A recent compliment offered by former US Ambassador to Colombo Robert. O. Blake Jr. on the management of the intelligence services by former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has drawn the spotlight on to the long and complex relationship between the American diplomat and the American citizen who often dealt with him on behalf of Sri Lanka’s government.
While relationships between diplomats and their expatriate contacts often remain in the shadows, the United States in 2010 fell victim to a security breach that resulted in the unauthorised leaking of over 250,000 sensitive diplomatic communications between American embassies and their governments, including thousands of pages of correspondence between Washington and the US embassy in Colombo, many of which were classified as “secret” and never intended for public consumption.
Former Ambassador Robert O. Blake (Left) with former Navy Commander Wasantha Karanagoda (Right) at the BMICH last week. Karannagoda has been named as a suspect for aiding and abetting the abduction and murder of 11 young by naval personnel in 2008-2009
The trove of documents contains a complete anthology of sensitive meetings and communications between Ambassador Blake and former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, beginning shortly after Blake had presented his credentials to President Mahinda Rajapaksa on September 9, 2006, up until early 2010, when Blake visited Sri Lanka after being promoted to Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia.
The first known meeting of the pair took place five days after Blake presented his credentials, on September 14. The backdrop to the meeting were the escalating hostilities and provocations caused by the LTTE in north and the east, and international efforts to resume peace talks. Blake told the Defence Secretary that the US was committed to “tightening the noose” on the LTTE and bringing them to the negotiating table, referring to arrests by the FBI of LTTE operatives that had just taken place and other American initiatives.
As LTTE hostilities escalated and open warfare resumed, Blake and the US drew closer to the government and defence secretary. The Ambassador was pivotal in placing Washington’s concerns about human rights abuses into the context of an insurgency in which the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka was at stake.
He successfully secured assistance for the Sri Lanka Navy to receive intelligence from the US used to locate and sink LTTE arms smuggling ships, for which the defence secretary was grateful.
A review of diplomatic cables indicates that the relationship began to sour in 2007, when attacks and threats against the media escalated. One message sent by Blake to Washington on February 7, 2007, was titled “surge in violence and intimidation against free media.”
The ambassador listed escalating attacks against the media before warning that “Defense Secretary (and brother of the president) Gotabaya Rajapaksa called for media censorship, the judicial enforcement of criminal defamation and the prosecution of two specific media outlets.”
Blake quoted the defence secretary as saying that “Journalists should not be allowed to write about military matters. Strong action ought to be taken against those who do. We should return to the laws that criminalize defamation in order to punish those who try to murder us,” in reference to media personnel.
Shortly after the May 2008 abduction and torture of Keith Noyahr, whom the CID has revealed was released after Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s direct intervention, Blake was told of a meeting at which the defence secretary had threatened Lake House journalists Poddala Jayantha and Sanath Balasuriya.
As Blake tells it, “The Defense Secretary summoned two media workers from the government-owned publishing house. He reportedly harangued them for over two hours for participating in a rally to protest the abduction and beating of defense journalist Keith Noyahr. The journalists told us that Gotabaya told them that “groups that revere Army Commander Fonseka” would kill them if they persisted in their campaign for media freedom. The Defense Ministry will reportedly seek draconian censorship and criminal defamation legislation to shut down any criticism of the government’s conduct of the war.”
The journalists had told Blake that Rajapaksa insisted to them that “there will be no investigation” of the Keith Noyahr saga. ““Human rights mean nothing. We do not want to be bothered about it while we’re fighting a war. Because of the international campaign, we can’t arrest anyone. But I don’t care; I will do what I want,” Blake quoted Rajapaksa as saying.
Just six months later, the commando attack on the Maharaja Television Station and the daylight assassination of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge led Blake to pen another missive to Washington, titled “Defence secretary escalates threats against media.” The diplomat begins his cable by stating that Gotabaya Rajapaksa “escalated” threats against the media “despite assurances from President Mahinda Rajapaksa to senior editors and journalists that none of them would be harmed.”
“Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, gave a rambling interview in which he accused the MTV television network of connections to the Tamil Tigers and put forward a bizarre theory that the TV station had conducted the attack on itself to collect insurance money. He accused MTV station manager Chevaan Daniel, who had given an interview to CNN about the incident, of being a terrorist.”
