Newly minted Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa continued to bat for the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government yesterday by coming out strongly in support of Army Commander Shavendra Silva who was slapped with a travel ban by the United States on Friday for his involvement in war crimes during the final stage of the conflict in 2009.
In two tweets in sequence Premadasa claimed that the imposition of a travel ban on army commander Shavendra Silva and his immediate family was regrettable and unfortunate. “He is one of the heroic field commanders who spearheaded the national effort to eradicate terrorism” the new Opposition Leader said of the man accused of leading one of the army’s most brutal divisions in the final stage of the war. The 58 Division that Silva commanded has been accused of indiscriminate shelling of civilians in the No Fire Zone and extra-judicial killing of captives.
While it is unclear if Premadasa speaks for the UNP, he added that “all of us stand by him and his family at this hour of need. As a country we shall always stand with the war heroes that brought about an end to 30 years of terrorism.”
Neither of the tweets included a reference to the victims of Silva’s unit’s brutality over a decade ago – thousands of Tamils who voted in droves to elect Premadasa as President in November 2019. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s performance in most of the North and East was abysmal, with the victor in the November election barely getting as many votes as his brother Mahinda did in 2005 and 2010. Since his election defeat Premadasa has been on an islandwide tour of the districts to thank his voters but is yet to step foot in the North and East where he won by the highest margins.
The travel ban against Sri Lanka’s highest ranking military officer – Lt. Gen. Silva is also acting Chief of Defence Staff – is the first time the world has taken action against a Government official for gross human rights abuses committed during the war.
But Colombo Telegraph learns that Premadasa’s support for Lt. Gen Silva dates back to August 2019 when President Maithripala Sirisena came under crushing pressure to avoid appointing the controversial military officer as commander of the army, replacing Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake.
While the bulk of the UNP stood against the appointment at the time, making private interventions to President Sirisena, Premadasa made a special effort to convince the then head of state that the appointment was fine by him. At the time Premadasa was staking a claim for the presidential nomination and waging war against his party leader and Sirisena’s bete noir, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Premadasa advocated strongly for Silva’s appointment as army chief because his wife Jalani and Silva’s wife Sujeewa Nelson were close friends. Mrs. Silva was a regular customer at the Jaal Salon owned by Premadasa’s spouse and also a dear friend of the couple. At the time, Silva used his wife’s UNP credentials to convince Premadasa and others in the Government that he was not a Rajapaksa associate and backer.
Premadasa who took up the position of Opposition Leader by vowing that he would “not play the role of a traditional opposition but support the Government to implement its policies” has remained true to his word. Earlier this month he stood by mutely while the Constitutional Council rubber-stamped Gotabaya Rajapksa’s appointment of Justice Nawaz, a judge who has been charge sheeted by the Bribery Commission on corruption charges as President of the Court of Appeal. He has refused to stand up agianst the Government’s witch hunts against his own MPs and former ministerial colleagues or speak one word for law enforcement officials who have been persecuted by the new regime for simply doing their jobs to investigate heinous crimes against journalists and civilians between 2005-2015.
Political circles are abuzz with speculation that President Rajapaksa is in possession of compromising material that could embarrass Premadasa and his family, which has won subservience from the new opposition leader. Authoritative sources told Colombo Telegraph that Premadasa was regularly in touch with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and uses Gotabaya backer and publisher Tiran Alles as an intermediary to the new president. (By Chinthika De Silva)