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The Samaraweera-Gallage “verbal exchange” and its implications

2016-02-27 00:39:07
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The armed forces particularly the Army  had been subjected to creeping politicisation coupled with the militarisation of politics on a lesser  scale

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Our sister paper “Sunday Times”revealed details  last week about an incident of friction between a senior cabinet minister and a senior military official that  had occurred in Jaffna  a few weeks earlier. The Sunday Times Political Column scored a scoop by referring to an exchange of words between Sri Lankan Foreign Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera and the  Sri Lankan Army 51 Division Commander Major-General Chagi Gallage and  the subsequent transfer of the military official from the North. Here are the relevant excerpts:

 

Two weeks ago, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera was here (Jaffna) to launch the Government’s website to seek views from the public on the proposed new Constitution. He took the opportunity to address security force commanders and divisional commanders at the SF headquarters in Jaffna. He made clear that the Government would protect the interests of the security forces”.

“Major General Chagi Gallage, General Officer Commanding (GOC) the Army’s 51 Division located in Kopay, who was once in charge of the Presidential Guard under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, proposed that a military representative be included in the task force appointed by the Government to enforce provisions of the Geneva resolution”.

“Minister Samaraweera rejected the proposal saying this could not be done. An exchange of words is reported to have ensued. Days later, Maj. Gen. Gallage was transferred out of Jaffna. Senior Army officials declined to confirm or deny the incident. He has now been appointed Director General of Infantry at Army Headquarters”.

“The incumbent in that office, Brigadier Piyal Wickremeratne, has been named Security Forces Commander, Central Command. Usually, as GOC, an officer is appointed for two years. Maj. Gen. Gallage had served much less than this period. Replacing Maj. Gen. Gallage as GOC 51 Division is Brigadier Mervyn Perera, an officer from the engineering services”.

The “Sunday Times”revelation of the Samaraweera-Gallage incident was picked up by various media organs within and outside the country. It was also utilised by sections of society  claiming to be ultra-nationalist patriots to whip up opposition against the ruling government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime minister  Ranil Wickremesinghe. 

 

The Samaraweera-Gallage incident was picked up by various media organs within and outside the country


Sarath Weerasekera
According to media reports former Navy Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral (Retd) Sarath Weerasekera  had addressed a media conference organised by the Joint National Organisations at the National Library Services auditorium in Colombo where  he had reportedly stated;”The sudden and unwarranted transfer of war hero Maj Gen. Chagi Gallage from the North to Colombo for voicing his opinion is a case in point and the government has victimised those who spoke against its actions inimical to the country’s interests.”

Sarath Weerasekera who served as  deputy minister  of labour and labour relations in the govt of  Ex-President  Mahinda  Rajapaksa  charged that “the  present government had no respect for the war heroes who had saved the country from terrorists in a war in which 29,000 soldiers had laid down their lives and many others suffered injuries”. The former member of Parliament from   Digamadulla/Amparai district also “ flayed Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera for accepting the terms and conditions laid down by the UNHRC High Commissioner Zeid Raad Al Hussein in Geneva for setting up a hybrid court to try Sri Lanka’s war heroes”.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of the allegations made by rear Admiral(retd) Weerasekera on this matter , there is no denying that the incident has helped to highlight a prevailing concern within the Sri Lankan armed forces in general and the Army in particular about the issue of military personnel being probed over alleged war crimes in terms of the United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution on Sri Lanka passed in Geneva last year. The “Sunday Times” political column itself disclosed   details about the simmering discontent within the upper echelons of the armed forces over this question.

The  newspaper quoting  a source  who spoke on grounds of anonymity,  said that a “Review Group” had, two months ago, raised their concerns with Army Commander Lieutenant General Chrisanthe de Silva. He (the source) said this was in a report of some 70 odd pages where they had dissected the OISL (the title for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Investigation into Sri Lanka) and handed it over to their commander for study and action. He said the group had “appealed for the appointment of a committee in the Army to study the implementation of the Geneva resolution process. It should be made up of senior officers and civilian experts. The idea, the source said, was to educate those serving and retired on the possible accusations and the implications arising out of them”.

