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Sri Lanka: A tragic lesson in revenge politics


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Upon assuming the Presidency Rajapaksa made ending the conflict with the fierce rebel group (the LTTE, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) his top priority. The new President put his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa in charge of the Defense Ministry, and his mission was singular: put an end to the 30-year-horror once and for all

 

 

By Stephen Long

asiantribune.com: My relationship with the island nation of Sri Lanka began over twenty years ago. At that time, it was engaged in a bloody 30-year civil war that eventually claimed the lives of an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people. A deadly tsunami had devastated the country on Dec. 26, 2004, and on November 19, 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected to the first term of his presidency. From his predecessor, Chandrika Kumaratunga, a lady of questionable ethics, Rajapaksa inherited a country in chaos; it was rife with political corruption, racial, cultural, and religious conflicts, as well as poverty and social turmoil. The beleaguered natives were weary of hardship and death, of the seemingly endless war, of being left behind by economic development, and of living in constant fear that a suicide bomber might suddenly appear and blow them to bits.

Upon assuming the presidency Rajapaksa made ending the conflict with the fierce rebel group (the LTTE, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) his top priority. To do so he recruited his brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a 20-year veteran of the Sri Lankan army, and at the time a citizen of the United States and an experienced computer engineer. The new President put Gotabaya in charge of the Defense Ministry, and his mission was singular: put an end to the 30-year-horror once and for all.

Gotabaya’s decisive leadership 

With the precision of a skilled strategist, Gotabaya decisively defeated the LTTE. With limited resources, the military intelligence network he put together to keep track of the terrorists was second to none; he literally had the country “wired” for real-time information-collecting and feedback to authorities. The mental concentration he focused on completing his mission was driven by an unwavering intention to get the job done as required. At the time, he cared little for sparing the feelings of his and his President brother’s legion of opponents, who were merciless in their criticisms; he was often chastised for his brusque and sometimes curt manner. His task of ending the war and rebuilding the country occupied his mind 24/7, and he had no time or inclination to indulge in the pettiness of politics. His critics were often offended, and they bided their time for revenge.

 

With the precision of a skilled strategist, Gotabaya decisively defeated the LTTE. With limited resources, the military intelligence network he put together to keep track of the terrorists was second to none; he literally had the country “wired” for real-time information-collecting and feedback to authorities. The mental concentration he focused on completing his mission was driven by an unwavering intention to get the job done as required

 



The LTTE was finally and officially crushed in May of 2009. 

I was in Sri Lanka during the last few weeks of the war, and had the opportunity to interact with Gotabaya personally on at least two occasions: once in his office in the Defense Ministry, and once in his home for breakfast. I will never forget the armed guards and heavy security that surrounded his house, which had been transformed into a fortress; he was, after all, the top target for LTTE assassins who repeatedly plotted to kill him. I experienced first-hand the intensity of Gotabaya’s unrelenting commitment to protecting his country from the terrorists, and I commended him for his “public opinion be damned” attitude, which allowed him to focus all his energy into accomplishing the goal of a complete military victory.

When the war was finally over, among other things, the President put Gotabaya in charge of beautifying and modernising Colombo, Sri Lanka’s decaying capital city. Thirty years of neglect had left it in near-ruin, and Gotabaya’s often draconian methods quickly whipped it into shape. I was shocked to see landscaped roads, newly-constructed buildings, and cleaned-up canals when I returned for my next visit a couple of years later. It was obvious to me that Gotabaya’s military and organisation skills were still being put to good use.

Tenuous coalition in power

President Rajapaksa’s Health Minister, Maithripala Sirisena, after a private dinner with the unsuspecting President the night before, suddenly declared his candidacy to unseat Rajapaksa the following day. After winning a bitter election, Sirisena put together a tenuous coalition Government that included some of the most disparate political parties in the land (primarily those of ethnic Tamils and Muslims), and the UNP party, which was led by Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Wickremesinghe is historically a man of dubious character, unmitigated ambition, and a deceitful (some say traitorous) past, that includes a notorious illegal bond scheme involving the Central Bank that wound up costing the country billions. 

Sirisena named Ranil Prime Minister, and it didn’t take long for a vicious feud between the two men to begin. This feud soon escalated into total warfare, which continues to this day to have disastrous effects on the business of governing the fragile country. 

