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Midweek Review

Empire’s Enchantment

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By Lynn Ockersz

For the Isle’s local Sires,

On whom the reins of power,

Were bestowed with caution,

By a tactically retreating empire,

The umbilical tie with the latter,

Was never brought asunder,

For, the departing big power,

Wanted a faithful local agent,

And our Brown Sahib class,

With its zest for adulation,

Meets the empire’s wishes,

As is now clearly visible,

In the ‘Mother Country’s’ capital,

Where local servants of the empire,

Scramble to be counted as present,

At the funeral of their ex-empress,

Lest their shrill pleas for succour,

Are trashed by the prime powers,

Presiding over a skewed global order.



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Midweek Review

A message from Keith Noyahr at the launch of ‘Notes from the battlefield’

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Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, PC, flanked by Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, and Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva, C. A. Chandraprema, at the 51 sessions of the ongoing Geneva sessions ( pic courtesy Foreign Ministry)

The 51 sessions of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council is underway. Sri Lanka is again in the focus with Western powers and their lackeys targeting the war-winning Sri Lanka military.

Successive Sri Lankan governments, including the incumbent administration, failed to address core issues. Their failure to counter accusations that over 40,000 Tamil civilians died in the hands of the military is inexcusable. The Foreign and Defence Ministries, without further delay, should review Sri Lanka’s strategy or fall victim to unceasing Western machinations against the country for militarily crushing the LTTE, against their advice.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Lankadeepa journalist Ratnapala Gamage had been with the late General Rohan de S. Daluwatte, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), in Sept. 2001 at the latter’s Colombo office when the one-time Army Commander (May 1996-Dec 1998) was informed of the killing of Vaithilingam Sornalingam alias ‘Colonel’ Shankar.

At the time of his death the 51-year-old former Air Canada employee commanded the ‘Air Wing’ and ‘Marine Division’ of the LTTE.

The 20-minute call interrupted the exclusive interview Gamage was having with the CDS as Daluwatte had to rush for a meeting which was also to be attended by the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.

Ex-Lankadeepa journalist Gamage, now domiciled in Switzerland, dealt with the high profile ‘hit’ carried out by the LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol) aka DPU (Deep Penetration Unit) in the eastern part of the Vanni region. The raid carried out so deep, within the LTTE-held territory, sent shock waves through not only the enemy’s rank and file but the Colombo-based diplomatic community as well. Gamage in his maiden book ‘Rana Bimaka Panhinda’ (Notes from the battlefield) discussed the war that was brought to a successful conclusion in May 2009, with the focus on his experiences and visits to operational areas. The launch of ‘Rana Bimaka Panhinda’ took place at the J.R. Jayewardene Centre on Sept 13 with the presence of Lankadeepa Editor Siri Ranasinghe. The gathering was told a Tamil translation of the book would be available later this year. Gamage had an opportunity to meet one of those intrepid men who participated in that particular operation on the Oddusuddan-Puthikudirippu road, east of Kandy-Jaffna A9 hi-way on the morning of Sept. 26, 2001. Gamage reveals his failed bid to convince one of those Long Rangers to give him one of the four pictures he had of the ‘hit’ on Shankar, one of Prabhakaran’s closest associates. Gamage explained as to why the soldier declined to give him a photograph. At the time the LRRP unit triggered the claymore mine that blasted the heavily guarded vehicle, the attackers had believed Velupillai Prabhakaran was on the move in it. Operations behind enemy lines that developed over the years involved elite men, including Muslim military personnel and ex-LTTE cadres. During the Eelam War IV, the Air Force, on more than one occasion, evacuated several teams of Long Rangers who had got trapped in enemy territory. Did such highly successful operations carried out behind enemy lines prompt Prabhakaran to return to the negotiating table in Feb 2002? The Norwegians finalized the one-sided Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) that included a clause specifically meant to halt all LRRP/DPU operations. Due to an oversight on the part of Gamage, the unprecedented crisis caused by the raid on a safe house at Athurugiriya Millennium City housing scheme, operated by those conducting operations behind enemy lines, didn’t receive the attention it deserved. The UNP government crippled the clandestine operation in spite of assurances given by no less a person than the then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle that LRRP/DPU didn’t target UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Interestingly, Gamage wasn’t at the launch of his book. The ex-Lankadeepa defence correspondent addressed the gathering from his home at Aarburg, Switzerland at the onset of the event attended by several retired military officers. Retired Maj. Gen. Sanath Karunaratne, who led the defence of the Elephant Pass base way back in July 1991, in his then capacity as a Major, was among the guests at the launch. Gamage discussed the heroic defence of Elephant Pass base and the largest ever sea-borne operation ‘Balavegaya’ launched to save those trapped therein.

The beleaguered men of the sixth battalion of the Sinha Regiment (6SR) under Karunaratne’s command held the strategic base till seaborne ‘Balavegaya’ troops fought their way in from the Mullaitivu coast to break the siege. ‘Balavegaya’ involved 10,000 men and was considered the largest action undertaken before ‘Operation Riviresa’ (Oct-Dec 1995) that brought Jaffna and its suburbs under government control.

