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 Politics

Mahinda Rajapakse faced with army battle as threat of impeachment mounts



Mahinda Rajapaske, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and Mahinda Sa

While simmering discontent within the security forces manifested in the form of a fundamental rights application to the Supreme Court last week, President Mahinda Rajapakse was put on the backfoot by both the opposition and religious leaders across the board over his failure to appoint the Constitutional Council bringing with it the possibility of an impeachment motion.

In political terms, it was a bad week for the President in that he was also outfoxed on the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution with the UNP calling his bluff and giving the government the green light to proceed with it pending the final report of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC). That move took away the excuse Rajapakse was looking for to sidestep implementing the 13th Amendment due to JVP pressure.

Strife within

But it was the simmering discontent within the security forces that was cause for worry with former Commander of the Eastern Province, Major General Parakrama Pannipitiya taking Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka to court over the alleged violation of his fundamental rights, going so far as to say his life has been put under threat.

This case, mind you, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Major General Pannipitiya was the former commanding officer of the security forces in the east and it was under his command the troops beat back the LTTE in Vaharai, Kadirweli, Verugal Aru and the jungle areas of Kadwana Pararu, Kuburuppiddi and Thoppigala and he has now gone to court stating his life has been compromised by the very force he served with distinction.

It is not for us to say whether there is merit in the charges made by Major General Pannipitiya in his petition or whether allegations leveled against him by the Army Commander are true since the matter is now before the Supreme Court, but suffice it to say the issue has thrown new light on the unfolding scenario within the security forces which can have dangerous repercussions all round.

Though the media was privy to the rumblings within the security forces for sometime, these developments though of public interest given the impact it would have on the overall security situation in the country, were kept under wraps so as not to demoralise the fighting units, and of course not to be accused of compromising the war effort.

Under the carpet

Indeed, the irony that the failure to report on the rumblings within the security forces thereby sweeping the issue under the carpet could in fact compromise the military effort was not lost on the media, which nevertheless held its horses, in the belief the defence authorities will take action to address the unfolding developments. It was not to be.

Instead, what the government did was launch a counter strategy to speculate on internal dissension within the LTTE with stories that Tiger Supremo Velupillai Pirapaharan with a leg amputated was gasping for life thrown in for good measure.

However, with Major General Pannipitiya as a last recourse going to court over his case, the issue has now reached the public domain with more such actions in the pipeline which will call into serious question whether the inner politicking within the defence establishment would compromise the war effort.

Open secret

It is also an open secret that Army Commander Sarath Fonseka and Navy Commander Wasantha Karannagoda are not the best of buddies and with the floodgates likely to open with Pannipitiya's case, President Rajapakse realises he has to take quick action to stem the tide and this he sought to do with the former Eastern Commander by inviting him for a meeting.

Pannipitiya was to tell the President at this meeting the issues faced by him and other officers  were of a serious nature and this despite the services rendered to the nation and it is after this meeting that the Former Eastern Commander decided to proceed with a fundamental rights petition raising eyebrows in defence circles.

Own inquiries

Of course by this time other senior officers too had made representations to the President on the unfolding developments in the army and Rajapakse decided to make his own inquiries on what was really going on in the defence establishment lest the situation got out of hand.

It is in this volatile backdrop that Pannipitiya petitioned the Supreme Court where he practically threw the gauntlet at Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, in what appears to be a 'no holds barred' battle.

In his petition, Major General Pannipitiya was to state, at a meeting with the Army Commander, he was asked to submit his retirement papers on the basis there were allegations against him and that if he failed to do so, a court martial would be initiated. (See excerpts of petition on page 16 )

Huge contrast

He has also detailed the withdrawal of his facilities including vehicles, escorts and housing despite a threat to his life from the LTTE as per intelligence reports, claiming the Army Commander failed to give due regard to the threats to his life.

While the Supreme Court will deal with the merits of the petition the fact remains, Major General Pannipitiya will face a court martial on the allegations leveled against him with regard to misuse of army property based on an anonymous petition. Therein lies the rub.

