Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Norwegians believed LTTE won’t release hostages Secret missive to Basil Rajapaksa revealed



by Shamindra Ferdinando
Member of parliament and presidential advisor, Basil Rajapaksa, received a one-page missive, on Feb. 16, 2009, from the then Norwegian ambassador, Tore Hattrem. The Norwegian embassy delivered the letter to MP Basil Rajapaksa in the wake of Ambassador Hattrem discussing the situation on the Vanni east front with President Rajapaksa’s brother. Basil Rajapaksa had been exploring ways and means of securing the release of the Vanni population, held hostage by the LTTE, and was in touch with Western diplomatic missions in Colombo, in this regard.

Before discussing the Norwegian missive, it would be pertinent to describe the situation on the Vanni front, at the beginning of the third week of Feb. 2009.The then army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s army, was advancing on the remaining LTTE strongholds, with the celebrated 58 Division and 53 Division spearheading the offensive. As the army stepped-up pressure on the LTTE, on multiple fronts, the Norwegians, too, intervened on behalf of the trapped civilian population.

On the morning of Feb. 16, 2009, Mi-24 helicopter gunships swooped down on LTTE strong points, south of Puthukkudiyiruppu junction. The air force launched sorties in support of the 53 Division, engaged in high intensity combat. Also, on the same day, troops of 5 battalion of the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (5VIR), serving under 53.3 Brigade, commanded by the then Lt. Col. Jayanath Jayaweera (present military spokesman, Jayaweera holds the rank of Brigadier) found two 130mm artillery barrels of Chinese origin in the general area, west of Puthukkudyiruppu, while conducting search and clear operations in the area.

In spite of facing a humiliating battlefield defeat, on the Vanni east front, the LTTE continued to hold the civilian population at gunpoint. Although, the five-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had turned a blind eye to the rapidly deteriorating situation, on the ground, Western powers intervened on behalf of the civilian population.

Hattrem’s note to Basil Rajapaksa revealed Norway’s serious concern over the LTTE’s refusal to release the civilians. The Island recently received a copy of the hitherto unknown Norwegian note, headlined ‘Offer/Proposal to the LTTE’, personally signed by Ambassador Hattrem. The Norwegian envoy was writing to Basil Rajapaksa on behalf of those countries trying to negotiate a ceasefire between the government and the LTTE, to facilitate the release of civilians, held hostage by the latter.

The following is the text of Ambassador Hattrem’s letter, addressed to Basil Rajapaksa: "I refer to our telephone conversation today. The proposal to the LTTE on how to release the civilian population, now trapped in the LTTE controlled area, has been transmitted to the LTTE through several channels. So far, there has been, regrettably, no response from the LTTE and it doesn’t seem to be likely that the LTTE will agree with this in the near future."

The previous government pathetically failed to examine available evidence to establish the circumstances under which the LTTE had held the entire Vanni population hostage, giving the army no other option than to overrun the LTTE.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) headed by one-time Attorney General, the late C.R. de Silva, never analyzed the ground situation. The LLRC lacked the expertise to examine the situation, and important documents, such as Ambassador Hattrem’s missive to Basil Rajapaksa, had never been made available to it. The previous government never realized the need, nor the importance, of closely examining all available information in spite of a section of the international community targeting it over accountability issues.

The Presidential Commission Investigating Cases of Missing Persons, too, never dealt with critical issues, even after the previous government expanded its mandate

Now that the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has delayed the presentation of the war crimes report, till Sept. 2015, the President Maithripala Sirisena-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe administration should take advantage of the situation to re-examine all facts. Unfortunately, the Geneva issue seemed to be the last thing on the minds of the UNP-SLFP national government leaders. The new government seems to be preoccupied by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s desperate bid to make a comeback.

Close examination of Ambassador Hattrem’s letter is of pivotal importance to establish the circumstances under which the war was brought to a successful conclusion. The letter highlighted several issues. Had there been previous conversations and exchange of notes, between the Norwegian ambassador and Basil Rajapaksa, as regards the situation in the Vanni? Who had intervened on behalf of the Vanni population, in addition to the Norwegians? Did the TNA make representations to the LTTE, on the advice of Ambassador Hattrem, to secure the release of civilians? Most importantly, did Norway take any specific actions, after having admitted that the LTTE was unlikely to let the civilians go? Did Ambassador Hattrem share his assertion with Colombo-based diplomatic colleagues, particularly with his Indian counterpart, Ashok K. Kantha (2009-2013).

Ambassador Hattrem took over the Norwegian mission in Kabul, in July, 2010.

Perhaps, the new government should launch a fresh initiative to establish events leading to the annihilation of the LTTE fighting cadre, on the Vanni east front.

The army brought the war to a successful conclusion, on the morning of May 19, 2009, with the killing of LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Ambassador Hattrem wrote to Basil Rajapaksa, consequent to the peace Co-chairs’ abortive bid to convince the LTTE to surrender. The peace Co-chairs, namely US, EU, Japan and Norway, made its appeal on Feb.3, 2009.The full text of the Co-Chairs statement is as follows: The Tokyo Co-Chairs jointly express their great concern about the plight of thousands of internally displaced persons, trapped by fighting in northern Sri Lanka. The Co-Chairs call on the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka not to fire out of, or into, the no-fire zone, established by the Government, or in the vicinity of the PTK hospital (or any other medical structure), where more than 500 patients are receiving care and many hundreds more have sought refuge. We also call on both sides to allow food and medical assistance to reach those trapped by fighting, cooperate with the ICRC to facilitate the evacuation of urgent medical cases, and ensure the safety of aid and medical workers. The LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka must respect international humanitarian law.

