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Interviews

 

'A community cannot have grievances'


Keheliya Rambukwella

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 pressure.

He 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.

It 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?

We 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 faith.

Q: There are fresh calls from Tamil Nadu to announce a no fire period. Will the government concede at this point?

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.

Q: What exact role does India play in assisting civilian evacuation in the north?

A: The Government of Sri Lanka has created a structure within which certain countries, particularly India can assist. Outside that, we don't accept assistance. Anyone has to operate within this framework.

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 that role.

Q: If requested, will the government hand over Pirapaharan to be tried in connection with the Rajiv Gandhi assassination?

A: That's very unlikely. We want to try him here first and then we will consider any such request.

Q: Is Pirapaharan still alive and here in Sri Lanka?

A: We believe so.

Q: After the war, what next? Talks or rehabilitation?

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.

We 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 to end?

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 attack?

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 exchanges too.

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 objective. 

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 Canada. 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 addressed.

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 India for this act by assassinating Rajiv Gandhi. The TMVP on the other hand has subjected themselves to the people's will.

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 Sri Lanka. 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 control.

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'


Rajiva Wijesingha

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.

It 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.

We 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 statement? 

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.

On 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 office.

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 UK has been better than most about dealing not only with Tiger terrorism, but also with terrorist funding.

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 humanity.

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 operations.

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 battle zone?

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 reported.

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 statement?

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 is?

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.'

We 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 soon.

In 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 records etc.

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 wreak.

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 of rehabilitation.

 

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 against humanity."


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