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University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna)

Sri Lanka


Special Report No. 29

Appendix II:

PNM, Navy, the CJ and the Buddha Statue in Trincomalee –

A Watershed Marking the State’s Return of Impunity

By mid-2003 the LTTE was visibly abusing the peace process and its establishment of bases and gun positions facing Trincomalee harbour became a major issue. Doubts arose in the public mind about whether the UNP (UNF) government was dealing with the issue. There was also the unresolved question of the best way to deal with it other than a return to full-scale war. The bases were the pretext President Kumaratunge used to take back crucial ministries, including Defence, from the UNP government and precipitate elections. But when it came to her turn to rectify that for which she excoriated the UNP, it was soon evident that mere criticism of the peace process was much simpler.

At the end of August 2005 President Kumaratunge appointed Wasantha Karannagoda naval chief upon the retirement of Daya Sandagiri, overlooking Mohan Wijewickrema, the second in command next to Sandagiri. The Press held that this was a political appointment, where the Kumaratunge rewarded Karannagoda for giving her such information pertaining to the LTTE build up in Trincomalee, bypassing the UNP government, as helped her to make her case for taking over the Defence Ministry.

This atmosphere was bound to make others in the security services nervous and drive everyone to court political favours, and those holding office nervous of a change of regime. In this ambience with continuing LTTE provocations to the Sinhalese in Trincomalee, with its Pongu Thamil celebrations thrown in, the surreptitiously raised Buddha statue in front of the fish market and tavern further raised the heat.

The JVP backed North-East Sinhala Organisation and the Trincomalee Three Wheeler Drivers’ Association were the main parties behind the erection of the Buddha statue under cover of the night on 15th May 2005. On President Kumaratunge’s instructions, the Ministry of Defence obtained an intelligence report which charged that Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera, who headed the Eastern Command, ‘addressed this group, a team of three wheeler drivers offering a transport service, and assured them he would ensure the statue would not be removed’ (Iqbal Athas, Sunday Times 19 Jun.05). Kumaratunge replaced Weerasekera in the Eastern Command with Rear Admiral Ratnakeerthi, Weerasekera’s classmate at Ananda College and a few months his senior.

Weerasekera, instead of being disciplined, was given the newly created post of Deputy Chief of Staff. Any superior officer acting as he reportedly did on a communally sensitive matter was out of place in the armed services. It was a time the Kumaratunge government was tottering. Having dismissed the UNP government and called elections where her party went in allied to the JVP, the latter was given an undeserved 39 seats with which to hold the government to ransom. She did not command the support in Parliament to push through her PTOMS agreement with the LTTE. There had also been for some time speculation as to whether her presidency would end in 2005 instead of 2006.

A further step in politicising the State over the Buddha statue was taken by none other than Chief Justice Sarath Silva. Ven. Piyatissa Thero of China Bay Maha Bodhi Vihara filed a fundamental rights petition against the Attorney General in the Supreme Court alleging the Magistrate’s order to remove all illegal structures was issued ‘on the advice of the AG, Mr. Kamalasabeson, who is a Hindu and a Tamil, and ... a former resident of Trincomalee’. It was a personal attack on the AG, who was acting on government advice. Instead of refusing the petitioner leave to proceed, the Chief Justice arm-twisted the AG, giving him in effect a choice between standing down on the statue affair or facing an ugly battle in Supreme Court. A Tamil Attorney General could not have withstood the strain all by himself when the JHU and PNM were competing for decibels, with PNM’s Ven. Bengamuve Nalaka comparing the proposed relocation of the statue with the Taliban’s vandalising the Bamiyan Buddha statues in 2001. On 18th July 2005, the AG gave in.

Although the name of the National Patriotic Movement did not directly surface in this episode, the broad front it represented was central to it and the CJ too had made his calculated move to the Right. The lawyer who represented Piyatissa Thero was S.L. Gunasekera, bounced by Sihala Urumaya and now with the PNM/MMM.

