Monday, 13 August 2012

An unexpected Norwegian salvo

War on terror revisited: Part 20


article_imageBy Shamindra Ferdinando 

The tripod on which Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s assassin sat and aimed his sniper weapon and (right) the pool in the back garden in Kadirgamar’s Bullers Lane residence, where he took his final swim minutes before he was gunned down. Of the rapidly fired five shots, two hit the minister. The weapon used in the killing had been brought in a box meant for a pedestal fan. (The Island published exclusive pictures of the assassin’s hideout on Aug 14, 2005 issue, courtesy the Special Task Force).

An LTTE sniper fired from the Vembadi Girl’s School, Jaffna, killing 46-year-old T. Subathiran alias Robert, the de-facto leader of the EPRLF’s Varatha faction on June 14, 2003. In the absence of one-time Chief Minister of the North-Eastern Provincial Council, Varatharaja Perumal, who had taken refuge in India, Robert led the group.

Robert, shot in the chest, died instantly. The then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle said that the EPRLF leader had fallen to a single bullet as he was doing his daily physical exercises on the upper floor of the EPRLF’s Jaffna headquarters opposite the Vembadi Girls’ School. (Tiger sniper kills senior EPRLF politician––The Island of June 15, 2003).

It was the first major political assassination since the LTTE quit the negotiating table in April, 2003 after having participated in six rounds of talks under the auspices of the Norwegians. The LTTE and the GoSL met in Thailand, Norway, Germany and Japan, while a special donor conference was held on Nov 25, 2002. The Oslo meet was followed by another conference attended by donors on June 9 and 10 in that year.

Robert, who worked closely with the military in Jaffna, was one of the few to condemn a wave of LTTE killings in the wake of the Norwegian-arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) coming into operation in February 2002. He was the first person to be killed by a sniper since the CFA came into being.

The other sniper victim was Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar. Kadirgamar killed on the night of August 12, 2005. Kadirgamar received multiple gunshot injuries on his chest, as well as the abdomen.

The LTTE never hesitated to adopt the best possible option in operations targeting individuals. In Jaffna, the LTTE authorised the assassin to use a school, whereas in Colombo the man tasked to assassinate Kadirgamar watched him from the second floor of the neighbouring house owned by Lakshman Thalaysinghamn, a son of retired SP T. Thalaysingham. Mrs. Kadirgamar had seen her husband being shot as he stood a little distance away from the pool in the flood-lit garden. In spite of the grave provocation, the GoSL reiterated its commitment to the CFA. (CBK to weigh options but CFA stands-The Island of August 14, 2005)

Elite army commandos had been responsible for Kadirgamar’s security. Having being alerted, a squad of police commandos rushed to the scene, swiftly identified the assassin’s hideout and virtually smashed their way in after the owner, Lakshman Thalaysingham, refused to let them search the house. Thalaysingham claimed that he wasn’t aware of what was going on upstairs, as he had been away at a club. Investigators never explained the circumstances, under which the LTTE used Thalaysingham’s residence to kill one of the most closely guarded politicians during the conflict.  

Robert had once represented the dissolved Jaffna Municipal Council. At the Dec 2001 parliamentary polls, he led the EPRLF candidates in the Jaffna District, though he was not successful.

The LTTE obviously felt that Robert could cause serious damage to the Eelam project, hence had to be silenced. The LTTE struck in Jaffna as MV Shosin bringing in arms was sunk off the eastern coast in a pre-dawn naval operation. The EPRLF’s man’s assassination was overshadowed by the sinking of the LTTE ship (The issue has been dealt with previously).

On the night of August 12, 2006, exactly one year after the assassination of Kadirgamar, the LTTE assassinated Deputy Secretary General of the Government Peace Secretariat, Kethesh Loganathan at his residence at Vandervert Place, Dehiwela. Loganathan was shot in the head, chest and arm by an assassin.

Loganathan, too, had been an EPRLF member, though he quit the organisation in 1995 and served on the board of directors at the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA). He had joined the peace secretariat in April 2006, as President Mahinda Rajapaksa was making an effort to bring the LTTE back to the negotiating table.

Fallout of Robert’s killing

In the wake of Robert’s killing, the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga insisted that Tamil groups should be disarmed in keeping with the CFA and given adequate security. She and PM Wickremesinghe agreed on June 20, 2003 to explore the possibility of providing adequate security to those vulnerable to LTTE attacks. The meeting took place at President’s House with the participation of Minister Kadirgamar.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) opposed the move to issue weapons, insisting that the government shouldn’t re-issue weapons under any circumstances, while it conveniently turned a blind eye to the continuing wave of killings. (Government considers security for disarmed Tamil groups––The Island of June 22, 2003).

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe made a desperate bid to revive negotiations. In a televised address to the nation on June 19, about a week after the assassination of the EPRLF leader in Sri Lanka, the beleaguered PM repeated a call for immediate resumption of peace negotiations. In spite of the PM’s assurance to the LTTE of his intention to set up an administrative structure that would meet the aspirations of all communities, the LTTE dismissed the offer the following day itself.

The LTTE vowed that it wouldn’t return to the negotiating table unless the government offered a practical conceptual framework for an interim administrative structure

LTTE atrocities continue

In spite of the CFA, the LTTE continued operations against rival Tamil groups. Under the CFA, the GoSL agreed to disarm all Tamil groups working with the military, regardless of LTTEthreats. The Scandinavian truce monitoring mission recorded complaints received from groups and the public, though it didn’t have the authority to take punitive action. The LTTE targeted members of rival groups as well as those working for the military and got away with its truce violations.

