Tuesday, 29 July 2014

A contradictory US diplomatic cable from Colombo

How the media influenced Blake to believe P’karan, 300 terrorists committed suicide on the night of May 16/17



The army invited Defense Advisors/Attaches of seven countries, from USA, UK, Japan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Maldives to visit the Vanni in December 2008 ahead of the successful assault on Kilinochchi. The visitors represented three of the Co-Chairs to the Norwegian-led peace process, namely the USA, UK and Japan. Among the group was US Defence Advisor, Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith. The group is pictured receiving a briefing at a military base in the Vanni. 
(Pic courtesy SLA hq)

by Shamindra Fedinando

Since the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009, the Sri Lankan government has spent a colossal amount of taxpayers’ money to counter war crimes allegations directed against the leadership, political as well as the military.

Expensive foreign PR firms have engaged in unsuccessful propaganda campaigns on behalf of the government of Sri Lanka. The foreign PR projects were in addition to the government’s own initiatives, both here and abroad. The passage of US led resolution 25/1 in March meant that government efforts have pathetically failed and the administration is now under investigation. The resolution paved the way for the appointment of a team of investigator under the leadership of Ms Sandra Beidas, formerly of the London headquartered Amnesty International.

Sri Lanka’s decision not to cooperate with the UN investigation team, will not have a bearing on its final report scheduled to be revealed at the 28th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) next March. Sri Lanka will have to face the consequences in spite of New Delhi strongly opposing the investigative mechanism. In fact, India’s criticism of what it called an intrusive mechanism is irrelevant as as far the Western block seeking a regime change here is concerned. Having backed two previous resolutions moved by the US in 2012 and 2013, India skipped the vote this year.

With the recent appointment of an International Advisory Panel (IAP) to the Presidential Commission to investigate cases of alleged disappearances of persons in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the government should re-examine the entire gamut of issues. The government shouldn’t hesitate to closely study projects undertaken by foreign PR firms on its behalf. Consequent to the broadening of the scope of the Presidential Commission’s mandate, it is of pivotal importance to thoroughly examine the entire range of accusations, as well as Sri Lanka’s response. Sir Desmond de Silva functions as Chairman of the IAP which comprises Sir Geoffrey Nice and Professor David Crane. The three-member Presidential Commission, comprises Maxwell Parakrama Paranagama (Chairman), Mrs. Suranjana Vidyaratne and Mrs. Mano Ramanathan.

For want of a cohesive strategy, the government didn’t even realize the need to study the Wiki Leaks revelations pertaining to Sri Lanka’s conflict, though the Norwegians did, probably for entirely a different reason. Last week, the writer discussed a confidential discussion the then Geneva based US ambassador Clint Williamson had with ICRC head of operations for South Asia, Jacque de Maio on July 9, 2009 as regards war crimes allegations. If not for whistle blowing Wiki Leaks, we wouldn’t have known what transpired at the discussion. In a cable dated July 15, 2009 originating from the US mission in Geneva, Williamson quoted de Maio as having said: "...In fact, the army actually could have won the military battle faster with higher civilian casualties, yet chose a slower approach which led to a greater number of Sri Lankan military deaths."

The ICRC official declared that military actions on the Vanni front didn’t amount to genocide. Sri Lankan government or those PR firms on the payroll of the government never cited the ICRC official, though there couldn’t have been a better statement than the Wiki Leaks cable to counter accusations of genocide. The UNHRC couldn’t have ignored that particular statement attributed to de Maio now in charge of ICRC operations in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

A secret US diplomatic cable

from Colombo

Many secret diplomatic cables authorized by war-time US ambassador in Colombo Robert O. Blake is now in the public domain, though the government never made an attempt to analyze them. Had there been a real effort, the government could have had a better defence in the face of unsubstantiated allegations.

Perhaps one of the most important cables authored by ambassador Blake dealt with desperate Norwegian efforts to arrange a ceasefire agreement meant to facilitate a mediated surrender of the remaining LTTE terrorists trapped on the Vanni front. Ambassador Blake revealed his attempts to convince Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and the then Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama to ensure a mediated surrender as well as maximum restraint on the part of the military.