The country was by then in a state of flux. The JVP quit the government, leaving a minority government in Parliament. On 12th August 2005 Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was killed, the LTTE being the leading suspects. On 26th August, the CJ truncated Kumatatunge’s term as president on a JHU petition.

Other events too point to a nasty atmosphere developing in the South from about April 2005 in response to LTTE provocations. Deputy Defence Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake said at a Naval function in Trincomalee on 22nd April, “Do not provoke us, do not tickle us and do not cause another war by using intimidatory tactics... if we are attacked we would be compelled to retaliate.” Retaliation in the Sri Lankan context invariably meant extra-judicial action. Less than a week from then TamilNet editor Taraki Sivaram was abducted and killed in Colombo.

On 27th May 2005 a five-member bench of the Supreme Court appointed by the Chief Justice acquitted unanimously the police officers sentenced to death in a High Court hearing. 27 Tamil inmates of a rehabilitation centre were brutally massacred on 25th October 2000 with the connivance of the Police (Special Rep. No.19 Part I). This was insensitive to say the least. Human Rights Watch’s reaction was typical of how it struck many observers: “The Court must put aside politics and personal feelings when dealing with criminal offenses involving Tamils.”

While a large share of the blame must go to the LTTE’s abuse of the peace process, the country was also suffering from the absence of a leadership with vision, to prevent the country as a whole descending to the level of the LTTE. For ambitious individuals it was a time to gamble and tie their fortunes to the sort of demagoguery likeliest to bring them the greatest gain.

A particular context of the Buddha statue episode and Rear Admiral Weerasekera’s conduct should not be overlooked. There was a sense in the Navy that the second in command, Mohan Wijewickrema, would be bypassed when Commander Sandagiri, with whom he had problems, was to retire at the end of August – the kind of atmosphere that prompts competition for political favours among more junior officers. In May the JVP with its 39 MPs was an influential party in the Government. The appointment in August of Karannagoda who was due to reach 55 in November 2007, ended any chance of Weerasekera becoming commander as he was due to reach 55 in October 2006.

Hanging Artistes who help the Enemy

For a man who denied rabble rousing in the Buddha statue affair, Weerasekera was not slow to show his political leanings publicly once the new navy commander took over in September 2005, which was also just after the CJ truncated Kumaratunge’s term triggering off an election campaign for her successor.

On 21st May 2005, young Sri Lankan director Vimukthi Jayasundera’s film Sulanga Enu Pinisa (For Wind to Blow) was the joint recipient of the Camera d'Or prize for the best film presented at Cannes. The Daily News reviewer (26 Oct.05), E.M.G. Edirisinghe, commending the film as textually magnificent and penetrative, described its theme thus:  “Socially, the dominant force in a war ravaged civil society is the army which is portrayed corrupt, exhausted and indecent caused by unbearable stress and confinement to restricted freedom which is universal in a war situation where life has no value and morals have no place.”

Weerasekera too kicked off a campaign coinciding with the presidential contest. He published an article in the Sunday Times of 4th September titled The war, black cinema and the morale of the soldier” criticising makers of films on current socially sensitive issues which discouraged youth from joining the security forces. He declared, “If there is a film on war even indirectly contributing towards fulfilling terrorists’ objectives willfully, then it amounts to treason and should be dealt with severely.”  

The Sunday Times of 25th September 2005 reported that Weerasekera and the official army spokesman Brigadier Daya Ratnayake earlier in the week met the Cannes award winning director Jayasundera, along with three others, whom they cautioned “would have to face the consequences if they continue to produce movies of this nature.” The same day, 25th September,  Rear Admiral Weerasekera wrote in the Sinhalese Sunday ‘Divaina’ that producers of such films should be labelled as terrorists and hanged.

