MIDWEEK REVIEW

Significance of US Senator’s visit to SLNS Gajabahu

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SLN Gajabahu (P 626) and SLN Viyayabahu (P 627) at the Colombo Port on 31st August. Senator Hollen shaking hands with VA Perera while Ambassador Chung looks on

The Indian High Commission announced on Friday (01 Sept. ) the postponement of much touted Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit (02-03 Sept.). Cancellation was announced just hours after India declared Singh’s scheduled visit to review bilateral defence ties. Singh was to hold talks with President Wickremesinghe who also holds the defence portfolio and Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. The PM recently reiterated his commitment to Sri Lanka’s unitary status thereby rejecting calls for full implementation of 13th Amendment to the Constitution. According to India HC statement Singh was to review the entire gamut of India’s defence ties with Sri Lanka. The Defence Minister was also scheduled to visit Nuwara Eliya and Trincomalee. “This visit of Shri Rajnath Singh reiterates India’s continued commitment in furthering the existing warm and friendly relations with Sri Lanka. The visit is an important landmark in deepening the enduring bonds of friendship between the two countries in the defence sphere,” HC stated, adding that it was based on a press release issued on 01 Sept. by Press Information Bureau – Defence Wing, Government of India in New Delhi.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

A short video clip of luggage being loaded to SLNS Gajabahu P 626 at the port of Colombo on the afternoon of 9th July, 2022, went viral as the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave up resistance to a public protest campaign. Some television stations, too, carried that video. The print media followed. Until then SLNS Gajabahu hadn’t been in the public domain. Having joined the SLN fleet a decade after the successful conclusion of the war, the vessel never had a real opportunity to grab public attention.

The President and the First Lady Ayoma reached Trincomalee in SLNS Gajabahu on the following day though many believed the vessel’s destination was some foreign land. The couple was accompanied by the then Navy Commander Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenne (retired in Dec. 2022). Actually, a vast majority of people hadn’t even heard of that vessel, commissioned on 6th June, 2019, by the then President Maithripala Sirisena.

The then US Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz had been among the invitees at the commissioning ceremony as the vessel categorized as AOPV (Advanced Offshore Patrol Vessel) was formerly Sherman of the US Coast Guard. It was the second US vessel received by Sri Lanka (2018). Sri Lanka took delivery of USCGC Courageous in 2004 and the vessel was commissioned SLNS Samudura P 621 in the following year. While SLNS Samudura played a critical role in SLN operations during the then Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda’s campaign against Sea Tigers, SLNS Gajabahu grabbed media attention last year in an unexpected manner when it was used by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and First Lady Ayoma to escape a massive violent mob, obviously instigated by outside forces.

Against the backdrop of accusations that had been directed at the US, both in and outside Parliament, over the role it played in one-time US citizen President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s removal, the United States Senator Chris Van Hollen’s visit to SLNS Gajabahu attracted public interest. The Maryland representative is a member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations. Hollen was accompanied by US Ambassador in Sri Lanka Julie Chung, widely accused of playing a central role in the previous President’s ouster.

‘Nine: The Hidden Story’ and ‘Galle Face Protest: System Change or Anarchy?’

authored by lawmaker Wimal Weerawansa and award-winning writer Sena Thoradeniya, respectively, dealt with the US-led project that also involved India. Chung has dismissed Weerawansa’s work as fiction.

Hollen and Chung met Navy Commander Vice Admiral Priyantha Perera onboard SLNS Gajabahu, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s getaway vessel, on 30th Aug. The visitors had been there for about 90 minutes and Hollen fondly remembered his childhood days here, in the ’70s, when his father Christopher Van Hollen, Sr, served as the US Ambassador from 1972 to 1976 during Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s tenure as the Prime Minister. The Senator had been quite happy with the way SLN maintained the three former US Coast Guard Cutters, currently in service with the SLN. In addition to USCGC Courageous and USCGC Sherman, Sri Lanka took delivery of USCGC Douglas Munro which was commissioned in late Nov. 2022 as SLNS Vijayabahu P 621, a few days short of a month before VA Ulugetenne’s retirement. When the US delegation visited SLNS Gajabahu, the third US Coast Guard Cutter, that had been commissioned by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, was anchored next to the vessel where the meeting took place.

