'A community cannot have grievances'
By Dilrukshi Handunnetti
Government Defence Spokesperson and Minister of
Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare, Keheliya
Rambukwella claims that deadlines are not feasible
when fighting a ruthless guerilla outfit like the
LTTE though in reality, the Tigers are restricted to
a mere 20 sq kms. In an interview with The Sunday
Leader, he said TMVP's symbolic laying down of arms
was in the correct spirit whereas the LTTE wayback
in 1987 unwillingly did so, due to external
critiqued the UN Human Rights Commissioner for
quoting 'TamilNet figures' alleging that the LTTE
propaganda machine and the UN body must be one and
the same to quote identical figures. Excerpts:
Q: How many days if not weeks will be required to
end the war?
A: When dealing with one of the worst
terrorist groups in the world under difficult
circumstances, deadlines are not realistic. The LTTE
is a formidable, well-fortified organisation with
tentacles all over.
is even unfair to question the forces in this
regard. The important thing is that what needs to be
done is being done. The results are obvious.
When the east was being cleared, there were those
who scoffed and asked why it was the east and not
the north. When troops diverted from Killinochchi to
Pooneryn, our ability to get to the LTTE heartland
was questioned. This is very demoralising.
But the Sri Lankan forces and their commanders have
proved that their strategies are correct. In short,
time frames are different, but the efforts and
strategies have paid off in terms of liberation.
Having said all that, and accepting the reality of
having to wage war against a deadly guerrilla force,
it is creditable to restrict the LTTE to 20 sq kms.
When did this happen before?
also have a civilian situation to grapple with. The
LTTE's international mechanism is at work now. The
civilian story is their only solace or opportunity
to win some sympathy. We have many issues to deal
with and are dealing with those. Deadlines are
neither fair nor feasible.
Q: Is the LTTE's air power now history as claimed by
some government quarters?
A: There are some who confidently say so, but
I won't say that. But we are all ready for it as we
were ready when they struck the SLAF Headquarters.
Our surveillance is good and we are ready. We won't
let our defences down. And people should feel
encouraged by our achievements so far and keep
Q: There are fresh calls from Tamil Nadu to announce
a no fire period. Will the government concede at
A: We are a sovereign nation. We also need to
look at a convergence with the international
community. We understand the political compulsions
in Tamil Nadu.
The world today accepts that our decision to meet
fire with fire has paid off. Other steps will
follow. But a truce right now is not possible.
What exact role does
play in assisting civilian evacuation in the north?
A: The Government of Sri Lanka has created a
structure within which certain countries,
can assist. Outside that, we don't accept
assistance. Anyone has to operate within this
Q: Your constituent member Wimal Weerawansa
expressed concerns over Indian intelligence agents
infiltrating the north following the setting up of a
hospital in Pulmodai? Can you rule this out?
A: As I said before, we have a structure in
place for evacuation and medical assistance. However
whoever who wants to help has to move into the Sri
Lankan structure that is in place. There can be no
outside and independent operations.
Q: If the war soon draws to an end, will the LTTE
cadres be granted an amnesty?
A: Yes. If they lay down arms or are
militarily defeated, we will grant an amnesty. This
is a civilised nation. They won't be lined up and
killed the way the LTTE does. This is an elected
government, not a terrorist outfit.
Q: Does this apply to top cadres too?
A: Every LTTE cadre.
Q: Is some mechanism now being discussed?
A: There is nothing to discuss. Look at
Karuna and Pillayan. The democratic structures are
there and they are welcome to be part of it.
Q: Will this space be open to any LTTE cadre?
A: The democratic system exists. Anybody will
have an opportunity and the democratic space to play
Q: If requested, will the government hand over
Pirapaharan to be tried in connection with the Rajiv
A: That's very unlikely. We want to try him
here first and then we will consider any such
Q: Is Pirapaharan still alive and here in Sri Lanka?
A: We believe so.
Q: After the war, what next? Talks or
A: Rehabilitation, reconstruction and
development come first. There is no point in
discussing politics with a region that had known
only war for decades. Just look at the IDPs. They
need shelter, clothing, medicine, education,
livelihood support and infrastructure. Let they be
first treated as humans. The LTTE has kept them
under sub human conditions.
want them to enjoy the true meaning of being
liberated. Let them breathe first. Unfortunately,
the international community, either by design or
default, is not mentioning these aspects.
