US Embassy in Colombo and the SL Navy

* Former US Embassy staffer becomes Eastern Naval Commander
* Govt. mishandles Sampur incident


(L-R) Chief Minister Nazeer, Governor Fernando and US Ambassador Keshap

One of the events that gained public attention in the aftermath of the Eastern Province Chief Minister’s outburst against a navy officer in Sampur was the transfer of the Eastern Commander of the navy Neil Rosyro to Colombo as the deputy chief of staff and his replacement with Rear Admiral Travis Sinniah. Many people thought this change of command in the navy had something to do with the incident in Sampur. However, the government denied it and said that the change of command had been planned three weeks earlier. Many people thought the transfer of Rear Admiral Rosyro was an attempt by the government to get on top of things again after the armed forces in an unprecedented move, imposed a ban on the EP chief minister entering any armed services installation and also decided to boycott any event attended by the errant CM. After he returned from Japan, the President rescinded the ban on the Eastern CM entering any armed forces installation.

In the context of these tensions, the apparently ‘sudden’ transfer of Rosyro and the appointment of Sinniah was seen to be a way of reasserting the writ of the political authorities. Travis Sinniah was a navy officer who was reinstated in the navy on grounds of having been politically victimized by the Rajapaksa government and hounded out of the navy. Despite what it appears to be, information available to this writer indicates that the transfer of Rosyro and the appointment of Sinniah to the Eastern naval command had nothing to do with the Sampur incident and the process of handing over the Eastern Command to Sinniah had already commenced when the spat between the EP chief minister and the naval officer occurred. The process of handing over command in the navy is done over a number of weeks. However what is true is that Rear Admiral Travis Sinniah is an officer who has been reinstated in the navy by the present government on the basis that he was politically victimized by the previous government.

Sinniah’s appointment as the Eastern Naval Commander gained much attention because after retiring from the navy, he worked for the US Embassy in Colombo as a Security Specialist. There is nothing unusual in retired armed services officers serving in various Embasies as Security Specialists or in other capacities. But it is certainly unusual for an officer who was working for a foreign embassy to be appointed to a responsible position in the armed forces. This is of course not to cast any aspersions on Travis Sinniah’s suitability as a navy officer. There would be few officers in a navy more suited to hold high office than Sinniah. What is under the spotlight is only his choice of a retirement job. Sinniah is an officer who would have in any case been well on his way to becoming navy commander if he had not retired around 2011.

A Dartmouth trained officer, he has the distinction of being the commander of the successful mission that the navy launched in 2007 to destroy the LTTE’s weapons smuggling ships in international waters off Indonesia and Australia which was the Sri Lanka navy’s proudest achievement. This was the blow that really broke the back of the LTTE’s war machine and reduced their capacity to supply weapons to their cadres in Sri Lanka. That alone would have made Sinniah a natural choice to be Navy commander when his time came. Sinniah had been involved in other historic naval operations in his youth as well. As a young naval lieutenant he had played a major role in the operation that captured the Eastern LTTE commader Kumarappa and Pulendran along with more than a dozen other LTTE terrorists in the seas off Kankesanturai in 1987. According to Shamindra Ferdinando’s account of the capture of Kumarappa’s boat named ‘Kadalpura’, Sinniah had been the deputy commander of a Dvora fast attack craft P 457, and it was he who had made the detection of the LTTE boat at around 2.45 am in the seas off Point Pedro. When the LTTE boat defied orders to stop, it was Sinniah along with a Leading Seaman named Prematilleke who jumped off the Dvora into the moving LTTE vessel and confronted the 18 armed terrorists.

US Embassy intrigue in Colombo

So Sinniah has top credentials as a navy officer who has done more than his due in the fight against terrorism. However there are misgivings about how appropriate it is for a a navy officer to retire from the navy to become a staffer of the US Embassy in Colombo, and subsequently rejoin the navy to hold high office. The US Embassy is heavily involved in the internal politics of Sri Lanka. The previous US Ambassador Michelle Sison was openly talking politics at Embassy functions and she was one of those who were adamant that the candidate to challenge Mahinda Rajapakasa should not be a UNP candidate but a common candidate. She is squarely responsible for the situation of near-anarchic dual control that prevails in this country today. One of the main victims of Shisson’s interference is the UNP which provided over two thirds of the votes for the common candidate to win and won 106 seats in parliament but has ended up with less than half a government to show for their pains.

The situation during the tenure of Ambassador Sison’s predecessor Patricia Butenis was no better. One scandal that came to light was the attempt by the American Embassy to recruit Maj Gen Prasad Samarasinghe as a witness against the Rajapaksas on war crimes allegations. This incident took place in January 2011 at an Embassy party hosted in honour of a visiting dignitary from the US Pacific fleet. Maj Gen Samarasinghe who had been at the party had been approached by Dr John Carter of the US Embassy who had told Samarasinghe that they know that his sons were studying in the UK but that American education was much better and that they would give Samarasinghe and his entire family permanent residency in the USA and look after the education of his sons if he would testify to five charges, two of which was that it was Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who was responsible for covert operations and that it was the defence secretary who had ordered the eviction of Tamils from Colombo in 2007.

