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qrcode.26819894What was termed the militarization of the North was attributed mainly to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Secretary of Defence, and in many minds he was considered the greatest barrier to Reconciliation. He was thought the architect of the policy that held security to be the most important consideration, and that to ensure this the footprint of the military had to be heavy and pervasive.

This was ironic, for during the course of the war he had seemed of the view that, while the forces could handle the military requirements, a settlement required the politicians, and setting this in place was not his role. Indeed, in this regard he seemed the opposite of his Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka, who was thought to be of the view that a policy of settlements in the North was the best way of guaranteeing peace. Gotabhaya, on the contrary went along with his brothers, the President and Basil, when they sidelined Fonseka, having refused his request that the army be enlarged; and, as noted, Basil went ahead with a policy of swift resettlement, which was in accordance with the pledge of the President.

Indeed, even during the war, Gotabhaya had seemed soft in comparison with Sarath Fonseka. His chosen instruments were officers such as Daya Ratnayake, appointed Army Commander in 2013, who had developed the strategy that ensured that there were hardly any civilian casualties in the East. Sarath did not like Daya Ratnayake, and sidelined him and would have had him retired early, but Gotabhaya saved his career by sending him off to China for his Staff College Course. When he came back, he was not used at all in what remained of the Northern offensive.

Sarath had a no nonsense approach to the conflict, and when the ICRC told him that firing was coming close to hospitals, his response was on the lines that the hospitals should no longer have been there, since they had been instructed to move. Gotabhaya on the contrary had taken notice of such warnings and indicated that he would have the line of fire changed.

In general, Gotabhaya and his preferred instruments such as Jagath Jayasuriya who, as Commander of the Special Forces in Vavuniya, was in charge of the Northern operation, tended to follow international law as best possible. Given the general strategy followed in the war, and the care taken in most quarters to avoid civilian casualties, there is no doubt that Sarath Fonseka also followed the general principles laid down by the civilian command, but it was also apparent that he sometimes saw this as a needless hindrance. His initial account of the killing of those who tried to surrender by carrying White Flags and leaving the Tiger lines indicates his bluff mindset, for he was reported as having said that those in air-conditioned rooms, an obvious reference to Gotabhaya, ordered that they be spared. He however had done what was required, since he knew how they had behaved in the past.

It was odd then that, a couple of years later, Gotabhaya should have inherited the mantle of the hard-liner, but perhaps it was inevitable given the manner in which government decided to respond to the challenge presented by Sarath Fonseka, when he stood for election against Mahinda Rajapaksa as the common Opposition candidate. Having experienced what seemed a Damascus style conversion, doubtless because he was backed by the Americans (who could not have been ignorant of his measure but thought him the best instrument of applying pressure on Rajapaksa), he put himself forward for election as a dove. He was indeed supported by the UNP, which had not supported the crushing of the Tigers, and by the TNA, the main Tamil political party. His approach then to the White Flag case was that it was those in air-conditioned rooms who had given orders that they be killed.

Government responded, not by pointing out the contradictions in his accounts, and calling him a liar, but by saying he was a traitor. They had decided that, since Fonseka was the principal opponent in the election, it was the hardline vote that had to be won. Patriotism, in order to get the better of Fonseka, had to be tough, so it did not matter that the impression they created was that his story might be true. The upshot of this, of course, was that when the LLRC recommended inquiries into possible abuses, the government was in difficulties, since Fonseka could well have called them traitors for letting down patriots who had only done what was necessary to eliminate terrorism. Read the rest of this entry »


Enemies of the President’s Promse: Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs – Happy (Part 1)

Jaffna Road

Basil I think honestly believed that rapid development of the North would make everyone happy.

This did not mean it was not sincere about reconciliation. Basil I think honestly believed that rapid development of the North would make everyone happy. Certainly he seems to have been surprised when the election results were announced, and winning less than a quarter of the vote clearly upset him, even though the confidence he had expressed previously, that government would do well in several places, may have been bravado.

The problem was, he did not consult those whom he thought he was helping, rather like the devoted lady in Trollope who did everything in terms of her passion for Phineas Finn, but never thought of asking him what he might want. Thus, when the Northern Task Force was set up initially, there had been no Tamils on it. Though this was soon remedied, Basil did not much consult Douglas Devananda, the Tamil Minister who was on that body, and who was the most forceful of the former terrorists who had given up arms after the Indo-Lankan Accord of 1987, and thus became the greatest enemy of the Tigers.