If not for the successful suicide attack on an advancing armour-plated LTTE bulldozer carried out by Lance Corporal Gamini Kularatne, the garrison could have probably fallen before the Army launched Operation ‘Balavegaya.’ Kularatne received Sri Lanka’s highest gallantry award ‘Parama Weera Vibhushana’ for the supreme sacrifice he made on the battlefield. Kularatne was the first recipient of the decoration.

Referring to the fall of Kokavil detachment south of Elephant Pass in June 1990, Gamage quite rightly blamed the military top brass for the shortcomings. The second recipient of the highest decoration was Captain Saliya Upul Aladeniya also of the Sinha Regiment. Aladeniya commanded besieged Kokavil detachment established for the protection of the Rupavahini transmission tower there. However, the LTTE attacks on isolated detachments along the A 9 road north of Vavuniya up to Elephant Pass should be examined against the backdrop of the then President, late Ranasinghe Premadasa’s foolish attempts to reach a consensus with the LTTE by even transferring truckloads of arms to it. In June 1990 the government lost control of the A 9 road north of Vavuniya up to Elephant Pass. That stretch of the road overland route remained inaccessible to the government until the Army systematically liberated it in the final phases of the war in January 2009.It would be pertinent to mention that though 6 SR valiantly held Elephant Pass base in 1991 with less than a battalion of troops, a Division plus troops couldn’t repulse multiple LTTE attacks on Yakachchi and Elephant Pass base in late April 2000. The 54 Division abandoned the base and retreated in all directions. The LTTE killed well over 1000 officers and men. The then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Balagalle made a vain attempt to portray the humiliating Elephant Pass defeat as a strategic withdrawal. Many fighting personnel also perished as they ran out of potable water after the LTTE destroyed their sole water source at Yakachchi

Keith Noyahr’s commendation among the well-wishers who couldn’t attend the book launch but chose to issue a recorded statement commending Gamage’s work was Keith Noyahr, the Deputy Editor of now defunct ‘The Nation. Noyahr recalled his close association with Gamage during the conflict and when he earlier worked at the Daily Mirror, the sister paper of Lankadeepa. Noyahr fled the country following his abduction and subsequent release in May 2008. The then Mahinda Rajapaksa administration was accused of targeting ‘The Nation’ journalist over his column ‘Military Matters’ that questioned the conduct of war-winning Army Commander the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka. Unidentified persons abducted Noyahr on the night of May 22, 2008 in the wake of a provocative piece titled ‘An Army is not its Commander’s private fiefdom’ on May 11, 2008. Noyahr wrote the column under the pseudonym ‘Senapathi. ’Fearing Noyahr’s fate would also befall him, Gamage quietly left the country with his only son in Dec, 2008. His wife died a few years earlier and in spite of political changes never returned to the country. The then joint Opposition comprising UNP-JVP-TNA-SLMC-CWC backing Fonseka at the 2010 presidential election must have been quite a shock for those who criticised Fonseka ‘s controversial strategies, that however brought about the unbelievable crushing of the LTTE in the battlefield, which many a pundit claimed was not within Sri Lanka’s military capability.

Gamage declared in his foreword, his close working relationship with the then Daily Mirror Editor Lalith Alahakoon (having joined The Island in June, 1987, the writer worked under Alahakoon who was the Night News Editor at that time) and his Deputy at the Daily Mirror Noyahr.

Acknowledging his weekly contribution to the Sunday Lankadeepa greatly enhanced his capacity, Gamage appreciated the opportunity and support extended by both Alahakoon and Noyahr for him to do a weekly article that dealt with ‘Military Matters. According to Gamage, it had been a joint effort by him and Noyahr. By the time, Noyahr was targeted ‘Military Matters’ was penned by Noyahr for ‘The Nation.’

Having joined Lankadeepa in late 1993, Gamage moved overseas as Fonseka’s Army was making headway on the Vanni east front. Close on the heels of Gamage’s departure on Dec 18, 2008, the 59 Division brought Mullaitivu, once considered impregnable, under its control. Mullaitivu had been under LTTE control since July 1996 after the LTTE massacred well over 1,000 officers and men in a devastating assault on that isolated base shook the country.

Gamage hadn’t been with the Lankadeepa to report the last phase of the combined security forces campaign that brought the LTTE to its knees.

Wijeweera’s execution

Gamage hadn’t even thought of joining the staff of the Lankadeepa at the time the UNP battled the second JVP inspired insurgency. The government brought the counter

insurgency campaign to an end in late 1989 early 1990 with the elimination of the JVP leadership.

Controversy surrounds the circumstances, the late Somawansa Amarasinghe escaped with the help of an Army officer. The rest, including the Marxist Party’s leader, Rohana Wijeweera were apprehended and summarily executed.

