The LTTE’S intransigence in demanding 30% of Sri Lanka’s landmass for a population of 6%, is utterly impractical, said Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke, during a one-and-a haf hour long interview with WCCATV13 in Worcester, Massachusetts, in May 2008, which was aired on cable TV recently.
Answering Masha, the interviewer, the Ambassador said, “I always bring the example of the size of the country, a small country, 25,000 sq. miles in extent, a size similar to West Virginia, or twice the size of the island of Hawaii. Population of West Virginia something like 1.8 mn, and Sri Lanka’s population is something like 20 mn. And so, there is a huge pressure for land, resources, water, and everything. And this particular group, known as “Sri Lankan Tamils,” earlier known as “Ceylon Tamils,” today comprises less than 12% of the population. There are two interesting aspects here – if this demand comes to fruition, this less than 12% of the population, will get almost 30% of the country’s landmass. That is going to be difficult. The other issue is, more than 50% of this less than 12% Tamil population lives outside the North and the East. Then, you are talking about less than 6% of the population demanding 30% of the landmass, while ½ of that population would be elsewhere in the country, and one could ask what kind of arrangement we would have to make to accommodate their aspirations, desires, ambitions etc.”
Ambassador Goonetilleke said that at a time when the whole world is turning itself into a global village, it is no longer possible to divide nations according to ethnic or religious lines. After all, he said when one considers the ethnic ratios of the multi-ethnic Eastern Province of Sri Lanka it is utterly impossible to incorporate that province as part of a mono-ethnic Tamil Eelam.
He added, “The demand made by the LTTE for a separate state, comprising the North and the East, is not going to be something the government can agree to. Take, for example, the Eastern Province. It comprises Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese – three different communities. According to the latest statistics, it appears Sri Lankan Moors form the majority of population in the East, Tamils comes second, followed by the Sinhalese. So, how can you separate that particular province and attach it to the Northern Province, which is predominantly Tamil? – which is partly due to the fact there has been ethnic cleansing starting in the 1980s and 1990s, during which time, large numbers of Sinhalese and more numbers from the Muslim community, were expelled from the Northern Province.”
However, the Ambassador pointed out that the current conflict in Sri Lanka has not been the status quo all the time. He said, “Looking back at history, at our community relations, people-to-people relationships go back to over 2000 years. Our conflict has lasted about 30 years, and it seems a long time to us because we are living in these times. But what is 30 years in relation to 2000 years?”
As all communities have lived harmoniously in Sri Lanka in the past, it should be possible for us to live together harmoniously again, he said.
Q: Mr. Ambassador, to begin our interview, could you define for our viewers, what terrorism is?
A: Marsha, defining terrorism is not an easy task. The international community has been trying to define it for many decades, without success. But terrorism is an ancient phenomena. The Greek writer, Xenophon, who lived in 3rd Century B.C., spoke of terrorism as a tool to use against the civilian population to achieve certain objectives. This was in the pre-Christian era.
The word “terrorism” comes from the Latin terminology “terrere” or terror, meaning “the use of terror as a certain goal.” This terminology did not appear in the English language until about 1798, when it came into the dictionary to mean, “the systematic use of terror as a policy.” I think the London Times used it first in 1795. Since then in modern times, the League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations, in 1937, attempted to define terrorism. However, the Terrorism Convention that was drafted by the League of Nations did not become a reality. Since then, the United Nations has been dealing with the issue through resolutions of the General Assembly as well as the resolutions of the Security Council of the United Nations. Resolution 1566 of the Security Council attempted to define terrorism. But the problem is, in the United Nations, any decision, particularly of this nature, is reached through consensus. So, if there is no consensus, no finality. We have had several resolutions in the General Assembly and in the Security Council, without reaching the finality on the matter. We also have a number of conventions dealing with specific areas of terrorism such as terrorist bombing, nuclear terrorism and similar subjects. But none of them were successful in having a specific terminology acceptable to the global community, or at least to the members of the United Nations, defining what terrorism is.
There is a reason for this. That is, the belief that in trying to achieve the right to self-determination, a group of people can resort to acts of violence, which means acts of terrorism. And such acts are permissible to achieve that particular objective.
