21st April, Volume 8, Issue 40

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SPOTLIGHT

Cardboard hero awards himself a gallantry medal

By Frederica Jansz

What is it about each successive government in Sri Lanka, that it is indebted to promote and send abroad military men who have as commanders brought disrepute and disaster to the security forces as a whole.

This time around it is Chief of Defence Staff  Rohan De S. Daluwatte.  Not only has Daluwatte failed as a military commander,

he has also obtained the esteemed Weera Wickrama Vibushana award by making a false claim and writing his own recommendation.  

The tragi-comedy of this situation is that despite Daluwatte’s dismal performance as a military Commander including him forcefully seeking a highly esteemed military decoration, he has been nominated by the new United National Front government to be posted as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Brazil.

The bitter irony of it all apart from the ambassadorial posting, is that Daluwatte was awarded the Weera Wickrema Vibushana medal which is the highest decoration for a soldier who has led his troops and physically faced extraordinary risks at the frontline. The Weera Wickrama Vibushanaya is the second highest gallantry award for individual acts of bravery in the military.

Self-recommendation

The official citation required to be awarded this medal specifies that “The decoration is granted to all ranks of the regular and volunteer forces of the army, navy and air force for individual acts of gallantry and conspicuous bravery of a non military nature of the most exceptional order performed voluntarily with no regard to his own life and security with the objective of saving or safeguarding the life or lives of a person or persons imperilled by death or for a meritorious act or a series of acts of a humane nature of an exceptional order displayed in saving life from drowning, fire and rescue operations in mines, floods and similar calamities under circumstances of grave bodily injury or great danger to the life of the rescuer and who are recommended by the commander of the army, the commander of the navy or the commander of the air force to receive the award under the terms and conditions defined in the regulations hereinafter made.”

Daluwatte, was awarded the medal after having written his own recommendation. The medal was awarded to him in 1997 after then Chief of Staff Major General Srilal Weerasooriya according to Gen. Daluwatte had submitted the citation. The commander of the army at the time, needless to say, was Rohan De S. Daluwatte himself.

This too was in violation of the specified criteria as Weerasooriya was a junior officer to Daluwatte and could not write such a citation.

The gazette notification with regard to the awarding of this medal categorically states that not less than three eyewitnesses must attest the said recommendation.  This too has not been adhered to in the case of Daluwatte.  In fact, his recommendation to the Special Board of senior army officers does not carry a single signature. Not even that of Weerasooriya. Neither has any ground commander who was present during the conduct of Operation Riviresa 1 and 11, named Daluwatte as a candidate for this highly esteemed decoration.

In fact, Lt. Col. W. M. Jayavi Fernando, was the commanding officer of the 1st special forces regiment at the time.  In November 1995, Fernando actually participated in the capture of Jaffna town with the 53rd division.

 He stated that at the time, Daluwatte was no where near Jaffna town when it collapsed to the security forces.  Lt. Col. Fernando says Daluwatte was in fact, at Palaly and he only participated in hoisting the flag with General Anuruddha Ratwatte after the capture of Jaffna.

When told that special forces commander, Lt. Col. Fernando has said that he was nowhere near Jaffna when it was captured, Gen. Daluwatte replied that it is true.  “My decoration for bravery was not for the capture of Jaffna but for the incident which took place at Neerveli,” he said. He added that the present Chief of Staff Neil Dias was also in the picture at the time and is witness to his, (Daluwatte’s) act of heroism.

Dias however has not attested the citation and when contacted said he did not even know that this medal had been awarded to Daluwatte five years ago.

Daluwatte meantime recalling his act of bravery recounted, “I was right in the front risking my life. Twice, I almost died when the troops got stuck at Neerveli.  I went right up and conducted the neutralisation operation.  I even went ahead of the company commander at great risk — I detected where the troops had got stuck and physically conducted the operation from there.  As a result we managed to move ahead once more.”