 

Due to a variety of factors the armed forces are indeed the darlings of the nation at this point of time. The main reason for this is the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by the armed forces


Military Representative
It could be seen therefore that  Maj- Gen Gallage’s suggestion that  a military representative be included in the the Task Force appointed by the Government to enforce provisions of the Geneva resolution is but a manifestation of  prevailing anxiety within the military structure over current developments. The 11-member committee named by the Government comprises Manouri Muttetuwegama (Chairperson), Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuththu (Secretary), Gamini Viyangoda, Prof. Chitralekha Maunaguru, Visakha Dharmadasa, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, Dr. Farzana Haniffa, Shantha Abhimanasingham PC, Mirak Raheem, Prof. Daya Somasunderam and Gameela Samarasinghe.The Task Force will report to a steering committee on the Reconciliation and Prime Ministerial Action Group (PMAG). Maj-Gen Gallage had requested that a military representative also be included in this task force.

Reputed political analyst and Sri Lanka’s former ambassador to the UN in Geneva and  France, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka in his fortnightly column written exclusively for “Daily Mirror” has been critical of the composition  of what he calls “the Consultational Task Force of NGO types to “enforce” the intrusive, US-driven Geneva resolution under the monitoring of a UN expert”. Observing that there  were no former state officials among these “enforcers”, Dr. Jayatilleka goes on to say that the membership of the task force in particular is heavily loaded in favour of ethnic minorities.Dayan concludes on an ominous note of foreboding

“ Only the socially blind cannot read the signs of Sinhala angst; only the politically deaf do not hear the rumblings of Sinhala rage”.

Even if one does not entirely agree with Dayan Jayatilleka on what he says,there is no doubt that there is much validity in his views particularly about the groundswell of resentment over matters concerning the Geneva resolution and its  proposed implementation. There is indeed much anxiety within the armed forces and the nation at large  about the current course of events. Much of this anxiety is caused by the  orchestrated campaign underway that the Government of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe is bent on “betraying” the “war heroes”  and “valiant soldiers” of the armed forces who defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militarily and prevented a division of the country.

The present Government is extremely vulnerable  when it comes  to accusations of this nature by the Rajapaksa led opposition.Due to a variety of factors the armed forces are indeed the darlings of the nation at this point of time. The main reason for this is the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by the armed forces. The recent years have seen the country gradually return to normalcy and steadily progress towards peaceful prosperity. The nation is grateful to the “valiant soldiers” and “war heroes” who made this possible. In such a situation the Government has to be sensitive to the public mood and tread warily. The  Govt decision to co-sponsor the US initiated UN resolution is portrayed by the Medamulana school of patriotic thought   as an act of  genuflection  before the West leading to a  betrayal of  our armed forces.

 

both Wickremesinghe and Sirisena  are genuine,  true patriots in every sense of the word notwithstanding the mud being flung  at them. Neither of them would deliberately throw  the armed forces to the international wolves


USA Led “International Community”
I , for one cannot and will not subscribe to the argument propounded by the “Rajapaksaistas” that President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are treacherously selling out Sri Lanka and setting the stage for international action against the soldiers. What I feel is that both Maithripala and Ranil are in their own subtle way trying to extricate the beleaguered armed forces from the morass into which they have been pushed into by the  national and international acts of omission and commission committed by the Rajapaksa regime. Instead of adopting a near suicidal combative approach towards the USA led “international community”  like that of its predecessor, the current regime has embarked on a  collaborative course with the ultimate objective of clearing the name and fame of Sri Lanka’s armed forces.

The Government cannot however state explicitly and unambiguously that it’s underlying objective is to  protect  the armed forces.  Such a declaration would result in dissatisfaction amidst the international community that is strongly supportive of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime. It would also result in a strong anti-Sri lanka campaign being re-launched by the pro -Tiger Diaspora outfits and the human rights lobby. Thus the Govt  has no choice other than to go along with the current for some time at least without voicing strong sentiments in support of the armed forces.

The  grim political reality is different. Whatever the expectations of people with “power” on a global scale, the Sri Lankan governing class is dependent upon the Sri Lankan polity. As the  veteran  US politician and speaker of the House of Representatives  “Tip” O’Neill (junior) so famously observed “all politics is local”. The  prevailing situation  in Sri Lanka where unfair victimisation of the armed forces by international forces or national elements is suspected by international puppets would not be supported by the people. There is no denying the fact that Sri Lanka in general and the Sinhala ethnicity in particular would not  accept or tolerate the unfair penalisation of its armed forces at the perceived behest of  extraneous  elements.Any “Sinhala” political leader found guilty of such an offence in the court of public opinion can write off his or her political career for good. As Prussia’s Otto Von Bismarck had said “Politics is  the art of the possible”.In such a situation  it is hard to believe  that either Maithripala or  Ranil or any Sinhala politician  would ever consent to such a course of action. 

