Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Denial of humanitarian assistance; LTTE strategy and Sri Lanka’s response



By Shamindra Ferdinando

The international media recently reported South Sudan calling off celebrations, scheduled for July 9, 2016, to mark its fifth anniversary of independence.

The decision was made in the wake of the South Sudanese government, and the UN, admitting nearly five million people faced starvation. The AFP quoted Agriculture Minister Lam Akol as having said that the risk of famine couldn’t be ruled out.

Sudan has been wrecked by conflict. The latest north-south war commenced in 1983, the year Sri Lanka erupted. For over two decades the government of Sudan fought armed groups, based in the South, leading to UN, backed division of the country.

The AFP also quoted UNICEF Chief in South Sudan Mahimbo Mdoe, as having declared the levels of malnutrition among children to be truly alarming. "The level of food insecurity this year is unprecedented," the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), UN Children’s Agency UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP) said in a joint statement issued last week.

Against the backdrop of this crisis, in South Sudan, as highlighted by the UN, it would be pertinent to thoroughly examine allegation that the previous government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) denied food and medicine to the Tamil population in the Vanni (2006-2009) during eelam war IV.

 Let me reproduce verbatim the relevant section from the Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts (PoE) on Accountability in Sri Lanka, released on March 31, 2011: ‘Denial of Humanitarian Assistance: The Government systematically deprived persons in the conflict zone of humanitarian assistance, in the form of food and basic medical supplies, particularly supplies needed to treat injuries. To that end, it purposefully underestimated the number of civilians that remained in the conflict zone. Particularly the denial of surgical supplies greatly increased the suffering of the civilians and added to the large death toll."

It was one of three allegations directed at the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government in respect of the 2006-2009 (up to March) period.

A section of the international community castigated the previous government for denying the Vanni population essentials. Western powers ignored a comprehensive report put out by the Presidential Task Force for Resettlement, Development and Security, in the Northern Province, during 2011 in response to the PoE’s specific allegation. But, those who had been wanting to haul Sri Lanka up before an international war crimes tribunal continued to propagate lies.

Sri Lanka can be proud of ensuring supplies to war-torn areas even at the height of fighting during eelam war IV. The political and military leaderships successfully faced the daunting task. The then five-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Colombo based foreign funded Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and those diplomatic missions hell-bent on pursuing war crimes probe, remained silent. The Tamil media turned a blind eye to a high profile LTTE project aimed at disrupting food and medical supplies to the Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni region. Western powers never felt the requirement to intervene on behalf of the civilian population. The LTTE operation was meant to discontinue essential supplies in order to strengthen its call for foreign intervention. The LTTE wanted to prove Sri Lanka’s inability to ensure supplies to the Jaffna peninsula at the onset of fighting, in August, 2006.

Those who had been demanding, since the conclusion of the war, in May, 2009, that the military ceased commercial activity, didn’t utter a word when the LTTE disrupted the private traders’ network, in the peninsula, at the onset of the fighting, in August 2006. The Office of the Human Rights Commissioner, during last week of June, 2016, reiterated the call for the military to cease commercial activity. Let the OCHR, TNA, Western diplomatic missions, or those well-funded Colombo based NGOs, produce a statement issued during that time requesting the LTTE not to disrupt the food supply network.

Having recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people, during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga administration, the TNA silently backed the terrorist strategy.

Strategic bid to isolate Jaffna peninsula

 A massive LTTE attack, on the Muhamalai entry/exit, on August 11, 2006, forced the government to close down the overland Main supply Route (MSR). The LTTE overran the entry/exit point, while well-equipped fighting cadre attacked key fortifications along the Army’s northern forward defence line, extending from Kilali to Nagarkovil on the Vadamaratchchy east coast.

The closure of the MSR denied the Jaffna peninsula of essential supplies. The government faced the daunting task of moving supplies, needed by civilians, by sea and air. The new task had to be carried out in addition to ensuring all supplies, required by the military, deployed in the Jaffna peninsula and islands there. Obviously, the LTTE believed the government lacked the wherewithal to move supplies to the Jaffna peninsula.

