Karannagoda report and after

By N. Sathiya Moorthy 

For a government out to put down political protests and staff agitations, to preserve and build on the toddling economy, the Report of the Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda Board of Inquiry, on the lapses by the security forces and intelligence agencies during the unprecedented Aragalaya protests, should come in handy. If taken through the laid-down processes to a logical conclusion, the Court case in the matter can also introduce an element of confidence for the ‘international community’ (read: West) to trust local processes on accountability issues that the UNHRC will be debating one more time, this month.

In its report submitted to the Court of Appeal (CA), the three-member Board of Inquiry, headed by the Admiral revealed that the conduct of the Army Commander Gen. Shavendra Silva (Retd) during the Aragalaya protests, particularly when the homes and businesses of about 80 Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) parliamentarians were set ablaze, is highly questionable. The report specifically stated that the war hero of a General had on several occasions disregarded direct and repeated instructions given to him by then President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was also the Supreme Commander, and also the directives of Defence Secretary, Gen. Kamal Gunaratne (Retd), to protect the State and private property that had been targeted through those ‘days and weeks’.

Sirisena case precedent?

The Report now forms a part of the Court proceedings on petitions filed by some of the affected politicians, including parliamentarians that Gen. Silva and then Inspector General of Police (IGP) had failed in their duties to protect lives and properties, when under attack. The list should in a way include not only the properties of parliamentarians and other politicians but also the private properties of President Gotabaya and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, not to leave out their two brothers, who were ex-ministers.

Topping the list however should be the President’s House, the official residence of the president and also the Presidential Secretariat, both of which were systematically vandalized as if the trespassers were on a holiday there, precisely to do what they did. The worst of them all, in a way, should be the burning down of the private residence of then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, now president, days later. Wickremesinghe went on record that he and his wife escaped with their lives only after one on-duty security personnel alerted him of the imminent danger. It is then safe to presume that the security higher-ups had the very same inputs, hopefully from their intelligence agencies, or through open sources as the arsonists were doing a route-march kind of thing for the social media to record and report.

The moot question is if the Court(s) found the respondent guilty of dereliction of duty, or worse, would they be asked to pay compensation to the petitioners and their class of victims, based on the Supreme Court precedent set in the ‘Easter blasts case’, directing then President Maithripala Sirisena and others to pay up hefty compensation to the victims. Flowing from such a construct would be questionable, if such dereliction of duty could be attributed to President Gotabaya and Defence Secretary Gunaratne as they, in turn, had failed to ensure that the chiefs of the uniformed services under their command did their duties. Of course, the Supreme Commander’s being a ceremonial post, so to say, the culpability, if any, may be, less. It is again for the Courts to decide if approached.

This is so even as the Civil Appellate High Court has dismissed Sirisena’s appeal, challenging the Colombo District Court’s decision to reject his discharge plea related to all those civil lawsuits filed by the victims of the Easter attacks. It is another matter that the High Civil Court dismissed a high number of petitions against then Premier Ranil because as incumbent president he enjoys constitutional immunity – which may go away whenever he demits office.

Command failures

There is of course the larger question: Should the Courts find Gen. Silva and the rest culpable, then would it flow that those from the Security Forces should be court-martialled? Should they and others like police and intelligence personnel be likewise criminally prosecuted? After all, if the Court finds them culpable, then it amounts to ‘rebellion against the State’. If so, it is a much more serious offence than anything that could be imagined after the aborted coup of 1962, involving duty dereliction by the Security Forces Chief(s) at the highest level which, in comparison, the failed coup was much smaller in width, depth and magnitude.

The question thus arises if the Aragalaya protests were as people-centric as has been made out all along, or was a people’s movement hijacked by select left militant groups and parties, or if either or both became possible only because the Security Forces failed in their duties, because of the ‘Command’ failure(s). There may be some substance in the last construct, too, though it needs to be proved.

It is so because after the exit of President Gotabaya and the arrival of President Ranil, attempts to mop up the public mood and sentiments against the incumbent government failed, more than once.  The relatively responsible political Opposition in the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) also withdrew after joining the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-called protests in capital Colombo when they started smelling trouble on the ground.

Maybe, it is the confidence gained from the contents of the Karannagoda Committee Report that President Ranil has gazetted many public services as ‘essential’ under the law, in the wake of the two-day nationwide protests called by the Government Employees’ Union and School Teachers, against increased Tax burden. Whether such knowledge and confidence gained from an understanding of the past performance of the Security Forces Chiefs under near-similar circumstances was a contributing factor in the death of a JVP municipal council candidate in a party-led protest in the capital the other day would be known only when the national Human Rights Commission (HRC) comes up with its report.

Keenly watched

For now, however, any stringent action against Gen. Silva and others in relation to the Aragalaya-related arson and other violence would be keenly watched from Geneva. After all, the decorated General who retired as the Acting Chief of Defence Staff commanded the famed 58th Division during the conclusive Eelam War IV and has been barred entry into a host of nations, precisely for that role.

The question is not that he should be penalized with retrospective effect, using the Aragalaya era failures as a base. Yet, if the existing system were to find him and other leaders of the uniformed services culpable on one count, it could be expected to play fair on all others, too. Again, neither of them should be held as an attestation or counter to the other.

Incidentally, the half-yearly UNHRC session comes at a time when the US, for instance, has acknowledged that the international networks of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are alive and active even the full 13 years after the war’s end and the exit of Prabhakaran and his top commanders.

This is independent of what some pro-LTTE leaders in the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu had to say recently about Prabhakaran being alive and his coming out from hiding before long.

The fact that no one in the Tamil polity and society nearer home has bought that claim should speak volumes. If anything, those like Tamil parliamentarian D. Sitharthan have gone as far as to say that those people claiming that Prabhakaran was alive were trying to make quick money using his name.

All that is saying a lot; and  that too when the Tamil polity nearer home, their Diaspora brethren and their combined international backers are mindlessly demanding the wholesale repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and the government is seeking to replace it with a more acceptable version, now ready to be presented to Parliament.

-N Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and political commentator, based in Chennai, India. He can be contacted on sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com). The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Daily Express/Weekend Express editorial stance



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