However, this belief is not recognized by the United Nations. In 1993, there was a meeting in Vienna, which has resulted in adopting a Declaration called Vienna Declaration, which spoke of the right to self-determination. However, the Vienna Declaration, while saying that people under colonial or foreign occupation have the right to fight for their self determination, has made it very clear, that the affected people can take only legitimate action in keeping with the Charter of the United Nations. In this, there are three areas to be fulfilled. One is that the people should be under either colonial or alien domination or foreign occupation. Second, they can take any legitimate action. And third, any action taken should be in keeping with the Charter of the United Nations. Therefore, resorting to acts of terrorism does not really fall within the criteria specified in the Vienna Declaration.
We are now 15 years down the road from 1993, and during this time, there have been several international instruments on terrorism adopted by the United Nations. But the UN has not been able to come to a unanimous agreement on a definition for terrorism. That is still being negotiated.
But of course we have other areas. If you look at the dictionary, there is a particular definition. The U.S. Department of State has its own definition, which describes terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence, perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents.” So, the idea there is that any acts used against the civilian population or non-combatants are considered acts of terrorism, but some go a little further than that. Such as, even in the case of soldiers or members of the armed forces, if they are not engaged in combat, if they are not armed during that particular time, attacking them could be considered as an act of terrorism. So generally speaking that there are many definitions – whether you look at the various Declarations of the United Nations, legislation passed by individual countries like the United States Department of State, or even academics or in the dictionaries trying to define what terrorism is. Depending on what material you read, you will find various types of definitions with regard to terrorism.
Q: I would like to concentrate on the armed conflict in Sri Lanka. This is where you come into the picture. As someone who has battled with this issue for most of your life, could you please describe some of the acts of violence the LTTE has done over the years? And can we define or describe them as “terrorists” or “freedom fighters,” by looking at the activities they have done over the years?
A: Well, in the context of Sri Lanka, we have had a number of armed groups in the pre-1987 era – that is, before the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987. During that period, there were skirmishes between the armed forces of Sri Lanka, (Army Navy Air Force) on the one hand, and the Tamil armed groups, on the other. Following the 1987 Agreement, the majority of the armed groups embraced the democratic way of life, with the sole exception of the LTTE. That was when they used terror tactics to achieve their political objective of establishing a separate State in the Northern and the Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka. So, in pursuit of that objective, the LTTE, has over a period of time, carried out a considerably large number of atrocities, which can be described very easily as acts of terrorism for the purpose of achieving a political objective. There are lists of attacks they have attempted against democratically elected representatives in the Parliament, starting from the like President of the Republic to the Ministers of the Cabinet and the members of Parliament, belonging to all three ethnic communities, not necessarily only Sinhalese politicians. A large number of Tamil politicians and Muslim politicians too, have been assassinated. You have, on the one hand, terrorist activities against public figures, and attacks against economic targets, like the oil installation, oil refinery, Colombo Port, Galle Harbor and a number of other places, like Central Bank of Ceylon and many other economic targets. Another target group comprises civilians, and terrorist attacks are focused on places where civilians congregate, like market places, shopping complexes and, very regrettably, public conveniences being used by the public. So you have situations where bombs go off in trains in operation, killing a large number of persons, or in train stations. Major stations in the heart of Colombo are attacked, and bombs go off in buses. The last one was a couple of weeks ago, an attack against a bus, killing 26 people and injuring many more. These are innocent people, who have nothing to do with the Government or the armed forces. Those were clearly taken as acts of terrorism with a view to achieving a political objective, and have been carried out over a period of time, during the last two decades, even three decades.
Q: By looking at these attacks, one can guess at the loss of lives and economic breakdown. Can you describe what Sri Lanka’s economy is today?
A: I recall reading the Far Eastern Economic Magazine of 1983 July, where the cover story was Sri Lanka, where a prediction was made that Sri Lanka could be the second Hongkong in South Asia. Unfortunately, that was not to be, because the conflict started around that time, in earnest.
Speaking of the economy, since 2003 to 2007, Sri Lanka has been able to register 6.4% growth – that was quite remarkable. But imagine if we did not have a conflict which consumes so much of energy, capital and hinders development work, our growth would have been so much more. During the last 4 years, if you take the per capita growth, it has gone up – practically doubled. 50% increase from some 900 odd dollars to 1617 dollars. So, the economy is doing reasonably well in comparison to many countries in the world, even in the region.