Dias agreed that Daluwatte as Overall Operations Commander during Operation Riviresa 1 and 11 had indeed been present on the ground lending tactical advice and support to his troops which consisted of three divisions. Dias was commander of the 51st division. Dias however said that Daluwatte never went ahead of the company commander at Neerveli confirming that his chief was lying when he claimed to The Sunday Leader to have led the troops by going ahead of the company commander.

We would also like to point out at this stage that this medal is not given for tactical support and advice.

Another senior forces commander who asked to remain anonymous about who was also present on the ground at Neerveli during Operation Riviresa said that by Daluwatte claiming he went ahead of the company commander he is saying that all the battalion commanders including Dias failed in their duty and that is why he as Overall Operations Commander had to take the initiative and lead embattled troops ahead.

This senior commander asserted that at no stage did Daluwatte ever physically conduct a ground battle at the frontline. The only time he visited the troops at the front was to say ‘Hello’ during meal times or when the soldiers were cleaning their weapons and boots, or in the company of the then deputy minister for defence, Ratwatte, he said.

He laughed when told that Daluwatte claimed he had nearly got killed twice at Neerveli.  “The only way he could have died was if he was shot by his own men,” he said.

The master mind

“To my knowledge he was giving directions from the Palaly operations rooms. The Neerveli battle was won by the 51st division.  Daluwatte was in Palaly on that day. There were so many other soldiers who fought the enemy on the ground.  Daluwatte was not one of them.  He was never at the frontline. I cannot remember any single moment when he came unless he accompanied the minister,” he charged.

Daluwatte meanwhile when quizzed as to why he was asserting his medal for bravery which was granted for what took place at Neerveli whereas the citation by Weerasooriya maintains it was at Navalar Road, Jaffna, said, “I was all over the place.”

He added that Weerasooriya has numbered many incidents in the citation. Neerveli was where I nearly lost my life. “But I happened to be all over.  Even at Navalar Road several times they could not get through. I had several discussions with 53rd Commander Janaka Perera.  I told him to broaden the front.  He replied he did not have the troops.  I then told him the troops are on the way.  The following day I heard that they (the additional troops) had got through so I did not go to Navalar Road.”  

Why then Weerasooriya has specifically mentioned Navalar Road in the citation is curious.  Since Daluwatte himself now admits he never got to the frontline.

Having said that, Daluwatte maintains that he at all times led through to the front in constant consultation with his field commanders.

A senior army officer, who sat on this board in 1997, confided to The Sunday Leader that Daluwatte “was in no way entitled to this prestigious medal.  He used his position as commander of the army to get the decoration,” he said, adding that Daluwatte has never been physically present at the frontline during fighting.  “He has never led his troops into battle or stepped into enemy lines,” he said.

He asserted that the board which comprises senior army officers could not turn down the commander and so were forced to recommend that Daluwatte be given the award despite the fact they knew he did not deserve it and that he had submitted a false citation to twist the arm of those sitting on the board.

Daluwatte denied that the special army board could be irregularly influenced into handing out this medal. “There are regulations and the Board abides by those stipulations,” he claimed.

In his recommendation for the medal, Daluwatte has claimed that during the conduct of Operation Riviresa 1 and 11 it was he who personally planned and executed this operation.  He states that this was one of the largest ever operations in the history of the Sri Lanka army which resulted in the capture of Jaffna town, Thenamarachchi and above all caused extensive damage to the infrastructure of the LTTE. As a result, Daluwatte has stated “the LTTE were forced to withdraw from the peninsula.”

He writes inter alia, “Maj. Gen. Daluwatte displayed outstanding personal courage and determination by leading from the front throughout the operations, paying scant respect for his personal safety, he was always with the leading field commanders guiding and encouraging them. In the final assault for the capture of Jaffna town there was a situation where the terrorists had prepared strong defences along the Navalar Road and were able to halt the advance of troops for several days.  The fighting was bitter and hard.  Undaunted by the odds he (Daluwatte) used his experience and superior tactical knowledge and with his advice the troops were able to break through finally.”

