Rajapaksa opted for war only when repeated efforts to negotiate were rebuffed
Posted on September 25th, 2017

Dr Palitha Kohona Courtesy The Island

Sri Lanka is a rare case where a brutal terrorist challenge to the state was comprehensively defeated, substantially through its own efforts, despite all the advice, reservations and fears publicly expressed to the contrary. Unfortunately, the elimination of terrorism has won it few plaudits internationally. Instead, the tables have been turned and the military success of the Sri Lankan state and its security forces is overshadowed by extensive accusations relating to alleged violations of the norms of war and of human rights. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who led the country to free it of the terrorist challenge, has been accused of not giving negotiations a chance. I will address only this allegation in this overview. Curiously, the terrorist group, the LTTE, which savagely terrorised the population for over 27 years, is hardly mentioned while accusations of gross violations by the security forces dominate the headlines and the state is made to feel guilty of wrongdoing.

Analysts have sought to identify the reasons for this strangely illogical outcome. At the time that President Rajapaksa was elected, many, including senior officials of Sri Lanka, believed that the once feared LTTE could not be defeated militarily. Additionally, the then Opposition was publicly skeptical of the government’s ability to overcome the LTTE. The comments of a senior opposition member of Parliament that the soldiers went to Pamankada (a suburb of Colombo) but claimed to have gone to Alimankada (Elephant Pass in the North) reflected this skepticism. In 2006, the Chief of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) General Henrickson advised Sri Lankan officials at the highest levels, including the Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat, not to entertain any thoughts of confronting the LTTE militarily as the terrorist group was far too good, too professional and better motivated compared with the security forces and its leadership and would prevail in the event of a confrontation  Similar warnings were voiced by many heads of Western Diplomatic Missions based in Colombo, despite their own publicly proclaimed anti-terrorist policies and military actions designed to destroy terrorists far from their own borders, including in the South Asian neighbourhood. Either through pragmatism, desperation founded on experience, or for other reasons best known to themselves, many advocated continued negotiations with the LTTE despite the fact that the multiple efforts to end the conflict through negotiations since 1985, including with Indian intervention, and despite the many concessions made by different elected presidents, had failed.

In fact, it was patent that negotiations had only helped the LTTE to regroup, re-arm and launch fresh assaults with greater ferocity. Some prominent countries represented in Colombo, such as Russia, China and France, did not belong to the group that advocated continued negotiations, perhaps reflecting their own experiences with terrorism and their views on dealing with challenges to national sovereignty.

It is likely that the LTTE and its leader, Prabhakaran, believed in Ho Chi Minh’s dictum, “talk talk and fight fight” and talking was just part of a strategy to create breathing space to regroup and consolidate before striking harder. They were encouraged to believe in their own invincibility by a dedicated and well- resourced following of expatriates some of whom were millionaires, a range of international NGOs based in the West and who hobnobbed with Western diplomatic missions in Colombo, some members of the IGO community and prominent members of Western diplomatic community in Colombo. This was despite the emerging consensus in the West, particularly since the events of 9/11 that there will be no accommodation with terrorism. (Today, this approach has been taken further and even terrorist supporters are eliminated in distant lands before they have had the opportunity to engage in acts of terror). It is possible that a combination of these factors gave rise to the perception that the conflict could be ended only through negotiations (even though it was patently obvious that the LTTE did not want such an end) and when this script was not followed, many attempted to attribute the outcome to gross abuses. It is also speculated that the LTTE ensured the victory of Rajapaksa at the November 2005 elections in the hope that he could be provoked in to a conflict in which his military would be defeated.

Could it be stated that President Rajapaksa, elected to office in November 2005, preferred to settle the terrorist problem through war without giving negotiations a chance. The reality could not be further from the truth. Rajapaksa, who had a deep seated and undisguised attachment to parliamentary institutions, took the critical decision to pursue the military option against the LTTE only after the LTTE itself had scuttled three efforts in 2006 to end the conflict through negotiations. The keenness of the Lankan state to pursue negotiations could be gauged from the fact that a team from Harvard was brought down to train its negotiating team which was headed by the leader of the House, Nimal Siripala de Silva. The writer himself was invited to return home to join the negotiating team, giving up a senior legal post at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Furthermore, few were aware that the military leadership was uncertain of its own capabilities, after having suffered a series of disastrous setbacks in the previous 10 years. The equipment level of the military was inadequate; some senior elements of the military themselves did not believe in the possibility of a military victory and openly said so and a general lack of confidence had seeped in to the psyche of the people encouraged by a negative attitude disseminated by elements of the political leadership and the well resourced NGO community. The peace mantra was being chanted prolifically in the South while terrorist bombs were exploding at regular intervals killing dozens of non combatants and service personnel. There was growing doubt among the majority of the population as to whether the motive of the peace brigade was to demoralize the security forces. Conscious of these factors, Rajapaksa initially sought a negotiated end to the conflict.

