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Accountability issues and post-war stability


By Shamindra Ferdinando
Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa says the government will not tolerate any party other than the police and armed forces carrying weapons. The Defence Secretary insists any party, including those who once supported Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE will not be allowed retain weapons under any circumstances.

 In an interview with The Island in the wake of Saturday’s impressive electoral victory in the second phase of local government polls, the war veteran discussed a range of contentious issues.

Excerpts of the interview:

The Island: In spite of the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009, a section of the Opposition allege some of those once engaged in anti-LTTE operations continued to retain weapons. Some specific allegations are levelled against the TMVP, which controls some local government bodies in the East, including Batticaloa MC. Why are you turning a blind eye to concerns expressed by the Opposition and a section of the media?

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa: Soon after the eradication of the LTTE, the government took measures to withdraw weapons issued to various armed groups. I directed the police and the military to recover weapons regardless of political affiliations in spite of resentment. It wasn’t a popular decision. Many felt they can retain the weapons, though the LTTE no longer posed a threat. Obviously some unauthorized personnel retained some weapons and we’ll continue to look for them. Some TMVP members, too, had been subject to police investigations in the post-war period, though the breakaway LTTE faction worked with the government.

The Island: Will you allow armed groups to carry weapons for their protection?

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa: In the post-war era there is absolutely no need for anyone to hang on to illegal weapons. Those failing to hand over weapons in their possession faced the possibility of arrest unless they turned over their weapons.

The Island: The military is accused of playing politics, particularly in the North. In the run-up to July 23 local government polls the UNP and JVP repeatedly accused the military of throwing its weight behind the UPFA campaign. Will you continue to exploit the heavy armed forces presence in the Northern and Eastern Provinces for the UPFA’s advantage for political purposes?

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa: The military didn’t interfere in the election process or engage in the campaign. During the northern polls campaign some bankrupt politicians accused the military of obstructing the Opposition and throwing its weight about in support of the UPFA as they felt such allegations could strengthen their campaign. They also believed that statements targeting the military could help the ongoing campaign directed at President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration. The polls outcome revealed that the military hadn’t intervened. Except for local government bodies at Velani, Delft and Kytes, the TNA and TULF shared 20 LG bodies in the electoral districts of Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee and Digamadulla. Those critical of the military had conveniently forgotten that they could campaign freely in the Northern and Eastern districts due to the armed forces’ triumph over the LTTE. They should recall how the LTTE manipulated the election process at the height of its campaign for a separate state. The LTTE assassinated many political leaders, forced the TNA to recognize it as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people in the run-up to April 2004 parliamentary polls and in November the following year, ordered those living in areas under their control not to exercise their franchise at the presidential polls. A post-poll report issued by the EU Election monitoring mission in April 2004 highlighted how the LTTE exploited the election process. Unfortunately, some of those now demanding democracy, good governance and transparency didn’t even bother to publicly condemn the LTTE.

The Island: Whatever the criticism you may have against those critics, will you ensure that armed groups aren’t given a free hand?

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa: I’m baffled as to why they never demanded the government to disarm the LTTE. In fact, some of them recognized the LTTE‘s right to retain a conventional ground force in line with the Ceasefire Agreement arranged by the government of Norway. Those upset about small arms in the hands of unauthorized persons turned a blind eye to the massive LTTE arsenal. The bottom line is that those opposed to a breakaway LTTE cadre carrying a T-56 assault weapon gleefully accepted an LTTE armed with heavy artillery, mortars and a range of other armaments. They had never been bothered about armed persons as long as they belonged to the LTTE. That is the truth.

The Island: In spite of the UPFA’s popularity in the South, a section of the international community is pushing Sri Lanka on the diplomatic front. Will you respond to their concerns regarding accountability issues as part of the overall measures aimed at post-war national reconciliation?

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa: Those now shedding crocodile tears for war victims never discussed so-called accountability issues as long as they felt the LTTE could somehow overwhelm the Sri Lankan military. In fact, they never discussed accountability issues until the conclusion of the conflict. Can anything be as ridiculous as holding Sri Lanka accountable for war crimes on the basis of unsubstantiated ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ produced by Channel 4 News for global telecast. The documentary is obviously a key element in their overall strategy to undermine post-war development programme by isolating the country. Unfortunately, they plan could cause a debilitating setback to the economic revival of districts devastated by war. The war displaced could experience further problems due to foreign action targeting Sri Lanka. What is pathetic is that those pushing for crippling economic sanctions are the same calling for post-war national reconciliation and urgent assistance to Tamil speaking people.

