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"I managed the war like a true soldier ..."

What is termed the White Flag case has caused much controversy over the last two years. A number of different versions have been advanced as to what has happened, and debate over this will not die down. Sarath Fonseka, both when he was serving as Chief of the General Staff, and when he was a Presidential candidate, is alleged to have made statements about the matter, and government has also kept the matter in the public eye through a case that has been brought against Fonseka. It is clearly not a matter that can be ignored.

Mr. Pulidevan & Mr Nadesan

What seems uncontested is that several LTTE operatives, including the head of its political wing, the former Sri Lankan policeman Mr Nadesan, and the head of the LTTE Peace Secretariat, Mr Pulidevan, were killed in the last days of the war. As Mr Pulidevan’s counterpart in Colombo, I feel a particular interest in his fate, though he never spoke to me in spite of several efforts to get in touch.

As for Mr Nadesan, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, which tried to help me make contact, thought he was more inclined to talk than his predecessor, and actually called me from Kilinochchi to say contact might be possible. But that too came to nothing, and I feel that any positive feelings he might have had fell prey to his leader’s intransigence.

To get back to his fate, it is also not contested that our Foreign Secretary, Palitha Kohona, now Ambassador to the UN, was in contact with those who were trying to arrange a surrender, and made suggestions as to how this should be accomplished. What is in doubt is whether Palitha conveyed this to the Sri Lankan government and obtained assurances of safety.

Dr. Palitha Kohona

On the basis of this uncertainty, harsh allegations have been made against Dr Kohona, including a charge of war crimes. I suspect this was done when it was rumoured that he might be appointed as our High Commissioner to London, and the matter may now be forgotten. But one reason I believe an inquiry is necessary is that his name should be cleared of what seems to me unfair denigration. The impression sought to be created is that he got involved, not because he was trying to help, but because he intended to betray those who might act as he recommended. I believe that to be a ridiculous charge, not only because it is not at all in character, but also because the policy of the Sri Lankan government throughout, as exemplified by its current relations with former LTTE leaders who came into its custody, is to work with them if possible in the primary goal of eliminating terrorism and terrorist inclinations. Mr Nadesan would, if the SLMM were right, have been a positive element in this regard, and Mr Pulidevan, who had also been sidelined at the end by the LTTE leadership, would have followed suit.

The allegations against Dr Kohona, and by extension the Sri Lankan government, are not only absurd, the stories that have emerged suggest clearly that they are false. Conversely, while it is possible that Pulidevan and Nadesan and others with them did not carry white flags with them when they emerged into areas under full government control in the midst of heavy fighting, that possibility too seems unlikely, given the communications that had taken place, and the different approach they seem to have taken from the rest of the LTTE leadership.

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Shelters in Zone 0 and 1

Efforts to rouse concern about conditions at the welfare centres are understandable in sympathizers of the LTTE agenda seeking to bring Sri Lanka into disrepute. What is astonishing is that a panel appointed by the UN Secretary General should have followed this line, while ignoring the clear evidence provided by the UN itself about the tremendous efforts of the Sri Lankan government to provide relief.  It would seem that the panel had not bothered to look into UN records, else they would have known that the UN Resident Coordinator wrote that –

With regard to specifics

  1. The concerns expressed by the panel include claims that the whole process was illegal.  Ignored are the reports of the UN Special Representative on the Rights of the Displaced, who was invited three times to Sri Lanka to advise on the relief programmes. He made clear the parameters under which limitations could be placed on the freedom of movement of the displaced, and the government, through gradual expansion of the categories released and then through rapid returns, did its best, subject to security concerns as well as the need to demine and ensure basic infrastructure, to follow his advice with regard to time frames.

  2. Concern was also expressed that access for humanitarian agencies was denied.  This was nonsense as is apparent from the continuous activity of several Non-Governmental Organizations as well as UN agencies in the centres. However access was provided only in terms of specific aid projects, which irritated agencies which had seen themselves as decision makers rather than supporters of government intervention. The best comment on this was provided by the Deputy Head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, Steve Ray, who told me before he left that the international community in Sri Lanka had not understood the situation, since many aid workers came from situations in Africa where government involvement was minimal. Read the rest of this entry »

Mass wedding of ex-LTTE combatants

18.  The Darusman report makes repeated allegations of execution and rape of LTTE cadres. It relates some of this to cadres who were separated in the screening process, but provides no evidence for these allegations.