But, we have to remember two factors. One is – the economy is doing well, despite the war. The second factor is – just imagine what would have been the status of the economy if we did not have a war. We would have done much better. The considerable amount of money we spend in combating the Tigers, could have gone for infrastructure development. We could have spent more on health and education, and the stability of the country would have enabled a large number of foreign investments to come into the country. All those things got stood down because of the conflict. And, if the LTTE is trying to promote the welfare of the Tamil people, it is not only one community that is undergoing economic difficulties and suffering because of the war. The situation is the same for all communities living in the area.
However, that situation changed since July 2007, since the government was able to evict the LTTE from the east, the larger of the two provinces of the North and the East, and, now, we have had local government elections in that area, after a lapse of 14 years. On May 10th, there will be Provincial Council elections, which will enable the people of the Eastern Province to elect their own representative. Besides their priorities, be they economic or otherwise, they will be able to decide and act on the completion of elections.
So, economic development is possible in the Eastern Province. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has given priority to develop the East, so, the people there, especially the youth, will not be inclined to join the current conflict, but they will be able to focus on their economic development by promoting skills training and promoting their economic lives. There is great economic potential in the Eastern Province – it has the best of facilities for tourists, for surfers, sunbathers etc, very attractive for tourism. There are agricultural resources too. Great potential for economic development in the East. And, we hope, in the not too distant future, that we will be able to replicate this experiment in the North as well.
Q: I heard that the breakaway group from the LTTE is running for elections and turning to a more peaceful way of solving problems. Can you explain that a little more to our viewers?
A: There have been critical remarks about the government’s attempts to work with this particular group, called the “Karuna Group,” which broke away from the LTTE main body in April 2004, because they had difficulties with Tigers in the North. They were of the view that the main LTTE group in the North did not have in their hearts and minds, the welfare of the Tamils in the Eastern Province. This was the reason for the break up of the LTTE in 2004.
But, let me take you back to 1971, when we had a youth rebellion in the South, the party responsible for the rebellion, (JVP), was the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna or People’s Liberation Movement. There were two uprisings – in 1971 and in the post-1987 period. We then realized there are many ways of tackling that kind of insurgency. But, we had to take into consideration the fact that it involved youth, and they were youth from the majority community, the Sinhalese. Fortunately, the government considered the best option was to make it possible for them to come into the democratic fold. Eventually, their party, the JVP, was recognized by the Elections Commissioner, and they contested elections. During the last elections, they won almost 40 seats in the 225 member parliament. This was the first experiment with regard to an armed group.
In the post-1987 period, there were more than a dozen armed Tamil groups, along with the LTTE, fighting for a separate state in the North and the East. What happened was, following the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, all the Tamil armed groups decided to join the political mainstream, with the exception of the LTTE. That was the second experiment with regard to armed groups abandoning their arms and joining the political mainstream. And, today, we have a member of the Cabinet, Mr. Douglas Devananda, who once represented one such armed group, and today is a Cabinet member.
The third experiment – as you mentioned, the breakaway group of Karuna. As I explained before, there was a choice. The government had to decide whether it wanted to take on the Karuna group, in addition to the LTTE. The government, fortunately, decided it was more prudent on its part to assimilate the breakaway group into mainstream politics.
And so, in the Batticaloa District elections in March 2008, the TMVP group, which is the Karuna group, managed to win the majority of seats and captured local government in that particular district. Thereafter, what they did was run for the Provincial Council elections with the government. Very interestingly, the government has Tamil groups represented by the TMVP and Muslim groups, contesting under its banner. The Eastern Province consists of Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese, and is truly a multi-ethnic province, and the government has under its arm, Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim representatives, while the opposition party is also contesting, like a good number of other parties, like the JVP. A very interesting election coming up – after a lapse of 14 years. The people in the areas under LTTE before, are now freed. They are free to decide their fate, their future and their representatives.
Q: Mr. Ambassador, should we dare hope that the LTTE will follow in the footsteps of the Karuna group and join mainstream politics?
A: If they are pragmatic, and if they see how the current situation is moving, at some point or other, they will have to decide whether they want to be a part of the whole political structure that we have in Sri Lanka. If so, they will have to take a very crucial decision. You need to remember one thing, that is, even the LTTE has a political party, which it registered in the 1980s, which is still recognized by the Commissioner of Elections. So, at any given point, if the LTTE decides to run for office in the East or the North, they are able to do so. They have the necessary institution for it. It is the political will to join in that they require now. If they deicide to keep away, they will get excluded from the North as well, the same way they did in the elections in the East.
