President Maithripala Sirisena on Tuesday rejected outright a proposal by a United National Party (UNP) Cabinet Minister to pay “compensation” to Tiger guerrilla “ex combatants” and their “next of kin.”
“I am not going to allow this to be even discussed,” he told last Tuesday’s weekly ministerial meeting. He was alluding to the Cabinet Memorandum forwarded by Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs Minister Deva Manoharan Swaminathan, who recommended the move.
The four-page memorandum was titled “Payment of Enhanced Compensation and other Relief Measures for Deaths and Injuries and those whose properties were damaged due to civil conflict and Implementation of the Compensatory Relief recommended by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission regarding Payment of Compensation to the Ex-Combatants and their Next of Kin.”
Sirisena lamented that Tamil newspapers had blamed him falsely and claimed he (Sirisena) had rejected the recommendation. This was the previous week after the ministers took up the memorandum for discussion but put off the matter for last Tuesday. Such fake reports had wrongly blamed him claiming he was not in favour. This was when no decision had been made.
He was strongly of the view that the matter did not merit discussion at last Tuesday’s cabinet meeting since more such fake reports could emanate. Now, any form of compensation to victims of the separatist war would only be determined by a body that is being set up to deal with reparations to those affected by the separatist war. It came on a suggestion by Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera. In effect, this means that none of Swaminathan’s recommendations, revealed exclusively in these columns last week, would be carried through. Hence, the need for allocation of additional funds or approval of Parliament for them would not be required as claimed in some political quarters.
According to a high ranking government source, both during the previous week as well last Tuesday, two ministers whose fathers’ were assassinated by Tiger guerrilla suicide bombers — Housing and Construction Minister Sajith Premadasa and Plantation Industries Minister Navin Dissanayake — did not make any comments. Former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was then serving, was killed by a male suicide bomber in May 1990. Gamini Dissanayake, a prominent lawyer cum respected UNP politician, a presidential candidate, was killed by a female suicide bomber in October 1994. Also refraining from comments for two successive weeks at the Cabinet was Sarath Fonseka, who as Commander of the Army, led troops for the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas in May 2009.
It is not a decision or a rejection to pay Tiger guerrillas and their next of kin compensation for carrying out a near three decade long separatist war that is a highly worrisome factor. It is the unbelievable but confirmed fact that a UNP Cabinet Minister, with the approval of the leadership, chose it proper to place such a proposal before the Cabinet of Ministers. It is as bizarre as the United States wanting to pay compensation for the ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban or the Pakistani Taliban. Of course the latter are for cross border activity.
Minister Swaminathan’s recommendation to the Cabinet disregards many realities, both local and foreign. It is made worse, when a UNP parliamentarian and not the Minister or his Deputy concerned, is called upon by the leadership to summon a news conference and exhort that there has been no proposal to pay compensation to ex-combatants. The UNP is no doubt deeply embarrassed, but the explanation proffered only worsens what remains of a rapidly evaporating credibility. Like many previous occasions, a denial, the party seems to believe, would mean no such things exist or ever occurred. More on that aspect later.
Why is the payment of compensation so important an issue? Such payment, irrespective of whether the sum is large or small, constitutes an acknowledgement that the separatist campaign of the guerrillas was a legitimate one. With such payment, is the Government not relenting that it was wrong? So would be the many assassinations, bomb explosions, killings of civilians, members of the clergy, and military personnel among others also not confer legitimacy on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Tigers have throughout declared “their thirst is for Eelam,” or a separate homeland. Would such a payment only lead to a lifting of the ban on the LTTE in Sri Lanka? It also remains banned in several countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada and Australia. What would be their position?
In terms of Sri Lankan laws, no citizen is allowed to carry any weapon or ammunition without a valid licence. During different phases of the separatist war, Tiger guerrillas brazenly moved around with not only weapons, but also with mortar launchers, artillery guns, light anti-tank weapons, large stocks of explosives and cannons mounted on Sea Tiger boats among others. The LTTE also had an extensive communications network linking its different bases in the north and east when such use is only authorised with a license to other Sri Lankans. Would rewarding them with “compensation” legitimise all what the LTTE did in this regard?
