Wednesday, 20 August 2014

A strategic LTTE-TNA miscalculation and events leading to eelam war IV




The Marga Institute and Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) recently launched Issues of Truth and Accountability Narrative iii Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka at the BMICH. Among the invitees were many diplomats and members of the civil society. From left: Canadian High Commissioner, Shelley Whiting, and European Union Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, David Daly, along with diplomatic representatives from South Africa and Australia.

by Shamindra Ferdinando

The Marga Institute (MI) and the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) on August 15 launched Issues of Truth and Accountability Narrative iii Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka with the participation of a section of the Colombo based diplomatic community at the BMICH.

Although the organisers wanted to launch the book before the 25th sessions of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council last March, they couldn’t meet the deadline. The MI and CHA declared that their effort was meant to present an ‘alternative narrative of the events of the last stages of the war. Godfrey Gunatilleke, Jeevan Thiagarajah and Asoka Gunawardene who spearheaded the project had been influenced by the Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts’ on Sri Lanka, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), Human Rights Watch (HRW), International Crisis Group (ICG), Amnesty International (AI) as well as the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) Jaffna. They focused on special UTHR reports bearing numbers 32 and 34 that dealt extensively with the final phase of the conflict. The team also took into consideration various other publications, including those issued by the Sri Lankan military, Petrie report as well as the International Crimes Evidence Project (ICEP).

Messrs Gunatilleke, Thiagarajah and Gunawardene as well as those who had worked behind the scenes to produce Issues of Truth and Accountability Narrative iii Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka without doubt made a significant contribution to post-war efforts to comprehend the annihilation of the LTTE, widely believed to be invincible on the battlefield. They should be commended for recognising the significance of a statement made by war-time US Defence Advisor in Colombo, Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence Smith that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran hadn’t agreed to surrender, contrary to reports (page 43). A section of the US official’s statement as well as a part of statement issued by the State Department contradicting the then Colombo based officer are reproduced in pages 116 and 117. In fact, The Island exclusively revealed the US official’s comments (Sri Lanka Defence symposium: Now, US suspects credibility of LTTE surrender offer with strap line Dismisses KP, Nadesan as ‘mouthpieces’ with no real authority-The Island, June 3, 2011).

The statement was made on June 1, 2011 at the first edition of the Defence Seminar. Lt. Col. Smith was responding to a query posed by retired Indian Maj. Gen. Ashok Kumar Metha to Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, the first General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the celebrated 58 Division on the second day of the three-day conference that dealt with the combined security forces campaign against the LTTE. In the backdrop of the US relentlessly pushing for war crimes investigation targeting the government of Sri Lanka, it was the most important statement made (from Sri Lanka’s point of view) during four editions of the defence symposium (fourth one ends today-August 20). Unfortunately, the government never made a real effort to build its defence on the statement made by the US official. Issues of Truth and Accountability Narrative iii Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka emphasised that the US official would have been privy to US efforts (page 43).

It would be pertinent to mention here that Smith was responding to Metha’s specific query about the execution of LTTE personnel and members of their families carrying white flags. As Smith was making the statement two years after the conclusion of the conflict, he would have had time to verify claims and counter claims made by various countries as well as the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts two months before. The Panel of Experts released its report on March 31, 2011, though it was available to the US as well as Sri Lanka much earlier. Obviously, the authors of Issues of Truth and Accountability Narrative iii Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka didn’t take into consideration that the disputed US statement was made in the wake of the UN report, hence it challenged the very basis of the US resolution on Sri Lanka adopted at the last Geneva session.