Q: As you mentioned at the last interview, if the Sinhalese and the Tamils used to live in harmony throughout the years, what is the reason to ask for a separate Tamil homeland? Have there been two separate states in the past?
A: One has to go into history to ask the question whether there were two separate states. Initially, in 1949, the Tamil politicians asked for a federal arrangement. That was not acceptable to the rest of the country, and there was unhappiness resulting from certain developments that took place in the 1950s and 1960s, and by 1975, the Tamil United liberation Front (TULF) decided to ask for a separate state. And, as justification for this particular demand, they went back to an ancient document written in 1779 by the first British Colonial Secretary, when it was said that a certain part of the country, starting from the western part and going toward the north and all the way down east, belonged to a separate Tamil kingdom called “Tamil Eelam.” And this particular statement or minute was an erroneous statement, which had no historical basis at all. There used to be a Tamil kingdom from the 13th century onward, for some time, but if you go into historical records, you will find that particular kingdom had been a sub-kingdom of the main kingdom of the country. But, of course, there have been times when the center became weak, and the sub-kingdom became stronger, and had more power than a normal sub-kingdom. But this Tamil sub-kingdom came to an end in 1621. So, if you try to use something that existed in the 13th century and came to an end in 1621, as a basis of a demand for a separate state today, that is not going to happen, because there are other developments that have taken place since then.
Take, for example, the country itself. I always bring the example of the size of the country, a small country, 25,000 sq. miles in extent, a size similar to West Virginia, or twice the size of the island of Hawaii. Population of West Virginia something like 1.5 mn, and Sri Lanka’s population is something like 20 mn. And so, there is a huge pressure for land, resources, water, everything. And this particular group, known as “Sri Lankan Tamils,” earlier known as “Ceylon Tamils,” today comprises less than 12% of the population. There are two interesting aspects here – if this demand comes to fruition, this less than 12% of the population, will get almost 30% of the country’s landmass. That is going to be difficult. The other issue is, more than 50% of this less than 12% Tamil population lives outside the North and the East. Then, you are talking about less than 6% of the population demanding 30% of the landmass, for ½ of that population would be elsewhere in the country, and one could ask what kind of arrangement we would have to make to accommodate their aspirations, desires ambitions etc.
We need to remember that the world is fast becoming a global village. We cannot break countries or divide them on the basis of ethnicity of people or their religious background, or whatever else. That is not a sustainable arrangement. And, in any case, the demand made by the LTTE for a separate state, comprising the North and the East, is not going to be something the government can agree to. Take, for example, the Eastern Province. It comprises Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese – three different communities. According to the latest statistics, it appears Sri Lankan Moors form the majority of population in the East, Tamils come second, followed by the Sinhalese. So, how can you separate that particular province and attach it to the Northern Province, which is predominantly Tamil? – which is partly due to the fact there has been ethnic cleansing starting in the 1980s and 1990s, during which time, large numbers of Sinhalese and more numbers of Muslims were expelled from the Northern Province.
Q: Expelled? By whom?
A: By the Tigers. By the LTTE. In 1990, over 90,000 Muslims were removed from the Northern Province with 24-hour notice, and they were allowed to carry only what they could carry. The rest of their belongings, properties, they had to leave behind.
Q: By LTTE?
A: That was also by LTTE. So, now, one can say that the Northern Province is a homogenous province, the great majority of them being Tamils. But then, what about the rights of the people who had to leave the province as a result of acts of intimidation by the LTTE?
Q: When we talk of terrorism, we talk about lost lives and broken down economies. But most of the time, we forget about the things that have a fundamental value to us. Could be places or things like temples, churches, mosques. Have there been instances the LTTE attacked places like that?
A: Yes, for example, I can take you back to 1985, to the North Central Province, when the first kingdom of Sri Lanka came into existence in 200-300 years B.C. Place name is Anuradhapura. There is a very important Buddhist temple there, where you find a sapling of a Pipple tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment. This place has religious significance for Buddhists for thousands of years. In 1985, the LTTE came there, attacked the worshippers, killed over 150 of them within a few minutes. And, very interestingly, they also have the habit of video-taping whatever acts of terrorism they carry out, for various purposes. Some years later, when the Sri Lanka army carried out operations in that area, they came across this video – how the LTTE cameraman, standing on top of a bus and a roof of a building, videotaped the killings. You could see people virtually escaping the gunmen.