Q: You spoke of the IDPs in an active and protracted
war situation. Don't similar requirements exist for
the military as well, specially if the war is likely
A: We have Rana Viru Sevana, employment
schemes and even schools for children of war heroes.
There are volunteers who joined the army some 30
years ago. They have served as regular personnel
with no dividends. We will give them financial
benefits such as enhanced pensions and compensation.
That's the least we can do though it will cost the
government another Rs. 6 billion.
Q: Do you suspect the LTTE had a hand in the Lahore
A: I will not rule it out. It is a well-known
terrorist organisation and I believe their tentacles
have spread all over. They have technological
While I do not know anything that could directly
link the LTTE to the Lahore attack, given the shape
and colour of international terror organisations, I
do not rule out the possibility either. They do not
function in isolation.
Q: Can the LTTE be vanquished?
A: If you mean militarily defeated, yes. We
also know, terrorism grows and spreads elsewhere and
it is sad to find the international community
condoning this or preferring to maintain silence.
For example, the recent LTTE air attack was similar
to September 11. The entire world stood up for the
US, but was quiet about Sri Lanka. In the style of
operation, the incidents were similar and so was the
But there are ceremonies to commemorate the LTTE
'heroes' in Toronto. It is sad.
Q: Has the government protested over that event?
A: I think the Foreign Ministry is taking it
up. The LTTE is a banned organisation in
We won't treat it lightly.
Q: But vanquishing the LTTE does not mean it won't
raise its head again?
A: If the military wing is defeated, I don't
foresee massive attacks barring isolated incidents.
If you don't give in and fight back, we can stay in
control. Of course, the issues must be addressed.
There are no grievances particularly for a
community. Grievances are there with every citizen.
When hostel facilities are limited, university
students call it a grievance and protest. Then there
are salary anomalies and they call it a grievance.
There are issues everywhere and they all need to be
Q: If the LTTE is finally destroyed, who and what
groups could fill the political vacuum that exists
in the north?
A: Do not worry on this score. Sri Lanka has
never been short of politicians. There are 61
registered political parties. Nowhere in the world
do you find this number of political parties. There
will be politicians when the conditions are created.
That will happen when normalcy returns.
Q: The TMVP laid down some arms recently. The LTTE
too handed over weapons to the IPKF in 1987 but had
more than enough to launch full-scale guerilla
warfare thereafter. Why place so much of
significance in TMVP's symbolic gesture?
A: It shows the signs of wanting to be part
of the democratic process. The LTTE did not
surrender weapons voluntarily. A super power was
behind it. They felt, unless that path was taken,
there would be external forces pressurising them. So
their laying down of arms was by no means voluntary.
They also took revenge from
for this act by assassinating Rajiv Gandhi. The TMVP
on the other hand has subjected themselves to the
Q: The UN Human Rights Commissioner has raised
concerns about the worsening humanitarian situation
in the north that had caused a fresh debate over the
state's responsibility. What is your response?
A: Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe
has given a lucid explanation and countered the UN
argument. Sadly, we have to conclude that the UN
body has relied on the statistics offered by the pro
LTTE, TamilNet. We have our own facts and figures.
It is stunning that the statement quoted the
TamilNet figures. Why do that, unless they are part
and parcel of the same organisation or at the least,
formulating figures together?
"Civilian lives are lost" - Hillary
On March 13, Secretary Hillary Clinton called
President Rajapakse to express the United
States' deep concern over the deteriorating
conditions and increasing loss of life occurring
in the Government of Sri Lanka-designated 'safe
zone' in northern Sri Lanka. The Secretary
stated that the Sri Lanka Army should not fire
into the civilian areas of the conflict zone.
The Secretary offered immediate and
post-conflict reconstruction assistance and she
extended condolences to the victims of the March
10 bombing outside a mosque in southern
She condemned the actions of the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who are reported to
be holding civilians as human shields, and
shooting at civilians leaving LTTE areas of
Secretary Clinton called on President Rajapakse
to devise a political solution to the ongoing
conflict. She urged the President to give
international humanitarian relief organisations
full access to the conflict area and displaced
persons' camps, including screening centers.
