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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Gotabaya Rajapaksa -Three Years Later

FJ: Three years after the end of the war, the country is still facing international criticism. Do you personally believe that the LLRC recommendations should have been implemented without waiting for the international community to force the government to do so?

GR: Actually we have implemented many of those recommendations even before those recommendations came out. Unfortunately we have not projected these things to the international community properly or maybe the international community did not want to see. Certain allegations in the Darusman report were baseless. For example disarming other groups… this is recommended by the LLRC and the international community too brought pressure citing the EPDP and Karuna groups. They concentrated mainly on these groups. But there were many terrorist groups not only the LTTE. Then the LTTE destroyed all these groups but some of them wanted to survive. They were all having weapons and sometimes even successive governments gave them weapons and some like the EPDP and Karuna group supported the government.

 But immediately after the war the government decided that the LTTE threat is gone there is no need for these organizations to carry weapons because that would lead to a lot of other difficulties. The government decided it should only be the security that is the police and military that should carry weapons. So we gave them an ultimatum and asked them to surrender. We even did certain operations to recover those weapons. This is something we did even before the LLRC recommendations came in.

Then take Rehabilitation. The rehabilitation process started much before the LLRC report and it was very successful. 11,600 people surrendered to the military. We could have done many things. We could have put them in concentration camps and prosecuted them but the President himself decided it is counterproductive. Because if we had kept 11,600 people in camps just imagine controlling them and just imagine the criticism we would have got. Even in rehabilitating our aim was not to brainwash. Our aim was to give them vocational training and enable them to go back and engage in normal work. We had spiritual programs, drama, cultural and mainly concentrated on giving them skills. It was very successful. Many people commended this program. 955 of the people who went through the rehabilitation program are changed people. I don’t think anybody is willing to take a weapon hereafter because they know the repercussions of the war. So this is something we started much before anybody told us or much before the LLRC recommendations.

Then take the detainees. This was another aspect the LLRC and international community commented on. Over the years mainly last three years when the conflict was going on and even prior to that, the military and police detained various people for various activities – either carrying weapons, transporting explosives, engaging in suicide attacks – on suspicion, people were detained. These people were in various detention camps like Boosa.
 So after the war ended there were a little over 4000 detainees. For them also the government decided to go through their activities and select only the people who had committed big crimes like a person responsible for killing many civilians like in a bus or car bomb attacks or attacks and on the international airport, Central Bank, hotels, suicide attacks on railway stations, killing politicians…Except these people we decided to rehabilitate the others. We started with 4000 odd people today we have come down to only 230 odd people. These are things that have not been told to the international community!

FJ: Who is to blame for that?

GR: It is just that we concentrated on doing certain things and not on propaganda. But now we know propaganda is also necessary. We have been criticized about torturing detainees. When we started this program I gave access to many people. The LLRC talks about this – about a database and to give the names of the people being held to the families – we have not only provided them with the names but access to these camps. Yet still… the international community is talking about this database – whereas 4000 odd people we have released them! And we have only 200 odd people.

 Ambassador Stephen Rapp who was responsible for writing a report to the US Senate on human rights – when he came here I gave them access everywhere. I provided a helicopter for him to visit the camps because he told me he had no time to go there by road – I even told him to take his own translator and speak to the people. When he got back he commended me on the conditions in Boosa. Unfortunately with all that, he had not written an impartial report. These things I have done even before the LLRC recommendations.

Another recommendation was the removing of restrictions. To remove the HSZs, removing the restrictions on travel…today we have done all that. We have removed the restrictions on travel – anybody can visit these areas – go anywhere including foreigners. We have no HSZs. Other than the cantonments.

 Over the years we had many restrictions on fishing. There were areas they could not go. There were restrictions on the size of the boat, the horsepower – the fishing industry was completely destroyed from Mannar, Sillathurai (sic) on the West Coast over to Jaffna Point Pedro and up to Mullaitivu because of the Sea Tigers and the smuggling of weapons. Because of this over the last 25 years the Navy and the government imposed various restrictions. Today, we have taken all those restrictions out. There are no longer any roadblocks.
 Another recommendation was that we should allow everybody to go back to their original places.

Puthukkudiyiruppu and Puthumathalan where the last battle was fought – lots of people thought we are not allowing civilians to go there because we have things to hide. But this is the remaining place to de-mine and when I reviewed the whole place about a month ago I discussed with the commanders and the NGOs working on demining and made these areas a priority where we are now expediting the process and we will finish the demining in these areas on July 31. Then we can allow the remaining 7000 odd IDPs to go back to their original places – we have nothing to hide. There has been talk that we are hiding these places to conceal mass graves – that is not so. By July 31 we will settle all these people in these areas. This is another recommendation by the LLRC which we are already in the process of expediting.