Sri Lanka’s case shouldn’t be considered an isolated case. Powerful armies fighting non-state actors in different regions are also accused of war crimes. The international press is inundated with reports regarding war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas, though some are talking as if we are the only country under fire over excessive use of force.

The Island: Some are concerned over the slow progress in rehabilitating ex-LTTE cadres. Will you take tangible measures to rectify shortcomings in the rehabilitation process?

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa: A post-war study carried out by the UNICEF with the help of provincial officials in the Northern and Eastern Provinces revealed how the LTTE had forcibly recruited both children and adults. Based on complaints received from Tamil speaking people living in nine districts, the UNICEF placed the total number of missing persons at 2,564. The missing included 676 children. The report revealed the LTTE had taken away 64 per cent of the missing children during the war. I posted the UNICEF report on the Defence Ministry website and also handed over a copy to UK Defence Secretary Dr. Liam Fox when he called on the President at Temple Trees. What is important is that the UNICEF conducted the study after the conclusion of the war. The UNICEF’s revelation comes in the wake of unsubstantiated allegations of over 40,000 civilians killed during the final phase. Those unhappy about our rehabilitation programme should get in touch with former LTTE cadres released by the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation. They can collect information from ex-LTTE personnel and find out what happened during the last phase. Of some 11,600 held in the aftermath of the conflict as many as 8,000 are free today.

The remaining cadres, too, will be gradually released this year. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is aware of the progress. In fact, the IOM supports Sri Lanka’s rehabilitation efforts, though some of those critics hadn’t contributed to post-war projects aimed at helping ex-LTTE cadres. They should be ashamed.  Don’t forget we are the first country to eradicate a fully fledged terrorist group, though many governments are engaged in counter-terrorist action in various parts of the world. Just over two years after the war, the vast majority of those who took up arms against the State are free to lead normal lives. We are not talking about ordinary persons but experienced combatants, who had handled high explosives to artillery pieces and trained with suicide cadres. What we faced was an extraordinary threat, though the government felt the need to release ex-LTTE personnel as soon as possible. We are proud of our achievement. Whatever critics say today, Tamil speaking children are safe today. Until we eradicated the LTTE, they recruited children at gun point, though the global community strongly condemned child recruitment. The UN had been trying to convince the LTTE to stop child recruitment way back in 1998. The LTTE stepped-up child recruitment following the Norwegian-arranged ceasefire agreement. Although the Scandinavian truce monitors received thousands of complaints regarding abduction of children and adults during the CFA, they couldn’t do anything. Those interested in knowing the truth should peruse regular reports put out by ceasefire monitors during that period.

The Island: Last Friday’s massacre in Norway sent shock waves through the international community. How can you tackle such a situation?

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa: Strong security measures must be in place to meet any eventuality. Sri Lanka suffered for years due to the failure on the part of successive administrations to meet the terrorist threat. We took meaningful measures after the November 2005 presidential poll and today the entire country is enjoying genuine peace. In spite of peace, we remained vigilant to thwart any effort to cause trouble. It would be a mistake on our part to do away with security measures overnight because the LTTE lost its conventional military capability. The Norway massacre showed what one man could do.

The Island: You had an opportunity to meet Colombo-based heads of the ICRC and UN recently. What did you discuss with them?

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa: They are aware of rapid developments taking place in the country. Since the end of war, we took every possible measure to provide relief to those affected by the war. We are also grateful for support received from the international community over the years and expect to work closely with foreign governments though the LTTE rump is hell-bent on destabilizing the country. The ICRC can help the international community to establish various data relating to the conflict as the humanitarian agency arrived in the country in the late 80s on the invitation of the then government. The international community can play a pivotal role in the post-war recovery plan.

The Island: What is your message to the Tamil Diaspora?

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa: The Tamil Diaspora should throw its weight behind the war affected communities. The President repeatedly urged the Diaspora to end its anti-Sri Lanka campaign and invest in the country. A destabilized Sri Lanka can be a source for would be illegal immigrants seeking to secure political asylum in the developed world. It would be a mistake to punish us for meeting the LTTE’s conventional military challenge. The war was forced upon us in spite of the President going out of his way to explore ways and means of accommodating their concerns. The Tamil Diaspora should accept the responsibility for pushing the LTTE fighting cadre to go on the offensive. The Diaspora never made an attempt to convince the LTTE of the need to continue with negotiations. What the world should remember is that the LTTE quit the negotiating process in April 2003, long before hostilities erupted.

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