Gamage recalled him raising Wijeweera’s execution with the late Brigadier Janaka Perera (the much decorated officer was killed in an LTTE suicide attack in early Oct. 2008 at Anuradhapura as he came to address an election rally after having retired as a Major General) at his quarters within the then Army headquarters (the war winning Mahinda Rajapaksa government sold that land. The Yahapalana government (2015-2019), too, sold the adjoining land).

Brigadier Perera had been the head of one of the three teams that were assigned the task of eliminating Rohana Wijeweera. Then DIG Premadasa Udugampola (He passed away in January 2019), the late Maj. Gen. Lakshman Algama (killed in LTTE suicide blast in Dec 2001) and the then Colonel Janaka Perera had been in charge of the teams that eventually hunted down the JVP leadership. Gamage recounted his stimulating conversation with Perera while sipping wine. Gamage was there on the invitation of the officer to share a meal with him. The arrest of a JVPer in the Dehiowita area by an officer attached to Perera team, his interrogation that led to the capture of JVP politburo member Disanayake Mudiyansalage Nandasena alias D.M. Ananda who revealed Wujeweera’s hideout at Ulapone. Did Janaka Perera participate in the execution of the JVP leader? What was the assurance the celebrated the army officer gave Wijeweera soon after he placed a pistol at the JVP leader’s head? Where did Janaka Perera detain Wijeweera? Who accompanied the then Army Chief Cecil Waidyaratne when he visited Wijeweera? Gamage answered all these questions and also revealed why Janaka Perera accompanied the journalist to meet a soothsayer in Anuradhapura. This was years before Gnana Akka’s entry into the scene. Gamage’s reportage of LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s press conference in the Vanni on April 10, 2002 captures the attention of the readers. How a police intelligence officer infiltrated the LTTE defences on the pretext of being a journalist from Colombo assigned to cover the much-touted media briefing and unprecedented security measures that were in place therein to prevent an attempt on Prabhakaran’s life was certainly exciting. Gamage discussed how the LTTE turned the media briefing to a propaganda exercise by non-stop screening of footage of their battlefield victories. The stunning attack on Pooneryn-Nagathivanthurai base established in the early 90s to intercept boat movements across the Jaffna lagoon spurred the LTTE. Those directly responsible for the failure weren’t punished though Army Chief Lt. Gen. Waidyaratne resigned after having accepted responsibility. The LTTE smashed the base in early Nov 1993.

A visit to Vanni

Among other issues addressed by Gamage, perhaps one of the most important was the deficiency in the infantry. The ex-Lankadeepa journalist underscored the extreme difficulties experienced by the Army for want of sufficient men under arms. Gamage dealt with the issue against the backdrop of a visit organized by the Army for a group of Colombo-based journalists, including photographers to visit Army lines in the Vanni during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s presidency. Ravi Ladduwahetti had been on The Island editorial at that time and was among those were taken there. Veteran journalist Ladduwahetti who had served many English newspapers passed away last week. He was 64 years old. The then Divaina Defence correspondent late Sirimevan Kasthuriarachchi and former UNL photographer Siripala Halwala were also in that media team.

Kasthuriarachchi, whose brother, an officer of the Vijayaba Infantry Regiment (VIR) died in the July 1996 Mullaitivu battle, had covered the conflict extensively and was one of those who always joined such arranged visits.

Like many other journalists Gamage, too, experienced flying with bodies of military personnel killed in action, when he was returning to Colombo from Palaly. The writer experienced the same on more than one occasion over the years.

Gamage shared his experience in flying to Palaly after the LTTE brought down two Avros with heat-seeking missiles on consecutive days in late April 1995. Among those who perished in missile attacks were three Lake House journalists. Gamage was lucky to avoid a Sam 7 hit as in spite of speaking to the then Commander of the Air Force he couldn’t secure a seat on an ill-fated Avro that flew out from Ratmalana air base. Instead, the Commander had offered him the opportunity to board the flight at the Anuradhapura air base when the Avro touched down there. Perhaps the second Avro disaster could have been avoided if the Air Force didn’t take the risk of flying there the day after the mysterious destruction of an Avro while taking off from Palaly.

There had been several other books on the conflict since the eradication of the LTTE’s conventional military capability. The books authored by our Permanent Representative in Geneva C.A. Chadraprema (Gota’s War) and the late Subramaniam Sivakamy alias ‘Col’ Thamilini (‘Thiyunu Asipathaka Sevana Yata’/In the Shadow of a Sharp Sword) are must read. Sinhala translation of ‘Oru Koorvaalin Nizhalil’, life story of high ranking LTTE cadre, ‘Col’ Thamilini, took place at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI) on May 13, 2016.Oru Koorvaalin Nizhalil’ was launched on March 19, 2016, in Kilinochchi, the one-time LTTE bastion.

Gamage’s coverage of UNP presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake’s assassination should be examined taking into consideration his assessment that the LTTE did so to facilitate Kumaratunga’s victory. At the following presidential election in 1999, the LTTE tried to assassinate Kumaratunga to pave the way for Wickremsinghe to secure the presidency and in 2005 engineered polls boycott to help Mahinda Rajapaksa to win the presidential poll.