Then the civilian casualties – we have addressed that issue in a way we thought best. By conducting a survey and not going by arbitrary numbers. The Census and Statistics department conducted this survey and not the military. All the officials who were involved in doing this census were one hundred percent Tamil. Teachers and Engineers were employed to do this. Now their report is out. 7000 odd are untraceable these include the combatants. This is something everybody has forgotten! Where are the dead combatants?

FJ: How many civilians then were killed? Because the government consistently maintained there were zero casualties?

GR: No. that is another mistake. What we did say was a ‘zero civilian casualty’ policy! That was what we were aiming at. That was what we told troops. Our goal was to achieve that.

FJ: So what exactly then is the civilian casualty figure?

GR: The possibility is about 1000 – 1200. But we don’t know still. It is a good thing for you all to go into detail. We have found by going house to house, the untraceable are 7000 odd people.
 Now in this there are a lot of categories – most of them are LTTE combatants. This is another important factor. A lot of people who left this country and living in Canada after the war – all those boats and ships that went – there are people in these countries who are reported here as missing! But in actual fact they are there. They are in Canada, Europe, Australia and India.

FJ: A key issue is the implementation of the 13th Amendment. Do you think the full implementation creates security issues?

GR: I can talk only about the police powers. This is something we cannot give! This would be detrimental and not practical. Because ours is not a huge country we are small. The biggest complaint we constantly hear where the police is concerned is political influence. If the 13th Amendment is implemented the police would be divided and come under a Chief Minister. So then can you imagine the political influence. So is it good or bad for the police? So we have to identify why somebody is asking for this. They say because people don’t understand the language and the culture – that is not the answer. The answer is to recruit more Tamil speaking policemen. We are recruiting more.

FJ: As of now how many Tamil speaking police officers do you have?

GR: Right now there are 1600 Tamil speaking police officers most of whom are deployed in Jaffna. We will be recruiting more. There is a small difficulty in that they do not have adequate qualifications – there is a huge problem of getting qualified people – at the same time there is still a little reluctance for Tamils to join the police – but it is slowly but gradually being addressed. In the meantime we have a program for Sinhalese and Muslim police officers to learn Tamil. This is how to address this issue – not by dividing the police and giving to a Chief Minister. There is no logic in that. In fact I asked this from Mr. Sampanthan. By doing this it cannot help the reconciliation process – I don’t see how it can. It will only create unnecessary problems – it is simply not good to do.

FJ: The war is over. What in your view is the optimum strength of the security forces needed in peace time and what are the plans to get there?

GR: This is a very complicated issue. Immediately after the war ended this issue came up when the then commander wanted more troops. We had tripled the size of the army after 2005 but after 2009 they wanted to double that. But the government and most of the other officers also thought it is not necessary. Now, after the war we cannot immediately reduce the size of the military by half. It will create so many problems. If you take the composition of the military 90 percent of the soldiers come from the rural areas. They are the bread winners for their families. In the last three years before the war ended they helped the country and the government by joining the forces despite knowing full well the threat.

 They reacted positively to our call and we recruited many and that helped the victory. Now that the war is over we cannot send them home – that will create huge social problems. There is a natural wear and tear – some people retire, leave after 5 years, 12 years, 20 years – in the last 3 years we have not recruited anymore. Instead we have allowed the strength to stabilize. More importantly we have identified how to employ them effectively. We have increased the intelligence units, the engineering services. We have encouraged the carpenters and masons to engage in development work including the building of houses. What we are looking at now is to employ the military in a useful productive way so that it can help the country.

FJ: What are we looking at in terms of numbers?

GR: The number we have right now is not unbearable – it is a fair size. The army is a little more but we can employ them in other ways. On the other hand I think we should increase Navy personnel because maritime security is more important. That is how gradually we can ensure the security of Sri Lanka. This is the mistake we made earlier. We need more assets. More ships… and at the same time we will be training even the army to be more skilful… more professional.

FJ: It is well known that many military commanders made hundreds of millions of rupees during the war and no action was ever taken against them. Even this government has been sitting on Justice Shirani Tilakawardene’s report of a former Navy Commander making multi million rupee deals. In any case corruption is rampant in the country today and no action whatsoever has been taken against any one of them. Why?

GR: It is easy to say – but when you go into detail it is not possible, especially in the military. The reason being – somebody can say one item purchased is not good somebody can say it is good. Anyway these are things that happened prior to my taking over. I don’t want to get involved and waste time on those things. It is not easy to go into these. Though the Justice Shirani Tilakawardene report has certain things, I heard a different story – So unless we again start a court of inquiry to go into these – certain allegations just cannot be proved. So it is not useful in my opinion. But I do take action on certain cases – even recently I sent a few officers out for some issues of corruption. You are referring to one officer but within this period a lot of officers have been charged and court martialed. Nevertheless, corruption in the military is now very much less. Procurement is not taking place… There is no point going into these old cases.