 

Ranil Wickremesinghe  would be chastised for this move  as a “stupid sell-out” in the short term. However if things work out accordingly  in the long term, the Prime Minister would be  “grudgingly”praised as having performed a political miracle



Besides both Wickremesinghe and Sirisena  are genuine,  true patriots in every sense of the word notwithstanding the mud being flung  at them. Neither of them would deliberately throw  the armed forces to the international wolves. It was Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister in the 2001 -2004 years who did not let Sri Lanka be a party to the Rome Statute setting up an International Criminal Court. It was Maithripala Sirisena who was acting minister of defence in Sri Lanka during the final weeks of the war against the LTTE.It is hard to believe the allegations levelled against both that they are betraying the armed forces. Unfortunately for Maithripala and Ranil they are compelled to be somewhat  “constrained” in the current situation. They are like cricketers batting on a ‘sticky wicket”. Staying unbeaten at the crease is more important than scoring runs!

What is happening now is that a certain course of action has been set in motion by the USA led international community at a time when Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power with no light  seen at the tunnel’s end indicating that an end of  Rajapaksa power was in sight. The unexpected however happened and there is now a new dispensation in Colombo  that is viewed favourably by the world’s sole super power and its strategic ally the regional power of South Asia.However sympathetic the world may be,  the motion set in course during the Rajapaksa regime cannot be stopped abruptly overnight. The motions of what may very well turn out to  be a charade has to go on. The optics of international approbation has to  continue for a reasonable period of time before the optics of international  encomium takes over fully. The underlying thread in all this  for the so called international community is the necessity of preserving the Sirisena- Wickremesinghe Govt and  preventing a return of the Rajapaksas.

 


Ranil Wickremesinghe
Ranil Wickremesinghe in his political wisdom has grasped this reality firmly. That is why he went ahead with the controversial step of  Sri Lanka co-sponsoring the UN resolution. Ranil Wickremesinghe  would be chastised for this move  as a “stupid sell-out” in the short term. However if things work out accordingly  in the long term, the Prime Minister would be  “grudgingly”praised as having performed a political miracle.Unfortunately for the international community as well as the Government, optical imperatives  demand an adherence to the motions set in course for a while. There will also be an attempt to cleanse and re-structure the armed forces through domestic processes as far as possible. This however can be and would be only  up to a point where the existence of the current government is not threatened or the prospects of a Rajapaksa return do not  loom large on the political horizon. This in effect is the bottom line.

Though President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have on various  occasions and at different times made public statements that the armed forces would come to no harm at the hands of international forces,  both continue to be at the receiving end of vicious mud slinging through an orchestrated campaign.Both Maithripala and Ranil are handicapped at this point of time by the fact that they cannot explicitly state their point of view and also by the fact that they have to proceed with the motions obligingly at the current juncture. Their “friends” in the  international corridors of power are equally hampered by such constraints.This however provides their detractors much ammunition to  target the Sirisena- Wickremesinghe Govt in the short run.

It is against this backdrop therefore that the viewpoint expressed by Maj- Gen Gallage to Minister Samaraweera must be looked at.Incidentally it may be recalled that Chagi Gallage was in the eye of a media storm a few years ago when he accompanied  Mahinda Rajapaksa to Britain when the former president was scheduled to address the prestigious Oxford Students’ Union on Dec 2nd 2010. The Oxford event was cancelled at short notice due to a pressure campaign mounted by Sri Lankan Tamil  political activists in the UK.

Later on Dec 2nd  a massive demonstration was conducted by the LTTE and Pro-LTTE activists opposite the Sri Lankan High Commission while a reception in honour of Mahinda Rajapaksa  was  being held within the premises. Major-General Chagi Gallage head of  President Rajapaksa’s security division who had accompanied  Mahinda  to London got annoyed at this. He reportedly opened the door and shouted at the demonstrators thrusting his middle finger upwards in an obsecene gesture. Other  Sri Lankan officials persuaded the general to get back inside.



 

British Tamil Forum
This impulsively defiant act  had its repercussions the following day. Maj- Gen Gallage had been co-commander of  the 59th Division during the last days of the war in Mullaitheevu. Lawyers representing the British Tamil Forum  tried to initiate legal action at the Horseferry Court in Central London on Dec 3rd   2010 . They sought an arrest warrant against  the officer in charge of security for President Mahinda Rajapaksa ,Gen Gallage,  accusing him of alleged war crimes. Anticipating such a move some officials of the Foreign Ministry advised Gen Gallage to leave London immediately instead of returning later with Mahinda Rajapaksa as originally planned. Maj- Gen Chagi Gallage heeded this advice and left on an early flight thereby avoiding the  potential issuance of an arrest warrant  against him.

