Sri Lanka: Handle with care and caution, not indifference and callousness!

Lanka News Web (LNW). Court orders arrest of Vice Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne!

N Sathiya Moorthy       17 September 2018

The otherwise ‘arbitrary’ or ‘biased’ or ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ national media needs to be applauded for the restraint that they have displayed over the ongoing issue involving court orders to have the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne, arrested over 11 missing men during the war years.  That the Government has since allowed the CDS, who is also the all-important Navy chief, for an island-nation for Sri Lanka, to travel to distant Mexico, to attend an international conference, however, would show that they may need time to consider the possibilities and options, before the CID could act on the court orders.

Colombo Fort Magistrate Lanka Jayaratne had given the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), to arrest Adm Wijegunaratne, if they had adequate evidence to prove that he had helped retired Navy officer Prasad Hettiarachchi, or ‘Navy’ Sampath, to escape investigations into the abduction of 11 men in 2009. According to the prosecution, the CID had sought details about Rs 500,000 that was allegedly given by the former to the latter, from the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) in local bank.

The charges against the ‘Hettiarachchi gang’, if it could be called so, related to abduction of children from wealthy families for ransom, holding them in ‘naval facilities’ across the country before killing them. None of it had had nothing much to do with the nation’s ‘war on LTTE terrorism’, though in one case, the group was said to have been involved in the cold-blooded murder of TNA parliamentarian, Raviraj, too. The fact that the

In context, the fact that Adm Wasantha Karannagoda, who was Adm Wijegunaratne’s predecessor as Navy commander, had initiated the CID investigations under the Rajapaksa regime should not be dismissed, either.  This apart, there was also the relatively recent incident of December 2016, when Adm Wijegunaratne was caught on camera, reportedly manhandling a media person covering the ‘anti-Hambantota swap-deal’ protest of the Rajapaksa-centric SLPP-JO, touted as a ‘people’s movement’, too cannot be overlooked.

The Government was possibly aware of the developments in the case, definitely from the media and most probably from the official sources, bottom-up in this case. While it is fair on the part of the political leadership and the bureaucracy, to be not seen as interfering in matters that are sub judice, in both form and content, this one requires not a ‘touch-me-not’ approach. Worse still is a casual, indifferent approach, bordering on callousness.

Instead, the brittle exercise requires a sensitive, ‘handle-with-care’ approach, accompanied by utmost caution, before the course of events overtook the nation, one way or in so many other ways. More than that, the Government, this one or any successor ones, has to make a comprehensive assessment of the inherited situation, where the predecessors’ (not just one regime) handling bordered on a ‘national effort’, where the Tamils alone felt left out and/or remained suspect, as a community.

TNA’s charge

In this context, TNA spokesperson M A Sumanthiran’s charge that President Sirisena had interfered with the judicial process and had let  CDS Wijegunaratne to leave the country, cannot be taken lightly, one way or the other. Legitimate as the charge may sound, Sumanthiran’s statement that the party would demand international scrutiny over the issue has the potential to take the ‘war crimes’ probe back to the UNHRC stage, where it has just not worked ont he ground, should not be over-looked, either.  Seek International Scrutiny Over the Issue.

It would have been better for Sumanthiran as an MP and the TNA as the holder of the responsible position of the ‘Leader of the Opposition’ in veteran R Sampanthan, to have taken up the issue within Parliament. The party and/or the MP could have even approached the nation’s courts, where alone relief, if any, may have been available. If the TNA still believes that it is not a political case, then it should have also refrained from politicising and internationalising the issue, from where more of politics and nothing else concrete alone is likely to flow.

According to other media reports, some Cabinet Ministers too had refused to go along with President Sirinsena’s reported efforts to prevent CDS Wijegunaratne’s arrest, as per court directives. Accordingly, the President had called an Emergency Cabinet meeting to discuss the issue, but it ended up reportedly after heated exchanges. With Prime Minister Ranil away at Vietnam, there was nothing much that could have been done, on the issue, it is said.

If the nation was miffed and the media was upset after President Sirisena granted term-extension for Adm Wijegunaratne after the ‘Hambantota incident’, there should possibly be lesser controversy over his reported conduct just now. Sirisena is not only the Head of Government and of the Cabinet. He is also the Supreme Commander of the nation’s armed forces. Under the peculiar Sri Lankan constitutional scheme, drafted with the forgotten JRJ in mind, Sirisena as President is also the Cabinet Minister for Defence, thus chairing the Cabinet that discusses such issues, defending the ministry’s decision/recommendation, and also implement such decisions, both as President and Supreme Commander.

More popular…

The present circumstances notwithstanding, the temptation to compare the proposed arrest of Adm Wijegunaratne with that of present-day Field Marshal, Sarath Fonseka, by the post-war Rajapaksa Government, is unavoidable. Fonseka as the war-time commander of the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) had done a commendable job of defeating ‘LTTE terrorism’, where the political leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa counted as much.