'Govt. committed to safety of civilians'
Secretary General, Secretariat for Coordinating the
Peace Process in Sri Lanka and Secretary, Ministry
of Human Rights and Disaster Management, Professor
Rajiva Wijesinha in an interview with The Sunday
Leader attempts to set the record straight in
relation to Sri Lanka being accused of war crimes
and other violations of human rights. Excerpts:
Q: UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay has accused
both the government and the LTTE of possibly having
committed war crimes. What is your response?
A: She stressed the use of the word
'possibly' when we met, but our view is that such
statements need much stronger evidence than simply
assertions by people who have a jaundiced view, who
have been feeding her information. In the case of
the LTTE there is of course well documented evidence
of suicide bombs targeting civilians, recruitment of
child soldiers etc, whereas in fact the government
has an excellent record with regard even to
collateral damage on civilians - the accusation, as
far as the government goes, has fleshed out in the
third and fourth paras of her statement, relates
only to firing into zones containing civilians.
The government does not target civilians but, as it
had explained with regard to the Kathiravelli
incident, the only one in which civilian deaths were
even alleged during the whole operation to free the
east, if the LTTE fires from amongst civilians and
we have no reason to believe civilians are there,
our targeting of the LTTE could lead to civilian
casualties. That is not a war crime.
was shown, on the first occasion on which the LTTE
claimed that we had fired into the safe zone that we
had declared, that it was the LTTE that had done the
firing - the UN sent us an SMS that evening to say
that the firing most probably came from the LTTE
side. You will note that Ms Pillay's statement also
says that, apart from firing into the safe zone -
which you have evidence the LTTE has certainly done,
from the UN as well as the Bishop of Jaffna - 'Other
areas holding civilians have also been shelled.'
That cannot be a war crime, though it is certainly
criminal of the LTTE to hold civilians in these
areas and not let them go to the safe areas, just as
it is criminal of them (though I suspect this has
not been specified by those who define war crimes,
since they never had to deal previously with a
monstrosity like the LTTE) not to let civilians
leave the safe areas and come over to government
controlled areas as they want to.
told Pillay that she should have made this demand
clear, and she said she had, but we pointed out the
ambiguities in her text and then she said she had
made that demand earlier. We told her, as we have
told the UN for months, that this is simply not good
enough, and ambiguity allows the LTTE to continue
with this practice - which should most certainly be
defined as a war crime too.
Q: Pillay very specifically says that "certain
actions being undertaken by the Sri Lankan military
and by the LTTE may constitute violations of
international human rights and humanitarian law."
How seriously does the government view this
A: Very seriously indeed, because Pillay
seems a very honourable lady, and it is sad that she
should have been subjected to so much pressure. This
pressure seems to have arisen between the meeting
she had with the Sri Lankan delegation on March 4th,
and the issuing of the statement on March 13th. When
we asked her why she had not raised these queries
then, she told us that she had received information
subsequently. She apologised for not having spoken
to us about the statement beforehand, since it had
been drafted for her on the 11th, and she had been
in Berne all day on the 12th.
the 4th itself she explained to us that she had been
getting thousands of e-mails, which jammed her
blackberry, and she repeated this when the
Ambassador and I met her on the 16th - that was the
problem, she said, not the e-mails themselves,
because those were looked at not by her but by her
After we met we found that, before the statement was
drafted, she had met a group that included the
London head of the TRO, which as you know is banned
for supporting terrorism in some Western countries,
including I believe the United Kingdom. We have
suggested to the Ambassador of the UK that he take
up this matter, since the
has been better than most about dealing not only
with Tiger terrorism, but also with terrorist
Q: What action do you intend to take to address such
a serious charge? After all, the government is
being accused of war crimes and crimes against
A: You must be precise. Pillay has said that
certain actions by the Sri Lankan military may
constitute violations. We showed the good lady that
the evidence is to the contrary. She was I think
pleasantly surprised when we explained to her about
the schedules we maintain of what might be termed
the worst case scenario, the allegations on TamilNet,
and that for the seven months until December even
TamilNet only claimed 78 civilian deaths in all army
The figure has gone up since, but when you remember
that, in the few instances in which it was clear who
had done the firing, it was the LTTE, you will
understand that the possibility of government being
responsible for war crimes is not one that can be
taken seriously, though LTTE fronts and what Michael
Roberts has called 'human rights extremists' are
trying to blow it up as a fully fledged accusation.