Testifying before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) on Sept 15, 2010, Dr. John Gooneratne, who was with the peace secretariat from January 2002 to May 2006––he left shortly after Ketheswaran Loganathan joined the outfit)––explained the circumstances which the CFA was drafted. Gooneratne said that four key issues, which the GoSL wanted the Norwegians to accommodate in the CFA had been left out thereby placing the administration in a difficult situation. The absence of any reference to the effect that the GoSL and the LTTE used the CFA to pave the way for a negotiated settlement was a major drawback, he pointed out. The CFA had also refrained from commenting specifically on the importation of arms, ammunition and equipment during the truce. The CFA allowed the LTTE freedom of movement in areas under government control, whereas other political parties didn’t enjoy the right to enter LTTE-controlled areas. The CFA also failed to prohibit forced conscriptions.

Gooneratne told the LLRC that the LTTE had used the opportunity afforded by the CFA to enter government-held areas to engage in political work, to carry out extortion, child recruitment and so on.

The assassination of Robert in Jaffna on June 14, 2003 should be examined taking into consideration Dr. Gooneratne’s assertion that the CFA helped the LTTE advance its strategy, instead of bringing in peace.

During the Feb 2002 –Dec 31, 2005 period, the SLMM received 117 complaints of assassinations, 22 complaints of torture, 1187 complaints of abduction of adults, 297 complaints of abduction of children and 2,089 complaints of forcible conscription of children. But the actual number of complaints in each category was much higher, as many families didn’t complain, fearing reprisals.

Even after the LTTE quit the negotiating table, the GoSL and the peace facilitator believed that an all-out war could be prevented only by appeasing the LTTE. The international community ignored the assassination of Robert. The Colombo based diplomatic community insisted that the EPRLF man’s assassination must not be allowed to derail efforts to persuade the LTTE to return to the negotiating table.

PM Wickremesinghe reiterated his appeal for resumption of talks on June 19, 2003, while the Norwegians, too, pleaded with the LTTE. In spite losing two shiploads of arms and ammunition in March and June 2003, the LTTE remained supremely confident that it had the wherewithal to take on the military. Successive Norwegians governments steadfastly sided with the LTTE, though the group aggressively pursued an extremely hostile strategy to the peace process.

Ironically, Norway refrained from criticising the LTTE even after the assassination of Kadirgamar. The world would never have known the action taken by the Norwegians if not for the whistle-blowing website, Wiki Leaks. The GoSL, now trying to silence some websites under controversial circumstances, should be grateful to Wiki Leaks for exposing hundreds of sensitive diplomatic cables originating from Colombo, New Delhi as well as London.   

Wiki Leaks posted a letter by the then Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen to LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, dated Aug 16, 2005 (less than a week after Kadirgamar’s assassination), as regards the killing. It highlighted Norway’s dilemma and the LTTE’s culpability in the assassination. Had Norway made its position clear immediately after Kadirgamar’s killing, or that of Robert, the LTTE would have come under international pressure to adhere to the CFA. By the time Wiki Leaks exposed those diplomatic cables, the LTTE had been annihilated.

The Norwegian missive was handed over to UK based Anton Balasingham on Aug 17, 2006 by Norwegian FM Petersen and his deputy, Vidar Helgessen to be sent to Prabhakaran. The fact that Minister Erik Solheim had been excluded from the Norwegian delegation and they took the trouble of visiting London specifically for this purpose underscored the importance of the issue at hand.

The letter sent by the Norwegian Foreign Minister to Prabhakaran is of crucial importance. The following is the full text:

Dear Mr. Prabhakaran,

As I am sure you realise, the peace process is in a critical situation. The killings and counter killings over the last few months have been watched with mounting concern by Norway and the international community. Along with the continued recruitment of children to the LTTE, this has created distrust about the LTTE’s intentions as regards the peace process.

The assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar has exacerbated the situation. It is not upto Norway to draw conclusions about the criminal investigations now underway in Colombo, or on any other judicial matter in relation to the killings. However public perception both in Colombo and internationally is that the LTTE is responsible. This public perception is a political reality. The LTTE needs to respond to this situation in a way that demonstrates continued commitment to the peace process.

I see it as my obligation to make clear to you the political choice now facing the LTTE. If the LTTE does not take a positive step forward at this critical juncture, the international reaction could be severe.

Against this backdrop I would ask you urgently to consider the following steps:

1. To accept the Norwegian Government’s invitation to participate in a review of the implementation of the ceasefire agreement in order to find practical ways of ensuring full compliance by both parties.

2. To establish direct communications between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army in the East, in order to improve security.

3. To accept without delay the Sri Lanka monitoring mission proposal for transportation of LTTE cadres.

4. To collaborate in a practical way with Govt. initiatives to speed up reconstruction in the North and East. The LTTE’s continued commitment to the P-TOMs agreement is vital in this regard.

5. To take effective steps to halt killings and to cease the recruitment of underage combatants.

I trust that you appreciate the gravity of the present situation and will take steps to demonstrate to the international community that the LTTE is committed to the peace process.

Yours sincerely,

Jan Petersen

The LTTE didn’t take the Norwegian warning seriously. As it felt that the GoSL could be militarily overwhelmed, it continued to pursue the military option. In spite of the Norwegian efforts to prevent the LTTE from interfering in the presidential election process, the outfit engineered Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat at the Nov 2005 polls, by denying him the ‘Tamil vote’.