Field Marshal triggers fresh storm



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July 23, 2009: Lt. Gen Jagath Jayasuriya presents a memento to his predecessor General Sarath Fonseka at a ceremony at army headquarters in Colombo.


By Shamindra Ferdinando


War-winning Army Commander and Regional Development Minister, Sarath Fonseka last Saturday (Sept 1, 2017) declared that wartime Security Forces Commander, Vavuniya, the then Maj. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya had committed crimes during his tenure as the senior officer based in Vavuniya.


Sinha Regiment veteran Fonseka, who now holds the rank of Field Marshal, alleged that Jayasuriya had subjected those who were arrested by troops, under his command, to ‘criminal activity’.


In early Feb. 2016, the UNP accommodated Fonseka on its National List in the wake of M.K.A.D.S. Gunawardena’s demise. Having unsuccessfully contested the last general election, in Aug. 2015, on the Democratic Party (DP) ticket, Fonseka was lucky to enter parliament, courtesy UNP National List. In late March 2016, President Maithripala Sirisena promoted Fonseka to the rank of Field Marshal.


Fonseka didn’t mince his words when he stressed that Jayasuriya had continued such criminal practices, even after becoming the Commander of the Army.


Jayasuriya succeeded Fonseka, in July 2009, amidst political turmoil caused by the latter indicating desire to enter national politics through the UNP. The change of command took place about eight weeks after the successful conclusion of the war.


President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed Fonseka as the Commander of the Army, on Dec 6, 2005, on the recommendation of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who, too, had served the Army during eelam war I and II. Rajapaksa served as the Commanding Officer of the first battalion of Gajaba Regiment at the time Fonseka held the same position in the Sinha Regiment.


Fonseka dropped the latest bombshell immediately after newly appointed Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Ravi Wijegunaratne, and Navy Chief Vice Admiral, Travis Sinniah, made courtesy calls on him at the Regional Development Ministry, Rajagiriya. Sinniah is also embroiled in a defamation case following former Navy Chief Wasantha Karannagoda initiating legal proceedings against a statement allegedly given by Sinniah to the CID in respect of the disappearance of 11 Tamil youth, in 2008.


Minister Fonseka offered to furnish information available with him in respect of Jayasuriya’s activities, in case the government initiated an inquiry.


FM Fonseka made his move close on the heels of South African lawyer, Yasmin Sooka, on behalf of the International Truth and Justice Project, accusing Jayasuriya of war crimes during the Vanni offensive in Eelam War IV (Aug 2006 to May 2009). BBC’s Newshour programme quoted Sooka as having said:"In the pivotal period, between 2007-2009, Jayasuriya was really in charge of what was happening in the Vanni area."


Sooka served as a member of the questionable three-member UN panel, headed by former Indonesian Attorney General, Marzuki Darusman. Sooka’s allegations, directed at Jayasuriya, should be examined against the backdrop of her role as member of UN Panel of Experts (PoE), which covered its tracks by instituting a caveat by which the unnamed witnesses it had cited would not be divulged for 20m years. The panel, in its report dated March 31, 2011 accused the Sri Lankan military of massacring over 40,000 Tamil civilians. Let me reproduce the relevant section verbatim: "In the limited surveys that have been carried out in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, the percentage of people reporting dead relatives is high. A number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. Two years after the end of the war, there is no reliable figure for civilian deaths but multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths can not be ruled out at this stage. Only a proper investigation can lead to the identification of all of the victims and to the formulation of an accurate figure for the total number of civilian deaths."


Jayasuriya received appointment as SF Commander, Vavuniya, on Aug. 7, 2007. The armoured corps officer held that post until he was unexpectedly summoned to take over as Commander of the Army, on July 15, 2009, at the onset of the battle between the Rajapaksas and Fonseka.


As FM Fonseka very clearly pointed out, at a media briefing, on Saturday, Jayasuriya, in his capacity as SF Commander, Vavuniya, hadn’t enjoyed command and control responsibilities over fighting formations, deployed on the Vanni west and Vanni east fronts. Jayasuriya had been tasked with ensuring supplies and basically looking after the area under government control. Jayasuriya’s functions had been similar to those assigned to SF Commander, Jaffna. Maj. Gen. G.A. Chandrasiri and SF Commander, East.


