Defence Secretary at international symposium :
Political leadership - key factor in defeating terrorism
[Continued from June 5]
Army Commander Lt. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya, Defence Secretary
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Minister of External Affairs Prof. G.L.
Peiris and President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga at the
International Defence Symposium, ‘Defeating Terrorism - The Sri
Lanka Experience’ held in Colombo recently.
The progress made in national reconciliation and integration since
1983 has been very encouraging for a long time. Even at the height of
terrorist activity in the 1990s, when thousands of innocent men, women
and children were killed on a yearly basis by the LTTE’s bomb blasts and
attacks, there were no more backlashes against the Tamil community. On
the contrary, the majority of the Tamil population has lived outside the
North and the East for many years, and comprise an integral part of the
Sri Lankan community and the national identity.
Colombo, in particular, is a thriving multi-ethnic hub that boasts a
large Tamil population, which has produced many of the nation’s leading
professionals and businessmen. They lead lives of distinction in a
supportive multicultural environment devoid of communal tension, and
have done so for many years. Nevertheless, the LTTE’s propaganda machine
kept flogging the lie that the Tamil community would have no chance to
prosper as long as it stayed within the Sri Lankan State.
They demonised Sri Lankan society, particularly the majority
Sinhalese, and made ludicrous claims about ethnic cleansing and
genocide. The irony is that in actual fact, it was the LTTE itself that
perpetrated such atrocities in its attempts to carve out an insular
mono-ethnic state. It was the LTTE that drove the Sinhalese and Muslims
out of the North virtually overnight, and it was the LTTE that held
Tamils captive and made them suffer for so many years.
If any Tamil children did not have the opportunity to study and forge
better lives for themselves, it was because they lived in LTTE-controlled
territory and were conscripted as frontline soldiers or suicide bombers
at the tender age of 12, 13 or 14. If any Tamil families spent many
sleepless nights fearing for their future, it was because they lived
under the LTTE and had no prospects at all for a better life. If
successful Tamil businessmen and professionals were forced to maintain a
low profile in the rest of the country, it was because they feared being
kidnapped and held for ransom by LTTE operatives.
The bane of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka was not the Sinhalese,
nor the Armed Forces, nor the Government: it was in fact the LTTE. That
is ultimately why we called our efforts to liberate the North and the
East a humanitarian operation - we were not just liberating territory
from the LTTE’s control; we were rescuing hundreds of thousands of
innocent civilians from its cruel grip.
By combating the LTTE and conclusively defeating it, we were not just
winning a long drawn-out war against an old enemy; we were rescuing an
entire nation from the constant threat and hellish horrors of terrorism.
A second problem that some observers in the international community had
with the resumption of a military campaign in Sri Lanka was the issue of
These observers unfortunately lacked the perspective to understand
the true nature of the LTTE. They thought of the LTTE as a small
organisation, essentially no more than an underdog standing up to the
full might of a national military. Again, the LTTE’s propaganda machine
played an important role in fuelling this misconception. The truth of
the matter is that despite its modus operandi of terrorism, and its
origins as a small band of militants, the LTTE had grown into a massive
terrorist organisation that had the ability to stand up to the Sri
Lankan Armed Forces over the years.
Victories over military
Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Minister of External
Affairs Prof. G.L. Peiris inspecting some of the exhibits. Pix:
On previous occasions, the LTTE had enjoyed several victories over
our military. They had overrun the Pooneryn military camp in 1993 and
the Mullaitivu military camp in 1996, killing several thousand troops.
From 1998 to 1999, the LTTE scored several key victories against the
Armed Forces, killing thousands of troops and recapturing a great deal
of territory. In 2000, the LTTE captured Elephant Pass, which was held
by 12,000 soldiers, in a major operation. All in all, by the time our
military campaign resumed in 2005, the LTTE had killed more than 26,000
armed services personnel.
This was no small band of militants, but a large, sophisticated
terrorist organisation comprising 30,000 cadre, a very large arsenal of
weapons and equipment, and thousands of civilians organised as auxiliary
forces. The LTTE is the only terrorist organisation in the world to have
had a sophisticated naval wing as well as a fledgling air force with
aircraft capable of dropping bombs on Colombo.
