SPECIAL REPORT : Part 131
By Shamindra Ferdinando
About three weeks before the Army had breached LTTE defences on the Vanni east front, to rescue over 100,000 Tamils, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator (R/HC) in wartime Sri Lanka, Neil Bhune, estimated the maximum number of civilians trapped there at 180,000.
Bhune made the revelation at a meeting of the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance (CCHA) on March 30, 2009, at the Defence Ministry, chaired by the then Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, Mahinda Samarasinghe.
The meeting took place in the wake of a series of severe setbacks experienced by the LTTE on the Vanni east front. (The Army inflicted the worst defeat on the LTTE a few days later.) The Defence Ministry discussion covered the situation in the Vanni as well as the Eastern Province. It was the 26th CCHA meeting. At the onset, Bhune explained the situation in the Vanni, with the focus on the area, east of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road. Let me reproduce the relevant section titled ‘humanitarian situation in the Vanni’ from the minutes of that particular meeting: "The UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Mr. Neil Buhne, raised concerns of the safety and security of civilians in the No Fire Zone. The UN estimates approximately 120,000 to 180,000 civilians to be trapped, while many are trying to leave, they are leaving at own risk. Mr. Buhne mentioned of a staff member’s wife who had stepped on a landmine. Mr. Buhne informed that shelters have been damaged by floods and only 500 wells were functioning providing water covering 1/5 of needs. A shipment of food and other items is to leave tonight or on 01 April since the last shipment on 21st March. The R/HC reiterated that medical items, shelter materials and chlorine tablets are urgent requirements to be sent. These need to be cleared, including the hygiene kits. ICRC evacuations have brought over 7,000 patients and bystanders and have been received by the GoSL."
Minister Samarasinghe told the gathering that there had been reports regarding shelters and food provided to the displaced being used by the LTTE. Basil Rajapaksa, M.P., Senior Advisor to the President, said that food would be provided continuously regardless of varying figures quoted by different parties.
The minutes of the crucial meeting are available with The Island. In fact, the entire set of documents, pertaining to all CCHA meetings, are with the newspaper. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa set up CCHA in Oct. 2006.
Among those who had been present at the meeting were the then US Ambassador in Colombo, Robert Blake, the then presidential advisor, Basil Rajapaksa, MP, and Philippe Duamelle, the then UNICEF Representative.
There hadn’t been any reference to the possibility of the war being brought to a rapid conclusion due to failure on the part of Western powers to convince the LTTE to surrender.
On April 21, 2009, the Army breached LTTE defences to pave the way for trapped civilians to escape in large numbers. In spite of having suffered a debilitating setback, at Anandapuram, during the first week of April, 2009, followed by breaching of its defences on April 21, 2009, the LTTE still sought to work out a deal to suit its future strategy.
It would be pertinent to mention that the CCHA meeting on March 30, 2009, ended with the participants deciding to meet again on May 11, 2009, at 11.30 am. But that meeting never took place. The government never received a request from foreign members of the CCHA to call a special meeting. Perhaps, they didn’t feel the requirement to discuss the situation.
Did UNSG Ban Ki-moon’s Panel of Experts (PoE) examine minutes of CCHA meetings?
The PoE comprising Marzuki Darusman (Chairperson/Indonesia), Steven R. Ratner (US) and Yasmin Sooka (South Africa) accused the then GoSL of purposely depriving the Vanni population of humanitarian assistance during eelam war IV. Did Darusman’s panel purposely ignore the existence of CCHA consisted of GoSL representatives, Western powers and UN agencies. CCHA came into being in Oct. 2006, at the onset of large scale operations undertaken by the GoSL. Obviously, Darusman’s panel didn’t receive the CCHA minutes or they ignored it completely to do a hatchet job.
The previous government’s foolish decision to boycott the UN panel obviously made things easier for those who had wanted to haul up Sri Lanka before a war crimes tribunal. Examination of CCHA minutes will surely prove that there had never been an attempt to starve the Vanni population during the entire northern campaign (Mar. 2007-May 2009).
