WikiLeaks and Milinda Moragoda


by B.A.B. Goonetilleke

Sometime in 2009, in what was to become a defining moment in the new Digital Age, Bradley Manning, a 24-year old army private based at an outpost in Iraq began to download a veritable trove of classified cables dispatched by U.S. missions around the world onto a thumb drive. Whether Manning stepped into a minefield driven by his runaway personal curiosity, or with an ulterior motive, is something we may come to know in the future.

How Julian Assange of WikiLeaks acquired those cables and why he decided to publish them despite the inherent danger to his person are other unanswered questions. However, in April 2010, WikiLeaks electrified the world by the release of a controversial video recording from a US-helicopter gunship patrol run in Iraq. This classified military video provided the running radio communications of the helicopter crew and visuals of events which culminated in its firing upon a group of Iraqi civilians, which resulted in the killing of a dozen persons including two Reuters staff members.

A few months later even before the dust had settled, Wikileaks further shook up the world by releasing en masse over 250,000 US embassy cables, through both traditional media and the Internet. These documents revealed in minute detail the ongoing reporting engaged in by US diplomatic missions abroad as well as how information was gathered by US embassy staff directly, as well as through their local interlocutors. These seminal events signaled a transition into a new uncertain era engendered by the rise of the Internet and social media, which has resulted in a significant shift in the balance of power from governments to the individual.

The unprecedented mass release of US classified information through WikiLeaks created an uproar internationally and panic among the US government and its diplomatic missions abroad. Understandably, there was a genuine fear in Washington that the audacious revelations by WikiLeaks would create a difficult and embarrassing situation for US missions abroad, potentially damaging bilateral relations and endangering the personal safety of diplomatic personnel and their interlocutors.

However, after the commotion had died down, one could not but conclude that the information in the cables was relatively innocuous in the majority of cases. The New York Times, which was a partner in the publication of the cables, concluded that the WikiLeaks provided "no earthshaking revelations" but offer "insight, texture and context." Reporting on vital information pertaining to the country of accreditation is one of the primary tasks of diplomats of any country. To that extent, we should not be dismayed by the fact that foreign diplomatic missions provide their capitals with a ringside view of what is going on in the country of their accreditation. In fact, the cables provide a unique insight into the mechanics of diplomatic activity and frank US perceptions on a variety of issues. Never before in history has such detailed confidential information been made available to the general public.

In the case of Sri Lanka, the cables released date back to the mid-1980s. While thousands of classified cables had been sent from Colombo to the State Department since then, an interesting phase covered in the cables was the post Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA) period until the end of the military conflict and its aftermath. This is understandable since one of the major players was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which had been listed by the US government as a ‘terrorist organization’ since 1997. Moreover, the negotiations that followed the CFA involved major international players such as India, the European Union, Norway and Japan, in addition to the US.

Of the cables covering the period, nearly 150 refer to the influence of Milinda Moragoda, first as a Cabinet Minister and member of the negotiating team in the United National Party administration, then as an opposition Member of Parliament since April 2004, and later as Minister of Tourism, and subsequently Minister of Justice and Legal Reform in the Cabinet of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Those cables cover the dispatches by four successive U.S. Ambassadors and other US diplomats from the early days of the peace process in 2002 until well after the eventual demise of the LTTE. In addition to the events they report on, the cables reveal the ways in which the US government sought to neutralize the LTTE fighting apparatus.

They also provide an insight into how the negotiations commenced, as well as how the process began to unravel 14 months after the conclusion of the CFA in February 2002. There is reference to the first meeting Minister Moragoda had with Mr. Balasingham in London in July 2002, which heralded an uneasy but welcome truce. However, inexplicably there seems to be a gap in the cables covering his second encounter with Balasingham in Oslo a month later, at which meeting Minister Moragoda succeeded in convincing his skeptical adversary that the time had come to negotiate.

Critics would point out that the LTTE was not serious about a negotiated settlement when they signed the CFA. However, one must not forget the fact that by December 2001, the Tigers had Colombo by the jugular vein, having nearly assassinated President Kumaratunga and delivered a debilitating attack against the only international airport in the country. It is against that backdrop one has to assess the pivotal role played by Minister Moragoda in persuading Balasingham to come to the negotiating table. If as asserted by some, the CFA helped the LTTE to regroup and rearm, it also provided an opportunity for the economy to recover and respite to troops engaged in a relentless war since the previous brief 3-month ceasefire of January-April 1995. It also forced the LTTE leadership to deal in a more transparent environment and pressurized them in subtle ways. For instance, with the opening of the A9, the North was again accessible to the outside world, and for the first time war weary Tamil civilians and young LTTE fighting cadres, who had been living under a virtual dictatorship, were offered a brief glimpse of what normalcy could bring.

Minister Moragoda always said that his approach to the peace process was one taken "with a warm heart but with a cool head." Accordingly, while his aim was a negotiated settlement, he placed emphasis on working with countries such as India and the United States on defence and intelligence cooperation. His successful initiative to obtain a used US-Coast Guard cutter at nominal cost, which at the time was derided by some, with the subsequent resumption of hostilities played an important role in the Sri Lankan Navy’s ability to interdict and destroy LTTE supply vessels. As mentioned in one of the cables, when Balasingham expressed concern about his focus on strengthening the military through international cooperation, Moragoda responded that a confident military was an important element in the peace process.

