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Sunday, 19 June 2011

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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 proportionality.

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: Thushara Fernando

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.

Forced migration

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 precision-guided munitions.

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 the vicinity.

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 clutches.

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 harm.

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.

Propaganda machine

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 areas.

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 unabated.

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.”

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