GoSL, civil society yet to conduct comprehensive study
SPECIAL REPORT : Part 38
August 26, 2014, 7:35 pm
by Shamindra Ferdinando
The recently launched Narrative III examined eelam war IV (August 2006-May 2009) with the focus on the plight of the Vanni civilian population trapped between the advancing Sri Lankan Army (SLA) and the LTTE.
The authors of Narrative III, Messrs Godfrey Gunatilleke (Marga Institute), Jeevan Thiagarajah (Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies) and Asoka Gunawardene (Marga Institute) dealt with a range of accountability issues during the last stages of the conflict. Having divided the Vanni war into two phases (phase I-SLA advance from Madhu to Kilinochchi and phase II from Kilinochchi to Nanthikadal).
The liberation of Madhu on April 24th, 2008 had been the first significant battlefield victory achieved by the 57 Division commanded by Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias. It was the first fighting Division launched on the Vanni front in early March 2007 under the command of the then Brigadier Sumith Manawadu. The then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka placed Dias at the helm of 57 Division amidst initial setbacks. It would be pertinent to mention that the 57 Division had fought a series of devastating battles over one-year period before it could bring Madhu, the first major civilian center under, government control.
Narrative III examined the deplorable failure on the part of Western powers, the UN, the Catholic Church (Bishop of Mannar, Rt. Rev. Drr Rayappu Joseph) as well as the NGOs to intervene to thwart the retreating LTTE from forcing civilians from accompanying them. Narrative III quite rightly asserted that a major humanitarian crisis could have been averted had Western powers stepped in. However, for some reason, the authors refrained from discussing the culpability of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the Vanni tragedy. Obviously, they didn’t want to embarrass the TNA leadership, particularly its leader R. Sampanthan, MP, as well as the General Secretary of the TNA and the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) Mavai Senathirajah, MP. The TNA and Bishop Joseph remained silent as long as they felt the LTTE could somehow turned around the situation. Hence, they tacitly approved the despicable LTTE’s strategy. All those who had been demanding international action against the Sri Lankan government since the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009, ignored the SLA declaration that the LTTE had prevented people from seeking refuge in the government-held area. The SLA warning came ahead of the 57 Division liberating Madhu. Narrative III referred to the LTTE closing the entry/exit points at Uliyankulam, on the Vavuniya-Mannar road and Omanthai, north of Vavuniya.
The so-called civil society turned a blind eye to what was happening on the ground. In fact, the Marga Institute and CHA should examine their conduct during the conflict. They should explain their failure to intervene on behalf of the Vanni population at least now. In fact, The Island revealed the LTTE blocking civilian movements a year before, though Western embassies and well-funded NGOs ignored the plight of Tamil civilians. The TNA leadership remained tight lipped.
EPRLF MP Suresh Premachandran, a vociferous critic of the Sri Lankan government and a leading advocate of an international war crime probe targeting the government never raised the issue. The main Opposition party, the UNP, too, remained silent, though it was aware of the developing crisis in the Vanni.
The UN never inquired into the failure of its mission in Colombo to save the Vanni population even after The Island revealed Velupillai Prabhakaran stopping civilians leaving the area under his control. The UN mission in Colombo refused to act even after the LTTE detained Tamil UN workers for helping civilians to escape (LTTE detains UN workers-The Island, April 20th, 2007). The revelation was made a year before the 57 Division fought its way into Madhu. Would you be surprised that there hadn’t been a single follow-up story in both the print and electronic media other than The Island? The Colombo based diplomatic community maintained silence. Those who had been accusing the government of abuses at the drop of a hat had turned a Nelsonian eye to what was happening, though The Island vigorously followed-up the story (UN had talks with Tigers with strap line UN workers in LTTE custody-The Island, April 23, 2007), (Sri Lanka urges UN not to shield Tigers-The Island, April 25, 2007), (UN HQ admits Colombo office kept it in the dark-The Island, April 28, 2008) Narrative III, too, ignored the UN complicity.
