Lanka lacked strategy to counter lies propagated by Western powers



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Western powers and India humiliated Sri Lanka at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) after the successful conclusion of the war in May 2009 before the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe in October 2015 co-sponsored a resolution inimical to the country. Sri Lanka co-sponsored the resolution soon after Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative there Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha strongly opposed the move.


By Shamindra Ferdinando


Sri Lanka lacked a strategy to counter lies, propagated by Western powers, bent on undermining the war effort.


Successive governments, particularly the war-winning Rajapaksa administration, had been overwhelmed by high profile relentless propaganda projects.


For want of a cohesive plan, interested parties pursued anti-Sri Lanka propaganda offensive with impunity. Political and military leaderships pathetically failed to meet the challenging task. They never realized their folly until the UN Panel of Experts (POE) accused the military of massacring 40,000 civilians during the final phase of the offensive on the Vanni east front. On the basis of unsubstantiated allegations, the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution, in Oct 2015.


Against the backdrop of the House of Lords being told, on Oct 12, 2017, that the death toll, on the Vanni east front, couldn’t have been more than 8,000, let me examine a despicable plot, in March 2007, to discourage the government from pursuing a military solution. Foreign Ministry initially reacted as if Lord Naseby’s statement is irrelevant. But, subsequently, clarified its position with the following statement: "With regard to Lord Naseby’s statement, the Government fully recognizes its contribution to the Transitional Justice/ Reconciliation process in Sri Lanka."


The writer believes what Lord Naseby really meant was that those who demanded accountability, on Sri Lanka’s part, on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations, to review their case. Unfortunately, those in power, as well as in the Joint Opposition, seemed to be uninterested in adopting a common strategy to clear Sri Lanka’s name.


Wartime Secretary General of the Government Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha recently told the writer that Lord Naseby had brought the situation to notice of the Office of President Maithripala Sirisena as well as his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, though they never acted on information received from the UK. Prof. Wijesinha, who had been concurrently the Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights emphasized that the failure on the part of the current government as well as the Joint Opposition to use Lord Naseby’s statement to defend the country couldn’t be justified under any circumstances. Prof. Wijesinha asserted that with the very basis of the Resolution 30/1 being challenged in the House of Lords, it would be the responsibility of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration to request Geneva to revisit the case. SLFP factions certainly owed the country an explanation as to severe shortcomings in Sri Lanka’s defence. Prof. Wijesinha, during the war and after constantly engaged those who had targeted Sri Lanka, but the then government lacked a cohesive strategy.


Monitors deceive public


The Scandinavian Truce Monitoring Mission aka Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) issued a controversial statement to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), signed on Feb 21, 2002. The Norway-led mission, comprising five countries, declared that nearly 4,000 people had been killed since the change of government, in Nov 2005, whereas 130 persons perished during the remaining period, covered by the CFA (Feb 2002-Nov 2005).


The SLMM, headed by a retired army officer, holding the rank of Major General, was tasked with supervising the CFA. Subsequently, a separate SLMM group was established to rule on incidents involving the Navy and Sea Tigers.


Mahinda Rajapaksa won the Nov 2005 presidential poll, thanks to the LTTE and its ally, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), depriving UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe of the northern vote. Having had helped Rajapaksa secure the presidency, the LTTE resumed claymore attacks in the first week of Dec 2005. The LTTE launched an all out war in Aug, 2006, with simultaneous large scale attacks on the Jaffna front line, as well as the Eastern Province.


However, by Feb, 2007, the combined forces were making progress in the Eastern Province, though the LTTE retained substantial military strength. The SLMM statement simply underscored the futility of the war.


The Rajapaksa administration never bothered to seek an explanation from the SLMM. The media, including The Island, carried the SLMM statement meant to step up pressure on the then government. The SLMM declared that it had arrived at a death toll of 4,000 on the basis of daily reports from truce monitors, based in the northern and eastern districts where every case, related to the conflict had been recorded. The SLMM conveniently refrained from differentiating the number of civilian deaths.


By not making any reference to combatants, the truce monitoring mission implied the dead were civilians.


The SLMM consisted of international monitors, from five Nordic countries, namely Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, supported by local staff.


(The mission was terminated on January 16, 2008, following the abrogation of the CFA by Sri Lanka, and the organization ceased to exist by the end of 2008, following an administrative termination in the Nordic countries).


