Sri Lanka Perspectives: February 2016
by R Hariharan on 05 Mar 2016 0 Comment
Armed forces and accountability

The Sri Lanka government while going through the difficult process of implementing the UN Human Rights Council resolution to carry out a “credible justice process” to inquire into the alleged war crimes during the Eelam war, seems to have run into a bit of trouble over the issue, at least with sections of the armed forces.


According to a report in the Sunday Times, foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera had assured security force commanders and divisional commanders that the government would protect the interests of the security forces, when he addressed them recently in Jaffna. Apparently this was in the context of implementing the UNHRC resolution and inquiring into war crimes. However, he rejected a proposal by Major General Gallage, GOC of 51 Division, to include a military representative in the task force appointed by the government to enforce the provisions of the Geneva resolution. Days later, Gen Gallage was transferred out of Jaffna to take over as Director General of Infantry at Army Headquarters.  It is interesting to note that Gen Gallage was formerly in charge of Presidential Guards during the Rajapaksa regime.


Well known columnist DBS Jeyaraj has quoted former naval chief Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara as telling the media “the sudden and unwarranted transfer of war hero Major General Gallage from the North to Colombo for voicing his opinion is a case in point and the government has victimized those who spoke against its actions inimical to the country’s interests.” The admiral was probably expressing the feelings of sections of the armed forces, which are increasingly concerned over the ambivalence in the government’s attitude while deciding on the issue, unlike President Mahinda Rajapaksa who had out rightly refused the demand for an international inquiry into the war crimes allegations.


The armed forces are a powerful pillar of support to the government all along. The public hold them in high esteem for their victory in the Eelam war which eliminated the Tamil separatist insurgency after decades of struggle. So it would be foolhardy for the national leadership to antagonize the armed forces. Moreover the Sirisena government would not like to provide political space for former president Rajapaksa to use the issue to whip up Sinhala nationalist sentiments to stage a comeback.


This is probably the reason for the national leadership to indulge in a bit of doublespeak particularly on the issue of international participation. It also reflects the differences within the ruling elite. While President Sirisena is opposed to it, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s stand is not clear as he would like to retain the support of the international community which supports him without antagonizing the public at home who voted for him.


On the other hand, Foreign Minister Samaraweera, though fully aware of the popular feelings of Sri Lankans, has been speaking for international participation in the process to improve the country’s credibility at home with minorities as well as with other UN member countries. In an interview in the U.S., the Foreign Minister had said that Sri Lanka was looking at all options including foreign judges, forensic experts, investigators, prosecutors etc. He added that in the next five or six months the “contours and architecture” of the court would be worked out after consulting all parties including the Tamil National Alliance.


Whatever be the process the government finally adopts, pro-Rajapaksa opposition would not miss out the opportunity to channelize popular opposition and turn it to its advantage. In view of these sensitivities, the Sirisena regime is likely to take the final decision after damage control measures are in place. So the ambivalence in government pronouncements is likely to continue till then.


Demand for a Muslim state


Basher Segu Dawood, chairman of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) has once again revived the party’s original demand for the creation of a separate province for Muslims. The party secretary general Hasan Ali said the demand would be included in their proposals for constitutional reforms. However, many of the community leaders including Aman, son of MHM Ashraff the founder of SLMC, have condemned Segu Dawood for raising the “outdated” demand. Aman clarified that his father had originally demanded the creation of a separate Muslim province in the early stages of SLMC’s creation only in the context of granting the Tamil demands for a separate province.  


Generally, the SLMC is considered representing the liberal segment of Muslims. So it is not clear why its chairman Dawood has raised the demand now. With the constitutional reform process under way, he was probably vocalizing the concerns of sections of Muslims on preserving their distinct cultural and religious identity, lest they are missed out by the constitution makers. Dawood’s demand also probably reflects his desire to consolidate his leadership position within the SLMC which is ridden with factionalism. Perhaps this is the reason for the silence of Rauf Hakeem, the senior leader of the party and minister in the Sirisena cabinet, who has not commented on the issue so far. 


The demand for a Muslim state is unlikely to gain more support from the community; many members of the community are happy that the present national unity government has put the anti-Muslim Sinhala Buddhist fringe groups like the Bodu Bala Sena under pressure unlike the Rajapaksa regime which had ignored their attacks on Muslims. But if Dawood persists with the demand it would give a lease of life to the anti-Muslim fringe elements struggling for political space since the dethroning of Rajapaksa from power.


Rajapaksas in the dock


Non-payment of ITN dues: According to the Colombo weekly, Sunday Leader, the Presidential Commission on Large Scale Fraud is to take legal action against former President Rajapaksa and a few others for not paying the dues of the state owned Independent Television Network for airing election propaganda during the last presidential campaign. The Commission is said to have already completed questioning several people including the former president in this case.


Inquiry into media excesses: In yet another case of investigating the excesses committed during the Rajapaksa regime, President Sirisena is appointing a Presidential Commission to probe into the attacks on several journalists and media organizations including Sirisa TV and Lankaenews. Already the investigations have been reopened in two other cases botched up earlier - murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickremetunga and the disappearance of cartoonist Preeth Ekneligoda (now confirmed as murder). The investigations in these cases have progressed and the judicial action is likely to commence shortly.


Thajudeen murder case: The Colombo additional magistrate has ordered the arrest of six suspects, including two sons of former President Rajapaksa - SLFP parliament member Namal and naval officer Yoshitha and the personal chauffer of the former President in connection with the murder of national rugby star Wasim Thajudeen. Yoshitha is already in custody in the case of money laundering by the Carlton Sports Network in which he was a director. Both the Rajapaksas have denied their involvement in the two cases.


Written on February 29, 2016

Courtesy: South Asia Security Trends, March 2016 issue.

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