Then, in 1990, in the Eastern Province, there were two or three instances where the LTTE went into mosques, where people were at prayer. They entered the mosques and gunned down the worshippers. One was in a place called Eravur, another called Kaththankudy, and another called Palliyagodella. In all three instances, at least 300 persons were killed while they prayed.
In the third instance, another place of Buddhist worship was attacked. This is in the Central Province of Sri Lanka, city of Kandy, the last kingdom of Sri Lanka, where you find the Temple of the Tooth, which houses the tooth relic of the Buddha – venerated by Buddhists, not only in Sri Lanka, but the world over. In January 1998, they brought a truck laden with explosives, and exploded it and did great damage to the building, which created a large hue and cry.
The intention with regard to the first attack in Anuradhapura, and the second one in Kandy, was to get the people in the south to act against the Tamils living in the south, so that there would be clashes between the Sinhalese and the Tamils , which would create a situation that would be helpful to the LTTE to carry out their own propaganda to say that the Sinhalese people are carrying out atrocities against the Tamil people. So, the intention was to unleash a backlash against the Tamil people – which did not happen.
There have been instances of this nature when the LTTE had attacked Buddhist shrines and Muslim places of worship.
Q: What has been the international community’s response to all that?
A: Well, the international community has responded to political activities as well as individual acts of terrorism.
The first was designating the LTTE as a terrorist organization, done by the government of India following the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister in May 1991. This was followed by US designating LTTE as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), in October 1997. In 2001, UK followed suit. Then Canada and the 27 member EU in 2006. Generally speaking, the western democracies and India have taken action against the LTTE.
Meanwhile, countries like Australia are taking other action. You may have heard during the recent past, in the last two weeks, the cases in London and Canada – the Royal Mounted Police (RCMP)in Canada has published certain documents in the last couple of days, saying that the World Tamil Movement (WTM), which functions as a charity organization, is actually being dictated to by the LTTE, and that funds are flowing from that organization to the LTTE coffers.
Then, there are countries that have not only designated the LTTE as an FTO, but which are also taking action against operatives. For example, in November 2007, the US banned the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO), as an LTTE front organization. Similarly, a couple of years ago, UK banned the TRO. But what happens is, when they ban one organization, another springs up in its stead.
Q: This actually takes me back to our previous interview, where you mentioned that these front organizations raise money to support the terrorist organization.
A: Yes. Actually, there are two things. Out of the goodness of your heart, you make contributions, and people do not know where that money actually goes. If you make a contribution in this country to the TRO, you can be 100% sure that the money goes elsewhere. In Canada, according to activities there, the WTM has been functioning like TRO. Likewise, there are many such organizations in various parts of the world, and people have no idea, when they make contributions, which they are funding terrorists. They believe they are giving to a worthy cause. But they end up giving money to carry out acts of terrorism, to commit murder and mayhem in a country like Sri Lanka. And while we are trying to bring the conflict to an end, people in this country, in most cases, unwittingly, pour oil onto a raging fire in Sri Lanka – which is unfortunate.
The second thing is, they will have to bear in mind one factor – that if they make contributions knowingly, they would be violating the laws of this country.
Q: I know there have been several attempts at peace talks between the Sri Lanka government and LTTE, throughout the years. In fact, in 203, you were heavily involved in these peace talks. Unfortunately, it happened to be one in a long line of unsuccessful peace negotiations. So, why did all these peace talks fail? And what is your personal perspective on it?
A: Well, if you look back at history, there were at least six different occasions that the government of Sri Lanka decided to sit down to negotiate with the LTTE, and during the earlier years, also with other Tamil armed groups, to seek a solution to the conflict. In 1985, with the assistance of the government of India, we went to Thimpu, in Bhutan. In 1987 – involvement of the Indian government, resulting in the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord. In 1989/90, we had another attempt at peace talks, during President Premadasa’s time.In 1994/95, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge’s time, yet another attempt. Then came the 5th attempt, where I had some involvement – went to Thailand on three different occasions, went Germany, to Japan, to Norway – sat with the LTTE and tried to negotiate. And, unfortunately, failed. And, you will recall, that in December 2002, there was an understanding reached under difficult circumstances, that both parties should make an attempt to have a federal solution – what was described as “internal self-determination” within a united Sri Lanka. We thought that was a breakthrough, because, as I said, in 1949, the original demand was made for a federal state, and in all those years, there was opposition from the south for a federal arrangement. And, since 1976, the TULF, and subsequently, the LTTE, demanded a separate state, and they both came down from a separate state, to a federal state. So, actually, both sides came halfway. We went halfway up and the LTTE came halfway down, and there was meeting ground in Oslo in December 2002. However, that particular understanding didn’t last three months.