International efforts to persuade the LTTE to allow the civilians freedom of movement have failed. There remains probably only a short period of time before the LTTE loses control of all areas in the North. The LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka should recognize that further loss of life – of civilians and combatants – will serve no cause. To avoid further civilian casualties, and human suffering, the Co-Chairs: call on the LTTE to discuss with the Government of Sri Lanka the modalities for ending hostilities, including the laying down of arms, renunciation of violence, acceptance of the Government of Sri Lanka`s offer of amnesty and participating as a political party in a process to achieve a just and lasting political solution and call on the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to declare a temporary no-fire period to allow for the evacuation of sick and wounded, and provision of aid to civilians.

The Co-Chairs will work with the Government of Sri Lanka, India, the United Nations and others to ensure: the internally displaced people from the north are transferred to temporary camps where UN agencies, the ICRC, and humanitarian organizations will have full access and the IDPs will be treated according to international standards and resettled in their original homes as soon as possible and an inclusive dialogue to agree on a political settlement so that lasting peace and reconciliation can be achieved."

The previous government ended the Norwegian peace role here, in mid April 2009 about five weeks before (still an unknown soldier, believed to be a member of VIR, put a high caliber bullet through Prabhakaran’s head). Norway had been spearheading the peace initiative, first on the invitation of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, then Ranil Wickremesinghe before Mahinda Rajapakasa, too, extended an invitation for the same after having won the presidential election in Nov 2005.

Ambassador Hattrem’s note, dated Feb 16, 2009, proved beyond any doubt the credibility of a statement made by war-time US defence advisor in Colombo, Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith, at the inaugural defence seminar on ‘Defeating Terrorism: The Sri Lankan Experience’, during the first week of June, 2011. Smith was responding to a query directed by retired Indian Maj. General Ashok Metha to celebrated soldier Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the Task Force I/58 Division.

This is what Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith had to say:

"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. "

An embarrassed US Statement disassociated itself with the Colombo-based defence advisor’s remarks. The State Department’s Deputy Spokesman, Mark. C. Toner in response to a media query said:... just to clarify, the U.S. did decline invitations to participate in that conference as either a conference speaker or panelist. My understanding is that the defense attaché was there as an observer and a note taker. His comments reflected his personal opinions. There’s no change in the policy of the United States, and his remarks do not reflect any change in our policy.

Those responsible for safeguarding Sri Lanka’s interests didn’t take notice of Lt. Col. Smith’s remarks as well as the US State Department response, in spite of their significance. Smith wouldn’t have publicly denied speculative reports pertaining to offers of surrender on the Vanni east front had he not being convinced they were baseless.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki moon’s panel of experts, too, in March 2011 alleged the LTTE had deprived the civilians an opportunity to leave the war zone. In fact, the LTTE had been trying to strengthen its fighting cadre by forcibly recruiting children, even in Feb, 2009, as the army pushed them on multiple fronts. Perhaps, a section of the international community misled the LTTE into believing that its top leadership and families could be removed to safety before the army moved in. On the basis of the assurance given by those in the international community, the LTTE probably held the civilian cover until the last moment. The LTTE obviously had no qualms about using the civilians, in accordance with its overall strategy to defend the rapidly shrinking area, under its control.

In fact, the LTTE revealed its readiness to hold civilian hostage at the onset on the Vanni battle, in early 2007. But, the UN never inquired into the failure of its mission preventing 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 Tamils 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. The international media, including the Colombo-based Indian media, never took up that issue. Those who had been accusing the government of abuses at the drop of a hat had turned a blind 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). The much talked about Narrative III, too, ignored the UN complicity.

The previous government 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’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.

Would the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration re-examine Sri Lanka’s response as a matter of top priority or face the consequences?

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Jaffna HSZ reduced further




by Shamindra Ferdinando

High Security Zones (HSZs) had been an integral part of the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) defences in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The SLA had no option but to gradually expanded HSZs in the war-torn provinces, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula, to meet the growing threat posed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The gradual expansion of HSZs deprived a sizable Tamil speaking population of their rights.

The Navy and Air Force, too, maintained HSZs, depending on their requirements. The military transformed the Palaly-Kankesanthurai security sectors, to one vast defence complex, in accordance with its overall plan to defend the peninsula against the LTTE build-up across the Jaffna lagoon. For want of an overland route to Jaffna peninsula, troops deployed there, and Jaffna islands, had to depend on supplies through the KKS harbour, as well as the Palaly airfield.

One-time Defence Secretary, Austin Fernando discussed the issue of HSZs, during the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). The CFA came into operation, in February 2003. (Fernando received the appointment as the Governor of the Eastern Province in the wake of Maithripala Sirisena assuming the presidency. Fernando succeeded retired Rear Admiral Mohan Wijewickrema)

Fernando took up the issue, in an article titled ‘The Peace Process and Security Issues’, in Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe’s ‘Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons’, launched in February, 2006.

Having explained the LTTE’s efforts to use men, women and children, to cause chaos in HSZs, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula, Austin Fernando asserted the LTTE wanted access to areas dominated by the SLA. The LTTE project was meant to gain access to HSZs on the pretext of paving the way for public presence in areas hitherto denied to them. The military strongly opposed the move.

According to Fernando, the LTTE, too, maintained HSZs in several areas, including Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Puthukudirippu in the Vanni and Vakarai, Taravai and Karadiyanaru in the Batticaloa district. In spite of demanding access for Tamil civilians to HSZs, maintained by the SLA, the LTTE never gave them freedom in their HSZs, Fernando declared.