The government, too, should be blamed for its pathetic failure to closely examine events leading to the final confrontation in the Mullaitivu district, once considered impregnable. The government’s failure is inexcusable. The government is still struggling on the diplomatic front for want of a clear strategy. The government’s failure had allowed some of those who had been eagerly waiting for an ultimate LTTE battlefield victory to move the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) against the country.
Now that President Mahinda Rajapaksa has appointed an International Advisory Council (IAC) headed by Sir Desmond Silva, QC, to advice the presidential commission headed by retired High Court judge Maxwell Paranagama investigating accountability issues, the government should place all available information, including US diplomatic cables now in the public domain thanks to whistle blowing website Wiki Leaks, pertaining to the conflict before the expert council.
The government shouldn’t hesitate to back its case with all available information, though some may tend to oppose discussing the infamous Indian intervention here. But as Paranagama’s commission is empowered to investigate external intervention among other factors, the government cannot afford to formally place the relevant information before the investigators. In fact, investigations, including the one conducted by the UN cannot ignore the Indian intervention leading to a bloody battle in the Mullaitivu district three decades later. One-time Indian Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit in his memoirs titled Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun to Yashwant Sinha launched in 2004 admitted the Indian role in terrorism. As the top Indian diplomat based in Colombo at the time of the signing of the Indo-Lanka peace accord in July 1987, there couldn’t be a better person than Dixit to acknowledge New Delhi’s guilt. It would be important to study Dixit’s explanation for the destabilization of the JRJ administration at the behest of the then Indian Premier Indira Gandhi. Although the writer had discussed the Dixit affair on many occasions before, it would be pertinent to discuss how the Indian envoy justified the terrorism project. Dixit said: "India’s involvement in Sri Lanka, in my assessment, was unavoidable not only due to the possible ramifications of the Sri Lankan government’s oppressive and discriminating policies against its Tamil citizens but also in terms of India’s national concerns due to the Sri Lankan government’s evolving security connections with the US, Pakistan and Israel," (Page 144). Dixit went on to say: "It would be relevant to analyze India’s motivations and actions vis-a-vis Sri Lanka in the larger perspective of the international and regional strategic environment obtaining between 1980 and 1984," (page 144).
Having accused the US and Pakistan of creating in Sri Lanka what he called a politico-strategic pressure point against India and JRJ of establishing substantive defence and intelligence contacts with the US, Pakistan and Israel, Dixit paid a glowing tribute to Premier Gandhi for steering the country in the face of daunting foreign policy challenges. Interestingly, Dixit faulted Mrs Gandhi on two issues. "The two foreign policy decisions on which she could be faulted are: her ambitious response to the Russian intrusion into Afghanistan and her giving active support to Sri Lankan Tamil militants. Whatever the criticisms about these decisions, it cannot be denied that she took them on the basis of her assessments about India’s national interests. Her logic was that she could not openly alienate the former Soviet Union when India was so dependent on that country for defence supplies and technologies. Similarly, she could not afford the emergence of Tamil separatism in India by refusing to support the aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils," (page 147).
Narrative III, too, had failed to at least briefly discuss India’s culpability. Successive Sri Lankan government’s hadn’t realized the pivotal importance of examining the entire gamut of issues and events leading to the Nanthikadal battle. Had there been a genuine post-war study, Sri Lanka could have easily exposed Dixit’s lie as regards JRJ having overt or covert defence relationships with the US, Israel, Pakistan and China. In fact, Sri Lanka never felt the need to expand the SLA until India provided Tamil terrorists the required expertise to mount a coordinated ambush in July 1983. The loss of 13 soldiers in a single confrontation stunned the SLA leadership in Jaffna. The poorly equipped and ill-trained SLA reacted savagely causing death and destruction. JRJ had no option but to seek US military assistance. Israel stepped-in on behalf of the US along with China and Pakistan. JRJ was reacting to Indian sponsored terrorism, though Dixit propagated a lie. There is absolutely no basis for Dixit’s assertion that JRJ’s relationship with the US, China, Pakistan and Israel prompted Delhi’s intervention here. Plainly, India’s motivations as well as actions had been prompted by domestic political and security reasons or the Tamil Nadu factor.
