Ambassador focuses on Sri Lanka’s conflict at interview with WCCA TV13 in Worchester, Massachusetts

Edited version

Sri Lanka Ambassador in the U.S. Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke interviewed by Ms. Masha Wickramasinghe of WCCA TV in Worcester, Massachusetts

Introduction by Ms. Masha Wickramasinghe

Hello, I am Marsha Wickramasinghe. As you know, from time to time, I like to bring to you stories that have touched my heart. And, today, I welcome you to join me in a journey to explore another part of our world. If you look at a world’s map, Sri Lanka (Ceylon) is located in the Indian Ocean. This beautiful island is the size of West Virginia and the population is about 20 million people. The majority of the country is Sinhalase, mostly Buddhists, consisting of 73% of the population. The rest of the population consists of Tamils and Muslims. For centuries, they have lived in harmony, embracing each other’s cultures and religions. Among other things, Sri Lanka is one of the biggest tourist attractions with ocean waters, breathtaking beauty and smiling people. The history book has it, “This beautiful island was famous for its hospitality and the peaceful way of life. The book further says “In this country it is not uncommon to see children running care free and bare foot in paddy fields. People have embraced the true meaning of simple way of life and nature”.

But one day, the sleepy way of life woke up to a nightmare of death and devastation. I had the opportunity to talk to Sri Lankan Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke about the current situation in Sri Lanka. It was very informative and gave me a lot of insights into the conflict in the country.

A: Changes, I grew up during a particular time when the population was small in comparison to today. We had a population of about 12 million at that time. Today we have a population of nearly 20 million, and mind you, Sri Lanka is a small country. Size of the country is something similar to West Virginia State. That state has a population of 1.4 and we have 20 million. That is one issue. Second issue is the despondency of the youth. When we speak of the situation in Sri Lanka, today our mind goes to the insurgency or the acts of terrorism that are taking place in the North and the East. But we have to remember the fact that we also had a youth rebellion in the 1970s and that was due to the economic situation, poverty and under development. The same situation prevails in the North and East. Today, youth are unhappy. They see no future. So, despondency of the youth, both among the Sinhala population as well as Tamil population is very much there. The rebellion in the South and the situation in the North and East which has worsened the security situation did not exist during the time when I was a kid. There was a time when people could travel from one part of the country to other part, without any problem. There were no military check points. There were no other impediments. You would not worry about your security when you start moving around the country. And that is not there because of the specific situation resulting from the armed conflict we have today in Sri Lanka. If you take the 1981 census, we had a Tamil population of slightly over 12% in the country. And that was the Sri Lankan Tamil population. The Indian Tamil population was somewhere in the region of 6%. If you put both groups together, we had a Tamil population of only 18%. So the majority is actually the Sinhalese representing around 70%, or more than 70% of the population.

Q: Is Sinhalese and rest ….?

A: Rest can be divided into several main groups. The biggest is the Sri Lankan Tamil population, as I said, about 12% at that time. Then you have the Moors or the Muslims. Their population is something like 7% of the population with other groups, like Burghers, who are people of European descent. We have a group of Malays and certain other smaller groups from India. So, Sri Lanka is truly a multi- ethnic as well as a multi-religious country.

Q: Sounds like Sri Lankans, I mean Sinhalese and all the other communities, Tamils, and Burghers and Muslims, they have truly embraced each other’s cultures and religions? What has changed, and how those changes have affected the country today?

A: Well, when we speak of the situation in the country, the tendency is to speak or describe it as “an ethnic conflict”. Many people think that there is a situation where various ethnic groups are fighting with each other. That is not correct.

Q: That is not correct, is it?

A: For example, we have Tamils living in the South. Today our calculation is something like 54% of the Tamil population lives outside the North and the East, in the South, with the majority Sinhalese, as well as the Muslims. Again, in the South, in the Colombo area, there is a fairly large percentage of Tamils. Traditionally, we had a situation where all these communities interacted very closely, amicably, with each other. There is no animosity or inter-fighting as a result of their religion or ethnicity. But of course, as a country, which came out of the colonial era, or colonial period lasting nearly 450 years, we had difficulties in adjusting ourselves. Also, Sri Lanka is a democracy, where we have a multi party political system and political parties challenge each other to achieve administration. There have been situations where they pulled in various directions. So, there is no commonality with regard to any issue among various political parties. So one can say quite apart from other issues, political differences also have contributed considerably to the current situation.

