Please tell them my patience is running out. Let them not think I am a weak leader. I will meet up with any challenge they pose. If that happens, it can be their end.
It was in May 2006 that President Mahinda Rajapaksa uttered those words to Erik Solheim, Norway's Minister for International Development and the key player then in Norway's peace facilitator process. Solheim was in Colombo to renew efforts to resume the stalled peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Geneva was to be the venue. Rajapaksa was then very angry about the spate of violent incidents triggered off by the guerrillas.
One incident in particular had incensed him. That was the attempt by a suicide bomber to kill Army Commander, now General Sarath Fonseka. He was then undergoing treatment in a hospital in Singapore.
The LTTE did not heed the warning or Norway's call to return to the negotiation table. When more violence erupted, in January 2008, Rajapaksa abrogated the Oslo brokered Ceasefire Agreement. The fourth phase of Eelam War IV began formally. This week, exactly three years to the month, he gave meaning to the words he uttered to Solheim. He met the challenges of the guerrillas and ended their supremacy of dominating a third of Sri Lanka's land mass and a fourth of the island nation's coast.
On Tuesday, Rajapaksa declared, "our motherland has been completely freed from the clutches of separatist terrorism. From now on it is only the laws enacted by this Parliament that will be in force in every inch of Sri Lanka."
|Thank you, we did it: President at the Parliament grounds victory rally on Friday. Pic by Saman Kariyawasam
Last Sunday, Rajapaksa was in the Jordanian capital of Amman, when he heard that troops had a few hundred kilometres to complete the military campaign during Eelam War IV. That was a tiny rectangular stretch between Kariyamullivaikal and Mullaitivu, abounded by the Nanthikadal lagoon on the west and Indian Ocean in the east. He was briefed that surviving top rung leaders including Velupillai Prabhakaran, were holed up in that sliver of land. He was overjoyed. He told aides in his entourage the next day, his return was to a totally liberated motherland.
Shortly after a SriLankan Airlines Airbus A340 touched down last Sunday at the BIA, Rajapaksa walked down the ramp. He set foot on the parking apron area, clasped both his hands and worshipped the terra firma or marthru bhoomi. He touched the hearts of not only those who were there to receive him, but thousands of Sri Lankans who watched the event live on television. At a multi-religious event at the airport, Moulavi Niyas of a Colombo mosque, who initiated Islamic rituals, could not hold his emotions. He wept as he broke into a poetic speech.
Arriving at Temple Trees, Rajapaksa conferred with senior staff and advisors on the modalities of announcing the end of the military campaign. It was felt that an announcement to the nation should be made from Parliament. A legal way of doing so was to prorogue Parliament from Sunday midnight. Thus, the address to Parliament and the nation was to take the shape of a policy statement at a ceremonial opening.
There were epochal moments last Sunday and Monday. Troops stepped up their thrust to re-capture the remaining stretch of land that constituted the No-Fire or Civilian Safety Zone. By then, troops of the Army's
58 and 59 Divisions had formed a human wall along the coast astride the zone. Outside the battlefield, too there were other developments.
In a last minute bid to save some of their seniors, LTTE's 'Head of International Relations,' S. Pathmanathan, had been making telephone calls to Colombo-based envoys of selected western countries. He was appealing to them to use their good offices to contact senior UN officials to secure "safe passage" for the senior cadres. The Sunday Times has learnt that he spoke with two Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MPs in Colombo. They in turn had got in touch with their colleagues now in India and approached senior Congress Party leaders. It is in this backdrop that Pathmanathan, the elusive head of LTTE's procurement division and most wanted by the Interpol issued a statement which had overtones of a virtual surrender.
In a statement posted on the Tamilnet.com web site on May 17, Pathmanathan said, "Despite our plea to the world to save the thousands of people in Wanni from the clutches of death, the silence of the international community has only encouraged the Sri Lankan military to execute the war to its bitter end. In the past 24 hours, over 3000 civilians lie dead on the streets while another 25,000 are critically injured with no medical attention. Saving the lives of our people is the need of the hour. Mindful of this, we have already announced to the world our position to silence our guns to save our people.
