Fonseka’s claim on hit squads

M S M Ayub (Daily Mirror)

Gotabaya denies existence of any hit squads during his tenure as the Defence Secretary 

  • Mano Ganesan speaking at a function in Colombo told that he had a list of 551 persons who had been abducted
  • Secret units independent of the army command structure\
  • He seems to think that the people, especially the journalists have totally forgotten the relationship between him and the media
  • One has to collate and compare the claims made by both the topmost officers

The debate during the last lap of the war between the Army Commander, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and the Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa during the same period over the death squads allegedly used against many including journalists seems to be a mere coincidence with the ongoing United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions. 

However, the demonstration in the North over the disappearances of people at a time when the UNHRC was at sessions in Geneva is not accidental.  

Tamil organizations here as well as abroad and the interested parties such as the Britain’s Channel 4 usually launch their demonstrations and issuing of new documentary films in a manner that they would coincide with the UNHRC sessions, especially the March sessions, in order to draw the attention of the leaders of the world’s human rights body and the countries interested in the matter.  

Joining the debate between the two war veterans who spearheaded the successful military campaign against the dreaded LTTE, Mano Ganesan, the Minster of National Coexistence, Dialogue and Official Languages while speaking at a function at Kathiresan Street in Colombo revealed that he had a list of 551 persons who had been abducted during the tenure of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the Defence Secretary. The newspapers had quoted Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spokesman and Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthirana saying that Gotabaya Rajapaksa could not absolve himself from the responsibility for the disappearance of people during his service period. Newspapers had also quoted Deputy Minister Sujeeva Senasinghe  accusing the Rajapaksa’s of the same.  

Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka had told the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) that there had been a special unit under the former military intelligence chief Kapila Hendavitharana to attack the media during the time when Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga was killed. He had stated that the special unit took orders from the Defence Secretary. He had also stated that he was unaware about the security situation in the Colombo Division because that was a subject assigned to Major General Ajith Perera. According to Fonseka the special unit that attacked the journalists and other dissidents was outside of his authority and was controlled by Rajapaksa through Hendaviharana.  

While denying the existence of a special unit for targeting journalists as stated by the former army commander, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had responded that it was Fonseka who should answer for excesses committed by the troops that were under his orders and questioned what actions the latter took if he knew that there were hit squads.  

It must be noted that the former Army Commander said about the existence of an army hit squad at a time when so many army personnel had been arrested over attacks on journalists and another former army officer had allegedly committed suicide after claiming responsibility for the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga. So far a number of army personnel, almost all of them attached to the army intelligence unit, had been apprehended by the CID for the killing of Wickramatunga, disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda and attacks on senior journalist Keith Noyarh and Rivira Editor Upali Tennakoon who worked earlier as the Editor of Divaina as well.   

Gotabaya denies the existence of any hit squads during his tenure as the Defence Secretary. But nobody can deny the occurrence of the incidents mentioned above as well as the attack on senior journalist and activist Poddala Jayantha during the Rajapaksa rule. Sirasa studio in Pannipitiya was burnt and Siyatha office was also attacked then. Udayan newspaper office in Jaffna came under attack several times. So many Tamil journalists were killed during this period. Many journalists left the country due to the threats to their lives during the same period. These were not fiction, but facts.   

One may argue that just because these incidents took place during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure in which Gotabaya was so powerful that he was second only to the President, they cannot be held responsible for them. Yes, for an argument’s sake it is true. But the question remains as to why the then government failed to bring the culprits of at least one of these cases to book, whereas almost all arrests were made in respect of these incidents just months after the regime change in January 2015.   

Keith was assaulted as far back as 2008, Lasantha was killed in 2009, but nobody was arrested until the regime change. Sri Lankan police are not so weak or lack capacity. The best case in point was the arrest of the mastermind of the attack on the Joint Operations Command (JOC) in Colombo on June 21, 1991 from a hideout in Talawakelle just within 24 hours using a clue of a chassis number of the lorry that had gone to the hands of several people before it was taken over by the LTTE.   

One from the Rajapaksa camp might again argue that it is the police that investigate into such incidents and arrest people and the government cannot be held responsible for their actions. But the people from the same camp accuse the current government leaders for arresting “war heroes” for these incidents and “patriotic politicians” for voicing against the government. The argument – it is the police who arrest people not the government – should be applicable to both situations. 

Therefore, the then government and the Defence Secretary cannot wash their hands off completely by refusing at least to take the moral responsibility for these attacks against journalists.  

On the other hand, Fonseka might be correct when he said that there had been secret units independent of the army command structure. But his claim that he, the army commander who was at war with an enemy who had spread his tentacles even into the heart of Colombo was unaware of the security situation in the Capital city is interesting. He seems to think that the people, especially the journalists have totally forgotten the relationship between him and the media during the last lap of the war. There had been several demonstrations in Colombo during the Rajapaksa regime by the journalists against the attacks on their colleagues during which slogans were shouted against the army commander as well. Responding to these slogans Gotabaya warned the journalists for accusing “his commander”. Fonseka even called some journalists “traitors.”   

However, Fonseka’s claim that there had been hit squads must be taken seriously and if proven true he must be commended for disclosing it. However, one has to collate and compare the claims made by both the topmost officers of the defence establishment during the war to get a clear picture of the situation that threatened the journalists during the last regime.