Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Accountability issues of a different kind

Who purchased, paid duty for LTTE radio equipment?




By Shamindra Ferdinando

Veteran NGO activist, Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe reacted strongly to former Norwegian peace facilitator Erik Solheim’s recent declaration that he would go before a UN team tasked with probing atrocities committed during eelam war IV (August 2006-May 2009).

One-time darling of the Norwegians, Dr. Rupesinghe asserted that a genuine peace facilitator would never have done that. In a special article headlined Erik Solheim, a disgruntled peacemaker? published in the Op-Ed of the June 13th edition of The Island, Dr. Rupesinghe warned that such a course of action would be inimical to Norwegian role as a peacemaker.

The probe ordered by the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in accordance with a US-led resolution adopted at the last sessions in Geneva in late March, will get underway early next month under the supervision of British national Sandra Beidas, formerly of the Amnesty International. As the UN team has received a ‘mandate’ to inquire into the period from Feb 2002 to May 2009, the Norwegian role too, would come under scrutiny.

Solheim, presently Chair of the Development Assistance Committee in the USA, is also on record as having said that he along with a colleague, Vidar Helgesen, one-time Secretary of State, Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs intend to launch a book on the Sri Lankan conflict. Helgesen was one of those present at the inauguration of direct talks between Sri Lanka and the LTTE at Sattahip, Thailand, on September 16, 2002.

Solheim said that they would launch a book early next year to explain the Norwegian role in Sri Lanka. The book is authored by Mark Salter, a longtime speechwriter and adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

Now that Solheim had announced his intention to establish Sri Lanka’s accountability before Ms Sandra Beidas-led team and launch a book along with Helgesen it would be pertinent to examine longtime Norwegian role in Sri Lanka. Due to negligence on the part of the government, Norway as well as other countries which had been involved in domestic affairs here engaged in actions seriously inimical to the country. The government pathetically failed to counter propaganda in spite of a section of the media exposing lies propagated by those supportive of the LTTE’s eelam project. Had the government scrutinized Norwegian funded propaganda, it could have easily unmasked some of those propagating lies. The acquisition of expensive radio equipment at the onset of the Norwegian-led peace process was a case in point. Let me examine different views expressed by Solheim, Bradman Weerakoon, the then Secretary to the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as well as Dr. John Gooneratne, the then Deputy Director General of the Peace Secretariat.

Solheim and Weerakoon gave two entirely different versions as regards the importation of radio equipment in February, 2006 almost three years after the event in Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka (Efforts, Failures and Lessons-Volume II) edited by Dr. Rupesinghe, the then Chairman of The Foundation for Co-Existence. According to Dr. Rupesinghe, the project received the financial backing of the Norwegian government, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the Berghof Foundation for Conflict Studies. The NGO guru profusely thanked Norbert Ropers, the then Director of the Berghof Foundation, Sri Lanka office for his contribution.

Interestingly, the then International Development Minister Solheim, in a wide ranging interview with Dr. Rupesinghe discussed the contentious issue of the LTTE acquiring radio equipment. Let me reproduce Dr. Rupesinghe’s query verbatim to ensure that there is absolutely no misinterpretation of facts.

Dr. Rupesinghe and Solheim

on LTTE radio

Dr. Rupesinghe: A concerted effort has been made by the media to discredit the role played by Norway as facilitator. How would account for this perception? Example: Norway has been criticized for handling the transmission equipment for the LTTE. The lack of impartiality is another criticism. Some suggest that Norway is biased towards the LTTE, going so far as to provide training for them in Norway. Can you comment on these allegations and also can you say what steps are you taking to address these misconceptions?

Responding to Dr. Rupesinghe’s ‘full-toss’, Solheim accused Sri Lankan journalists of authoring what he called spectacular stories without any basis to sell newspapers. Having ridiculed the local media, Solheim asserted that the mainstream Indian media would never have done intentionally. The writer extensive dealt with the Indian media as regards the Tamil Nadu support for Tamil terrorism during the past few weeks. Solheim declared that the Indian media would immediately correct if they published some wrong story, though the same couldn’t be said about the Sri Lankan media. Referring to the controversial importation of radio equipment, Solheim said that Norway assisted the operation at the specific request of the Sri Lankan government. Solheim said: "Our role was to provide customs clearance; the government of Sri Lanka had purchased the equipment. The government wanted the LTTE to have this equipment as it was felt that the LTTE needed it to inform its community about the various aspects of the peace negotiations. I do not think our decision to accede to that request was a mistake."

