The reason Mohan gave for the Secretary of Defence being annoyed with me in June 2009 was a matter that was to prove an enormous bone of contention over the next few years, namely the claim advanced by some in Sri Lanka that there had been no civilian casualties during the war. This was obviously nonsense, and it never occurred to me that any such claim was serious. I assumed that what was meant was we had not inflicted civilian casualties deliberately, which I firmly believe to have been government policy throughout the conflict. I had seen this illustrated in the East when Daya Ratnayake, who subsequently became Commander of the Army – after he had survived, with Gotabhaya’s support, an attempt by Sarath Fonseka to have him prematurely retired – came to brief me on the campaign in that arena of the war. He had been responsible for the strategy there, and I had called him up to find out details of this after Human Rights Watch had given excessive publicity to a report it had prepared on the conflict in the East, in which they claimed there had been indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
When I studied the report itself, however, I found that, while this claim was made in the publicity, the report itself recorded only one instance of civilian deaths. This was something for which the army had acknowledged responsibility, but explained that they had used radar directed mortars to respond when the LTTE opened fire on them. This however had been from a refugee centre, but even the Human Rights Watch report disclosed that the LTTE had had weapons there, though they claimed that they had been told no one had seen heavy weapons being used.
I have no doubt that it was the attack on the Sri Lankan forces by HRW in this instance that made the LTTE feel they could get away with using civilians as shields when they were on the defensive. Any investigation of abuses during the conflict should look into the role of HRW in making such outrageous claims without evidence, and dodging the questions I posed to them in this regard. Once the LTTE realized that they would not be blamed for firing from amidst civilians, but public opinion could be manipulated to pressurize the Sri Lankan government not to respond to such firing, they developed the technique to perfection. This strengthened their resolve to ensure that civilians were taken along with them as they retreated in the North as the Sri Lankan forces were advancing.
The claim of some of the Non-Governmental Organizations that the civilians went willingly because of fear of the forces was patent nonsense, for those same NGOs complained to us that their former employees had not been allowed to escape to government controlled territory. The same thing happened to UN employees, and indeed one of the most skilful maneuvers of the LTTE in the latter stages of the war was when they persuaded the UN that they might free these employees, thus ensuring that UN staff that had taken a convoy of food in stayed on, to negotiate. The LTTE almost daily claimed that the local staff would be released, and asked for a cessation of hostilities, a period they used for military maneuvering, only to prove intransigent in the end.
The UN staff then were kept on by the LTTE till the end, but in fact there were no casualties amongst them, except for one person who stepped on a landmine in the final escape, but was given immediate medical attention by our forces, and also survived. Similarly, the local employees of the NGOs, who had been forced to stay back, also all survived the final battles.
This seems to me ample evidence that there were no indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and the civilian deaths that occurred were because of collateral damage, mainly caused by the LTTE practice of firing from amongst civilians, and indeed from hospitals too. Unfortunately the Sri Lankan government decided that it would not respond to any allegations, and failed to produce the clear arguments based on evidence that would have made it clear that the majority of allegations were absurd. I suggested for instance a general survey of particular groups, for instance government administrators and teachers, as well as the humanitarian workers mentioned above, because I found during my visits to the North that these groups had suffered hardly any casualties. Of course I could only speak for those I met, but on inductive grounds it seemed to me clear that a general survey would uphold the government position. Unfortunately there was no concern about such matters until it became too late.
Typical of the myopic approach of government was Mohan’s rebuke to me, way back in June 2009 in Geneva, because in an interview in England I had given an estimate of about 5000 civilian casualties. He asked me why I had said this, to which my answer was that it was true. His response however made me understand the diffidence from which most government spokesmen suffered. He told me that our critics would make use of this, and I suppose this was generally true given their poor command of English. Obviously this never happened with regard to what I said, because I was able to deal with the approach of journalists to which others succumbed. For instance, when later I appeared on ‘Hard Talk’, Stephen Sackur said triumphantly, ‘So you admit that there were civilian casualties’, which I suspect others would have either denied, which would not have been credible or true, or affirmed, leaving the impression that this was somehow culpable. My own response was to tell him not to be silly, because in any conflict there were bound to be civilian casualties, and he should not try to insinuate that we had intended these.
