"Defeating Terrorism and Winning the Peace in Sri Lanka".
A once-feared terrorist organization has been eliminated militarily. Not even a shadow of that organization remains in the country.
At one stage, many, including senior officials in Sri Lanka, believed that the LTTE could not be defeated by the government security forces.
In 2006, the Chief of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), General Henrickson, who had commanded peace-keeping forces in the Balkans, advised Sri Lankan officials at the highest levels not to entertain any thoughts of confronting the LTTE militarily, as the terrorist group was far too good and would prevail.
Similar warnings were given by many heads of Western Missions based in Colombo, with their long familiarity with the LTTE, and despite their own avowed anti-terrorist national policies and military actions designed to counter terrorists far from their own borders.
But the security forces of Sri Lanka, despite these warnings, under the leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, decided to take on the LTTE and prevailed. The much-feared LTTE is now a shattered effigy, having been methodically swept aside by the Sri Lankan security forces.
The critical decision to take on the LTTE was made after much heart-searching and after the LTTE itself had scuttled three efforts in 2006 to end the conflict through negotiations. Since 1987, it had rebuffed repeated efforts by successive governments to reach a peaceful end to the conflict.
In February 2006, the LTTE left the negotiations convened in Geneva by the Norwegian facilitators with a commitment to reconvene in April. However, overconfident and brash, their outrageous demands on how their Eastern leaders should be transported to meet the Northern leaders for pre-negotiation consultations resulted in that round of talks being aborted.
Every offer made by the Government to transport the Eastern leaders to the North, with the assistance of the Government Peace Secretariat, including by ferry, chartered helicopter and by seaplane, was arrogantly rebuffed.
In parallel, the LTTE kept up a barrage of attacks on military and civilian targets, including a suicide bomb attack by a pregnant woman on the Army Commander, a claymore mine attack on a busload of civilians in Kebithigollewa which killed 70 and a truck bomb targeting naval personnel coming home on leave for the national New Year, which killed over 120; all designed to break the will of the government or provoke a nasty civilian or government reaction. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians were slaughtered in this murderous campaign of terror, but no civilian backlash or retaliation occurred.
However, it was becoming difficult for a democratically elected government to continue to tolerate these egregious provocations without responding. It was becoming clear to the dismay of LTTE strategists that the sense of maturity and discipline among the civilians would continue.
A Government delegation led by the then Secretary-General of the Government Peace Secretariat, Dr. Kohona, visited Oslo in June 2006 and a LTTE delegation led by Tamilselvan was flown to Oslo by the Norwegian peace facilitators. The LTTE just refused to sit at the table, although the two delegations shared the same hotel.
In July/August, the LTTE, in an unprecedented provocative move, cut off the water supply to some 65,000 people in the Eastern Province by occupying the 'Mavil Aru' canal, which is located in the North-Central Province (and which had never been claimed as part of the so-called Tamil homeland) and after ten days of negotiations to get them to leave, including by the Government Peace Secretariat, were forcibly evicted by the Security Forces after a short, but bloody campaign. Short of troops for this effort, the government had to surreptitiously move a battalion from the tense Jaffna front to the Mavil Aru area.
This provocation was followed by massive attacks by the LTTE on the Security Forces, in Trincomalee, to the South of Trincomalee, and in Jaffna and the forcible eviction of over 54,000 Muslims from Muttur. The Trincomalee Harbour was shelled from Sampur on its southern shore. These attacks were repulsed and the LTTE was surprised by the resolve demonstrated by the security forces. This also boosted the morale of the security forces, courtesy the LTTE failure. It was becoming increasingly obvious that the LTTE, believing its own propaganda and encouraged by the assessments of Western diplomatic missions, was determined to achieve its goals through violence and military means, rather than through negotiations.
Yet another round of talks was convened in Geneva by the Norwegians and was scuttled by the LTTE walking out after making impossible demands, including that the A-9 road to the North be reopened. (The A-9 was closed after the August attacks on Jaffna). President Rajapaksa, who had even sent emissaries to the LTTE stronghold, Kilinochchi, to persuade them to return to the negotiating table, was now forced to make a critical decision to deploy his security forces against the LTTE.
Once the decision to engage the LTTE militarily was made, the Government adopted a critical policy stance to clearly underline the distinction between the terrorist LTTE and Tamil civilians. The military offensive was to be a humanitarian mission. This was an important strategic decision, as it helped to create the political space for the non-LTTE Tamils to support the Government, or at least stay neutral and brought home the significance of the distinction to many elements of the international community. It was repeatedly underlined that the target of the government's action was not the Tamil minority.