Daluwatte’s claim to heroism is in complete contradiction to that of the special forces commander (1st regiment) who was on the ground at the time and other senior army officers who are forced at this juncture to remain anonymous.

Anyway, it was on this recommendation that the board considered and recommended that Daluwatte be decorated with the Weera Wickrema Vibushanaya medal.

The senior army officers who sat on this board in 1997, were Maj. Gen. A. G. Weerasekera, Brigadier Attanayake, Brigadier J. K. N. Jayakody, Brigadier Tilak Marambe, Brigadier Pathirane and Major Tennakoon.

The irony of the situation is that Daluwatte was awarded this medal despite two courts of inquiry on the battle at Pooneryn and Janakapura in 1993 having found Daluwatte guilty for having compromised the lives of over a thousand soldiers who died as a result in these very serious debacles. On the heels of the Pooneryn disaster followed Janakapura. 

Daluwatte was the Divisional Commanding Officer for both camps at the time they fell. 

On December 29, 1993, the then commander of the Sri Lanka Army Lt. Gen. Cecil Waidyaratne wrote to President D. B. Wijeytunge, stating that the responsibility and the answerability of the disaster at Jankapura falls squarely on the shoulders of Daluwatte who was the divisional commander for both Pooneryn and Janakapura when the camps faced a disaster of the highest magnitude imaginable.

“Whatever corrective action Maj. Gen. Daluwatte may have taken after the Janakapura attack has been inadequate and totally ineffective. Or else Pooneryn camp would not have suffered a disaster of this magnitude,” Waidyaratne wrote.  

In view of this whole situation, Waidyaratne stated that it is necessary to review the whole situation and take punitive action against two senior officers, namely, Maj. Gen. Daluwatte and Brigadier Liyanage in this instance.

A court of inquiry into the Pooneryn disaster found that Daluwatte only confirmed his inability to command this vital  division. The court of inquiry specifically found Daluwatte guilty of negligence of duty, unbelievable lack of supervision of those under his command and that he had given pathetic leadership as a divisional commander.

The fall guy

With reference to the fall of the Pooneryn army camp, Waidyaratne at the time wrote, “the blame of this debacle falls squarely on Maj. Gen. Daluwatte’s shoulders.  It is my considered opinion that Maj. Gen. Daluwatte be immediately relieved of his command in the north and serious disciplinary action be taken against him as well as other officers who have been indicted by this court so that the army would have a clean and responsible leadership so necessary for the conclusion of this war.”

Daluwatte meanwhile asserted that the military court of inquiry which recommended he be court marshalled for his lack of leadership etc., which led to the fall of Pooneryn and Janakpura “was only a fact finding mission.”

“I was not court marshalled in either one of those two cases as it was later determined that I could not be held responsible. I was in Anuradhapura at the time Janakapura fell.  It was just a company base. There was a company commander as well as a battalion commander, brigade and a special forces commander who were responsible.  It was a defencive operation in an isolated area away from Anuradhapura, so there was nothing I could do at Anuradhapura when Janakapura fell,” he said.

With regard to Pooneryn, Daluwatte said it was Gerry Silva who ordered the withdrawal of troops and should take responsibility for the final fall of the camp.

“I was falsely implicated in both instances,” Daluwatte asserted, adding that at the time army chief, Waidyaratne needed a scapegoat as the finger of accusation was pointing at him, (Waidyaratne).

Daluwatte maintained that since the two courts of inquiry, he has been cleared of all allegations by President Chandrika Kumaratunga in her capacity as Commander in Chief of the security forces and police.

Meanwhile, an enlisted army officer and commando, Major N. G. Chandrasena, recipient of the country’s highest award for bravery and valour (Weera Wickrema Vibushana) and the most decorated serviceman alive will petition courts together with Fernando, to seek a stay order on the diplomatic posting of Daluwatte as Ambassador to Brazil.