As the writer felt that there couldn’t be any basis for the SLMM’s claim, a clarification was sought from its headquarters in Colombo, in early March 2007. After a series of telephone calls, the mission admitted that the dead included combatants and civilians. However, the mission refused to provide a breakdown of the number of persons killed during the 15-month period. The Oslo-led mission claimed that the revelation of such information wouldn’t be favorable to its role in Sri Lanka. However, the mission placed the number of civilian deaths at 1,500 (Deaths due to the conflict: SLMM backs down on breakdown with strapline Changes figure to 1,500 from 4,000 - ‘The Island’ March 12, 2007).


The SLMM statement was meant to draw attention to the fact that there was a sharp escalation of violence since November 5, 2005, following the election of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the fifth executive president of Sri Lanka.


Subsequent inquiries revealed that the truce monitors simply exaggerated deaths among combatants just to get away from a tight spot.


The monitoring mission also refused to divulge its sources.


Both the local and international media gave wide coverage to the monitoring mission’s claim. But they never rectified the misconception. The SLMM, too, conveniently refrained from correcting its original statement for obvious reasons.


The government never sought a clarification from the monitoring mission, or the Norwegian peace facilitators. The government’s failure would have even surprised the truce monitors as well as the co chairs to the Sri Lankan peace process, namely the US, EU, Norway and Japan.


However, army headquarters, in response to a query by ‘The Island’, insisted that there had been only 694 civilian deaths during the November 2005 –March 2007 period. Army headquarters rejected truce monitors’ claim of 1500 civilian deaths during this period. But the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) accepted the controversial figures in spite of the Army contradicting the figures quoted by the mission. The military acknowledged that the government’s failure to challenge the truce monitors over the false report was damaging, especially in the backdrop of growing international scrutiny of human rights.


The SCOPP declined to comment on the truce monitors’ report. In fact, the SCOPP accepted the statement issued by the monitoring mission.


The Army, too, would have remained silent if The Island didn’t challenge the Nordic mission.


The government never felt the need to challenge the SLMM.


The government’s response to PoE’s claim of 40,000 civilian deaths, during the final phase of the offensive on the Vanni east front, was very much similar to that of the truce monitors’ bogus claims - first, 4,000 civilians perished during November 2005 to March 2007 and the second 1500 civilians and 3,500 combatants died during the same period.


Interestingly, other print and electronic media never bothered to take up this issue. Those who had reported the original SLMM statement ignored the issue even after the disclosure of its agenda.


Who authorized that statement? Did the then head of the SLMM mission consult the Norwegian Ambassador in Colombo before issuing the statement? Had there been at least an attempt of the then government’s part to establish the motive for issuing exaggerated figures.


The SLMM spokesperson repeatedly declined to discuss where these 4,000 killings took place and why there was absolutely no reference to such large scale violence in previous statements issued by the monitoring mission. The spokesperson also refused to estimate the death toll due to direct military action, or crossfire, between the armed forces and the LTTE.


The then government squandered an excellent opportunity to expose the Nordic mission. In fact, the previous government never felt the requirement to systematically counter lies, propagated by the international community, or a section of the media, that had faith in the LTTE’s military prowess. It is nothing but strange that the Joint Opposition members of parliament, loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, were still reluctant to examine the previous administration’s failure on the media front. They haven’t still realized that the previous government’s failure paved the way for Western powers and India to facilitate the regime change operation, in 2015 January. Almost a similar project went awry in 2010 January when war-winning Army Chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the then Commander-in-Chief Mahinda Rajapaksa.


Govt’s shocking failures


Army headquarters and the Defence Ministry rejected the SLMM statement, though they couldn’t convince the government to take it up with the mission, publicly. They placed the number of civilian deaths at 694, from Nov 2005 up to Feb 2007, whereas the SLMM initially placed the death toll at nearly 4,000, then reversed it to 1,500 when The Island sought district wise breakdown of deaths. Surprisingly, an obvious attempt to influence the public opinion, as well as that of the international community, was never raised in parliament. The government never referred to the SLMM attempt throughout the war, or post-war, as unsubstantiated war crimes accusations were hurled at the armed forces.


It would be pertinent to mention that the international community had been guided by SLMM reports, hence it was the responsibility of the then government to be on alert (Military contradicts SLMM report on civilian killings-The Island, March 23, 2007).