Following the election Rajapaksa as president, the LTTE attacks on military personnel and civilians and on government naval vessels intensified. The government responded by putting increasing pressure on the Norwegians, in particular special peace envoy Erik Solheim, to get the two parties together for talks. Rajapaksa believed that there was room for negotiations and compromise. Norwegian and European arm-twisting seemed to produce results. Despite initial disagreements on the location of the talks, in February 2006, following extensive consultations involving Solheim, the government team led by the Leader of the House, Nimal Siripala de Silva, met the LTTE team led by Anton Balasingham in Geneva at a chalet in Celigny provided by the Swiss. The Norwegians were there represented by Erik Solheim, Hans Bratskar et al. In addition to the ailing Balasingham, the LTTE team included the its Political Leader and Secretary General of the LTTE Peace Secretariat established under the Cease Fire Agreement, (Thamil Selvam and Pulidevan), its Police Chief, Nadesan (whose wife was a Sinhalese), their propaganda chief, Daya Master and Balasingham’s wife, the Australian Adele. The opportunities for social interaction between the two delegations, orchestrated by the Norwegians, provided a glimpse in to the thinking of individual members of the LTTE delegation. Balasingham, who knew that he had only a short while to live, was keen to bring the long drawn out conflict to an end but on a successful note for himself and for the LTTE. Adele had little to say but appeared to be focused on Balasingham’s health. Daya Master, the propaganda chief, dreamed of going to Australia to live with his daughter.

At the end of the first day, Balasingham, lived up to his reputation as a bully by threatening to walk away from the negotiations unless the government delegation agreed at least, in principle, to the main LTTE demands, including the recognition of a separate Tamil homeland in the North-East with the LTTE in charge of this entity at least for an agreed period. (Balasingham had completely overawed previous government delegations which he confronted in 2002 and 2003 with his domineering style). There was momentary panic in the government ranks at the prospect of the talks collapsing unless Balasingham’s demands were met. He clearly overplayed his hand. After some internal discussions and in consultation with the government leadership in Colombo, it was decided to reject Balasingham’s immediate demands but further explore options for compromise.

I strongly suggested that Balasingham’s bluff be called as he himself could not go back to his Norwegian benefactors or to the European sympathisers after having wrecked the talks. The following morning Nimal Siripala de Silva took the floor and calmly said that the government remained committed to continuing the talks to find a compromise but as a democratically elected government responsible to its voters was unable to concede Balasingham’s arbitrary demands. While the atmosphere remained electric for a short while, as the government delegation sat silently uncertain about Balasingham’s reaction, the LTTE delegation retired for consultations. A little while later Balasingham returned to the table, with much of his puffed up bravado gone, and meekly agreed to continue with the talks. The LTTE was also forced to concede for the first time that it would not recruit children for combat purposes any further.

After two days, the talks ended on a relatively high note with a commitment to reconvene two months later, at the end of April, 2006.  The Government delegation returned home in high spirits. Nevertheless, some of us remained suspicious whether the LTTE, given its track record, would remain faithful to this commitment. We were also beginning to hear through reliable sources that Prabhakaran was very unhappy with his negotiating team.

As if to underline his displeasure, Prabhakaran unleashed a string of suicide bombers and deployed half a dozen claymore mines causing massive carnage in the south. All apparently designed to demoralise the government and/or provoke a civilian backlash which could then be used to help with recruitment and for propaganda purposes. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians were slaughtered during this murderous campaign, but no civilian backlash occurred. The government also restrained itself and continued to pursue the negotiations option. However, it was becoming increasingly difficult for a democratically elected government to continue without responding. It was also becoming clear to the dismay of LTTE strategists that the sense of maturity and discipline among the civilians would continue. (To be continued tomorrow)

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