“He accused MTV/Sirasa of spreading false news reports. The Defense Secretary said that there was no need for the government to engage in such “low acts” as the attack on MTV/Sirasa,” Blake relates.
“What does the government, president, the army commander or I stand to gain from this?” he quotes Rajapaksa as saying.
“Investigations have revealed that Sirasa did this to themselves. We will reveal this in the future… Sirasa has a motive to set fire to themselves. The reason is Sirasa is the voice of the Tigers. Sirasa was the organization that represented the LTTE in Colombo. Now they need sympathy.”
Blake posited that Rajapaksa’s “pique seemed to stem from an interview by phone Daniel had given to CNN on the attack.” The Defence Secretary is quoted by Blake as saying, “I will put the man who spoke to CNN in prison.” Blake and the US Embassy had then spoken with several government officials seeking an assurance that Daniel would not be harmed.
One of the officials he spoke to was then Tourism Minister Milinda Moragoda, Blake recalled. “Moragoda subsequently reported back to Ambassador that he had spoken to the Defense Secretary. Moragoda confirmed that while no arrest warrant had been issued, he was still working to persuade the Defense Secretary not to arrest Daniel,” Blake wrote.
The same lengthy cable also reports that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had threatened a Reuters reporter over an article written about the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge.
“Reuters Colombo Bureau Chief Bryson Hull told Ambassador on January 15 of his concerns about recent Government of Sri Lanka interventions against him and Reuters. According to Hull, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa called him on January 10 to express displeasure with an article that appeared in the International Herald Tribune sourced to Hull’s Reuters filings.”
“The story reported that Gotabaya had filed a lawsuit against slain journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge prior to his assassination – a fact that had been widely reported in the Sri Lankan press. In the phone conversation, Gotabaya threatened to sue Reuters, expel Hull from the country and ensure that Reuters would never again be allowed to operate in Sri Lanka, Hull recounted. In response, despite the information in the public record, Reuters issued a correction that removed any specific reference to Gotabaya.”
Blake said Hull had feared for the safety of his wife and infant child and made arrangements for them to take shelter in the US Embassy in Colombo. Blake had agreed to these arrangements but warned the journalist that “the U.S. could not be in the position of obstructing legal proceedings if charges had been filed” if Rajapaksa’s defence ministry filed charges against his wife or infant child.
The ambassador also recounted in the cable a conversation that took place at a memorial service for the recently killed Lasantha Wickrematunge. A senior journalist had confided in Blake that she had broached the topic of shadowy groups in the defence ministry with President Mahinda Rajapaksa. “The President conceded to the editor that such groups exist, and that he does not have power over them,” Blake reported.
In another cable sent by Blake a few days later in January 2009, he related that Lasantha Wickrematunge “had compelling evidence” implicating then Army Commander Sarath Fonseka and Gotabaya Rajapaksa “in a number of serious human rights violations.”
“These allegedly were carried out by special units of military intelligence under the direction of Chief of National Intelligence Kapila Hendawitharana. Wickrematunga had planned to publish some of this material in the January 11 edition of the Sunday Leader,” Blake reported.
Eerily, the CID has told the Mount Lavinia Magistrates Court that a similar sounding unit, the Tripoli Platoon of the Directorate of Military Intelligence, which was operated through the Ministry of Defence by Hendawitharana, is complicit in the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge. The CID have produced seven members of the platoon and a former Director of Military Intelligence, General Amal Karunasekara, for alleged complicity in the abduction and assault of journalist Keith Noyahr and have also accused the group of playing a role in the attack on journalist Upali Tennakoon.
Shortly after Blake’s tenure in Sri Lanka ended and he left the country in May 2009 to assume his new role as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, the division of the US state department that supervised Sri Lankan relations, attacks on the media escalated, resulting in the Deputy Chief of Mission sending another missive to Washington, including to Blake, on June 5, 2009, titled “More threats and attacks on journalists.”
The cable listed the abduction and torture of Lake House journalist Poddala Jayantha, the arrest of Lanka-e-News editor Sanduruwan Senadheera, and death threats received by several other journalists.
