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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2613

"The End Game - Defeating Terrorism and Winning the Peace"

Colombo, 26 May, (Asiantribune.com): "Once the decision to Dr. Palitha KohonaDr. Palitha Kohonaengage the LTTE militarily was made, the Government made a firm policy decision to clearly underline the distinction between the terrorist LTTE and Tamil civilians. This was an important strategic decision, as it helped to create political space for the non-LTTE Tamils to support the Government, or at least stay neutral and brought home its significance to the international community," said Dr Palitha Kohona.

In a keynote address recently made at the Annual General Meeting of the Alumni Association of University of Colombo, Dr Palitha Kohona, Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs further said, "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 territories after the riots of 1983 and which were becoming significant electorally.

He further added, "Similarly, the Government’s military action against the LTTE could not be characterized as actions against ordinary Tamils. 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 harmed by the security forces.

"The charge of indiscriminate shelling and genocide was bandied around regularly, and used effectively to fuel passionate demonstrations that had a noticeable impact on 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 its own people. 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."

Given below the full text of the keynote address made by Dr. Palitha Kohona, Secretary to the Ministryt of Foreign Affairs at the Annual General Meeting of the Alumni Association of University of Colombo:

"Sri Lanka is one of those rare cases where terrorism has been comprehensively defeated substantially by our own efforts despite all the advice, reservations and fears publicly expressed to the contrary. Many, including senior officials in our own country, believed that the once feared terrorist group, the LTTE, could not be defeated by the government security forces.

In 2006, the Chief of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) General Henrickson, 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, despite their own avowed anti-terrorist policies and military actions designed to counter terrorists far from their own borders. But the security forces of Sri Lanka, under the leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, decided to take on the LTTE and have prevailed. The once 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 taken after the LTTE itself had scuttled three efforts in 2006 to end the conflict through negotiations. In February 2006, the LTTE left the negotiations convened in Geneva by the Norwegian facilitators with a commitment to reconvene in April. However, outrageous demands on how their Eastern leaders could be brought over to meet the Northern leaders for pre-negotiation consultations resulted in that round of talks never taking place. Every offer made by the Government to transport the Eastern leaders to the North, with the assistance of the Peace Secretariat, including by ferry, chartered helicopter and by seaplane, was rebuffed by an over-confident LTTE. 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 which killed over 200, all designed to break the will of the government or provoke a civilian or government response. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians were slaughtered in this murderous campaign, but no civilian backlash occurred.

However, it was becoming difficult for a democratically elected government to continue without responding. It was becoming clear to the dismay of LTTE strategists that the sense of maturity and discipline among the civilians would continue to prevail. A Government delegation led by the then Secretary-General of the Peace Secretariat, Dr. Kohona, visited Oslo in June 2006 and a LTTE delegation led by Thamilselvan was flown to Oslo by the Norwegians. The LTTE just refused to sit at the table. In July/August, the LTTE, in an unprecedented provocative move, cut off the water supply to 65,000 people in the Eastern Province by occupying the Mavil Aru, which is located in the North-Central Province (and which had never been part of the so-called homeland) and after ten days of effort to get them to leave, were forcibly evicted by the Security Forces after a short, but bloody campaign.

This provocation was followed by massive attacks by the LTTE on the Security Forces, in Trincomalee and in Jaffna and the forcible eviction of over 54,000 Muslims from Muttur. These attacks were repulsed. 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. The next round of talks convened in Geneva by the Norwegians was essentially scuttled by the LTTE walking out after making impossible demands.

Once the decision to engage the LTTE militarily was made, the Government made a firm policy decision to clearly underline the distinction between the terrorist LTTE and Tamil civilians. This was an important strategic decision, as it helped to create political space for the non-LTTE Tamils to support the Government, or at least stay neutral and brought home its significance to the international community. 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 territories after the riots of 1983 and which were becoming significant electorally.

Similarly, the Government’s military action against the LTTE could not be characterized as actions against ordinary Tamils. 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 harmed by the security forces. The charge of indiscriminate shelling and genocide was bandied around regularly, and used effectively to fuel passionate demonstrations that had a noticeable impact on 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 its own people. 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 were refuted by pointing to 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). 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 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 thousands of civilian deaths 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 may have begun to believe that it was better to live under Government control.

(60,000 to 70,000 Tamils moved out of the Vanni to live in Sinhala areas in 2007/08). 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 neighbourhood.

As part of government policy, opportunities were created for consciously 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 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 a representative group for discussions in early 2009. The President and senior Government Ministers took 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-centred 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).

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. (Note the use of expressions such as genocide and references and to the indiscriminate shelling of civilians by the Tamilnet). They cultivated community leaders, NGOs and decision-makers in the West for many 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. The government's role was reduced to a reactive one. While the LTTE had hundreds of dedicated cadres working full time to advance its message, including by using 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. There were some who were not suited for the functions they were required to perform.

