Wednesday, 7 October 2015

War crimes probe Gotabhaya speaks out



by Shamindra Ferdinando

Mangala Samaraweera had been Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister at the time the LTTE resumed hostilities, in Dec, 2005. Having helped the then Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa to win the Nov. 2005 presidential polls, Samaraweera accepted the vital foreign ministry portfolio.

In accordance with an understanding, with Western powers, President Rajapaksa, soon after assuming presidency, reiterated his commitment to the Oslo-led peace process underwritten Co-Chairs, namely the US, EU, Japan and Norway. Regardless of the government’s commitment, the LTTE gradually stepped-up attacks. The Rajapaksa administration struggled to cope up with the rapidly deteriorating situation.

The LTTE rammed a navy Fast Attack Craft (FAC), off Trincomalee, in early January, 2006.

In late April, the LTTE made an abortive bid to assassinate the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, in April, 2006.

In August, 2006, the LTTE launched eelam war IV with coordinated attacks in the Northern and Eastern Province. The LTTE smashed through the heavily fortified Jaffna frontline. The government launched a major counter offensive in the Eastern Province to bring the LTTE stronghold, Sampur, under government control. The liberation of Sampur was the first major government success. Close on the heels of the Sampur success, as well as a successful counter attack on the northern front, Foreign Minister Samaraweera reiterated the government’s commitment to a Norwegian peace initiative.

Addressing the Colombo based diplomatic community, on Sept. 8, 2006 Minister Samaraweera stressed the responsibility on the part of the government to meet the LTTE challenge. Addressing the Colombo-based diplomatic corps, Minister Samaraweera said: "I must note here that while, the government would like to show the LTTE that any military aggression, on their part, would entail military costs to them, the government remains committed to the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement and is vigorously continuing with the constitutional reforms process."

On behalf of President Rajapaksa, Minister Samaraweera offered to resume immediate negotiations to work out a truce (Forces seize Tigers’Jaffna frontline with strap line...any military aggression on their part would entail military costs to them-Foreign Minister Samaraweera-The Island, September 11, 2006).

However, Minister Samaraweera had been severely critical of the Rajapaksas, especially the then Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, over the way he prosecuted the of war. Rajapaksa and Samaraweera clashed over the former’s decision to close down the Muhamalai entry/exit point until the successful conclusion of the war, in the northern theater.

Samaraweera switched his allegiance to the UNP, early 2007. Having joined the UNP, Samaraweera waged war on the Rajapaksas for years until he returned to the Foreign Ministry last January. Samaraweera consolidated his hold as he received the same portfolio after the UNP victory at the Aug. 17 parliamentary polls.

Samaraweera, in his capacity as the Foreign Minister on September 14, 2015 declared during the General Debate of the 30th Session of the UN Human Rights Council Geneva: "Defeating terrorism in Sri Lanka was a necessity. Today, we have greater freedom to deal with the causes of terrorism and engage in nation-building and peace building as a result of the cessation of hostilities. The armed forces of our country have been hailed in the past for their discipline and professionalism. However, the reputation of the vast majority of the armed forces was tarnished because of the system and culture created by a few in positions of responsibility."

President Maithripala Sirisena made an equally important declaration, on September 30, 2015, at the recently concluded United Nations General Assembly New York. For some strange reason, the Sri Lankan media largely ignored President Maithripala Sirisena’s statement as regards the conclusion of the conflict here.

Declaring that Sri Lanka had defeated one of the world’s most ruthless terror outfit, President Maithripala Sirisena said that his country’s experience could be shared by other developing countries, affected by terrorism. Sri Lanka was prepared to engage in an active dialogue with those affected countries and would continue to campaign against terrorism.

The President said that all forms of war and terrorism were a disgrace to humanity. "Whatever their root cause may be, the challenge of this era is to find ways and means of defeating such brutality against humanity. Resorting to terrorism, as a means to solve grievances, as well as action taken to eliminate terrorism, can create problems. Sri Lanka succeeded in eliminating terrorism, which continues to throttle other developing countries, extending from Asia to Africa and Latin America."

In the wake of Geneva adopting a resolution meant to pave the way for powerful war crimes court to inquire into accountability issues, it would be pertinent to examine the statements made by FM Samaraweera and President Maithripala Sirisena, in Geneva and New York, respectively.