Gamage refrained from commenting on why the LTTE helped Mahinda Rajapaksa to win. Perhaps, the LTTE miscalculated Mahinda Rajapaksa’s capacity.

Chief of LTTE procurement ‘KP’ in his first interview with the media given to this writer in the ‘custody’ of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) declared the LTTE calculated they could take an irreversible upper hand in the battlefield within two years.

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Midweek Review

Brahmi on Potsherds in Anuradhapura

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#uதுකම් (#Duty):

By Laleen Jayamanne

Somewhere online, I found this simple but startling composite, multi-scripted, word-slogan of the aragalaya; (#duty#යුතුකම්). Written with letters (akshara), drawn from all three languages of the country, it appears to be by an anonymous artist during the earlier GOTAGOGAMA PHASE of the aragalaya. It’s a key word expressing an ethical sentiment addressing all Lankans at this moment of political and economic upheaval and momentous social transformation.

The longer I look at this strange word many thoughts flash through my mind, though I don’t know Thamil. The letters of the three languages sit close to each other in amity. No hint here that that ‘u’ could cut like a ‘kaduwa’ (sword), or that the Thamil letter might be tarred or that Sinhala is allied to the word sinhaya (lion). Rather, this linguistic sign, as I see it, suggests a desire at the heart of an ethical impulse of the aragalaya (the struggle), a desire for a multi-ethnic Sri Lanka, free of ethno-linguistic-religio-supremacist nationalist violence. But, the fact that the word itself is Sinhala points to the obvious, the taken for granted centrality of the Sinhala folk in the aragalaya. A Tamil letter has also been dutifully included. As for the presence of the English ‘u’, it goes without saying.

It’s just one little word-image, but silently it does speak volumes about non-violence, avihimsa, which has never been part of Lankan political vocabulary, until the Aragalaya made it so. Despite the Buddhist idea of non-violence, Gandhi’s political idea was never a part of Lankan politics in the way it was for Martin Luther King in defining the non-violent ethos of the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Few know that Gandhi’s friend Tagore came to Ceylon in 1933 to open Sri Pali (modelled on Shantiniketan), and had spent time in Kandy completing Char Adhyay (Four Chapters) which was his poetic critique of the fascist turn in the Indian independence movement in Bengal. Young freedom fighters went on killing sprees while also

Words and Clay

“Ceramics is the memory of human kind,” Speaking Volumes: Pottery and Words. Paul Mathieu

Kumbha in Sanskrit means pitcher, jar, pot and Kumbha-karaka is a maker of pots. ‘Kumbal’ in Sinhala is also the caste name of potters. If we knew the etymology of the word it would conjure up a well-crafted pot rather than a low status caste, according to feudal Sinhala custom. A pot is useful, and also considered a symbol of the womb in some religious rituals as in the Kumbha-mela in India celebrating the life giving powers of Ganga nam ganga. I don’t know whether a pot carries this symbolic meaning in traditional Sinhala Buddhist culture and ritual as well. In addition to the every-day use-value, and extra-daily ritual-value of pottery, Paul Mathieu draws out the civilizational link between pottery and writing with its powerful abstract-value.

“The relationships between ceramics and text, pottery and words, are very old and very new. These relationships may not be too obvious at first, but it is my intent to show here that there is a very intimate connection between clay and language, ceramics and the written text, and that this symbiosis between the two cultural phenomena is very ancient and profoundly meaningful. Much has been made of the use of words and text in art and in contemporary culture, especially in new media technologies, but that has been true of ceramic objects since the very beginning of recorded history.

The earliest examples of ceramic objects related to language and writing are clay tokens from Mesopotamia dating from 8000 B.C. (see Schmandt-Besserat, Before Writing). These tokens were part of an accounting system used in exchange and commercial transactions.” Paul Mathieu

In Search of Lost Time

Closer to home, when reading several obituary tributes to the distinguished Lankan archaeologist, Siran Upendra Deraniyagala, in 2021, I learnt about his many remarkable achievements. Foremost among these is the unearthing, in the late 80s, in Anuradhapura, of potsherds inscribed with the Brahmi script. These were radiocarbon dated to about 4th or 5th Century BCE, confirmed by a team from Cambridge University and later corroborated by similar findings in Tamil Nadu. It is considered to be the earliest known script in South Asia. This dates the Brahmi script to about a century or two before Mahinda Thera, the son of Asoka, brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka, during the reign of Devanampiya Tissa, in 3rd Century BCE. While the epigraphs on the famous Asokan pillars across India are also inscribed in Brahmi, the form discovered in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu are considered to be of a much earlier variant of the script. As such, linguists consider it to be the ancestor of several modern vernacular scripts in the region. This period is described as proto-history, the script pointing to a literate culture and trade links with both India and beyond in West Asia, prior to the arrival of Buddhism. With such a long history, proto-history and pre-history recorded also in the palaeo-archaeology of Paul Deraniyagala, Siran Deraniyagala’s father, we have been given a powerful vision of temporal-duration of this little Island home of ours, at the tip of the Indian subcontinent, initially geologically linked to it.