The international community could now maintain or impose new proscriptions on the LTTE, because there was no possibility of mistaking these proscriptions as being actions taken against the Tamil community.
From the perspective of many Western democracies, this was important in view of the large Tamil populations which had settled in their lands after the riots of 1983 and which were becoming significant electorally. The import of this distinction became particularly vital in the light of the frenzied campaign carried out by the LTTE and its supporters over the years, and specifically, towards the end of the military campaign alleging that the Tamil civilians were being indiscriminately harmed by the security forces.
The charge of indiscriminate shelling and genocide was bandied around, and used effectively to fuel passionate demonstrations that had a noticeable impact on the media and high level perceptions of Sri Lanka. This perception which strangely reflected LTTE propaganda, ran in the face of the government contention that it had no intention of shelling or otherwise harming its own people. While in any form of warfare, civilians do get harmed, the Sri Lankan military forces were under strict instructions to avoid civilian concentrations. The government's policy was also designed to convince the Tamil civilians that it would provide them with better care and opportunities than the LTTE.
Despite the propaganda frenzy of the LTTE and its supporters, avidly lapped up by the sensation seeking media and reflected enthusiastically by Western liberal minded politicians keeping a weather eye on significant Tamil groups in their electorates, the Government of Sri Lanka maintained its focus. Allegations of genocide ran in the face of the thousands of Tamil civilians who left LTTE-controlled areas over the years to live peacefully in areas under Government control. (54% of Tamils live in Sinhala dominated areas in the South, outside the so-called homeland). It would be strange indeed, if the bulk of the Tamils fled their so-called homeland to live voluntarily in areas where genocide was apparently being practiced.
Charges of indiscriminate bombings of civilians, including medical facilities, sometimes backed by satellite images sourced to the United Nations, had to be refuted by challenging the veracity and the lack of corroborating evidence and the large scale movements of civilians to government controlled areas.
Suggestions of large numbers of civilian deaths, made even by leaders of countries whose own forces were causing large-scale collateral damage in anti-terrorist campaigns far from their own borders, also had to be refuted. The Government steadfastly maintained its own commitment to minimize civilian casualties among its own citizens.
In the early parts of the campaign, the propaganda mouthpiece of the LTTE, the Tamilnet, had hardly anything to say about civilian casualties. The deliberate policy of avoiding harm to civilians, slowed down the military's advance considerably. Each village and each town had to be approached with care to avoid civilian casualties - a policy that produced a dual impact. The vast majority of the Tamils outside the areas of control of the LTTE could be convinced that the Government's goal was not to harm the Tamils.
Even Tamils living in LTTE controlled areas knew that it was better to live under Government control. (60,000 to 70,000 Tamils moved out of the Vanni to live in Sinhala majority areas in 2007/08 prior to the offensive in the North). The policy of zero civilian casualties instilled a higher sense of caring discipline among the security forces compared with other forces battling rebel groups in the neighborhood. There were very few verified complaints of indiscipline among the security forces.
As part of government policy, opportunities were created for non-LTTE Tamils to emerge from the shadows. Initially, they were slow to assert themselves, but once the fallacy of the LTTE's invincibility was exposed, many took the risk of adopting a public stance against the LTTE (it was still a risk, as demonstrated by the brutal murder of Kethish Loganathan, my own deputy in the Peace Secretariat, by the LTTE in 2006). Overseas, many Tamils who had marked time now had the opportunity to go public with anti-LTTE views. The Government, as part of a move to engage the Tamil diaspora in a dialogue, invited representative groups for discussions in early 2009 and is continuing to reach out.
The President and senior Government Ministers took and continue to take every opportunity to meet with members of Tamil groups on their visits overseas. This dialogue will continue. It was also abundantly clear that there was no unanimous affection for the LTTE or its self-associated leadership among many members of the Tamil community in the West. (It is variously estimated that the Tamils in the West number approximately 1.5 million). Sri Lankan groups which had been functioning independently were brought together in places such as Australia, New Zealand, the USA, UK and Canada. In certain countries, the contribution made by the pro Sri Lankan diaspora was absolutely crucial in maintaining the pressure on their host governments.
