Rajapaksa opted for war only when repeated efforts to negotiate were rebuffed



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by Dr. Palitha Kohona


(Continued from yesterday)


On April 25, General Sarath Fonseka, the Commander of the Army, was targeted by a pregnant suicide bomber who had managed to infiltrate the military hospital compound in Colombo. He barely managed to survive and had to be airlifted to Singapore later for treatment. (He survived and led the military to its final victory). Sixteen of his body guards and bystanders were killed. With panic and fear spreading among leaders and the population alike and serious questions being asked of the usefulness of negotiations with the LTTE, I was asked to go before the TV cameras and explain the government position, and this appearance was to be followed by regular such appearances before the media, mainly the international media, over the next three years. The proscription of the LTTE by the EU which happened soon thereafter caused the LTTE to demand the withdrawal of EU members attached to the SLMM. This was followed by an outrageous atrocity when the LTTE exploded two claymore mines targeting a packed civilian bus in Kabilitigollawa. The dead exceeded 70, including pregnant women going to attend their weekly clinic. The attack on General Parami Kulatunga, Deputy Chief of Staff, killing him, caused even the SLMM to question the usefulness of the cease fire agreement. The seriousness of the LTTE in seeking a negotiated end to the conflict was very much in doubt.


 A US study made available to the government of Sri Lanka at the time suggested that the LTTE would seek to take over Trincomalee which was of seminal strategic importance and was the hub from which the Jaffna peninsula was resupplied. The land route was no longer useable by the security forces. The LTTE having infiltrated and consolidated itself in the southern part of the bay, the government also set about taking necessary steps to quietly strengthen Trincomalee.  


The government and its Peace Secretariat still persisted in the hope of resuming discussions with the LTTE in April or even later. For its part, active preparations continued. 


With demands for the April talks being made by the Government, the LTTE asked that its Eastern leaders be permitted to consult with the Northern leadership prior to the negotiations and that they be transported in a government military helicopter. The military refused to oblige for fear of risking the safety of its helicopters. Every alternative offer made by the Government Peace Secretariat to provide transportation to the Eastern leaders to travel to the North, including by ferry, chartered helicopter and by seaplane, was rebuffed by an over-confident LTTE. The Eastern contingent once boarded the ferry provided but refused to undertake the voyage. A large chartered helicopter brought across from South Africa at great expense by Decan Air, was not used. The sea plane that was brought over from the Maldives and was flown by a Canadian pilot remained idle for weeks. The talks that the government delegation so enthusiastically anticipated, never happened.


 However, the government Peace Secretariat continued to maintaining links with the Norwegian peace facilitator, by now, Jon Hansson Bauer (playfully referred to as Handsombua by the then Foreign Minister, Samaraweera). Jon Hansson Bauer asked for a private meeting with me away from the public glare to work out possible options for another round of talks with the LTTE. We agreed to meet somewhere that the local media would not notice and the LTTE would not be able to observe us. All major capitals of Europe were ruled out. Eventually we agreed to meet secretly in Barcelona where there was hardly a Sri Lankan, especially a Tamil, community. Over two days of discussions, we agreed to restart the talks, perhaps talks about the talks, at a lower level.


 A Government delegation led by me, as the Secretary-General of the Peace Secretariat, went to Oslo on the invitation of the Norwegians in June 2006. A LTTE delegation led by Thamilselvam was flown to Oslo by the Norwegians. Curiously, the legal advisor of the LTTE team was the former Chief Justice of Sri Lanka, Shiva Pasupathi. Someone mischievously observed that the Tamils could not have been that marginalised if they could have advanced to so high a position in the judicial field in Sri Lanka. Even more curiously, Shiva Pasupathi preferred to sit with the government delegates at dinner and not with his own team. The two delegations stayed in the same hotel, dined in the same room but the LTTE just refused to come to the negotiating table. The LTTE delegation, instead spent the day playing with a frisbee on the lawn outside while the government delegation sat at the negotiating table. All efforts, including by Jon Hansson Bauer, to get the LTTE delegation to come to the table failed. There was suspicion among us that Thamilselvam came to Europe with Norwegian funding, not to engage in talks with the government delegation but to meet with LTTE leaders in Europe to brief them on the next phase of their campaign and to collect funds. It took a persistent effort on the part of the Government delegation at the end of the day to get Erik Solheim to issue a statement blaming the LTTE delegation for the talks not happening. He would have been happy to let the LTTE off the hook with no consequences for their determined effort to wreck the talks. The government delegation left Oslo that evening and returned home via London. Interestingly, Shiva Pasupathi sat next to me on the way to London (he was going on to Australia, his adopted home) and was full of disappointment that the talks did not occur.