"The unrelenting massacre of our people by the Sri Lankan armed machinery continues. We are extremely saddened that this plea has fallen on deaf ears. We desperately called on the International Community to take immediate actions to save the Tamil people caught in the war zone and take necessary action to protect the cadres and people giving themselves up to the military.
"This battle has reached its bitter end. Against all odds, we have held back the advancing Sinhalese forces without help or support, except for the unending support of our people. It is our people who are dying now from bombs, shells, illness and hunger. We cannot permit any more harm to befall them. We remain with one last choice - to remove the last weak excuse of the enemy for killing our people. We have decided to silence our guns. Our only regrets are for the lives lost and that we could not hold out for longer. We can no longer bear to see the innocent blood of our people being spilled……………"
The move was clearly an attempt to save the trapped leadership. If indeed the LTTE was so concerned about the fate of civilians, it could have saved a large number of lives by letting them go at the early stages. Though unwittingly, Pathmanathan confirms this reality when he says "we cannot permit any more harm….." By stating this, he concedes the civilians have been harmed but notes "we cannot permit" for the only reason that the LTTE is in trouble. Hence, the civilians were used not only as a human shield, but also as the cover for a desperate surrender plot when they were cornered.
When the offer did not meet with any response, the story disappeared from the Tamilnet website. Then, Pathmanathan was to claim in another statement to the Tamilnet that "top defence official" had thwarted "an international arrangement involving the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross), European diplomats and a Colombo government diplomat "to arrange safe exit to civil officers."
He said: " …Subsequent to our announcement that the LTTE had decided to "silence the guns" in view of the unbearable civilian carnage at the hands of the Sri Lankan military and the heavy weaponry donated to it by third parties, we were informed by some member states of the International Community that arrangements had been made with the Sri Lankan military for discussions on an orderly end to the war.
"We were instructed to make contact with the 58 Division of the Sri Lankan forces in the war zone, un-armed and carrying white flags. Head of our Political Wing, Mr. B. Nadesan and Mr. Puleedevan then proceeded to do so. They were un-armed and carrying white flags and were called on by the Officers of the 58 Division to come forward for discussions. When they complied, they were both shot and killed. We vehemently condemn this action… This act is even more unpalatable when one takes into account that the LTTE released as an act of goodwill, seven Sri Lankan Prisoners of War the day before totally unharmed…………"
Only days earlier, the guerrillas had released six soldiers whom they had captured. For sometime now, they have tried to use them as a bargaining chip, sending messages to the Government through the ICRC. In one instance, it was to say food was not available and among those reportedly starving were the group of soldiers.
More details of the incident emerged in a report in The Weekend Australian newspaper yesterday. A report by their New Delhi-based Correspondent, Amanda Hodge, now in Colombo said the Government had told a top UN official it could not guarantee the safe surrender of two Tamil Tiger political leaders. Excerpts of her report:
"UN special envoy to Sri Lanka Vijay Nambiar told The Weekend Australian he had received two approaches in the lead-up to the fatal surrender -- one from a British journalist and the other through a British ministerial demarche to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon -- asking him to convey the message that two key rebel figures wanted to surrender.
"………..Mr Nambiar, who is Mr Ban's chief of staff, said he passed the message on to Sri Lankan government officials, including Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona, but received no guarantees the men would be granted safe passage.
"I gave the message I was asked to convey about the willingness of certain people to surrender. Other diplomats suggested I make the plea to the Government, which I did," Mr Nambiar said. "I told them (Sri Lankan government officials) and they said, 'It may be too late, we will see'."
"Tamil Tiger political chief Balasingham Nadesan and Peace Secretariat head Seevaratnam Pulideevan are understood to have made numerous calls to aid groups, including the Red Cross, and diplomats last weekend, in the final days of the war, to negotiate a surrender for themselves and their families. The two men reportedly attempted to cross the conflict zone late on Sunday night or early on Monday morning but were shot as they walked towards the army's 58 Division waving a white flag.