US and Sri Lanka are working on the transfer of a fourth US vessel to the latter in line with the overall US policy meant to enhance its influence. Do not forget Sri Lanka entered into ACSA (Access and Cross Servicing Agreement) in Aug. 2017, and the possibility of a consensus on SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) discussed during the Yahapalana administration can never be ruled out. The US strategy seems on track here with USD 2.9 bn loan package spread over a period of four years as part of that scheme. Whatever our concerns, it must be stated that the timely passing of US intelligence, regarding LTTE floating weapon warehouses, at the tail end of the war, hastened the eradication of the conventional fighting power of the enemy. That helped to finish off the LTTE within two years and 10 months.

According to a US Embassy statement posted on 01 Sept., the core objectives of the Senator’s visit were the promotion of enhanced security cooperation, deepening economic ties, collaborative initiatives to address climate change, and the advancement of democracy and human rights. Regardless of propaganda, the US is one of the worst human rights offenders. The writer is not sure what Senator Hollen learnt from civil society representatives whom he met in Colombo, many of whom are funded by the West to be their hurrah boys and gals here, and the families of the disappeared prior to the 30 August International Day of the Disappeared. The US Embassy statement, while referring to their anguish, stressed the need for transparency, justice, and accountability.

We can even understand the behaviour of the US pursuing its diabolical plans around the world, but how can the UN to be an appendage of American evil policies? The UN’s Resident Representative in Sri Lanka, Marc-André Franche issuing a lengthy statement last Wednesday on the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances highlighted “the profound scars left by enforced disappearances on the nation’s history. He emphasized that these disappearances continue to cast a shadow of ambiguity over the lives of countless Lankans, where loved ones are neither definitively present nor absent”.

However most ironically neither the US nor the United Nations, who wept buckets on the International Day of the Disappeared on 30 August said anything here on the International Day of Remembrance and Tribute to the victims of terrorism that fell on 21 August, forgetting the fact that there were thousands of innocent victims of terrorism here, many of whom were Tamils, since the LTTE launched its terror campaign here in pursuit of the Eelam dream with the cold blooded killing of Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiappah in the mid-70s.

There was not a word about victims of terror or their long suffering family members here from the world body or the US when the world marked the Day of victims of terrorism on 21 August.

The UN that sheds so much tears for disappeared here, hardly says anything against terror tactics used by Israelis not only against Palestinian adults who are protesting horrors they have to undergo on a daily basis, but even against their children.

What is more concerning is the fact that Colombo-based UN officials Marc-André Franche and Edward Rees visited the JVP Headquarters on 29 August to meet its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake et al.

Last year soon after American Ambassador Julie Chung visited the same JVP headquarters, homes of several dozen then government politicians were attacked and destroyed across the country, meticulously, in one night, along with, in some cases, properties of their relatives. On the eve of those attacks Ambassador Chung also issued a statement calling on Police and the armed forces not to interfere with those “peaceful protesters.”

As we have reported previously it was not so too long ago a previous UN Resident Representative, a Norwegian, unilaterally tried to declare its compound in Colombo a refugee camp for Tamils. Luckily for us, our then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar told him where to get off. Had that succeeded they would have staged attacks on Tamils here to create a storm of refugees in the country wanting to get into the UN premises for safety, then Sri Lanka as we know it would have become history overnight.

Would the US care to explain disappearances caused by its forces and agents all over the world following interventions on various pretexts? The invasion of Iraq in 2003 on the basis of going after the wholly concocted claim that Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), the abduction of hundreds if not thousands of suspected terrorists and transferring them to other countries where they were tortured. The US called the murderous project an extraordinary rendition. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government once cooperated with the US in such an operation. The Guantanamo Bay US military prison is nothing but an insult to those who really value transparency, justice and accountability. Actually US human rights violations are incalculable.