Moragoda conceived negotiation as a process where opposing sides engaged in open and sincere dialogue in the presence of neutral third parties. In the event of failure, those third parties would be in a position to determine who was responsible. This was the basis of the concept of the "international safety net" which has been at times misconstrued. This nuanced approach can probably be best summed up in a statement he made in a much publicized and at times misquoted press interview which he gave just before the 2005 Presidential Election. Moragoda, said then that the peace process had in fact weakened the LTTE militarily by forcing them to deal with political and civilian issues on a daily basis. He also alluded to the split that took place between the Eastern and Northern LTTE commands as a consequence of the softening of the LTTE brought about through the peace process. That remark was used by LTTE propagandists as confirmation that the Wickremesinghe adminstration had deliberately engineered a split within the LTTE, while some of Mr. Moragoda’s political detractors said at the time that this remark was one of the reasons why the LTTE prevented many Tamils in Northern Sri Lanka from voting in the Presidential election.

Although it has become fashionable to criticize the peace process, Moragoda has always maintained both publicly and privately that this period in many ways laid the foundation for the demise of the LTTE which, by not accepting what were probably the best settlement terms available, overreached themselves and created the very conditions for their ultimate destruction.

Among the interesting anecdotes in the cables is a reference to criticism of Minister Moragoda by the Vanni-based LTTE for failing to keep an alleged promise to get the LTTE team to Washington in the spring of 2003. Piqued by this patently baseless allegation, Minister Moragoda threatened to leave the negotiations and Balasingham, in an uncharacteristic move, retracted and tried to placate the Minister. That the LTTE leader had reprimanded Balasingham for publicly apologizing to Minister Moragoda seems to have escaped the attention of the US Embassy.

It is evident that the US embassy had respect for the positions taken by Minister Moragoda. Reporting on his appointment as Justice Minister one cable says "The appointment of the vibrant and well-regarded Milinda Moragoda as the new Minister of Justice and Law Reforms offers some grounds for optimism. Post regards him as an intelligent and savvy politician who, despite leaving the opposition UNP in 2007 to go over to the ruling coalition, has thus far avoided branding himself narrowly within the presidentshadow".

In another cable Ambassador Blake speaks of Minister Moragoda’s role as bridge builder between President Rajapaksa and the US administration. A cable dispatched in April 2008 speaks of a meeting with the Minister after his visit to Washington states "President Rajapaksa recently designated Moragoda as a special envoy on external military relations with the US, India and possibly other countries" and comments "Although Moragoda occupies the benign post of Tourism Minister, he was offered much more senior posts and enjoys the confidence of and direct access to President Rajapaksa and his two brothers. They particularly value his counsel on US matters given Moragoda’s long experience in the United States".

It was evident that the embassy regarded Minister Moragoda as a politician of firm principles, who did what he thought was right. Commenting on the ailing tourism industry during the period of conflict and the reluctance of the government to modernize and professionalize the tourism sector and to increase accountability by bringing in all stake holders in the private sector, a cable dispatched in September 2007 speaks of the Tourism Act 2005 designed to address the situation, "Despite passage of the Act in 2005, the Government resisted giving up control even in the face of repeated requests from the private sector. Milinda Moragoda’s appointment as Minister of Tourism in February 2007 finally brought in a minister committed to implementing the act — it will become effective on October 1".

While the cables referred to Minister Moragoda’s style of work and demeanour in positive terms, there is no doubt they also saw him as taking decisions solely with a view to promoting Sri Lanka’s interests. His role in developing friendly relations with Iran, Washington’s archenemy, would have no doubt left the embassy wondering how the Minister dealt with Washington and Tehran with equal ease. Reporting on a spat between Citibank and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, it was Minister Moragoda the embassy wished to brief describing him as "Sri Lanka’s point person for its growing relationship with Iran-about the Citibank action, in order to ensure that it does not surprise the government and in the hope that the government will not make rash statements about the action".

Readers of the embassy cables however should bear in mind that these cables do not necessarily reflect the complete picture or the full dimensions of the events reported. Instead, they are the assessments of US diplomats based on what they saw, heard and gathered from sources they considered reliable. On the other hand, the cables offer us the unvarnished opinions and perspectives of a key member of the international community on events which took place during a critical period of Sri Lanka’s history.

Private Manning is currently under military detention and is expected to face a full court marshal scheduled for September 2012. Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, has sought diplomatic protection at the Embassy of Ecuador, while he opposes attempts to extradite him to Sweden and seeks donations from the public to fight his case. While these developments are taking place in the US and Europe, we read classified information offering rare insight on a controversial era of Sri Lanka’s history and the roles played by persons like Minister Moragoda and his peers. Their attempts to settle the conflict with the Tigers through negotiation could not succeed leaving President Rajapaksa no alternative but to resolve it by force.

(The writer is a retired senior Sri Lankan diplomat who has served as Secretary Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador to the United States and China, as well as Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva. He was also the founding Director General of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) from 2002-2004).

To read the cables related to Milinda Moragoda, visit:

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