A new role for LKIIRSS
Perhaps, the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS) which functions under the auspices of the External Affairs Ministry should undertake a comprehensive study into the conflict without further delay. Had there been a well researched effort, the country could have countered unsubstantiated allegations directed against the armed forces and at the same time exposing those human rights champions, who had refused to throw a lifeline to Tamil civilians. LKIIRSS can begin with a study of Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka (1997-2009). The Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI) and School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) should be complimented for producing an excellent report that dealt with the conflict here. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan government hadn’t studied the Norwegian report either. The government simply refused to cooperate with the CMI and SOAS, hence missing another opportunity to present its case. The government refused to cooperate with the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka. Had authors of Narrative III perused the Norwegian report, they would have known that the LTTE forced civilians to accompany retreating LTTE units in the Eastern Province, at a time the government hadn’t even thought of launching an offensive in the Northern Province.
The Norwegian report revealed the LTTE’s use/deployment of a human shield at the onset of eelam war IV.
The report was based on interviews with over 120 persons conducted in the US, Europe and India due to Sri Lanka’s refusal to cooperate with the CMI and SOAS. Former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, several of their advisors and staff, people close to the LTTE, Norwegian politicians and officials, members of the Sri Lanka ceasefire monitoring mission, Indian officials as well as ICRC and UN officials had been among those interviewed by the CMI and SOAS.
Sri Lanka not only failed to present its case before the Norwegian-hired investigators, it didn’t at least study the report, thereby missing an opportunity to expose the murderous nature of the LTTE and those who turned a blind eye to atrocities committed by Prabhakaran.
Commenting on bloody fighting for Sampur in the wake of the SLA recapturing the predominately Muslim township of Muttur, in mid 2006, the Norwegian report said: "The LTTE is pushed southwards and forces the civilian population to withdraw with them. Large number of civilians get trapped as an LTTE ‘human shield’ in the battle zones on the Eastern front. ICRC manages to broker a brief ceasefire to let civilians out," (Chapter 6: War, Victory and Humanitarian Disaster- page 61).
This information couldn’t have come from anyone else than the ICRC. Although, the ICRC insists that it cannot discuss sensitive issues publicly, the Geneva-based humanitarian agency had obviously helped the Norwegian investigation. A US diplomatic missive from Geneva dated July 15, 2009, a month after the conclusion of the conflict, should be examined against the backdrop of knowledgeable ICRC officials being interviewed by CMI/SOAS on behalf of the Norwegian government.
The presidential commission investigating atrocities should seek to clarify relevant issues with the ICRC. Now that the ICRC had shared information with the US and ICRC, it couldn’t have any valid reason not to discuss the same with the presidential commission or the International Advisory Council led by Sir Desmond Silva.
The then US ambassador in Geneva in a message to Washington, quoted the ICRC Head of Operations for South Asia, Jacque de Maio as having told him on July 9, 2009: The LTTE had tried to keep civilians in the middle of a permanent state of violence. The LTTE saw the civilian population as a ‘protective asset’ and kept its fighters embedded amongst them. The LTTE commanders’ objective was to keep the distinction between civilian and military assets blurred. They would often respond positively when the ICRC complained to the LTTE about stationing weapons at a hospital, for example. The LTTE would move the assets away, but as they were constantly shifting these assets, they might just show up in another unacceptable place shortly thereafter. De Maio, now in charge of ICRC operations in Gaza and Israel said: "It would be hard to state that there was a systematic order to LTTE fighters to stick with civilians in order to draw fire. Civilians were indeed under ‘physical coercion not to go here or there. Thus, the dynamics of the conflict were that civilians were present all the time. This makes it very difficult to determine at what point such a situation becomes a case of ‘human shields.’