Ambassador Blake’s missive, authored perhaps two or three days before troops gunned down LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon should be studied with a statement made by wartime US Defence advisor Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith at the first Defence Seminar in Colombo organised by army headquarters, in early June 2011.

The US official questioned the authenticity of surrender offers made by various persons on behalf of the LTTE as the fighting cadre was about to collapse. The soldier was responding to a query posed by retired Indian Army officer Maj. Gen. Ashok Metha to General Officer Commanding the celebrated 58 Division, Maj Gen. Shavendra Silva.

Lt. Col. Lawrence said: "Hello, may I say something to a couple of questions raised. I’ve been the defence attaché here at the US Embassy since June 2008. Regarding the various versions of events that came out in the final hours and days of the conflict – from what I was privileged to hear and to see, the offers to surrender that I am aware of seemed to come from the mouthpieces of the LTTE – Nadesan, KP – people who weren’t and never had really demonstrated any control over the leadership or the combat power of the LTTE. So their offers were a bit suspect anyway, and they tended to vary in content hour by hour, day by day. I think we need to examine the credibility of those offers before we leap to conclusions that such offers were in fact real."

"And I think the same is true for the version of events. It’s not so uncommon in combat operations, in the fog of war, as we all get our reports second, third and fourth hand from various commanders at various levels that the stories don’t seem to all quite match up."

"But I can say that the version presented here so far in this is what I heard as I was here during that time. And I think I better leave it at that before I get into trouble."

Lt. Col. Smith obviously didn’t believe in what his own ambassador’s assertion that the LTTE wanted to surrender. In fact, the US embassy in Colombo unwittingly revealed that those who had sought to arrange a ceasefire, in fact, had no control over what Lt. Col. Smith described as the the leadership or the combat power of the LTTE.

Let me reproduce verbatim what the US ambassador said about LTTE giving up arms. Captioned LTTE pitches surrender, it was part II of a long cable, which discussed several relating issues. "Norwegian ambassador Hattrem called Ambassador (Blake) late evening May 16 to report that he had received a phone call from Selvarasa Padmanathan (KP) stating that the LTTE were prepared to surrender without conditions to a neutral third party. Ambassador called ICRC head of delegation Paul Castella, who said he had been in conversation with the government of Sri Lanka and that ICRC staff were prepared to go into the conflict zone by military helicopter. Castella said that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had agreed to the arrangement, but first wanted the names of the LTTE leaders who were prepared to surrender. Despite helpful efforts from Norway and SCA Acting DAS Owen, the LTTE has yet to provide such a list."

Obviously, KP had failed to secure Prabhakaran’s blessings for his efforts. If KP had received Prabhakaran’s consent, he could have provided a list of names of those wanting to surrender to Defence Secretary Rajapaksa through Castella. In fact, Castella could shed light on the situation on the ground as the government had allowed the ICRC international staff to visit the war zone though other foreign agencies were deprived of that opportunity. Consequent to the Vanni east not being accessible overland due to fierce fighting, the ICRC/World Food Programme (WFP) moved essential supplies by sea beginning February 10, 2009 and also evacuated the wounded from war zone to Pulmoddai. The lCRC suspended the operation on May 9, about a week before KP made his offer to the Norwegians. The bottom line is that ICRC international staff went into the war zone for the last time on May 9. The LTTE had an opportunity to negotiate with the ICRC during the February 10-May 9 period. There is no doubt that even KP was aware of the ICRC operation.

Sea Tiger leader Thillaiambalam Sivanesan alias Soosai  wouldn’t have allowed his wife, Satyadevi and children to make an attempt to escape by sea on May 14, if there was the slightest chance of having the international community working out a truce. Satyadevi was the sister of Satyanathan, the first LTTE cadre to die at the hands of the army on Nov 27, 1982. The LTTE observed the day as Great Heroes Day, an annual event until 2008.