Q: What went wrong?
A: My own assessment was that the LTTE eventually came to the conclusion that if they went down the road of negotiations, they would end up having to sacrifice their original goal, which was, a separate state. And now, looking back, one realizes, that the decision they reached in Oslo in 2002, was either an exceeding of his mandate on the part of the leader of the LTTE delegation, or the LTTE leadership thought they had given too much by agreeing to the kind of formula agreed to in Oslo.
Also, if you look at other developments, you can understand exactly what the game plan of the LTTE is. First, was the meetings the LTTE delegation had with Tamil expatriates, after each negotiating round, whether it was in Oslo, Germany, or wherever else. They informed the expatriate Tamils that although they were negotiating at that point of time, they believed they could find a solution to the problem only through armed conflict. And they urged the expatriates to continue to provide resources to their war chest.
And even during this period of negotiations, the LTTE position was described in a couple of words, “Thirst of Tigers is for Tamil Eelam.” Any document they issued would say that – which meant, although they agreed to seek a federal solution, they did not really abandon their demand for a separate state.
Then again, there were expressions by the LTTE that they did not believe a final solution to the conflict should come at the negotiating table. It should be at the battlefield. Only then the Tamil people would cherish and hold dear what they got – which was a separate state.
Q: So, it sounds to me that they had already decided before they came to the negotiating table, what they really wanted to do.
A: Well, if you look back, on six different occasions we sat down to negotiate, and on six different occasions, they got up and moved out and never came back to the negotiating table. So, that leads you to believe that they had their own motives, although they sat down to negotiate. By sitting down to negotiate, they perhaps wanted to either convince the international community that they are indeed seeking a negotiated solution, or else they wanted to build up their military strength, which they did, for example, during the post-2003 period. Whatever it is, the eventual result was that they would abandon the negotiating table and go away.
In the recent past, they lost the Eastern Province, and subsequent to that, the LTTE once again expressed interest in turning to the negotiating table. So, we do not know until we test the waters, whether the 7th time is going to be the lucky 7, where we will be able to really engage them in negotiations and come to a solution.
Q: What the LTTE leader’s thoughts might be, I feel that there might be hesitancy among individuals who are fighting for LTTE to come forward, even if they want to leave the organization behind and go back to a normal way of living. So, are there any ways for them to come forward without fear of punishment from the government, and once they come forward, are there any programs for them to readjust into the community without fear of re-recruitment by the LTTE?
A: Masha, you are talking about LTTE cadres leaving the organization and coming back to the government. Actually, there are two aspects to it. One is, if you look at certain situations where the conflict is raging, with people wanting to move away from areas of conflict, the LTTE has prevented them from leaving and going into safer areas. The loss of people is something they cannot accept, because the very justification for the LTTE’s existence, is, as they say, they represent the Tamil people. And, if Tamil people leave those areas, there is no justification for their claim of being the sole representatives of the Tamil people. So, they prevent normal civilians from leaving their areas of control. Furthermore, it is very difficult for LTTE cadres n large numbers to leave LTTE-controlled areas and return to government-controlled areas. They would have to do through various check points, walk many miles, escape LTTE agents in those areas to get to government-controlled areas, and that would simply not be possible. But we do have men and women coming into government areas and surrendering themselves. We have even had situations where suicide cadres commanded by the LTTE to return to Colombo and wait orders to carry out bomb attacks, surrendering to government forces.
To answer your question, we do not punish those who surrender. We try to provide them with various skills, so that they would be able to gain employment after a specific period of observation. We also have child cadres who are leaving the organization and coming to government areas, and we arrange to keep them in separate camps and provide them with facilities to learn skills.
