Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Tuesday said that there is a possibility of the re-emergence of the LTTE in Sri Lanka, as LTTE sympathisers abroad are still struggling to achieve the LTTE’s separatist ideology in the country. He made this observation speaking on ‘Future Challenges to National Security in Sri Lanka’ organised by Sri Lanka Foundation Institute at the auditorium of the institute. Part I of his speech was published in yesterday’s Daily FT. Following is Part II:
Closely linked to the false, negative picture the LTTE-linked organisations try to project about Sri Lanka’s present is their attempt to tarnish the success of the humanitarian operation. Bringing Sri Lanka before the Human Rights Council of the United Nations and even to the International Criminal Court in Geneva is one of the goals of the rump of the LTTE.
Having been defeated militarily, they seek to generate claims about war crimes and even try to use the term genocide in describing what happened in Sri Lanka. This is part of the strategy they employed throughout the conflict period.
During the humanitarian operation too, it used the exact same terminology to build international pressure against Sri Lanka. It used all the influence it had cultivated over the years with foreign politicians, international organisations and media groups to try and prevent the defeat of its military organisation and save Prabhakaran and the rest of the LTTE’s leadership.
In reality, it was the LTTE that ruthlessly and frequently violated human rights and committed war crimes. Aerial footage captured during the humanitarian operation showed to the world how LTTE cadres fired at the civilians trying to escape its clutches. Now there is more evidence coming to light about the brutal tactics it used to maintain power within its fast diminishing territory during the final stages. The LTTE tried to forcefully abduct some 600 children from families who had sought shelter in a church.
When the church authorities resisted this attempt, it mercilessly shelled the church that same night. It piled up sick and wounded cadres and civilians onto a group of buses and then exploded them while they lay trapped helplessly within. During the very last days, the LTTE even exploded its ammunition dumps near civilian encampments as it realised that military defeat was inevitable.
There is little doubt that in the months and years to come, the rump of the LTTE organisation will only step up its efforts to damage Sri Lanka’s reputation in the international arena and drag this country before international bodies on war crimes charges. It represents nothing less than an effort by those keen to keep terrorism alive to disgrace the reputation of our brave professional servicemen who had the strength and courage to comprehensively eliminate terrorism from this country.
The primary issue being spoken about by the LTTE-linked organisations and their sympathisers is accountability for civilian casualties that took place during the humanitarian operation. In this context, there are several issues to note.
First, it needs to be understood that in any conflict, a certain number of civilian casualties are bound to occur. This is particularly true in conflicts where civilians are used as a human shield by one of the warring factions, as the LTTE did.
While the Government established a very clear zero casualty policy at the start of the humanitarian operation, this was mainly to emphasise safeguarding civilian lives as the foremost priority of the military. By maintaining this priority very clearly from the first day of operations to the last, it was possible to keep civilian casualties at a minimal level.
Utmost care was always taken to minimise collateral damage during military operations. Nevertheless, as with all conflicts in all parts of the world, some civilian casualties would have taken place. Ascertaining the extent of these casualties has been the Government’s intention for some time.
The approach the Government has taken in this regard has been professional. The Department of Census and Statistics, which is the official Government Department for such matters, was asked to conduct a complete census of the area in question.
In the questionnaire that was used, the issue of those who died or went missing during the humanitarian operation was directly addressed. With the completion of the census, it should be possible to identify by name all or most of such persons. The census is complete, and the report is being prepared. It will be released in the near future.
What can be stated beyond doubt is that the overall number of actual deaths is nowhere near the amount claimed by various parties with various agendas. The number is certainly far too small to give any credence to the absurd accusation of genocide often made by the LTTE-linked organisations.
Second, it is also important to realise that the total number of dead and missing will include people in the several categories:
- Those who died of natural causes
- Those who died of accidents
- Those who left this country through illegal means, particularly by boat to India or to South East Asia and from there to the West
- Those who died whilst fighting as members of the LTTE
- Those who died as a result of being coerced to fight by the LTTE
- Those who died as a result of resisting the LTTE
It is only for the remaining deaths that the Sri Lankan military can bear any sort of responsibility. This number is too small to lend credence to the allegation of irresponsible mass military action that is at the heart of the claims about war crimes made by the rump of the LTTE and its sympathisers.
Allegation of impunity
A closely related issue to the number of civilian deaths during the humanitarian operation is the allegation of impunity that is levelled against the military. Again, those who level this criticism have very little understanding of the true picture.
The Sri Lankan Armed Forces are not some ragtag groups assembled at random and sent to war, but historic institutions with a long and distinguished track record of professionalism and discipline. The military’s officer cadre comprises people of a very high calibre. They have received ample training, including university education, not just in Sri Lanka but in prestigious military academies all over the world.
The military has well-established internal mechanisms, including directorates for the upholding human rights and International Humanitarian Law. It also has a strong military justice system to deal with offenses of any kind. During the course of the humanitarian operation, the specific allegations made against military personnel were investigated, and allegations considered credible are being and will be dealt with under both military and civil law.