The writer sought former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s assessment regarding a UN mandated fresh investigation into accountability issues here. The Gajaba Regiment veteran strongly opposed an external investigation into Sri Lanka’s war which he quite rightly believed was an internal matter. However, the former Defence Secretary now faced the prospect of a no holds barred judicial investigation never held in this part of the world. It would be pertinent to mention that former US Ambassador in Colombo, Ms Patricia Butenis, called Gotabhaya Rajapaksa a war criminal in a classified diplomatic cable originating from Colombo on January 15, 2010. Butenis also named President Mahinda Rajapaksa, General Sarath Fonseka and Basil Rajapaksa as war criminals.

The following is excerpts of a brief interview with former Defence Secretary Rajapaksa:

Q: Do you really believe the proposed judicial mechanism can help address accountability issues?

A: Execution of surrendering LTTE cadres during the last phase of the offensive on the Vanni east front was one of major accusations directed at the army. Widely dubbed the white flags killings, the allegation brought the Sri Lankan Army to disrepute. There had never been an agreement or an understanding between the government and the LTTE for the latter’s surrender though various interested parties alleged execution of surrendering persons. The proposed court call the then Norwegian Ambassador in Colombo Tore Hattrem (present State Secretary at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs) to verify accusations. Hattrem was in Colombo during the 2007 to 2010 period. On the night of May 16th, 2009, Hattrem visited me at my official residence, Baudhaloka Mawatha, where he claimed that LTTEer Pulithevan had offered to surrender along with some other cadres and their families as all senior leaders were dead by then. Hattrem had been in touch with Pulithevan over the phone. However, arrangements couldn’t be made for the surrender as Hattrem failed to get in touch with Pulithevan to know the identities of those willing to surrender. Primary objective of an investigative judicial mechanism is to verify accusations made by various parties.

Q: Who wanted to establish the identities of those wanting to surrender?

A: That decision was mine. In fact, Hattrem sent me an sms informing me of his inability to get in touch with Pulithevan, hence the effort couldn’t proceed. Several hours later, the LTTE made its last desperate bid to breakthrough the army cordon, leading to some of the fiercest fighting during the closing stage of the war. Perhaps, the LTTE wanted to deceive us by offering to surrender while finalizing plans for their final assault. The then head of the ICRC delegation, Paul Castella, can also help ascertain efforts made by concerned parties to arrange surrender of hardcore terrorists. They probably believed we would lower the guard on the front on the basis of their offer to surrender. In fact, US diplomatic cables, originating from its mission in Colombo, released by Wiki Leaks, referred to discussions among the Norwegians, the US, us and ICRC regarding a possible surrender though agreement couldn’t be reached. Those who had been engaged in discussions can be summoned by the much touted war crimes court. Wiki Leaks identified all foreigners involved in talks, therefore there can not be any difficulty in establishing the truth. Norwegian State Secretary Tore Hattrem at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs can help verify unsubstantiated accusations regarding ‘white flag’ massacre.

Q: Do you think those demanding accountability, on the part of Sri Lanka, failed to take into consideration vital information in the public domain?

A: A Norwegian investigation into their role in peace initiatives here, during the 1997-2009 period, examined a series of Wiki Leaks cables. The Norwegian report, released in late 2011, acknowledged the examination of US cables pertaining to Sri Lanka. Those responsible for the report admitted that they couldn’t study all cables. Will the proposed war crimes court accept Wiki Leaks cables?

Former Defence Secretary Rajapaksa recalled a note, dated Feb. 16, 2009, sent to Basil Rajapaksa by Norwegian Ambassador Tore Hattrem expressing concern over the fate of those trapped on the Vanni east front. Hattrem’s note to Basil Rajapaksa revealed Norway’s serious concern over the LTTE’s refusal to release the civilians. The following is the Norwegian note, headlined ‘Offer/Proposal to the LTTE’, personally signed by Ambassador Hattrem:" 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 military brought the war to a successful conclusion, less than 100 days later.

Former Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said: "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. None of those shedding crocodile tears for trapped civilians dared to at least issue a statement requesting the LTTE to release civilians. In fact, the international community knew the LTTE was preventing civilians from taking refugee in the government-held area."