Fearing none 

Chandrasena said that  Daluwatte should be held responsible for the military debacles at Janakapura and Pooneryn in 1993, Mullaitivu in 1996 and the disasters that accompanied Operation Jayasikuru including the defeats the army suffered at Paranthan, Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass.

Over 50 soldiers were killed at Janakapura, over 600 at Pooneryn, 1,300 at Mullaitivu and over 1000 at Elephant Pass, while the LTTE succeeded in capturing vast quantities of arms and ammunition including tanks as a result of these camps falling.

Daluwatte in similar vein to his army counterpart Weerasooriya (Sri Lankan Ambassador to Pakistan) is now to be made a diplomat. 

It is pertinent to note here that Weerasooriya was sent to Pakistan as Sri Lanka’s ambassador after having let over a 1000 soldiers including high ranking army officers perish on the plains of Elephant Pass in Jaffna on April 22, 2000.

It is no small wonder that the odious Vellupillai Prabhakaran smirked when asked at his press conference recently if there was a single general in the Sri Lankan security forces he feared.  “None,” he replied with a mixture of contempt and amusement on his face.

While local journalists squirmed in their seats as they listened to Prabhakaran, Daluwatte was the least concerned. After all, he is soon to fly to distant shores where the blood of thousands of young men who sacrificed their lives on the dusty plains of Sri Lanka is already for him, a distant memory. Given that little red passport that will soon see him whiz faster than a bullet through immigration channels, Daluwatte has manoeuvred his final posting.

The tragedy of this situation is that the new government, which promised transparency and accountability, has closed its eyes and ears to the atrocities committed by men like Daluwatte and Balagalle. Instead, Daluwatte is to be sent to Brazil and Balagalle for all purposes appears set to remain as Sri Lanka’s Commander of the Army or perhaps take over as Chief of Defence Staff.

Whether the dormant new Minister for Defence Tilak Marapone will initiate an inquiry into this matter is the question that now begs answer. 

Committing suicide

US Naval Chief of Staff, Jeremy M. Boorda in May 1996 shot himself following an expose in Newsweek which proved that Boorda had falsely claimed medals for gallantry after serving in the Vietnam war.

Boorda was also being challenged at the time of his suicide by fellow naval ratings for his role during battle for which he is alleged to have falsely claimed the esteemed military decorations.


1Flickering hopes of peace in the Wanni

By Amantha Perera in the Wanni

“We prefer to live separately and we are willing to die for that,” a young LTTE female cadre observed, watching the first convoy of vehicles crossover from LTTE controlled areas to Army controlled Jaffna at Muhamalai on April 8.

Her words reverberated in our heads while we were listening to the words of her ‘great leader,’ just two days later in Kilinochchi. “We will consider giving up the demand for Eelam,” LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran said. The first time he has ever come within range of denouncing his beloved Eelam.

The leaders from both sides of the Omanthai defence lines have aired their commitment to peace. But far below the top layer of command, such sentiments of reconciliation do not carry the same air of authenticity. On both sides of the Omanthai barrier dogs of war, unleashed by their commanders, still cling to their guns. Hopes of peace do not shine bright in the eyes of these combatants.

At the LTTE heroes cemetery at Udayakathu in Mulaithivu, when female LTTE cadre Thamil Neela recalled bygone battles with the Sri Lankan army, her memory was testimony that MoU’s do not erase the scars of war.

She recalled how one of her senior officers, Sudanthika, was killed in a battle with the army in Jaffna during operation Agni Keela. She said that the group of LTTE female cadres she was with had come under attack from the army. During the intense attack they had dispersed and when they reunited they located Sudanthika’s body. The incident took place close to two years back and when it happened Neela had just joined the LTTE. Sudanthika is her favourite LTTE commander now.

“We like to live with the Sinhalese, but it is the army that has attacked us. And we will fight back,” she observed looking into the three thousand graves that dot the cemetery.