When the Rajapaksa administration bluntly told Fonseka to accept the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), the war-winning Army Chief wanted Chandrasiri to succeed him. But, the government picked Jayasuriya at the expense of several other deserving senior officers over their perceived loyalty to Fonseka.


Jayasuriya, way down the seniority list, was lucky at that time to secure the command of the war-winning Army.


Fonseka received the appointment as CDS on July 14, 2009.


Fonseka, in a letter dated Nov 12, 2009, addressed to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, sought permission to quit the largely ceremonial post on Dec 1, 2009, as he finalized arrangements with the UNP-led coalition to contest the presidential election.


President Rajapaksa declared presidential election, on Nov 15, 2009, though some advised him to abandon the plan to call for early poll. They urged Rajapaksa not to face Fonseka.


Since then, Fonseka, widely called Sri Lanka’s best army commander, had flayed the Rajapaksas, Mahinda and Gotabhaya, for their conduct during the war, and after. Fonseka sent shock waves through the country, in early Dec. 2009, when he claimed, in an interview with the then editor of The Sunday Leader, Frederica Jansz, that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had ordered the Army to execute surrendering LTTE cadres on the Vanni east front. Jansz, in 2004, reported the disappearance of a soldier attached to the then Eastern Commander Maj. Gen. Nanda Mallawarachchi, under mysterious circumstances. Mallawarachchi was blamed for the disappearance. Subsequently, the man who had been reported killed was arrested by the Veyangoda police.


Fonseka alleged that the change of command was made against the backdrop of speculation that there could be a coup in the aftermath of the final triumph over the LTTE. Referring to Jayasuriya, Fonseka strongly condemned the government’s decision to promote wartime SF Commander, Vavuniya, as the Commander of the Army, at a time he was facing a disciplinary inquiry. Fonseka, while calling Jayasuriya commander of holding formations deployed there, explained the circumstances leading to his decision.


Fonseka strongly criticized the then government having suspicions about him as well as questioning the loyalty of the Army. It would be pertinent to mention that former Indian Defence Adviser Shivshankar Menon’s ‘Choices: Inside the making of India’s foreign policy’, launched in 2016, dealt with the issue. Menon explained how President Rajapaksa swiftly and decisively moved to rein in the powerful Army soon after the successful conclusion of the war. Obviously, Menon was making a reference to the alleged coup bid in Sri Lanka in Oct 2009, an assertion strongly denied by Fonseka, in Nov. 2009.


The continuing battle between Fonseka and the ‘Rajapaksa camp’ should be examined against the backdrop of the former entering politics through the UNP in late 2009. Both Fonseka and the UNP exploited the then political situation to their advantage.


In the wake of Sri Lanka’s signal triumph over the LTTE, in May 2009, the UNP had no option but to field Fonseka to deprive the then president of heavy political advantage. Fonseka received the blessings of all those who had been wanting to see the back of the Rajapaksas. The US was desperate to bring the Rajapaksa rule to an end. The four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) declared its support for Fonseka at the behest of the US. Having repeatedly accused Fonseka’s Army of massacring Tamil civilians, raping Tamil women and committing a range of battlefield atrocities, the TNA urged Tamil electorate to vote for the retired Army Chief. The TNA comfortably delivered predominately Tamil electoral districts, including Jaffna, to Fonseka whereas the South largely voted for Rajapaksa.


Those who had been demanding accountability on the part of Sri Lanka never bothered to seek an explanation from the TNA. In fact, the TNA, at the previous presidential election, in Nov. 2005, ensured Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory by ordering the Tamil electorate not to exercise their franchise in support of UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe. Rajapaksa managed to secure victory in 2005 by less than 200,000 votes, thanks to the TNA directive issued at the behest of the LTTE.


Against the backdrop of the TNA’s support for Fonseka, the very basis of accusations that Sri Lanka had conducted, what Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran called genocidal war against Tamils, sounds hollow. The Tamil electorate wouldn’t have overwhelmingly voted for the former Army Chief, as directed by the TNA, if it really believed in the war crimes accusations. A classified US diplomatic cable, revealed by whistle blowing Wiki Leaks, quoted TNA leader R. Sampanthan as having told the then US Ambassador in Colombo, Patricia Butenis, his party would support the Rajapaksas as they were the lesser of the two evils. But a few days later, the US brought in pressure on the TNA to go along with the overall plan to oust the Rajapaksas.