And, of course, one of the complaints in the recent past, including in the US, was the issue of child soldiers who were with the Karuna group. And, in fact, during the course of the last months, the Karuna Group, the TMVP, has released two groups of children – first, 11 child cadres, subsequently, 28. Altogether, 39 child soldiers. The first batch was given to the government. Of the 28, 20 were handed over to the parents and 8 decided to surrender to the government rather than returning to their parents because they feared re-recruitment by the LTTE. The UNICEF is associated with such releases and the welfare of child soldiers. From the UNICEF perspective, the best place for these child cadres is a return to their families. We do not disagree with that point of view. However, in the case of LTTE child cadres, there is always the danger of being re-recruited by the LTTE -which is eventually what happened when they return home to their families. So, while home is the right place for a child, in this particular instance, we believe that protection needs to be provided for the children, perhaps under supervision of the government and international agencies, and to be also provided with various facilities for skills learning, so they become employable once they are ready to leave the camps and be absorbed into the community.
Q: One of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports says that Sri Lanka is in a very bad position when it comes to human rights, and it goes on to say that providing human rights is the Sri Lanka government’s responsibility as much as the LTTE’s. What is your take on that, Mr. Ambassador?
A: I don’t blame the HRW when they say violations are taking place in the country. We cannot deny the fact in situations like what we have today in Sri Lanka. Human rights violations do take place. Even in other societies with no serious conflicts of this nature, human rights violations take place. The fact of the matter is – violations do not take place in Sri Lanka as a result of the policy of the government. This must be made very clear. Government policy is not to violate the rights of the people – please remember it is a democratic government. In every so many years, we have to go to the people and ask for their vote. And if you trample on the rights of the people and violate their rights, can you expect them to return you to power?
What happens is certain individual members of security forces and police do engage in violations. Our position is this – if such violations do take place, individual soldiers and policemen are responsible because they have violated the rights of civilians. And, when credible evidence is available, we have taken action, and we are taking action. In fact, there are hundreds of cases against members of armed forces or the police. In fact, last month, there was an indictment of a former senior Air Force officer and some security and police personnel, who had been involved n violations of human rights. That was just a couple of days ago.
However, there is a problem of laws delays in Sri Lanka, although we have a well-functioning justice system. The caseloads the courts have to go through are very heavy. As a result, there are delays. However, these delays are not peculiar to Sri Lanka. Take, for instance, the death of Princess Diana- after 10 or 11 years after te event, only last month, they came up with a verdict as to how she died. And, in a country like ours, where all systems are functioning under great strain, it is not unique for court cases to get delayed.
We have recognized this situation and have asked for help from various friendly governments, to expedite cases. So, arrests, indictments do take place, and, if anybody is interested, authorities concerned have information on a whole load of cases, all details and the progress of each case, where we are addressing human rights issues.
So, to answer your question, when HRW says that violations are taking place, we do not deny the charge, we accept it. And when such violations take place, and credible evidence is available, we take action.
You also need to remember that Sri Lanka is party to as many as 12 or 13 different international conventions relating to human rights, and, under these conventions, we have to submit periodic reports to the regimes of those conventions, where our reports are scrutinized, and officials of the Sri Lanka government have to appear before international panels who study our report and come up with questions, which we have to respond to. Thus, there are mechanisms to check the performance of the government with regard to our obligations in relation to international conventions. But, when it comes to the LTTE, although they are bound to protect the rights of the people living in the areas they operate, because they are not a state party, there is no mechanism to make them behave like a responsible party.
Q: I believe it is important to embrace each other’s cultures and religions, especially when it comes to Sri Lanka’s armed conflict. Trust and respect go hand in hand. So, has the Sri Lanka government taken any practical steps to rebuild trust between the Sinhalese and the Tamils? And, in your opinion, would there be more ways to accomplish that goal?
A: I will try to answer that question in a different way. How do you build trust? For example, until late July 2006, we had two provinces where the conflict was raging. One Northern Province of predominantly Tamils. The Eastern Province with all three communities – Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese. And one way to build trust is to let them know we have not abandoned them. The government continued with its administration ,even in LTTE controlled areas – staffing and managing hospitals, schools, providing drugs, paying for teachers – and so did not abandon the people. Where necessary, the government took steps to inoculate children against sicknesses. And, in conflict situation, in areas under LTTE control, the state looked after the welfare of the people, to let them know the government had not abandoned them, and even though they were living under LTTE control, they were being treated no different to people in government-controlled areas.
I have been dealing with subject for a long period of time. In the early 1990s, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, Francis Deng, a Sudanese national, came to Sri Lanka. He said that Sri Lanka was an example for other conflict situations in the world, where the state looks after the people in those conflict areas. And coming from Sudan, as he did, it was a lot to say.