However, the then UNP led United National Front (UNF) government, the then five-party Tamil National alliance (TNA) or civil society organizations, never publicly raised the issue of Velupillai Prabhakaran’s HSZs. The Colombo based diplomatic community, too, never realized the need to take it up with Prabhakaran, though interested parties repeatedly urged the government to do away with HSZs. Those who had been demanding clearing of HSZs conveniently forgot they formed part of the overall defence of vital installations.

Gradual release of HSZs begins

The release of HSZ wouldn’t have been realistic, without the LTTE’s defeat. The freeing of long-held land, even in the Jaffna peninsula, couldn’t take place even after the SLA brought the entire peninsula under its control, in early 1996. The SLA always feared that its Jaffna bases would be vulnerable to an assault across the Kilali-Muhamalai-Nagarkovil frontline and therefore Jaffna HSZs couldn’t be done away with until the Vanni was brought its control. The SLA accomplished that task, in May, 2009.

But the release of HSZ didn’t begin until late October, 2010.

Before the release of 425 acres of land, in Vasavilan, east in the Jaffna peninsula, on Monday (March 23), with the participation of President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, as well as former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the army has freed 26,865 out of 34,561 acres of land held by five security forces commands in the Northern and Eastern Provinces since the conclusion of the war, in May, 2009, up to Dec. 2013. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has promised to release 1,000 acres, during 2015.

Land has been released in stages with the people living in areas, covered by the Security Forces headquarters, Jaffna, being the main beneficiary.

According to Defence Ministry records, of 33,156 acres held by the Jaffna command, 26,729 acres had been released as at Dec. 2013.

Security forces commands in Vanni (69 acres), Kilinochchi (632 acres), Mullaitivu (572 acres) and East (132 acres) had held a total of 1,405 acres of land, at the end of the war, whereas the Jaffna command alone occupied a staggering 33,156 acres.

Twelve acres of private land in Vanni, 71 acres in Kilinochchi, 15 acres in Mullaitivu and 38 acres in the East had been released on a staggered basis, as at Dec 2013.

The Maithripala-Wickremesinghe administration recently declared that 1,000 acres of land, currently held by the Jaffna command, would be freed during this year. As at Dec, 2013, the Jaffna command held 6,427 acres of land. The area freed on Monday formed part of the 1,000 identified for release.

The Palaly-Kankesanthurai sector had been gradually expanded over the years to meet the threat posed by the LTTE. In the absence of the overland main supply route, five Divisions, deployed in the Jaffna peninsula, at the height of the war, in addition to the navy, air force and police, relied on sea and air supply lines. All civilian supplies, too, had to be moved by sea and the Jaffna district deployment remained the largest single commitment, until the end of the conflict.

With troops gradually giving up private land, there had been significant changes in the deployment pattern of battalions, assigned to Jaffna, Vanni, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu commands. At the conclusion of the war, in May, 2009, there had been 152 battalions assigned for those commands. That deployment was meant to face a possible low intensity hit-and-run terror campaign. However, as the situation steadily improved, army headquarters reduced the northern deployment by 48 battalions, with more than half the battalions assigned for the Mullaitivu command, redeployed.

The LTTE, too, held substantial land, particularly in the Vanni east, during the conflict, though no one requested the LTTE to give up such land.

Prabhakaran resorted to HSZs to protect his vital installations in the Vanni. The LTTE’s underground complexes, three airfields, east of the Kandy-Jaffna A9, road as well as artillery and mortar bases, had been covered by HSZs. The LTTE operated HSZs, east of the A9, until troops gradually evicted terrorists in series battles, consequent to the liberation of Kilinochchi, during the first week of January 2009. The army smashed through all HSZs, by May, 2009.

Had the LTTE somehow survived, with the intervention of the Western powers, the military wouldn’t have been able to give up HSZs. Those who had been demanding the return of HSZ never backed the military campaign against the LTTE. They never acknowledged that normalcy couldn’t be restored in the northern and eastern provinces, as long as the LTTE retained its conventional military power.

2002-2003 controversy over Jaffna HSZ

In accordance with the CFA, arranged by the Norwegian government, the then Wickremesinghe government made an attempt to at least partially do away with HSZs. The government felt that HSZs could be removed without jeopardizing military bases in the Northern peninsula. The project went awry due to the then Jaffna Security Forces commander, Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, publicly opposing the plan. The nation should be grateful to Fonseka for standing up against the government plan to do away with HSZs.

The government sought the advice of one-time Indian Army Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar, to advice the Sri Lankan military, on security matters, as regards the Jaffna HSZs, during the 2002-2003 period. Subsequently, Sri Lanka obtained advice from retired Vice Chief-of-Naval-Staff, Vice Admiral P. J. Jacob.

Sri Lanka initially engaged Nambiar, who commanded the UN troops, in what was previously Yugoslavia, to review the Jaffna HSZs. His report on HSZs was released in mid 4 January, 2003. It was his second report on the HSZs as the LTTE rejected his first report which basically endorsed the views of the Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Major General Sarath Fonseka.

Jacob was subsequently engaged by the government to obtain an independent assessment on SLMM head, Major General Triggve Tellefsen’s proposals after the navy top brass rejected them on the basis that they would give official status to the Sea Tigers.

