo after the change of government in January 2015 later revealed the US funding made available to influence ‘regime change’ in Myanmar, Nigeria and Sri Lanka. Kerry revealed the US taxpayer spending as much as USD 585 mn in the above mentioned countries. How much did the US spend here? Who received the money?…..

(To be continued on June 12)

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