Brahmi Script and the Aragalaya

The early period of the Aragalaya felt like an auspicious moment to explore some aspects of the implications of the ‘earth shattering’ Deraniyagala discovery, beyond the highly specialised domain of archaeology. One hopes that the chauvinist fear (of finding evidence in the depths of the earth’s womb, which might dispel the myth of Sinhala-Buddhist ‘manifest destiny’), might be dispersing. Pottery with writing is on another level or stratum from the fossil record. It helps to calculate time and value in relation to the development of human culture, specifically, the expansion of its powers of abstraction. The creation of a heady variety of abstract visual lines on clay, corresponding to sounds and meanings, makes language and drawing tantalisingly close to each other. Writing is linear and formalised into sound and meaning; language. Whereas, ‘line-drawing’ appears to activate a vagrant line. Or to put it differently, a line drawn by an artist moves without a known destination; art. On one hand, an encoding of the line precisely, on the other, a freeing of the idea of the line, which carries us away into the unknown.

“Dr. must be the most influential archaeologist in Sri Lanka after Prof. Senarth Paranavitana. Introducing a new historical paradigm to the Sri Lankan past, undoubtedly, it was only he who presented a systematic – theoretical framework to the Sri Lankan past and tested a hypothesis through several decades until it developed into general acceptance. The results of the quest have been momentous.

If someone seriously examines his landmark publication of 1992, they will be able to find a road map to the future studies and pointers to raise new questions.” Thilanka Siriwardana, (Archaeology.lk)

Deraniyagala, SU, 1984, “A classificatory system for ceramics in Sri Lanka”. Ancient Ceylon 5, 109- 114.

Art and Ecologycal Consciousness

Maybe, some contemporary artists with an interest in science and ecological thinking might feel like glancing at the fossil collection of Paul Deraniyagala in our katuge (House of Bones or Museum!) and who knows where that might lead! There might be a lateral connection to be made between Siran Deraniyagala’s momentous archaeological discoveries in Anuradhapura, of potsherds with the Brahmi script inscribed on them, and that of his father’s archaeo-paleontology and physical anthropology! This may appear to be a fanciful idea, but it is the case that artists working in the new media, including musicians are now working with scientists, at places like MIT, Cornel University and elsewhere, to develop projects, in the broad area of ecological thinking, that require collaborative team work across disciplines and skills. Ecological thinking now also includes, what Felix Guattari the psycho-therapist called, ‘mental-ecology’. Such collaboration may give artists with an ecological bent some lateral ideas to think with about interrelations of script (as movement), language (as sound), ethnicity, material culture, custom, the human body, nature and technology as ‘second-nature’, in Sri Lanka’s pre-history and proto-history, as they might relate to contemporary concerns. Siran Deraniyagala’s dig at Anuradhapura was 30 feet below ground level and it is said that he only uncovered a fraction of what is thought to be there. Can we imagine (certainly not another myth of origin of the lion race of the Sinhala), other ways of understanding the interconnectedness of all life forms and minerals, ‘transversally’, rather than hierarchically on this ancient island situated so propitiously on east west trade routes?

Siran U Deraniyagala, The Prehistory of Sri Lanka; An Ecological Perspective, (Colombo: Dept. of Archaeology, Government of Sri Lanka, 1992).

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Midweek Review

Geneva challenge: Sabry needs to review ‘case’ anew

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Ali Sabry, PC, responds to media queries at his Ministry on Sept. 05

In a classified diplomatic cable from Colombo, wartime US Ambassador here Patricia Butenis categorized President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa and common candidate at the 2010 presidential poll General Sarath Fonseka as war criminals. The cable released by whistle-blowing website Wikileaks, written by Butenis weeks ahead of the presidential poll conducted in late January 2010, revealed how irresponsible the then US envoy had been. Her own defence advisor publicly contradicted her at the first defence seminar held in Colombo in the following year. But, the Rajapaksa government never bothered to examine the full picture. Instead, it engaged in utterly foolish practices. Squandering of USD 6 mn in a vain attempt to influence Washington with a harebrained ‘propaganda’ project involving the Central Bank. Washington might allow such practices by countries like Israel, which openly finances friendly US legislators and openly works against even Jewish politicians if they dare to criticize Israel. In retrospect, the controversial appointment of Rajapaksa family member Jaliya Wickremasuriya as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Washington (2008-2014) should be examined against the backdrop of a US court recently finding him guilty for robbing the Sri Lankan government. Let me remind the readers that Wickremasuriya’s appointment was cleared by Parliament.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Referring to the 51st sessions (Sept. 12 to Oct 07, 2022) of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, PC, last week bluntly declared that Sri Lanka wouldn’t accept any “external mechanism, external evidence gathering mechanism, charging citizens outside the country, getting hybrid judges to come and hear the cases, all these are against the Constitution. So we can’t agree to that.”