At that time, the Vanni population didn’t experience difficulties in receiving food supplies through overland MSR via Omanthai, north of Vavuniya. As the entire Vanni region remained under the firm control of the LTTE, terrorists adopted different strategies in the Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni. At the onset of eelam war IV, the LTTE had seized the upper hand with its best fighting units deployed along the northern front, sizable conventional fighting units positioned in the Vanni and vast parts of the Eastern Province dominated by the group.

The LTTE believed that the government would have had no option but to utilize naval assets to sustain a continuous sea supply route to Kankesanthurai harbour in the Jaffna peninsula. The navy lacked ships to move essential supplies needed by civilians. Then Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda’s navy was struggling to meet growing demands. Having sunk an LTTE supply ship, off the East coast, in September, 2006, the navy was busy making preparations to hunt down LTTE supply vessels operating in international waters. The navy was also tasked with destroying supply boats operating across Indo-Lanka waters, defending vital harbours and a range of other responsibilities, including keeping the sea lanes and communications between Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai open.

Major challenges

Supplying Jaffna peninsula had been an extremely challenging task primarily due to the strong Sea Tiger presence in the Mullaitivu-Chalai waters. The navy continuously struggled to sustain the Trincomalee-Kankesanthurai sea route.

Private owners of ships had been reluctant to launch services due Sea Tiger attacks. Those ships deployed for missions were compelled to take lengthy diversionary routes to avoid Sea Tiger patrols. Things were further compounded by the absence of facilities at Kankesanthurai and Point Pedro harbours to undertake large scale unloading operations, the near collapse of private sector traders’ network as well as the supply of fertiliser and kerosene.

The Jaffna peninsula was under siege. A disastrous army assault beyond its forward defence lines at Muhamalai in Oct, 2006 further worsened the ground situation. The army lost several armoured fighting vehicles in addition to losing over 150 officers and men. Several hundred suffered injuries. (The Jaffna forces didn’t conduct large scale offensive operations until Nov/Dec 2008. Operations on the Muhamalai commenced only after then Brigadier Shavendra Silva’s Task I/58 Division achieved major success on the Vanni west front)

The SLAF lacked the required aircraft to move supplies both to the military and civilians. The SLAF faced severe difficulties at the onset of eelam war IV, in Aug. 2006. The armed forces strength in the Jaffna theatre stood at more than 50,000 at that time.

The International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) declined to lend its flag to facilitate ship movements. The LTTE warned the ICRC not to engage in the operation. The UN and US can easily verify the events with the ICRC mission in Colombo.

The TNA leadership remained tight-lipped. The TNA surely believed the LTTE siege on the Jaffna peninsula could lead to a major crisis.

Against the backdrop of the ICRC refusal to participate in food transport project to the North, the then government explored the possibility of involving the UN. The government called for UN support as the administration lacked military capability to ensure such a large scale operation. However, the effort went awry due to strong opposition from the LTTE (UN team here to discuss food supply to Jaffna-The Island, Nov. 3, 2006).

The war effort could have collapsed for want of a tangible action plan to feed the civilian population in Jaffna.

In January, 2007, the LTTE attacked MV Liverpool, a civilian cargo ship off Point Pedro. Sea Tiger suicide boats rammed the vessel as it was unloading essential supplies. In spite of LTTE attacks, the government sustained a food supply route at a tremendous cost to the taxpayer until the re-opening of the MSR after the conclusion of the war, in May, 2009.

Then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told the writer that the Kandy-Jaffna MSR wouldn’t be re-opened, under any circumstances, until the conclusion of the war. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa and the then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera clashed over the issue. Samaraweera was of the opinion the Muhamalai gateway should be re-opened to facilitate overland supplies. The then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, too, strongly opposed the re-opening of the MSR. The war veteran feared the LTTE would certainly take advantage of the situation.

Food supplies to Vanni

 Those who had been accusing Sri Lanka of depriving the Tamil speaking people of food and medicine had never really examined the efforts made by successive governments to provide essential items to the war affected.

Sri Lanka never deprived the northern population of food and medicine, regardless of the situation on the ground. Although restrictions on fishing had to be imposed to prevent the LTTE from exploiting the situation, yet Sri Lanka allowed restricted fishing.

Even during the Vanni offensive, (the largest ever military action launched in the Northern Province), those living in both west and east of the Kandy-Jaffna A 9 road received supplies.

