Implicating war heroes in coup conspiracies, assassination plots and contrived misdemeanours for political reasons undermines the health of Sri Lanka’s military
With no effective Government in Sri Lanka after the soft coup by President Maithripala Sirisena on October 26, a floor test for the two prime ministerial claimants scheduled on November 14, and an insecure President presiding over the shambles, is it surprising that the Colombo Fort Magistrate Ranga Dissanayaka has ordered the arrest of the country’s top military officer, Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne before November 9. This is not the first time such a remand has been ordered — it was twice earlier too including once when CDS was in Mexico, though Sirisena intervened as Defence Minister and Commander-in-Chief to close the case after Wijegunaratne’s statement had been recorded. Apparently, the case did not close.
There is no National Security Advisor (NSA) in Sri Lanka, only a CDS, appointed under an Act approved in Parliament two years ago. It is suspected that the old regime is behind the plot to oust Wijegunaratne. The court has alleged that the Admiral had protected one Lt Commander Prasad Hettiarachchi, who is the main suspect in killing of 11 Tamil youths between 2008-09.
The officer has been playing truant — caught in March 2017 and escaped in June 2018. According to reports, there is little substance in the alleged charge given there are some 572 Lt Commanders in the Navy across the country and monitoring their movements is not easy. Front page allegations and arrest orders against the CDS are not good for the morale of the Sri Lankan armed forces.
The case highlights how divisive domestic politics can undermine military stature in a country where many senior officers are committed to one or the other party. Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s (SLFP) Sirisena is thought to have appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister mainly because the name of Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, a UNP Minister in the National Unity Government (NUG) of Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe, had figured in a CID enquiry in an alleged plot to assassinate Sirisena and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s younger brother. In the 2015 presidential elections, Sirisena had accused his rival Mahinda of trying to kill him. And now he has made him Prime Minister.
Fonseka has been through this charade before. On February 8, 2010, he was detained, court-martialed, stripped off General rank and jailed. As a former Army Chief, he had dared to contest the presidential election against Mahinda Rajapaksa, which he lost. He was charged with plotting to assassinate Rajapaksa and allegations of attempting a coup with help of India/R&AW were also hurled against him. Despite being one of the pivotal players in the extermination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), he was disgraced, the main driver for this being his arch rival in the Army, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The Army was divided between Gotabhaya’s people and Fonseka supporters and also along party lines.
Alongside Fonseka’s sacking, 30 officers were cashiered, including five Major Generals and two Brigadiers. One of the sacked Generals is the present Army Chief, General Mahesh Senanayake, who had left for Dubai and later worked in Afghanistan. During the civil war, he excelled as a security force commander in Jaffna. Though he was an Engineer officer, he outdid himself in the Special Forces. He is a tough, no-nonsense military leader who was on wrong side of the fence.
After Rajapaksa was defeated in 2015, Sirisena reinstated Fonseka and promoted him as Field Marshal and made him a minister. The political victimization of Fonseka supporters was rectified to some extent by the reinstatement five years on of Senanayaka as Army Chief. On taking over as President on January 8, 2015, Sirisena announced that he would investigate the alleged coup plot by Rajapaksa after the latter had lost the election.
It is said that Rajapaksa tried to get Army and police chiefs to help him stay in power but they did not oblige; Rajapaksa’s days were over. Not that the Army had not toyed with plots and coups earlier. In 1962, was the famous Colonels’ Coup at midnight January 27 against Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. At the time, the officer corps was majority Christians, Tamils and Burghers. The Sinhalese push in the composition of the officer corps by Bandaranaike triggered off the abortive coup.
Yoshita Rajapaksa, son of Mahinda Rajapaksa was commissioned in the Sri Lankan Navy a decade ago and he was trained in Dartmouth, UK. His maternal grandfather was Captain EP Wickremesinghe, winner of Burma Cross in World War II for ferrying logistics along the Irrawaddy river. The Captain never made it to Commander of the Navy, who at the time was a Commodore, because he was a Catholic and victim of the 1962 coup. What his grandfather was deprived of, the family, especially his mother Shiranthi, hoped Yoshita would achieve — Commander of Navy. At Dartmouth, he was pampered as son of a head of state and grandson of a Burma Cross winner. As a shareholder of a television company he was allegedly investigated by Financial Crime Department and suspended from the Navy.
Bandaranaike’s unwritten law was that only Sinhala Buddhists would be made commanders of the three armed services. Many officers were obliged to change their religion. Recently, a Tamil Christian became a Navy commander but only for two months. The 1966 coup followed Bandaranaike’s defeat in elections when her successor Dudley Senanayake began to undo pro-Sinhala reforms of his predecessor. The Army Commander was arrested but later acquitted by court.
The suspension of legendary then Maj Denzil Kobbekaduwa, who later became Lieutenant General and a war hero and was sent to Royal College of Defence Studies, London by one Government, recalled by another Government and sent back again, was to become LTTE’s nemesis. But Prabhakaran got him on a landmine when he was planning a big operation against the LTTE.
After these two abortive coups, the Government created the Special Branch of the Ceylon Police to obtain early warning of uprisings and insurrections. Unfortunately, on returning to power in 1970, Bandaranaike dismantled the organization resulting in her Government being surprised by the JVP revolt in 1971, in suppressing which the Indian Army played a significant role.
Sri Lanka’s military has been transformed under the dynamic leadership of the likes of Fonseka, Senanayake and Wijegunaratne from a ‘funk’ force to an elite war-winning machine which destroyed the invincible Prabhakaran-led LTTE. In the year 2000, I did a study of the military after its debacle at Elephant Pass and discovered how brittle it was. Implicating war heroes in coup conspiracies, assassination plots and contrived misdemeanours for political compulsions will certainly undermine the health of Sri Lanka’s military.
(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the revamped Integrated Defence Staff)