FJ: There are waves of abductions taking place in the country allegedly in white vans. Recently some of the abductors were identified as men from the army.

GR: No! Not a single. This is again a misinformation. If you can tell me that incident I will explain.

FJ: When the Chairman of the Kolonnawa Pradeshiya Sabha was nearly abducted.

GR: The commander clarified that issue. In this instance the Chairman of the Kolonnawa PS mis-identified the men. The army men went there to apprehend a deserter. A soldier. It was nothing to do with him. But this man had gone there for a meeting and his security was an ex army personnel and he wrongly identified these people – and the Chairman came out and created an unnecessary scene.

FJ: Why are these abductors not caught? There are so many incidents of abductions.

GR: We have a caught a lot of people! So many people! The thing is the media is not reporting these things! The police spokesman comes out and tells these things but the media does not report!
FJ: But there are lists of names – of people who still remain missing. How come the police cannot trace them?

GR: Recently there was a website – Groundviews which reported 59 names of missing people. Out of those 59 names 13 were completely bogus.

FJ: What happened to Prahaharan who was abducted from outside his home in Wellawatte? To date he remains missing. Neither have his kidnappers been found.

GR: There are some cases – if you go through the names – this is what the media is not saying. Most of them – if you go through the history of these people… they are rapists, murderers, these are underworld criminals. Now in the underworld there are many rival groups. This is the easiest way – saying abducted and putting the blame on the government. Now if you study most of these people -Welle Sudha – where is he? He has vanished. We suspect he is living in India. The wife goes and says my husband has been abducted. Whereas he is living nicely in India and operating. Thel Bala! Living in India. Ice Manju – living in India! Ice Manju, some say, has changed his physical appearance and is back in Sri Lanka. But when his relations say a white van took him the media reports – diplomats ask me if this is an abduction! There is always another side to every story. But the media reports only one side.

FJ: what happened to the two JVPers who were abducted?

GR: They say they are abducted. Kumar – we don’t know if he was here or if he was not or if he was in Australia – the issue is a missing man is missing! Ha ha ha! This is a joke!

FJ: There was the case of Jeevan Kumaratunge’s brother-in-law being abducted. He was released according to reports, only after the President or someone from the Defence Ministry called the driver of the van in which he had been abducted. He later thanked the government for securing his release. Why?

GR: Why should we call?

FJ: Exactly. That is why I am asking you the question.

GR: Why should he thank the government? It is very unfortunate because the media reports and tries to project a white van theory – giving the impression that every abduction is carried out by the police or the army. The bad thing about that is the culprits use that as a cover-up! So any group can carry out these abductions and put the blame on the police or the army. The culprits are at large. The media does this to throw mud at the government – these abductions are either for personal reasons or it is carried out by the underworld.

FJ: My final question. Why have the killers of Lasantha Wickrematunge not been found yet? Are we to believe the police are this impotent?

GR: If you want to help me, do so!… We conducted many investigations. I can give you the details of all those investigations. If Lasantha’s wife, or Lasantha’s daughter or you or anybody can help us and tell us to question this person we will…

FJ: But we are not the police.

GR: That is the thing. But you all are trying to become the police.

FJ: Well we are not professional investigators. Why can’t the police investigators function in this case?

GR: It is not easy. It is not easy! Not only in Sri Lanka! In many other places in the world there are certain things; if there is insufficient evidence a lot of things have not been solved!
FJ: So are you saying you lack sufficient leads to find Lasantha’s killers?

GR: A lack of information. A lack of leads – there are many murders we were fortunate to solve but at the same time there were certain we could not solve. I do not think it is because we are not putting any effort. Sometimes people do not know how much effort we are putting. Now for example take the museum. Every day I am trying to get a lead, direct police in different directions but we have not got a single lead into that! But on the other hand there are cases we have solved. Like an old lady who was murdered in Kolonnawa recently, then a robbery in Colombo last week, then the Kahawatte murder… which was a very difficult case. There are things we could solve but unfortunately there are some we could not solve because there is no lead! Take Janaka Perera’s murder. People put the blame on the government. At that time even with the war on,

 I still put over 100 police officers to investigate. Ultimately we solved the murder and captured the people who were responsible. So there are things we could do and at the same time there have been cases we could not resolve. If you see the effort that we put on Lasantha’s case – unfortunately we could not get any lead into it.

FJ: Despite the fact that the mobile phones used by the killer squad were traced and 17 army personnel remanded?

GR: No! No phones were traced. No! No! No! That is in a different case.

FJ: No it was not. They were remanded on suspicion for the murder of Lasantha. The Director of the TID himself told me that…

At this point another officer in the room explained to The Sunday Leader that only one army officer was held on suspicion for the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge together with five other civilians but released due to a lack of evidence.
( taken forn a longer interview with defence secretary Rajapaksha)


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