Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Chava explosives cause turmoil



Amidst continuing upheaval in the wake of Chavakachcheri explosives recovery, President Maithripala Sirisena declared open the Deshamanaya N.U. Jayawardena room on the second floor of Jetwing Jaffna. Among those present were Ministers John Amaratunga, Faiszer Musthapha, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardhana, MMBL - Pathfinder Group Head and Founder, Milinda Moragoda, Governor of the Northern Province, Reginald Cooray, Mrs. Wijayakala Maheswarn M.P. and Divisional Secretary, Jaffna, K. Ganesh, were also present. Jetwing Hotels, MMBL – Pathfinder Group, Regency Teas and several others invested over a billion rupees on the project launched during the previous administration. Among the institutional investors is Leon Holdings, headed by a Sri Lankan expatriate hailing from Jaffna, who is a partner of a successful business venture in Europe. The government needs to take maximum possible security measures to thwart LTTE rump from causing chaos again in Jaffna.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Canada celebrated ‘International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action’ at Canada House, in Colombo, on April 4. Among those who had been invited, for the event, were Minister for Prison Reform, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs, D.M. Swaminathan, as well as members of the Colombo-based diplomatic and donor communities, de-mining organizations, and civil society.

Canadian High Commissioner, Shelley Whiting, strongly stressed the pivotal importance of collective efforts to ensure a mine-free Sri Lanka, by 2020. Whiting also referred to the significant progress made, in mine clearing operations, since the conclusion of the conflict, in May, 2009.

The Canadian High Commission, in a statement issued to the media, quoted HC Whiting as having said: "The critical importance of demining work in Sri Lanka is obvious. Clearance of landmines is a necessary prerequisite to long-term peace and security for all Sri Lankans and a key component of Sri Lanka’s broader plans for reconciliation and resettlement. Demining also supports economic recovery and livelihoods, and poverty reduction in the immediate and long term".

The Canada House event took place against the backdrop of the chance detection of four claymore mines, three parcels containing 12 kgs of TNT explosives, about 100 rounds of 9 mm ammunition, as well as one suicide jacket, by the Chavakachcheri police. The police also recovered two battery packs required to detonate side chargers.

The Canadian HC statement avoided reference to emerging threats to post-war reconciliation and resettlement process. Halo Trust and MAG, engaged in mine clearing operations here, have received over 3 mn Canadian dollars, since 2009.

It would be pertinent to mention that HC Whiting had been so concerned about possible setbacks, she went to the extent of urging the previous government to do away with the annual victory day parade to celebrate Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE.

Deputy British High Commissioner Laura Davies, too, discussed ongoing mine clearing efforts in the Northern Province, the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting, during the conflict. In a piece headlined ‘Clearing the way home: a blog for International Mine Action Day’, Davies dealt with British efforts, with focus on individuals affected by war. Davies declared: "Anyone wondering why humanitarian demining agencies are still working here, years after the end of the war, need look no further than the achievements of UK-funded deminers, in just two months, this year. During February and March, the men and women of The HALO Trust (52% of deminers are women) working, with UK support, cleared 3,099 anti-personnel mines and 698 other items of unexploded ordnance, including bullets, mortars and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) from former conflict areas. Their efforts have made safe nearly 73,000 square metres of land in the former High Security Zone, in Jaffna, and at the Muhamalai minefield, in Kilinochchi. These are the highest priority areas for resettlement of long-term displaced people."

According to Davies, the UK has spent over £5 million on de-mining projects here, since 2010. The UK has committed a further £1.2 mn, over the next three years, in support of demining operations here.

Davies, too, avoided the issue at hand.

The government played down the chance detection. Much to the dismay of the former President, the government sought to replace his elite Army Commando contingent with the Ministerial Security Division (MSD). The move caused political turmoil. However, President Maithripala Sirisena halted the UNP move though he publicly lambasted his predecessor for demanding Army Commandos.

Defence Secretary, Karunasena Hettiarachchi, promptly declared that Chavakachcheri explosives didn’t pose a threat to national security. A section of the media, obviously, at the behest of the Yahapalana government propagated Chavakachcheri haul was the latest in a series of detections since the conclusion of the conflict, in May, 2009. The recovery was described as routine. One report quoted authorities as having said that the explosives had been brought to catch fish.

The Joint Opposition sought to exploit the situation. There is absolutely no basis for Joint Opposition accusations that the government suppressed the actual number of suicide jackets and other items recovered, on the night of March 29.

The undeniable truth is that Chavakachcheri had been liberated by troops, of Operation Riviresa, way back, in 1995/96, during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the President. Although the LTTE evicted the Army from Chavakachcheri, during early 2000, troops subsequently regained the area. Since then there had never been an LTTE threat on Chavakachcheri, neither a major recovery.