Butenis also forgot that in another classified cable, dated January 15, 2010, she dealt with the contentious issue of war crimes accountability. Butenis implicated President Rajapaksa, his brothers, Gotabhaya and Basil, and Gen. Sarath Fonseka. Butenis pointed out "that responsibility for many of the alleged war crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa, and his brothers, and opposition candidate.


Print media coverage of Fonseka’s media briefing, as well as various reactions, indicated that many construed the war veteran remarks as war crimes accusations directed at Jayasuriya. Allegations, pertaining to Jayasuriya’s conduct, during his tenure as SF Commander, Vavuniya, cannot be in anyway related to alleged war crimes. Jayasuriya had absolutely no command responsibility in respect of fighting formations on the Vanni west or east fronts. Fonseka directed five fighting Divisions and Task Forces assigned to clear the Vanni region in the absence of Overall Operations Commander (OOC) responsible for the offensive. General Officers Commanding and Brigadiers responsible for Divisions and Task Forces received battlefield commands directly from Fonseka.


There is absolutely no basis for Sooka’s assertion that Jayasuriya had given leadership to the Vanni offensive, at any stage of the offensive. Jayasuriya had been overseas before taking up the appointment in Vauniya, a few months after Fonseka launched the Vanni campaign.


In the wake of the International Truth and Justice Project moving court against Sri Lanka’s ambassador, in Brazil, Jayasuriya on the eve of his departure, after completing a full term, the BBC, in a story, datelined Aug 29, 2017, headlined ‘Sri Lanka’s Jagath Jayasuriya wanted for war crimes’ declared: "Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Suriname was in charge of troops in the north-east of the island who are alleged to have attacked hospitals and abducted, killed and tortured thousands of civilians."


Jayasuriya received the diplomatic posting in Aug 2015 though he was considered loyalist of the previous government.


The BBC didn’t attribute its allegation to anyone. Contrary to the BBC’s claim, Jayasuriya hadn’t commanded ground forces in the Eastern Province (Aug 2006 to June 2009), Vanni region (March 2006 to May 2009) or Jaffna theater (Oct/Nov 2008 onwards until the war in the norther theater was brought to an end). A section of the international media had backed expensive diabolical campaigns to haul Sri Lankan officers before international courts and international war crimes court. Interestingly, in their haste to exploit Sooka’s case against Jayasuriya, they (media) hadn’t even bothered at least to verify commands held by the officer concerned. There had never been any previous reference to Jayasuriya in respect of alleged war crimes before the International Truth and Justice Project recently moved court against him.


There had been various unsubstantiated allegations directed against the Army over the years with a section of the international community and the media accusing the previous government of forcing foreign relief workers to leave the Vanni region in 2008. Interestingly, Jayasuriya had been SF Commander Vavuniya at that time though he didn’t exercise operational command over fighting formations engaged in the offensive. The 57 Division and Task Force I / 58 Division had been deployed west of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 and 59 Division east of A9. Jaffna based 53 Division as well as 55 Division had joined offensive action east of A9 after the celebrated 58 Division evicted the LTTE from strategic Elephant Pass area. In addition to them, multiple task forces had attacked enemy fortifications across A9 (west to east).


Obviously, Sooka, in spite of being a member of the Darusman panel and over eight years after the conclusion of the war, still lacked a clear idea about the Vanni theater of operations. Sooka seems to be interested in appeasing her sponsors, hell bent on stepping up pressure on Sri Lanka.


Fonseka had repeatedly declared that he was directly in charge of the non-stop offensive that began with the recapture of Muttur on the eastern front, in early Sept 2006. Throughout the war, the then main Opposition, the UNP, flayed Fonseka. The UNP accused the then Army chief of being behind attacks on reporters, a charge strongly denied by the army.


In July 2008, Gampaha District UNP MP Joseph Michael Perera told parliament that the attacks were carried out by a "special team" controlled by Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka.