Q: Pillay has urged the government and the LTTE to
halt hostilities to allow for the evacuation of
civilians trapped on the northeastern coast. Are
you considering this request?
A: Again, you need to be precise, she did not
call for a halt, she asked for a suspension -
similar to what the Indian Foreign Minister did, and
I have explained previously why that was an
eminently rational request, and had nothing to do
with a ceasefire, which both the Indian government
and the Sri Lankan government know is not something
you can trust the LTTE with.
However, even with regard to a suspension, you will
recall that the government did this at the end of
January, and the LTTE promptly took advantage of it
to try to retake Mullaithivu. But certainly the
government wants these civilians evacuated and, if
there can be any guarantee that the LTTE will
actually suspend hostilities and let the civilians
go, we would be delighted.
Q: How many civilians are still trapped in the
A: Government believes it is 70,000 at most,
based on our careful calculations with regard to the
lists of those for whom we have been sending food
over the last few years, as well as satellite
imagery. Interestingly the UN itself judged from the
imagery it had studied that there were only between
70,000 and 100,000 in the safe zone. The UN also
knows that the figures of those for whom we send
food were inflated, and indeed I asked them in 2007
to rationalise, a process that began then but was
put on hold after the offensive in the north began.
You have to remember that figures were supplied by
government agents, and we could not push them too
hard, since they were under pressure from the LTTE,
which was of course living off the food we sent. Now
that the government agents are safe from the LTTE,
we could look more closely at the lists, and that is
how we could calculate more carefully.
You will notice that earlier allegations of over
300,000 have now come down in general, but no one
has admitted the earlier errors. Of course whether
it is 180,000 or 70,000 makes no difference to the
criminality of the LTTE in keeping them forcibly and
thus endangering them - to say nothing of the forced
labour and forced recruitment that has been
Q: Pillay has also noted that after the government's
assurance not to use heavy weapons in the "no fire"
zones, civilians have been killed and injured due to
shelling. Is there any truth or substance to this
A: We know that there has been killing of
civilians in the safe zone, because the LTTE has, as
they did in the other safe zone on January 26th,
fired into it. One reason obviously is to ensure
that civilians do not use the safe passages from the
safe zones into government controlled territory that
have been suggested.
You also remember the incident in which the ship we
had sent under the ICRC flag came under fire. We
reported that that had been from the LTTE, and that
was not repudiated, though the ICRC said the ship
had not been a target. The point is that civilians
also see these ships as a route to freedom, and the
LTTE is determined to stop them.
The government is committed to the safety of these
civilians, and in any case has had much to do,
clearing PTK completely, and dealing with the
bulwarks the LTTE had built up in the area on the
west of the lagoon. And remember that the LTTE still
has its own heavy weaponry, which it used from the
earlier safe zone as the Bishop of Jaffna reported
on January 26th.
Q: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a
telephone conversation with the President has also
expressed concern over the loss of civilian lives in
the no fire zone. She has specifically said that the
Sri Lanka Army should not fire into the civilian
areas. Does this not prove how serious this charge
A: Secretary Clinton made no charges, she
made a request which is unquestionably a decent
request and which we are happy to respect. As I said
at the Human Rights Council, 'we have no objection
to being urged to follow international humanitarian
law, which we strive to uphold, with a much better
record in this respect than some of our more
sanctimonious critics when confronted with terror or
the mere suspicion of it.'
are glad that countries like Japan have publicly
recorded recognition of this, and I believe the US
and others understand this too, but of course they
are worried that there might be derogations from our
high standards in the face of consistent violations
of such law by the LTTE. The current situation is
certainly serious, but we have to be proud that we
are maintaining our standards, even though we are
taking higher casualties ourselves as a result.
Q: Civilians entering into government controlled
areas are being subjected to an intense screening
process. While the government does have legitimate
security concerns there are allegations that many
Tamil men and women disappear from this point. What
is your response?