The other issue is rewarding the next of kin of ‘ex-combatants.’ As explained last week, when the guerrillas dominated the ground in the north, it was the next of kin who received priority when distributing food and medicine in guerrilla-dominated areas. They were dubbed as “Maveerar” or “Great Heroes” families. If indeed there is express mention of the ‘next of kin,’ there is little said about the civilians in the north who resisted the Tiger guerrillas and went through untold sufferings. Some are still in camps for internally displaced persons and others have ended up in South India as refugees. Yet others have lost their valuable belongings including family land. There is no gainsaying that they deserve high priority. However, such numbers are less as against the others and one is not sure why the shift in emphasis in Swaminathan’s memorandum.
The issue assumes even more significance after a Police find in Nedunkerni at pre-dawn Thursday. A team of Odusuddan traffic police officers were at a junction in what was once the heartland of slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Around 4.30 a.m. they stopped a three-wheeler scooter headed from Oddusuddan to Puthukudiyiruppu. They discovered a pressure bomb, a claymore mine, two Tiger guerrilla uniforms and two LTTE flags. The driver and one person in the three-wheeler were arrested whilst a third escaped. However, they later arrested him too. The findings have now become the subject of a Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) inquiry. This was whilst the Army and the Police conducted a cordon and search of the area. Police sources believe the pressure mine and the claymore may have been to target either a military official or a politician. TID detectives were questioning those in custody. Fuelling worries in the intelligence establishment in the north is whether an attempt is being made to unearth buried or hidden military and related items for new operational purposes.
There are a variety of questions they are raising. Among them: Whether there is any link to already identified and neutralised LTTE cadres; the need to identify present leadership; the cells operating not only in the north but other areas too; any political affiliations; sources; methods of funding for these groups; any overseas links for funding and logistics support; whether adequate intelligence coverage for these groups are in place. Ground security, they say, should not be compromised at any cost and a genuine approach should be adopted to neutralise these groups without cover-ups for political purposes. They emphasise that sharing of intelligence among the state players would be an essential pre-requisite to success.
It was only on Wednesday that Defence Secretary Kapila Waidyaratne issued an extraordinary Gazette notification listing the names of 14 wanted persons who are members of the LTTE. They include a Flying Instructor and two members of the now defunct LTTE air wing.
It is in this backdrop that the UNP parliamentarian for Colombo District Mujibur Rahman, a fluent Sinhala orator, called a news conference at Sri Kotha, the UNP headquarters in Pitakotte. “It is not correct to say that the Cabinet Memorandum submitted by Minister Swaminathan was rejected. He has not submitted a memorandum to award compensation to families of LTTE members,” he declared.
Rahman, once the leader of the Aspaya or Horse Party (not registered) was inducted to UNP politics by the then Colombo Central organiser, the late Mohamed Mahroof. He told friends that he had been asked by his leadership to conduct the news conference and “set the record right.” He charged that National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa and some ‘Joint Opposition’ MPs were making “false claims” and trying to “raise communal tensions.” Here is an English translation of the account that appeared in our sister newspaper the Lankadeepa.
“There is a circular which has been issued in 1986 regarding payment of compensation and Swaminathan had sought to ‘increase the amounts.’ It was based on the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission that was appointed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Some of the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) too had been included.
“If Wimal Weerawansa is opposed to the recommendations of the LLRC he should have opposed it at the time. He was silent during that period. Now they are carrying out a campaign asking people not to pay taxes. During Rajapaksa’s time K.P (Kumaran Pathmanathan, LTTE weapons procurer) was with them.
He should have questioned as to why the LTTE members were being fed at that time. Pilliyan and Karuna who were involved in killings were harboured by the Rajapaksa. Karuna was made the Vice President of the SLFP.
“Mahinda Rajapaksa, during the 2005 Presidential elections, gave money to the LTTE. Weerawansa was silent at that time. Weerawansa’s wish is that the LTTE should return. Now they campaign for people not to pay taxes. It is from the taxes that the health, education, Samurdhi payments are made. The public sector is paid salaries from this money. Whether it is the north or the south, it is our children who were drawn to terrorism. Rehabilitating them is our duty.”