Fonseka declared a set of tough per-conditions for the military to give up Jaffna HSZs. The war veteran emphasized that giving up of HSZs should be directly linked to a series of measures to prevent the LTTE from taking advantage of the situation. Fonseka earned the wrath of the then government, as well as all those who had been backing the Norwegian initiative, regardless of its security consequences. Had the then government had its way, the LTTE could have destabilized the Palaly-Kankesanthurai sector. Large scale destabilization/sabotage operations could have undermined both air and sea supply routes, and that would have affected the government position in the entire peninsula. Had that happened, Jaffna would have been vulnerable for a massive assault and the ground situation, altered to such an extent, that the LTTE would taken the upper hand in the Jaffna peninsula.

Fonseka went to the extent of releasing his controversial proposals as regards the Jaffna HSZs in a bid to pressure the UNP leadership to drop its plan. Fonseka imposed tough conditions to prevent the LTTE from taking advantage of proposed resettlement of civilians in areas demarcated as HSZs. The Sinha Regiment veteran also involved the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) in proposed counter measures. Fonseka proposed additional powers and fresh mandate to the SLMM to pave the way for the five-nation grouping to play a pivotal role in an effective de-escalation plan.

Fonseka highlighted the danger in doing away with Jaffna HSZs without taking adequate precautions. Fonseka’s stand should be examined in the backdrop of extremely poor ground situation in the Northern Province at that time. Having suffered a humiliating defeat, at Elephant Pass, in April, 2000, the army held a forward defence line, extending of Kilali on one side to Nargarkovil on the Vadamaratchchy east coast via Eluththumaduval and Muhamalai. The LTTE retained strong forces capable of breaching defended positions. In that background, doing away with HSZs, in the Jaffna peninsula, to facilitate the Norwegian led peace process, could have caused catastrophe unless counter measures were taken, in accordance with Fonseka’s plan. Perhaps, no other army officer, at that time, had the guts to publicly oppose controversial plan to do away with HSZs much to the embarrassment of the then political leadership.

Key points identified by Fonseka

* Withdrawal of LTTE weapons as well as decommissioning of artillery pieces and long range mortars, positioned against military in the Jaffna peninsula. This was to be done with the assistance of the SLMM.

*Measures to prevent resettlement of LTTE cadres, their families and sympathizers close to military camps.

*Possibility of the LTTE having military hardware, including missiles within areas categorized as HSZs.

*Threat posed by suicide cadres operating in HSZs.

*Use of information provided by civilians in HSZs to direct accurate artillery and mortar fire at specific targets.

*Under any circumstances, LTTE will not be allowed to engage in politics (Under the CFA, the LTTE was allowed to enter government-held areas in both Northern and Eastern districts to engage in political activity. The LTTE used that opportunity to organist hit squads to eliminate those individuals whom it considered a threat to the organization).

*Strict controls on movement of those allowed to return to HSZs with certain areas declared out of bounds for returnees, under any circumstances.

*Regular checks on people, at both entry and exit points, at HSZs.

*The need to retain buffer zones within the HSZs to meet any eventuality.

=Prohibition of resettlement of civilians at places that could be used to threaten ship movements, to and from Kankesanthurai, and aircraft operating to and from the Palaly air base.

*Under cover LTTE units exploiting the presence of civilians to mount attacks on the military.

The Army made huge battlefield sacrifices to eradicate the LTTE conventional fighting power. At the height of the war, as many as a million people had to leave their dwellings, in addition to those who had been forced out of HSZs.

Post-war satellite survey

Sri Lanka’s primary High Security Zone (HSZ) in the Northern Peninsula has been surveyed by satellite consequent to a request by a UK-based NGO, namely the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice.

The Geo-spatial Technologies and Human Rights Project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has obtained/studied high resolution satellite images of the Palaly-Kankesanturai zone.

The UK NGO is based at Grayston House, Charles Square, London.

The project has examined the developments that had taken place in the area since the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009.

The strategic Palaly air base and Kankesanturai harbour are located within the studied zone.

The Indian army, too, maintained HSZs during its deployment here (July 1987-March 1990).

Among the advisory council members of the UK, based NGO, are Norwegian producer of ‘My daughter the Terrorist’ (which dealt with female LTTE suicide cadres preparing for missions) Beate Arnestad, Nirmanusan Balasundaram, who fled Sri Lanka during the war and was on the payroll of the Berghof Foundation for Conflict Studies in Sri Lanka, Prof. Adele Barker, who has been critical of Sri Lanka’s victory over the LTTE, one-time Deputy Australian High Commissioner in Colombo, Bruce Haigh, former Sri Lankan journalist, J. S. Tissainayagam, and member of the UNGS Panel of Experts’ Yasmin Sooka. South African - born Sooka joined two of her colleagues in recommending war crimes investigation targeting Sri Lanka.

The US institution has also obtained satellite images of the Vanni east front, where the Sri Lankan Army fought a series of battles, during May, 2009. The study had been carried out on the request of the Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch (HRW) made on May 10, 2009. The study had focused on satellite images, obtained during the early part of 2009 of the Civilian Safety Zone (CSZ).

The Sri Lankan military pointed out that the study revealed 1,346 burials in three separate locations within the CSZ, though some of them were of those who died fighting for the LTTE. A senior official told The Island that the examination of satellite images, obtained during the early part of 2009, would help refute unsubstantiated allegations made by a section of the international community.

The military said that since the conclusion of the conflict, in May, 2009, the government had gradually reduced the strength of the Army deployment in the Jaffna peninsula. At the height of the conflict, the government maintained four Divisions, including 53 and 55 (fighting formations) in the peninsula, though they were relocated after the conclusion of the war.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Premier in unprecedented call for verification of Vanni death toll

Tells South India’s Thanthi TV of need to substantiate varying figures



by Shamindra Ferdinando

The much touted UN claim, of over 40,000 civilians killed, during the final phase of the Sri Lankan – offensive, on the Vanni east front, in Jan-May, 2009, has been challenged.