Sri Lanka’s failure to challenge these lies allowed various interested parties to pursue this highly detrimental propaganda campaign until it was too late. Would you believe the previous government (2007-2015) and the present Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government hadn’t raised the discrepancy in the vastly different figures, quoted by various interested parties, at Geneva, where the country repeatedly suffered humiliating defeats. Those responsible for Sri Lanka’s defence, in Geneva, lacked foresight to underscore the circumstances under which the LTTE resumed Eelam War IV in Aug 2006. Both the External Affairs Ministry and President Rajapaksa’s Human Rights envoy, Mahinda Samarasinghe could have had certainly handled the Geneva challenge better. Unfortunately, for want of an efficient strategy, Sri Lanka never gathered relevant information, hence lacked the wherewithal to justify the military response/military solution.


Shameless attempt by the SLMM to hoodwink the public here should be examined against the backdrop of its statement on the resumption of war. In fact, the SLMM contradicted the LTTE accusations that the Army had triggered the Aug 2006 Muhamalai battle that convinced the Rajapaksa administration there was no point in negotiations. The Muhamalai battle strongly pushed the government to go for a military solution.


SLMM blames LTTE for Jaffna battle


The SLMM strongly disputed the LTTE claim that it launched on attack on the Muhamalai front line in response to artillery fire directed by the Army. The monitoring mission said: "...considering the preparation level of the operations its seems to have been a well prepared LTTE initiative."


Former Swedish head of the SLMM, retired Maj. Gen. Ulf Henricsson, said so in a special report that dealt with the situation in the peninsula in the immediate aftermath of the LTTE offensive launched on Aug 11. The Swede said that the armed forces halted the LTTE advance on the following day. The SLMM statement countered NGOs, the TNA and other interested parties’ attempts to blame the government. Sri Lanka never exploited that statement (SLMM blames LTTE for Jaffna battle-The Island, Sept 8, 2006).


The TNA remained silent. Having declared LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran as the sole representative of the Tamils, in late 2001, the grouping refrained from commenting on the resumption of war. The TNA lacked courage at least to publicly request the LTTE in April 2003 not to quit the negotiating table. The LTTE move was meant to destabilize the then UNP government, struggling to maintain the CFA amidst violations almost on a daily basis. In Nov, 2005 the TNA ordered the Tamils, at the behest of the LTTE, to boycott the presidential polls. Having ensured Rajapaksa’s victory, the LTTE resumed operations in Dec 2005 and in Aug 2006 launched all out war.


In Aug, 2005 the LTTE, assassinated Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, at his Bullers Lane residence.


Having done extremely well in the northern and eastern electoral districts, at the April 2004 general election thanks to the LTTE backing, the TNA remained silent on Kadirgamar’s assassination. In the immediate aftermath of the Kadirgamar assassination, the international community demanded that Sri Lanka remained in the Norway-led peace process in spite of the grave provocation. Those who had been demanding accountability on Sri Lanka’s part for alleged battlefield atrocities never bothered at least to directly blame the LTTE for the Kadirgamar assassination.


The JVP that had wept buckets for Kadirgamar, in Jan 2010 and Jan, 2015 joined political groups, that included the TNA, to try and help General Fonseka win. The first project undertaken, with US advice, failed though the same grouping, succeeded five years later. On both occasions, they used one-time Rajapaksa loyalists.


Interestingly, another Rajapaksa loyalist, Mangala Samaraweera, had been the Foreign Minister at the onset of Eelam War IV. Samaraweera, while reiterating Sri Lanka’s commitment to the Oslo-led peace process, on Sept 8, 2006, warned the LTTE of dire consequences unless the group returned to the negotiating table. The warning was issued at a meeting with Colombo-based diplomatic corps in the wake of the Army overrunning the LTTE front line, at Muhamalai, and liberating Sampur. Samaraweera said: "I must note here that while the government would like to show the LTTE that any military aggression on their part would entail military costs to them, the government remains committed to the ceasefire agreement and is vigorously continuing with the constitutional reforms process. Samaraweera reiterated Rajapaksa’s readiness that he would consider any proposal for a comprehensive and verifiable cessation of hostilities that could bring an end to violence (Forces seize Tigers’ Jaffna front line with strap line...any military aggression on their part would entail military costs to them-Foreign Minister, The Island, Sept 11, 2006)


Today, hardly anyone would remember Samaraweera’s role as the wartime Foreign Minister or President Rajapaksa bringing in UNPer Rohitha Bogollagama as Samaraweera’s successor in late January 2007. The Foreign Ministry should examine its overall role during the war and post-war period to ascertain its failures, at least belatedly. The post-war performance of the ministry certainly contributed to Sri Lanka’s failure with the decision taken at the behest of President Rajapaksa to secure the services of US PR firms to improve Sri Lanka’s image there being the most foolish project.


(To be continued)


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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