When Gota directly confronted Ambassador Butenis and wanted to know what was going on, Butenis had told Gota that it was all a big misunderstanding and that what had actually happened was that in the future, there would be more US government documents released by Wikileaks and that among the documents still to come out was a cable from the US Embassy in Colombo to the State Department stating that the then Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe had revealed to US Embassy that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and the navy had been responsible for certain incidents. Butenis told Gota that it was not Samarasinghe who had supplied that information to the US Embassy and that the Embassy had mentioned Samarasinghe’s name by mistake. She explained that Dr Carter’s worry was that when this cable comes out in Wikileaks, the government will penalise Samarasinghe for a mistake made by the Embassy and that was why they had offered to take Samarasinghe and his entire family to the USA and look after them.

It is hard to believe that the Ambassador of a superpower would have related such a cock and bull story to an officer of the Sri Lankan state. This email which was supposed to erroneously implicate Prasad Samarasinghe never appeared. The excuses for US intrigue trotted out by Butenis to Gota was a tissue of lies. What is a cause for concern is that Travis Sinniah retired from the navy and went to work for the American Embassy shortly after the Prasad Samarasinghe incident. Now he is back as the Eastern Commander of the navy. Of the five allegations that Dr John Carter wanted Maj Gen Prasad Samarasinghe to testify to, three were against the navy. This is where the rub is. The US is at the forefront of calling for war crimes trials in Sri Lanka. They were trying to recruit ‘witnesses’ against the Rajapaksas from within the military through bribery. Then Travis Sinniah retires from the navy and joins the US Embassy as Security Specialist. Why wouldn’t the US Embassy try to tap Sinniah the same way they tried to entice Samarasinghe?

That Sinniah has been reinstated in the navy on a claim of having been politically victimized by the Rajapaksas is also a cause for concern. That makes him a partisan appointee of the present government. Furthermore, the Rajapaksas had absolutely no reason to victimize Sinniah. On the contrary he seems to have been on good terms with the Rajapaksa establishment otherwise he would not have been made the officer commanding the most important, most secret naval mission ever carried out to destroy the LTTE ships. Around 2011 however, Sinniah seems to have had a spat with the then commander of the navy Somatilleke Dissanayake over an incident where four naval ratings had gone missing off the coast of Mullaitivu.

Sinniah and the Rajapaksas

This incident occurred around March 2011. The four naval ratings had gone out to sea in an unmarked dingy clad in civvies at the time of their disappearance. This had also been described as a ‘routine patrol’ between detachments off the Mullaitivu coast, though it is hard to imagine how they could have been on patrol in civil clothing in an unmarked dinghy. The sailors are missing to this date. There had been an abuse taking place in the Eastern naval command where ratings would go out to sea to obtain fish from Indian trawlers poaching in the area. When he was an area commander in the East, Sinniah had apparently reported the matter to naval headquarters and wanted an inquiry to put an end to this abuse. However it was alleged that no action had been taken by naval HQ until this disappearance occurred.

Be that as it may, the spat that led to Sinniah’s early retirement was apparently due to the blame game over the disappearance of these four naval ratings. The then navy Commander Somatilleke Dissanayake and Sinniah had even appeared before Gota over this matter. Gota knew Sinniah’s value and he had tried to keep the warring naval officers out of one another’s way. Quite apart from Gota, Sinniah had a direct link to President Mahinda Rajapaksa through some St Thomas’ College connection and MR too had been keen to see that Sinniah remained in the navy. However, around this time, a vacancy had opened up at the US Embassy in Colombo for a retired officer part of whose job was to liaise with the SL defence ministry and the armed forces. The previous holder of this office had been a retired army officer. Sinniah had put in his papers for retirement in order to join the US Embassy.

However he could not take up the job without being released and allowed to retire. The US Embassy had been very keen to get Sinniah for the job and Ambassador Patricia Butenis had approached Gota and wanted him to release Sinniah to take up their job. But Gota had said that Sinniah was a good officer and that the navy needed him. However it was on Butenis’ persuasion that Sinniah had been released from the navy. Later he left the US Embassy job and migrated to another country with his family (not the US). The government in Sri Lanka changed in the meantime and Sinniah had rejoined the navy on the grounds that he had left due to political victimization. This is one officer whose reinstatement in the navy after he retired should not be grudged by anybody. Many armed forces officers retired after the war to take up lucrative overseas postings.

However, Sinniah will have to demonstrate that he has not been compromised by serving the American Embassy during a period when American interference in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka was at its height. The US Embassy studies people and finds out about the personal needs of those whom they want to recruit as their spies and agents. They were clearly fishing for big catches from among the armed forces as recounted above. However the fact that Sinniah later left the American Embassy and migrated with his family to a country other than the US may indicate that he has not been compromised. Simply retiring from the armed forces and coming back on some claim is no issue except for this association with the American Embassy. It is also plainly clear that Sinniah is not politically involved and neither is he a madman whose sole purpose in life is to put his detractors in jail and make them wear ‘jumpers’. He may have simply made some unwise career moves and come back where he belongs.