The situation went from bad to worse, and in late 2018 Sirisena fired Ranil and tried to remove him from his post as Prime Minister. This confrontation precipitated a constitutional crisis, and after a season of bitter rancour Ranil was reinstated by the Supreme Court. He and Sirisena are now sworn enemies who no longer communicate with civility.

Revenge politics in the court of public opinion

Rewind to 2015 and the Rajapaksas, including Mahinda, Gotabaya, brother Basil, and others, were suddenly out of power, but not without influence and a considerable loyal following. The new President Sirisena and his Prime Minister, Ranil, immediately went to work to discredit, slander, investigate, torment, and punish them for alleged “crimes.” Revenge became the name of the game, and putting the Rajapaksa brothers in jail trumped everything else – including public policy, economic reform, national security, and maintaining the fractious peace that finally prevailed in the land.

Soon after coming to power, Ranil had several members of Gotabaya’s intelligence network put in jail – thanks to pressure from the United Nations Human Rights Commission. The UN was convinced that war crimes had been committed by Gotabaya and his soldiers at the end of the war, and a public relations campaign against the Rajapaksas was escalated to sway global opinion against them. Members of the Tamil diaspora from around the world raised millions of dollars to defame Gotabaya and his brothers, and they even hired a former US Attorney, Bruce Fein (for a reputed $100,000 per month), now a DC lobbyist, to be their front man. Fein falsely claimed that the Rajapaksas had carried out genocide against the Tamil population in Sri Lanka, and he called for Gotabaya’s head. Fein and I traded barbs in a number of articles that were published in the international media during that time.

The Sri Lankan Government had virtually no defences in the court of world opinion. Their focus during the war was ending it, and I personally told the Rajapaksas that they were getting killed in the international press and needed to take action. Unfortunately, they had little understanding of the mechanics of media “spin,” and there was no one qualified in their Government who could create and administer a PR campaign that countered the barrage of unfounded and libellous allegations they faced. They also had no money in their budget to hire a seasoned outside firm to manage their image, and the Rajapaksas – and the country of Sri Lanka – are still paying a steep price for the omission.

While the President, Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, and many Members of Parliament were obsessed by seeking revenge on the Rajapaksas, the Government and general population was lulled into a false sense of security in regards to thinking that everything was safe and secure in the island country. After all, the war is over and the terrorists are gone. Nothing, however, could have been further from the truth

 



Misinformation, biased sources, and public persecution

Information that flowed to the UN and governments in the West often came from biased sources, and a few of the NGO’s operating in Sri Lanka at the time were openly rooting for the LTTE and condemning the Rajapaksa regime. As an example of misinformation, the US Embassy in Colombo has traditionally been staffed by well-educated Tamil professionals; this had been the practice for many years, and jobs are often passed down from one generation to the next. These employees of the embassy seemed to “slant” the information they provided our Ambassadors, and news of nefarious Rajapaksa “crimes” proliferated. Our Ambassadors fed the information they received from their staff on up through the chain in the State Department, and this same information eventually made its way into the media, to the Tamil Diaspora websites, and to the UNHRC in Geneva.

In addition to putting several members of the Rajapaksa intelligence community in prison, Ranil also created a special police task force for intelligence called the Financial Crimes Investigation Department. This unit was created specifically to persecute the Rajapaksas and anyone associated with their government. Inspectors from this unit even came to the US to interrogate US dual citizens – including a former Sri Lankan Ambassador in Washington DC, and a former Sri Lankan Consul General in Los Angeles. I know both of these individuals personally, and both have shared their harrowing stories with me; in several cases, investigations are on-going, and the motivation is still nothing but blatant cold revenge.

In addition, the coalition Government of Sirisena and Wickremesinghe got the Sri Lankan Parliament to pass a bill that created a special court that had three judges. The court was established solely to bring Gotabaya and other selected members of the Rajapaksa regime to trial. This court has even gone to the US, where it chased Gotabaya with subpoenas for financial crimes, and one inspired individual has launched a lawsuit for alleged acts of POW torture during the war. By the way, the guy suing Gotabaya for torture, Roy Manojkumar Samathanan, is a naturalised Canadian Tamil. After being convicted of terrorism, procuring weapons for the LTTE, and setting up an LTTE propaganda TV station in the Jaffna peninsula, Samathanan sought refugee status in Canada where he continues to make noise about the Rajapaksas; he even has the nerve to currently be seeking monetary compensation from the Sri Lankan Government for his alleged suffering.

