Monday, 13 August 2012

Overwhelmed by Tigers, int’l community

War on terror revisited: Part 15

article_imageBy Shamindra Ferdinando
Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Natwar Singh console Sugandi Kadirgamar 

Successive leaders, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa, went out of their way to facilitate a negotiated settlement. Unfortunately, the international community conveniently ignored the attempts they made even at the expense of political careers. Leniency of the foreign powers emboldened the LTTE to step up terror attacks. President Rajapaksa risked his relationship with the JVP and the JHU by trying to carry forward the peace process. The President also accepted the Norwegian mediation underwritten by peace co-chairs, namely US, EU, Japan and peace facilitator Norway. In spite of grave provocations, the President went ahead with talks at overseas venues, in Geneva and Oslo.

In the wake of the assassination of 73-year-old Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar at his Bullers Lane residence on Aug 12, 2005, the GoSL demanded that the Norwegian-arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) be amended without any further delay.

In the run-up to the April 2, 2004 parliamentary polls, the then UPFA-led opposition repeatedly voiced the urgent need to modify the CFA.

Addressing the Colombo based diplomatic community at the foreign ministry on Aug 14, 2005, Foreign Secretary, H. M. G. S. Palihakkara, emphasised the requirement for the immediate modification of the CFA as the assassination of the Foreign Minister clearly bore the hallmarks of the LTTE. Palihakkara’s comments were echoed by veteran career diplomats and one-time heads of the Peace Secretariat, Bernard Gunatilleke and Jayantha Dhanapala, also at the same meeting. Dhanapala told the diplomatic community that in the light of the assassination, there would have to be a serious review of certain policies and procedures followed upto the time of the assassination, in relation to the peace process. Their demand was based on the initial assessment made by then IGP, Chandra Fernando.

Exercise in futility

In spite of the GoSL’s call, there was a serious attempt to review the CFA and the LTTE continued to provoke the armed forces.

Interestingly, both Dhanapala and Gunatilleke testified before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), whereas Palihakkara, one-time Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative at the UN, was a member of that commission,

Those who repeatedly accused then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of bending over backwards to appease the LTTE, adopted a similar approach, regardless of the consequences.

In fact, then President Kumaratunga’s administration made a appalling attempt to revive the peace process by blaming Kadirgamar’s assassination on a third party! The President was determined to get the LTTE back to the negotiating table, which the group had quit in April 2003. Her policy of appeasement even at the expense of national security failed to make the LTTE soften its stand on peace talks. In the immediate aftermath of Kadirgamar’s assassination, a section of the military felt that the GoSL should strike back, though the President disagreed. No one dared to disagree with her (CBK to weigh options but CFA stands-–The Island of Aug 14, 2005).

The Presidential Secretariat issued a statement blaming an unidentified third party, which the then government accused of being hell-bent on jeopardising the peace process (Political foes’ behind FM’s assassination––The Island of Aug 14, 2005). The President’s Office speculated that Kadirgamar had been killed by ‘political foes opposed to the peaceful transformation of the conflict and who were determined to undermine attempts towards a negotiated political solution to the ethnic conflict.’

Her office denied that the words ‘political foes’ referred to the JVP, but also declined to hold the LTTE responsible for the assassination. "There are very few people who can do this kind of killing but we don’t want to speculate right now," former The Island staffer, Namini Wijedasa quoted a presidential secretariat official as having said.

"Anyone who killed Lakshman Kadirgamar was against a negotiated end to the conflict," he elaborated. "By referring to them as political foes, we simply meant that the killing itself was political. We didn’t mean to imply that the assassins were political."

Govt. makes U-turn

However, the government had to quickly change its stance, as both the army and the police directly blamed the LTTE. The military insisted that there were no doubts about the LTTE’s culpability; hence action was needed to neutralise the threat.

But Dhanapala’s successor, Dr. Palitha Kohona, dropped a bombshell in April 2006, when he called for the peace process to continue without being distracted by other issues. Obviously, Kadirgamar was forgotten, as those at the helm pushed for a negotiated settlement in the wake of a two-day meeting between the GoSL and LTTE representatives in Geneva in late February, 2006. The former head of the UN Treaty Section strongly objected to the critical demand to amend the CFA in an interview with Daily News in its April 13, 2006 issue. When The Island sought a clarification from Kohona, he emphasised the need to focus on human rights, development, democratic freedom and the space for political dissent and political pluralism. Dr. Kohona stressed that the government wouldn’t be intimidated into seeking peace and that a permanent resolution of the conflict would not be on anyone’s terms and conditions.

In fact, the demand to amend the CFA gathered momentum after the assassination of Kadirgamar. Having met the LTTE in Geneva in February, 2006, under the auspices of the Norwegians, the GoSL obviously felt that Kadirgamar’s assassination couldn’t be an obstacle to the continuation of the crumbling peace process. The GoSL’s policy conformed to the opinion of the international community that the priority should be to prevent an all-out war presumably even at the expense of the lives of a few.

Vajira inccurs govt.’s wrath

The GoSL agreed not to retaliate. Instead, it unceremoniously removed Maj. Gen. Vajira Wijegoonewardene, then Overall Operations Commander (OOC), Colombo, who called for military action against the LTTE in the city and its suburbs. Wijegoonewardene pointed out that a tough response was needed, regardless of the CFA as he believed routine security operations wouldn’t be adequate to meet the threat. He who had assumed the OOC office 11 days before Kadirgamar’s assassination, incurred the wrath of the government. Shortly after his controversial presentation made on the instructions of the then Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri at the Joint Operations Headquarters, he was replaced. (Govt. thwarts military plan, commander removed––The Island of Aug 25, 2005). The government considered the OOC’s presentation inimical to the peace process. Hence his removal! (Govt vetoes sizeable anti-insurgency operation in response to Kadir assassination––The Island of Aug 28, 2005).

