By Hilmy Ahamed –
Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka has charged that his successor, General Jagath Jayasuriya committed war crimes during the ethnic war. The Joint Opposition (JO) of Mahinda Rajapaksa has got yet another platform slogan to hype their anti-government campaign due to Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. The “Patriots” of the Rajapaksa bandwagon are forgetting that Sarath Fonseka, the decorated war hero was the commander of the Army in May 2009 when the Sri Lankan armed forces wiped out the brutal terrorist force, the Liberation Tigers of Thamil Eelam (LTTE). Later, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka over estimated his popularity and blundered by attempting to challenge Mahinda Rajapaksa to the Presidency, which landed him in jumpers at the Welikada prison. Overnight, the war hero and savior of the Sinhala race became a traitor in the eyes of the Rajapaksa cohorts.
Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka has said the RIGHT thing at the WRONG place many times and has faced the wrath of the rulers. His loose tongue landed him in trouble during the white flag controversy due to an interview with Fredrica Jansz, the Editor of the Sunday Leader. He probably spoke the truth about the brutal killing of surrendering LTTE cadres, but the mood of Sri Lankans after the euphoria of the war victory was not to hear the truth.
Sri Lanka has a battled hardened, professional and disciplined armed force that defeated one of the most feared and ruthless terrorist organizations in the world, the LTTE. Sri Lanka is probably the only country that wiped out terrorism through a military option.
The two faces of Yahapalanaya, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe continue to contradict each other. The Prime Minister and the United National Party are reaching out to the international community and investors by committing to international conventions and traditional diplomacy. President Maithripala Sirisena on the other hand blundered and played to the gallery to counter the JO onslaught, declaring that he would protect every soldier against any charges of war crimes irrespective of their conduct during the Eelam wars. President Sirisena probably forgets that he is a leader of a democratic nation with international obligations. There is no question that soldiers who fought the hard battle against the Tamil tigers should be protected, but any rouge elements within the forces should be investigated and charged not by any international body, but court martialed by the Sri Lankan military itself, thereby clearing the good name of the security forces. The President could have said, any rogue elements if any would be severely dealt by a local mechanism.
The Sri Lankan military victory had widespread allegations by the International Community and Tamils in Sri Lanka as well as the Diaspora that the government security forces committed extensive war crimes during the 30-year-old ethnic war between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Thamil Eelam (LTTE). These allegations probably should be leveled against both sides, as there have been gross violations of human rights and rules of war by rouge elements on both sides. The LTTE has been declared a terrorist organization by the Sri Lankan government as well as the International Community and are listed as such by many countries in the West.
In May 2009, at the end of the war, Sarath Fonseka was declared the “Man of the Match”. Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka was the decorated war hero and his Commander in Chief; President Mahinda Rajapaksa invited him to cut the victory cake.
The credit for the war victory no doubt should go to the tri forces. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political commitment and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s logistic support cannot be underestimated. Even though Sri Lanka had its battle hardened military, the nail that sealed the coffin of Velupillai Pirapaharan was the political will of the government that asked the interfering foreign governments to “go to hell”.
There is no doubt that Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka led the war front risking is life and standing by his soldiers. Even his enemies would not deny him that honour. There are more than enough anecdotes to testify his bravery and military wisdom by his colleagues in the military. At 59-years, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka led the 2009 military campaign to crush the Tamil Tigers, the world’s most dreaded terrorist organization in which a mixture of outright firepower and counter-insurgency tactics, using Special Forces and “deep penetration” units, defeating the Tigers.
After the war, Fonseka became the first and only serving officer to be promoted to the rank of a four-star general. He was later appointed to the newly created position of Chief of the Defence Staff, but he quit in November 2009, complaining the job had been designed to sideline him.
There were justifiable fears that Field Marshal Sarath Foneska would turn his guns on the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa with a not too violent military coup. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s trusted lieutenant and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was a colleague of Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka in school and in the Army, got in to action to neutralize this threat. He made major changes to the hierarchy of the Army and brought in his loyalist Jagath Jayasuriya as Commander of the Army. Jagath Jayasuriya who never saw eye to eye with Fonseka, was elevated in the seniority list. Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka was promoted to the ceremonial post of the Chief of Defense Staff (CDS), thus ‘caging’ him. Jagath Jayasuriya is a battle-hardened soldier, but has been at loggerheads with Sarath Fonseka throughout his military career. That probably was his qualification to be elevated to the position of Commander of the Sri Lanka Army.