Q: Do all the Tamils accept LTTE, or it is just a certain group of the Tamils?

A: It cannot be said that all Tamils support the LTTE. And it cannot be established for the simple reason that we have never had a situation where the LTTE have come before a electoral process and judge what kind of support they have among the Tamil people. In that kind of a situation, it is very difficult for us to believe that all the Tamil people are with the LTTE. We should also remember the fact that there are Tamil political parties, which are non-LTTE, represented in the Parliament. So, we have to assume that there are Tamils, when they get the opportunity to vote, in areas other than the areas controlled by the LTTE, who would vote for parties which are not LTTE, but other Tamil political parties.

Q: I am assuming, of course, that these Tamils do not agreeing with LTTE violence to what they want. Is that correct? Are they into a more peaceful way of solving problems?

A: There is at least one Tamil political party which seems to go along with the thinking of the LTTE. Apart from that, there are other political parties, which seem to feel or which take the position that they are different and they do not have any truck with the LTTE. They see a different solution to the conflict we have today, without resorting to arms.

Q: I know many countries that have conflicts like Sri Lanka. They try to find solutions through war and violence. But, well, some call it they are freedom fighters. Then some call it is terrorism. Either way, I think it is people’s lives and it breaks down economy and the social growth. How do you see all that in Sri Lanka today?

A: Well, freedom fighters exist in two different situations. One is in the context of colonialism or alien domination of a country or a society. You have individuals in such situations, who fight for their freedom. Sri Lanka does not belong to that particular situation. And there are situations where in post-colonial era societies, there has been at least one instance in South Asia, in our region, where there was a need for taking up arms against the government and establishing their own separate state. The second kind of situation is also not a factor or a reality in Sri Lanka for the reason that the Sri Lankan Government is not ruled by an autocracy or a dictatorship. It is a democratic society, which has been practiced since 1931. In fact, the United States got Universal Franchise, one man, one woman, one vote in 1917, I think. In 1931, Sri Lanka had the same facility, only 14 years later. So, we have that kind of a democratic society with regular elections to elect representatives to the Parliament as well as elections to elect Presidents. The current President was elected at a Presidential election held in November 2005. In that kind of a situation, there is no room for a freedom fighters to achieve independence or to go for a violent solution to solve their problems. What has happened in Sri Lanka is, there is a demand for a separate state, and that demand for a separate state is not based on reality, or on facts.

In 1976, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) demanded for a separate state based on a record left in 1779, by the first British Colonial Secretary of the country, in which he said that there was a separate state for the Tamils in the North, and the East of the country, which was in fact an erroneous statement. Based on that particular statement in 1976, this claim was made. There have been situations where there were differences between the communities including the Sinhala community as well as Tamil community. There were attempts to resolve those problems in 1957, 1965 as well as later. But unfortunately, as I explained to you earlier, due to certain political situations and factors we were unable to resolve those problems. Since 1985 until 2006, on six different occasions, we have tried to sit down and negotiate with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and on all those occasions, the LTTE would sit down for negotiations, stay there for a while, and at a propitious time, they would walk away from the negotiations. That has been our experience since 1985, on six different occasions. So, we do not see a situation or a rationale for a separate state, as claimed by the LTTE. But President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has very clearly said on the day of his inauguration on 25th November 2005, and subsequently on several occasions, that he is ready to grant maximum possible devolution to the minorities, (including Tamils and Muslims), within one country and that should be the basis for the Government to seek a negotiated settlement that would address issues confronting the minorities, Tamils as well as Muslims.

Q: By the sound of it, it looks like the Sri Lanka Government has been bending backwards in order to help start the peace process, and get everything solved. How do you feel about it? Is that true?

A: Well, one can say the Government has been bending backward. Or you can, on the other hand, say, LTTE has been coming to the negotiating table under the pretext that they were willing to negotiate and actually try to achieve certain kind of strategic objectives, and having achieved those objectives they would under some pretext or other, walk away. So we have a situation where the government has demonstrated its interest in sitting down for negotiations. In fact, I have personally been involved in one such round of negotiations, from 2002 to 2003, and we found, suddenly, one day, the LTTE making an announcement, “We are walking out”, saying it is a temporary situation. But it appears to have been a permanent one because for three years, it has been very difficult to re-engage them in negotiations.

Q: I have covered stories about child soldiers in other parts of the world, which is not acceptable to today or any day. The LTTE in Sri Lanka, do you think they are taking advantage of young people in Sri Lanka?