There had been two major suicide attacks in the Jaffna peninsula. Brigadier Ananda Hamangoda died in a suicide attack, directed at Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva, on July 4, 1996. The Minister survived the blast, though he suffered severe injuries. The LTTE killed Brigadier Liyana Aratchige Rupasiri (Larry) Wijeratne on May 14, 1998. Wijeratne was the outgoing 52.4 Brigade Commander. He was the second Brigade Commander to die since the liberation of the Jaffna peninsula. Brigadier Hamangoda was killed by a female suicide bomber at Stanley Road, Jaffna. Brigadier Wijeratne flew into Jaffna the day before the blast, in what was to be his last official visit. He was relinquishing command as Brigade Commander. The then Colonel Sanath Karunaratne (former military spokesman) had also arrived in Jaffna to replace Brig. Wijeratne. Both Hamangoda and Wijeratne were promoted Majors General, posthumously.

The explosives had been brought to Chavakachcheri, on the night of March 27, and the recovery made on Tuesday, March 28, following a tip off from a woman, living with the man who moved in the deadly items. Having served the LTTE, since the age of 13, the 32-year-old LTTEer appeared to have remained committed to the LTTE’s macabre project. The terrorist hadn’t undergone government-sponsored rehabilitation, though the war ended in May, 2009. As many as 4,000 LTTE cadres are believed to have escaped rehabilitation. Even the rehabilitated LTTE cadres can throw their weight behind a fresh effort, depending on the success of attacks. The Chavakachcheri explosives haul should be examined. The government cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the possibility of the LTTE rump planning a suicide attack in Jaffna. The government will have to examine whether the LTTE rump had plans to target the military or a visiting politician. In spite of the Chavakachcheri detection, President Maithripala Sirisena flew into Jaffna for the opening of Jetwing Jaffna – the latest addition to the Jetwing Hotels family. Located on 40 perches of land, in the heart of the town, the seven-storey building was completed in four years. Although, Jaffna had been liberated in 1995/1996, the hotel project didn’t get underway until 2010 for obvious reasons. Investors shunned Jaffna as long as the LTTE held Vanni, where they maintained large fighting formations capable of taking on the military until the late 2008/2009 period.

Former Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, is on record as having said that some hardcore LTTE cadres, now in government custody, had vowed to achieve LTTE ‘s objectives. War veteran Rajapaksa based his claim on experts’ interviews with some of those terrorists.

Canada and the UK should pressure Tamil groups, based in their territory, that resumption of violence will not be tolerated under any circumstances. In fact, all those countries, which backed the Geneva Resolution of Oct, 2015, should warn Diaspora groups, as well as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), not to resort to violence. Colombo-based diplomatic missions are well aware of TNA Northern Provincial Council member M.K. Sivajilingham’s declaration that Chavakachcheri explosives didn’t belong to the LTTE. Sivajilingham was in parliament during the war. He had been extremely supportive of the organisation. The police turned a blind eye to Sivajilingham’s claim though they questioned Jt. Opposition spokesperson Prof. G.L. Peiris as regards a statement he made at Dr. N.M. Perera Centre.

Western powers should bring maximum pressure on those who represented the LTTE’s interests to ensure post-war peace. A single high profile attack can cause an irreparable setback to the national reconciliation process. Civil society, particularly those receiving large amounts of foreign funds to pursue various projects, should speak against the resumption of violence. Interestingly, the recovery of claymore mines has been made as Sri Lanka rapidly engaged in mine clearing operations. The military and the international community are confident of achieving a mine-free Sri Lanka within the four years. But a fresh bout of violence can upset plans.

Clearing deadly mines, ranging from tiny anti-personal mines to monster anti-tank mines, unexploded ordnance, is a growing industry.

Developed countries and mega NGOs play an increasingly critical role in clearing mine fields in countries ravaged by years of bloody conflicts and in many instances NGOs work alongside governments to alleviate the sufferings of the civilian community. Sri Lanka is one of the countries immensely benefited by government-NGO partnerships to fight the landmine menace.

Although the NGOs largely depend on overseas funding to maintain their services, the Humpty Dumpty Institute (HDI) had brought down the Supremes’ Diva Mary Wilson, during the war, for what it called a Black and White Evening – a charity concert in aid of Sri Lanka’s landmine victims. The concert, organized in partnership with OneSriLanka Foundation and the Cinnamon Grand, Colombo, attracted the rich. With tickets priced at Rs 10,000 and Rs 7,500, the ordinary people couldn’t have afforded the opportunity to see an original member of the legendary Supremes which inspired the Oscar winning film ‘Dreamgirls’.

Thanks to Wiki Leaks, we know the US embassy in Colombo having discussions with the then Army Engineers Mine Action Coordinator Brigadier Chrishantha de Silva (present Army Commander) as regards mine clearing operations. A leaked US embassy document dealt with the situation in the Jaffna peninsula, in late 2006, at the onset of eelam war IV. The US quoted Brig. De Silva as having commented on the situation, in the Jaffna peninsula, in late 2006. "I saw the military’s immense responsibilities in Jaffna, and couldn’t convince Security Forces Commander, Jaffna, Maj. Gen. Chandrasiri. Maj. Gen. Chandrasiri promised me that the moment there is respite in the fighting he will release 30 deminers to work in Jaffna and the East."