For, on the one hand while the commanding officer who liberated Thoppigala is stripped of his facilities and called upon to retire or face a court martial based on an anonymous petition, the former Eastern Commander of the LTTE, Karuna who was responsible for killing hundreds of soldiers and policemen is sent to reunite with his family in London under state patronage for services rendered after his defection. And, mind you, on a forged diplomatic passport to boot.

Wanted to help

In fact, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse no less was reported as stating to the media, Karuna had solicited his support to reunite with his family in London and that he wanted to help the renegade commander.

No doubt, discipline is vitally important in the security forces and action has to be taken when necessary but the question the government has to now deal with is whether it can at a time of war afford to deal with war heroes in the manner done to  Pannipitiya with even his facilities withdrawn before the allegations made are proven true, whilst affording VIP treatment to the likes of Karuna and the TMPV who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of soldiers and policemen.

Message to troops

It is such a message going down to the troops following the Pannipitiya case becoming public that the government had to avert, though not much progress was made by week's end to resolve the dispute with another case also expected to come up this week in the Supreme Court.

Having placed all his eggs in the war basket and with nothing to show on the political and economic fronts, the President knew only too well he can ill-afford any crisis within the security forces and was in a highly agitated state last week as problems mounted with the JVP too increasing the heat on the Indian front over the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Ironically the security forces crisis comes at a time the JVP has warned the President of dire political consequences if he proceeds to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution including the establishment of an interim administration for the north until the LTTE is defeated militarily, making Rajapakse all the more vulnerable on the political front as well.

Dilemma

Thus when President Rajapakse met Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on Tuesday, February 26 at Temple Trees, he was possibly hoping, the UNP will give him a way out of the 13th Amendment dilemma by opposing it, but it was not to be. Assisting the President at the meeting were Ministers Maithripala Sirisena, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, Viswa Warnapala and Tissa Vitharana. With the UNP Leader were MPs Rukman Senanayake and K.N. Choksy.

It will be recalled, President Rajapakse no less force-fed the 13th Amendment formula to the APRC and wanted it presented as the committee's report prompting even loyalists like TULF President V. Anandasangaree to distance himself from the proposed solution.

What the President did not anticipate however was strident opposition from the JVP given the assurance by Wimal Weerawansa the party will toe the line and with that not being the case, the UNP, Rajapakse hoped would be his political saviour on the issue.

Ranil stumps Mahinda

Thus, at Tuesday's meeting, Rajapakse was to ask Wickremesinghe at the outset what his position was on the interim report of the APRC which had called for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment and the UNP Leader took the President by surprise stating he had no problem with it.

Replied the President - "But the UNP has said it is opposed to the report, that the party is opposed to the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. Your General Secretary Tissa Attanayake had told that to the media."

Responded Wickremesinghe - "What Tissa said was that some people who had earlier opposed the 13th Amendment were now advocating it."

By now Rajapakse was getting agitated and his voice rising several decibels thundered that he opposed the 13th Amendment then and also now but that circumstances had forced him to accept it.

"Yes, I opposed it then. Now also I am opposed to it but because the APRC proposed it, I agreed to implement it," the President said.

With that said the President once again asked the UNP Leader whether it was his position the party will support the implementation of the 13th Amendment and received a reply in the affirmative.

Said Wickremesinghe - "The APRC has proposed the implementation of the 13th Amendment as an interim measure. We have no problem with it because it is already a part of the constitution. How can anyone oppose implementing the law of the land? We will support it."

Killing Pirapaharan

Visibly angry, the President took the UNP delegation by surprise next stating no solution is workable until LTTE Leader Velupillai Pirapaharan is killed.

"Pirapaharan must be killed. Pirapaharan must be killed, otherwise all this is useless," Rajapakse roared as the UNP trio listened in stunned silence.

Be that as it may, having made the point of wanting Pirapaharan dead, the President told Wickremesinghe if he was supporting the implementations of the 13th Amendment, the UNP should rejoin the APRC process, an invitation that was not jumped at.

Responded Wickremesinghe, "the UNP had actively participated in the APRC and even when the party stopped attending meetings, it was made clear that we were not withdrawing but merely suspending our participation. We said we were doing so until such time the government made known the common stand of the ruling alliance on the manner of solving the national issue."