But those with less understanding of the English language would say things that sounded like they thought there had been no civilian casualties at all, and that they wanted to convince the world of this. There was only blanket denial, no effort to explain that collateral damage had taken place, but even in this regard many of those identified as civilians were in fact youngsters who had been conscripted by the LTTE. We should see them as perfectly innocent, and tragic victims of the conflict, but while that means we should work on assuaging the grief of their families, we need not feel guilty about their death since it was the LTTE that forced them into the firing line.
This assumption is also substantiated by the fact that, when a census was first conducted in the North, the results showed that the vast majority of those reported as missing were in the age group that the LTTE conscripted, with hardly any children or elderly people in this category. But again, government did not use these statistics to present its case. Instead, with the folly based on a failure to identify priorities that seemed endemic, they did not publicize the results of the census because of excessive sensitivity to what seemed evidence of demographic change in the area, namely the increased percentage of Muslims. Expelled by the LTTE in the nineties from areas under its control, they had settled in refugee centres in the North and elsewhere, where their numbers had risen without any casualties from the conflict, whereas the Tamils had emigrated in large numbers plus in addition suffering from the conflict.
Government however seemed congenitally incapable of understanding that facts cannot be suppressed and therefore transparency, with explanations of any anomalies, was the best way of presenting its case credibly. Rather, decision makers seemed to model themselves on ostriches and bury their heads in the sand and hope trouble would pass, a strategy that only emboldened those who were leveling exaggerated accusations to move into realms of pure fantasy.
I could understand those with little command or argumentative skills or the subtleties of language steering clear of any controversy. But it was upsetting to find Mohan blindly subscribing to the state of denial that the Secretary of Defence imposed upon himself and his officials. Later one found some military spokesmen who could argue very convincingly, for instance Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya, who had served in Diyatalawa while I was academic coordinator of the degree programme, and who appeared with me at a programme during the Colombo Book Fair on the counting of war casualties with a German journalist who made outrageous statements which she had to withdraw. But it would have made life so much easier for the forces had Gotabhaya been told from the start that this was a problem that needed to be addressed, and he should prepare statistics and arguments to deflate the criticism that had already begun to appear.
I am reminded then of Dayan’s characterization of Mohan, standing respectfully with his hands behind his back before the Secretary of Defence, agreeing to whatever he said. Had he only, way back in May 2009, instead of acquiescing in Gotabhaya’s irritation with what I had said to the ‘Guardian’, pointed out that of course there had been civilian casualties, and we should produce our own estimates instead of allowing the inflated figures of the ‘Times’ to hold sway, we would not now have to be dealing with massive figures that bear no relation to reality.
In July, Dayan was summarily dismissed. This was astonishing, because the arguments he was engaged in with regard to devolution that appeared in the newspapers did not seem serious enough an issue to warrant such a move. I did not know then that Gotabhaya was so anxious to get rid of him. Later I was to tell Dayan that a lot of our troubles stemmed from the fact that he had won so easy a victory in Geneva, in the face of a concerted onslaught by the West, that government thought any idiot could do the same. Accordingly they relied after that on any idiot who could command enough patronage, regardless of ability, to be appointed to important positions.
What I did find out soon enough was that those who had benefited from Dayan’s handling of the problems in Geneva made no move, not just to prevent his dismissal, but even to speak to him afterwards. I told both Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe and Mohan that they should call Dayan, and they both assured me they would, but he did not receive any calls from them, not even when he came back to Colombo. Later Minister Samarasinghe, when he was suffering similar neglect, told me that his failure to contact Dayan had been a mistake, but Mohan never expressed any regrets, perhaps understandably, for his own career continued to prosper.
The Peace Secretariat too became a victim of the solipsistic triumphalism that now affected the government. While I was in Geneva for the June sessions I was told that the military Directorate I had at the Secretariat was being closed down. When I rang Gotabhaya he told me that he saw no reason for such a large contingent to be deployed there since the war was over, a position I could understand. He gave no indication however that he thought the Secretariat itself should be closed.
But when I got back to Colombo it was to find that my staff thought this would happen imminently. While I saw no reason to keep it going at its previous strength, I did think it had an immensely important role to play in reconciliation, and I explained this to the President and to Lalith Weeratunge, and they seemed to concur. Basil however told me that I should not attempt to convince the President to keep it going, and sure enough, at the end of July, with no planning for Reconciliation, the Secretariat was closed.