Those who thought that the Sri Lankan response was disproportionate
had absolutely no perspective on the issue. Unfortunately, because Sri
Lanka is a small country with limited resources, it was not possible for
us to give the management of non-critical foreign opinion the same level
of attention we gave India and other key nations.
As such, these misconceptions remained largely intact. Even more
sadly, a number of influential figures in the international community
formed very strong opinions - or should I say jumped to very hasty
conclusions - about our conduct of the war. Some of these assumptions
and misunderstandings have proven hard to shake even to this day.
This is deeply disappointing to the Government because one of the
most important facets of the Sri Lankan war against terrorism was the
immense care with which it was conducted. Ensuring zero civilian
casualties was an overriding priority for everyone involved in the
humanitarian operations, from the political leadership to the military
personnel on the field of battle. Training on human rights,
international humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict as well as
highlighting the necessity to protect civilians has been integral to the
training syllabi of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces for many years.
Moreover, when the operations commenced, strict orders were given to
the military at Security Council meetings to avoid civilian losses and
minimise the destruction of civilian property. These orders were
included in the operational orders handed down through the chain of
command, and all our military personnel on the ground were very
conscious of the fact that civilian casualties would not be acceptable.
Of course, in keeping with its brutal nature, the LTTE did its best to
make these orders hard to follow.
Historically, the LTTE has made sure that its leaders, operational
centres, and gun positions are all located within areas populated by
civilians. As our operations progressed, and the LTTE lost battle after
battle, they started to withdraw from these entrenched positions in the
towns and villages. Instead of withdrawing their cadre alone however,
they herded the civilians who lived in those areas alongside them as
they retreated. They also mined the villages and towns they left behind,
making sure no one could safely go back.
A couple of hundred thousand civilians were taken out of their homes
and driven from their villages as the military campaign progressed.
These civilians were to serve as a human shield for the LTTE, which was
beginning to realise it was outmatched in the field of battle.
Humanitarian assistance that was being organised for these civilians
through the Government with assistance from various organisations,
including the World Food Programme, the ICRC and other international
agencies, was also blatantly appropriated by the LTTE.
This forced migration of civilians posed a significant obstacle to
our humanitarian operations. The Sri Lankan military responded by taking
the utmost care in all its offensives. Small group warfare was
extensively employed, even though it meant placing our troops at greater
risk of harm from the enemy.
A great deal of effort was put into intelligence gathering through
the penetration of Special Forces into enemy territory and the
comprehensive use of technology. The establishment of No Fire Zones and
Safe Corridors gave civilians an opportunity to escape into areas that
had already been cleared. Of course, the LTTE did its best to prevent
their escape by shooting at them whenever they attempted to flee.
The LTTE also established their artillery positions at places such as
hospitals and within civilian encampments to limit the Army’s ability to
retaliate. As a result, especially towards the end of the campaign, the
use of heavy weaponry was significantly curtailed and then stopped
outright. The extensive use of technology by all of the Sri Lankan Armed
Forces during their operations did a great deal to minimise civilian
losses. Footage from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles was studied to enable the
acquisition of legitimate enemy targets, which were destroyed using
Air Force pilots were especially trained to identify and target enemy
positions with great accuracy. The minimum amount of necessary force was
always used in munitions to ensure that the damage dealt was localised
so that minimal harm would come to civilians and civilian property in
Through these measures, the Sri Lankan Armed Services ensured that
collateral damage was kept to an absolute minimum during the course of
the entire campaign. Above and beyond containing incidental harm to
civilians, the military also did a lot to try and ensure that
humanitarian aid was reaching the civilians trapped in the LTTE’s
The Navy protected sea lines of communication to facilitate delivery
of humanitarian assistance to trapped civilians. It also protected safe
corridors along the coast for escapees to cross through to Government
controlled areas. The Air Force airlifted humanitarian aid to civilians,
and provided emergency evacuation to civilians who managed to escape
LTTE imprisonment at great risk to their lives. These escapees were very
often shot at, and those who managed to cross over to cleared areas were
quite often in need of medical assistance. By providing such emergency
assistance in all possible instances, the Armed Forces did a great deal
to safeguard the lives of liberated civilians.
The civilians who crossed over to Government territory by escaping
the LTTE and those who were rescued after the defeat of the LTTE in any
particular area, were welcomed at reception centres and welfare camps
established at various sites across the battlefront. This process was
continually monitored by the ICRC. Transit camps were established during
which the civilians were sorted according to their places of origin.