The SLPP National List lawmaker stressed “Sri Lankan citizens will not be allowed to be charged outside the country” and “foreign judges will not be permitted to sit in judgment over cases in Sri Lanka.”

Former People’s Alliance lawmaker M.M. Zuhair, PC, (1994-2000 during the CBK presidency) quite rightly challenged Sabry’s stand on an external evidence gathering mechanism against the backdrop of Sri Lanka allowing the US and Australian investigators probe the 2019 Easter Sunday suicide attacks no sooner they were carried out. Emphasizing such investigations, that had been undertaken by outsiders, weren’t subjected to approval by the relevant judicial authority here, the former Ambassador to Teheran (2006-2012 during MR presidency) questioned the rationale in Sri Lanka’s rejection. Zuhair asked for urgent review of Sri Lanka’s stand.

Minister Sabry addressed the media, with Foreign Secretary Aruni Wijewardane seated next to him, at the Foreign Ministry. Wijewardane was called back from retirement in May this year to succeed Admiral Jayanath Colombage whereas President Ranil Wickremesinghe brought in Sabry as the Foreign Minister in place of Prof. G.L. Peiris, the famed legal academic who joined the rebel SLPP group that made an abortive bid to elect MP Dullas Alahapperuma as the new President, while the party backed eventual successor Ranil Wickremesinghe to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term.

Sabry had been the wartime Defence Secretary and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Counsel in several high profile cases, including the Ukrainian MiG-27 deal and a leading campaigner in the run-up to the 2019 presidential election, which GR won handsomely. When the writer sought a clarification from Sabry regarding the US snubbing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s request for a visa against the backdrop of Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and Maj. Gen. Chagie Gallage being denied visas based on unsubstantiated war crimes accusations, the President’s Counsel pointed out that Western powers had blacklisted not only individuals but entire fighting Divisions deployed on the Vanni front (2007-2009).

The US in Feb 2020 announced that Gen Shavendra Silva and his immediate family would not be permitted to enter the US though they never applied for visas.

This is unlike substantiated crimes committed by the US, the UK and Australian forces as was revealed by their own probes from Guantanamo Bay to Iraq, and Afghanistan, but were swept under the carpet.

With the Geneva sessions underway, it would be pertinent to discuss issues at hand pertaining to accountability issues as the government struggled to cope up with the developing political-economic-social crisis that had overwhelmed the country.

A statement issued by the Foreign Ministry recently disclosed the pathetic situation and its further deterioration. On a request made by Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Myanmar and Attorney-at-Law, J.M. Janaka Priyantha Bandara, the cash-strapped government recently received 1,000 metric tonnes of white rice worth SLR Rs 170 mn (USD 463,215) from that poor country also struggling with many woes. The Foreign Ministry stated: “The donation was granted in response to a request made by Ambassador Janaka Bandara when he presented credentials to the State Prime Minister of Myanmar Senior General Min Aung Hlaing during the credential ceremony on 7 June 2022 and also in commemoration of the 73rd anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The former SLFP National List MP received the diplomatic posting amidst the worst-ever economic turmoil and took over the mission there seven days before Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa quit following SLPP goons going on the rampage at Galle Face on May 09, which was used as a pretext to unleash pre-planned and well-coordinated attacks on mainly SLPP ministers and MPs, which left scores of homes and other properties of such politicians being attacked, looted and torched across the country and also several killings, including that of Polonnaruwa District SLPP Parliamentarian Amarakeerthi Athukorala and his police bodyguard at Nittambuwa, lynched by a mob.

Zuhair pointed out to Sabry the need to change the strategy. Let me reproduce that verbatim. “At a time when the country is increasingly dependent on the assistance of foreign countries to tackle the deepening economic crisis and the steeply rising cost of living, the government must objectively address the human rights concerns alleged against Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC) commencing sittings in Geneva.”

Lanka’s assurance on foreign judges

At the time Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon in May 2009, Rohitha Bogollagama served as the Foreign Minister (2007-2010). President Mahinda Rajapaksa brought in Bogollagama in early 2007 after sacking Mangala Samaraweera. Prof. G.L Peiris served as the Foreign Minister (2010-2015) and was replaced by Mangala Samaraweera in 2015 with the coming to power of the yahapalana (good governance) regime, which proved to be anything but that when its leading lights robbed the Central Bank twice.

The yahapalana administration thereupon moved Samaraweera to the Finance Ministry and brought in the then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake as the Foreign Minister in the wake of shocking revelations at the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the Treasury bond scams. In the same reshuffle one-time Attorney General Tilak Marapana received the Foreign Affairs portfolio (August 2017-Nov 2019). Dinesh Gunawardena received the Foreign Affairs portfolio after 2019 presidential election but was replaced by Prof. Peiris in August 2021.

Following a split in the SLPP in the wake of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation and UNP leader Wickremesinghe being elected the President in July by Parliament, Sabry was brought in as the Foreign Minister.

