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qrcode.26820002So his attitude seemed to harden with the passing years. Also, sadly, even though he might not have been ambitious himself, he seemed to see himself as the principal guardian of the victory the forces had won, with an obligation therefore to block the way of those who were anxious to give more political powers to Tamil politicians. Though, under threat from the LTTE, some of these had seemed to subscribe to the LTTE ideology, in fact most Tamil politicians were moderates who were relieved that the LTTE had been vanquished. They were prepared to disavow terrorism as well as separatism, but they were anxious to exercise political power in predominantly Tamil regions, at least in terms of the Provincial Councils Act of 1987. But those who were opposed to even that limited devolution, on the grounds that it would inevitably lead to separatism, saw Gotabhaya as their champion, and he came in time to articulate their views with increasing assertiveness.

An extreme example of this came when, in 2013, with the President making preparations to have the long delayed Provincial Council election in the North, he declared publicly that it should not be held. Ironically, according to the President, he had been in favour of holding those elections a few years earlier, soon after the war ended, which would have been a sensible move, and would have led to a better result for the government. It was Basil then who had insisted on delay, on the grounds that his building programme would ensure more and more support for the government. But by 2013, more perceptive perhaps than Basil about political realities in the area, perhaps realizing too how he had contributed to increasing unpopularity, he came out strongly against having a poll. And typically this occurred while one of the more extreme coalition partners of the government, which was seen as close to Gotabhaya, had introduced a Bill to amend the Provincial Councils Act so as to water down their powers. So powerful did this combination seem, even though the evidence of elections had made it clear they had minimal popular support, that it was feared the President would back down.

But he went ahead and elections were held. The TNA won handsomely, with the determination of the Tamils to vote against government increased perhaps by what seemed strong arm tactics on the part of the forces against a candidate who was identified closely with the LTTE. She did remarkably well, which might well have been predicted.

This makes one wonder why the forces should have got involved, and indeed it was so foolish an action, were they the perpetrators, that one wonders whether she herself had arranged the attack, given that only she could benefit. However there had been previous instances of such folly on the part of the forces, as when a meeting of the TNA had been attacked some months previously.

That incident was bizarre, because by the time the violence occurred the TNA representatives had finished speaking and left, and until then, they said, what were clearly soldiers in mufti had behaved with restraint. When I asked the Jaffna District Forces Commander what had happened, he said that his orders to behave correctly had been disobeyed, as a result of provocation by one of the later speakers, a Sinhalese member of a small radical party. But I could not understand why he did not then take forceful disciplinary action. Apart from the fact that soldiers should under no circumstances react violently against civilians unless they are themselves in grave danger, it was possible that there were members of the forces who had no affection for the government, nor for Tamils (following the approach of Sarath Fonseka before his conversion), and they had no qualms therefore about aggression that could bring the government into disrepute. Government was only playing into their hands by refraining from disciplining them. Read the rest of this entry »

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qrcode.26819894What was termed the militarization of the North was attributed mainly to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Secretary of Defence, and in many minds he was considered the greatest barrier to Reconciliation. He was thought the architect of the policy that held security to be the most important consideration, and that to ensure this the footprint of the military had to be heavy and pervasive.

This was ironic, for during the course of the war he had seemed of the view that, while the forces could handle the military requirements, a settlement required the politicians, and setting this in place was not his role. Indeed, in this regard he seemed the opposite of his Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka, who was thought to be of the view that a policy of settlements in the North was the best way of guaranteeing peace. Gotabhaya, on the contrary went along with his brothers, the President and Basil, when they sidelined Fonseka, having refused his request that the army be enlarged; and, as noted, Basil went ahead with a policy of swift resettlement, which was in accordance with the pledge of the President.

Indeed, even during the war, Gotabhaya had seemed soft in comparison with Sarath Fonseka. His chosen instruments were officers such as Daya Ratnayake, appointed Army Commander in 2013, who had developed the strategy that ensured that there were hardly any civilian casualties in the East. Sarath did not like Daya Ratnayake, and sidelined him and would have had him retired early, but Gotabhaya saved his career by sending him off to China for his Staff College Course. When he came back, he was not used at all in what remained of the Northern offensive.

Sarath had a no nonsense approach to the conflict, and when the ICRC told him that firing was coming close to hospitals, his response was on the lines that the hospitals should no longer have been there, since they had been instructed to move. Gotabhaya on the contrary had taken notice of such warnings and indicated that he would have the line of fire changed.

In general, Gotabhaya and his preferred instruments such as Jagath Jayasuriya who, as Commander of the Special Forces in Vavuniya, was in charge of the Northern operation, tended to follow international law as best possible. Given the general strategy followed in the war, and the care taken in most quarters to avoid civilian casualties, there is no doubt that Sarath Fonseka also followed the general principles laid down by the civilian command, but it was also apparent that he sometimes saw this as a needless hindrance. His initial account of the killing of those who tried to surrender by carrying White Flags and leaving the Tiger lines indicates his bluff mindset, for he was reported as having said that those in air-conditioned rooms, an obvious reference to Gotabhaya, ordered that they be spared. He however had done what was required, since he knew how they had behaved in the past.

It was odd then that, a couple of years later, Gotabhaya should have inherited the mantle of the hard-liner, but perhaps it was inevitable given the manner in which government decided to respond to the challenge presented by Sarath Fonseka, when he stood for election against Mahinda Rajapaksa as the common Opposition candidate. Having experienced what seemed a Damascus style conversion, doubtless because he was backed by the Americans (who could not have been ignorant of his measure but thought him the best instrument of applying pressure on Rajapaksa), he put himself forward for election as a dove. He was indeed supported by the UNP, which had not supported the crushing of the Tigers, and by the TNA, the main Tamil political party. His approach then to the White Flag case was that it was those in air-conditioned rooms who had given orders that they be killed.

Government responded, not by pointing out the contradictions in his accounts, and calling him a liar, but by saying he was a traitor. They had decided that, since Fonseka was the principal opponent in the election, it was the hardline vote that had to be won. Patriotism, in order to get the better of Fonseka, had to be tough, so it did not matter that the impression they created was that his story might be true. The upshot of this, of course, was that when the LLRC recommended inquiries into possible abuses, the government was in difficulties, since Fonseka could well have called them traitors for letting down patriots who had only done what was necessary to eliminate terrorism. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

January 2015
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