They were then transported to larger facilities that had been organised
accordingly. In all these camps, the liberated civilians were given
medical assistance, food, clothing, shelter and all other basic
requirements under the supervision of the UN organisations.
Help was also provided by various other agencies and foreign
governments in dealing with this situation. A great deal of effort was
also taken to help these innocent victims of LTTE brutality to live with
dignity despite the ordeal they had suffered. They were provided
educational, vocational, recreational and entertainment facilities,
while stringent security was also maintained to ensure that LTTE
infiltrators and saboteurs did not have an opportunity to create more
With the conclusion of the military campaign, the fact that over
200,000 people remained in welfare camps and IDP centres was given a lot
of attention by the international media. It was claimed that the people
lived in terrible conditions within these camps and that the Government
was not paying any attention to their immediate resettlement.
These accusations were spurred by the LTTE’s propaganda machine,
which mostly exists outside Sri Lanka and continues to function to this
day. The LTTE apologists also had a lot of anger at the Government for
the LTTE’s demise, and even when they were not wholly behind the
accusations, they added a lot of fuel to them. What these allegations
missed, however, was the fact that the Government, together with
assisting international agencies and foreign governments, was doing its
best to cope with a massive humanitarian disaster caused by the LTTE.
The civilians could not be resettled immediately as the LTTE had strewn
the villages and towns that they were forced out of with thousands of
landmines and booby-traps.
Clearing and de-mining those areas to make them safe was absolutely
essential before enabling the return of the internally displaced. The
infrastructure that had been destroyed also needed to be rebuilt
swiftly. In the meantime, the Government did its best to ensure that the
people remaining in the centres were well looked after. By marshalling
its resources, including the Armed Forces, very swiftly and with the
help of friendly nations that provided assistance, the demining process
and infrastructure development process were greatly expedited, and most
of the work has already been carried out.
I am happy to note that of all the internally displaced people the
Government had to look after at welfare camps, nearly 215,000 were
resettled within one year. In addition to the internally displaced
civilians, more than 11,000 LTTE cadre surrendered or were detained by
the military during the course of its operations. These detainees have
been processed and sorted according to their level of involvement in the
LTTE’s activities. Over 4,000 junior cadre are still undergoing
extensive rehabilitation programs. Over 595 former child soldiers were
rehabilitated with the help of UNICEF and reintegrated to society, while
6,130 adult cadre have also been trained and reintegrated.
These rehabilitation programs included educational as well as
vocational training, so that rehabilitated former cadre will have no
difficulty in re-adjusting to normal life and re-integrating into
society. I am happy to note that several former child soldiers have
successfully sat for their Advanced Level examinations and a few have
even qualified to attend medical school.
Of course, cadre who were more closely involved in the LTTE’s
numerous atrocities will be prosecuted through the normal legal system.
In addition to the resettlement, rehabilitation and redevelopment
activities that were carried out in the aftermath of the conflict, the
Government has paid special attention to the restoration of normalcy
through the revival of socio-political institutions in the cleared
Normalcy was restored very early on to the East, where former armed
group members were encouraged to enter the political mainstream and work
for the people through legal channels. Tamil-speaking policemen were
recruited, and the role played by the military in the upholding of law
and order was significantly curtailed. Similar progress is rapidly being
made in the North, where free and fair elections were held for the first
time in decades. At the same time, reconstruction activities continue
The military has been heavily involved in these activities, building
houses, laying roads, establishing medical clinics and helping people
resettle. By winning the hearts and minds of the people long brutalised
by the LTTE, the Armed Forces will help heal the wounds of the past and
help restore normalcy to a long suffering section of our society. The
defeat of terrorism in Sri Lanka is a unique event in history.
During the course of this address. I have touched upon the overall
framework within which this success was achieved, and pointed towards
the progress that has been made since.
Over the course of the remaining sessions, you will have an
opportunity to learn about the Sri Lankan experience in much greater
detail. Terrorism is an international threat, and no country should
suffer from it as Sri Lanka has suffered.
On behalf of the Government of Sri Lanka. I wish to express our
sincere hope that you will be able to use the lessons learnt at this
seminar to defeat international terrorism and bring safety to the world.
For the moment, let me conclude by wishing all of you a productive and
enjoyable stay in Sri Lanka.”