Like the landscape, filled with blown out buildings and roads with pot holes the size of mini-reservoirs, the bodies of LTTE cadres are living testimony of the scars of a quarter century of bloody battles.

“This area, full fight,” an LTTE politi-bureau member told us, pointing to the war ravaged landscape that was once the imposing Elephant Pass military camp. His next action was pointing at his neck, he wanted travelling journalists to touch and feel the mortar fragments still embedded in his neck.

The fragments are remains of injuries suffered during the LTTE assault on the Elephant Pass camp. Around the  chest area are the scars from the Pooneryn battle, and other minor scars from battles and skirmishes  dot his body. He has been with the LTTE since 1985.

Like in the south, there is a disproportionate preponderance of maimed youth in areas under LTTE control.

During our stay we came across countless number of youths with limbs blown off. One youth who frequented the Tamil Economic Development Centre in Kilinochchi had both his hands blown off while trying to disarm a bomb.

A rehabilitation centre for the seriously injured was located near the economic centre that was our sleeping quarters for the nights, we were told. However, our requests to visit the centre were not fulfilled.

War is everywhere despite the silent guns. Not a single house has a roof, the only properly maintained buildings are those run by the LTTE. Hopes of peace descend uneasily on the inhabitants of the Wanni.

Senior as well as young LTTE cadres speak of peace and hopes for the future. “Good now no war, we are happy,” our senior LTTE friend remarked. But his young comrade standing close by with a RPG launcher was a grim reminder of a probable future.

Why is peace such an alien entity to the Wanni? Because an all encompassing war has subjugated the populace, civilians and militants alike, beyond the wildest imagination of those who live outside it. A war that has taken the lives of 60,000 civilians and 17,000 combatants according to Prabhakaran.

The war has made the populace suspect any outsider. “Is that an army soldier?” an orphaned physically handicapped young child asked, pointing at photographer Ajith Senevirathana who was taking pictures using a long range lens. Ajith stood dumb founded as the child stared at him.

“No, no he  is a journalist,” the child’s caretaker at the centre in Mullaithivu allayed the fears. His face changed instantly from one of utter fear to a beaming smile, revitalising the photographer who had been turned to stone.

The fear in the eyes of the five-year-old, was symbolic of a generation growing up in mortal fear of fire from the heavens, of enemies and guns, of sleepless nights and dead bodies in the morning, of suicide bombers and cyanide capsules. A childhood without nursery rhymes, without parents.

No wonder such generations growing up in despair have fed the war machines, with conveyor belt precession. The LTTE’s fighting capacity still remains above 10,000 cadres, despite years of war. Education does not offer hope in the Wanni. Young LTTE cadres join the LTTE as soon as they can. Most of the cadres that we were able to speak to were in their late teens or in the early twenties. They had joined the LTTE soon after O/L’s or even before. Education is a dead end.

The war keeps nudging them at every nook and corner. At the Heroes cemetery pre-dug graves await occupants despite the MoU. Rows and rows of unpainted tombstones line the other side of the grave yard, waiting to be stone memories of Black Tigers or suicide cadres whose bodies are sometimes not recovered.

The LTTE offers special homage to suicide cadres and Black Tigers with cement block tombstones. For others, a wooden stick with a name board suffice. The last to be buried at the cemetery  was  Captain Ariva, who died when the navy fired at suspected LTTE arms smugglers off the Mullaithivu coast on February 21, the day before the MoU was signed. Beside his resting place, there  are three unoccupied graves, waiting for the new arrivals. The MoU does not offer enough hope for them to be filled with earth, at least for the time being.

To Tamils living in LTTE controlled areas war has but one personification, the armed forces. Martyrdom is a better option than a day under the control of the state. The MoU and waxing eloquence on peace have done nothing to change that mentality.

“We will die fighting,” young female LTTE fighters said at the northern most LTTE line at Muhamalai.