Sri Lanka should be grateful to the US for training the Sri Lanka Army humanitarian mine action unit during the war.

In a statement issued to mark the second annual International Day of Mine Awareness and Mine Action, on April 4, 2006, US Ambassador, Robert O Blake, said, "We are proud to be a close partner with Sri Lanka in increasing the local capacity to detect and clear mines. Despite return to violence, dedicated de-mining squadrons, from the Sri Lanka Army, INGOs such as the HDI and the HALO Trust, and private partnerships from Land O’ Lakes, are still dedicated to removing mines and economic development. We hope we’ll be able to assist the government in making Sri Lanka mine-safe and productive, so Sri Lankans can go about their daily lives free from the fear of mines."

The US has provided a massive boost to Sri Lanka Army’s mine fighting capability. In fact, a State Department-funded partnership, between the SLA’s Engineering Brigade and RONCO, has sizably strengthened Sri Lanka’s capability. The US has spent millions of USD to train and equip hundreds of Sri Lankan troops. The US provided vehicles, computers and specialised equipment to the Engineering Brigade, undoubtedly the most productive unit engaged in mine clearing in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka.

The US shared innovative mechanical technology, including the MAXX clearance system - a modified mini excavator with rotating blades, for field evaluations of technology with Sri Lanka. The US assistance has greatly enhanced the Engineering Brigade’s capacity as security forces take up new challenges.

Japan, too, has provided sizeable funds towards mine clearing operations in Sri Lanka.

But, strangely, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO), a known LTTE front, also received funds to carry out mine clearing operations. Funds had been channelled to Humanitarian De-mining Unit (HDU), the implementing arm of the TRO, to carry out operations. The Norwegian People’s Aid, British Mine Advisory Group and Danish De-Mining Group, had given both financial and technical assistance to the LTTE front.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know the origin of funds received by the LTTE front? Did they receive funds made available to NGOs by Japan, Norway or any other European government?

Despite being target of investigations, in several parts of the world, the TRO received sizeable funds. The group was among 30 NGOs which received a staggering 73 per cent of Rs 40.1 billion received as tsunami aid and it continued to raise funds overseas.

The arrest of two persons - Nagarasa Jayaraj (31) and Mariyadas Devaseelan (27) early December, 2004, as they crossed the Muhamalai entry/exit point in an ambulance (WP HH 0608) belonging to Norwegian People’s Aid - revealed the danger in the LTTE taking advantage of even the mine clearing programme. The army recovered five mines, concealed under a carpet in the vehicle. They were members of the Humanitarian De-mining unit, the implementing arm of the LTTE FRONT TRO. Although the chance arrest revealed the possibility of some of the mines, recovered by the Norwegian group or perhaps some other group, ending up in the LTTE arsenal, the government never conducted a thorough investigation.

A devastating attack on HALO Trust at Nallur, Jaffna, in June, 2004, undermined mine clearing operations. The attack, allegedly carried out by several disgruntled ex-workers of the British group, with the tactical knowledge of the LTTE, revealed the difficulties faced by NGOs. The damages were estimated at USD 50,000.

The LTTE introduced mine warfare in the early 80s. Ill-equipped and unprepared government forces and police suffered heavy losses as Indian-sponsored Tamil groups effectively restricted their movements. The first major landmine attack on the army at Thinnaveli, on the Jaffna-Palaly road, triggered unprecedented violence in the city and its suburbs where several hundred Tamil civilians were killed. The mine attack on a three-vehicle patrol, commanded by Second Lieutenant Vas Gunawardene of the CLI, delivered a stunning blow to the army. In fact, it paralyzed the army. The patrol from Madagal camp lost 13 men. It was no secret that India gave them the capability.

Four years later, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), which was deployed in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, had to face the bloody consequences of their folly. Of some 1,400 IPKF officers and men killed in action, and over 2,500 wounded, the majority were victims of mines and various explosive devices.

The JVP, too, received training in mine warfare. Although the Marxist Party managed to secure the assistance of PLOTE to mount mine attacks in the South, at the height of the insurgency against President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s government, it didn’t have the capacity to carry out mine attacks effectively.

To the Army’s credit, it had never been accused of using civilians to clear mine fields. Many armies have routinely used civilians and, in some instances, captured prisoners and suspects to walk ahead of troops. During the ten-year Vietnam War, the US military deployed civilians and captured Viet Cong cadres to clear mine fields. The use of human mine detectors had been widely practiced, despite widespread international and domestic condemnation. The My Lai massacre, on March 16, 1968, revealed the systematic existence of this brutal practice. US soldiers, who massacred over 500 men, women and children, spared about 25 civilians. An Army Court of Inquiry was told that two dozen civilians were spared in case the men involved in the My Lai massacre had to negotiate a mine field.