The urgent need to verify UN claims as well as various other accusations, was stressed by no less a person than Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Premier Wickremesinghe in an exclusive with Thanthi TV, insisted that figures, quoted by the UN, or other organizations, couldn’t be acceptable without being verified. The March 6, 2015, interview couldn’t have been conducted at a better time.

When the interviewer, Hariharan, pointed out that the Tamil Diaspora had estimated the number of civilian deaths, closer to 100,00, PM Wickremesinghe asserted that it wouldn’t even come up to 40,000.The Premier stressed that his government was willing to inquire into all allegations with an open mind.

PM Wickremesinghe pointed out that, in addition to the Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, there had been other official reports that dealt with accountability issues. The Premier emphasized the pivotal importance of verifying such accusations to establish the number of civilian dead. The Premier said that some official reports placed the number of civilian dead at 5,000.

Since the conclusion of the conflict, in May 2009, those who had been wanting to haul Sri Lanka up, before an international war crimes tribunal, propagated varying figures, pertaining to the number of civilians, and LTTE cadres, dead during the final phase of the conflict. In fact, there hadn’t been a general agreement as regards the period called the final phase. For some, the final phase meant the ground offensive, during January-May 19, 2009, whereas others categorized the May battles as the final phase.

The UNP leader has never called for the verification of the UN report before. Now that Premier Wickremesinghe has called for a second look at the UN report, it would be pertinent to examine, the various varying figures, quoted by interested parties.

The previous government should be thankful to Premier Wickremesinghe for taking up this issue. For some strange reason, the previous government refused to push for the re-examination/verification of the UN claim of over 40,000 killed. In fact, the previous government never realized the need to counter specific allegations. It also ignored discrepancy in the number of civilians killed, as quoted by various interested parties.

Ranil and Mangala face challenging task

Perhaps, Premier Wickremesinghe can explore ways and means of securing, UN assistance to verifying accusations regarding over 40,000 civilians killed. The biggest impediment to a transparent investigative process is nothing but the UN itself. Premier Wickremesinghe, and Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, should examine, the confidentiality clause of the Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka. In fact, the confidentiality clause is undermining the investigation. Now that the war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government is no longer in power, the UN should review its confidentiality clause and help the new Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration establish the truth.

The three-member panel comprising, Marzuki Darusman (Chairman), Steven R. Ratner and Yasmin Sooka, has classified almost all substantive records as strictly confidential as well as additional protections regarding future use for two decades, from the day of its release March 31, 2011. Even after 20 years, the release of Sri Lanka records is subject to yet another de-classification review.

The panel is on record as having stated that the report was based on over 4,000 submissions from over 2,300 persons. The tragedy is their submissions had been accepted, without being verified.

Can unverified allegations be the basis for war crimes investigation targeting Sri Lanka or any other country? Unsubstantiated UN war crimes allegations had been the foundation for the US-UK led resolution, adopted at the March, 2014, Geneva sessions. There had never been a similar case where an external investigation was ordered on the basis of unverified accusations. Consequent to an appeal made by the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, the Geneva rights body deferred the report of the external investigation headed by one-time Amnesty International top gun, Ms Sandra Beidas, until September, 2015.

The UN declined either to confirm or deny whether the Darusman report had been taken into consideration by Ms Beidas team. There is no doubt that the Beidas report, too, will have a confidentiality clause to prevent verification its ‘sources’, most probably for a 20-year period.

Suppression of UN report on Vanni

Premier Wickremesinghe will also have to look into the possibility of having the UN release a classified report that comprehensively dealt with the Vanni offensive. The Darusman panel refused to take the dozier into consideration in spite of it being prepared by the United Nations Country Team with information received from national staff (those living in the Vanni region), NGOs inside the Vanni, the ICRC, as well as the clergy, in the Vanni. While the Darusman panel has estimated over 40,000 deaths, among civilians, during unspecified final phase, the United Nations Country Team identified the specific number of dead (7,721) and wounded (18,479), both civilians and LTTE combatants, from mid-August, 2008, to May 13, 2009. The United Nations Country Team admitted that it couldn’t maintain records for only six days, due to the intensity of fighting.

Premier Wickremesinghe, and Foreign Minister Samaraweera, should take up with the UN the contentious issue of withholding a thorough UN inquiry into the Vanni deaths. Now that the Western powers had given Sri Lanka’s Maxwell Paranagama Commission an opportunity to inquire into the Vanni deaths, the UN should review its stand on the classified report. If the UN is still reluctant to release it, publicly, it should, at least, be shared with the Maxwell Paranagama Commission, as well as an international advisory group, led by Sir Desmond de Silva, an internationally acclaimed and prominent British lawyer, with Sri Lankan origins, who was the former United Nations Chief War Crimes Prosecutor in Sierra Leone.

The previous government never bothered to push for the release of the still classified UN report. Premier Wickremesinghe didn’t mince his words when he repeatedly declared, during the exclusive interview with Thanthi TV, that all available information/allegations should be thoroughly and speedily inquired into to establish the truth.