Wijegoonewardena grabbed the limelight during his stint as the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 23 Division headquartered in Welikanda. As the senior officer in charge of troops deployed in the region, he had to tackle the crisis caused by one-time LTTE commander, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan aka Karuna Amman, who had staged a revolt against the LTTEleadership.

Wijegoonewardene was the second senior officer to be transferred by the government which felt could jeopardise the peace initiative. One-time Eastern Naval Commander, Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera was moved out from Trincomalee when he strongly opposed the LTTE flexing its muscles.

GoSL groping in

the dark

The GoSL had no strategy. Instead, it faithfully followed advice received from foreign governments. Statements issued by various governments revealed the GoSL’s dilemma.

The UPFA and the UNP turned a blind eye to the growing threat. They refused to swiftly reach a consensus on the state’s response to the LTTE threat. Unfortunately, they continued to squabble over the national issue and no one wanted to blame the LTTE. Those who valued Kadirgamar’s contribution to the country’s defence on the diplomatic front were of the opinion that Kadirgamar was perhaps the only political obstacle to resist the LTTE and its international backers.

The international community never recognised the JVP’s opposition and Kadirgamar waged a lone battle. There were just a few people who backed him and some of them were at the Foreign Ministry.

The government went to the extent of indicating Kadirgamar wouldn’t be part of its delegation. The assassination fuelled speculation that it would facilitate the resumption of direct negotiations on the LTTE’s terms.

The slain minister’s candid views on the peace process, particularly Norway’s faltering role, offended many. Foreign statements emphasised the absolute necessity to keep the Norwegian initiative on track. No one bothered even to acknowledge the GoSL’s right to take military action, in the wake of grave provocation.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: "We must honour Kadirgamar’s memory by re-dedicating ourselves to peace and ensuring that the CFA remains in force."

European Union Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner said: "We must all honour the passing of Foreign Minister Kadirgamar by continuing his work for peace and maintaining the CFA."

French Foreign Minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy said: "France believes that more than ever the respect of the CFA and the continuation of the peace process are necessary."

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said: "It is Australia’s strong hope that, despite this terrorist act, the Sri Lankan peace process will continue, including through early implementation of the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure. I urge all communities in Sri Lanka to remain calm and uphold the CFA."

According to a New Delhi datelined AFP report, India was confident that the Sri Lankan government would not allow the assassination to derail the peace process.

Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said: "I strongly hope for a calm response by all parties at this moment, so that the move towards the peace process will not be hindered."

Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen: "The killing puts the peace process to a serious test. It is now of great importance that both parties to the conflict do their utmost to fully fulfill their obligations, according to the CFA."

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Anan expressed the hope that this tragedy would not weaken the commitment of the people of Sri Lanka to achieve a durable peace.

The UN Security Council, too, insisted the implementation of the CFA, regardless of the assassination. Japan, a member of the peace co-chairs, declared that the UN Security Council wanted Sri Lanka and the LTTE to implement the provisions of the CFA and to continue their dialogue in order to attain sustainable peace and stability in the country.

Then UNP MP, Hemakumara Nanayakkara was the first UNP MP to accuse the LTTE of assassinating Kadirgamar.

A few weeks after the assassination, President Kumaratunga made yet another attempt to bring back the LTTE to the negotiating table, with the help of the Norwegians. Kumaratunga sought high level discussions with the LTTE to iron out differences. The LTTE declared that it would only meet GoSL representatives in Oslo (LTTE insists on talks in Oslo––The Island of Sept 1, 2005).

About a week later, President Kumaratunga again tried to kick start the peace process with UN help. A hastily arranged visit by UN Special Envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi in the first week of Sept 2005 fueled speculation that the UN was about to get involved in the Norwegian initiative, though the dignitary ruled out that possibility. Instead, he reiterated UN support for the Norwegians at a meeting with the JVP in Colombo. The JVP insisted that the statements critical of the LTTE wouldn’t be enough and tangible action on the part of the international community was needed to change the situation on the ground (No immediate UN role here, Norway to stay––The Island ofSept 7, 2005 ).

Due to a major crisis in the People’s Alliance in the wake of then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa securing JVP support for his forthcoming presidential bid and the SLFP sharply divided over Rajapaksa’s candidature, the government didn’t give the required attention to LTTE strategy. The LTTE realized that the government wouldn’t resort to tough military action ahead of the impending election. The LTTE exploited the situation by assassinating Kadirgamar, who had been pushing the international community, including the EU, to proscribe the LTTE. The LTTE may have carried out that assassination as it believe he could be a threat, whichever party won the next presidential poll. Kadirgamar’s close relationship with the JVP and the latter’s readiness to promote the Tamil as the country’s premier, too, could have contributed to the LTTE’s thinking. Obviously, the LTTE underestimated the then Prime Minister, hence its decision to undermine Opposition candidate, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s presidential bid.

Wickremesinghe continued to praise the CFA after declaring his intention to contest the presidential poll. Addressing the UNP parliamentary group on Sep 7, 2005, Wickremesinghe declared that he would seek the expertise of the outgoing President to pursue the Norwegian peace initiative. Emphasising the importance of following an SLFP-UNP agreement as regards the CFA, Wickremesinghe declared that the president poll would give him an opportunity to implement an action plan to tackle the national issue. (Ranil enamored of Chandrika’s expertise: line CFA pivotal to peace and prosperity-The Island of Sep 8 2005).