Briefing on draft Anti-Terrorism Bill

US Ambassador Chung was among those present at a briefing arranged for the diplomatic corps at the Foreign Ministry on 01 Sept. on the draft Anti-Terrorism Bill. Foreign Minister Ali Sabry and Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, both notable President’s Counsels, briefed foreign envoys regarding the Wickremesinghe-Rajapakse government’s efforts in this regard. It would be pertinent to ask the ministers whether they were aware of any foreign governments which consult so called relevant stakeholders, including civil society and international partners, in making laws in their countries.

Having perused the statements issued by Foreign and Justice Ministries following the briefing, it was clear the foreign envoys were consulted before presenting the draft Anti-Terrorism Bill to the Cabinet-of-Ministers. Minister Sabry is on record as having said that the proposed law meant to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) addressed national security requirements, met international standards and best practices. Those who found fault with Sri Lanka for enactment of draconian security law way back in 1979 conveniently forgot why the then President JRJ had to take measures to counter Indian-sponsored terrorism here. The government lacked the backbone at least to set the record straight. This applies to the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government too.

While the US and its allies preach transparency, human rights and accountability to successive governments here some of those terrorists responsible for heinous crimes during the conflict live in those countries having received foreign citizenships and in some cases new identities. Those governments are not worried about their sordid past. Among them are hundreds of Sri Lankans trained in India, Lebanon and in Northern and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka. The number of terrorists who had received foreign citizenship in the West over the years is not known though the actual figure can be quite high. Among them can be those who forcibly recruited children and used them as cannon fodder and even in suicide missions. Didn’t one-time Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi fall prey in May 1991 to a child suicide cadre in the run-up to Indian parliamentary polls? Did she (the suicide cadre) receive her cyanide capsule from Australian Adele, wife of the late Anton Balasingham, British citizen of Sri Lankan origin? Balasingham who had served the British High Commission in Colombo as a translator functioned as the LTTE theoretician until he passed away in the UK. The Balasinghams couldn’t have been unaware of the dastardly assassination plot. Adele Balasingham lives in the UK. The former colonial power here hasn’t been bothered about her accountability. Some of those who had been listed as disappeared here were killed during a major Indian manhunt, following Gandhi’s assassination. They were buried there.

Quite a number of Sri Lankan terrorists, who raided the Maldives in Nov. 1988, too, ended up dead while some were arrested by the Indian military. The dead can be still listed as missing as the human rights circus continues 15 years after the eradication of terrorism here.

Obviously, the West and India wanted Sri Lanka to forget the past and restrict examination of accountability issues pertaining to the last phase of the war against the LTTE (January-May 2009). Following Sri Lanka’s triumph over the separatist Tamil movement, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of Tamil speaking people in late 2001, joined external powers to demand abolition of the security law. The government never bothered at least to remind foreign governments that held the TNA in high esteem how the group served the LTTE’s terrorist programme until the very last moment.

Child recruitment continued in LTTE-held areas regardless of a UN arranged agreement finalized in 1998 during CBK administration until combined security forces destroyed their fighting structure. By late January/early March 2009 the LTTE lost its capacity to sustain its military structure. The TNA remained silent on child recruitment and the use of human shields on the Vanni east front as the military rapidly pushed the ‘defenders’ towards the east coast.

The government should be mindful of the need to take special measures to prevent children being used in terrorism. The 2019 Easter Sunday carnage reminded the complacent and utterly irresponsible Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government how the young could be exploited. Anti-terrorism law should be comprehensive to deal with security threats. The public protest campaign that ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and set Premier Wickremesinghe private residence ablaze and the property of nearly 80 lawmakers, in the current Parliament, underscored the need to be mindful of threats emanating from various quarters. In their haste to satisfy Western powers, civil society and other interested parties, the government shouldn’t disregard growing threats in various other forms though a conventional military challenge is not likely on our soil again.