Chagi Gallage is acknowledged widely as a very good soldier. He discharged his duties on the battlefield with distinction. People who interacted with Gallage when he was head of President Rajapaksa’s security like former presidential spokesperson Bandula Jayasekera  say  that he (Gallage)was a simple and humble officer who did not throw his weight about. After Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat Gen .Gallage moved to Jaffna as the 51st Division commander.  His “fault” in the eyes of both the political executive and military establishment seems to have been that of acting inappropriately and/or  speaking out of turn.

It is also reported that both Mangala Samaraweera and Chagi Gallage were old acquaintances. Apparently Samaraweera knew Gallage long before  the foreign minister entered politics. If this were true then Gallage’s “breach” may have been due  to this familiarity.He may even have been encouraged by some of his military colleagues to speak his mind out in front of Samaraweera.Whatever the reason that motivated Gallage,  it appeared that the Major-General has been rapped across the knuckles for his perceived lapse. What is important however is to recognise and realise that Chagi Gallage’s request resonates widely with members of the armed forces.

Major-General Gallage’s suggestion that a military representative be included in the task force is  not without its merits. In fact the suggestion  has much merit. Given the ethnic composition  and the lack of  “state representation” in the task force in question, it would  certainly be appropriate and prudent politically to include a representative looking after the interests of the armed forces and increase the number to a round dozen.  Such an inclusion would demonstrate that the armed forces are not being short changed by the Govt. It would help greatly in removing  doubts  that the Govt is acting against the armed forces.It would be advisable in this respect  to appoint a respected ex-army commander to the task force. A name that comes to mind is Gen Shantha Kottegoda who was persuaded to retire prematurely as army chief  by the Rajapaksa regime to pave the way for Sarath Fonseka to assume command in 2005.

 


Exchange of Words
The reported exchange of words between Cabinet minister Mangala Samaraweera and Major-Geneneral Chagi Gallage along with the consequent transfer demonstrates that the Govt has sharply reacted or over reacted to the public articulation of a viewpoint contrary to that of the Government’s official position  by a serving army general. Senior defence ministry officials and high ranking army officers were reportedly present when the “dispute”took place. The military establishment seems to have concurred with the Govt in reprimanding Gen .Gallage; hence the transfer! This incident coupled with that of the suspension of four navy rugby players for wearing arm bands supportive of detained Naval Lt. Yoshitha Rajapaksa during a match shows that the Govt is hyper sensitive on  what it perceives to be suspected  insubordination of a political hue.

The crux of the matter is that the armed forces particularly the Army have been subjected to a process of creeping politicisation over the years.  There was also a related militarisation of politics on a lesser scale. The culmination of  these two processes was effectively illustrated in the form of Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka as a  retired  army chief and a four star general contesting the 2010 Presidential poll as the common opposition candidate. 

Fonseka throwing his beret into the political ring was the result of a confluence of the militarisation of politics and the  politicisation of the military.Communist Party stalwart and  former Cabinet Minister DEW Gunasekera referred to this while addressing a seminar in Jaffna on Jan 2nd 2010.Comrade DEW observed thus:“With the entry of General Fonseka to politics, a new element has been introduced to our spectrum of politics which will lead not only to militarisation of politics but also politicisation of the military”.

While agreeing with DEW Gunasekera I disagree with him about this being entirely due to Sarath Fonseka’s political entry.As far as I am concerned the process of the military being politicised has been going on for decades. The militarising of politics too has been going on to a lesser extent.The Fonseka phenomenon was the outcome of these processes.The entry of Sarath Fonseka into politics was  in a way the  logical culmination of  both these processes.Nevertheless Fonseka’s entry did  accelerate  and expanded these processes in a way never seen before. 

 


Sarath Fonseka
After retiring  and  plunging  into politics, the ex- army chief was outspoken on local political issues including those relating to the war and the armed forces.Sarath Fonseka was also  critical of the  then government, ex - Defence Secretary and high-ranking officers from the defence services. Fonseka also  frequently played  his favourite tune of claiming sole credit for the war victory.

In a bid to counter this , the Mahinda Rajapaksa  Govt departed from military protocol and tradition and “arranged” for serving army officers to speak out against Sarath Fonseka both directly and indirectly.The  Rajapaksa regime  also ensured that maximum propaganda mileage was derived from these militaristic pronouncements. Enhanced media coverage was provided.

