Defence Secretary speaks out

*Communal politics bane of the country
*KP’s replacement arrested abroad, brought to Colombo
*Army politicised, divided
*Lanka won’t give in to war crimes probe

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa says the recently concluded presidential polls caused a sharp division among the armed forces and the people, though President Mahinda Rajapaksa secured a second term with an overwhelming majority. He says the damage is irreparable and punitive action needs to be taken against serving as well as retired officers regardless of their rank. He says the Military will investigate any aspect in relation to violation of its rules and regulation whereas the police handle other issues.

In a wide ranging interview with The Island at his office, a few hours before the Military Police had swooped down on defeated presidential candidate, General (retd) Sarath Fonseka’s political office at Rajakeeiya Mawatha, Rajapaksa discussed a range of issues, including an attempt to subvert a democratically elected government, ‘war crimes’ probe targeting Sri Lankan political and military leaderships, deterioration of discipline and professionalism among fighting forces and covert as well as overt operations directed against the LTTE. He also revealed the recent extradition of a top LTTE leader, who had been in charge of arms procurement and finances to Colombo in keeping with an understanding with an influential South East Asian country.

Question-Now that President Mahinda Rajapaksa has won a convincing victory at the recently concluded presidential polls in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE, what would be your (administration’s) priorities?

The Defence Secretary said that security was of paramount importance, though the LTTE no longer retained a conventional military capability. It would be a mistake to turn a blind eye to ongoing attempts to breathe life into the LTTE in the wake of credible intelligence reports relating to moves to re-build the organisation. Although, the mode of security forces operations had changed due to end of war last May, intelligence services would relentlessly pursue LTTE operatives, he said. "This is the second phase of the campaign against the LTTE," he said, emphasising the need to thwart any attempt on the part of the group and Tamil Diaspora to re-open sea supply routes to northern Sri Lanka and maintain ground presence in the Vanni jungles. The restoration of civil administration in the Vanni would depend on the success of the ongoing second phase of operations. Infrastructure development, Tourism, agriculture, and fisheries sectors would benefit but no one should expect a change in the ground situation overnight. "We fought the LTTE for over 30 years and succeeded in our military efforts only in the past three years. Those, who had failed in their attempts to end the war either though political or military means are challenging our strategy,"

The political battle also destroyed a sense of unity achieved in the backdrop of our triumph over the LTTE. In their haste to get 100 per cent credit for the war victory, they conveniently forgot what could be perhaps the single most important reason for our success. Had the President denied the manpower needed to wage an all out war against the LTTE, an outright victory would never have been possible without the required strength. "We recruited 300,000 youth to the armed forces, police and Civil Defence Force and millions of $ worth arms, ammunition and equipment. What we achieved was amazing," he said.

Question-The Opposition led by the UNP-JVP combine vowed to do away with the executive presidency if they won the January 26 polls. In fact, it had been their main campaign slogan. But over 1.8 million voters had exercised their franchise in support of the President thereby rejecting the Opposition’s campaign. SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena, too, echoed this opinion. During the eelam war IV, executive powers had been the key to prevent attempts to undermine the war effort, particularly by engineering crossovers in Parliament. Although, the LTTE had been defeated on the Vanni battlefields, wouldn’t it be necessary to continue with the executive presidency for the time being?

He warned the President won a convincing victory due to his popularity in the South, though the Opposition candidate secured the entire Northern and Eastern Provinces. Had the Southern vote been equally divided between the two main candidates, the majority received by the Opposition candidate could have caused an unprecedented crisis. It would be a mistake on our part to ignore the possibility of a person not committed to a ‘One country’ receiving a mandate to rule, he said, pointing out the danger in communal political parties exerting influence on a President with executive powers.

He regretted that communalists had received a mega boost due to the Opposition reaching an electoral understanding with minority political parties in the run-up to the poll. Their agreement denied a sizeable number of votes to the President as people were convinced a win for the Opposition would strengthen their move for self rule in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. He expressed concern that the same unholy alliance could play communal politics at the forthcoming parliamentary polls.

Question-Over the past three months, the government has been fully occupied with the presidential polls. The military top brass, too, had been involved in a campaign to ensure fighting forces and the police remained neutral. Would you admit that the SLFP-led ruling coalition and the Opposition had engaged in politics at the expense of security operations in a post-LTTE era?

