Sri Lanka: Defence Secretary Is A Grim Impediment – Analysis

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By Dr Kumar David

Lanka’s Defence Secretary Gothabaya, a brother of President Mahinda Rajapake, together with two other brothers (economics minister Basil and parliamentary speaker Chamal) comprise the inner cabal and power hub in the country. The triumvirate of president, defence secretary and ex army commander Sarath Fonseka are credited with winning the war against the LTTE and enjoy warmth in Sinhalese hearts. But things are changing, public attitudes are shifting in respect of all three; President Rajapakse has lost much of his shine – or that’s my impression still to be tested at any significant local election in a Sinhalese area – and even political opponents of Fonseka now campaign for his release since his incarceration is a politically motivated miscarriage of justice. None of this is new; but in the case of Mr Gothabaya Rajapakse (GR), two recent events have been transformative; the Lankan regime’s UNHRC defeat in Geneva and the abduction and subsequent release of two leaders of the JVP radical breakaways, now organised in the new- the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP). In the light of these events GR has become a liability not only to the government but also to the SLFP, the principal party in the ruling alliance.

The Geneva setback

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

The US sponsored resolution, supported by a reluctant Delhi under the Tamil Nadu whip but after watering down, carried by 24 votes to 15 with 8 abstentions, was a bitter defeat for a regime that had put the prestige of the Rajapakses on the line and spent (SL)Rs200 million in public funds trying to stave off defeat. It was not strongly worded, called for implementation of the counsel of the LLRC commission (appointed by President Rajapakse) and a probe of “accountability”, code for alleged war crimes and human-rights violations by the military during the civil war. Nevertheless it struck close to the Rajapkse heart; leave aside accountability, even calls for demilitarisation and exclusion of the military from civilian and economic life are on collision course with the military and its principal officer, Defence Secretary GR.

GR is much feared by allies and opponents alike. It is public knowledge that senior SLFP Ministers resent the usurpation of power by the Rajapakses but dare not contest it. Leaders of the three left parties in the government freely express their revulsion of GR in private, but tremble at any display of public disaffection. In a word, GR is the man nobody dares criticise in public, in print or electronic media. I could get away with censure of even the president in my articles in Lanka, but criticism of GR would, until recently, attract a prompt editorial red pencil.

The Geneva debacle loosened tongues and brought internal rifts to the surface. The Daily Mirror newspaper reported that GR had called for “reorganisation” of the Foreign Ministry, code for turning Foreign Minister G.L. Peries into a guinea pig and packing him off; his acolytes in the Ministry and the diplomatic corps are under attack and likely to be dismissed. The left leaders referred to previously, while remaining subservient, are tiptoeing with gentle criticisms. Careful leaks are being engineered that a close advisor of the president and editor of a Sinhala weekly has blurted out “poor President, Gothabaya is the whole problem.”

These difficulties would have blown over; after all GR is the president’s brother and a member of the most trusted inner circle. However a more substantial difficulty is the conflict of interests in respect of the UNHRC resolution. The resolution goes beyond LLRC recommendations by instructing the government to take “additional steps” to ensure justice, equity and accountability, and to provide an action plan on how it intends to address “violations of international law”. Who is going to do this? If GR, security Tsar during the war, remains in office the conflict of interest is glaring! The government cannot meet the terms of the resolution unless it changes course, that is, overhauls functions and functionaries in the defence establishment. Prima face, the resolution cannot be executed by the government if the persons in charge of the defence ministry remain in office because they are too deeply embroiled in the status quo and presumably have too much to conceal.

Abduction of Premakumar Gunaratnam and Dimithu Attygalle

Compounding these difficulties for government and president is the Gunaratnam-Attygalle abduction. The consequence in any rational society should have been the prompt removal of the Defence Secretary but the sheer brazenness of Lankan politics continues to amaze. Though the UNHRC called the regime to order, and warned it to stop human-rights violations, abductors in white vans have thumbed their noses at the world and continue to ply their trade with impunity. There have been 56 abductions (several may already be dead) in the last six months, 29 of them in February and March; but the eye-opening outrage was this.

Mr Premakumar Gunaratnam and Ms Dimithu Attygalle, two leaders of the FSP, disappeared on 6 April 2012. Common sense shouted from the rooftops that the prime suspect was the state which was fretful about PSM collaboration with Tamil youth and its campaign to expose the regime’s human-rights crimes. It was feared that both had been murdered since, in Sri Lanka, abduction in a white-van is a trip to an “undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns”. Activists Lalith Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganandan of the same party were abducted on 9 December 2011 in Jaffna and have not been seen or heard from since.

By an amazing stroke of luck both survived. Gunaratnam is an old-time JVP activist who fled to Australia in the 1990s and acquired citizenship. He returned under a false identity in late 2011 to participate in FSP activities. Gunaratnam’s mother and sister, on hearing of the abduction, rushed to the Australian High Commission and begged intervention with the Sri Lankan authorities; the High Commissioner obliged. This placed GoSL in an awkward bind; to snuff out Gunaratnam would have been to precipitate a diplomatic storm with Canberra, which Colombo can ill afford at this time. After a pack of ludicrous and contradictory statements, GR finally admitted that the SL authorities had Gunaratnam in their custody and deported him to Australia the next day.

Though Gunarratnam and Attygale were held in separate covert locations (blindfolded and with hands and legs in irons) they had been brought together, at least once, by the abductors to be grilled together and information crosschecked. Hence Gunaratnam knew at first hand that Attygale was held by the same abductors who had grabbed him. Therefore it was not possible to deport him and eliminate Attygalle since he would have spilt the beans upon arrival in Australia. Hence Ms Attygale too had to be released and both were dumped separately on April 9, in lonely locations with instructions not to turn back and look at the vans. Attygalle went straight to the FSP office and the party promptly called a press conference at which she blurted out her story.

Though blindfolded it was obvious to her that she was quizzed by the military and/or the police. The line of questioning aimed at eliciting information two matters; was the FSP in touch with LTTE remnants, was it preparing for armed struggle. She believes the interrogators were high officers since others addressed these senior persons as “Sir”. The air was official, heavy boots trod around the chamber. In any case, the cover has been blown sky high; the defence secretary, as spokesman for the government of Sri Lanka, had deported Gunaratnam; therefore a party to the abduction.

Hence all is revealed now! There is no need to speculate any longer about who is behind the long and tortured tale of white-van abductions and assassinations in this miserable land; the abductors have obligingly identified themselves. Nonetheless, it is very difficult for rational beings to comprehend how GR remains at the helm of the Defence Ministry. But then, this is Sri Lanka in the epoch of the Mahinda Rajapakse presidency.

Delhi’s bum role

Both the Geneva outcome, pushing GoSL into free fall and making extravagant promises (which nobody believes) of implementing LLRC recommendations, and the intervention of the Australian High Commissioner, thanks to which the lives of Gunaratnam and Attygale were spared, underline the importance of foreign intervention. Far from xenophobic hypocrisy, the truth is that the foreign factor is the most significant in pushing back the state’s human-rights crimes.

Unfortunately it is also true that Delhi (I do not say India as the connotation is different) has been a disappointment if measured against what could have been, given influence and proximity. I don’t need to elaborate; the calamitous failure of the Manhohan Singh Administration Sri Lanka policy has been widely discussed. The tragedy however, to judge from Dr Singh’s grovelling letter to Mr Rajapakse immediately after the Geneva vote, all but apologising for voting against the Lankan regime, indicates that a change of attitude in Delhi is unlikely, unless Indian public opinion piles on the pressure.

40 Comments

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