At least for the UNP, when it comes to important issues, the easiest way to deflect criticism is by blaming the previous administration. What is lost in the process is the reality that the voters ensconced the UNP into power purely because of the misdemeanours of the previous regime. It is not clear whether Mujibur Rahman was able to discern the contents of Swaminathan’s Cabinet Memorandum or took a defensive posture for political reasons ignoring most of the relevant facts. In fact Rahman waved a copy of Swaminathan’s cabinet memorandum as he spoke at the news conference.
There are several reasons for this. He told the news conference that “some of the recommendations” of the LLRC had been included in Swaminathan’s proposal. That is incorrect. As is clear from the contents of the cabinet memorandum, which appeared in these columns last week, it was hinged only on one recommendation and was silent on 13 others on the same subject. Like the proverbial Sinhala adage Kohede Yanney, Malley Pol (Where are you headed, asks one and the reply “there are coconuts in my bag). Rahman talks about rehabilitation “of our children who were drawn to terrorism.” The issue here is compensation and not rehabilitation. The circular of 1986 is not in dispute and as clearly stated last week, Swaminathan’s Cabinet Memorandum seeks to enhance the amounts involved. At the end of his memorandum, he has made four recommendations. The fourth is “to pay Compensation to all affected persons, without any discrimination, as per the recommendation of the LLRC.”
The one and only LLRC recommendation which Swaminathan quotes also raises some serious questions. A reference once more is inevitable. “A decision has to be taken on compensatory relief for death and injury for those involved with the LTTE. From the broad reconciliatory perspective, the Commission takes the view that in principle, ex-combatants and next of kin should also be considered eligible for compensatory relief. However, the priority of REPIA should be with the affected civilians who are most in need.” The REPIA is the Rehabilitation of Persons, Properties and Industries Authority.
Firstly, the above is not a categorical assertion by the LLRC that compensation should indeed be paid. As is clear, it is an expression of the LLRC’s point of view. This is why the LLRC says that it is looking at a ‘broad reconciliatory perspective” and points out that “the Commission takes the view in principle, that ex-combatants and next of kin should also be considered eligible for compensatory relief.”
That is not all. This is just one element (9.164) on Chapter 7 of the 368 page LLRC report. This Chapter deals with “Observations and Recommendations on Restitution/Compensatory relief” and contains 13 other points. From them, Swaminathan picked only just one to foist his recommendation.
On this Chapter, the most significant point made by the LLRC is (9.166): “In conclusion, the Commission observes that providing compensatory relief cannot be considered in isolation. The specific role of compensatory relief has to be seen against the overall resettlement and development strategy that is being operationalised in the areas that has been the centre of conflict. These include the operation of the basic national welfare services such as health, education, food, water and agriculture, infrastructure, as well as the complementary State programmes such as livelihood development and village development programmes.”
Therefore the claim that it was based on the recommendation of the LRRC is not altogether correct and is grossly misleading. The LLRC report has said that compensatory relief cannot be considered in isolation and other identified issues had to be addressed. The move literally amounts to placing the cart before the horse. And the UNP’s position has been made worse when it called upon an MP to clarify matters when he is quite clearly ignorant of the LLRC recommendations or the deeper nuances related to them. The result – his remarks have cast more doubts in the public mind.
Rahmman’s assertions at the news conference also ran counter to remarks made by media co-spokesperson, Minister Rajitha Senaratne. Here is a Q & A of his weekly news briefing last Wednesday obtained from a tape recording:
Q: Minister Swaminathan’s Cabinet Memorandum proposing compensation to militants from the North was rejected yesterday. Who is behind this Memorandum?
A: He is Minister Swaminathan. He is presenting the memorandum in his capacity as the Minister of Rehabilitation. He is in charge of rehabilitation work in the North. It is the Cabinet which has the power to decide.
Q: Does this Cabinet Memorandum propose to pay compensation to LTTE cadres and families?
A: There are about 10 different categories of persons proposed to be awarded compensation according to the Memorandum. We can remove the reference to LTTE cadres and families to move forward on awarding compensation to others.