"Our focus automatically shifted to politics during the past few months, particularly due to the explosive situation caused by the former Army Chief. Had somebody else contested the presidential polls, the situation would have been different and there wouldn’t have been any cause to be concerned." Petty politics, he said was always detrimental to the national interest, though political parties were not ready yet to change their approach.

Question-The Opposition repeatedly alleged that the government had reached a secret agreement with Kumaran Padmanathan alias ‘KP,’ seized by Sri Lankan agents abroad in tacit understanding with a South East Asian country. The Opposition went to the extent of alleging the government supplied women to ‘KP.’ What would be the fate of the one-time Prabhakaran ally credited with arranging uninterrupted supply of arms, ammunition and equipment to the LTTE?

An irate Defence Secretary said that he was not interested in what the Opposition say now as he did not care for their opinion during the war. "Let me tell you about a recent arrest of a senior LTTE operative living in a South East Asian country. He actually had handled finances and arms procurement for several years when LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran sidelined ‘KP’ over differences. Prabhakaran brought back ‘KP’ from retirement only in the final stages of the eelam war IV but by then the LTTE procurement and supply network was in chaos." According to him, both ‘KP’ and his one-time replacement identified as Ragan were taken into custody in one country. His arrest did not receive the attention it deserved due to the entire media being engrossed in the presidential polls and its aftermath. He said that Ragan was one of the most important LTTE operatives taken into custody following the collapse of the enemy fighting formation last May.

Question-Some of the people, who had benefited immensely from the Rajapaksa administration supported Opposition presidential candidate General (retd) Sarath Fonseka. Among them was one, who had been with Mahinda Rajapaksa years before he even aspired to be the President. He quit his lucrative post after his clandestine involvement with the Opposition became public. How would you deal with such people and ensure the President wouldn’t accommodate them again?

He declined to comment on this issue.

Question-Immediately after the election, the Defence Ministry moved swiftly and decisively to remove Army officers, including Majors General allegedly involved in a conspiracy against the President. Over a dozen officers had to quit the service as demanded by the Defence Ministry, whereas some found themselves moved out of their posts. The police, too, had to face the same problem, though some of the transfers were cancelled later. Would it be possible to produce irrefutable evidence in a court of law to prove the involvement of a section of the serving officers in a political-military conspiracy?

The Defence Secretary said that even a section of the Buddhist clergy had intervened on behalf of the officers, now facing conspiracy charges. "What they did was inexcusable and legal measures had to be taken regardless of their rank or political affiliations." They politicised and divided the Army into two groups. Nothing could have been as bad as this and damaging to national security. Although the former Chief of Defence Staff had a right to enter politics, he should not have involved a section of the serving officers in his campaign. He said that the Opposition had publicly acknowledged Fonseka’s involvement with them even before he shed his uniform to enter politics. Recalling the day, the Army killed Prabhakaran on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon last May, he said all peace loving people rejoiced the collapse of the LTTE. But within months, a section of the military had joined hands with the very same lot of bankrupt politicians, who persistently undermined the war effort. He emphasised that they (investigators probing polls day conspiracy) had irrefutable evidence to connect a small section of serving Army officers and some retired officers with a conspiracy. They could have destroyed what we had achieved over the past three years at a tremendous cost to the nation, he said. He said that no retired officer had a right to use military assets for political purposes, though the Opposition combine received the backing of the military, including the lower ranks, who at one-time threatened to divide the Army into two. He criticised Fonseka for using the official bungalow allocated to the Commander of the Army at Jawatte Road to launch his political career. Fonseka went to the extent of retaining a contingent of Army personnel over the group given to him after he moved the Supreme Court against the government.

He said that some serving officers had been forced to retire prematurely whereas some others were transferred from influential positions to thwart attempts to cause chaos in the country. "We moved fast as soon as the first reports of a possible attempt to challenge political authority came to light."

Some senior Army officers, who had commanded fighting formations during the war had to come on TV to explain the situation, he said. Although we didn’t like the idea there was no option, he said emphasising that the government had to take several unpleasant decisions to prevent a possible mutiny. He revealed that involvement of more officers could come to light during the investigation and they would have to be punished.

Question-Did a member of the National Security Council play a role in the Opposition strategy?

He said a person, who had been allegedly responsible for passing information to the Opposition was moved out of his position. He was not a member of the National Security Council, but a member of the staff, who had been assigned to the NSC.

