By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Enemies of the President’s Promise: Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs – Grumpy 1
What was termed the militarization of the North was attributed mainly to Gotabaya 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. Gotabaya, 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, Gotabaya 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 Gotabaya 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. Gotabaya on the contrary had taken notice of such warnings and indicated that he would have the line of fire changed.
In general, Gotabaya 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 Gotabaya, 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, Gotabaya 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.
But there had previously been indications that Gotabaya was determined to protect those who had fought on his behalf. Despite the generally admirable conduct of the forces, there had been one ugly incident even before the offensive in the East had begun, which was unfairly seen as characteristic of the army. What made this even more unfair, apart from the exceptional nature of the incident, was that the perpetrators were not army personnel, but rather members of the Special Task Force, which was a commando type branch of the Police.
The incident had occurred in Trincomalee, with five youngsters being killed in cold blood. Though Gotabaya once claimed that they were involved in terrorism, it is doubtful whether even he believed this. Initially indeed government had been of the view that those responsible had to be brought to book, but there had been some delay in doing this, and it seemed likely that Gotabaya, who had referred to the perpetrators as youngsters under pressure, had been instrumental in countermanding the President’s decision. The upshot was that nothing was done, even though at a later stage too the President actually asked the Attorney General to issue indictments. But, on the grounds that he would lose the case – and perhaps because he was not sure the President would not change his mind – the Attorney General had done nothing.
This was one of the cases as to which the President had set up a Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry, but its report was never publicized. This created the impression that government wanted to cover up with regard to both this case and another notorious one, the killing of 17 workers of the French NGO Action Against Hunger, during the attempt of the Tigers to take control of Mutur, and hence threaten Trincomalee. In fact responsibility in the latter case was not so clearcut, and it was also apparent that the NGO had acted against UN guidelines in sending their workers into a threatened area when all other aid workers were withdrawing. But by keeping the Udalagama Commission report a secret, government gave a handle to those accusing it of large-scale violations of international law.
Gotabaya then seemed determined to resist any effort to investigate charges of wrongdoing. He gave space on the Defence Ministry website to those critical of the LLRC Report, which was a pity because the LLRC, having weighed the evidence, had indicated that most charges of War Crimes (as laid out in the Darusman Report commissioned by the UN Secretary General) did not hold water. By resisting however its conclusion that there was a case to investigate with regard to the treatment of some surrendees, Gotabaya allowed the impression to be created – and propagated vehemently – that the government was in a state of total denial of everything.
Perhaps the vehemence with which the government was attacked had thrown him. Certainly the President claimed that his attitude had hardened after the attacks on Sri Lanka increased. Thus, with regard to police powers, which were supposed to be devolved under the existing 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which Rajapaksa had pledged to implement after the conclusion of the conflict, Gotabaya was initially reported as having no objection to community policing being run by the Province. Indeed the President himself had earlier indicated to me that he saw no reason not to devolve police powers since, following the demerger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, there seemed no real threat of an alternative power base.
But after the hostility in England to the President that prevented him from speaking at the Oxford Union, hostility which it seemed in Sri Lanka the British government had not dealt with firmly, Gotabaya had hardened, and there seemed little prospect of a Provincial Administration being allowed police powers. It was after that too that what had seemed previously a readiness to give up much of the land around Palaly changed, and government ended up keeping much more than could reasonably be claimed was essential for security purposes. Whereas elsewhere in the North the forces withdrew from large tracts they had previously declared they needed, in Palaly – which was a heavily inhabited area, so that hundreds of families were deprived of their properties – they clung on, to unpopularity that increased in leaps and bounds.
This may have led too to what seemed an effort to change the demography of the Wanni, through settlement of Sinhalese in the area. Initially there had seemed no truth in the assertion that Sinhalese were being brought in from outside. What was happening was resettlement of families that had been driven away by Tiger violence in the early stages of the conflict, and I found in my early visits that indeed the Sinhalese families in place could talk emotionally of the ancestral properties they had had to abandon. But later on those same families told me of new settlers being brought in. Interestingly, they had no racial feeling about this, and complained that what was happening was unfair to the original inhabitants of the area, since they all, Tamil and Muslim and Sinhala, had children who should have been given the opportunity first, if new lands were being given out to settlers by government.
Significantly, this type of settlement was also deeply upsetting to government politicians in the North. Rishard Bathiudeen complained once, at the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Resettlement, that government seemed to be acting on a policy that was not made public, of promoting racial harmony by creating villages of particular communities side by side with others of different communities. Since this was only being implemented in the North, and thus involved taking the lands of Tamil and Muslim communities to establish Sinhala ones, clearly the professed aim was not the real one. And the large areas devoted to Sinhala only villages in Vavuniya North made it clear rather that what was happening was what the TNA claimed, which had not been part of government policy soon after the war ended, namely efforts at demographic change.
In some instances indeed Gotabaya seemed on a different wavelength from at least some of his officers, who were generally concerned about the welfare of the original inhabitants being resettled. One obvious bone of contention was the effort of a few monks from the South to set up Buddhist temples in the area, claiming that these were historic Buddhist sites. In Mannar, the army officers did their best to prevent new areas being acquired – one Monk for instance had no liking for the archaeological site which did have an old temple but was deep in the jungle, so instead took over a Hindu temple on the main road – but an unprofessional Department of Buddhist Affairs and a complaisant Archaeological Department contributed to increasing resentment. Typically the TNA claimed that the armed forces were behind these new Buddhist temples, which was quite untrue, but they could not of course have been expected to admit that the army was usually the best defence against such practices.
Matters were complicated by the more extreme Buddhist chauvinists claiming that the President too was really a Christian (which his wife was), and suggesting that the only hope for Buddhism was Gotabaya. Though the brothers were extremely close, and had full confidence in each other, it was apparent that Gotabaya did take seriously the increasing tendency to view him as the greatest patriot in the land.