Common stand

The President however did not agree with Wickremesinghe's thinking, stating each constituent party of the ruling alliance had its own view point on how to resolve the national question and should be entitled to present their respective cases.

"That is why the APRC is there for them to express their own view points," Rajapakse added.

Shot back Wickremesinghe - "If you are in a coalition government, then you cannot continue without having a common stand on how the most important national issue should be resolved."

Added he for effect - "The Chairman of the APRC, Professor Tissa Vitharana could discuss with the government's coalition partners and issue a report so that progress could be made on a more definite path. Professor Vitharana could submit a further report giving the outline of the common position that has been reached so far at the deliberations of the APRC."

Final decision

The UNP Leader went on to say Vitharana should submit such a further report for consideration by the UNP after which the party will make a final decision.

Added Wickremesinghe - "After the government's coalition partners' common position is known the UNP will reconsider joining the APRC."

Having listened to Wickremesinghe, the President said the government intends holding provincial council elections in the east shortly and asked whether the UNP would participate in that process, only to receive a response in the negative.

Elections

Wickremesinghe said the security climate was not conducive for holding such elections especially given the presence of armed groups in the east and added the UNP will find it difficult to endorse an election in such circumstances.

Chipped in Fernandopulle, "why didn't you contest the local elections in the east?"

Replied Wickremesinghe - "Because the climate is not conducive for free and fair elections. How can you have free and fair elections when a party contesting is armed."

With that out of the way, the UNP Leader broached the Constitutional Council (CC) issue and urged the President to constitute the CC to restore public confidence in the public sector only to elicit a sharp rejoinder from Rajapakse.

He said there was a Select Committee of Parliament studying the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and until their findings are known, the CC cannot be appointed.

Retorted Wickremesinghe - "The 17th Amendment is part of the Constitution and is already law - you cannot suspend the operation of a constitutional provision pending the outcome of a Select Committee proceeding. You have to implement the law. Otherwise, you must bring a constitutional amendment. Once the Select Committee submits its findings, any recommended changes can be considered but until such time, the law must take its course."

Liable for impeachment

The President however was not receptive to that reasoning and indicated he has no intention of appointing the Constitutional Council at this point of time.

This move by the President to hold back on constitutional provisions opens him to a possible impeachment on the grounds that it is an intentional violation of the constitution and no less a body than the Congress of Religions hinted at it in a memorandum submitted to Rajapakse.

Said the Congress of Religions in the memorandum inter alia - "It was said that the CC cannot be reactivated due to the delay in nominating the representation of minority parties. It has now been resolved and the present delay is in the President not naming his nominee. The Congress of Religions urges the President to name his nominee and reactivate the CC immediately, failing which it could be tantamount to violating the constitution."

Adds the Congress - "The President, Prime Minister, Speaker, Leader of the Opposition and all parliamentarians have taken an oath of allegiance to uphold the constitution, failure or delay to implement or the suspension of the 17th Amendment will result in anarchy. We hope and pray you will not allow such a situation to arise. We finally urge the President to uphold and defend the constitution of the country by taking steps to reactivate the Constitutional Council without further delay."

Memorandum

This telling memorandum was signed by the Most Ven. Kotugoda Dhammarawansa Anunayake Thero, Most Ven. Dr. Ittapane Dhammalankara Thero, Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha, Most Rev. Dr. Oswald Gomis, the Archbishop of Colombo, Rt. Rev. Duleep Chickera, the Anglican Bishop of Colombo, Rev. W.P. Ebenzer Joseph, Chairperson, National Christian Council, V. Kailasapillai, President, All Ceylon Hindu Congress, General Secretary, Jamiyathul Ulama, President OPA Elmo Perera, retired Supreme Court Judge Mark Fernando, Shirley Tissera, Civil Society Organisation, Chairman, Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, Chairman, National Chamber of Commerce and Chairman National Chamber of Industries.