Question-When did you first receive information regarding former Army Chief war veteran General Sarath Fonseka’s decision to throw his weight behind the Opposition? Did you try to discourage him from leaving the government?

General (retd) Fonseka had been part of the President’s team, which spearheaded the military campaign against the LTTE. Once Fonseka had revealed his discontent with the administration, the Opposition had jumped at the opportunity to entice him. Referring to a clash between UPFA and Opposition supporters at Polonnaruwa in the run-up to the presidential polls, the Defence Secretary said that two of the Army commandos assigned to the Opposition candidate had been involved in the incident. Two commandos had overturned a vehicle belonging to the government, he said. This was just one simple example of abuse of military personnel assigned for his personal security.

Question-Whatever the Opposition says, no one would be able to dispute your role as the Defence Secretary. Although some of your decisions had antagonised the Opposition and the international community, the government implemented them. One of the most crucial decisions was to direct INGOs to vacate the LTTE-held area by September 2008 to facilitate the Vanni offensive. What was the connection between INGOs and the LTTE and a section of the international community as well as the media?

The LTTE would not have lasted for 30 years without the support it received from the INGOs and a section of the international community, he said. According to him, financial and material support as well as international backing by way of propaganda had been of crucial help to the LTTE, though the President continued with offensive military action regardless of their pleas to stop. The LTTE would not have been able to build a strong line of defences, including ditches cum bunds without heavy machinery made available by some INGOs during the war.

Question-Justice and Law Reforms Minister Milinda Moragoda has involved the business and international communities and also won the support of Tamil society, particularly the All Ceylon Hindu Congress in government efforts to rehabilitate Tigers in government custody. You recently accompanied Moragoda to the Hindu College, Ratmalana, where former LTTE cadres were studying. Are you happy with the progress in relation to rehabilitation of ex-combatants?

Contrary to criticism by interested parties, the government had handled rehabilitation of LTTE cadres to the satisfaction of the people. He said that many cadres had been released and handed over to their families during the past few months as part of their overall strategy to tackle this issue. The international community and families of the detained, too, had been given access to detention facilities in the North, he said.

Question-The UPFA fielded at least one ex-military officer from each district at the last round of elections to Provincial Councils. Is there a likelihood of some senior retired military officers contesting the forthcoming parliamentary polls on the UPFA list?

A few retired military officers were likely to contest the polls, he said.

Question-Will you ever seek a parliamentary career?

The Defence Secretary said that he wouldn’t seek a political career.

Question-The US, British and their allies, who had been engaged in anti-terrorist operations world over since Al Qaeda attacks on the US in 2001 are reluctant to recognise and appreciate Sri Lanka’s triumph over LTTE terrorism. The West had constantly targeted Sri Lanka over her war on terror, though it vigorously prosecuted military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and several other trouble spots. A section of the media, too, had not been different either. What is your opinion on their double standards?

Strongly defending Sri Lanka’s right to take all possible measures to meet the military challenge posed by the LTTE, the Gajaba veteran said that no one would oppose a genuine investigation initiated by the international community. He said that the Defence Ministry wouldn’t hesitate to take punitive action against any officer regardless of his rank found guilty of war crimes or any other criminal activity, though they could be punished for conducting military operations for very survival of the State. He said that nothing could be as ridiculous as the allegation that the Army had killed a group of LTTE cadres, who surrendered to the 58 Division during the last stages of the battle. "We did everything possible to minimise civilian casualties. We restricted the use of artillery and mortar fire as well as air strikes. Those, who accuse us of massacring a group of so-called LTTE political wing cadres had conveniently forgotten over 10,000 LTTE cadres and their families surrendered last May. Prabhakaran’s parents, too, surrendered along with many other prominent LTTE families," he said. Any one could have easily surrendered by just walking across the frontlines, he said adding that the Army went to the extent of declaring no fire zones to accommodate the civilian community.

He emphasised that the Army could have avoided losses if it went all out against the last LTTE stronghold on the Vanni (east) front. "But troops went out of their way to save civilians at the risk of their lives," he said. He said that it would not be realistic to investigate a major battle in a one square km area.

Question-Now that the war is over the police could play its classic role fighting crime. Would it be possible to direct the police, the National Child Protection Authority and relevant authorities to go all out against sexual abuse of children? The Island revealed instances in which children accommodated at child welfare centres being sexually abused and raped. But unfortunately, their reaction had been slow on the part of the officials.

Now that the war is over, the police could play its classic role, he said.

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