The role of then Defence Secretary, retired Army colonel, Gota Rajapaksa, brother of the then President, was as much commendable as it may have become controversial. Gota R played the bridge between the political leadership and the strategic command, with effect and elan’. The absence of someone in Gota’s place (whether as Defence Secretary or otherwise) was also among the reasons why Presidents before Mahinda R could not win the war, which was possibly as much ‘winnable’ in their time.

Yet, there is no denying that Fonseka’s arrest had personal reasons attaching to it. Court-martialling him and ceremonially stripping him of his rank and honours, that too in front of the very soldiers that he had commanded with great success only months ago, was a humiliation that Fonseka would have to live with, for the rest of his life. A retired colonel from the same Army, however powerful and however authoritarian, does not – and should not – reserve such a treatment of a ‘gentleman officer’.

True, the restoration of his rank as the nation’s first full-fledged General and the return of Army honours, and subsequent elevation to be the nation’s only Field Marshal, too, can part-repair the damage that his arrest and imprisonment may have caused to Fonseka’s image and reputation. But, it is only so much of reputation and honour that can be restored thus.

There are however differences. When Fonseka faced the wrath of the political leadership of the day, and paid for it, he was no more the serving commander of the Army. On the political front, in terms of public support and popularity, he had exposed his limitations by contesting and losing the post-war presidential polls of Elections-2010, again to incumbent Mahinda R. Three, there was at least the controversial presence of Fonseka and Co in a Colombo hotel, when rumours began doing the rounds, about his plotting a coup of sorts, against the Rajapaksa regime.

True, the coup charge was not really proved beyond reasonable doubts, either in a court of law or before the public, or even by a parliamentary select committee. But the coup-rumour, true or not, and more so the election-defeat did show who between the two, Rajapaksa and Fonseka, did the nation’s populace loved more.

The comparison between the Fonseka case and the present-day case of Adm Wijegunaratne should stop there. The latter is still a serving officer, that too as the head of the nation’s war-victorious Navy and even more as the CDS. For the man holding those two posts to be put under a judicial cloud is unacceptable. For the Government to have cleared his overseas visit, pending a court order to arrest him in a case of HR violation bordering on possible charge of cold-blooded murder, could be an embarrassment, now and later.

Protocol, propriety

Both are untenable. The Government should have ‘advised’ Adm Wijegunaratne, to step down, or at least consider the possibilities of letting him go on long leave, preparatory to retirement, before his case had reached a decisive stage in the lower court, where it still resides. After all, the CDS is the CDS and the nation’s Navy Commander is Navy Commander.

The alternative could have been for the Government (read: President Maithiripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe), to consider other options, including possible sacking. If nothing else, they should have had the Attorney-General consider all options, and also consider the seriousness of the charge that is being levelled against the CDS, before permitting the CID to proceed in the matter, and obtain a court directive for his arrest.

If nothing else, protocol and propriety demand that the nation did not treat the issue lightly any more, and the contempt that the high offices that Wijegunaratne holds, does not at all deserve. If nothing more, the nation should be aware of the possibilities, the possible injuries that such a callous governmental approach to the matter, could inflict on the institution of CDS, military loyalty and discipline, et al. If the Government needed inputs and advise from veteran commanders about it all, they have enough of them with them, starting with Fonseka, now a Minister, but not necessarily the only one.

Getting onto the cross-hair

Yes, it is the loyalty and the discipline that the Sri Lankan soldier is reputed and respected for, which is getting onto the cross-hair, in this case more than in the case of Fonseka’s arrest in the past. Maybe, this Government, more than its war-time predecessor, may want to prove a point to itself and the international community by letting the civilian police to obtain civilian court orders to have the CDS of the day arrested, like any common criminal. It is just not on.

If the Government does find prima facie case against Wijegunaratne, needless to say, it could well fall within the violation of his military duties, under the prescribed laws. Maybe, the via media, if not a solution offers itself, but then such a course again could demoralise the nation’s armed forces and their families, already facing uncertainty over the ‘war crimes probe’, as sought by the international community.

There is no denying the sense of permissiveness that dominated military thinking during the long decades of war, and not just during the reign of President Rajapaksa. It goes back to the days of the Poosa camp in the case of Tamil militancy, and death by thousands, also in the case of the two ‘JVP insurgencies’ in the Sinhala-South.

In both cases, when ‘war’ became winnable, or had to be won, the political leadership made it an ‘Us vs Them’ affair, and everything, including abduction and killings became acceptable military practice. It has been so in the 21st century Iraq and Afghanistan, too, though, no one is talking as loudly as the Sri Lankan case, in terms of war crimes and human rights violations.

The ordinary man in uniform is watching and listening – to the TV, social media campaigns, among others. He draws the difference and distinction between ‘global good practices’ — as being preached to others, and as being practised by the ‘preachers’. He may not be as happy about what may await him, even if he had retired from service, as he may otherwise be patient. If nothing else, his disciplined silence and distasteful indifference could be mistaken for mistaken for submission, if not servility, only at the nation’s own peril, now or later!

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University