A: To state that the LTTE is taking advantage, is an understatement. Our experience has been that since the very inception. The organization started in 1976 and look at the die hard leaders of the organization today. Some of them are no more with us. They have been recruited as child soldiers. In Sri Lanka, the Government has regulations that it cannot recruit individuals as soldiers, who are below the age of 18. But the practice of the LTTE has been totally different. In the sense they would say that a 8 year old person, young man, or a girl, would be more useful to them than an 80 year old man or a woman for a obvious reason because they can be very easily brainwashed. They can be told to do this and that and the other, and then they become heroes, because they have children under their care. Of course, most of these children, we have reasons to believe, end up as fighters for the organization, or else even as suicide cadres, who would wear a suicide vest and explode it with a view to causing maximum possible damage. They go to market places, or where there are religious festivals, with a view to lure children to join the organization. They would walk into a class room and give the history of the organization, what their motives are, and the classic tactic they would use “Please put up your hand if you do not want to join the LTTE” and in a class room of 20 children or 10 or 12, 13 or 14, how many would have the courage to put up their hands and say “We do not want to join you”. There will be situations where they will request or order their area leaders to go and abduct children, or forcibly take them from their homes and move them to training camps. In 2003, I was functioning as Head of the Sri Lankan Government Peace Secretariat and we discussed this particular issue with the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and they made arrangements to sign a tripartite agreement involving the Government and the LTTE, with a view to releasing the young men and women already in LTTE custody. They said that they would like to train them for various vocations before they release them to their parents, and for that, certain facilities were provided. A large sum of money was provided by the UNICEF for that exercise. So my office, that is the Government Peace Secretariat, LTTE Office, as well the UNICEF, signed that agreement. And many years later, we still find that the young men and women are still in custody as child soldiers and have not been released or are being released in small numbers. Meanwhile, additional numbers are being recruited or abducted, and taken in forcibly, with a view to swelling their own ranks. So we found that they were not negotiating in good faith. In 1998, we had the Special Representative of the Secretary General of UN for Children and Armed Conflict in Sri Lanka, and LTTE gave a pledge to him that they would not recruit children or use children in armed conflict below the prescribed age. But that again was a promise that was made not with the intention of keeping. So we still have a situation, where children are being taken by force. We also have a situation, where a breakaway group of LTTTE, the Karuna group, releasing child soldiers who were under him, when he broke away from the LTTE. That was in April 2004. We found LTTE going to the houses of those children and taking them again by force. So, these are the activities of LTTE, which have been noted by the Security Council of the United Nations. During the last three years, the UN Security Council has cited LTTE as well as the Karuna group, which has also resorted to recruiting children. Both groups have been accused of recruiting children as soldiers. So, we have this phenomenon, which is existing in some countries, in Sri Lanka as well, and we hope with the pressure that is being applied by the United Nation’s Security Council, we will eventually be able to eliminate the issue of child soldiers.

Q: In this country, especially, we talk a lot about keeping to promises or being held accountable, and I am listening to you thinking about the money and all the promises the LTTE made, you said a large some of money that the UNICEF has given to the LTTE. I wonder what happened to that money ?

A: Well. That is a question one should ask from the LTTE and UNICEF, whether they have accounted for the monies they have received. But of course, the reality is, we have found over a period of time, the LTTE makes promises not with the intention of keeping them, but just to overcome a situation. As I said, when the Special Representative of the UN came to Sri Lanka in late 1990s, his name is Mr. Olara Otunnu, their promises not to recruit children lasted only a month or two. Thereafter they went back to the practice of recruiting children, mostly by force.

Q: These sort of acts of violence, is it unique of the LTTE, or do you see any commonality between the LTTE and Al Qaida or other terrorist organizations around the world?

A: Well, the focus of the United States has been Islamic groups indulging in terrorism. The international community has also been generally speaking focusing on the so called Islamic terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places. But the tactics that are being used by the LTTE are classic, for example, on 10th of this month, FBI made an announcement, which is found in the FBI website, about the LTTE as the organization which had developed or masterminded the suicide jacket and the suicide belt. That is not all. For the first time, a US agency, like the FBI, has accepted the fact that there are other entities, such as the LTTE or similar organizations indulging terrorist activities. The important aspect is that the methodology used by the LTTE is being duplicated or replicated by terrorist organizations like Al Qaida, Hamas and other groups, as we find in the Middle East today. The other aspect, which the FBI site did not mention was the methodologies the LTTE use in attacking the Naval forces of Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Navy. They have successfully used explosive-laden boats going directly to the hull of a ship and with one small boat or a dinghy, they have been able to sink a fairly large vessel and we have had quite a number of such situations since mid 1990s. When SS Cole was attacked in the harbor of Aden, that particular attack used a classic methodology employed by the LTTE. It caused a massive hole in the ship. Fortunately the ship did not sink. But I think 17 or more soldiers got killed and many got injured. That was another method. The LTTE is also experimenting with nerve gas and various other forms of attacks and those methodologies will be available either for a fee or for other favours to terrorist organizations, which are operating in various parts of the world, attacking not only the interests of the United States but also the free world. So, we have to be watchful of the LTTE problem in Sri Lanka, as it is also a problem for the international community as a whole.

