War crimes allegations - Govt machinery could have performed better - Dr. Palitha Kohona | Sunday Observer
Victory Day - 13 years on

War crimes allegations - Govt machinery could have performed better - Dr. Palitha Kohona

22 May, 2022

The scourge of LTTE terrorism was wiped out from Sri Lanka by the Security Forces in 2009, proving to the world in no uncertain terms that terrorism can be eliminated if there is a will. Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to China Dr. Palitha Kohona was the Foreign Secretary at the time. When the country marked this historical event, 13 years of bringing peace to all communities on May 18, Dr. Kohona joined the Sunday Observer last week to recall his memories of one of the crucial factors of the victory over battle against terrorism, the tough diplomatic war in which he played a leading role.

Q: It has been thirteen years since the country was liberated from the LTTE terrorists. You occupied the hot seat of Foreign Secretary which had to endure the brunt of many allegations. Is there anything that you wished you had done differently?

A: There is a little that we could have done differently, given the numerous multi-dimensional challenges that we were confronting at the time. However, I am glad that I was involved in the centre, and that I was able to make a contribution to our success.  I returned from New York at the request of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2006, even though many of my New York friends questioned my decision to do so. They thought that it was a foolish decision.  Eventually, a combination of factors, effectively coordinated by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, enabled us to defeat the most ruthless terrorist group, the LTTE.

You asked if there was anything that I would have done differently. Perhaps I would have deployed more resources to maintain and enhance the public image of the country and the Security Forces.  Unfortunately, given the constraints we were facing, especially financial, at the time it was not a feasible option. Even the meagre resources that were at my disposal, were being misdirected by parties who did not understand the international significance of countering allegations, maintaining and enhancing the image of our country and ensuring credibility in the eyes of those who were instinctively critical of us.

Q: What is your most unforgettable memory of that time?

A: My most unforgettable memory was the evening of May 19. We had received information that the last pocket of the LTTE at Mullivaikkal had been overrun and that Velupillai Prabhakaran himself was dead.  Prabhakaran’s image with bulging eyes was shown on television and, many of us will remember that for the rest of our lives, because he had unleashed a train of unrestrained terror among the people of Sri Lanka. I remember a small group meeting President Mahinda Rajapaksa had that evening in his office at Temple Trees and the huge sense of relief that was visible on every face. Very few words were exchanged, but the sense of freedom from fear was evident. A destructive conflict that had been made  everyone fear for the lives of their loved ones and themselves had been brought to an end and the policymakers who led the nation were present in that room. President Rajapaksa, in his usual genial manner wished every one well, and went out to visit Wellawatte where we later found out that he had been received with garlands.

Q: Many Western countries demanded to stop the military operations, aimed at liberating thousands of Tamil people held hostage and used as a human shield by the LTTE leaders and also aimed at wiping out terrorism, how intense were these calls and how difficult was your role back then?

A: Many countries, mainly, the Western countries, had been demanding that the military advance on the LTTE be suspended. The rationale for this demand confused us, given that elsewhere in the world, massive efforts were being undertaken to defeat terrorism, including by deploying uncontrolled force. In Sri Lanka, they adopted a different attitude. We were being asked to suspend our advance against the LTTE. The West demanded that the conflict be ended through negotiations. What was forgotten was that many efforts had been made to end the conflict through negotiations, in 2003 first following the Ceasefire Agreement.

Negotiations had been conducted in different parts of the world, with the assistance of the countries which wished to facilitate a negotiated conclusion to the conflict. But the negotiations had been ended with the LTTE walking out.  Then again in 2006, the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, made a sincere effort to negotiate an end to the battle, with teams being sent to meet the LTTE, twice in Geneva and once in Oslo. I myself led the team that went to Oslo.

The LTTE never engaged in the negotiations with any degree of sincerity. I believe that they suffered from the delusion that they could win on the battlefield and bring the conflict to a bloody end on their own terms. For the LTTE, the negotiations were a means to regroup, retrain and rearm. Some of us felt that they were being encouraged in this belief by certain Western countries which were being pressured by expatriate Tamil groups. Even as the military was approaching the last holdout of the LTTE in Mullivaikkal, a highpowered delegation consisting of UK Foreign Minister, David Miliband and the French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner descended on Sri Lanka demanding that the military operation be halted. 

Mahinda Rajapaksa responded with a firm ‘No’ to this demand. I escorted Miliband and Koucher to the Menik Farm Refugee Centre. There was even a suggestion made to evacuate the LTTE leadership from its last holdout by using naval assets. I believe that had the conflict not been ended on May 19, 2009, we would still be confronting the deadly LTTE. Despite the adverse comments of subsequent analysts, Sri Lanka which had been battered for over 27 years by indiscriminate bombings, shootings, pitched military confrontations, recruitment of child soldiers and devastating setbacks to the economy, had no choice but to bring the conflict to an end in the way it did. We used all the available resources to end the battle peacefully, but to no avail. I recall the headline a week later in the Wall Street Journal, “Terrorism can be defeated militarily; Sri Lanka has shown how”  

Q: Which country was more close to us during that time, in extending assistance to ensure that our mission was accomplished?