Solheim’s claim that the then government of Premier Wickremesinghe had paid for radio equipment for the LTTE was significant. In fact, the Norwegian’s claim should be examined in the backdrop of an article titled Initiating and Sustaining the Peace Process: Origins and Challenges by Premier’s Secretary Bradman Weerakoon in the book edited by Dr. Rupesinghe. Among the contributors were the then Defence Secretary Austin Fernando, chief of government negotiators Prof. G.L. Peiris, chief of truce monitoring mission Hagrup Haukland, peace secretariat chief Bernard A.B. Goonetilleke and top Indian journalist N. Ram.

Having called the installation of new radio equipment in the Vanni as a confidence building measure, Weerakoon revealed that the LTTE had informed Premier Wickremesinghe’s office of acquisition of brand new FM transmitter and its intention to bring it in to the country. The letter dated Oct 1, 2002 had been signed by S. Pulithevan of the so-called political wing. Obviously, Solheim and Weerakoon contradicted each other. Who was telling the truth? Did Premier Wickremesinghe’s government really purchase equipment for the LTTE as Solheim claimed in an interview with Dr. Rupesinghe? If so, why Weerakoon lied? Perhaps, Solheim’s forthcoming book can set the record straight

Weerakoon in addition to being the Secretary to the Premier functioned as the Commissioner General for Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation aka ‘Triple R project.’

Weerakoon also revealed that the equipment was on the way by sea at the time Premier Wickremesinghe’s office received Pulithevan’s letter. Pulithevan was seeking the government’s endorsement as well as swift clearance of the cargo in his capacity as the Secretary General of the LTTE peace secretariat. Weerakoon went to the extent of revealing that the equipment purchased in Singapore had cost the LTTE US $ 111,265 as well as the circumstances leading to the installation of equipment in Kilinochchi. While appreciating the LTTE’s requirement to upgrade its broadcasting capabilities, Weerakoon lambasted a section of the media for undermining the peace process. Weerakoon said: "The media too was largely ambivalent. There were several media men and women, including one or two editors of mainline newspapers themselves, who regularly questioned the wisdom of embarking on a path which would inevitably end up in changing the nature of Sri Lankan polity."

The Island earned the wrath of the likes of Weerakoon who believed our reportage of the Norwegian led peace process undermined the initiative. The UNP, while giving in to the LTTE’s bid to strengthen its propaganda machinery, adopted a strategy meant to silence the military. Wickremesinghe’s government blocked the release of daily situation reports within weeks after the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) agreement came into operation on February 23, 2002 (Incidents continue in East but no situation reports-The Island April 5, 2002). The LTTE also moved swiftly to block the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) run newspaper, Thinamurasu, a Tamil weekly severely critical of the LTTE’s conduct (LTTE bans EPDP’s Thinamurasu-The Island April 5, 2002). Then the shocking closure of the long standing Vavuniya-based radio service especially set up for the benefit of the armed forces and police (Wanni Sevaya closed down-The Island April 7, 2002). The operation came to a close on March 31, 2002. Although, the military appealed against the move, the Wickremesinghe government ignored the plea (Military wants Wanni Sevaya restored-The Island April 19, 2002). The UNP never challenged The Island reports.

