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grumpy 4The Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunge, explained to me how it happened. In 2010 the President had wanted to put this brother too into Parliament, but he had scoffed at the idea and said the prospect did not interest him. However, he had added that, if the President wished to give him other responsibilities too, he would be pleased to look after Urban Development.

So, after the election, the Ministry of Defence was renamed the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, and Gotabhaya went, as it were, to town. Colombo, which had suffered both from neglect over decades, and from ghastly makeshift barriers for protection of important places when terrorist activity was in its heyday, was transformed, and began for the first time in the last half century to look beautiful.

Gotabhaya was helped in all this by the hard-working military personnel he could employ. I had had some experience of this when, as Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management, I found that I had to coordinate work with regard to the many canals that wound their way through the city. The care of these, and their banks, were allocated to a dozen different agencies, and coordination between these was not easy. It was only the navy I found that had fulfilled its responsibilities swiftly and effectively, and the stretches in their care were the cleanest and best maintained.

With the Ministry of Defence coordinating action in this and other areas, development was swift. Gotabhaya also chose capable people to head the Urban Development Authority, and they were able to plan more coherently than most government departments, though it should be noted that there were still some shortcomings about coordination, especially when it came to working with local authorities not under the control of the government. Still, the UDA was quick to respond when difficulties were pointed out, and in this regard its work ethic was admirable.

This was a distinct advantage Gotabhaya had over Basil, who was not a team player at all. Perhaps because of his military training, Gotabhaya was able to identify and work with capable people. Of course in fairness to Basil it could be argued that he thought he had to do everything himself, because many officials he came across were inefficient, or incapable of taking quick decisions – unlike the military personnel Gotabhaya had worked with, both in his youth and as he took over at the Ministry of Defence. But whereas Gotabhaya was also concerned with training, and with ensuring a new generation able to work effectively, such concepts were beyond Basil.

This was another area in which the capabilities of the forces were well deployed. They were asked to take charge of a pre-University training course since it was noted that those who were admitted to universities, perhaps because of the purely academic training they had undergone in the struggle to get good enough grades for admission, had no soft skills. 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 »

Enemies of the President’s Promse: Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs – Sneezy (Part 1)

RW-GR-600x234The reason Mohan gave for the Secretary of Defence being annoyed with me in June 2009 was a matter that was to prove an enormous bone of contention over the next few years, namely the claim advanced by some in Sri Lanka that there had been no civilian casualties during the war. This was obviously nonsense, and it never occurred to me that any such claim was serious. I assumed that what was meant was we had not inflicted civilian casualties deliberately, which I firmly believe to have been government policy throughout the conflict. I had seen this illustrated in the East when Daya Ratnayake, who subsequently became Commander of the Army – after he had survived, with Gotabhaya’s support, an attempt by Sarath Fonseka to have him prematurely retired – came to brief me on the campaign in that arena of the war. He had been responsible for the strategy there, and I had called him up to find out details of this after Human Rights Watch had given excessive publicity to a report it had prepared on the conflict in the East, in which they claimed there had been indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

qrcode.26475888When I studied the report itself, however, I found that, while this claim was made in the publicity, the report itself recorded only one instance of civilian deaths. This was something for which the army had acknowledged responsibility, but explained that they had used radar directed mortars to respond when the LTTE opened fire on them. This however had been from a refugee centre, but even the Human Rights Watch report disclosed that the LTTE had had weapons there, though they claimed that they had been told no one had seen heavy weapons being used.

I have no doubt that it was the attack on the Sri Lankan forces by HRW in this instance that made the LTTE feel they could get away with using civilians as shields when they were on the defensive. Any investigation of abuses during the conflict should look into the role of HRW in making such outrageous claims without evidence, and dodging the questions I posed to them in this regard. Once the LTTE realized that they would not be blamed for firing from amidst civilians, but public opinion could be manipulated to pressurize the Sri Lankan government not to respond to such firing, they developed the technique to perfection. This strengthened their resolve to ensure that civilians were taken along with them as they retreated in the North as the Sri Lankan forces were advancing.

The claim of some of the Non-Governmental Organizations that the civilians went willingly because of fear of the forces was patent nonsense, for those same NGOs complained to us that their former employees had not been allowed to escape to government controlled territory. The same thing happened to UN employees, and indeed one of the most skilful maneuvers of the LTTE in the latter stages of the war was when they persuaded the UN that they might free these employees, thus ensuring that UN staff that had taken a convoy of food in stayed on, to negotiate. The LTTE almost daily claimed that the local staff would be released, and asked for a cessation of hostilities, a period they used for military maneuvering, only to prove intransigent in the end.

The UN staff then were kept on by the LTTE till the end, but in fact there were no casualties amongst them, except for one person who stepped on a landmine in the final escape, but was given immediate medical attention by our forces, and also survived. Similarly, the local employees of the NGOs, who had been forced to stay back, also all survived the final battles. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2019
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