Refuting such general allegations is difficult. However the manner in which the over 11,000 cadres who were rehabilitated were treated indicates nothing but positive attitudes. The women were almost all of them released before the end of 2010, but many return for training programmes which the Commissioner General for Rehabilitation conducts. The CGR also arranged a mass wedding, which led to the predictable response from organizations determined to be critical that he was forcing couples into marriage.  One otherwise intelligent NGO activist – Sarojini Sivachandran of daily murders, abductions and extortion fame I believe – claimed that boys and girls had held hands for protection while surrendering, and they were now forced to marry.

This was nonsense, and the CGR explained how the parents of all those who sought to be married were consulted, which resulted in the ceremony going ahead for only half the over 100 couples who had applied. In general the extreme care taken by the CGR and his staff, with special Advanced Level classes and English, in addition to the various subjects of vocational training, make clear the commitment to youngsters who were inveigled or forced into battle.

The claim that the rehabilitation process was conducted in secret is also palpably false. IOM, which had had a positive approach to the conclusion of the conflict, unlike many other international organizations, has been heavily involved in supporting rehabilitation and reintegration. But, in addition, the camps were open to visitors from the start, and from 2009 onward steady streams of family and friends were to be seen whenever one visited, in addition to UN and other officials discussing modalities of providing food and other requirements. It should be noted in this regard that, when such supplies were held up, government decided to provide the equivalent of army rations to the cadres being rehabilitated.

19. In fact the relative lack of complaints about this process suggest that even the most critical voices have little to say. However there are many allegations regarding the treatment of cadres who were not taken into rehabilitation. The main claim is that they were executed, for which the strongest evidence seems to be provided by what is termed the Channel 4 video. I will use this term to describe the short extract shown in 2009 and the longer version shown the following year. These were included in what I will term the Channel 4 film, a lengthy account that was aired in 2011.

Channel 4 - Jon Snow

The videos have a shadowy history, beginning with the announcement when they were first shown that they depicted incidents that took place in January 2009. That claim has been forgotten – though never explainedafter it was shown that the metadata had a July 2009 date (though one of the fatuous experts hired by the UN to authenticate the video claimed that perhaps those who made it had falsified the date deliberately to conceal their involvement in the event).

Other examples of idiotic explanations for anomalies have been cited in various critiques, but the claim is still made that the video is genuine – even though it is granted that the second version was edited backward, and included optical zooming, whereas the mobile phones that it is still claimed were the source do not have optical zoom facilities. Of course all this does not necessarily mean that the incidents portrayed did not occur. But they raise questions that those who aired the footage should explain before the material is used as evidence of war crimes. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Weiss and the Darusman Panel

17. Amongst the least plausible of the charges heaped up against the Sri Lankan government are those regarding what the Darusman panel terms ‘Human rights violations suffered by victims and survivors of the conflict’.

The most dramatic of these concerns relates to rape, a word the panel uses 17 times. Over half the mentions use tentative locutions (‘may’, ‘inference’) or refer to vulnerability or fear. Other mentions are formal headings or in lists of possible crimes. There is only one assertion that instances of rape were recorded, another that instances were reported.

The desperate nature of these allegations is apparent from a related charge, that ‘women were forced to perform sexual acts in exchange for food, shelter or assistance in camps’. The footnote that is supposed to substantiate this refers to a section of a UN report that referred to activities in areas controlled by the LTTE, perhaps the shoddiest instance of  footnoting in a text replete with inaccuracies.

Gethin Chamberlain - Guardian UK

From the very start indeed there were efforts to introduce charges of sexual violence and perversity that fell apart when probed. The most vicious of these was a claim in the ‘Guardian’ by a gentleman called Gethin Chamberlain that 11 women had been found with their throats slit by the welfare centres. It turned out that there was no basis whatsoever for this story, and Chamberlain admitted that his source – which he implied was from the UN or an international Non-Governmental Organization – was unreliable. He refused however to retract the story, claiming it was too late by the time I pinned him down, but declared that he had not relied on that source again.

Sadly there were those in the UN who wanted to play such a game, though fortunately we were able to nip this in the bud, or perhaps mud. On April 30th a report was issued which claimed that ‘On 29 April the bodies of 3 women were recovered near the river in Zone 3’. This was entirely false, as was admitted by those responsible for the report when I questioned them on May 2nd.