Following suit were the Muslim Congress and JVP Parliamentary Group Leader Wimal Weerawansa who also warned the President of dire political consequences if he failed to appoint the CC. And coming soon after the Congress of Religions' statement, it could be a new chapter in a civil rights movement culminating with an impeachment resolution.

Political hypocrisy

And all the opposition needs for an impeachment resolution is 113 signatories plus the Speaker's consent, a move hinted at by the UNP Spokesman Gayantha Karunatilleke last week, which would in the process also expose the political hypocrisy of the likes of Minister Karu Jayasuriya who at one time played godfather to good governance and the 17th Amendment.

That apart, the government is also getting cornered on the human rights front with each passing day and next week's Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva will see Sri Lanka put further to the sword with none other than British Minister of State for the Foreign Commonwealth Office, Lord Malloch-Brown to personally press the issue.

This fact the British Minister made known to representatives of the Tamil diaspora when he met them at the Foreign Office on Monday where members of the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats were also present.

Britain's position

Lord Malloch-Brown was to tell the meeting which was also attended by TNA MP Gajan Ponnambalam that Britain will push Sri Lanka for greater access by senior UN officials and together with the EU take a stronger position on human rights abuses. The Sri Lankan government found support from the Conservative Party's Lord Naseby but Minister Malloch-Brown was critical of the war effort, the failure to enter into serious negotiations and of course human rights issues, which saw Colombo going into panic mode.

No sooner reports of the meeting surfaced, Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe who is to attend the Geneva sessions spoke with Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in London Kshenuka Seneviratne as well as Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona and urged them to inquire from the British Foreign Office whether the comments attributed to Lord Malloch-Brown were accurate.

Interestingly, the pro-Sri Lankan Lord Naseby was to 48 hours later raise the situation in the island at the House of Lords and Lord Malloch-Brown once again reiterated the position  of the British Government in no uncertain terms on both a political settlement and the need to address human rights concerns.

Combination of concerns

The British Minister was to tell the House of Lords a combination of concerns about the country's human rights and income level have led to a sharp reduction in development assistance and went on to add that there is not a sufficiently ambitious political initiative through the APRC and other means to offer the prospect of a political solution to the problems of the country.

More importantly, on the crucial issue of the GSP Plus facility which was raised by another Conservative, Lord Howell of Guildford, the British Minister said both the EU and the UK are concerned about the escalating human rights difficulties and the lack of an adequate political way forward and that they were focused on trying to improve human rights monitoring in Sri Lanka and not sanctions. (See page 9 for full proceedings)

Thus, it is evident, while the international human rights noose is slowly but surely strangulating the government politically and economically over its failure to address the issues raised, locally too, the President is on a razor's edge over the 13th Amendment implementation as well as the Constitutional Council impasse.

It is to this melting pot that the highly potent crisis within the security forces has been blended and the end product is certainly not one the President and his government will find palatable. 


House of Lords on Sri Lanka

"Resist danger of believing in military solution"

Reproduced below is the full debate on the Sri Lankan situation in the House of Lords last Wednesday, following a question asked by pro-Sri Lankan Conservative Member Lord Naseby. Please note Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Lord Malloch-Brown's comments that 'at the moment' the UK and EU are looking at human rights monitoring and not sanctions. The operative words of course are "at the moment." 

Lord Naseby asked Her Majesty's Government:

What assistance they are offering to the Government of Sri Lanka following the recommendations of the All-Party Representative Committee in that country.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, we support the efforts of the All-Party Representative Committee to devise a political solution to the conflict and remain ready to share our experiences of devolution. We believe that full implementation of the 13th Amendment, including funding for regional councils and greater emphasis on official use of the Tamil language, can be a step forward, but we would welcome more fresh thinking from the committee on a just settlement that satisfies the legitimate aspirations of all communities.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, that is a very encouraging Answer. However, as the noble Lord knows, we have a new high commissioner there. Is it not rather disappointing that our aid to Sri Lanka through DfID is, I understand, to be reduced just when the Eastern Province needs help in educating Tamil policemen and the child soldiers who have been taken out of warfare? Finally, is it not also a great problem that we have 20 bogus Tamil Tiger front organisations in this country? The Tigers are a proscribed organisation. Should we not be doing more to stop the millions of pounds that are going from this country to continue that war?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, as to the noble Lord's second point, he was with me at a meeting with the British Tamil constituents of a number of members of parliament. I think he will recall that I gave very clear advice to those Tamil UK nationals that we thought it utterly inappropriate for them to contribute in any way that might be used to provide military arms for terrorist activities in Sri Lanka. I am happy to have his full endorsement of that point.