In spite of having irrefutable evidence to CONTRADICT one of the three major accusations, propagated by PoE, the previous government pursued a foolish course of action. Those who had been tasked with Sri Lanka’s defence didn’t bother to exploit available evidence to counter PoE. Although, the Presidential Task Force for Resettlement, Development and Security, in the Northern Province, during 2011, put out a comprehensive report, titled Sri Lanka’s Humanitarian Effort, the government did not used it at the correct forum.
The minutes of March 30, 2009, meeting revealed that Ambassador Blake admitted that the LTTE was continuing to hold civilians against their will. Ambassador Blake stressed the urgent need to prepare additional places to accommodate the displaced, pressure the LTTE to release civilians and immediate de-militarisation of locations used to accommodate the displaced, as well as freedom of movement for them.
A confidential note, sent by the then Norwegian Ambassador, Tore Hattrem, to MP and CCHA member, Basil Rajapaksa confirmed what Blake admitted on March 30, 2009. The following is the text of Hattrem’s Feb 16, 2009 note: "Offer/Proposal to the LTTE; 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 regrettably been no response from the LTTE and it does not seem to be likely that the LTTE will agree to this in the near future."
Basil Rajapaksa confirmed receiving the note from Hattrem.
The minutes of the final meeting would surely prove efforts made by the previous government, over a period of time, to ensure maximum possible supplies to the Vanni even at the height of fighting. Whatever the lies propagated by the likes of Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, the government had never deprived the Tamil-speaking population of food and medicine as part of the military strategy. CM Wigneswaran has repeatedly accused the government of seeking to wipe out Tamils and went to the extent of taking it up with the UN.
In fact, the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA), or foreign funded NGOs, never pushed the then government and the LTTE to ensure food and medicine supplies to the Vanni. The TNA and the NGOs deliberately ignored the issue as they focused on efforts, somehow to compel the government to call off the offensive. The minutes of CCHA meetings proved that Government Agents, representing the Vanni administrative districts, namely Mannar, Vavuniya and Mullaitivu, never complained about shortage of essential food.
According to records available with the government and international agencies, including the World Food Programme, there had sent 12 food convoys to the Vanni (Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts) from Oct. 2008, to January 2009.
These overland convoys delivered 7,694 metric tonnes of food. CCHA minutes revealed that the WFP had acquired a fleet of long trucks, in late 2008, to intensify food delivery operation. The ICRC and UN played a significant role in the project, implemented in accordance with decisions taken at the CCHA. Those foreigners who had participated in CCHA deliberations can confirm the efforts made by the then government to move food stocks.
The Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) can obtain these documents if it is genuinely interested in knowing the truth.
Those who had been preaching to Sri Lanka how to proceed with the post-war national reconciliation process never intervened on behalf of those held by the LTTE. They turned a blind eye to what was going on in the Vanni. They passionately believed in the LTTE’s conventional military invincibility and prowess to overwhelm the Army on the Vanni east front. For some strange reason, they strongly believed the LTTE could mount a successful large scale counter attack, on the advancing troops in Dec 2008-January 2009. Canada-based veteran journalist D.B.S. Jeyaraj further strengthened this belief (DBSJ had been with The Island when the writer joined the editorial in June 1987, as a trainee reporter).
They obviously fashioned their policy on the basis of assessments made by those who propagated what some diplomatic missions wanted to hear. In an article titled War in Wanni: Why the Tigers are down but not out published by a section of the local press, on December 20, 2008, Jeyaraj asserted that as the armed forces found LTTE defences impregnable they gained territory mainly due to superior tactical manoeuvring. Having asserted that of some 4,000-4,500 cadres killed, in eelam war IV, 3,000-3,500 were inexperienced young fighters, Jeyaraj declared that Prabhakaran held in reserve the greater, or best part, of his fighting formations. The columnist declared that the ‘finest and fittest’ were being preserved for use at a later stage. Asserting that Prabhakaran had as many as 50,000 cadres to face troops, advancing on multiple fronts, Jeyaraj described 25,000 to 30,000 as ‘fighting fit.’ Those categorized as fighting fit included 12,000 to 15,000 well trained experienced cadres. Referring to severe damages caused by the Sri Lankan navy to the LTTE’s sea supply line, Jeyaraj indicated that the LTTE may have restored the supply line. "In recent times there seems to have been a marked improvement in procuring supplies. This in turn is reflected in the battlefield where Tigers are raining shells and firing off myriad rounds. This means that either the Tigers have streamlined their supply modes again or those agencies that were helping Sri Lanka to restrict Tiger supplies are letting the LTTE off the hook or a combination of both."