UNP leader Wickremesinghe acted quickly and decisively within hours after being elected President on 20 July, 2022, to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term. At the behest of President Wickremesinghe, the military and police cleared those who had forcibly occupied the Presidential Secretariat and other government buildings in the guise of Aragalaya, weeks previously. Wickremesinghe simply ignored the US concerns over the use of force to regain control of government buildings. Had the US anticipated Wickremesinghe’s move, Chung condemned the action taken by the new President.

A complaint to Sabry

Chung met Wickremesinghe soon after troops raided a protest site in Colombo, which left nine people injured. The meeting took place before she tweeted Friday 22 July evening that she had expressed her grave concern over the “unnecessary and deeply troubling escalation of violence against protestors overnight”. “The President and Cabinet have an opportunity and an obligation to respond to the calls of Sri Lankans for a better future. This is not the time to crack down on citizens, but instead to look ahead at the immediate and tangible steps the government can take to regain the trust of the people, restore stability, and rebuild the economy. Chung did not reveal the President’s response. The President ordered the crackdown before ministers were sworn in.

A year later, the US and India in spite of their previous reservations work so closely with Wickremesinghe, the Federation of National Organizations (FNO) believes the US envoy is pursuing an agenda inimical to the country.

The day before the briefing for the Colombo-based diplomatic corps, attended by the US envoy, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera, on behalf of the FNO and several other organizations, handed over a petition to the Foreign Ministry drawing Minister Sabry’s attention to Chung’s agenda. Sabry got a subordinate to accept the petition on his behalf. Dr. Wasantha Bandara who recently alleged both the government and the Opposition were dancing to the US tune and Constitutional Council member Dr. Anula Wijewardena accompanied Dr. Amarasekera.

Dr. Amarasekera pointed out how Chung and other Colombo-based envoys pursued a strategy that undermined Sri Lanka and also diminished the armed forces’ triumph over separatist Tamil terrorism. Particularly, the FNO found fault with Chung for advising the Army to build trust with minority communities to ensure lasting peace during her visit to the North. Perhaps the US envoy should be reminded that the predominantly Tamil speaking districts in the now de-merged Northern and Eastern Province at the 2010 presidential election voted overwhelmingly for war-winning Army Commander the then Gen. Sarath Fonseka. The Sinha Regiment veteran lost the election by a huge margin – over 1.8 mn votes – though he won the North and East districts handsomely. So there cannot be a question over building trust.

In spite of being asked by the TNA, the people wouldn’t have done so if they really felt humiliated by the LTTE’s defeat. Advised by the SLMC, the Muslims living in those areas, too, threw their weight behind Fonseka. Tamil speaking people probably felt grateful to the military for bringing the three decades long war to an end. Unfortunately, successive governments failed pathetically to use Fonseka’s performance to challenge the Western narrative. Unfortunately, even those opposed to US and Indian interventions conveniently remain silent. This applies to the FNO, too.

The FNO backed Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential candidature much before the SLPP (Pohottuwa party) officially picked him as its man. The SLPP had been in two minds regarding the wartime Defence Secretary therefore nationalist organizations, backed by few UPFA MPs (precursor to SLPP) and the likes of Ali Sabry, in his then capacity as Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s lawyer, campaigned for the much respected administrator. Perhaps an appraisal of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency is necessary on the basis of his response to external threats unleashed within a week after the presidential election. The President survived the Swiss Embassy trap close on the heels of that country giving political asylum to CID investigator CI Nishantha Silva. Regrettably, the President never learnt from that episode. Apparently, the President felt that he could come to some sort of arrangement with the US but that never materialized. What Sri Lanka never really understood was that the Indian strategy here even to subjugate Sri Lanka militarily is compatible with that of the US as the latter desperately wants to use New Delhi against Beijing.


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