Of course, it must also be understood that there is a distinct difference between the actions of individuals operating on their own accord outside the bounds of military obligations and any military operations undertaken for the achievement of specific military objectives.
A soldier raping someone has nothing to do with military operations. It is a criminal act that can also be dealt with under the general law. However, if somebody is targeted and killed through a military operation for having been involved in terrorist activities, that is a legitimate military objective which takes place for the upholding of national security.
Perhaps the best example of such an operation in recent times is the assassination of Osama bin Laden. There is an argument that he could have been captured alive. However, the position of the US Government is that bin Laden was a grave threat to national security and that he was therefore killed in a covert operation by the United States military. The same standard should be applied to situations in smaller, less powerful countries such as Sri Lanka.
Yet another issue brought into international focus by those critical of Sri Lanka is reconciliation. The principle thrust of the criticism is that not enough is being done. Here, again, there is some misunderstanding about the actual situation in Sri Lanka. Reconciliation is certainly important, but what is necessary in Sri Lanka is vastly different from what was needed in other countries about which the term is often used.
Sri Lanka is not, for example, a nation that suffered from a dictatorial undemocratic Government that ruled for many years over a marginalised population. It is instead a fully-fledged democracy. During the period of the conflict, a number of Presidents and Governments from different parties were elected by the people to govern the country. Despite the conflict, all people outside the north and east lived in peace with security and dignity. Communal harmony prevailed.
Even the majority population of the commercial capital is no longer Sinhalese. On the contrary, Colombo has been a shining example of multicultural coexistence for many years. Replicating its success throughout Sri Lanka is only a matter of time and economic growth. It is quite evident that the reconciliation necessary in this country is not quite the same thing that those who talk about it, particularly outside Sri Lanka, often imagine it to be.
Nevertheless, the Government took steps not long after the end of the humanitarian operation to establish the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. This commission was mandated to study all matters connected with the conflict, including the breakdown of the ceasefire and the humanitarian operation. Its report has been released, and it has made certain comments on existing issues as well as recommendations to overcome them.
This is a large, comprehensive report that is presently being studied. Once its contents have been assimilated, the Government will decide on how best to implement the proposals made by the commission. It is therefore clear that the criticism levelled against the Government with regard to reconciliation is both out of context and grossly premature.
The attempt to internationalise the situation in Sri Lanka, and the harsh criticism being levelled against this country by parties with vested interests is particularly unfortunate in today’s context. The Government of Sri Lanka has done an enormous amount of work since the end of the humanitarian operation to bring back normalcy to a long-suffering segment of our population. Soon after the defeat of the LTTE, particular attention was paid to the north, where there were several issues that needed to be addressed urgently.
The most pressing of these was resettling the 294,000 Internally Displaced People who had been the LTTE’s human shield during the last stages of the war. The areas they were displaced from had been mined heavily by the LTTE as it retreated. Demining these areas quickly was critical to resettlement, and it is pleasing to note that demining was carried out at an unprecedented pace. The Sri Lanka Army did the bulk of the work while several Non Governmental Organisations and foreign agencies provided a lot of assistance.
As demining progressed, reconstruction of villages and resettlement of IDPs took place. Most of the demining work is now complete and there are less than 3,000 IDPs remaining in camps today. It has to be emphasised that these people are staying in the camps voluntarily, and that they will be resettled as soon as their villages are fully de-mined and deemed safe for occupation.
Another critical issue the Government faced involved the 11,000 former LTTE cadres who surrendered or were detained during the course of the Humanitarian Operation. Despite the fact that all of them had been engaged in terrorist activities, the Government took the bold decision to rehabilitate and reintegrate the vast majority of them to society without delay.
That was a commendable decision that speaks volumes for the Government’s commitment to reconciliation, and it should be noted that such generosity has rarely been shown to similar detainees in other parts of the world. Neither in Afghanistan nor Iraq nor in any other recent conflict have combatants been rehabilitated and reintegrated with such speed.
Unfortunately, some sections of the international community are wilfully blind to this fact and continue to criticise the Government on the issue of detentions. But any examination of the facts will show the truth. There were 595 child soldiers among the 11,000 LTTE cadres in Government custody. They were rehabilitated under a programme supported by UNICEF and reunited with their families within one year. All adult cadres also underwent extensive rehabilitation programmes.
Psychological care, spiritual therapy and vocational training were provided, and the vast majority of them have now been reintegrated with society. Only a small number of cadres with known higher-level involvement in LTTE activities have been earmarked for prosecution. Today, there are less than 700 detainees remaining in Government custody.
Restoration of livelihoods
In addition to demining, resettlement and rehabilitation, the Government has also provided a great deal of assistance to citizens in the north to help them resume normal lives. Support has been given for the restoration of livelihoods. This includes concessionary financing being extended to individuals for farming, fishing, and business.
Markets and other facilities to support these activities are being rapidly developed. Infrastructure development has also been expedited. Programmes are underway to rapidly develop roads, rail, electricity, and irrigation.