There are also other ways to build trust and confidence. The government has taken measures in the Eastern Province, to hold elections so that the people will be able to express themselves, and there decisions, what ever they are, will be good enough for the government. So, the people will have to have trust in the government, and they will have the freedom to select or elect their own representatives.
There are other things the government could do with regard to confidence building measures over a period of time, both in the East and the North. And I am sure it will do what it can. Meanwhile, we have to understand that civil society, various religious associations and civilians in general, will also have a very important role to play with regard to building trust and confidence among the various communities.
Q: My last question, to resolve a conflict like Sri Lanka’s armed conflict, there are several factors which have to come together. Unfortunately, there are no magic solutions, so everyone has to work together as a team. It has to be the people, the Sri Lanka government, the LTTE and the international community. From your perspective, how can each of these parties participate in Sri Lanka’s peace process?
A: Very important question. You have brought four different groups. From the government’s point of view, it has been doing what it can. I have explained with regard to the Eastern Province. It appointed a Parliamentary committee to come up with proposals for devolution of power to the provinces. That particular committee consists of all 13 or 14 different parties – some have decided not to take part, but a large number of parties in parliament are participating. That is one step the government has taken. The government has also agreed to the first proposal made by this committee, that the government should fully implement the 13th amendment to the constitution, which came into being as a follow up of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, which will provide separate administrative powers, police powers to the provinces. Already, the government has taken steps to recruit men and women from Tamil and Muslim communities in the east, to the police force there. The intention is to recruit about 2000 police personnel to police the area, so any criminal activities taking place there could be taken care of by the people in the area. Most of all, giving an opportunity for the people to vote their own representatives in after a lapse of 14 years, is a great step the government has taken.
Then, take the LTTE. What could it do? It is very difficult for me to speak on behalf of the LTTE, but perhaps, it could see the ay things are moving, and perhaps decide to change its policies and to adapt new policies so they would be able to work for the welfare of the Tamil people whom they want to represent. Beyond that, I do not want to comment on the LTTE.
But, the international community can do a lot, taking into account the fact that the LTTE has cells in a large number of places the Tamil diaspora lives – US, Canada, Australia, NZ, western Europe and many other countries. First and foremost, to persuade them to return to the negotiating table. Second – ensure they remain at the negotiating table until all issues are discussed and solutions are found. Third – take increased measures to prevent fund collection by LTTE front organizations, which we know are being funneled to the LTTE war chest. Fourth – to take action against individuals and punish them when they are breaking the laws of the country concerned, like the US is doing right now – there is a case is going on in NY, another in Baltimore, against individuals who tried to purchase SAMs and other military hardware from here. There are many things the international community could do to improve the situation.
Quite apart from these solutions, they could focus on rapid development of the Eastern Province – investment, infrastructure, technical and vocational training for youth of the area, so they could engage in reconstruction of the area damaged by the conflict in the last couple of years.
Q: What about the people in the area? How can they help?
A: Yes, the Tamils, the Sinhalese, the Muslims, Burghers, Malays and all other ethnic groups have a very important role to play. They need to always keep in mind that Sri Lanka is their country, and not a part thereof. That it is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country, and that we all have a share and a stake in it, and that we need to accommodate one another. Looking back at history, at our community relations, people-to-people relationships go back to 2000 years. Our conflict is about 30 years, and it seems a long time to us because we are living in these times. But what is 30 years in relations to 2000 years?
So, all these communities have lived together harmoniously in Sri Lanka in the past, and it should be possible for us to live together harmoniously again.
I saw with my own eyes, the reactions of the people following the Ceasefire Agreement in 2002. Hundred of people in busloads went to Jaffna, not that there was anything in particular they wanted to see there, but because it was a place they had not seen for many years. I recall speaking with a Tamil small businessman asking him what the CFA meant to him. His response was, “I can see Colombo.” So, people-to-people relationships can create communal harmony and amity, and all communities can contribute toward this end.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to touch on before we say goodbye?
A: Well, all I want to say is that we are very happy with the role being played by the government of the US, as a member of the Co-Chairs of the Tokyo Donor Conference. The US government has taken keen interest in Sri Lanka, and we hope that interest will continue and that the US will remain engaged with regard to developments in Sri Lanka, and will stand with us until we see an end to the conflict.
Thank you, Masha.