Whatever segment of the security forces this activity represented, such campaigning going unchecked brought them to the threshold of setting up death squads and turned the clock back on the fight against impunity that lasted through the 1990s. Strangely, it was some of the leading campaigners on violations by the security forces against suspected supporters of the JVP during the late 1980s, who were now ranged alongside the PNM that supported Rajapakse’s campaign for the presidency.

Weerasekera’s actions broke the code where the security forces were obliged to uphold the law and keep out of party politics. In the presidential campaign UNP’s Ranil Wickremasinghe was for continuing the peace process, while on Rajapakse’s side were all the extremist forces including the LTTE. What happened later is well known. With President Rajapakse’s brother Gotabhaya as defence secretary and further political appointments to the security apparatus, official death squads became once more a reality.

The resulting state of affairs in the security forces was described by the Military Matters correspondent to the Nation (23 July 2006):

…the first thing the new Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka did was to cause heartburn among the senior officers by placing them under juniors, or moving them out from top positions including operational areas to insignificant places. Many senior officers including Majors General and Brigadiers prematurely retired…Realizing the dangers ahead, President Mahinda Rajapksa ordered his Secretary Lalith Weeratunga [without the knowledge of the Army Commander who was undergoing treatment in Singapore] to summon some of the officers who had already retired and urged them to return to the service…In fact it was only after General Fonseka was sent abroad that Major General Nanda Mallawarachchi was appointed Acting Army Commander a fortnight ago. Major General Mallawarachchi, who had exhausted the maximum number of years in the rank, was given an extension by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga till he reaches the age 55 on August 3. [Chief of Staff] Major General Mallawarachchi is likely to receive an extension up to December when General Fonseka’s extension ends.

“…Navy Commander Vice Admiral Karanagoda did not take kindly to the appointment of Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera as the Chief of Staff [while he was on an official visit to India]. Vice Admiral Karanagoda sent a letter to President Rajapaksa through the Chief of Defence Staff Donald Perera regarding the extension of the services of the Chief of Staff Rear Admiral Sarath Ratnakeerthi [appointed 2 Jan.06]. Vice Admiral Karanagoda is trying hard to clip the wings of his [present] No. 2 Rear Admiral Weerasekera and to this end, the Navy Commander deprived him of becoming the Trustee of the Buddhist association. This influential post, which is usually held by the chief of staff, was given to the deputy chief of staff Rear Admiral [Wasantha] Tennekoon.

Here we have a politicised outfit where political appointees try to get out of the way those who might threaten their extension of service and politicians slip in new appointments when the commander is overseas on official duty. Lt. Gen. Fonseka received three extensions as army commander under this government (running currently) to finish (hopefully) the war in his watch. Kumaratunge had earlier extended his term as Chief of Staff which ended in March 2005 until he reached 55 in December. In late October 2005 before she left office, she had also given a two year extension to Shantha Kottegoda who became army commander on 1st July 2004. The extension was practically annulled by Rajapakse later in November, days after it took effect, to appoint Fonseka.

Weerasekera’s politics paid off to the extent that someone pushed to get Ratnakeerthi out of the way ignoring the commander’s wishes and make him Chief of Staff. He reached 55 on 29th October 2006 and was not given an extension. His chief reached 55 only in November 2007 and could serve four years in his post until September 2009.

Weerasekera was given the consolation of remaining in service as Director General of Home Guards, commanding 35 000 men. This enabled him to keep his rank and uniform. In this capacity he shared an MMM platform with S.L. Gunasekera and Gunadasa Amarasekera at the BMICH in early January 2008 at a ceremony to distribute tables with manually rechargeable lights to soldier families.

Weerasekera’s lasting legacy is his contribution to entrenching the PNM in Trincomalee through the offending Buddha statue that accrued to their prestige. The Navy has since been a base for the PNM and the link was strengthened by the President’s launching of the MMM in July 2006. This in effect enables a political movement with clear political objectives to liaise institutionally with the armed forces.