Despite the pre-occupation with the war, the LTTE cadres too were savouring peace. They had no weapons with them and those who  had, left them unattended, sure that they would not be needing them in an emergency any time soon. “Enough of war, peace is good,” our senior LTTE friend told us.

On the other side of the barrier armed forces’ personnel too were enjoying the fruits of peace. “This is the first time since I joined the army that soldiers are going on avurudhu leave without much problem,” an officer manning the Omanthai checkpoint at Vavuniya observed.

Dreams of peace come much easily to the members of the armed forces as their lives are much more attuned to normalcy than to the five year old at the Mullaithivu orphanage. The tree right in front of the orphanage still has parts of a shell that landed in the vicinity during a battle between the LTTE and the army.

Ironically, the richest peace sprout for the Wanni populace is the one person who has done everything in his power to keep the bon-fires burning, till now — Velupillai Prabhakaran. It is his visibly absolute control over the LTTE that is holding the organisation together avoiding splits along seams.

“We will do whatever our leader wants us to do,” the same LTTE cadres willing to fight till death said when questioned as to why the LTTE was heading for peace talks. Most of the cadres had seen Prabhakaran only in pictures and some of their colleagues had perished in the war without ever seeing or hearing the ‘thalaivar’ (great leader) in real life.

Such paradoxes can very easily be over shadowed by the fire works created in the aftermath of incidents like the famous Kilinochchi press conference. The nuances of a quarter century of war cannot be done away in one pen stroke or in one media blitz.

The leaders may have taken the first steps towards peace, but the process of reconciliation has not even  begun for the real combatants of the war for Eelam.

On either side of the cadjan curtain at Muhamalai, enemies are still taking aim at each other.

Bones of war

Just 24 hrs before the LTTE leader made his pronouncements of peace, the bones of Sri Lanka’s bloody conflict rose up in Kilinochchi.

At the Kilinochchi LTTE police office OIC Ranjith Kumar revealed to The Sunday Leader, skeletons recovered from homes in the area, victims he said of  extra-judicial killings carried out by the army during its occupation of Kilinochchi four years back.

Kumar said that so far, the LTTE has recovered 68 such bodies mostly from unused cess pits. “They were civilians killed by the army,” he told The Sunday Leader.

The LTTE police officer said that the army was in occupation of the area from 1996 till sometime in 1998 when the LTTE wrested control. The victims have been killed and dumped in wells. Most of them have been killed with blows to the head with a blunt weapon. There was at least one skull with gaping head wounds at the Kilinochchi police station.

Kumar said that the bodies have been recovered within a  u-shaped area encompassing the Kilinochchi town that was under army control. He argued that the bodies were of civilians who had visited the area to look after properties. He was however not able to give a clear reason that had prompted such brutal murders.

Some of the bodies have been identified by relatives by the garments recovered with them. There were three such bodies at the Kilinochchi police station.

Kumar said that the LTTE was keeping the recovered bodies till time and facilities allowed them to be sent for forensic examinations. He said that the LTTE was planing to seek the help of an international organisation to carry out the tests that will determine the cause of death and time.

When questioned as to how the LTTE was sure that the army was responsible for the murders, Kumar recalled an instance where the LTTE recovered three bodies on information provided by a civilian. The civilian told the LTTE police that he was assaulted by the army along with the three deceased but that he had managed to escape.

Further evidence Kumar said was that most of the bodies had been recovered near buildings occupied by the army in Kilinochchi, Urukurupuram and Murasamunai.

Most of the victims, according to the LTTE had returned to the army controlled Kilinochchi whence they fled as they had no income. They had arrived with the hope of selling their crops. “We have recovered bodies of females as well as people who were 60 years old,” Kumar said. Nevertheless, he was unable to give hard evidence that proved that the army was the culprit.

The LTTE has not made any representation to international organisations or to the new government for that fact about the bodies. Nor has the organisation tried to bring the discovery to the attention of human rights organisations. The skeletons that lie at three LTTE controlled police stations and the hospital have hitherto gone unreported. Their existence came in to light when journalists visiting the Wanni for the press conference made a visit to the police station.