It also became important to ensure that the international front was managed as carefully as the battle front in the Vanni. The LTTE and its propaganda machine kept up a barrage of anti government propaganda and the conflict was portrayed as one between an oppressor government and an oppressed minority. (One notes the use, towards the latter stages of the conflict, of emotive expressions such as genocide and references to the indiscriminate shelling of civilians by the Tamilnet without substantiation). They cultivated community leaders, NGOs and decision-makers in the West over the years and many honestly believed their version of the conflict. It became necessary to counter this. Inevitably, it was difficult for the government to take the initiative as the LTTE was well-entrenched. The government's role was reduced to a reactive one.
While the LTTE had hundreds of dedicated cadres working full time to disseminate its message, including by effectively exploiting the electronic medium (there were over 280 websites supporting the LTTE), propaganda footage shot in Sri Lanka was usually released to media outlets within hours. Many government missions overseas boasted only three or four staff who were also required to cover a range of issues. The Government's efforts overseas, especially its efforts to marshal the support of anti LTTE elements in the Sri Lankan communities abroad, nevertheless, have borne significant fruit in recent years. Anti LTTE civic organizations became activated as they began to see the resolve of the government in Colombo. The LTTE remained proscribed in many of the democracies and in addition, LTTE front organizations were also proscribed.
Prosecutions were launched against LTTE operatives (fund raisers, arms procurers, organizers, etc.) in the USA, the UK, France, Canada, Italy and Australia. Covert intelligence sharing operations disturbed LTTE fund-raising, money laundering, arms smuggling and arms procurement activities. In a significant development, the government succeeded in capturing the LTTE's key arms procurer, KP. The government maintained pressure on the LTTE internationally and forced it to operate in a clandestine manner, until in a master stroke, it decided to express itself through massive public demonstrations. The resulting calls for a ceasefire nd, even action against Sri Lanka, including through the UN had to be countered, sometimes using direct contacts with foreign capitals.
The Sri Lankan Foreign Service personnel performed creditably in all this. Following the defeat of the LTTE, efforts to bring Sri Lanka before the Security Council were countered and an anti-Sri Lanka resolution before the Human Rights Council was soundly defeated.
All along, it was critically important to maintain India's understanding of Sri Lanka's offensive against the LTTE. The groundswell of sympathy that the LTTE had managed to generate in South India and the influence of South Indian politicians on New Delhi had to be taken into account. The LTTE's influence in South India was not comforting to the Indian body politic. The LTTE, in an unbelievably shortsighted and petty act of vengeance had assassinated the former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, using a woman suicide bomber, closing its access to Indian policymakers for a long time to come.
Belated overtures at rapprochement were of little effect. The Sri Lankan government, under the leadership of President Rajapaksa, continued to reassure India that the conflict was with the terrorist LTTE and not with the Tamil population. Delegations at different levels were exchanged with India. Even as the civilian population held hostage by the LTTE streamed into camps prepared in advance by the government, India continued to be reassured that the civilians will be cared for, that the civilians were not the target, internally displaced persons will not suffer and any grievances of the Tamil minority will be addressed through a constitutional process. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution which resulted from the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, would be the basis of Sri Lanka's constitutional approach in addressing any grievances of the Tamil people.
The economy suffered immensely during more than 27 years of conflict. It is estimated that the country lost USD 200 billion in opportunity cost, including in the areas of tourism, inward investments and trade. Consistent with the thinking of other terrorist groups, the importance of targeting Sri Lanka's economy was recognized early by LTTE strategists and every effort was made to cripple it.
Ships were hijacked, the airport was attacked, banks were robbed, public facilities were bombed, pushing up insurance rates and scaring away potential visitors and investors. Their propaganda machine succeeded in convincing Western development partners to make human rights, in other words, adopting a softer approach to the LTTE, and a distraction from the main effort to crush terrorism - a precondition for the disbursement of promised aid. This perceived soft approach towards the LTTE by Western countries, caused enormous popular resentment within Sri Lanka. In due course, the USA made access to the Millennium Challenge Account conditional on compliance with standards which appeared to exceed even those that were applicable to themselves in their own "War on Terror". The EU made the continued availability of the GSP + concession on which thousands of jobs depended, including those of women, subject to similar conditions. A cynic has observed that some Western nations have continued to labour under the "white man's burden" in a different form.
Nations that had undertaken military ventures far from their borders to counter terrorism, and in the process, caused extensive harm to civilians and infrastructure, were now standing in judgment over Sri Lanka. Military sales to Sri Lanka were stopped and efforts were made to influence China to do the same. In both cases, the government adopted a hard line. Instead of succumbing to these pressures, the government was forced to seek development assistance from other partners and non-traditional allies and turned to alternative markets, where possible.