In spite of the much publicized Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from the Geneva Resolution 30/1, announced by Dinesh Gunawardena, at the 43rd session of UNHRC in March 2020, Sri Lanka firmly remained committed to the process. That is the undeniable truth. Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva Ravinatha Aryasinha accepted the 30/1 on specific instructions issued by Mangala Samaraweera on the advice of then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe. President Maithripala Sirisena, though he made public statements contrary to the position taken by his government, however did absolutely nothing to alter the status quo.

The yahapalana government entered into the Geneva Resolution on Oct 01, 2015 regardless of the strong criticism of the US-led move by Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that strangely backed General Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidates at the 2010 and 2015 presidential elections, respectively, declared its position on foreign judges in June 2016. On behalf of the TNA, the then National List lawmaker M.A. Sumanthiran, PC, disclosed a tripartite agreement among the US, Sri Lanka and the TNA. The disclosure was made in the presence of the then Sri Lankan Ambassador to the US Prasad Kariyawasam, who subsequently returned to Colombo to receive appointment as Foreign Secretary at the time of Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana.

The TNA’s partner Global Tamil Forum (GTF) spokesperson Suren Surendiran at that time told the writer that this tripartite agreement had been the basis for the Geneva Resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka.

Sumanthiran didn’t mince his words when he insisted that foreign judges weren’t contrary to the country’s Constitution. Those who opposed Geneva interventions conveniently refrained from challenging Sumanthiran in Parliament. Actually, refusal to allow external evidence gathering mechanism is questionable as the country remains committed to the 2015 Resolution. That is the undeniable truth.

In response to The Island queries at the Foreign Ministry briefing, Sabry acknowledged that Western powers had already taken action against the findings made by the Panel of Experts (PoE) in 2011. Over a decade after the eradication of the LTTE, successive governments hadn’t been able to reach a consensus on a common stand on war against separatist terrorism.

Sumanthiran’s disclosure

The TNA made available Sumanthiran’s audacious statement, to The Island, soon after he delivered it at the ‘Congressional Caucus for Ethnic and Religious Freedom in Sri Lanka’ in Washington D.C. on June 14, 2016.

On behalf of the TNA, Sumanthiran claimed to have reached a tripartite consensus in respect of foreign judges, defence attorneys, investigators, etc., in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism to probe war crimes.

Sumanthiran told the gathering that the government of Sri Lanka, the TNA and the US had been involved in the negotiations leading to the agreement.

In his brief remarks, Ambassador Kariyawasam provided an overview of the measures taken by Sri Lanka to promote its two-pronged policy of reconciliation and development since the January 2015 election of the yahapalana government and reiterated in detail, measures taken by that government to vindicate its commitment to these processes and explained the several challenges that militate against government efforts. A statement issued by the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington didn’t make any reference to Sumanthiran’s shocking disclosure.

In another shameless and impudent act, the same yahapalana administration brought back ex-ambassador Kariyawasam as an advisor to then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya paid for by Washington.

Sumanthiran told the Washington gathering that the resolution was moved in Geneva following an understanding that the participation of foreigners wouldn’t be contrary to the Sri Lanka Constitution.

Declaring that he had been personally involved in the negotiations with the US and also participated in that particular process, Sumanthiran said there were some doubts created, as to whether the Constitution of Sri Lanka would allow for foreign nationals to function as judges and we went into that question, clarified it, and said yes they could.

Sumanthiran told the Congressional Caucus that the resolution accepted at Geneva had been negotiated and they settled for a hybrid model though they originally asked for an international inquiry.

When the writer raised this issue with Marapana immediately after he took over the Foreign Ministry, the former AG declared that the 1978 Constitution wouldn’t permit the inclusion of foreign judges in the proposed domestic Judicial Mechanism under any circumstances.

Marapana quite conveniently forgot that a government appointed body in January endorsed the Geneva Resolution. The Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTFRM) called for full participation of foreign judges, and other personnel, including defence lawyers, prosecutors and investigators, in a transitional justice mechanism to address accountability issues. The CTFRM comprised Manouri Muttetuwegama, Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Gamini Viyangoda, Prof. Sitralega Maunaguru, Dr. Farzana Haniffa, Mirak Raheem, Prof. Gameela Samarasinghe, Visaka Dharmadasa, Shantha Abhimanasingham, PC, K.W. Janaranjana and Prof. Daya Somasundaram.

Perhaps, Sabry should receive a comprehensive briefing regarding Sri Lankan’s faltering process in response to the Geneva challenge. It would be pertinent to ask whether the Foreign Ministry submitted the relevant records pertaining to Geneva Resolution, including the entire set of declassified British diplomatic cables from its High Commission in Colombo to the UK Foreign Office (January-May 2009) and WikiLeaks revelations, as the new Foreign Minister.