In spite of calling for an impartial evaluation of conflicting and contradictory accounts of the war from different sources, the authors had failed to discuss a controversial move by the Panel of Experts to prevent examination of those making various claims. For some unforgivable reason, the authors had ignored a confidentiality clause recommended by the Panel of Experts to prevent reexamination of allegations for a 20 year period with effect from March 31, 2011. Interestingly, even after 20 years records cannot be released without them being subject to declassification review (page 6 of the UN report). The previous page placed the number of submissions received from affected persons at 4,000 and 2,300 respectively. Messrs Gunatilleke, Thiagarajah and Gunawardene might have felt that the UN had every right to protect those giving evidence inimical to the Sri Lankan government. But they cannot ignore that such a scenario can facilitate ongoing efforts to punish Sri Lanka on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations.

The UN investigation team led by British national Sandra Beidas too, is silent on this issue. Rupert Colville, the spokesman for the OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) declined to comment on their position on the 20-year confidentiality clause when the writer raised the issue with him recently. For some strange reason, the government is yet to take up this issue, forcefully in accordance with an overall plan to challenge those wanting to undermine post-war stability here.

Those interested in accountability issues as well as events leading to eelam war IV cannot fail to peruse Issues of Truth and Accountability Narrative iii Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka. The 150-page publication dealt briefly with some of the issues tackled by The Island staffer C.A. Chandraprema’s Gota’s War: The Crushing of Tamil Tiger Terrorism in Sri Lanka launched in 2012.

However, for want of a comprehensive study of the events, Issues of Truth and Accountability Narrative iii Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka regrettably missed an opportunity to detail the circumstances leading to all out war.

Messrs Gunatilleke, Thiagarajah and Gunawardene wrongly declared that "the GoSL launched an offensive in the Vanni in early 2008 with a clear military objective of defeating the LTTE...." (page 3). "The narrative of the Vanni war begins in January 2008 after the LTTE had been fully defeated in the Eastern Province..." (page 19).

The then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka launched Vanni operations in March 2007, while troops were still battling in the Eastern Province. The 57 Division commenced operations on the Vanni ‘Central front’ on March 5, 2007. Seven months later (mid September 2007), the army opened another front with the launch of Task Force I (subsequently named 58 Division) to clear the coastal area from Mannar northwards towards Pooneryn. In fact, the army launched 59 Division in the Weli Oya in January 2008 to draw terrorists operating in the Anandakulam forest reserve, commonly known as the Mullaitivu jungles.

But nothing can be as wrong as the claim that the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement had ceased to be operative from the time Mahinda Rajapaksa took office in November 2005 (page 20).

Although President Mahinda Rajapaksa formally withdrew from the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in early January 2008, five months after the liberation of the entire Eastern Province, the CFA effectively ended in April 2003 during UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s tenure as Prime Minister. The LTTE suspended its participation in direct negotiations with Wickremesinghe’s government under Norwegian auspices. It would be pertinent to mention that President Rajapaksa sent a top level government delegations twice to Geneva in 2006 in a bid to reach an understanding with the LTTE. The President also accept Norwegian facilitation though his political associates strongly opposed the move. The LTTE ignored President Rajapaksas’s peace offer because it was certain of an outright battlefield victory.

Those interested in knowing the events leading to eelam war IV should closely study US embassy cables which dealt with Sri Lanka during 2002-2010 period. Thanks to Wiki Leaks many important documents originating not only from US mission in Colombo but those in New Delhi, London as well as Geneva can be accessed on the internet. A US diplomatic missive from its Colombo mission in May 2003 quoted the then Japanese ambassador, here Seiichiro Otsuka as having told US ambassador Ashley Wills that the LTTE suspended talks for strategic reasons. Otsuka had briefed Wills after having met Prabhakaran and LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham in Kilinochchi in the wake of LTTE quitting the negotiating table. According to the Japanese envoy, Balasingham had said:"We suspended peace talks to get concessions."

Having suspended direct negotiations in April 2003, the LTTE engaged in a series of attacks, though it never indicated its desire to resume an all out war until August 2005. Prabhakaran wouldn’t have assassinated the then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar on the night of August 12, 2005 if it wasn’t ready for war. But the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s government quickly reiterated its commitment to the Norwegian led-peace process. The government feared to take on the murderous LTTE. Subsequently, Wiki Leaks revealed Norwegian peace facilitators raising the Kadirgamar assassination with London based Anton Balasingham, though Western powers never held Prabhakaran accountable for the assassination.