Kumar said that the LTTE was waiting for an appropriate time to make the discoveries and the accusations public.

LTTE cadres also informed us that such gruesome discoveries have become a routine affair in the war ravaged Wanni.


The Wanni junket

Velupillai Prabhakaran’s press conference resulted in hundreds of journalists descending on the Wanni. The behaviour of some of the media personalities during their stay gave birth to anecdotes that have been dubbed ‘Wanni jokes.’

Well before the press conference got under way, the LTTE office was inundated with inquiries on accommodation facilities. Hot spot reporters it seemed were worried about where they would be put up for the night and how.

The LTTE had made arrangements at Kilinochchi and Malavi. At Kilinochchi, the journalists were provided accommodation at the head office of the LTTE economic development arm. Offices had been emptied and made into dorms and journalists were provided with mats and pillows at night. The bare minimum facilities resulted is some journalists complaining and others requesting alternate arrangements.

The Malavi location however was much more deluxe and was set aside for certain foreign correspondents. “We had noodles for dinner,” a well satisfied journalist said after spending the night at Malavi. At Kilinochchi dinner was string hoppers.

While the Kilinochchi location was to act as dormitory rather than separate sleeping quarters, a visiting BBC team made mockery of such arrangements. The team put up a hand written message at the entrance of the hall it occupied. “BBC office, please remove shoes before entering,” it read. Others who passed the  room began to refer to it as the ‘BBC pansala’ and chant ‘sadhu, sadhu.’

“We come to report on the ending of a conflict and these guys set up a border,” one journalist observed seeing the room that was later being used as a studio by the BBC.

The Kilinochchi location also created huge logistical problems. There were about six toilets for the 200 or so persons and early in the morning queues were forming at the doors to the loos.

Despite such headaches, some of the journalists had been thrilled to bits to visit the Wanni. Like the television crew of a local TV station which was filming everything and nothing. The cameraman had even filmed a LTTE female cadre escorting him through a corridor to meet the OIC.

Once in front of the OIC, the reporter approached him, “Hi, I am Susara....”, while his cameraman was filming the introduction. The LTTE officer had requested journalists not to take photographs of himself till he got permission. The fancy on-camera introduction took place while the LTTE OIC was being interviewed by another journalist. The introduction left the LTTE OIC lost for words and others around him in fits of controlled laughter.

If some had come on a junket, others had come on a pilgrimage to pay homage to the LTTE leader. Like the reporter from a local radio station, who stood up at the toe end of the conference to thank the LTTE leader for giving the press the opportunity to meet him. He was literally shouted down.

And another who got up to deliver a lecture on the safety of his national leader during the pre-press conference briefing. He made his entry during a heated debate between LTTE political wing official Sudha Master and journalists on the timing of the briefing.

Nevertheless, LTTE assumption that the press had converged in the Wanni to meet Prabhakaran seemed to hold water when the pugnacious press corps meekly submitted to strenuous body checks and hours of waiting. Some of them had argued with the LTTE and one another about who was wanting whom just hours before.

The injured egos however later made a re-appearance in reports. There were numerous reference to body checks and how utterly unnecessary they were. Why complain now, if it was such a big fuss, why didn’t the complainants ask the LTTE to fly kites and return forthwith. No one did that. Everyone stayed for the press conference. 

The LTTE also made a very obvious distinction between foreign and local media. Chief negotiator Anton Balasingham made every effort to accommodate queries from the foreign media, other than on occasions when the Indian contingent raised uncomfortable issues linked to the Rajiv Gandhi murder.

The conscious effort to accommodate the foreign press gave away how much the LTTE valued its standing among the international community, despite all the talk of September 11 having next to nothing to do with the peace talks.

All in all, it was a once in a life time experience for the LTTE as well as the journalists who took part.

 

 

 

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