Weerakoon made another significant statement as regards the importation of radio equipment. The premier’s Secretary Weerakoon claimed that the government duty amounting to Rs. 3 mn utilizing funds made available to the peace secretariat by the Norwegian government. According to him, Norway provided Rs 12 mn annually for the operation of the peace secretariat. Solheim never uttered a word about Norwegians funds being utilized by the Sri Lankan government to pay duty on behalf of a terrorist group. The then Opposition People’s Alliance (PA) as well as the JVP though being critical of the government cooperating with the LTTE to bring in new radio equipment, never closely examined the transaction. Had that happened, they would have realized the enormity of a deal that undermined the very basis of national security. But for want of a cohesive strategy, the opposition never got down to a comprehensive investigation even after returning to power in April 2004. Sadly even five years after the conclusion of the conflict the situation remains the same that there hadn’t been a proper investigation. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) is irrelevant as regards the war and the rapid expansion of the LTTE following the signing of the CFA.

Dr. Gooneratne writes to Charitha Ratwatte

The then Deputy Director General of the peace secretariat, Dr. John Gooneratne in January 2004 contradicted both Solheim as well as Weerakoon as regards the payment of duty on behalf of the LTTE for the imported communication equipment. In a letter dated January 16, 2004 addressed to Treasury Chief J. Charitha Ratwatte, Dr. Gooneratne requested the latter to reimburse Rs. 3,157,675 duty paid by the peace secretariat to the Customs for the LTTE cargo. Dr. Gooneratne reminded Ratwatte that the peace secretariat utilised funds received from Sweden through premier Wickremesinghe’s office to make the payment on the promise the Treasury would immediately reimburse the amount. Dr. Gooneratne plainly contradicted Weerakoon’s claim that the Treasury had taken a tough position on accommodating the LTTE’s request for duty free privilege. According to Dr. Gooneratne, Treasury chief himself had offered to reimburse the money paid by the peace secretariat on behalf of the LTTE.

The bottom line is we are still not certain whether the actual payment was made utilizing Norwegian funds as Weerakoon claimed or Swedish funds as revealed by Dr. Gooneratne. Solheim had been silent on this issue. But the most interesting factor is perhaps whether the Treasury reimbursed the peace secretariat. Had that happened, the Sri Lankan taxpayer, including those struggling to make ends meet had contributed to the LTTE build-up.

Could anything be as ridiculous as the government paying for the LTTE’s equipment (remember Solheim claimed the Sri Lankan government procured radio equipment for the LTTE) at a time the UNP claimed it didn’t have money to buy even shoes and guns for the military. Defence Secretary Austin Fernando alleged that the government didn’t have the wherewithal to provide even the basic equipment to armed forces. Fernando, who had absolutely no experience in managing the military previously, painted a pathetic picture before the LLRC.

The then government paid various duties on behalf of the LTTE while depriving the armed forces of vital supplies. The following letter signed by S. Pulithevan of the LTTE peace secretariat is self-explanatory. The full letter dated January 26, 2004:

Mr. Bradman Weerakoon

Secretary to the Prime Minister

Prime Minister’s Office

Colombo 07

Dear Sir

Purchase of six Nos. 4 WD double cab vehicles

I write to acknowledge with thanks your letter dated 20th January, 2004

We sincerely thank Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister for having approved the purchase of six more 4WD Double Cab Vehicles for the LTTE peace secretariat. 

We have already paid to M/s Toyota Lanka (Pvt.) Ltd Rs. 9,963,954/-being the CIF value and other charges. THE CUSTOMS DUTY, SURCHARGE, EXCISE DUTY, PAL,VAT AND BTT IS TO BE PAID BY THE GOVERNMENT OF SRI LANKA AS DONE EARLIER. (emphasis mine).

Please be good enough to make the necessary arrangements for these payments. Enclosed herewith is a copy of the receipt issued by M/s Toyota Lanka Pvt (Ltd).

Please convey our sincere gratitude to the Hon. Prime Minister and we hope to achieve together a durable solution to our problem.

S. Pulithevan

Secretary General

LTTE Peace Secretariat

The idiotic UNP leadership never realized that the LTTE didn’t require so many brand new vehicles for its peace secretariat. The UNP and the Norwegians continued to mollycoddle the LTTE even after Velupillai Prabhakaran quit the negotiating process in April 2003. The transaction on six Nos of 4 WD vehicles was an example. The deal was made over eight months after the LTTE withdrew from the peace process. Solheim’s forthcoming book can shed light on many contentious matters.