Ben Doherty /May 14, 2011
BEATEN and with nowhere left to run, they received the text message just before 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning.
It came, through an intermediary, from the Sri Lankan foreign secretary, apparent instructions for a surrender: ”Just walk across to the troops, slowly! With a white flag and comply with instructions carefully. The soldiers are nervous about suicide bombers.”
At dawn the next day, a group of nearly 20 – Tamil Tiger soldiers and civilians – scrambled from behind their defensive sand embankment, walking under white flags towards the Sri Lankan army’s 58th Division.
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Within half an hour their leaders were found, shot dead. None who surrendered are known to have survived.
The man who sent the text message was Dr Palitha Kohona, a dual Sri Lankan-Australian citizen, a former Australian diplomat and trade negotiator for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He is now an ambassador for Sri Lanka, the country’s permanent representative to the United Nations.
A report to the UN Secretary-General last month named him as party to the failed surrender talks, and two Tamil groups have accused him of war crimes.
Dr Kohona denies the claims, telling The Saturday Age that while he sent the text message it was not a guarantee of safety. ”Absolutely not. This would be have been way beyond my authority to promise,” he said.
The ruthless separatist war waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam against the Sinhalese-majority Sri Lankan government came to its bloody end in May 2009.
The Tigers, who once controlled a third of the island, were forced into a narrow strip of coastal land, hemmed in by the sea, a lagoon, and a relentless assault from the army.
Many Tigers vowed to fight to the death, but as the bodies piled up, some sought a way to surrender, to save themselves and thousands of civilians they held hostage. Under heavy shelling, they rang and sent messages to diplomats, journalists – anyone they thought could broker an agreement with the government.
Through a European intermediary, they got a message to Dr Kohona. He was contacted on behalf of a man called Pulidevan, head of the Tiger peace secretariat. He offered an unconditional surrender.
Willing to walk out with him under a white flag were members of his family, Nadesan, the head of the LTTE’s political wing, an LTTE colonel called Ramesh, and more than a dozen civilians.
At 8.46am on Sunday, May 17, Dr Kohona sent a text message to a third-party intermediary, which was passed on to Pulidevan.
At 6.30 the next morning, Pulidevan and Nadesan, carrying white flags and followed by about 15 others walked towards the army, which had been told to expect them. A Tamil man who watched them leave told The Saturday Age they walked towards the soldiers as instructed.
”The soldiers had trucks,” he said. ”They took the people behind the trucks … Then we could just hear shooting and people yelling. The shooting was fast, like a machinegun.”
The deaths of Pulidevan and Nadesan were reported within half an hour. The body of Pulidevan’s wife, also shot, was found too.
Dr Kohona told The Saturday Age the text message was not part of any negotiations with the Tigers. He did not believe the group tried to surrender. ”The text is likely to have been in response to an inquiry, but not from anyone associated with the LTTE. This was not an effort to arrange a surrender, which I had no authority to do.”
The Saturday Age has confirmed with three independent sources that the message sent by Dr Kohona to a third party was in response to an offer from Pulidevan of an unconditional surrender. The message was passed to Pulidevan.
But while Palitha Kohona was regarded as a key player in negotiations, evidence is emerging that the Tamil Tigers’ planned surrender was known at the highest levels of the military and the government.
The report to the UN Secretary-General on the conduct of the war, released last month, said both Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, Defence Secretary Basil Rajapaksa, gave assurances that their surrender would be accepted.
The Sri Lankan government has maintained the surrendering Tamils were shot by other cadres as they deserted. It says it pursued a humanitarian rescue operation.
Dr Kohona addressed the UN Security Council this week, saying that at the end of the war ”the government adopted a zero civilian casualty policy. Our troops endeavoured to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and the protection and liberation of the civilians from the clutches of the terrorist group was their highest priority.”
The Secretary-General’s report said the UN was unable to accept the government’s version of events.
In January, an application to the International Criminal Court by two Tamil diaspora groups alleged Dr Kohona was culpable for the deaths of those who surrendered.
Sri Lanka does not recognise the court, and its citizens are exempt from its proceedings, but Dr Kohona’s status as an Australian citizen means he could face prosecution before it.
Rajeev Sreetharan from US-based Tamils Against Genocide, said while it was unlikely Dr Kohona was the sole mastermind of any surrender plan, his role warranted investigation.
But Dr Kohona said he had no idea how Pulidevan and Nadesan died.
”The version [presented by the report to the UN] appears to be a convenient entree to establish criminal conduct,” he said.