By contrast, in a move to depoliticise the armed forces, Pakistan’s Chief of Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani recently issued instructions asking soldiers to desist from hobnobbing with politicians and  to pay attention instead to their “professional” responsibilities, and officers to steer clear of politicians, warning them against calling politicians to the General Headquarters or having any other “direct or indirect” contact with them (Nirupama Subramanian, the Hindu, 24 Jan.08).

The JHU has exploited the same communally divisive issues as the PNM, but its influence in Trincomalee has not been very visible. The JHU’s campaigning on the Buddha statue inside and outside Parliament appears to have been largely aimed at consolidating support in Colombo. JHU Treasurer and Defence Advisor Kotakadeniya sent in January 2006 an STF team to Trincomalee with a view to tough action, which killed the five innocent students. It backfired if political mileage was the aim.

During the crisis in Mavil Aru JHU’s Ven. Athureliya Rathana and Akmeemana Dayaratna  purported to lead the villagers on a march to open the sluice gates closed by the LTTE, and earned the ire of the local priest Ven. Saranakitti for endangering the villagers. This too was abortive. The only purpose the JHU served was to push the Government into a war on the wrong pretext. Wrong, because the SLMM had negotiated an end to the crisis and were turned back by government shelling when they went to release the water. It also made the SLMM an anathema to the extremists.

Politicisation and the Human Rights Calamity

What happened between the Buddha Statue episode and the presidential election strongly influenced the resurgence of impunity. Rear Admiral Weerasekera was just one individual and his immediate authority was limited. But a man in high position who said and did the things he did unchecked, and perhaps rather rewarded, was bound to influence others and release inhibitions. For one month, in September 2005, while Deputy Chief of Staff he campaigned publicly and advocated that makers of such films as Sulanga Enu Pinisa should be labelled as traitors and hanged. And a man with contempt for the rule of law was promoted to Chief of Staff and allowed service in his rank after his time.

When other officers sense what the politicians want, and what it would cost them to be true to their professional calling, the worst often happens. Shantha Kottegoda being made to quit by the new president within two weeks of his extension taking effect to appoint Fonseka, who had an atrocious record in violations, as army commander was also a message to all officers who did not want their career to suffer.

Threats to hang artistes (or more politely in English, their ‘having to face the consequences’) for helping what they see as the cause of the enemy has far-reaching consequences and applies even to persons who are far from supporting the LTTE. It includes persons who expose the Government’s complicity in crime, witnesses to the killing of the five students and the Civil Monitoring Committee. It explains and justifies the killing of Joseph Pararajasingham and N. Raviraj – who was far from being a Tiger.

The Navy became from December 2005 a very brutal institution. After a claymore mine attack in Pesalai unconnected with local civilians which killed 13 naval troops, they ran amok in the 100 houses scheme. The civilians were called out made to stand in the sun and were assaulted and humiliated, leaving some with severe injuries. The remains of a mother and her four year old son were recovered from a house that was burnt by the Navy. It was a long time and the Government did not intervene. On 2nd January 2006, the Navy was party to the massacre of five students on the Trincomalee beach front.

The Navy was directly involved in the Allaipiddy atrocities in April and May 2006, including the murder of a 74-year-old man and then the murder of a young family including two children. The Navy behaved execrably during the LTTE’s attempt to land in Allaipiddy on 11th August 2006. A notable event is the abduction by the Navy and disappearance of Fr. Jim Brown and a parishioner Wenceslas. This happened after the launching of the MMM whose message was cruelty and impunity (solving the problem in 24 hours by bombing), while Weerasekera was Chief of Staff. The Navy too became a key supporter of the Pillayan group.

The extent of political backing is also evident in the Chief Justice in most major atrocities transmitting the case to a different magistrate, when the magistrate showed spirit and determination in wanting to see justice done (see Appendix III). The effect of this transmission was invariably to kill a case.       

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