Brigadier Priyanka Fernando Saga: Why Bravado Must Be Calculated | Sunday Observer

Brigadier Priyanka Fernando Saga: Why Bravado Must Be Calculated

Brig. Priyanka Fernando
Brig. Priyanka Fernando

Brigadier Priyanka Fernando, an officer attached to the 59th brigade during the final phase of war, suddenly found himself in a controversy this week, following a gesture he showed to a group of Tamil protesters in front of the Sri Lankan High Commission building in London.

Fernando, a battle-hardened soldier who is now the Defence Attache of the Sri Lankan High Commission in London, was understandably annoyed when the protestors kept demeaning the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and their military victory over the LTTE.

Fernando first showed them the national flag printed on his uniform and went on to show a throat-slitting gesture, probably as a response to their allegations. The video footage of the incident went viral over the past few days and became a hot topic among the social media circles, in Sri Lanka.

Had the senior Army officer stopped at showing the national flag, he would have gone down in history as a fearless officer who stood up for the dignity of his nation.

The throat-slitting sign, unfortunately, portrayed him as a hot-headed and impulsive officer who lacked sobriety and suaveness of a diplomat. At the same time, it threw the Sri Lankan government into a fresh soup as various political groups in the United Kingdom demanded action against the military officer.

Calls for action

Labour MPs John Ryan and Siobhain Mcdonagh called on the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom to withdraw Brigadier Fernando’s diplomatic papers and expel him from the country as they described the ‘throat-slitting’ sign as a death threat.

They were also the Vice Chair and the Senior Vice Chair of the Tamil All Party Parliamentary Group which had close links with the Tamil Diaspora.

“It was inappropriate, unacceptable and threatening from someone who is serving in an official capacity as a guest of this country,” their letter to Johnson said.

The Sri Lanka Campaign, a global non-partisan movement calling for peace and justice in post-war Sri Lanka, also claimed that the gesture by a military attaché in the UK was ‘utterly outrageous’.

“A Sri Lankan military official motioning death threats to Tamil protestors should be identified and complaints should be lodged against him,” the Sri Lanka Campaign said.

These messages indicated that the Sri Lankan government might run into a problem with the UK government if it failed to respond to the situation.


It is in this context that the Foreign Ministry took immediate steps to suspend the services of the Army officer. Issuing a statement, the Ministry said the Army would conduct an inquiry into the incident.

However, despite growing international pressure, there was a huge wave of support for Brigadier Fernando, back home, particularly on social media platform. Many commentators opined that the government should ‘protect’ the military officer and throw its weight behind him.

The response was positive from the local political domain. President Maithripala Sirisena, also the Defence Minister of the unity government, immediately ordered the reinstatement of the military officer.

He also instructed the Foreign Ministry to ensure that the officer is in a position to resume his duties, without ‘unnecessary problems.’

Navin’s letter

Then, Plantation Industries Minister Navin Dissanayake sent a hard-hitting letter to the two British MPs who demanded action against Brigadier Fernando. He said, the Defence Attache pointed to the lion symbol on his uniform as the latter was irked by the Tiger flags displayed by the Tamil Diaspora protesters.

“I am the son of the late Hon. Gamini Dissanayake, presidential candidate and deputy leader of the United National Party who was assassinated by the terrorist organization LTTE, the political wing which both of you surreptitiously support. The said organization has been banned in your country and has been designated as a terrorist organization by many countries including yours and the United States,” Dissanayake said, in his letter.

He added, “On the day in question February 4, which marks the National Day of Independence for our country, a day of joy and celebration to all Sri Lankans, the front organizations of the LTTE which both of you support gathered a few hundred supporters to protest outside our Embassy in the UK. What is most disturbing and offensive to us Sri Lankans was the carrying of the LTTE flag and the abusive and vituperative comments made by the protesters. Brigadier Fernando was within the premises of the SL mission and his acts cannot be questioned, as diplomatically and legally, he is ‘within Sri Lanka’ and he enjoys full diplomatic immunity for acts done within the Embassy compound. This tradition is accepted practice in diplomatic regulations and the tradition is followed in all countries.

As the protesters’ behaviour was offensive to Sri Lanka, Brigadier Fernando a valiant officer of the Sri Lanka Army pointed to the Lion emblem on his uniform to countenance the disgust he felt when he saw the Tiger flags displayed in front of him.

Both of you have been carrying a deeply hateful, vindictive and offensive campaign against Sri Lanka. At a time when brutal terrorism has been eradicated and all communities are building bridges to live as one nation your continued support to the front organization of the LTTE is self-serving and pathetic. Tell your contacts in these front organizations to contribute to their own brethren in the North and East without continuing to fuel the flames of hatred and ethnic division. Sri Lanka needs a real sense of reconciliation without individuals like you trying your utmost to break the real achievements that are being done on the ground. In any event, we stand with Brig. Fernando steadfastly and he will continue as our Defence Attaché in UK.”

Ruwan praises

State Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardena too strongly supported the Brigadier saying the latter contributed immensely to the final phase of war against the LTTE.

“My vote is certainly for him,” the State Defence Minister said addressing a public meeting, last week.

“He had given the right signal to the LTTE supporters. I am thankful to him,” the State Defence Minister explained.

“I don’t think any of those protesters has visited Sri Lanka. These protests are conducted to collect money for their organizations. They don’t have any concern for the Tamils in Sri Lanka,” Wijewardena added.