Thus  the country witnessed  statements attributed to the  then serving army commander Lt.Gen Jagath Jayasuriya in the media. Some of these refuted Gen Sarath Fonseka openly. Even meetings addressed within army premises by the army chief found their way into the media courtesy of the Defence Ministry websites.There was implicit criticism of his predecessor by his successor. This has never happened before within  military portals.

Former Army spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara often exceeded his designated mandate by commenting specifically on matters related to Sarath Fonseka.Apart from this many other high-ranking army officers also began  giving media interviews . Chief among them was Maj-Gen Shavendra Silva.Since Gen.Sarath Fonseka  had referred critically to Shavendra Silva in an interview given to “The Sunday Leader”, Major-General Shavendra Silva  had some reason for defending and clearing himself. Neverthless the practice  was not something desirable in the long run.

Other top brass  army officers like Maj-Gen Kamal Gunaratne, Maj-Gen Chaggi Galage, Maj-Gen Prasanna Silva, Maj-Gen Kapila Hendavitharana  and Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe (later Maj-Gen)  all gave  interviews to the state media. Most of these interviews ostensibly related to military matters and the war against the Tigers but there was no mistaking the patent political sub-text.They were all part of a political agenda aimed at undermining Sarath Fonseka and promoting Mahinda Rajapaksa. This type of brazen politicking by military officers was something unheard of in the not- so- distant past.

 


Gotabhaya Rajapaksa
The conduct of former  Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was  quite controversial in this respect. Despite the fact that he was a top government servant at that time,  the ex- Defence Secretary engaged  in political discourse while addressing public meetings.No ministerial secretary has made direct political speeches before like Gotabhaya in this country. The fact that he was in charge of the all-powerful Defence Ministry that oversaw the Army, Navy, Air Force and Police sent  down wrong signals that defence personnel playing politics was appropriate procedure.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa   also  regularly granted  interviews with political overtones to some of his favourites in the media. He did  not encourage official press conferences where all journalists could  question him openly. He only dished  out interviews  like hand-outs to selected media favourites.The ministry website also went  to town regularly with news items against Fonseka and in favour of Mahinda Rajapaksa.The Defence Ministry and the media centre for national security websites  acquired a notorious reputation  those days for vilifying and attacking people who fell foul of the aregime.

There was  also a concerted effort to bolster Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s image during that time. It looked like a “build-up” of Gotabhaya for political purposes. Even the interviews given by army officers were full of praise for Gotabhaya as a military genius and architect of the victory over the LTTE.There was no denying Gotabhaya’s role in the war victory and  Sarath Fonseka was wrong to claim sole monopoly for the credit,  but the  moves to prop up Gotabhaya were  a naked exhibition of how the defence services in general and the Army in particular were being politicised. After Sarath Fonseka’s downfall there were shameless  exercises to boost Gotabhaya through hagiographies about Gota’s war. This then  was the Rajapaksa legacy that was  aggravated by the Fonseka entry into politics. It is in this context of a politicised military phenomenon under the Rajapaksa regime  that the response of the Maithripala- Ranil Govt to current politico-military issues must be seen. The strong and seemingly disproportionate response to Chagi Gallage’s perceived “misconduct”must be viewed  in this regard. The cleaning up of a highly politicised military  in the current environment amounts to a modern  version of Hercules  cleansing  the Augean stables. Moreover the Govt is saddled with the formidable  mission of implementing the UN resolution it cosponsored without endangering – in public perception – the true war heroes and valiant soldiers. De- politicising the Army and exorcising it of the Rajapaksa spectre is indeed  a challenging task.

In Sri Lanka there has been a tendency  since the days of Independence to politicise almost every sphere of activity. It is indeed  regrettable that the armed forces particularly the Army fell victim to this course of events over the years. While the roles played by political leaders and defence service officers and officials have contributed to this state of affairs ,  the personality factor  alone has not  been the sole culprit.

 


Politicisation of the Military
There  have been  structural changes and systematic developments over the past years that rendered  the concept of the armed forces being immune to politics an  almost impossible task. It  has to  be recognised that the twin processes of ooliticisation of the military and militarisation of society and politics had to a certain extent become inevitable in the past. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, “politics” too  could not  be avoided in certain spheres. But one would  certainly like some spheres at least  to be kept “uncontaminated” by politics in the larger interests of the country. 

The armed services are institutions that should be “de-politicised” for the well-being of the  entire nation. It is imperative that this be done cautiously and carefully so that Sri Lanka would once again have a proudly independent Army devoid of politics or political influence. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government therefore needs to be supported if and when it embarks  with a noble vision on this worthwhile mission. (ENDS)


D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com