At the onset of the Vanni offensive, Bloomberg news agency quoted defence and political analysts as having said that Sri Lanka’s war couldn’t be won by either side. The story was posted on March 22, 2007.
A story captioned ‘Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger Rebels Fight a War That Can’t be Won,’ by Colombo based Anusha Ondaatjie, quoted head of terrorism research at Singapore’s Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Rohan Gunaratna, as having asserted: "Continuing the current spate of violence is not going to bring about a different outcome or change the status quo. Both parties have developed significant support to be able to recover from losses, but this type of warfare is protracted." Gunaratna declared: "What is needed is a negotiated settlement to the conflict."
The website also quoted Gunaratna as having claimed: "The two parties have decided to fight each other", hence conveniently forgotten the circumstances leading to eelam war IV, in Aug. 2006.
Three months after Dr Gunaratne stressed the need for a negotiated settlement, the military liberated the entire Eastern Province.
Dr Gunaratna changed his stance, subsequently. On the invitation of the government, Dr Gunaratna addressed the first three-day Defence Seminar titled "Defeating Terrorism: Sri Lankan Experience in May-June, 2011.
But by Dec 2008-January 2009, the LTTE knew it couldn’t halt the combined security forces offensive hence the relentless effort to secure Western intervention in Sri Lanka. Those who had represented CCHA, too, firmly believed that the government could be persuaded to halt the offensive to pave the way for a negotiated settlement, believing they could bring the conflict to a negotiated settlement, Western governments and UN facilitated the high profile government operation to move supplies to the Vanni. Hence the decision to facilitate movement of food by ships, after closure of all land routes to the Vanni east region by the beginning of the last week of January, 2009. Sri Lanka arranged to ship 4,218 MT of food stocks from Trincomalee to Mullivaikkal-Puthumathalan area. But managed to ship only 3,150 MT, including vegetables, during Feb 19, 2009 to May 8, 2009, with the help of the ICRC and UN.
The government allowed foreign ICRC representatives to go ashore at Puthumathalan every time food-carrying ships reached the destination. The same vessels evacuated wounded civilians. The LTTE didn’t allow wounded LTTE cadres to leave for medical treatment at makeshift India - managed medical facility, at Pulmoddai, before being transferred to government hospitals. India can provide information pertaining to the numbers treated and transferred from Pulmoddai.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s legal team should prepare to face any eventuality. CCHA minutes and other records available with UN, ICRC and Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) can be used to effectively CONTRADICT the charge of purposely depriving Vanni population of food and medicine.
Let me reproduce CCHA minutes in respect of important issues raised by UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Bhune on March 30, 2009, to prove that shortage of food have never been an issue just seven weeks short of conclusion of the conflict.
The following concerns and requests were highlighted by the R/HC
= UNHCR was present at Omanthai, more contact with the IDPs is required and requested access for UNHCR and ICRC to Kilinochchi transit points.
= A confidence building and stabilisation measure if older people and children can go and live with friends and host families.
=A request for UN staff members and their families to come out and assist in camps.
= A request for less military presence at the camps and for the Ministry of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services (R&DRS) to take on more of the management role.
= A request for the database of registered IDPs to be shared with the UN.
= More land has to be allocated in Vavuniya and additional sites may have to be identified in Trincomalee and Mannar in the light of preparedness for IDPs.
=Easing of restrictions at Medawachchiya for UN and INGOs staff travelling to Vavuniya to provide assistance.
=MOUs with the line Ministries – the UN can share agreements made in other countries.
=Demining tasks already allocated more to be allocated especially in Musali.
=Sharing of information, data and especially return plans for the North as national and international confidence building measures.
Sri Lanka can certainly be proud of providing food and even paying those government servants based in areas under LTTE control throughout the war.