Political Editor, Sunday Times, 7 July 2019,where the title is “Inside story of how Sri Lanka fell into the ACSA-SOFA trap”
Amid mounting opposition, President should appoint expert probe team to identify weakness in the national security system
Despite denials and clarifications by the US, the two deals give America a major footprint in Sri Lanka
With little or no prospect of contesting presidential election, Sirisena may settle for a portfolio close to his heart
Opposition is mounting over the two defence related agreements between Sri Lanka and the United States, one already signed and another now pending.The first is the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA). For almost two years it was not tabled before Parliament. Nor was there a government statement explaining the contents, on a matter of such national importance to Sri Lankans.
The Sunday Times is able to reveal today that the genial former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Atul Keshap, directed his staff [to make sure that] that there would be no media coverage or any publicity regarding the signing event. This was why there was no news release from the US Embassy in Colombo. Keshap signed on behalf of the US Department of Defence. Even for the US, therefore, the matter was one of utmost secrecy.
Signing for Sri Lanka was the then Defence Secretary Kapila Waidyaratne, a former Additional Solicitor General. He explained that he had been compelled to sign the document since the minutes of a Cabinet meeting said that the draft ACSA had been approved. He was thus implementing a Cabinet decision and was unaware of the other events. His predecessor, Engineer Karunasena Hettiaratchchi, negotiated the ACSA but was forced to rush it through the Cabinet, even before all armed forces commanders could send in their observations. This, he said, was due to pressure from the then Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera and former Foreign Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam.
The dubious credit for ‘smuggling’ the ACSA through the Cabinet goes to former Foreign Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam. President Sirisena learnt from Engineer Hettiaratchchi, now at the end of his term in Germany as Ambassador, that Kariyawasam had asked him to rush it through. This came to light when President Sirisena checked with Ambassador Kariyawasam after the Sunday Times disclosures.
The seven-page ACSA signed on March 5, 2007 also came under difficult circumstances. During that time, the United States had banned the sale of war like items to Sri Lanka. As a result, the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) could not use its US built C-130 Hercules troop transport aircraft or the Israeli built Kfir fighter jets. Israel, a strong US ally, followed Washington’s policy. Thus, the C-130 and the fighter jets were grounded for lack of spares. There was an instance when the SLAF had to turn to Pakistan to borrow spares to make them airborne. This became necessary for the fly past during the national day ceremonies. Thereafter, these parts were returned. However, the US did assure support after the ACSA was signed and they were forthcoming.
Another issue that surfaced then was that the signing was done by Robert O’Blake, the then US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Both were US nationals. However, it was pointed out that Gotabaya Rajapaksa held dual citizenship including Sri Lankan. This ACSA was only eight pages including the cover. It did not contain voluminous annexes giving the names and addresses of almost all US military establishments that could have a foot print or boots on the ground in Sri Lanka.
The other is the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) whose contents were revealed exclusively in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) last week. First to an unusual development: As is well known, President Maithripala Sirisena has directed that Sri Lanka should not sign the SOFA. He said so to Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana who was then in Washington DC talking on the subject with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other US officials.
This position was re-iterated by State Minister for Defence, Ruwan Wijewardene on Thursday. “No agreement which is not favourable and which has consequences to national security will be signed. If any agreement was to be signed, the President’s advice as Minister of Defence would be sought and signed thereafter by the Defence Secretary.” The wording of this statement is indeed significant. All previous dialogue on the SOFA has been going on between the US Embassy in Colombo and the Foreign Ministry without any consultation with the Ministry of Defence, the rightful authority. Now, State Minister Wijewardene makes two aspects very clear. One is the approval of President Sirisena. The other is if indeed such an agreement is worked out, it would be signed by the Defence Secretary. That in itself is an acknowledgement that the Foreign Ministry handling the subject without any recourse to the Defence Ministry was wrong. Of course, after signing the ACSA, the US realised there was an easy way out with the Foreign Ministry where the then Secretary was most helpful.
Last Monday, the US Ambassador in Sri Lanka tweeted. “Ambassador TeplitzVerified account @USAmbSLM Jul 1 …… Blatant misinformation. There is no plan or intention to establish a US base in Sri Lanka. VFA negotiations only aim to facilitate cooperation and any agreement will fully respect the sovereignty of #SriLanka.”
At the bottom of the tweet, Ambassador Alaina Teplitz made a reference to an English language website operating out of London and even gave the link to a story published by it. The idea was to direct attention to their own story posted by them basing it on some facts in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary). In addition, a US Embassy spokesman, who was asked, responded to a query in an e-mail saying: “The Tweet in question was a direct response to the link (the website is named) article. Unfortunately, the fabricated story regarding a military base has been reported widely. We want to underscore that there is absolutely no plan nor intention for a US base in Sri Lanka.” The website in question tried to absolve itself by naming the writer in the Sunday Times and avoided completely reference to their own published version which the US Embassy said was “fabricated.” Hence, it was a vain attempt to justify their own account which found no place in the Sunday Times disclosures in the past weeks.