A: A number of countries extended assistance to us as we sought to accomplish our goal. China was the country that unconditionally extended its helping hand; militarily, financially and politically. We must be grateful to China for its unqualified support. Other countries such as Russia, Ukraine, and Israel were also willing to assist us. Without the military assistance from these countries, achieving our goal could have been very difficult.

Sri Lanka maintained excellent diplomatic relations with these countries to achieve our goal. I visited all of them during the battle against terrorism to ensure that the needs of our Security Forces were met. There were bottle necks which slowed us on occasion and had to be cleared. Needless to say, we were successful in clearing these obstacles, as we forged ahead to end the scourge of terrorism.

Q: How do you describe the international assistance, especially from the US and India? Could we have done what we did in 2009 without their help?

A: We received valuable assistance from India and the United States of America. India was very helpful in denying safe havens on its territory to the LTTE. Again it was the hard working Foreign Service that kept these two countries engaged in a proactive manner. It is also important to remember that the European Union, Canada, the US and Australia proscribed the LTTE which prevented the LTTE from operating in those countries as an organised, legitimate group. This achievement of our diplomats was a significant factor in curtailing fund raising activities of the LTTE in those countries. Similarly, the prosecutions initiated in the US and Australia by the local authorities against LTTE arms procurement agents was a success for the Sri Lankan diplomatic service. 

In summary, it could be said that many countries and groups of countries contributed in different ways to assist Sri Lanka to eliminate the LTTE terrorist threats. Some contributed much more than the others. Intelligence sharing also was an important element of Sri Lanka’s military victory over the LTTE. Sri Lanka had excellent intelligence on LTTE fund raising operations in Europe and on the transfer of funds to Asian destinations, largely obtained through the diplomatic service. 

Arms procurements in South East Asia were controlled through intelligence sharing. Similarly, intelligence provided to the Sri Lankan defence services helped destroy large naval armories  maintained by the LTTE on the high seas. Intelligence was also shared on LTTE human smuggling, drug trafficking and arms trafficking activities.

Q: There were allegations that the Government committed war crimes. A video footage to this effect was shared widely on social media. What is your response to these allegations? 

A: While at the beginning of Eelam War 4, there were hardly any allegations of war crimes against the Security Forces. Allegations of war crimes began to surface as they began to gain the upper hand by pushing continuously against the LTTE defences towards the north.

After the Security Forces occupied the Mannar area, the LTTE began herding the civilians with it to wherever it retreated. The civilians were a convenient human shield. There is no doubt that the LTTE master planners hoped to launch accusations of war crimes if civilian casualties mounted.  Civilian casualties were inevitable, given their use as a human shield. 

This appears to have been a conveniently calculated cold blooded strategy of the LTTE. In fact, this was what happened at the end of the battle against terrorism. A crescendo of allegations and insinuations began to surface. The national leadership now had to defend itself against these allegations. Perhaps, the Government failed to conduct necessary investigations while they were possible to do.

Many allegations were without foundation and were plainly spurious. For example, the number of civilian deaths allegedly caused by the Security Forces has ballooned from around 7,000, estimated by the UN, to over 200,000 glibly bandied by Navi Pillai. This is an area where the Government machinery could have performed better, not only in defending the Security Forces against these allegations but also in maintaining the image of the country. Thirteen years after the end of the battle, these allegations have not been put to rest and crop up regularly especially in the context of the UNHRC in Geneva.

Q: What was the catalyst, in your opinion, for the victory against the LTTE in May 2009? (The LTTE was a ruthless organisation, which invented the suicide belt, had air, sea and land power and a strong international support base)

A: A combination of factors contributed to defeat the LTTE in May 2009. First and foremost, it was the dedication, commitment and sacrifice of the Security Forces and their leadership that ensured the defeat of the LTTE. Since the assumption of office by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, there was a conscious effort made to ensure adequate funding, recruitment, arming and provisioning of the Security Forces. For the first time, the civilian population was made to feel that they were part of the battle to defeat the LTTE and this helped a great deal. The soldier was no longer a faceless nonentity, someone else’s brother or son or father, fighting and dying for an obscure course. 

Now, he was identified as a fallen Hero, fighting for everyone to be able to live freely and to secure the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. This was a major factor in turning the tide against the LTTE.

Importantly, a clear distinction was made between the terrorist LTTE and the Tamil civilians, the majority of whom was living peacefully outside the so-called homeland in the North and the East. The Tamil civilians were living, working, going to their temples and the children attending schools in peace in the areas outside the control of the LTTE. This is a future that they must be encouraged to have faith in.

Q: There are concerns once again of the LTTE mounting attacks in Sri Lanka. Indian law enforcement agencies have warned. Former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka has raised it in Parliament. He said to take these warnings seriously. Your comments?

A: There are suggestions that the LTTE is regrouping, especially in parts of India. It is necessary for the Sri Lankan security services to maintain vigilance and be actively involved in intelligence sharing with their foreign counterparts. 

Given the current crisis in the country, it is possible that the LTTE operators outside Sri Lanka will make an attempt to exploit the situation.

Sri Lanka simply cannot afford to engage itself in an anti terrorist campaign given the severe economic and social crisis affecting the country.