Sri Lanka: To Geneva, thru Mannar and Jaffna?

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The IndependentSkeletons of 21 children found in mass grave in Sri Lanka with ‘signs of torture’

N Sathiya Moorthy 11 March 2019

Reports that TNA’s Mullaitivu District MP, Nirmalanathan Sivamohan, wants the ‘Mannar mass-grave samples’ sent to a second lab for testing after one in Florida, US, has certified their age between mid-fifteenth to mid-eighteenth century, may require the party to clarify its position in the matter. Maybe, there is also need for the party to arrange for educating MPs and other spokespersons on such scientific matters before they go public on such touchy and testy issues.

This is so despite the commonly-held layman’s view that ‘carbon- dating’ and other more modern testing methods could fix the date of artefacts and skeletal remains to a closer period-window that three centuries as the private lab in Florida has done. Maybe, there is a need for appropriate forum in the country to clarify if all those bone samples sent to the lab belonged to the same large window or if the report has spoken about different ‘specimens’ belonging to different time-periods within that three-century period-spectrum.

The timing is coincidental but then the Florida report has come at a time when UNHRC, Geneva, is once again seized of the ‘war-crimes’ resolution that everyone has forgotten in the past couple of years. The chances are that a new resolution, co-authored by Sri Lanka or not, could end giving the nation another relatively long window as the one that has just passed, if only to provide for the realities of intervening presidential and parliamentary polls, which are respectively scheduled to be held by December this year and mid-August next year.

Sigh of relief, but…

The lab report, which was presented to the trial court in the Tamil North overseeing the process has enabled/encouraged the armed forces to heave a sigh of relief that the ‘Mannar mass grave’ were not a part of the ‘war crimes’ allegations, after all. Army commander, Lt-Gen Mahesh Senanayake was possibly too quick to claim that “those who had attempted to blame the army for the Mannar mass grave without any evidence were now silent”. He did not possibly count for the likes of TNA’s Sivamohan.

“A lot of people didn’t hesitate to tell the international community that the Army was responsible for the grave. For a long time it has been fashionable to blame the army for everything,” Gen Senanayake was reported to have said. It is anybody’s guess why he should rush in where governmental angels of the big-mouthed ministerial variety had no opinion to offer. Maybe, it was something that the politico/diplomatic delegation should have brought up before the UNHRC session, in defence of the nation – and the nation’s processes.

Gen Senanayake may have also said more than he might have intended when he was further quoted as saying that “all parties should ensure that they investigate and gather evidence before leveling allegations against others”. This is precisely what an internal or external probe into allegations of ‘war crimes’ is all about. The ‘Tamil victims’ and their backers from the international community are only saying that the Sri Lankan State cannot be the suspect and the investigator/adjudicator, at the same time. The two successive Governments since the end of the war have disputed it.

The US lab report – and the governmental silence on it, thus far – comes at a time when a section of the nation’s strategic community is peeved at the longer governmental silence on Lord Naseby’s claims on the ‘end-of-war’ internal reports of the British Government, especially the High Commission in Colombo. There is also the other, news report on suspended Army Brigadier, Priyanka Fernando, then Defence Attaché in the High Commission to the UK, being hauled up before a London court for his infamous ‘throat-cutting’ gestures at protesting Tamils.

With the UK now replacing the US as the prime-mover in the continuing UNHRC process and resolution – along with Germany and Canada – Lord Naseby’s claims and the Priyanka Fernando episode may have an undercurrent of influence on the Government’s presentation at UNHRC, and the way it may end up focussing on issues and concerns highlighted by the international community.

The fact that Priyanka Fernando was a part of the celebrated 59th Division of the Sri Lanka Army, which played a crucial role in the elimination of the LTTE through conventional warfare, may add an added, unintended element, in its own way – and on both sides. It is anybody’s guess if his open-air behaviour in distant London flowed from memories from the war-time past a decade ago, one way or the other – or was it a mixed bag?

It is another matter that the ‘war-crime’ charge over the ‘missing eleven’ against Adm Wasantha Karnnangoda, then Navy chief, too refuses to die down. The trial court’s arrest-order has been stayed for now, and a section of the veterans seem to feel that he is being made a ‘sacrificial goat’ at the Geneva altar, this time round.

If Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, the war-time Army commander, has a different view, it may go back to times before the war. If nothing else, similar charges could be laid at the gate of an Army colleague from those days. Possibly, it could lead to charges of ‘culpability’ at various levels of the hierarchy on a later day, if it came to that.

Internal contradictions

It is not as if the Tamils and the Sri Lankan State are divided over the issue. As is known by now, the Government itself is divided over participation at Geneva this time, reflecting the domestic contradictions between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Seeking to play down the Geneva events this time against the earlier ones after coming to power, Team Wickremesinghe has left it to Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative (PR) at Geneva to handle the UNHRC session – unlike sending a political team, invariably under the Foreign Minister of the day. It used to be the case anyway on most occasions in the years preceding ‘war-crime charges’, which politically were also against the reigning Rajapaksa Government.

Against this, President Sirisena has deputed a three-man team of politician-appointees – namely, Ministers, Sarath Amunugama and Mahinda Samarasinghe and Northern Province’s Tamil Governor, Dr Suren Raghavan. That Sirisena made the announcement in Parliament, and with Governor Raghavan by his side, would show the kind of tactic he wanted to employ in facing and facing off Team Wickremesinghe nearer home on the one hand, and the international community, on the other.

What is even more interesting – if not intriguing – is the way ‘TNA rebels’ and the rest, headed by the intractable M K Sivajilingam and ex-NPC Minister Ananthi Sasitharan, has submitted a memorandum to Governor Raghavan, for onward personal transmission to UNHRC. Call it trivia or trivialisation or what, Sivajilingam has once again proved how resourceful and how imaginative he continues to be!

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