Then President Mahinda Rajapaksa took tangible measures to ensure food supplies to the war-affected people. Soon after the government scored its first significant military victory, in eelam war IV, during the first week of September, 2006, the President authorized the setting up of Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance (CCHA) under the leadership of the then Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe. The grouping included ministers, senior officials, including Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa; top Colombo based diplomats and senior representatives of UN agencies.

All three UN agencies namely FAO, UNICEF and WFP which last week warned of food insecurity in South Sudan, had been included in CCHA.  The UNICEF in Sri Lanka had been represented by Ms Joanna Van Gerpen and Philippe Duamelle, WFP by Taft-Dick, Mohamed Salaheen and Adhnan Khan while Mare Bellemans represented the FAO.

Those wanting to verify food supplies sent to the Northern Province should get in touch with them. They should be able to explain whether the then government refused to allow adequate food supplies to the Northern Province. The CCHA met on Oct 14, 2006, for the first time. The grouping met once a month to discuss civilian requirements in the Northern Province. The last meeting took place on May 11, 2009. The war ended on the morning of May 19, 2009.

Now, the minutes of CCHA meetings are available with Jeevan Thiagarajah, executive director of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA). Thiagarajah and Firzan Hashim, CHA’s Deputy Executive Director represented the organization at CCHA meetings.

The OHCHR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights) can confirm supplies sent to the Northern Province with CHA officials. In case, OHCHR is suspicious about CHA, it can get in touch with US, EU, Japanese or UN Resident/Humanitarian coordinator as they too had been represented in CCHA deliberations.

In spite of heavy fighting in the Vanni, the government with the help of the international community managed to ensure overland food supplies and other essential until early January, 2009. It would be pertinent to mention that overland supplies continued though the Army launched Vanni offensive, in March, 2007, west of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road. Following the closure of all overland routes, to Vanni east, by January 23, 2009, due to intense fighting, the government, again with the assistance of the international community, launched food supplies by sea.

The government called a meeting on February 17, 2009, to decide on a tangible action plan to meet the challenging task. The ICRC participated in the discussion. The OHCHR can easily verify facts with the ICRC mission in Colombo.

However, even before the February 17, 2009, meeting, the government, with the assistance of the ICRC, had launched a special operation to move supplies and evacuate the wounded trapped in the Mullaitivu district. Ships operated under ICRC flag though the same organization earlier refused to lend support to previous attempt to move food and other essentials from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai. Altogether, ICRC flagged ships evacuated 14,000 wounded civilians and helpers from February 10, 2009 to May 9, 2009. Same vessels delivered 2,350 metric tonnes of food to those held captive by the LTTE as a human shield.

The LTTE didn’t allow wounded cadres to be evacuated. The OHCHR is fully aware of the amount of food and other supplies sent to Puthumathalan-Wellamullivaikkal area during 2009.

FCID probe needed

 The Joint Opposition is yet to examine UN allegations directed at the previous Rajapaksa administration. In spite of having two media briefings, on a weekly basis, and numerous other press conference, Joint Opposition spokespersons are yet to properly explain the situation. The Joint Opposition continues to play politics with post-war national reconciliation process.  The Joint Opposition, without further delay, should call for a meeting to examine the entire gamut of issues, particularly UN allegations and possible response.  Sri Lanka is paying a very heavy price for the failure on the part of the previous government to address alleged accountability issues. Instead of a cohesive action plan, the previous government squandered millions of US dollars on a foolish project to influence the US. Although, the government was repeatedly told the US stand cannot be influenced by hiring expensive public relations firms, the former President continued with the project. The External Affairs Ministry and the Presidential Secretariat backed the idiotic plan. 

The Yahapalana government should launch an investigation to establish the full amount of taxpayers’ money wasted on public relations firms, both in the US and other countries. The Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) should be directed to investigate and prosecute all those responsible for criminal waste of money. The FCID should examine whether any politicians or officials had benefited from this foolish exercise. The previous government and some of those campaigning against the proposed setting up of a hybrid court, comprising foreign judges, is responsible for exposing Sri Lanka to such an investigation. They should be exposed and humiliated.

The previous government (political leadership) never bothered to address specific issues in spite of the Defence Ministry repeatedly pointing out what Sri Lanka’s defence should be. Geneva was never told of the correct ground situation because those responsible never bothered to study wartime situation.