A: I have heard such allegations, but there
have been no specific names given. There have been
names given of those who said they had been
separated from their families, and we know this has
happened, and set up a mechanism to ensure that
families were unified. These separations are of two
sorts, first when people came over at different
periods, and therefore are not even sure if other
members of their family got away. Full reunification
in such cases will take time, and may not be perfect
until we get everyone out of the LTTE area, and even
then we do not know whom the LTTE has taken away
meanwhile, to force after the most cursory training
into the battle lines - as with the poor child of a
UN worker as reported recently. Secondly, there are
those who were separated in the busing process, and
on that we believe we can have all the information
ready and reunification there will be completed
fact, when we discussed this at a meeting in
Vavuniya a month ago, the forces wanted to fast
forward the process, but the government mechanism
had begun to issue forms, and they wanted to collate
these and work more systematically, which took more
time. I suppose you have to weigh urgency against
the need to be thorough and make sure everything is
on record. Though I personally believe that
everything that should be done should be done at
once, I understand that sometimes bureaucratic
procedures are more suitable to ensure complete
Q: What standards are in place to ensure that such
a screening process complies with Sri Lanka's
primary duty to protect all civilians?
A: I think you must remember the distinction
between the registration process and the screening
process. The screening process, which is much more
complex, is certainly in accordance with
requirements, since the forces ensure that they hand
over those who come over to the civilian authority
within the prescribed period. This is one reason for
the screening not being as thorough as is desirable,
given LTTE subterfuges and the numbers coming over,
but the forces believe it would be a mistake to keep
people longer under their custody. In fact they are
comparatively liberal, because even in the case of
those who have admitted to being LTTE cadres, they
have only sent a limited number, whom they believe
to be more hardened, to a rehabilitation centre,
while the others are allowed to go with their
families into the camps and welfare centres.
Q: Has the government made provision for
international agencies like the UN/ICRC to monitor
the screening process?
A: Again, remember that there are two
processes involved, since screening for possible
terrorist links is an ongoing process. It also has
to happen in the transit camps and welfare centres,
where of course there is a regular presence of
international groups, including NGOs who are
committed to assistance.
There is also international presence at the entry
points, though you have to remember that, contrary
to popular belief, the UN and ICRC work to
schedules, unlike the forces which have to be on
duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week - and the
IDPs come through at all times. In fact UNHCR has
recently noted that, though they have access to IDP
screening centres, this is not always actualised
since IDP arrivals are ad hoc. There may then be
room for improvement in the logistics, but this
should not be a problem.
Q: Civilians fleeing the fighting are being placed
in government controlled camps which are actually
confining them to these camps and preventing them
from moving. Should it not be the case that only
individuals suspected of being violent or of danger
be retained in these camps?
A: The full screening process cannot be
finished quickly, particularly when the LTTE high
command is still active, and able to activate any
suicide cadres or other violent elements at will. As
mentioned above, hundreds of youngsters who fought
with the LTTE are in the camps, and though we can
sympathise with them, as the army did, and assume
that most of them were simply forced to fight, you
have to remember that one or two of them may have a
deeper, more dangerous commitment.
And these are those who confessed to being fighters.
Earlier, when the displaced came over more slowly,
while some confessed straight away, others only
acknowledged after some time in the camps that they
too had fought. Again we have to be sympathetic,
most of them would have kept quiet initially out of
fear, given the demonisation of the government and
the forces that the LTTE engages in, and it was only
after a few days of experience of our positive side
that they confessed. But, obviously, there could be
others, and we have to be absolutely certain given
the enormous damage even one LTTE suicide bomber can
However, I believe that, once the LTTE leadership is
no longer able to control them, the government could
relax restrictions, and pursue a concerted programme
Serious violation of human rights
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has
talked about war crimes in relation to Sri Lanka
and about the violations of international human
rights and humanitarian law by both sides. In a
statement issued on March 13, 2009, High
Commissioner Pillay warns:
"Certain actions being undertaken by the Sri
Lankan military and by the LTTE may constitute
violations of international human rights and
humanitarian law. We need to know more about
what is going on, but we know enough to be sure
that the situation is absolutely desperate. The
world today is ever sensitive about such acts
that could amount to war crimes and crimes