The war veteran said that the war time UN mission in Colombo could explain to the war crimes court the circumstances under which the LTTE detained Tamil speaking UN employees for helping civilians to escape. When the issue was raised at the UN, in April, 2007, the UNGS spokesperson admitted that their Colombo mission deprived New York of information regarding the unprecedented development. During the latter stages of the fighting, the LTTE thwarted UN attempts to evacuate all local UNP workers as well as those employed by INGOs and their families, the former Defence Secretary said.

Q: The Global Tamil Forum (GTF) declared that the proposed war crimes court fell far short of their expectations. However, the GTF which is closely working with some Western powers in the human rights issue, asserted that the proposed court could do the needful? What is your take on that?

A: Nothing can be as important as placing all available information, pertaining to the conflict, before the proposed war crimes court. The UN can do away with its confidentiality clause to pave the way for the court to summon all those who had directed accusations against the government of Sri Lanka. Now that we are not in power, there can not be any excuse for them to take cover behind the confidentiality clause meant to prevent verification of accusations contained in the Darusman report for a period 20 years from the date of its release. Darusman report was made public, in March, 2011. Let the Diaspora produce witnesses before the court and prove accusations. People have forgotten that the proposed court is coming into being on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations. Three consecutive Geneva resolutions, in 2012, 2013 and 2014, with the third one paving the way for an external investigation, brought immense pressure on Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, none of the accusations were verified. Any statement supportive of Sri Lanka or seemed contrary to the project undertaken by those who couldn’t stomach the LTTE’s defeat, were conveniently ignored. The international community turned a blind eye to war time US Defence Attache Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith assertion that there was no basis for accusations regarding battlefield execution of surrendering LTTE cadres. Smith declared that there had never been an organized attempt by the LTTE to surrender. The US statement was made in June, 2011, over two years after the conclusion of the conflict. Smith wouldn’t have made that statement lightly as he was fully aware of war crimes accusations made by various parties. The bottom line is that none of those responsible for Geneva resolutions, an external war crimes report, or the proposal for war crimes court, bothered to inquire into Smith’s statement. In fact, Lt. Colonel Smith’s statement confirmed Tore Hattrem assertion that the surrender of LTTE personnel couldn’t take place due to his inability to contact Pulithevan. It is important to keep in mind that Lt. Colonel Smith was giving a public opinion on an extremely crucial matter over two years after Hattrem’s move. There is no doubt that the US official know about Hattrem’s efforts as throughout that period Norway and US coordinated efforts to work out an LTTE surrender. The plan could have succeeded if not for the LTTE’s stubbornness.

Q: Will you cooperate with the forthcoming investigation?

A: Former President resorted to military action in the wake of the collapse of peace initiatives. The government even accepted Norwegian supervised talks, outside the country, though those who had backed my brother’s candidature, at the Nov, 2005, presidential polls, strongly opposed to the move. The Norway-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) blamed the LTTE for initiating major offensive action, in August, 2006. The government didn’t have any other option but to fight for survival. We kept New Delhi informed of the action being taken to neutralize the LTTE threat. At the conclusion of the war, in May, 2009, we were accused of massacring over 40,000 civilians during he final phase of the battle. In my former capacity, as the Defence Secretary, I would like those demanding accountability on our part to specify the so-called final phase. Is it a reference to the period (January 1, 2009, to May 19, 2009) after the army liberated Kilinochchi? British media outfit, Channel 4, Darusman and several other organizations placed the number of persons killed over 40,000, whereas the British parliament was told on September 15, 2011, the killing of 100,000 persons, both civilians and combatants during January-May 19, 2009 period. But strangely, the UK headquartered Amnesty International, also in September, 2011, estimated the number of persons killed at 10,000. How could these be such vast discrepancy in the number of dead? A confidential UN report, that dealt with the situation in the Vanni (August 2008 to May 13, 2009), placed the number of dead at 7,700. But the UN report is yet to be released. Let the proposed court examine all relevant information/evidence to help verify accusations. Thanks to Wiki Leaks, we know that ICRC told US in June 2009 that the Sri Lankan Army could have finished off the LTTE much faster if the civilian factor wasn’t taken into consideration. ICRC quite rightly asserted that the SLA could have minimized its losses had it ignored the civilian factor though it chose not to. We lost nearly 6,000 officer and men during the eelam war IV. Of them, about 2,400 died during January -May 2009 on the Vanni east front. Such heavy losses were evidence of fierce LTTE resistance. Hope, the forthcoming inquiry will help establish the number of LTTE cadres dead.