Sarath Fonseka was then arrested in February 2010 and charged with participating in politics while in office and violating military procurement procedures.
Fonseka, a career military officer, joined the Sri Lankan army in 1970 and served as army commander from 2005 until 2009. His charges of war crimes against General Jagath Jayasuriya are very serious.
The frequent question that is being asked is whether a terrorist organization has the same responsibilities as an elected democratic government to adhere to international conventions. In this context, it is pertinent to discuss what constitutes a war crime.
The concept of war crimes is the idea that individuals can be held criminally responsible for the actions of a country or its soldiers. War crimes and crimes against humanity are among the gravest crimes in international law.
The International Committee of the Red Cross describes the rules of war as follows: “People have always used violence to settle disputes. And all cultures have always had the idea that there have to be limits on that violence, if they are to have limits on that violence, If we are to prevent wars from descending into barbarity. For instance, there are rules protecting non-participants, prisoners and the wounded. These rules are set out in the international humanitarian law. Yes, even wars have limits. And attacking civilians constitute a war crime”.
Slobodan Milosevic, President of Serbia was charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) with war crimes including genocide and crimes against humanity in connection to the wars in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. He was on the run from 1999 and ended in prison in The Hague, charged with war crimes by the International War Crimes tribunal. He died in 2006 in his prison cell before the conclusion of his trial.
South Africa stands as the best example of dealing with war crimes by setting up the Truth and Reconciliation process. Nelson Mandela, who himself was incarcerated by the White rulers, spearheaded a true reconciliation process by establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a court-like restorative justice body convened by the South African Government after the abolition of apartheid in 1994. Witnesses who were identified as victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences, and some were selected for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. A process Sri Lanka was encouraged to follow but failed.
The United Nations War Crimes Commission, initially called the United Nations Commission for the Investigation of War Crimes, was a commission of the United Nations that investigated allegations of war crimes committed by Nazi Germany and the other Axis powers in World War II.
The Commission began its work at the behest of the British government and the other Allied nations in 1943, prior to the formal establishment of the United Nations itself, in October 1945. The Lord Chancellor John Simon in the House of Lords made the announcement of the establishment of the Commission in October 7, 1942.
The Commission’s tasks were to carefully collect evidence of war crimes for the arrest and fair trial of alleged war criminals. However, the Commission had no power to prosecute criminals by itself. It merely reported back to the government members of the UN.
Nations have celebrated 150 years of the original convention on war crimes and all parties to all conflicts should preserve what it means to be human, by complying with international humanitarian law. War crimes charges have been initiated against Adolf Hitler and his men from Germany from the end of the Second World War to this day. Many war criminals in other wars have been brought to justice. Why should Sri Lanka be an exception if war crimes had been committed? Their needs to be a transparent mechanism to inquire in to allegations of war crimes and the clean soldiers absolved from suspicion. The majority of the Sri Lankan forces conducted the war as professional soldiers, following the rules of war. There is no necessity to tarnish their image. If a few rogue elements had committed war crimes, they have to be brought to justice. They should not be allowed to hide behind bigoted political entities and pseudo patriots.
Many crimes suspected of being committed by Sri Lankan forces have been swept under the carpet in the name of patriotism. The murder of the lovable rugby star, Wasim Thajudeen, journalists Lasantha Wickramatunga, Prageeth Ekneligoda, Taraki Sivaram and countless other murders have never been investigated and the perpetrators brought to Justice. The white van campaign, political ransom and blatant abuse of state power during the decade long rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa have not seen any investigation either. Thousands of civilians have been killed during the 1971 and 1989 JVP insurrections. During the final stages of the Eelam war many are alleged to have raped and killed at point blank range including the TV presenter Issai Priya. None of these charges have been investigated and no one has been charged for war crimes. The Government needs to ensure that credibility is established on its resolve to address war crimes if any. The charges against former Army commander and Ambassador Jagath Jayasuriya offer a golden opportunity to clear the charges against the Sri Lankan security forces.
Sri Lanka has the dubious honor of politicizing or looking at every aspect through racial lenses. The recent imprisonment of two senior respected civil servants serves, as a reminder to all that no one should be above the law. Politicians have so far got away with absolute corruption, violence and murder. But a strong civil society could force the necessary changes to ensure democratic governance. Regretfully, politicization or pseudo patriotism of some Buddhist priests and the Joint Opposition of Mahinda Rajapaksa, of everything related to governance, will only confirm that Sri Lanka still is a banana republic.