Western powers demanded that Sri Lanka should continue with the peace peace process. Local NGOs as well as the TNA justified the assassination.

US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said: "We must honour Kadirgamar’s memory by re-dedicating ourselves to peace and ensuring that the Ceasefire Agreement 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 Ceasefire Agreement."

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

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

UNSG Kofi Anan expressed hope that Kadirgamar’s assassination wouldn’t weaken the commitment of the people of Sri Lanka to achieve durable peace.

The UN Security Council stressed that Sri Lanka should proceed with the peace process in spite of the assassination.

Jehan Perera, on behalf of the Norwegian funded National Peace Council declared that Kadirgamar’s assassination was tragic but inevitable.

The LTTE persisted in its attempts to resume what it believed was the final war. The LTTE engineered UNP presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat four months after Kadirgamar’s assassination to pave the way for war.

The LTTE facilitated the then Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory at the November 2005 to create an environment conducive for war. The LTTE believed that it could easily overwhelm President Rajapaksa.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on behalf of the LTTE ordered Tamil speaking people not to exercise their franchise at the presidential polls. It was a deliberate move meant to deprive UNP presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe of Tamil votes. The TNA withdrew its support. When this writer raised the issue with TNA leader R. Sampanthan on the night of November 15, 2005, the Trincomalee-based politician said: "Nothing can be achieved by supporting Rajapaksa or Wickremesinghe. Batticaloa-based TNA heavyweight Joseph Pararajasingham told the writer that the decision was taken after having met the LTTE leadership in Kilinochchi. Both Sampanthan and Pararajasingham stressed that there wouldn’t be a change in the position taken by the LTTE and the TNA. In a related move, TNA MP Sivajilingham dismissed claims that a victory for Rajapaksa would lead to an imminent outbreak of all out war (TNA refuses to change polls boycott stance-The Island, November 16, 2005). The LTTE-TNA move (remember, the TNA declared the LTTE as the sole representative of Tamil speaking people in the run-up to Dec 2001 parliamentary election. The EU in its post-election report asserted that the TNA benefited from LTTE violence directed at its rivals. The TNA never challenged the EU report).

The then UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema told the writer that Wickremesinghe could have easily won the November 2005 presidential poll if Tamils were allowed to exercise their franchise freely. Samarawickrema claimed that Wickremesinghe anticipated approximately 450,000 votes from the Northern and Eastern electoral districts. An irate Samarawickrema said that LTTE-TNA move on the eve of the crucial election stunned the UNP (LTTE action belies ali-koti pact-The Island, November 21, 2005).

One-time Wickremesinghe’s confidant, Milinda Moragoda came under heavy fire at the first Working Committee of the UNP following the election for causing the UNP presidential candidate’s defeat. Moragoda was blamed for claiming a few days before the election that the UNP had caused the Prabhakaran-Karuna split. Some UNPers alleged that Moragoda’s statement prompted the LTTE to deprive Wickremesinghe of victory. Moragoda alleged that his statement was taken out of context. Wickremesinghe opposed the attack on Moragoda (Hot air at Sirikotha over LTTE polls boycott order-The Island, December 1, 2005).

Perhaps the then President Kumaratunga knew the pivitol importance of preventing the LTTE from interfering in the presidential election. Mrs Kumaratunga, on the sidelines of the UNGA sessions to help in this regard (Norway to facilitate presidential poll-The Island, September 26, 2005). The Norwegian embassy or President Kumaratunga’s office never challenged this story.

The bottom line is that the LTTE felt that election of the then Premier Rajapaksa could help it achieve eelam. It was undoubtedly, the biggest single blunder made by them. It was even bigger than the assassination of one-time Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991.