"Dr Kohona confirmed yesterday that he had received a message from a non-government organisation in Europe last weekend informing him the men wanted to surrender. But he told The Weekend Australian he had no conversation about the surrender with Mr. Nambiar or any diplomat. "I responded to the message from the NGO by saying, 'Tell them to follow the normal procedures (of surrender)'," he said.
"Dr Kohona said he did not pass the information on to anyone, adding: 'Contacting me at that time about surrender was probably not a useful way of setting about it.' Dr Kohona said he could not be sure the two men were not shot by troops but he believed they had been shot by their own comrades.
"The International Committee of the Red Cross has confirmed the pair contacted them asking for their request to be passed to the Sri Lankan army. Diplomats and aid officials say the last contact with the men was on Sunday night. The LTTE issued a statement of surrender early on Monday, the same day the Government revealed the two men had been shot.
"President Mahinda Rajapakse declared victory on Tuesday. He also announced the slaying of LTTE commander Velupillai Prabhakaran. The Government denies any civilian casualties despite mounting witness accounts from aid workers, doctors and fleeing civilians of the army bombarding LTTE forces and of civilians being caught between the two sides amid shelling and artillery fire.
"The UN estimates that at least 7000 civilians have died in the conflict zone this year. The Government revealed yesterday that 6200 troops had been killed in the same time frame and that more than 23,000 had died since 1981. The rebels are said to have lost 22,000 since 1982. More than 70,000 civilians have died during the LTTE's armed struggle for a separate Tamil homeland. LTTE chief of international relations Selvarasa Pathmanathan accused the Sri Lankan Government of carrying out a "well-planned massacre" of unarmed officers.
"He claimed Mr Nadesan and Mr Pulideevan were unarmed and carrying white flags and were called on by the officers of the 58 Division to come forward for discussions. 'When they complied they were both shot and killed,' he said.
"The two men's bodies have been cremated and Mr Kohona could not say whether an autopsy had been conducted. The military has also cremated the body of Prabhakaran, eliminating any chance of clearing up confusion surrounding his death…But Mr Kohona told The Weekend Australian the Government's priority was to unite the country, 'not churn up old wounds'. 'Already we have over 4000 former cadres in the IDP camps. We're hoping they will reform and return to their communities, leaving behind the violence to which they were so accustomed,' he said. The UN has called on the Sri Lankan Government to hold discussions with Tamil leaders.
"'The process of national reconciliation, we feel, must be all-inclusive so that it can fully address the legitimate aspirations of the Tamils as well as other minorities,' Mr Nambiar said. 'It is important that victory becomes a victory for all Sri Lankans.'
"The envoy, who flew over the conflict zone on Thursday, described a scene of mass devastation, with charred vehicles, vast swathes of burnt ground and trees, and tent camps in disarray. 'We were not able to see any civilians. What was truly striking was almost the total absence of human habitation ... it was almost eerie,' he said. "
However, the Army was angry over Pathmanathan's accusations. A senior officer said that at no stage did troops of the 58 Division know of any move by a group of guerrillas to surrender. "The incident involving Nadesan, Pulithevan and other cadres came about when they led a large, heavily armed group that came to attack the frontlines where troops were positioned. Troops opened fire killing over 70 guerrillas including these leaders," the officer added.
For the Government, this episode has given rise to a number of important questions. The man who was attempting to broker a last-minute surrender after making a public statement on behalf of the LTTE to "silence guns," is one of those most sought after fugitives in the world. Though he was earlier operating from Thailand, Pathmanathan is known to have left that country. State intelligence agencies are learnt to have determined that the satellite telephone calls he had made to Sri Lanka had originated from a location in Malaysia. It is from here that he is known to have provided telephone interviews to several television news channels. Government leaders are examining the course of action they should take over Pathmanathan's reported activities.
In the wake of the deaths of senior guerrilla cadres, came the news that LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was surrounded by troops. Within hours, reports emerged that he had been killed. So much so, President Rajapaksa's address to the nation did not pointedly delve into this aspect. It was on Tuesday that the Government came up with photographs which it said was Prabhakaran's body.
The national euphoria generated by the news that war had ended and Prabhakaran had been killed was countrywide. Government leaders have decided the event should be observed at least for a month. On Friday, a crowded rally to honour war heroes was held at the Parliament grounds.