The previous government foolishly believed in hiring costly US PR firms to save Sri Lanka at Geneva. The External Affairs Ministry, the Central Bank and the Presidential Secretariat engineered useless but expensive project. Unfortunately, the previous government, and its hired PR agents, failed to realize that the UN had in its procession evidence which could save Sri Lanka, hence its refusal to release the report prepared by the United Nations Country Team. The report that deliberately dealt with Vanni deaths, from mid August 2008, to May 13, 2009, had, in fact, delivered a decisive blow against unsubstantiated war crimes allegations. The previous government never bothered to press the UN on the issue of suppressed report. Government representatives never made a reference to the secret report during the Geneva sessions. The External Affairs Ministry, as well as Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission, in Geneva, acted as if the report never existed though Darusman acknowledged its existence and inadvertently released the number of dead and wounded at 7,721 and 18,479, respectively.

In line with overall investigation, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Premier Wickremesinghe to probe glaring lapses on the previous government’s part to properly defend the country. Their failure brought the war-winning military into disrepute. Although the then claim of zero civilian casualty was nothing but a joke, the political and military leadership never engaged in a specific project to decimate Tamil-speaking people, or executed surrendering LTTE cadres and civilians, on the Vanni east front.

The then US Defence Advisor in Colombo, Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith defended Sri Lankan Army’s record when a retired Indian Maj. General Metha, who had been here with India’s IPKF (some called it Indian People Killing Force) raised the issue of executions on the Vanni east front during the last couple of days, the assault, as well as killing surrendering LTTE cadres and their families. Metha sought an explanation from celebrated Major General Shavendra de Silva, the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the 58 Division, only to be responded to by Lt. Col. Smith. The US official’s declaration is significant in a sense that he was defending the Sri Lankan military, in June, 2011, a couple of months after the release of the Darusman report. The US must have gathered authentic information since the end of the conflict in May 2009. The embassy would have shared data relevant to the Vanni war, with the British High Commission, without any doubt.

For want of cohesive strategy, Sri Lanka’s case collapsed in Geneva.

Those who had been prepared to accept unverified claims, made by unknown persons, never bothered to seek an explanation from the US official who served the mission, in Colombo, during the Eelam war IV. Strange isn’t it?

Amnesty International findings ignored

The London headquartered Amnesty International (AI) report released in September 2011 (six months after the release of the Darusman report), disputed the 40,000 figure. Premier Wickremesinghe, during his Thanthi TV interview, quite rightly emphasized the requirement to verify various figures, regardless of accusers. The British media outfit, the Channel 4 News, too, propagated the 40,000 figure. The UN, Channel 4 News, as well as all those giving inflated figures conveniently ignored the AI report. Perhaps, Premier Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister Samaraweera should call for the AI report titled "When will they get Justice?" Failures of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which dealt with the final months of the war, estimated the number of civilian deaths at 10,000.

Addressing the House of Commons, MP McDonagh (Labour) on September 15, 2011, alleged, during the last five months of the conflict (January to May, 2009), that 100,000 people died - 40,000 of them civilians. Our High Commission, in the UK never responded to this. In fact, Sri Lanka had never sought a clarification from MP McDonagh, in an effort to disappprove enemy propaganda.

Premier Wickremesinghe performed magnificently when Thanthi TV’s Hariharan pressed him over Sri Lanka’s accountability, as well as related issues. The interviewer was somewhat taken aback when Premier Wickremesinghe reminded him that Tamil speaking people died at the hands of the IPKF. Until then Hariharan was careful not to discuss India’s culpability for atrocities committed on Sri Lanka’s soil.

Premier Wickremesinghe’s remarks on the IPKF should be examined, taking into consideration what one-time Indian Foreign Secretary, J.N. Dixit’s admission in his memoirs, "Makers of India’s Foreign Policy", that India trained terrorists here and deployed them on a large scale destabilization project. Dixit faulted the then Indian Premier Indira Gandhi for setting up terrorist groups in the 80s. Dixit went onto say that launching a terrorist war in Sri Lanka was one of the two foreign policy blunder’s made by Mrs Gandhi, the other being India failure to condemn the then Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Obviously, the Indian destabilization project was meant to pave the way for direct military intervention here.

India lost over 1,500 officers, and men, fighting the LTTE before withdrawing the IPKF, in March, 1990. India never probed accusations made against its army. Indian Premier Narendra Modi, on Saturday, paid homage to the IPKF memorial, in Colombo, a monument to a colossal Indian blunder which almost destroyed the neighboring country. India should at least publicly regret what the Congress leadership did to Sri Lanka.

If not for President Rajapaksa’s resolute political leadership, Sri Lanka wouldn’t have been able to eradicate the LTTE.

Premier Wickremesinghe reminded the interviewer that terrorists, particularly the LTTE, wiped out the Tamil political leadership. Lambasting Northern Province Chief Minister retired Supreme Court judge, C.V. Vigneswaran, for calling for a wider UN probe for genocide of Tamil speaking people, since 1948, the Premier accused him of acting irresponsibly. Recollecting the circumstances under which Tamil terrorists annihilated the Jaffna political leadership, Premier Wickremesinghe told the interviewer, Vigneswaran wouldn’t have been taken from Colombo and made the Chief of the Northern Province if not for vacuum caused by a spate of political assassinations, by the LTTE.

Premier Wickremesinghe emphasised two critical points during the interview.

The UNP leader said that the then President Rajapaksa couldn’t have brought the war to a successful conclusion without India’s support. When the interviewer pointed out that India had categorically denied helping the Rajapaksa government to defeat the LTTE, a smiling Premier Wickremesinghe said: "amnesia is, you know, very common among politicians."