On the noble Lord's first point about DfID assistance, the DfID programme to Sri Lanka has largely ended because of the country's income level. The debt relief component of it is a special case but the fact is that a combination of concerns about the country's human rights and income level have indeed led to a sharp reduction in the DfID provision for Sri Lanka.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, is not DfID making a contribution to the Common Humanitarian Action Plan, which fears that half a million people may need assistance later in the year? Does the Minister agree that at least a limited devolution of power to the north and east would do something to mitigate the polarisation of the two communities, even though it would be better to insist that the All Party Committee recommendations are published by at least April, even if the parties cannot all agree on them? Can the Minister say what we think about the development of a more politically powerful contact group, as recommended by the International Crisis Group?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the humanitarian assistance that we provide will not in any way be changed because of the situation in Sri Lanka. We provide assistance through the Global Conflict Prevention Pool and want to participate in the humanitarian action plan, although, as I said, we have no bilateral aid development programme.

On the second point about devolution of powers, local provincial government and our support for that, we think that is all moving in the right direction. Our fundamental concern is that there is not a sufficiently ambitious political initiative through the APRC or through other means to offer the prospect of a political solution to the problems of the country.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Naseby has just circulated a very interesting report on Sri Lanka, following his visit there, in which he points out that there is a threat of EU sanctions against the garment trade in Sri Lanka for various reasons - good or bad - which would have a devastating effect on the country generally at a very sensitive time. Will the Minister assure us that we will use all influence that we can in the European Union to prevent ill-timed sanctions of this kind damaging poor Sri Lanka more than it has been damaged already?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the issue of the garment trade and the EU is a trade matter as well as a political one. On the trade side, we have been anxious that countries such as Sri Lanka do not suffer disruption because of changed EU international trade arrangements. There need to be managed changes in such regimes.

On the broader point, we are concerned about the escalating human rights difficulties in the country and the lack of an adequate political way forward. The EU, like us, is following that. At the moment, our activities are focused on trying to improve human rights monitoring of the situation in Sri Lanka, not on sanctions. That is a position that the EU shares with us. I join the noble Lord in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, on his excellent report.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, the Government of Sri Lanka has already announced that they are prepared to hold unconditional talks with the LTTE. In light of that, what are we doing in this country to ensure that proscribed, and related, organisations are not collecting funds for the purchase of arms to destabilise that process?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I slightly take issue with the noble Lord about the unqualified nature of the government's willingness to sit down and talk to the LTTE. I wish it were that straightforward. We would press the government for a wholehearted political initiative and to resist the danger of believing that there is a military solution to the problem.

Seeing many of our colleagues from Northern Ireland in the chamber today, I shall repeat that we have been impressing on the government the need to learn from some of our experience in Ireland as regards finding a political way of resolving this conflict. I say again that the LTTE is a proscribed organisation here and in Europe at large and, therefore, people should not be knowingly contributing to its military activities. It is wrong and illegal to do that.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, I want to follow up on the final question asked by my noble friend Lord Avebury. Will the Minister comment on whether there should be deepened co-operation - this is the recommendation from the International Crisis Group - between India, the EU and the US, with the goal of eventually developing a more politically powerful contact group? Will he comment on that please?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving me an opportunity to answer that part of the noble Lord's question. In general, Sri Lanka has been protected by its genuinely democratic character. It has a government elected through the ballot box. That has meant that its neighbours, as well as the EU, have held back a little from forming a contact group or bringing direct pressure to bear and have relied on the Norwegians to provide a mediation function. Unfortunately, that is now at an end. It is an idea that merits serious attention, whether a powerful friends' group might help both sides to begin the much-needed serious dialogue to resolve these issues politically.

Hansard - House of Lords  


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