A tragic outcome on Easter Sunday

Back to the point of this article: the tragic outcome of revenge politics in Sri Lanka. While the President, Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, and many Members of Parliament were obsessed by seeking revenge on the Rajapaksas, the Government and general population was lulled into a false sense of security in regards to thinking that everything was safe and secure in the island country. After all, the war is over and the terrorists are gone. Nothing, however, could have been further from the truth.

The Rajapaksa Government, at Gotabaya’s insistence, held weekly intelligence briefings that top leaders had to attend. This practice was immediately discontinued when Sirisena and Ranil took power, and the intelligence officers were commissioned to go out and find dirt on the Rajapaksa brothers, rather than to continue to gather and channel critical information regarding national security.

No one was watching as Muslim extremists and their groups – many of whom were funded by the Saudi government – began making a foothold in the island nation. (The Saudis, for example, are currently providing the funds for educational facilities and an additional 400 new mosques, fifty of which are in Kandy, the picturesque lakeside city in the hills.) Extremist Wahhabist ideology, vigorously exported from Saudi Arabia, began permeating throughout the Muslim community, and ISIS itself eventually began recruiting followers and “educating” new converts. Members of the Government’s intelligence community took note of some of these happenings, but they were sometimes ridiculed by those in power for raising red flags; they were criticised for saying that apparent threats were growing; hence, they were less than willing to put themselves on the line with further warnings if they were only going to be ignored, disparaged, or punished for doing so.

Warnings gone unheeded

No one listened in 2017 when the Turkish Ambassador to Sri Lanka handed over a list of fifty known terrorists from the Gulenist Terror Group (FETO) who had been trained in Turkey and were sent to Sri Lanka to plan terrorist events and recruit more terrorists. This list was given to the Sri Lankan State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wasantha Senanayake, who passed it on to high-ranking officials at both the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry. Neither Ministry took any action because of the “interventions of two (unnamed) politicians,” and because no one wanted to make trouble with the powerful Middle East governments and get blow-back from the local Sri Lankan Muslim community.

No one was paying attention when arms and explosives were being stockpiled in the Eastern Province home town of the Easter attacks’ mastermind and leader, Zahran Hashim. On 26 April his home and others in the vicinity were raided by the police and a massive number of weapons and explosive devices were discovered; Hashim’s parents and others blew themselves up in the process.

No one paid attention to the early warnings – one of which was issued by the island’s Police Intelligence Unit – that sounded the alarm about a possible terrorist attack ten days before it happened. Only a few politicians belonging to the ruling party were informed of the warning, but not even the leader of the Opposition. No one did anything. Another warning was given by the Indian Government’s intelligence unit – that terrorist plots were being hatched, and events were scheduled for Easter Sunday morning. Indian officers provided the Sri Lankan authorities with Zahran Hashim’s name, and even tipped off the Government that a terrorist attack was imminent, and could occur within hours. No one paid attention. No action was taken. Everyone was too busy chasing down new leads on the Rajapaksa brothers’ alleged crimes. After all, political enemies must pay, right?

 

The Sri Lankan Government had virtually no defences in the court of world opinion. Their focus during the war was ending it, and I personally told the Rajapaksas that they were getting killed in the international press and needed to take action. Unfortunately, they had little understanding of the mechanics of media “spin,” and there was no one qualified in their Government who could create and administer a PR campaign that countered the barrage of unfounded and libellous allegations they faced

 



Lessons for Washington

If any of this sounds familiar, it should. Our current administration in Washington DC has taken its eye off of terrorism, and it continues to be obsessed with, among other things, prosecuting Hillary Clinton for non-existent crimes, and rolling back Obama-era environmental and financial protection laws. Political revenge rules the day in our nation’s capital, and I’m sure I’m not the only one concerned about the possibility that our intelligence officers might be asleep at the switch – or be caught off guard while down there building “The Wall.” The Trump administration doesn’t even acknowledge that white supremacists pose the biggest terrorist threat to us all; it’s much more important to chase after those horrible democrats who want so-called “open borders,” socialism, and health care for everyone.

Let’s hope that Washington learns a lesson from the tragic events in Sri Lanka on Easter morning, and soon realises that revenge politics doesn’t pay. The lives of innocent people can be lost, and the cycle of revenge will never end.


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