There was also recognition that economic power had shifted in the recent past to the East. This policy shift paid handsome dividends. Iran, for example, pledged over $1.9 billion in development assistance to Sri Lanka. China's share of development assistance topped 1 billion Dollars.
Japanese assistance continued unaffected by the critical approach of the Western democracies. India continued to assist Sri Lanka, including in strategic matters. While Sri Lanka, confronted with the choice of economic blackmail or finding an accommodation with terrorism, had to strengthen its ties with alternative partners, it worked assiduously at maintaining traditional ties. The government turned to new sources for military hardware. Helicopters, tanks, jet aircraft, artillery pieces, attack-craft etc., were sourced from non-Western countries.
The President, for his part, travelled regularly to key international destinations. Since 2006, he attended the UN General Assembly three times in successive years. He visited the UK and met Prime Minister Blair. He visited Libya, Iran, Jordan, China, Morocco, Italy, the Vatican, Japan and, most importantly, India. This helped to manage those key international relationships and also to reassure those countries of the sincerity of our position at the highest level.
Given the Tamil Nadu factor, keeping New Delhi regularly briefed of our position and reassuring it of our intentions was important.
Similarly, ensuring a regular flow of military requirements for the security forces was critical. [My own visits to the Czech Republic, Russia, Ukraine and Israel in 2007 served this purpose.] A constant effort was maintained to keep our friends briefed on the situation in Sri Lanka and holding back the anti Sri Lanka tide that the LTTE and its sympathizers were generating.
The critical and central role of defeating the LTTE was played by thousands of young men and women who believed in the integrity of their country, who single-mindedly sought to ensure a land free of violence to future generations and who were driven by the single purpose of protecting what was theirs for the future. Thousands laid down their lives, lives that had not experienced the full range of joys and sorrows of human existence, and thousands were maimed for the sake of unborn generations so that the land shall be rid of the scourge of barbaric terrorism. Many women were left widowed and children fatherless. The key difference in enabling these sacrifices was the leadership, the leadership that would not be swayed from its course despite the incessant mud-slinging from within, and the pressures from abroad. The President remained committed to eliminating the LTTE. In addition, the men in uniform were now better trained, better armed and disciplined. Their level of commitment was high.
For the first time in this conflict which, by 2006, had lasted over twenty five years, the entire nation was mobilized. The nation which, by and large, in the past had been a bystander in the war effort, was made a central part of it. For the first time, bill boards appeared calling on the country to back the security forces. The media was mobilized, making the war a part of everyone's daily life, which was part of the military strategy. With the mobilization of the entire population behind the war effort, recruitment ceased to be an issue.
The national flag sold in much larger quantities than ever before.
An inspired leadership also subtly changed the rules of combat in guerilla warfare. Instead of seeking to occupy or defend territory on a wide front, an approach which had been tried with poor results in the past, the military began to send highly trained and well equipped small units deep into LTTE controlled territory to consistently harass the LTTE, attack the leadership and disrupt their movements. They survived on the little that they could find from their surroundings and were very mobile. The operations of these small deep penetration units had a profoundly unsettling effect on LTTE leaders and fighters, forcing the experienced leaders to seek protection in fortified locations far from the front thus exposing raw cadres and child recruits without leadership to the flames of combat.
The military, also harassed the LTTE on a wide front. As expected, the LTTE found it difficult to deploy adequate fighting resources to meet this threat on an extended land area. In addition, the military also began to confront the LTTE incessantly with no let up whether it rained, flooded or on national holidays. Very quickly the fabled guerillas of the LTTE were losing cadres in significant numbers, their movements were restricted and they were reduced to manning protective bunkers and defending territory. A major tactical blunder.
Once this transition occurred, a well led, motivated, trained, and equipped conventional force was bound to prevail. Well trained infantry units crossed defended terrain and confronted enemy strong points with determination, thus further diminishing their will to fight. The rapid disintegration of the LTTE's fighting capabilities caught even the Sri Lankan military leadership by surprise. The withdrawal from one population centre to another which began at a trot, quickly became a dash from one safe haven to another, always herding large numbers of civilians and poorly trained child soldiers to provide a protective rearguard.
In the process, huge quantities of weapons, including long range artillery, heavy mortars, anti aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles, landmines, chemical weapon-making equipment, tanks, thousands of AK47s etc., purchased in the global black market with the voluntary or forced contributions of Tamils living overseas, and smuggled into the country were left behind. Large caches were buried and are, even now, being recovered on a daily basis. Efforts to build semi submersible sea going craft were quite evident from the fully and partly constructed vessels captured by the army. Large numbers of suicide vessels and attack craft were captured.