Alleging that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran ensured Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory at the Nov. 2005, presidential poll, by depriving the northern electorate from voting for him (Wickremesinghe), the UNP leader asserted that had Prabhakaran allowed the electoral process to continue without interference, the Vanni deaths wouldn’t have happened. Wickremesinghe claimed that Prabhakaran took money from the Rajapaksas to manipulate the Nov. 2005 presidential poll.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Vanni genocide of 2008-09 had been rehearsed in the EP - Wigneswaran




by Shamindra Ferdinando

Alleging that successive Sri Lankan governments had perpetrated genocide, targeting the Tamils, the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) claimed that the Vanni massacre, of 2008-2009, was rehearsed in the Eastern Province, during Aug 2006-June 2007.

The unprecedented claim was made in a controversial resolution adopted by the NPC, on Feb. 2015. Former Supreme Court judge, and Northern Province Chief Minister, C. V. Wigneswaran, accepted responsibility for the resolution. Alleging that genocide of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, had been taking place since 1948, the NPC called for an UN investigation and refer its findings to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for further action.

The resolution alleged that the Sri Lankan military had deliberately targeted Tamil civilians with aerial, artillery and naval bombardment, especially during Eelam War IV (Aug 2006 to May 2009) and as many as 60,000-100,000 perished over the course of the 27-year-long war. The much repeated accusation, that cluster ammunition had been used during Eelam War IV, was repeated. CM Wigneswaran’s claim should be examined, along with a declaration made by a UK member of parliament. MP Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Labour) told the House of Commons, on Sept. 15, 2011, that Sri Lanka’s war, in its last five months alone, had claimed the lives of 100,000 people, 40,000 of them civilians. The previous government never challenged this statement, even after the writer brought it to the notice of the relevant authorities.

The NPC alleged the military, on Aug 28, 2006, launched a multi-pronged offensive against the LTTE-held region, stretching from Sampoor to Vaharai.

As usual, the SLFP-led UPFA, now embroiled in a damaging internal dispute over ongoing attempt to secure prime ministerial nomination for defeated presidential candidate, Mahinda Rajapaksa, didn’t even bother to respond to the NPC’s allegation. In fact, the UPFA had never really countered the LTTE/TNA propaganda campaign, especially after the conclusion of the conflict in May, 2009. For want of a cohesive strategy, to counter blatant lies, the LTTE/TNA had been able to come up with new theories. The Vanni genocide of 2008-09 had previously been rehearsed in the Eastern Province, was a case in point.

While falsely accusing Sri Lanka of genocide in the Eastern Province (Aug 2006-June 2007), the NPC compared Sri Lanka war strategy to that of Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia.

It would be pertinent to discuss the liberation of the Eastern Province in the wake of genocide charges being brought against the government. The NPC’s declaration that the Vanni massacre, of 2008-2009, had been rehearsed in the Eastern Province, during Aug 2006-June 2007, shouldn’t go unchallenged.

The NPC resolved: "The obligation to prevent and punish genocide, under the Genocide Convention, is not a matter of political choice or calculation, but one of binding customary international law. This Council urges OISL to comprehensively investigate and report on the charge of genocide in its submission to the UN Human Rights Council, in March 2015. The UN Security Council should refer the situation, in Sri Lanka, to the International Criminal Court for prosecutions, based on war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Alternatively, or concurrently, domestic courts in countries that may exercise universal jurisdiction over the alleged events and perpetrators, including but not limited to the United States, should prosecute these crimes."

LTTE readies for war

The LTTE quit the negotiating table, in late April, 2003. The move was meant to disable the Norwegian-led peace process. Having sabotaged the peace process, the LTTE assassinated the then Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, in early, Aug. 2005. In April, 2006, the LTTE made an abortive bid to assassinate the then Army Chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka. The then government had to launch a limited operation to re-open the sluice gates of Mavil Aru, in late July-Aug, 2006. But the government still remained reluctant to go on the offensive. In fact, the military lacked the wherewithal to launch a large scale operation. The Rajapaksa administration engaged the LTTE twice, in Geneva, in the run-up to the launch of a multi-pronged offensive against the LTTE-held region, stretching from Sampoor to Vaharai.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) remained committed to the LTTE’s cause. The TNA did nothing to discourage the LTTE from provoking the government to large scale confrontation. The government had no option but to take military action against an unprecedented enemy build-up in Trincomalee.

CM Wigneswaran had forgotten that the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa ordered the army to neutralize the LTTE threat, on Trincomalee harbour, in the wake of an attempt to sink the troop-career, Jetliner, ferrying nearly 900 military personnel, in early August, 2006. The LTTE also carried out a massive attack on the Muhamalai frontline, causing heavy losses among the army. This was also in early August, 2006. The President’s directive to clear the Eastern Province was his response to the LTTE threat. Hence, the TNA claim that the military campaign, in the Eastern Province, had been a rehearsal for Vanni genocide was nothing but a blatant, lie meant to discredit Sri Lanka.

The LTTE resumed mine attacks, in early Dec. 2005, less than two weeks after Rajapaksa assumed presidency. In early Jan. 2006, an LTTE suicide boat rammed a Fast Attack Craft (FAC) off Trincomalee. So-called political chief, S. P. Thamilchelvan, promptly alleged that a civilian carried out the attack to protest against the ill-treatment of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan military. Thamilselvam’s statement received international media coverage.

Although CM Wigneswaran has now opted to accuse the previous government of genocide of Tamils, during the combined forces campaign in the Eastern Province, the LTTE never made such an accusation. The writer couldn’t remember the Tamil media alleging genocide of Tamils in the Eastern Province. The Tamilnet, in spite of taking a strong stand against the government offensive, never accused the army of genocide. CM Wigneswaran, and all members of the NPC, should be asked to furnish whatever information/evidence they have regarding the massacres carried out by the army, in the Eastern Province, to the new government, as well as to the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

The Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, released on March 31, 2011, never asserted that genocide of Tamils took place in the Eastern Province.