Wounded LTTE fighting cadre denied treatment at Pulmoddai

During February 10-May 9, 2009 operation, the ICRC evacuated over 14,000 wounded and their relatives from Puthumathalan to Pulmoddai. Only Castella or those ICRC foreign staff who went ashore during that period helped ascertain whether the LTTE made an attempt to surrender through the ICRC. The Secretary General’s Panel of Experts’ on Accountability in Sri Lanka obviously had received help from the ICRC. According to the PoE’s report released on March 31, 2011, the LTTE leadership prevented the ICRC from evacuating wounded LTTE cadres. The PoE said: "In all, the ICRC evacuated 14,000 wounded persons and their relatives from the second and third no fire zones and delivered around 2,350 metric tons of food to Mullaivaikkal. Those evacuated were all civilians, as the LTTE did not permit its cadres to leave the conflict area for treatment (page 32/point number 108). Those evacuated to Pulmoddai, north of Trincomalee received treatment from a special Indian medical delegation.

The US embassy cable that dealt with KP’s move, also discussed other issues, including Prabhakaran and senior cadres committing suicide on May 16. Obviously, the US embassy took reports on mass suicides seriously. Otherwise, the mission wouldn’t have felt the need to inform the State Department of the possibility. The US embassy quoted Toronto-based Tamil journalist D.B.S. Jeyaraj as having said: "Speculation is rife among knowledgeable circles in Colombo that Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is no more among the living. It is widely believed that the 54- year- old Tiger supremo who was born on November 26, 1954 has committed suicide along with more than 300 of his deputies and senior cadres in the Mullivaaikal area of Karaithuaipatru division in Mullaitivu district."

Having acknowledged that it couldn’t independently verify Jeyaraj’s claim, the embassy said that the speculative report appeared to be based on several large explosions heard from inside the small LTTE controlled area on the night of May 16-17.

The Colombo based diplomatic community believed anything. The US embassy was no exception. They obviously fashioned their policy on the basis of assessments made by those who propagated what some diplomatic missions wanted to hear. In an article titled War in Wanni: Why the Tigers are down but not out published by a section of the local press on December 20, 2008, Jeyaraj asserted that as the armed forces found LTTE defences impregnable they gained territory mainly due to superior tactical maneuvering. Having asserted that of some 4,000-4,500 cadres killed in eelam war IV, 3,000-3,500 were inexperienced young fighters, Jeyaraj declared that Prabhakaran held in reserve the greater or best part of his fighting formations. The veteran columnist declared that the ‘finest and fittest’ were being preserved for use at a later stage. Asserting that Prabhakaran had as many as 50,000 cadres to face troops advancing on multiple fronts, Jeyaraj described 25,000 to 30,000 as ‘fighting fit.’ Those categorized as fighting fit included 12,000 to 15,000 well trained experienced cadres. Referring to severe damages caused by the Sri Lankan navy to the LTTE’s sea supply line, Jeyaraj indicated that the LTTE may have restored the supply line. "In recent times there seems to have been a marked improvement in procuring supplies. This in turn is reflected in the battlefield where Tigers are raining shells and firing off myriad rounds. This means that either the Tigers have streamlined their supply modes again or those agencies that were helping Sri Lanka to restrict Tiger supplies are letting the LTTE off the hook or a combination of both."

The Sri Lankan military proved Jeyaraj wrong ten days later. Troops liberated Paranthan before overrunning LTTE defence line at Elephant Pass and then smashed through Prabhakaran’s Kilinochchi defences. Troops fully secured Kilinochchi by January 1, 2009. The loss of Paranthan, Elephant Pass and Kilinochchi within days meant that the LTTE no longer retained the capability to defend its bases on the Vanni east front. Although the LTTE realized the pathetic ground situation it was facing a section of the diplomatic community obviously believed in the theory propagated by Jeyaraj. Had they realized the gravity of the situation, they would made an earlier bid to arrange a ceasefire between the warring parties. Both the army and the LTTE could have avoided thousands of deaths if Western powers managed to arrange a ceasefire to pave the way for the LTTE to surrender. But as long as they felt that the LTTE could somehow turn around the situation, they choose to ignore the carnage. KP’s move to arrange a ceasefire made in the late hours of May 16, 2009 apart of being too late, lacked the support of Prabhakaran.

Front-line fighting formations lost a staggering 2,350 officers and men on multiple fronts during January-May 19, 2009. A further 70 personnel were categorized as missing in action. Deaths due to other reasons other than combat during the same period were placed at 334. Thousands received injuries. The losses suffered on the Vanni east front during the first five months of 2009 were over 100 per cent when compared with battlefield losses of the previous year. For the whole of 2008, the SLA lost 2,174 killed and 43 missing in action.