On the basis of those dispatches, Lord Naseby has repeatedly stressed that the dispatches from Colombo didn’t collaborate the five main accusations levelled against Sri Lanka. The House of Lords member quoted Lt. Colonel Gash (wartime Colombo-based UK Defence Advisor) having denied accusations that the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa ordered the elimination of Tamil civilians, and there was no basis for claims that specific no-fire zones had been established by the military to kill those who gathered in them, and attempts had been made to starve the Vanni population.

There was absolutely no justification for claims of genocide, and the dispatches had cleared Sri Lankan military of holding civilians in clandestine detention camps such as Menik Farm. Lord Naseby pointed out that the ICRC had been present at the Menik Farm from day one. But, Sri Lanka never presented its case properly before Geneva. Sri Lanka lacked backbone at least to go on record how India caused a bloodbath here.

A dismal performance

Sri Lanka should set the record straight. The responsibility on the part of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice and Defence should be acknowledged. The Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute, National Defence College and Kotelawela Defence University should at least now initiate thorough examinations of accountability issues and make recommendations to the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence. Perhaps the Parliament should seriously consider a Select Committee to examine the entire gamut of issues as part of the overall measures to meet the Geneva challenge.

The following are the issues that need attention: (1) Dismissal of war crimes accusations by war time US Defence Attaché Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith in Colombo. The then US official did so at the May-June 2011 first post-war defence seminar in Colombo, two months after the release of PoE report. The State Department disputed the official’s right to represent the US at the forum though it refrained from challenging the statement. (2) Examine the US defence attaché’s statement along with Lord Naseby’s Oct 2017 disclosure based on the then British Defence advisor Lt. Colonel Anthony Gash’s cables to London during the war. Sri Lanka never did so. (3) Wikileaks revelations that dealt with the Sri Lanka war. A high profile Norwegian study on its role in the Sri Lanka conflict examined some cables. However, the Norwegian process never strengthened Sri Lanka’s defence. Instead it merely sought to disown its own culpability in the events leading to the annihilation of the LTTE. One of the most important Wikileaks revelations that debunked the allegation Sri Lanka deliberately targeting civilians. The cable proved that our ground forces took heavy losses by taking the civilian factor into consideration. (4) Wide discrepancies in loss of civilian lives claimed by UN and various other interested parties. The UN estimated the figure at 40,000 (March 2011) The UN in a confidential report placed the total number of deaths at 7,721 whereas Amnesty International (Sept 2011) placed the number at 10,000 and a member of the UK Parliament (Sept 2011) estimated the death toll at 100,000. (5) Disgraceful attempt made by Geneva to exploit so called Mannar mass graves during the yahapalana administration. The Foreign Ministry remained silent on Mannar graves while Western diplomats played politics by quickly putting the onus on Sri Lanka only to be proved utterly wrong. Acting at the interest of those hell-bent on blaming Sri Lanka, Geneva faulted Sri Lanka before the conclusion of the investigation.

The then Northern Province Governor Wigneswaran rejected scientific findings of Beta Analytic Institute of Florida, USA, in respect of samples of skeletal remains sent from the Mannar mass grave site. The then Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet went to the extent of commenting on Mannar mass grave in her report that dealt with the period from Oct 2015 to January 2019. We come to wonder whether she was actually a victim of Gen. Pinochet or a mere manufactured victim.( UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently announced the appointment of Volker Turk of Austria as the next UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, following approval by the UN General Assembly.)

Had the US lab issued a report to suit their strategy, would they have accepted fresh tests in case the government of Sri Lanka requested? The following is relevant section bearing No 23 from Bachelet’s report: “On May 29, 2018, human skeletal remains were discovered at a construction site in Mannar (Northern Province), Excavations conducted in support of the Office on Missing Persons, revealed a mass grave from which more than 300 skeletons were discovered. It was the second mass grave found in Mannar following the discovery of a site in 2014. Given that other mass graves might be expected to be found in the future, systematic access to grave sites by the Office as an observer is crucial for it to fully discharge its mandate, particularly with regard to the investigation and identification of remains, it is imperative that the proposed reforms on the law relating to inquests, and relevant protocols to operationalize the law be adopted. The capacity of the forensic sector must also be strengthened, including in areas of forensic anthropology, forensic archaeology and genetics, and its coordination with the Office of Missing Persons must be ensured.” (6) Wigneswaran, in his capacity as the then Northern Province Chief Minister in August 2016 accused the Army of killing over 100 LTTE cadres held in rehabilitation facilities. Wigneswaran claimed the detainees had been given poisonous injections resulting in deaths of 104 persons. The unprecedented accusation made by the retired Supreme Court judge had been timed to attract international attention. Wignewaran is on record as having said a US medical team visiting Jaffna at that time would examine the former rehabilitated LTTE cadres, who he alleged had fallen sick because they were injected with poisonous substances at government detention or rehabilitation centres.

Sri Lanka paid a very heavy price for its pathetic failure to counter a web of lies fashioned by interested parties, both local and foreign mainly funded by the West to coerce the country to adopt a new Constitution. Unfortunately, the incumbent government, too, is yet to examine the Geneva issue taking into consideration all available evidence, information and data into consideration.

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