MP Perera said the government should arrest the offenders and "immediately bring them to justice".


"We are told by those in the army itself that journalists are abducted and subjected to grievous injury by none other than a special unit, under the army commander," MP Perera, a former parliamentary speaker, said. The media quoted the then military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara as having said:"We have nothing to do with the attacks against journalists. "If the MP has evidence, he must present it to the police."


During Fonseka’s command, the Army was accused of killing Lasantha Wickrematunga on Jan 8, 2009, attempt to kill the then Rivira editor Upali Tennakoon on January 23, 2009, abduction and assault on Deputy Editor and the then defence correspondent of The Nation, Keith Noyahr, on May 22, 2008.


The UNP mercilessly targeted Fonseka until the war was brought to a successful conclusion, leading to Fonseka’s unceremonious exit in July 2009. Jayasuriya was brought in from Vavuniya to take over command of the victorious Army. Fonseka’s arrest, under controversial circumstances, weeks after his defeat at January 2010, presidential polls further complicated the situation. Jayasuriya dispatched troops for Fonseka’s arrest and the former commander was taken into custody by the Army. The decision to hold Fonseka at Navy headquarters, in spite of Admiral Karannagoda not being at the helm, made matters worse. Karannagoda retired in mid July 2009 in accordance with overall changes that compelled Fonseka to accept the post of CDS.


In Nov 2011, a three-judge Bench of the Colombo High Court sentenced Fonseka to three years in prison after he was found guilty of "inciting violence" in the ‘White Flag Case.’


Fonseka claimed that he was quoted out of context.


Fonseka was serving a 30-month jail term imposed by a court martial when Colombo High Court delivered its judgment.


During Fonseka’s imprisonment, the US repeatedly brought pressure on the previous government to release him. Once, Colombo based US diplomat met the then SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena to deliver a strong warning to President Rajapaksa. The US diplomat warned President Rajapaksa to pardon Fonseka or face the consequences. The then SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena himself told the writer about him receiving a message from US diplomat and passing it on to President Rajapaksa. The then President, too, confirmed it to the writer.


Various interested parties had tried to move foreign courts against senior military officers, including Majors Gen. Jagath Dias (General Officer Commanding 57 Division), Shavendra Silva (GoC 58 Division) and Chagi Gallage. In fact, Field Marshal Fonseka has been denied a US visa-while Australia turned down a request for a visa by Gallage on the basis of unsubstantiated war crimes allegations. Australia found fault with Gallage for giving leadership to the 59 Division, from May 7, 2009, to July 20, 2009.


The Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection has extensively cited Report of the OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) on Sri Lanka (OISL) to turn down Gallege’s request. On the basis of OISL report, Geneva adopted Resolution 30/1 to pave the way for foreign judges in a domestic judicial mechanism.


Australia also cited the UN panel of experts report on accountability issues released on March 31, 2011. The report accused Sri Lanka of massacring over 40,000 civilians and depriving the Vanni population of their basic needs. The combined security forces brought the war to a successful conclusion on May 19, 2009.


Australia has cited a statement attributed to Shavendra Silva that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) real time footage had been made available to ground commanders marking targets, to justify its decision. On the basis of Silva’s statement, Australia has alleged that Gallage had been aware of artillery strikes on the third no fire zone.


There have never been specific allegations against Maj. Gen. Gallage before.


The US also denied visa to Maj. Gen. Sudantha Ranasinghe for commanding 53 Division after the conclusion of the war.


Today, people have forgotten how the US tried to entice Maj. Gen. Prasad Samarasinghe to betray Sri Lanka for monetary gain. Samarasinghe brought the US attempt to the notice of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Unfortunately, the previous government conducted an inquiry. But, the government could never absolve itself of the responsibility for not taking advantage of wartime US Defence attache Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith’s contradiction in early June 2011 of battlefield executions in May 2009. The US statement was undoubtedly Sri Lanka’s best defence though the previous government failed to capitalize on it. The Island exclusive on the US military official’s statement was denied by the State Department as it struggled to contain damage caused by Smith.


There was no need for the State Department to be worried about Sri Lanka’s reaction. Sri Lanka never officially referred to that statement yet.


(To be continued on Sept 13)


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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