Now that an extremely serious allegation had been made, it would be the responsibility of the CM Wigneswaran led NPC to prove it.

The writer is of the opinion that UN investigators should be given access to both Northern and Eastern Provinces. In fact, the previous government’s refusal to deny them access had been fully exploited by those wanting to haul Sri Lanka up before an international war crimes tribunal. The Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, too, caused an irreparable damage because the previous government refused to cooperate with the inquiry. Had the government participated in the processes, it could have had an opportunity to counter the blatant lies propagated by those who supported Prabhakaran’s despicable Eelam project. The previous government never resorted to an efficient strategy. Instead, it played politics with the issue. The UPFA felt that the mere threat of the Geneva conspiracy was enough to entice the electorate. That project went awry at the last presidential poll. Today, the country is paying a very heavy price for the previous government’s foolish handling of accountability issues.

The new government needs to review the entire process. Setting up of a new domestic inquiry mechanism wouldn’t be enough. Justice Minister Wijeyedasa Rajapakshe, PC, during a recent visit to the UK, declared that the government hadn’t decided to initiate a fresh probe, though the government remained committed for a thorough investigative process. Most importantly, Minister Rajapakshe said that the process, undertaken by the new government, too, would be guided by the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) as well as the international panel of experts appointed by the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

CM Wigneswaran totally ignored the contentious issue of child soldiers. Tamil political leadership never raised this issue. The Tamil media, as well as well-funded civil society organizations, lacked the courage to oppose the use of children as cannon fodder. Now that CM Wigneswaran has called for an UN probe on genocide of Tamils, let me examine, briefly the use of children as STRATEGIC TOOL to achieve military objectives.

All Indian trained terrorist groups enticed children into their ranks. However, at the onset of the war, terrorist groups never had to forcibly recruit children. In fact, they never really targeted children, during Eelam war I (July, 1983 to July, 1987). However, the LTTE had to recruit children as the group rapidly expanded, following the withdrawal of the Indian Army, in March, 1990. Gradual transformation of the LTTE, to a conventional fighting force, compelled its leadership to forcibly conscript children. Prabhakaran deployed children in high intensity battles involving armour, artillery, as well as helicopter gunships. Children perished in large numbers on the northern front.

The situation deteriorated to such an extent that the UN intervened in early 1998, during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the President. The then UN Secretary-General sent his special emissary, Olara Otunnu, to work out an agreement with the LTTE to stop forcible recruitment of children. Although, the LTTE entered into an agreement with the UN, to discontinue to use of child soldiers, Prabhakaran never stopped the despicable practice.

Tamil political parties remained silent. So-called civil society didn’t utter a word. They obviously accepted the LTTE’s right to use children in combat. They didn’t dare challenge Prabhakaran’s right to command/deploy children.

The LTTE refused to discuss the issue of child soldiers, in accordance with a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) signed on Feb. 23, 2003 under the auspices of the Norwegian government. The Norwegian government would be able to clarify this issue. It would be pertinent to recollect what Dr. John Gooneratne, who had been with the Peace Secretariat (Feb.2002 to May 2006) had to tell the LLRC, in Sept. 2010.

The then UNP heavyweights, ministers, Prof. G. L. Peiris and Milinda Moragoda hadn’t been able to convince the LTTE to accept four key matters in the drafting of the provisions of the CFA. The LTTE behaved arrogantly. By then CM Wigneswaran’s TNA had recognized the LTTE as sole representatives of the Tamil speaking people. Therefore, the Tamil political leadership simply looked the other way, while the LTTE squandered another chance of reaching an understanding with the Sri Lankan government. The TNA did nothing to save the peace process by at least issuing a statement supportive of the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe spearheading the peace initiative.

Gooneratne told the LLRC that forcible conscription hadn’t been added to prohibited activities in accordance with the CFA. Gooneratne, then detailed complaints received by the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) from Feb.1, 2002 to Dec. 31, 2005:

Firing of weapons (18), military related abductions (7), assassinations (117), hostile acts against civilian population (207), torture (22), intimidation (127), abduction of adults (1,187), abduction of children (297), extortion (98), harassment (794) and forcible child recruitment (2,089).

Prabhakaran continued with child recruitment, even on the Vanni east battle front, as the Sri Lankan Army steadily advanced on multiple fronts.

Tamil Nadu political parties remained silent. In fact, none of those demanding accountability on Sri Lanka’s part didn’t urge Prabhakaran to surrender. Until the very end, an influential section of the TNA hoped that Prabhakaran could somehow stall the army until Western powers could intervene here.

The following paragraph, taken from Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, released on March 31, 2011 revealed the mentality of the LTTE leaders. None of those who had been shedding crocodile tears for Tamils never commented on the LTTE’s brutality, even after the UN released the report. The relevant paragraph: "In spite of the futility of their military situation, the LTTE not only refused to surrender, but also continued to prevent civilians from leaving the area, ensuring their continued presence as a human buffer. It forced civilians to help build military installations and fortifications or undertake other forced labour. It also intensified its practice of forced recruitment, including of children, to swell their dwindling ranks. As LTTE recruitment increased, parents actively resisted, and families took increasingly desperate measures to protect their children from recruitment. They hid their children in secret locations or forced them into early arranged marriages. LTTE cadres would beat relatives or parents, some times severely, if they tried to resist the recruitment. All these approaches, many of them aimed at defending the LTTE and its leadership, portrayed callousness to the desperate plight of civilians and a willingness to sacrifice their lives."