May 22 is National Heroes Day, earlier Republic Day when the 1972 Republican Constitution was promulgated completely de-linking whatever vestige of ties we had with Britain. It was an appropriate day to hold a mass rally in support of the valiant troops.
The vast numbers that thronged the rally must have reminded the President of the 1956 electoral victory of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and the pancha maha balavegaya 'people's victory' that was spearheaded by the 'five forces' - the Buddhist monk, the teacher, ayurvedic physician, farmer and the worker. To this grouping that formed the backbone of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Rajapaksa has now added the Rana Viru - the war hero.
He has already initiated the process of inducting retired or disabled soldiers into the political mainstream by fielding them as candidates at recent Provincial Council elections. Many more are being put as SLFP organisers, especially in areas like Ampara in the east, while others are asked to head important government institutions.
Instead of demobilising the 100,000 plus strong army, there is a likelihood that the numbers will only increase with further mobilisation on the footing that the territories so hard fought and won in the north and the east need to be stabilised without letting any re-grouping of what is left of the rag tag rebel outfit.
Rajapaksa, like in his address to the nation, re-iterated that there were no longer minorities in Sri Lanka. He said there were only two categories of people, those who loved the country and those who did not.
Though not naming the UNP leadership, it was apparent he was hitting hard at them. The remarks appeared a direct pointer to what Rajapaksa may be planning - a possible general election ahead of the scheduled date in April, 2010. That selling line would not doubt be a strong one for his polls campaign where his party is sure to be a hot favourite.
This is not only because of the military victory against the LTTE. It is also because of the poor and deteriorating state of affairs in the main opposition, the United National Party (UNP). Opposition and UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who was out of the country touring Oslo, Brussels and London during the period when the Security Forces secured the total annihilation of the LTTE, telephoned Rajapaksa to congratulate him on the victory.
Wickremesinghe told Rajapaksa of the need for national reconciliation and offered his party's support towards this onerous task. Rajapaksa told him that he would be making this point during his address to Parliament the next day. Wickremesinghe then spoke of the need to engage foreign countries in the rehabilitation process, to which there was a deafening silence from the Rajapaksa end.
It is now the 'war abroad' that Rajapaksa will have to focus on. On Monday, as he was preparing for his address to Parliament announcing the victory, in far away Brussels, the European Union (EU) called for an independent investigation into alleged violations of human rights law in Sri Lanka's war. EU Foreign Ministers meeting in Brussels said the 27-nation bloc was "appalled" by the loss of innocent lives and the high numbers of casualties, including children, in fighting between government troops and the LTTE.
In a statement issued, it said that an independent inquiry must be held, and " those accountable must be brought to justice". Later, the Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kohout told a press conference that the inquiry must be carried out by Sri Lanka authorities, but could involve non-government and UN bodies.
On Tuesday, the government would be battling charges of violating humanitarian law at a special session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. This was a direct outcome of the EU initiative. Seventeen of the 47 members of the HRC, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland and Britain convened the meeting. The HRC has had only 10 previous special sessions relating to, among others, Palestine, Lebanon, Darfur, Myanmar and the DR of Congo.
Sri Lanka tried to pre-empt the move by moving a resolution titled "Assistance to Sri Lanka in the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights" co-signed by Indonesia, China, Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Bahrain, the Philippines, Cuba, Egypt, Nicaragua and Bolivia. This resolution salutes Sri Lanka for winning the war against a "terrorist group", and calls for funding by the world community. Specifically noteworthy is the fact that India has supported this resolution.
Rajapaksa's next challenge would no doubt be in the international arena. It is clear that the Western powers whom Rajapaksa consistently kept at bay while his Security Forces 'finished the job' are ganging-up on him. At Friday's rally he said that he was even prepared to face the gallows in his quest to rid Sri Lanka of terrorism.
The UN Secretary General Banki-moon was in Sri Lanka yesterday, and the pressure will mount as the UN estimates that the number of IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) following the war is put at 270,000. War crimes allegations which the EU is toying with will only strengthen Rajapaksa's image locally as the saviour of Mother Lanka.