It should be emphasised that the military is playing a key role in undertaking these development programmes, as these are considered high priority and difficult for civil organisations to handle on their own. Through all these means, the Government is working very hard to restore normalcy to those civilians who suffered for so many years because of the LTTE’s dominance in those areas.
Restoration of democracy
Perhaps the most critical gain resulting from peace is the restoration of democracy and democratic institutions to that part of the country. Despite the war ending less than three years ago, local authority elections, provincial council elections, a presidential election and a general election have all been held over the past two years.
Last year in the north, people were able to exercise their franchise freely and without fear for the first time in three decades. It should be noted that international observers had few adverse comment about the conduct of all these elections.
That electoral transparency and political plurality has returned to these areas is clear from the results of these elections, in which the Tamil National Alliance did well. However, the Government party ran a close second in a number of districts. That is a significant achievement in a region that suffered for so long under a virtual dictatorship.
Apart from the threat posed by the reorganisation of LTTE-linked groups abroad and what is happening in Sri Lanka, another critical factor to consider is the broader geopolitical situation in this part of the world.
All of you should be aware that the part of the world between the Horn of Africa and the Pacific is becoming increasingly important in international economics, politics and military activities. Emerging economies in this region are shifting the axis of global trade and commerce away from the West.
Global energy security, industrial activity and even financial stability are increasingly dependent on what is happening in the Asian region. Asia is also critical for global security, as most of the countries from which terrorist groups like al-Qaeda draw their strength lie within this region. For all these reasons, increasing global attention is being paid to Asia.
Sri Lanka is situated in a uniquely strategic geographical position within this region. That fact has focused the attention of many Western powers on our country. They are all keen to see that Sri Lanka never aligns itself with anyone other than them. They are particularly worried that Sri Lanka is becoming increasingly close to powers emerging from this part of the world.
In this context, there is a strong misperception that exists internationally and even in Sri Lanka about the extent of Chinese influence on this country. The fear in this regard is unfounded. China is a country that Sri Lanka has had a close relationship with for many years. The primary involvement of China in Sri Lanka is in commerce and trade.
In this regard, Sri Lanka is little different to a number of countries around the world. China is fast becoming one of the world’s greatest economic powers, and its commercial links and economic influence on other nations will only increase as befits a nation of its strength.
This is only natural, and not something to be unduly worried about. Sri Lanka has many friends on the global stage. China is one of them. There is no reason for anyone in Sri Lanka or outside to worry about the relationship between our two nations.
Attempts to create instability
A more realistic potential threat to our national security is the possibility that certain groups may strive to create instability in Sri Lanka through indirect methods. Having seen political change accomplished in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya through uprising, some parties that have failed to achieve their objectives through democratic means might resort to such activities even here.
This is only a very minor possibility, but we have already seen certain groups encouraging students to take to the streets in various protests in the recent past. To a certain extent, such protests are perfectly fine as long as they are peaceful, do not disrupt the life of the people, and does not obstruct university education overall.
Under such conditions, they are in fact an encouraging indicator of the robustness of our democracy. Unfortunately, there could be some who seek to expand these protests into something less peaceful and therefore less conducive to democratic dialogue. We need to be aware of this possibility and guard against it. The last thing Sri Lanka needs now is for our fast-tracked economic development to be derailed by instability.
Sri Lanka is a democratic nation. The true value of democracy is that engagement with the Government is not only possible but also welcome. The democratic process will sort out the disagreements that are bound to arise from time to time. The Government must and will listen to the voice of the people. Unlike the countries in which dictatorships reigned before being derailed by popular uprising, if the people wish to change the Government in Sri Lanka, they can do so without any problem at the polling booth.
In actual fact, elections at every level have been held all over Sri Lanka over the last two years, and it is clear from the results that the popularity of the Government is extremely high. Any group or person trying to resort to non-democratic means to destabilise Sri Lanka because they have not achieve their objectives within the democratic process should be resisted and rejected.
In this context, it is important for all of us who believe in our motherland to stand together and work towards the betterment of the nation, irrespective of our political differences.
Unfortunately there are a handful of Sri Lankans who do not seem to care for their homeland. Speaking to the media, publishing articles and making presentations at various forums, these individuals harshly criticise not only the Government because of whatever ill feelings they harbour against it, but also speak against the country as a whole.
While their ability to speak in this fashion demonstrates the freedom of speech that exists in Sri Lanka, their actions are unwarranted. Whatever disagreements one may have with the Government, speaking or writing or working against the nation itself is not just unpatriotic but treacherous. Such actions beg the question whether there is a hidden agenda behind such actions; an agenda that is not far removed from the one shared by those who seek to destabilise this country.
During the course of this lecture I have highlighted a number of national security threats that face this nation. We must face reality and guard against all eventualities. It is of vital importance for all of us to protect the peace that has been regained after so long and at such cost. We must stand firm and not allow anyone to drive this country back to the state it was in during the past 30 years.
As a nation, Sri Lanka has had more than its fair share of suffering. We must all work together to put the past behind us, and work towards a brighter future for this nation and all her people. That will be the best defence against those who seek to oppose us. Let us all work together to make this better future a reality.