The tweet resonated elsewhere, too. President Maithripala Sirisena’s flag carrier, the state-run Daily News last Monday ran a front-page colour guide to a story on Page 12 on the same tweet. If they were silent on reportage of developments on the ACSA and SOFA, there was a mighty hurry to highlight the US position. This was to see one television network and sections of the media to claim that Ambassador Teplitz’s remarks were directed at the Sunday Times. They were obviously ill-informed.
In fact, in making that tweet, Ambassador Teplitz has not in any way contested the reports published in these columns about either ACSA or the SOFA. She has, however, argued that the provisions of the SOFA do not violate Sri Lanka’s sovereignty – a position with which I strongly differ. I believe there is a very serious infringement on the country’s sovereignty. Yet, she is quite entitled to have her say and that is welcome. In modern day warfare, the term “bases” is somewhat obsolete though they do exist in trouble spots of the world where the US is engaged. On the other hand, there is no barrier under the ACSA for a US aircraft carrier to dock into Trincomalee, one of the deepest natural harbours in the world. The US could use that as a floating base for its military activity: Similarly, in the waters off Sri Lanka, particularly Colombo or any other area. The SOFA would enable US troops to disembark wearing uniforms, carrying weapons and radio communication sets. There will be no on-board inspections. Other areas where it impinges on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty were identified in these columns last week and have sparked a countrywide debate.
In the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, senior officers whom I spoke with this week were numbed by the provisions in the SOFA. For obvious reasons, they are forbidden from making public comments. “We should not antagonise the United States. However, we should find acceptable common ground instead of forfeiting our national interests,” said a senior Navy official. He added that the US has helped Sri Lanka in establishing a Marine Corps and in other maritime warfare activity. That includes training our Coast Guard.”
Added a senior Army officer, “My earlier understanding was they were coming here to help us – paint walls of hospitals, make donations for orphanages, provide injections for livestock, build schools and other social welfare or humanitarian measures. However, they are now asking for immunity from our laws. You don’t need such things to help us.”
An Air Force officer remarked “unlike naval operations which the US can co-ordinate even outside Sri Lanka’s territorial waters, the US has to use our airports for troops as well as cargo. We will have to share all our Air Force installations and air fields with a foreign country’s air force. Unlike for emergency situations like relief or rescue operations, prolonged use will definitely affect our activities. We will see another Air Force functioning alongside us and this is abhorrent.”
CDS explains position
Sri Lanka’s topmost security official – the Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne, who heads the apex body of the armed services and the police – this week made some pertinent points regarding ACSA and SOFA. He was speaking to Bandula Jayasekera on the fifth anniversary of his Pethikada programme on Sirasa TV. Here are important highlights of what he said:
“These two agreements (ACSA and SOFA) with United States are controversial. We cannot agree to some parts. However, we should not forget this factor. If we take American economy on the one hand, and those of other countries on the other, the US is greater in scale. The US economy is strong. Its defence expenditure is higher than the eight other countries that come thereafter. We do not need to agree to everything they say when we are going for an agreement. During 1993, when we created the Special (Boat) Squadron and after 1996, we were engaged in exercises with the US. There were certain issues they raised those days. We said that we cannot agree. They too understood that. We should come to a middle ground and make agreements. You said that I refused to agree with the ACSA when I was Commander of the Navy. Yes, I did. The reason that I refused to give my consent was because we could not agree to certain matters. Most of the time there are no talks or discussions to get ideas of others. They just go for such agreements. We should not do that.
“If the security forces are involved in the discussion, they would not agree to such requests. We are having big issues in our country compared to other countries. We have given Hambantota Port on lease to China for 99 years. They, the (Americans) are saying that if you can lease it to China, why can’t you agree to our agreement. Then, Russia is asking if you get into such agreement with America you should also sign an agreement with us. (Note: Admiral Wijegunaratne has just returned from Moscow after leading a military delegation there). Under such circumstance our Foreign Affairs Ministry and politicians have a huge responsibility to sort out this matter. We need all of these countries. We cannot forget America. We invited the then chief of US Indo Pacific Command Admiral Harris as chief guest to Galle Dialogue. In his speech he pointed out three reasons why Sri Lanka is important to America.