The Government's efforts overseas, especially its efforts to marshal the support of anti LTTE elements in the Sri Lankan communities abroad, nevertheless, bore significant fruit over the years. The LTTE remained proscribed in many of the democracies and in addition, LTTE front organizations have also been proscribed.

Prosecutions have been launched against LTTE operatives (fund raisers, arms procurers, organizers, etc.) in the USA, the UK, France, Canada, Italy and Australia. Covert intelligence sharing operations have disturbed LTTE fund-raising, money laundering, arms smuggling and arms procurement activities. The government succeeded in maintaining pressure on the LTTE internationally and it was forced 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 and, even action against Sri Lanka, including through the UN had to be countered, sometimes using direct contacts with foreign capitals. The government maintained its focus in the face of all these external pressures.

All along, it was critically important to maintain India’s understanding of Sri Lanka’s actions against the LTTE, despite the groundswell of sympathy that the LTTE had managed to develop in South India and the influence of South Indian politicians on New Delhi. The LTTE, in an unbelievably shortsighted and petty act of vengeance had assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi using a woman suicide bomber, ensuring the enmity of India for a long time to come. Belated overtures were of little effect. The Sri Lanka 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. Civilians were not the target, internally displaced persons will be cared for and any grievances of the Tamil minority will be addressed through a constitutional process. The 13th amendment which resulted from the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 would be the cornerstone of Sri Lanka’s constitutional approach in addressing any grievances of the Tamil people.

The economy suffered immensely during 27 years of conflict. It is estimated that the country lost USD 200 billion in opportunity cost. The importance of targeting Sri Lanka's economy was recognized early by LTTE strategists and every effort was made to cripple it. 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. 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 EC made the continued availability of the GSP + concession on which thousands of jobs depended, including those of women, subject to similar constraints. A cynic has observed that some Western nations have continued to labour under the “white man’s burden” in a different form. In both cases, the government adopted a hard line. Instead of succumbing to these pressures, the government sought development assistance from other partners and non-traditional allies and turned to alternative markets, where possible. This effort 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 will work assiduously at fostering traditional ties.

The President, for his part, travelled regularly to key international destinations. 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, 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 and Israel in 2007 and Mexico in 2009 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 (this is continuing). Managing and encouraging the pro Sri Lankan diaspora was a critical part of our effort. In certain countries, the contribution made by the pro Sri Lankan diaspora was absolutely crucial in maintaining the pressure on their host governments. In some cases, this had been done methodically by successive governments. Also important was the reaching out and nurturing of the anti LTTE Tamil groups overseas.

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 this land shall be rid of the scourge of barbaric terrorism. Many were left widowed or fatherless. We must never forget, as long as this nation remains, those who made the ultimate sacrifice for such a noble cause. The key difference in making 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 LTTE, even while gasping its last, succeeded in mobilizing its supporters abroad to exert enormous pressure on the Sri Lankan leadership. Fortunately, this leadership remained steadfast. In addition, the men in uniform were now better trained, better armed and disciplined. Their level of commitment was high. The nation gave its sons the equipment they required and encouragement they deserved. The sons delivered the results.

For the first time in this conflict which 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 to feel 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.

An inspired leadership also subtly changed the rules of engagement of 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 harass LTTE units and disrupt their movements. They survived on the little that they could find from their surroundings and were very mobile. Very quickly the fabled guerillas of the LTTE were reduced to manning protective bunkers and defending territory.

Once this transition occurred, a well led, motivated, trained, and equipped conventional force was able to prevail. 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, 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.

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 goals which may have encompassed a much wider 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 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 knotts and swarms of suicide craft. LTTE vessels had regularly engaged government navel craft (usually swarming around them) and succeeded in inflicting heavy 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. With the development of a new strategy by the navy the LTTE rapidly lost its edge at sea. The Sri Lankan navy, with better intelligence and enhanced surveillance capabilities, went in search of LTTE seagoing ships carrying weapons, far from our shores and destroyed them. A fleet of locally built fast attack craft (partly using technology copied 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.

With the nation solidly backing the military effort (the Government won one victory after another, at local government elections), the military eliminating the fabled LTTE fighting machine on land, in the sea, and in the air, 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, but the noise of firecrackers and throbbing of drums. 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.

There are many lessons for the world from this epic struggle. There are many lessons for Sri Lanka. Our policy of clearly distinguishing the civilians from the terrorist LTTE was crucial. The zero civilian casualty policy was very important. Let us hope that using these lessons, we can now set about the task of healing the wounds inflicted over 27 years and winning the peace. Winning the peace and ensuring dignity and hope for all our people, will be the next challenge."

- Asian Tribune -

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