However, it is important to understand that calls for action against Brigadier Fernando have not ceased yet. At the forefront of this movement are the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), a leading Tamil Diaspora organization.

Diaspora persistent

The organization has requested the UK Government not to accept the reinstatement of Sri Lankan Brigadier Priyanka Fernando as the Military Attaché to the Sri Lankan High Commission in the UK, thus denying him diplomatic cover from prosecution for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

“As a country that co-sponsored a Resolution at the UN Human Rights Council on accountability for the mass killings and sexual assault in Sri Lanka and as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, we urge the UK not to accept the re-instatement of a suspected war criminal as a Military Attaché, thus denying him diplomatic cover from prosecution under Universal Jurisdiction” said TGTE, in a statement, on Thursday.

The UK government, so far, has remained non-committal over the matter. It looks as if the UK government is closely monitoring the developments on the ground, before announcing its position over the matter.


But, it does not take a lot of wisdom to understand that the officers who represent Sri Lanka in the international domain must act with the highest level of discipline and self-restraint.

It goes without saying that overly emotional responses and uninhibited braggadocio can only invite trouble for the government, which has already come under pressure from international circles to speedily implement recommendations of the Geneva Resolution, which it co-sponsored twice.

Most of these Tamil protesters who shed crocodile tears for Lankan Tamils are refugees who now face the risk of being sent back to Sri Lanka as there is no conflict situation in the country. Public demonstrations against the Sri Lankan government has become their only weapon to retain their refugee status.

Uninhibited bravado and lack of self-restraint on the part of the Sri Lankan authorities will ensure that these refugees have concrete evidence to bolster their arguments. The government, without doubt, should take necessary measures to educate its officials attached to foreign diplomatic missions on this simple reality.

Champika responds

A controversy developed due to an article that appeared in a weekend Sinhala newspaper getting attention on political platforms during the run up to the local government elections. The Colombo Port City project was at the centre of it as the article carried the scary headline, ‘Danger signals of Colombo sinking due to Port City.’

Patali Champika Ranawaka, Minister of Western Development and Megapolis was the first to refute the article in a video message uploaded on social media. He said the Port City was being built by international experts and not amateurs, and these experts have ensured that proper feasibility studies were done before they embarked on such a mega project.

He also said, the several Environmental Impact Assessments conducted had made allowances for any impacts that could be caused due to the project and that there is absolutely no danger of Colombo sinking due to the project. He added that the only response he could give to those who were making these remarks was that there would be a 60 storeyed building that would come up in Port City, scheduled to be completed in 2025, and he could accompany these skeptics to the 60th floor of that building to look upon the City of Colombo and assess how much it had sunk.


Be that as it may, it was left to the bureaucrats to properly answer the allegations made by Engineer G.P. Karunaratne, who was quoted in the newspaper article.

Engineer Nihal Rupasinghe, Secretary to the Ministry had said, the assumptions made with no proper feasibility studies or knowledge about the project were shocking.

In his response to the newspaper article, he said, there was absolutely no danger of Colombo sinking due to the project because from its planning stage the Port City was handled by international organizations with experience in developing similar projects.

“A number of industry experts, scientists and professionals had done detailed studies on environmental, social, economic and technological impacts of the Colombo Port City and it has been confirmed that there is no threat at all to the existing city of Colombo from this project,” he said.

The controversy of ‘sinking Colombo’ came following a presentation initially made by Eng. G.P. Karunaratne at a public lecture titled ‘Is Colombo city safe - Port City development project and its impact,’ organized by the Institute of Engineers Sri Lanka on 5 December 2017. The way in which he approached the issue gave rise to certain questions which are yet to be answered.

Soil engineering company

He made his presentation in partnership with a soil engineering company that does geological investigations, forensic engineering, ground improvement, groundwater exploration and piling, etc. In fact, the case against Port City was built by some engineers connected to this company who at the end of the grand presentation went on to give solutions and mitigation methods offered by their company, that could be used to stop this so called ‘sinking of Colombo’s buildings.’

Megapolis Secretary, Nihal Rupasinghe himself says, Engineer Karunaratne had made this presentation in collaboration with a private company which had engaged his services. He says, this company offers geological services and is involved in providing solutions to issues such as, micro piling, ground water etc. Therefore, a question remains whether this was part of a sales pitch or an attempt to further a different agenda.

Commercial interests?

In another interesting turn of events, representatives from the same soil engineering company gave an almost identical presentation as that of the engineer, at a meeting attended by the ‘People’s Movement Against Port City’ (PMAPC), in Negombo, on January 27.

The PMAPC was the organization which conducted a series of protests over the past few years, against Port City. It is all too evident that the soil engineering company, which clearly have commercial interests, is looking at forming a nexus with the anti-Port City organization based in Colombo.

This means the government will soon have to deal with a fresh problem over Port City, one of the largest projects currently underway in Sri Lanka. The presentation may give new ammunition to anti-Port City protesters in Negombo, who showed resistance to the project over the past few years.

Port City targets a 15 billion dollar investment. Marketed to the world as a retail destination and international financial centre that will have an integrated resort and theme park, it will also have an international medical centre, top international schools, a marina, a convention and exhibition centre and will offer world class hospitality.

While it is abundantly clear that the government’s long-term economic goals are very much tied to the success of the giant project, state policy makers still have to counter the efforts of the groups trying to throw a spanner in the works.