Rishard was a doughty fighter, who certainly did a lot for his community. But he was in mortal fear of Basil…

Douglas himself was not perhaps capable of clear conceptualization, and the most clear thinking of his supporters, who might have helped him to plan, had been assassinated by the Tigers a year before the war ended. Still, he might have been able to articulate some of the aspirations of at least some of the Tamils. But Basil could not work with other strong personalities, so the main instrument he selected to represent the people of the North was Rishard Bathiudeen, one of the Muslims the Tigers had ejected from the North way back in 1990. Having obtained a degree and then developed as a politician despite these difficult beginnings, Rishard was a doughty fighter, who certainly did a lot for his community. But he was in mortal fear of Basil, as we found when we tried to persuade him as Minister of Resettlement to urge swifter action on sending the displaced home. The reason I wrote to Basil in August 2009 was because, at the meeting at which it was decided that someone should do so, Rishard flatly refused and wanted someone else to do it.

An interesting aside on that episode was that Basil, in scolding me, told me to tell my friends that he was not going to fail in his commitment. I wondered whom he meant, and it turned out that he was talking about the Americans. It transpired that the head of USAID, who was a great friend, and had indeed supported the government actively in its happy 2reconstruction programme in the East, has been ordered by her Embassy to write to Basil herself, when they heard that we had decided to do this. She told me, when I upbraided her, that she thought this was a mistake, but she had had to do it – which brought home to me how keen the Americans were for credit. Doubtless, had my letter drawn the required response, there would have been a cable to the effect that Basil had moved quickly on resettlement because of American pressure.

After the 2010 election, when Basil became Minister of Economic Development, with a massive brief that included the main social service programme of government too, Rishard was made Minister of Industries. That someone not easily able to plan was given such an important position indicated that Basil simply wanted a sidekick he could command. It also ensured that there was little thinking about the Small and Medium Enterprises that should have been initiated in the North, little planning about the Micro-Credit that was essential, little effort to provide the training that was so desperately needed.

papaya cultivation

Little was done about the value addition that was essential if the peasants were not to be exploited by middlemen who paid them a pittance for their produce

For Basil had failed to realize that the North, and in particular the Vanni, which the Tigers had ruled, needed human resources development on a massive scale. Though agriculture came back to normal soon, the people needed training in marketing , as one bright woman from a Rural Development Society said at the Reconciliation meetings I had started holding in the North and East. Little was done about the value addition that was essential if the peasants were not to be exploited by middlemen who paid them a pittance for their produce and kept the profits for themselves. In 2013, when I was pursuing this after several meetings at Divisional Secretariats where the rural communities had made known their wants and needs, the Minister of Agriculture told me that 2013 had been designated the Year of Value Addition, but they had done nothing about it.     Read the rest of this entry »

download (6)I have a great affection for General Chandrasiri, and indeed great admiration too. This began when, in 2008, he invited me to be the Chief Guest at the Future Minds Exhibition he had organized in Jaffna. The other principal invitee was to be the Bishop of Jaffna, someone else for whom I have both affection and admiration. Though he has always stood up for the rights and dignity of the Tamil people he serves, he has also spoken out against terrorism and the LTTE.

Indeed, it is a mark of his integrity that the strongest evidence against the spurious allegations made against us with regard to the first No Fire Zone comes in the letter the Bishop wrote on the day that Zone was subject to attacks. Contrary to what the Darusman report insinuates, and what an even less scrupulous report claims was our plan to corral civilians in places where the LTTE had weaponry, the Bishop said that he would ask the LTTE to refrain from transferring weapons into the No Fire Zone. Unfortunately neither the Ministry of Defence, nor the Foreign Ministry (the latter, as Dayan Jayatilleka graphically described it, now territory occupied by the MoD), have bothered to argue against the allegations on the basis of facts and evidence from independent sources.

Unfortunately the aim of General Chandrasiri in 2008, to avoid politicians, as he put it to me when asking me for the event, was countered by Douglas Devananda doggedly turning up and taking a prominent role. I could understand then why he could not be put off, but it is sad that he did not take up the idea suggested by the General’s assertion of the need to develop human resources. Instead, even in the local authorities his party won, he allowed personal predilections to come to the fore, and did nothing for development. There was no thinking of the type of partnership that could have been set up, to train youngsters and start businesses, through a synergy of talents, with civilians being in charge but accepting advice and assistance from the military.

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To return to the fears of resurgent terrorism in the North, this would seem preposterous given the patent relief of the majority of the Tamil people that the terrorism to which they were subject is over, a fact the military obviously recognizes. But at the same time it is clear that the people in the North have aspirations that are not being addressed, and this contributes to resentments that could be taken advantage of. Instead then of actions that could contribute to further resentments, the Secretary of Defence should rather work on those who have not only failed to overcome resentments, but have contributed to exacerbating them. Many of the better informed military personnel in the North understand this, and are at a loss to understand the myopia of government in this regard. But sadly, excellent politician though he is, the President will not put his mind seriously to the problem that has arisen in the last few years, and the Secretary of Defence has not produced comprehensive intelligence reports that assess the real reasons for resentment.