 During this period, while the government of President Rajapaksa was making every effort to engage the LTTE in a dialogue, Prabhakaran appears to have had other plans. In July, the LTTE, in an unprecedented provocative move, cut off the water supply to 65,000 farming people in the Eastern Province by occupying the Mavil Aru, which is located in the Trincomalee District. The government Peace Secretariat intervened directly with the LTTE through the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission to get them to release the water as thousands of acres of paddy were beginning to wilt in the heat. The LTTE Peace Secretariat and its political wing leader Thamilselvam kept floating ideas and eventually suggested constructing a water tower to provide an equal amount of water to Tamil residents of the area. This was not a serious proposition as water for agriculture was traditionally supplied via canals and not by using a tower. The toing and froing continued until the government decided to resolve the impasse by force. A battalion of troops had to be secretly brought down from Jaffna as the government lacked troops for the operation. General Henrikson, commander of the SLMM, after having failed to convince the LTTE that they were seriously in breach of the Cease Fire Agreement by occupying Mavil Aru, suddenly got himself in to the battle zone to monitor the breaches of the Agreement by the security forces. He suggested, almost farcically, that the government by not discussing the conditions conveyed to him by the LTTE, was in breach of the ceasefire agreement. The government saw no reason to bargain on the basis of a public utility which had up to the occupation  by the LTTE served the people adequately. After 10 days of difficult fighting, the LTTE combatants were forcibly evicted by the Security Forces. The campaign was short, but bloody.  


This provocation was followed by massive attacks by the LTTE on Security Forces positions, in Trincomalee, Sampur to the south of Tricomalee and Jaffna and the forcible eviction of over 54,000 Muslims from Muttur. The scenario outlined in the assessment of the US team with regard to Trincomalee was being enacted in reality. In the days prior to the attacks, leaflets were circulated in Muttur, a predominantly Muslim town, demanding that the Muslims leave. In a brazen breach of the CFA, the LTTE landed heavily armed men on the beaches of Muttur and quickly overran the naval detachment located there and shortly thereafter, the police post also withdrew. The civilians, mostly Muslims, fled en mass along the Kanthale Road. Some perishing at the hands of gun happy LTTE cadres; others being executed for collaborating with the security forces. The Ticomalee harbour was shelled from Sampur across the bay, with artillery with no regard for possible civilian casualties. Three army camps to the south of Trincomalee were attacked, including with heavy weapons. 


 Despite the ferocity of the attacks, the camps remained in government hands, putting the LTTE on notice that the soldiers were now willing to hold their ground and fight. A different and more determined attitude was beginning to manifest in the security forces. A massive bombardment took place across the Muhamalai line in the North and that defence line also held.


 The security forces counter attacked and relieved Muttur. During this fighting, 17 volunteers with the ACF (Action Against Hunger) had defied evacuation orders and remained in their compound. Their dead bodies with bullet wounds were discovered when Muttur was relieved. However, the ACF deaths, which were subjected to an ongoing investigation by the police and by a magistrate, continued to be played up by the LTTE propaganda machine and doubts cast on the security forces. My deputy in the Peace Secretariat, Kethish Loganathan, a Tamil, was murdered on his own doorstep by the LTTE on 12 August 2006. 


After expelling the LTTE from Sampur, the security forces continued to fight their way through the Eastern Province until all LTTE strong points were taken. When the security forces successfully cleared Sampur, reflecting the strong inclination of the Western media to reflect LTTE propaganda lines without verification, Dumita Luthra of the BBC ran a heart rending story of 41,000 civilians being uprooted by the security forces operation. She was forced to retract the story when the government Peace Secretariat demonstrated that there were only less than 16,000 civilians in the entire Sampur area and most of them, in fact, had remained in their homes.


 The ceasefire agreement of 2002 was now reduced to a piece of paper. The government urgently, almost in panic, asked the Norwegians, Erik Solheim, to get the peace talks restarted. The inclination of President Rajapaksa still was to talk to the LTTE. In response, Jon Hanssen Bauer arrived in Sri Lanka. The Norwegians may have judged that the parity of status between the LTTE and the government which they had advocated for serious negotiations to begin, may have arrived.


Against this background, the next round of talks were convened in Geneva in October by the Norwegians. They were essentially scuttled by the LTTE walking out after a day and a morning, making impossible demands, including the reopening of the main road to Jaffna, the A9.


It was against this background of three failed attempts to engage the LTTE in talks and continuing large scale assaults on the security forces and civilians using murderous IEDs, that the Government of President Rajapaksa opted to deploy the military in strength against the LTTE. Many observers believe that Rajapaksa had been ready to make major concessions within the context of a unitary state  to achieve a negotiated end to the conflict. Despite what he has been portrayed to be, a leader bent on using force, he possessed a strong underlying sense of fair play and humanity. In this respect, the blame for not encouraging Prabhakaran also to seek a solution for any grievances of the Northern Tamils instead of seeking to recreate a Tamil kingdom through violence, terrorism and war must be shared by the Norwegians, Solheim included, who enjoyed his trust, the European and other sympsthisers, including funders providing endless resources to him. Not much effort appears to have been made to correct Prabhakaran's myth obsessed aspirations by those enjoying his trust and confidence. So many more lives, both of the security forces and of civilians, could have been saved and the country would have advanced much more, economically, socially and politically.


(Concluded)


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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