Amin Awad - UNHCR

I was particularly careful, because the report had been issued without consultation of the Ministry of Human Rights, in terms of the procedures agreed upon by UNHCR. This was on the assumption that the purpose of UNHCR activity was to prevent abuse, but clearly some junior staff in UNHCR assumed that their role was to denigrate the government. The Head of UNHCR tried to defend its position by claiming that his staff who had contributed to the report had spoken to government officials at the Camp but this too turned out to be a lie. Fortunately I was able to bring together the girls who had issued the report and the officials they claimed to have spoken to, and they could only declare that they had spoken in general terms about problems. They had no answer when I suggested that the bodies of three dead women was a serious matter and they should, if they had any sense of responsibility, have raised such an issue immediately.

Part of the problem lay in the awe which the head of UNHCR, a Sudanese with career ambitions, seemed to feel for one of these young ladies, called Anna Pelosi. He told me that she was related to the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, and that one had to be careful in dealing with her. It is possible of course that Amin Awad, a delightful and generally helpful but nevertheless slippery character, may have made all this up, but this was an area in which it seemed to me he did not display his usual self-confidence. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Weiss omits ....

Colonel Harun finally left PTK on January 29th. There is no mention in the Weiss narrative of the UN engineer who had volunteered to stay behind. There is also no mention of the way in which he got away.

Weiss notes that ‘the ICRC and the UN were able to negotiate the evacuation of hundreds of seriously wounded’. He does note that ‘The Tamil Tigers had refused the request for days’, but omits to mention that the army had been supporting this request, and had indeed suspended operations on previous days when it was told the Tigers were about to agree, only for hopes to be repeatedly dashed.

Weiss also omits to record that the UN, together with the Sri Lankan government, had been trying to negotiate for more supplies of food to be sent in. It was with that convoy that Harun was supposed to come back, since that was a UN responsibility, but the Tigers refused the request.  It was then that Harun was advised, by the forces, to drive out when the ICRC convoy was allowed to move. When he arrived in Vavuniya, he said that he had been refused permission to leave by the LTTE but that, as advised by the army, he had told them to shoot if they wanted, but he was leaving. Those who briefed me from the army described him as being immensely relieved when he reached their headquarters. With him they recollect was the Sri Lankan Suganthan who migrated to Canada about a month later.

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TIMES OF INDIA – 31 August 2011

‘Most of displaced in SL rehabilitated’

Daniel P George

Chennai: A Sri Lankan MP has urged Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa to visit the island nation and see the rehabilitation process for herself.

Talking to TOI on Tuesday, Prof. Rajiva Vijesinha MP and advisor to President Mahinda Rajapaksa on reconciliation, said that most of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) had been rehabilitated and that efforts were on to help the others.

“There is a lot of ignorance about the situation in Sri Lanka,” Vijesinha said and alleged that the preliminary UN report on the situation in the country lacked accuracy.  Appealing for the rehabilitation of the IDPs, the MP said “India’s expertise  in the education  and training sector  will be of great help to the Lankans at this stage and the Sri Lankan government should harness this  expertise”.

The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) he said, was initially instrumental in combatting terrorism and its help would never be forgotten.  “What is happening now is the same anti-IPKF propaganda is being carried out against us.  The LTTE is known for it.  The Tamils are our own people and it is our duty to help them get back their normal lives,” Vijesinha said.  Vijesinha said the selective approach of those attacking the Sri Lankan government were glossed over in the UN report.

It was the allegations that were creating difficulties in resettlement and restoration of peace, he alleged.  The war against terror Wijesinha said “is not like the others we come to know through the media, where the protagonists seem more important than us to what is termed the International community. Conversely, the civilians among whom the terrorists operate are much more important to us in the Sri Lankan situation, since they are our own citizens, than civilians are in other theatres of war, where they are seen as alien”.

Gordon Weiss

Following what Weiss describes as the ‘recriminations’ that affected UN international staff, most decided to head back to Vavuniya, and only Harun and ‘a UN engineer’ remained behind to try to get the Tigers to agree to releasing the local staff and their families. He was to stay on for over a week more, getting back only on January 29th. Needless to say, the local staff was not allowed to leave, though as it happened, in a clear indication that allegations of indiscriminate attacks on civilians did not happen, all of them survived the conflict.  Weiss refers to 132 of them, though interestingly, more recently, I have seen a lower figure canvassed, as though to belittle my point about all of them surviving.