“They are Location, location, location. The place where Sri Lanka is situated is most important for them. Even India’s one-time National Security advisor Shiv Shankar Menon’s book noted that Sri Lanka is a permanent aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean can be easily controlled from Sri Lanka. This important location must be protected for the people of our country and future children. That is our responsibility. Therefore, this should not be a playground where international groups engage in their power struggles.
“If the President engages in such activity, he would notify us. Yet sometimes we are not happy about the action taken by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The involvement of the heads of security forces is minimal. Even when the ACSA was entered into, it did not happen. In future these mistakes must be rectified. The US helped us during the separatist war. When we were in the war in 2006-2007 they helped us to destroy the LTTE floating armouries. No other country had extended such help. We need that help in the future but we should make such agreements coming to a middle ground.”
In essence, security forces personnel and the senior-most officer who sits on top of the apex body, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Admiral Wijegunaratne have expressed reservations over the manner in which the ACSA was rushed through the Cabinet. As revealed earlier, no Sinhala version of this agreement was made available for study by ministers. Admiral Wijegunaratne has now confirmed the Sunday Times accounts that he expressed reservations. On the side of the United States, soon after the signing of the ACSA, there was great euphoria. A top diplomat with very persuasive ways, openly asked staffers including locals what they thought of the idea of making a lady official, then serving the Foreign Ministry, as the new Defence Secretary. He noted that she could work in concert with Prasad Kariyawasam, the then Foreign Secretary. Kariyawasam now continues as International Affairs advisor to the Speaker whilst being paid by a US federal agency, the USAID. It is channelled through DAI, one of its contractors. The matter was discussed at a recent party leaders meeting. It came to light that plans were afoot to pay him from another source instead of from the USAID funds. If this is the position, he would continue in office though he had done enormous damage to Sri Lanka.
Diplomats then came up with another proposal — to have a display of US Air Force aircraft conduct an air parade over the skies of the Galle Face Green. For this purpose, the US aircraft would have to fly over the south coast up to Panadura and make their return flights. Suggestions to have one with the Sri Lanka Air Force did not meet with favour.
These diplomats wanted to use aircraft from the USS John Stennis, a Nimitz class nuclear powered carrier strike group which was off the shores of Sri Lanka in January this year. Though foreign staffers opined Sri Lankans would welcome such a move, their local counterparts had a different opinion. The idea had been later abandoned. Under the ACSA, the strike group was using what the US Embassy in Colombo called “part of a larger temporary cargo transfer initiative that promotes Sri Lanka’s efforts to become a regional hub for logistics and commerce.” In effect, the US Navy transferred cargo between planes at the Bandaranaike International Airport. The cargo was meant for the strike group. Some security officials in Colombo believe the move was a test run to ascertain timing and other procedures for re-supply using the Colombo airport as launching pad during an exigency — a privilege accorded to the US under ACSA.
Both the ACSA and the proposed SOFA formed the subject of a discussion when a delegation from the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) met Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa on Thursday. They also discussed legislation relating to land use which the government proposes to introduce in Parliament on a priority basis. They discussed action they could jointly take to protest over the ACSA and urge the government not to go ahead with the SOFA. This is whilst Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, urged a former External Affairs Minister to study both agreements and submit a report to him – a prelude to a formal statement. Rajapaksa also called upon a team of lawyers to examine the two agreements and identify areas where it has violated the Constitution and laws of the land.
Dayasiri Jayasekera, General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Sirisena, told a news conference on Tuesday that the people should be made aware of the dangers of ACSA. He said it was a matter of relief that the SOFA, President Maithripala Sirisena has assured, would not be signed. This was a matter of great satisfaction since the UNF government has been negotiating it. After the first ACSA was signed in 2007, the second one in August 2017 was expanded. He said this was not presented to Parliament. He warned that if the SOFA had been accepted, Sri Lanka would lose its sovereignty.
The other issue, Jayasekera said, is the signing of an agreement with the United States for US$ 27 million by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to “conduct activities of Parliament.” He asked how come Prasad Kariyawasam, former Sri Lanka Ambassador to United States and thereafter Foreign Secretary, came to be recruited to Parliament. He said any foreign money should come to the country through the Department of External Resources and urged that all details related to payments to Kariyawasam be revealed.
The main Opposition Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) of Mahinda Rajapaksa also held a news conference to protest against the two agreements. Former Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa said on Thursday: “The proposed SOFA is the biggest agreement to be signed after Independence. The consequences are many. The US Ambassador in Colombo has claimed that there will not be US army bases in Sri Lanka. She says the proposed Agreement only supports Sri Lanka. If a search is carried out on the Internet, we could find there have been many problems where the SOFA has been signed by the US with other countries. If SOFA is signed in any country an army base needs to come up. There are several revelations in the draft agreement. We have a trained, experienced and world-recognised armed force which could meet any situation. In our case, we have a peaceful situation with our neighbouring countries like India, Pakistan and even China. Therefore, we do not have any need to get military assistance from any country.”