The resentment of the people was apparent in the massive vote against government at the recent election to the Northern Provincial Council. The President knew that he would not win the election, and I suspect this was true of everyone in government, even though the Minister of Economic Development, who had been entrusted with the government’s Northern policy, kept claiming that the government would do well. Indeed his belief seems to have been sincere, since the resentment he displayed after the results came in suggested that he was deeply upset at the total failure of his strategy. It was he, the President had told Dayan, who had insisted that the poll be postponed, on the grounds that the work he was doing would win popular favour, whereas the Secretary of Defence had been willing to have the election much earlier. It should be noted then that the Secretary’s opposition to holding the election last year was based on practicalities, the certainty of loss, rather than intrinsic opposition to a Northern Provincial Council, which he had sensibly enough thought should have been constituted earlier. But sadly his reaction to awareness of increasing unpopularity was not to ensure measures to reduce that unpopularity, but to try to sweep it under the carpet by even going to the extent of challenging the President when he made it clear that he intended to abide by his commitment to have the election.

That the Secretary was right to have wanted to have the election earlier is apparent from the results of preceding elections in the North. In the first set of local elections government actually won some local authorities. In the Wanni, government actually came close to winning in two of the three areas that polled, and in one the combined poll for government parties exceeded that of the Tamil National Alliance.

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As pressures mount in Geneva, my bemusement increases at our failure to answer systematically the many charges made against us. I had long pointed out that the criticisms made were by and large untenable, but there were certain incidents which required to be investigated further. This view, based on close observation from the vantage point of the Peace Secretariat where I had set in place mechanisms to monitor allegations and check on them, was confirmed by the LLRC Report. That highlighted the need to check on the treatment of surrendees while affirming that indiscriminate attacks on civilians etc were absurd and tendentious charges.

To dismiss those charges however requires logical argument based on evidence. This approach is sometimes not acceptable, as I realized when I was roundly attacked for having declared way back in June 2009 that there had been civilian casualties. The then Attorney General asked me why I had said this, to which my answer was that it was true. I could however understand his assertion that people would try to make use of my answer, and I sympathize with those who feel they might succumb to leading questions and therefore stay silent. But the way of dealing with such matters is to point out the nonsensical nature of such stratagems – as I did with Stephen Sackur on ‘Hard Talk’ when he asked whether I was admitting there were civilian casualties – rather than hiding one’s head in the sand, ostrich-like, and pretending one knew nothing, or even worse, denying reality.

Unfortunately, given that we have so many ostriches in the country, blank denials are thought preferable to logical argument. Thus we seem internationally to have lost the battle with regard to the number of casualties, which has reached the inflated figure now, sanctified by the blessed Darusman, of at least 40,000. These are claimed to be civilians who were killed in indiscriminate firing.

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I was finally spurred, by the enormous effort made by a few expatriates to take a careful look at the casualty figures for the conflict, to try myself to put together some figures systematically. Long ago I had made some estimates, based on the details I had got from Tamilnet as well as on figures from the ICRC of the sick who had been taken to hospitals in government controlled areas. But though government has now accepted what I said, at the time I was even criticized for my candour by those who should have known much better.

I should note that I was not entirely on my own, for the army, understanding better than most what was at stake, helped me with visits to the sites where the fighting had taken place, and in particular to the hospitals which were largely undamaged, contrary to the propaganda put out about them. But when the books I produced were ignored, I thought it better to concentrate on reconciliation with regard to the future.

Recently though I have been heartened by two envoys who have done well in dealing with the media telling me that I had been their initial inspiration. And when Michael Roberts and the Marga Institute produced ‘The Numbers Game’, and the remarkably sharp journalist Kath Noble assessed this positively, I thought I should make yet another effort.

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After some depression about not achieving very much with regard to either Reconciliation, or the Human Rights Action Plan, I was heartened by several factors last week. In the four Divisional Secretariat meetings I attended in the Wanni, it was clear that things were improving all the time. Several problems were brought to my attention, but these were largely practical problems, similar to those prevalent in other parts of the country. The impact of inclement weather on agriculture, the need for better roads for rural connectivity, and for better electricity connections, shortages of teachers for essential subjects, are national problems, not consequences of the conflict.

Of course much more needs to be done for the people of the Wanni, given what they suffered, and for the first time I felt sad that I cannot contribute more to education, since the Ministry as it now stands is incapable of increasing teacher supply or ensuring better distribution. But, with regard to the other matters, there is much appreciation of progress with regard to roads and electricity, and also understanding that government paved the way through its support for agriculture for abundant harvests in the last few years, even though this year floods have caused problems.