Q: But that news has been distorted and published in certain websites, claiming that Cabinet approved to grant compensation to families of LTTE cadres. Does that mean there is a conspiracy within the Government to embarrass it through such false stories?
A: There are media networks that have been prepared for such activities. Money has been pumped into set up some 80 media networks; 40 are to spread racism while the other 40 will spread anti-Government stories. This is being done by those from the Pohottuwa (or the SLPP). We know this and we know where they are operating from. I even have the locations on Google Maps.
Other than compensation for Tiger guerrillas and their next of kin, amidst concerns over recent trends in the north, there were also other political developments.
Joint Committee efforts
The Joint Committee now ensuring the continuance of the ruling coalition met again on Wednesday, this time at the official residence of Minister Mahinda Ameraweera in Colombo. Others representing the SLFP (pro-Sirisena) were Mahinda Samarasinghe, Duminda Dissanayake and Wijith Wijemuni de Soysa. Three other ministers represented the UNP – Mangala Samaraweera, Malik Samarawickrema and Akila Viraj Kariyawasam. The main subject of discussion was fulfilling the pledges made to the public during both the presidential and parliamentary elections. Amid light hearted banter every now and then, talks centred on the murder, assaults and harassment of journalists as well as the death of national rugger player Wasim Thajudeen. This is particularly in view of the setting up of a separate High Court court to hear these and other corruption cases.
Another meeting by the Joint Committee attended both by President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe is to take place next week. Some members of the Joint Committee have also spoken to senior Police officers about expediting outstanding inquiries. Police Chief Pujith Jayasundera who is away in the United States to attend a conference is due in Colombo only later next week.
Pohottuwa’s letter to 16 SLFP members
For the opposition parties, the role of the group of 16 SLFP members who are now sitting in opposition benches was the centre of attention. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) or the Pohottuwa as it is called after its symbol of a lotus bud, has officially written to them to conduct a formal discussion. The return of S.B. Dissanayake, who is now abroad, is being awaited. Copies of the letter have also been sent by ‘JO’ Parliamentary leader Dinesh Gunawardena to G.L. Peiris, the SLPP President and Basil Rajapaksa, the party’s ideologue strategist. The letter thanks the 16 SLFP members for voting in favour of the No-Confidence motion against Premier Wickremesinghe in April and seeks to discern the policies to be adopted by the group.
This meeting is intended to discuss issues over plans by the group, at least by some of them, to join the SLPP and consequently the ‘JO.’ It was only last week that Basil Rajapaksa declared that the 16 SLFPers should make up their mind over whether they would serve the pro-Sirisena SLFP or join the SLPP. He said they could not enjoy the perks from both sides.
A member of the Group of 16, former Minister Chandima Weerakkody told the Sunday Times, “We are already taking part in meetings with a group from the ‘Joint Opposition.’ We are extending our support to that group. We will definitely be extending our support to the group to contest future elections, whether it be under the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) or any other party. However, we will decide to join them only after a decision is taken to contest under the SLPP. Until then we will not do anything to lose our membership in the SLFP. Our main issue is that we cannot continue with the UNP and therefore will extend our full support to defeat the UNP.”
Weerakkody’s remarks make clear the group wants to wait until the presidential and parliamentary elections near for them to decide — a move that would appear unacceptable to the SLPP. The SLPP has already embarked on naming party organisers so it could garner grassroots level support. This will no doubt be a key issue the two sides will discuss.
Barring Dissanayake, almost all members of the group were present at the Nugegoda residence of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa for lunch (Dana) on Wednesday afternoon. Some were seen serving different dishes to members of the Buddhist clergy whilst others were engaged in conversation with the Rajapaksa brothers – Mahinda, Chamal and Basil. A large number of retired military officers were among those present. This was whilst at least one retired high ranking officer kept telephoning many to find out who was undertaking the catering. It was only later that he learnt the food was home cooked. Was he wanting to ask caterers to boycott the event?
The two meetings in the coming week — the UNP-SLFP dialogue with the Joint Committee as well as the Group of 16 with the SLPP will no doubt be significant. At a time when the two sides are set on intensifying their campaigns for the upcoming polls, how the talks will end will sure be a pointer.