Sri Lanka’s former Ambassador to China, Dr Karunasena Kodituwakku, has responded to references to him in these columns last week – the result of an error where his name was juxtaposed instead of Karunasena Hettiaratchchi. The error is regretted.
The ACSA-SOFA controversy comes at a time when President Sirisena, who leaves tomorrow on a private three-day trip to Britain, is fighting on many fronts. His ambitious plan to re-introduce hanging has been stopped by a Supreme Court stay order till October 30. In what seemed a surprise move, Prisons Commissioner General T.M.J.W. Tennekoon has declared that he had not yet received the proclamation signed by President Sirisena. The President has directed the Attorney General’s Department to expedite a string of outstanding cases, some of which have allegedly been stalled for many months.
For him, the most significant development appears to be his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) inching their way to form a common alliance. UPFA General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera took the limelight away from SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera, when he chose to make an announcement at a news conference. He said the two sides have agreed to form the Sri Lanka Nidhas Podujana Peramuna – a fact which was known for months. It was Jayasekera who has been negotiating, often facing accusations for his utterances.
Jayasekera led an SLFP team for discussions with his SLPP counterparts this week. It centred on a discussion of the powers of the leader of the new alliance. Earlier, the SLPP had handed over its comments on the proposed constitution and this was a follow up. Jayasekera told the Sunday Times that they hope to reach accord with the SLPP “very soon” and move forward to discuss other issues like an electoral arrangement. Yet, there are issues to be resolved. The SLPP is insistent that the new alliance carry its budding lotus (pohottuwa) symbol whilst others want a separate one.
The fact that the SLFP and the SLPP will come together brings to the fore a critical question – does it mean that Maithripala Sirisena will not contest the presidential election? The SLPP, there is little doubt, will field former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The formal announcement is to be made on August 11 at the party’s first national convention at the Sugathadasa Stadium. Since an SLFP-SLPP accord would have to be signed ahead of their formal functioning, it is likely the two sides will work out an informal arrangement on Sirisena’s future political role. One source said he could even contest the Polonnaruwa District during parliamentary elections with an eye on becoming the Mahaweli and Environment Minister – subjects close to his heart. This possible light at the end of the tunnel is after a series of contradictions caused by President Sirisena over his candidature at this year’s presidential poll. He has been resorting to several publicised options with little success.
Whilst this is going on, two Joint Opposition partners — National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa and Democratic Left Front leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara met Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa for a discussion. They were to point out that for more than four years, they have been functioning in the joint opposition without an alliance. The duo said it was not an affront to the Joint Opposition but they wanted to form their own body if there was no other arrangement. The idea, they said, was to have a means to field a candidate should the necessity arise. Rajapaksa said there was no necessity for such a move and he would place the matter before the party leaders. The meeting has now been fixed for Tuesday.
For the United National Party (UNP)-led UNF, troubles appear to be mounting for leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Public remarks were made by Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera that Sajith Premadasa should be the presidential candidate with the consent of Wickremesinghe. Some Wickremesinghe loyalists point out that the remarks were a slight on the leader since he had not changed plans to contest.
Premier Wickremesinghe’s mood was reflected at a pre-Cabinet meeting of ministers at Temple Trees. He was critical of some ministers for siding with President Sirisena after going to him for political favours. Among those he singled out for standing with him was House Leader Lakshman Kiriella. He noted that Kiriella had always publicly defended him and was loyal.
Having been misled on the first occasion where a former Foreign Secretary, Prasad Kariyawasam “smuggled” through the ACSA for Cabinet approval, President Sirisena, despite some of his failings, should be commended for publicly declaring that he would not go ahead with the SOFA. The same goes to State Minister Wijewardene who has echoed the similar sentiments. Quite clearly, the issue here is not one against the United States but the surreptitious way a Sri Lankan Minister and officials have behaved, ignoring transparency and national interest. The government cannot antagonise the US. However, at the same time it cannot compromise on the country’s sovereignty. Some quislings have not effected the right balance.
In Sri Lanka’s national interest and for the sake of future generations, it is imperative that President Sirisena appoints a team of competent persons with high integrity to probe how the country fell into the ACSA trap. This is to identify the weaknesses in the system and ensure that the country’s interests are not sold wholesale for the personal benefit of a handful. Even more importantly, to prove that Sri Lanka is still an independent, sovereign nation and the future generations have a secure future.
October 16, 2018
Michael Roberts, Courtesy of Colombo Telegraph , October 2018