A few months later, on November 25, 2009, the embassy sent an urgent request to the US State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, seeking refugee status for Poddala Jayantha. The cable recalled the May 2008 incident in which Jayantha had been threatened with death by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and his subsequent abduction and assault a year later.
Blake met with Rajapaksa on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, according to a September 2009 cable. At this meeting, Rajapaksa told the Assistant Secretary of his personal commitment to building relations with the US, alluding to his own American citizenship as he pointed to “strong personal connections between the United States and his country’s leadership.”
As the country shifted into Presidential Election mode in December 2009, the US noted a darkened culture of media intimidation. Blake returned in person to Sri Lanka where he met one-on-one with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a meeting memorialised in a December 22, 2009 cable.
Rajapaksa had expressed interest in Sri Lanka participating in international peacekeeping missions and otherwise cooperating with the American military. “Blake raised the possibility of Sri Lanka contributing to U.S.-led coalition operations in Afghanistan, noting that would be a significant step in support of improving military-to-military engagement.”
Gotabaya Rajapaksa had replied that Sri Lanka “would have to consider seriously the implications for its Muslim minority” and that he was unhappy about “drawing the ire” of extremist Muslim groups.
Then, a few days after the January 2010 Presidential Election, Robert Blake, now based in Washington DC, summoned Sri Lankan Embassy official Tissa Wijeratne and spoke sharply about the political and media intimidation that followed the election.
“Blake told the CDA that media in Sri Lanka are feeling under greater threat since the election. He noted the January 24 disappearance of Lankaenews analyst (and government critic) Prageeth Eknaligoda, which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told our Ambassador is being investigated. He pointed to reports that military personnel and paramilitary forces surrounded the offices of certain independent media outlets. Such actions have an intimidating effect on the media and are of serious concern to us, Blake underlined. Media freedom and the protection of human rights, stressed Blake, are key elements of national reconciliation.”
Eknaligoda was never found, and several Military Intelligence officers including Col. Shammi Kumararatne have been charged with his abduction and murder stemming from a cartoon book he had allegedly written criticising former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family.
Shortly thereafter, Rajapaksa summoned a US diplomat to a meeting where he had declared that people considered loyal to defeated candidate Sarath Fonseka, as well as the candidate himself, were likely to be arrested for their role in “plotting violence”.
Rajapaksa said that he had had “several conversations with UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe” who had allegedly distanced himself from any plans to plot violence. “I don’t know anything about that. That’s all Fonseka and the JVP,” Rajapaksa quoted the UNP leader as saying. The Defence Secretary had said that Wickremasinghe “was very reasonable, a professional politician.”
“Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not known as a moderate voice,” the cable states. “His promise of more military purges to come was ominous.”
Nine years later, Blake returned to Sri Lanka last week to address a conference of the Pathfinder Foundation. Here, he praised Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s handling and coordination of the various Sri Lankan intelligence services and suggested that the current government should take a page out of the former secretary’s book.
The remark stunned many who knew of Blake’s unique familiarity with how the intelligence services were abused during Rajapaksa’s tenure to abduct, torture and murder journalists and human rights advocates under the cover of the war against the LTTE.
During his lecture in Colombo last week, Blake also singled out the Sri Lanka Navy and stated that the Navy was not implicated in human rights violations unlike other branches of Sri Lanka’s police and military. Over a dozen Naval Intelligence officers have been arrested and charged by the CID not with a politically motivated attack on journalists, but with running an abduction for ransom racket that resulted in the disappearance and suspected murder of 11 young men shortly before the end of the war in 2009.
To punctuate the irony, Blake accepted a gift of a book from former Navy Commander Wasantha Karannagoda, who earlier this year was named as a suspect in the abduction-for-ransom racket and is personally accused of complicity by the CID in the suspected murder of the 11 youth. A UPFA cabinet minister and several senior navy officers have provided evidence to the CID implicating the former commander, who petitioned the Supreme Court to secure an undertaking preventing his arrest.
Robert Blake is now a Senior Director at the private lobbying and influence firm McLarty Associates, where he heads the “India and South Asia” practice based out of Indonesia.