Seven airfields (more than in the South) suggested military goals which may have encompassed a much wider territorial ambition than Sri Lanka.
The constant effort to build earthen embankments suggested a defensive mindset that had established itself in the LTTE. All this clearly indicates that a peaceful and negotiated end to the conflict was not in the contemplation of the LTTE. The much discussed grievances of the Tamils being at the core of the insurrection becomes highly debatable under the circumstances. It may have been the megalomania of an individual and the ambitions of a small group seeking to exploit the perceived grievances of the Tamil community to achieve a Hitlerite goal.
At sea, the navy began to challenge the capabilities of the LTTE resolutely. (At one point, the SLMM suggested reserving a demarcated area in the sea for training by LTTE vessels and the SLMM chief had himself photographed on the deck of an LTTE attack craft). They had built significant numbers of vessels, some capable of developing over 45 knots and swarms of suicide craft. The LTTE had and its rump overseas continues to own sea going vessels which were used to smuggle in large quantities of weapons. (Now they are suspected of smuggling people to the West.) LTTE suicide craft had regularly engaged State navel craft (usually swarming around them) and succeeded in inflicting significant losses.
When not at sea, these vessels were dragged deep inland for safety or even taken to the opposite side of the Island for offensive operations there. The Sri Lankan Navy developed a new strategy and the LTTE rapidly lost its edge at sea. The Navy, with better intelligence and enhanced surveillance capabilities, went in search of LTTE seagoing ships carrying weapons, far from its shores and destroyed them. Fleets of locally built fast attack craft (partly using technology adapted from captured LTTE suicide boats) were deployed to swarm around and destroy LTTE vessels as soon as they were put out to sea. This forced the LTTE craft to stay inshore where they fell prey to the advancing army or were picked off by the air force.
The crippling of the LTTE's sea capability also ensured that the quantity of weapons being smuggled was reduced to a minimum. The hopes of escape by sea for the LTTE leadership, was also eliminated.
It is now history that the LTTE, as it fled from one town to another and from one village to another, swept with it the civilian population and callously herded them in to an ever decreasing area and cynically used them, the very people it purported to champion, as a human shield and as bargaining chips while exposing them to the ravages of battle.
It is quite clear now that they located their fighters and big guns among the civilians. The civilians were the involuntary victims of a terrorist group's deadly strategy. The LTTE knew well that these innocent civilians would suffer by being forced to partake in this dreadful game. But they callously persisted and used them as expendable pawns in a propaganda exercise. The vast majority of these civilians clearly had no desire to be part of the LTTE game plan and as soon as the security forces broke through the terrorist defences in April and May 2009, fled in to government controlled areas carrying whatever they could gather. This phenomenon was amply manifest on our global TV screens. These were not reluctant escapees.
They were making a desperate dash away from their ruthless captors, on occasion being subjected to gunfire and bomb blasts from them. The security forces, demonstrating the impact of their training and planning, exercised amazing restraint as they advanced, at great cost to themselves. The infantry advance resulted in serious casualties for the security forces.
We saw soldiers dropping their guns to assist civilians across flooded lagoons. Of course, as a consequence, the much anticipated and often trumpeted "blood bath" or the "humanitarian catastrophe" failed to materialise. In retrospect, one wonders whether the predictions of a "blood bath" were based on a sincere assessment or was a not too subtle attempt to pressure the Government to halt its advance against the terrorists.
Within days, the Government provided accommodation to 294,000 IDPs in well prepared camps, giving them food, clothing, shelter and medical care. Children were given schooling facilities. We succeeded in avoiding the familiar images from refugee camps elsewhere, the Congo, Darfur, Sierra Leone, etc., of forlorn children with sunken eyes - waiting for a passing relief truck to throw out food. Despite the clamour of NGOs to be given access to the camps, the Government ensured that basic necessities were provided immediately. There was no hunger, disease or deprivation in the camps.
With the nation solidly backing the military effort, the military eliminating the fabled LTTE fighting machine on land, in the sea, and in the air, and the Government boldly confronting the LTTE internationally, the world's most dreaded terrorist organization crumbled in the space of two and a half years. Today, one hears not the explosions of claymore bombs, which were part of our daily experience for 27 years, but the noise of firecrackers and throbbing of drums of joy. As the French National Anthem exhorts "March on, march on- see their tears of joy, hear their cries of victory!"
Today, we see this on our streets, in our villages and our fields.
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|Publication:||Asian Tribune (India)|
|Date:||Nov 9, 2010|
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