There is also some doubt about the UN engineer Weiss describes, since the information given to the military was that Harun’s associate was a Sri Lankan Security Officer with UN Security called Mr Suganthan. It is not at all surprising that he is reported to have been able to migrate to Canada within a month of getting out of the Wanni. This again is an example of where our Ministry of Foreign Affairs should have found out more about the circumstances, but there is little coordination between the different government agencies responsible for working with the UN, and I fear even less understanding of the way in which different individuals in the UN system operate.

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Lakshman Jayakody 1930 - 2010

I am honoured to be able to speak today to record my appreciation of the service rendered by the late Lakshman Jayakody to this Parliament and the country. I got to know him in the seventies, when he was Parliamentary Secretary to the then Prime Minister, Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, whom he served loyally throughout his political career. Those were difficult days, when the JVP insurrection had just been overcome, but the socialist measures taken by the government led to hostility and misrepresentation in the West. I recall meeting Mr Jayakody in those days at the house of Tilak Gooneratne, our High Commissioner in London, who had served in the Commonwealth Secretariat, and could not understand the hostility that we then had to face.

I remember in particular efforts to claim that the government had used excessive force in overcoming the insurrection, ignoring both the danger we had faced and the manner in which government soon restored normality, leading to the respect in which the JVP, after undergoing trial, subsequently held our judiciary. The rehabilitation process then, though slower than what the present government has achieved, was thorough and much appreciated at the time.

Even more telling with regard to the challenges the then Deputy Minister of External Affairs faced was the concerted attempt of the British press to highlight conditions on the plantations and claim that these were due to racism on the part of the government. That was shortly after the plantations had been nationalized, and government was trying to improve the appalling treatment of estate workers which the British plantation companies had indulged in, while claiming – as has been graphically explained by Colomel Derrick Nugawela in his fascinating memoir, ‘Tea and Sympathy’ – that the welfare measures Sri Lankan managers proposed could not be implemented because of obligations to shareholders. But the balance sheet has always been more important than politicians will acknowledge, and I suppose we need to keep that in mind in analyzing and developing international relations.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker, in speaking on this Motion I should perhaps start by saying that I do not think the way it has been put quite expresses the enormous relief in this country at having got rid of the need for Emergency Regulations, in fact at the removal of an Emergency situation in Sri Lanka. This has happened after a very long time. Even though in the past forty years we have sometimes had brief alleviation of the Emergency Regulations, we knew that the Emergency situation still continued, and very soon the Regulations were reintroduced.

So the fact that this Emergency is now lifted for good is a most welcome. But I also think it is important for us to remember the need to make sure that terrorism does not arise again. It is for that reason that, unfortunately or otherwise, certain regulations have been reintroduced under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. However, I agree with the last speaker from Jaffna who mentioned that we all hope the Prevention of Terrorism Act will also be lifted soon. We cannot forget the genesis of that Act in 1979, which was unfortunate. It was accompanied by excesses of the part of the then Government, which led to an increase of terrorism rather than a reduction. I think it is important therefore that, in our usage of the Act, we make sure that it prevents and does not exacerbate tensions, it prevents terrorism and does not allow it to expand

However, having said that, I think we need to remember that for the future there is a need for greater regulations, given the rise of terrorism worldwide. In the West you have things like the Homeland Security Act. We need to rethink our whole security situation and make sure that laws are introduced that are justiciable but that still make very clear the need to guard against modern methods of terrorism.

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Truck convoy travelling to the northern Wanni region - Sri Lanka

I have written at length about the strange business of Convoy 11, which took in the last supplies of food sent to the Wanni by land in 2009. The adventures of this convoy have formed the backbone of criticism of the Sri Lankan government, beginning with a diatribe by Human Rights Watch a couple of years ago. I responded to this at the time, but the matter was not taken up by the then Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to check on what sources within the UN had claimed. These sources were doubly culpabale for the official position of the UN, and the letters we had from them, indicated that there had been hardly any problems for which government was thought responsible.

I continue to believe that more active engagement with the UN, the senior leadership of which was well aware of the true reasons for problems, would have been helpful at the time. It is still not too late, as I have advocated, in writing as well as orally, to discuss more fully with responsible people in the UN the strange allegations that have emerged in the Darusman Panel report as well as the book written by Gordon Weiss, who should still be held accountable by the UN in terms of his contract – but they will not act on this unless we request them to formally.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

September 2011
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