We must also add that merely being associated with the US in some way does not make anyone suspect. Sinniah was only an employee of the US Embassy whereas Gota was a US citizen and Sarath Fonseka a green card holder. Furthermore Republican governments in the USA have done Sri Lanka many favours in relation to the war against terrorism. The reason why Sri Lanka was able to destroy the LTTE arms smuggling ships in the seas off Indonesia was because of an exchange of information with the Americans. It was the American government and particularly former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice who helped the then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera to get the LTTE banned by the EU in 2006. It was the Republican government that commissioned the 2002 military assessment by the US Pacific Command of the two combatant parties in the Sri Lankan conflict which was immensely useful in fighting the war. This study had in fact been commissioned at the request of Ranil Wickremesinghe who was the then prime minister and it was undoubtedly one of the UNP’s most useful contributions to the war effort.

All that was under Republican governments. The present Democratic Party government however was trying to sabotage the war effort from the moment they took office. After the administrations changed in the USA, the then US Ambassador Robert Blake had sheepishly explained to Sri Lankan government functionaries that he is now serving a ‘different’ government. Obama assumed office in February 2009 and it is his government that tried to rescue Prabhakaran and the top LTTE leadership by sending gunboats from the Pacific Fleet to evacuate the cornered terrorists from Mullaitivu by sea. But the SL government refused to allow anything of the sort. After the war, the Democractic administration has been relentlessly pressing for war crimes investigations against those who won the war. It is a towering tragedy that a naval officer of Sinniah’s calibre has been tainted by his assoication with such a lot.

Mishandling the Nazeer Ahmed affair

If the Democratic party wins the US presidential elections in November this year, Sinniah will once again be in the spotlight. The events that have followed immediately after Sinniah was appointed Eastern naval commander have not helped. The luncheon accorded to Eastern Province Chief Minister Nazeer Ahmed who not so long ago was seen insulting a naval officer at a public event in Sampur has given rise to more ill feeling. There would of course be no need for permanent enmity over an incident which obviously occurred in the heat of the moment. But the government has failed in its handling of an issue that can easily be resolved. All that was necessary was a photograph of Nazeer Ahmed and the aggrieved naval officer shaking hands and smiling for the cameras before hosting the errant CM to lunch.

The government has made a mess of things by getting the navy to host the EP chief minister to lunch without a public rapprochement between him and the naval officer concerned. Thereby the government has failed to prevent a minor incident from blowing up into a wider issue. The Deputy Chief Sanghanayake of the Batticaloa and Ampara districts Ven. Ampitiye Sumanarathana commenting on Nazeer being hosted to lunch at the Trinco naval HQ had expressed his disappointment over the matter saying that while they had been living under the terror of the LTTE for years, no one had called them into a navy camp and offered them a meal whereas the EP chief minister who came to the notice of the wider public only because of his outburst against a navy officer, is called to the naval headquarters and given a hearty meal. Perhaps Sinniah, the newly appointed navy Eastern commander had nothing to do with this controversial luncheon. When the Eastern command gets an order from Colombo to host a top minister and a visiting foreign dignitary to lunch, they have little choice in the matter of who will turning up for lunch at the naval HQ.

This is going to be a politically costly lunch. While it is true that the ban on Nazeer Ahmed entering military installations had been revoked by the government, the matter had not yet been resolved in a manner that would uphold the self respect of the navy or of the members of the public who felt they had been slighted by the incident. The nightly news bulletins, websites and social media are full of denunciations of this luncheon. This is now being portrayed as another instance in which the present government has insulted the armed forces. Earlier, R.Sampanthan had entered an army camp with a TNA group and the government swept that incident under the carpet. That was followed by the Sampur incident and now it is this luncheon. Posts are appearing in the social media saying "If you want a good meal from the navy, insult a navy officer!"

One of the main reasons for the fall of the 2001-2004 UNP government was also a spat involving Sampur and the Eastern naval command. Back then the Eastern commander of the navy was Wasantha Karannagoda who had begun raising alarms that the LTTE was making use of the ceasefire to build up their presence in Sampur which could have given them the ability to blockade Trincomalee harbour. Since all movement of supplies and troops to the Jaffna peninsula was through the Trincomalee harbour, a blockade of Trincomalee would mean that the government would lose Jaffna. At that time the LTTE had total control of the Vanni, and there was no land route to Jaffna. Instead of taking Karannagoda’s increasingly strident warnings seriously, the UNP tried to ridicule him through the government controlled media that Karannagoda was prone to panic unnecessarily and that on one occasion he had mistaken a whale for an enemy submarine and had ordered his men to open fire killing the whale! Once again, they seem to be ignoring or making light of issues that have the potential to blow up into major issues.

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