I should note here the appreciation amongst officials and community organizations of the Japanese Peace Project, which has done much for small scale irrigation works in the last few years. A meeting at the Japanese Embassy later in the week confirmed my view of the intelligence and sympathy of their approach. Equally the Indian Housing Project has generated much confidence that things are getting better, though government must do more to publicize both that and the other large scale housing support provided by the military and other agencies, in particular the Swiss, who also work relatively quietly.

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Responses to questions from IRIN, the news agency funded by the UN Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance.

1. As a government official, how do you view the report and what is your response?

I no longer have any executive responsibilities, so cannot speak for the government, but as a former government official, who headed the Peace Secretariat during the conflict period, I feel that much has been omitted. As with the Darusman report, there seems to have been reliance on allegations that have not been substantiated, and inadequate attention has been paid to facts that can be established.

2. Were there any parts you felt specifically strongly about? If so, which ones?

 I have only gone through the main part of the Report, but amongst omissions there are –

a)    Failure to record that government initially wanted WFP and UNHCR to stay on in the Wanni, along with the ICRC, when it asked other agencies to leave. Some Non-Governmental agencies had allowed the LTTE to use their vehicles for military purposes, and at least one worker declared that he thought he should be fighting for the LTTE, so you can see why government could not allow such people to continue en masse. There was also the suspicious case of an attack on a FORUT vehicle, which suggested some connivance, and clearly it was best to ensure that no casualties occurred. However the agencies that provided the most needed assistance were specifically asked to stay.

b)   The record of damage to Kilinochchi is minimal, including after the UN agencies left. As head of the Peace Secretariat, I would check each day on any allegations of abuse, and ask for explanations, and the records I have (in Colombo, but I will go over them again if you wish) indicate minimal harm to civilians. There were I think over 400 air attacks, for instance, until Kilinochchi fell, and in fewer than 30 were there even allegations of civilian deaths, and in over 20 of these the numbers were one or two. It is a pity that similar concern is not shown by the UN, or those who now criticize the UN about Sri Lanka, about civilian deaths in drone strikes and other attacks that seem to violate norms of conduct with complete impunity.

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Having heard the various presentations at the Seminar about Defeating Terrorism, I think that second only to admiration for the systematic work of our forces was regret about the deficiencies Rohan Guneratne noted, with regard to presentation of the story. I hope government will swiftly take up his suggestion that we develop better information dissemination strategies, not only in the Foreign Service and the Information Ministry but also within the services themselves .

Several years back, when I was Academic Coordinator of the degree programme at the Sri Lanka Military Academy, I drew attention to the failure of our officers to set down their experiences in writing, and indeed to analyse defeats as well as victories. I recall being told then that it might be difficult to have instituted projects on say the loss of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi and Pooneryn in the nineties, and Elephant Pass in 2000, since some of the officers responsible for those setbacks were still in the army.

That seemed to me an unsatisfactory answer, given for instance how thoroughly the Indian Army had tackled the story of the IPKF, which was also a setback, even though from the Sri Lankan point of view it had provided a great service to us, which we should have permitted to be concluded. I believe the Indian army learnt from its mistakes then, and certainly study of those several books taught us much about the techniques the Tigers used, not only in terms of guerilla warfare but also the use of civilians as human shields and propaganda tools.

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The recent seminar on Countering Terrorism was a rich and enlightening experience. It helped me to understand further the deep sense of hurt that our military and political officials feel about the swarm of attacks they now have to face with regard to allegations of war crimes. I had known earlier from the statistics I collected from daily TamilNet reports that we had done our best to fight a clean and careful war. Until the end of 2008 we had succeeded, in the Eastern Province, and also during the whole operation to retake the Western part of the Wanni. Even then though, we had to face allegations that had no basis whatsoever in fact, as with the Human Rights Watch claim that we had engaged in indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the East.

The Report that accompanied this assertion, which hardly anyone read in full then, which has now been forgotten though the sensationalistic claim still reverberates, makes it clear that there had been only one incident in which civilians had died. That had been caused by mortar locating radar, with the LTTE having been proved to have been inside a refugee centre, bearing weapons and with bunkers having been prepared.

Human Rights Watch grants this but claims that there is no evidence that the LTTE used heavy weapons. Sadly, in their zeal to target the Sri Lankan government, they omitted to put on record the obvious demand, that the LTTE should not use refugee centres as places from which to fire. The stunning silence of the now hysterical international community seems to have encouraged the LTTE to use this tactic with impunity again and again.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

April 2019
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