Q: Part of me wonder, do they need all of these expensive weapons and engage in these mass operations. Because I know Sri Lanka is a small country. And you know the group that is engaged in these activities must not be very large. So, how can they get funds to purchase weapons to engage in these activities?

A: Well, they have expatriate Tamil populations living in various parts of the world. May be over 750,000. If you look into the report written by the Human Rights Watch, in April 2006, it speaks of the methodologies adopted by the LTTE in raising funds in countries like Canada where there is a quarter million or more Tamils live and in the United Kingdom. They convince Tamils. They force Tamils and use various other tactics with a view to getting resources from them on a monthly basis. Even very recently, I think about 5 months ago, I think in mid August or September last year, Janes Defence Review released a report in which it stated the amount of monies they collected came to 200 – 300 million dollars per annum. On top of that, they run shipping lines. They run other business activities including legitimate establishments, travel agencies and various kinds of other business enterprises. There are also reports with regard to their drug smuggling, human smuggling and various other kinds of activities to raise funds. So, there is no shortage of funds for the LTTE. This is a continuous pipeline. Even during the times when we were negotiating, I am now going back to 2002-2003 period, which provided an opportunity for the LTTE delegations to visit countries, mainly in Europe, to meet the Tamil groups living in those countries. When they had meetings, we were told, or we came to know, that they were saying though the ceasefire was in place, they did not know at what time they would revert to war again with the Government. Therefore, they told the Tamil expatriates to continue to provide resources as they did before. If the Tamils said they did not have funds to pay monthly, they were told “Well, you have a bank account. You can take a bank loan, and we will give you a receipt that we will return monies to you”. They have perfected a system where all the payments made by Sri Lankan Tamils are computerized. Pin numbers are given to individuals to indicate that they have paid their monthly dues and if they do not pay, somebody will visit and remind them that their safety, their families safety or members of their families back at home, will be at stake. So please pay.

Q: It is a very sophisticated system they have. Isn’t it?

A: Yes, it is very sophisticated system. The report released by the Human Rights Watch in April 2006, will give a fair idea of how they get their funds.

Q: It is not only in Sri Lanka, it is connected to global terrorism. How has the international community responded so far?

A: Well, the international community has done what it can. Take for example India. It banned the LTTE as an organization in 1972 immediately after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In 1997, United States did the same thing, in 2001 U.K., and in March/April 2006 Canada and the 27 member-EU followed the suit. So you have situations where the international community has taken action against the LTTE, and you also have situations, where, like in Canada, in the UK, and in other parts of Europe like Germany, France etc., law enforcement agencies are going against the front organizations of the LTTE. Of course, when the LTTE was banned, LTTE could not operate on the surface in those countries. The front organizations took the LTTE’s place and continued their activities. The U.S. banned a front organization of the LTTE, the Tamil Relief Organization (TRO), in November 2007. Likewise, there are investigations going on in Australia, in Europe and certain other places with regard to TRO and similar organizations. Plus we have had two situations, where in August 2006, the U.S. authorities arrested a group of LTTEers in New York. That particular case is to be heard, I think towards the latter part of this year. That was for trying to bribe the officials of the State Department to lift the ban against the LTTE, plus attempting to buy military hardware, surface to air missiles, guns, night vision glasses and similar equipment. Immediately thereafter in Baltimore, there was another case filed against five individuals. Four persons of foreign origin plus one Sri Lankan Tamil. They have pled guilty. Three of them have been sentenced during the last couple of weeks or so. So far as the USA is concerned, the Government is taking action against the LTTE, as well as its front organizations.

Q: Do you see any possibility in the near future the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government coming to a peaceful solution or at least looking at it. How do you see that? How can we reach peace with one another?

A: I am happy that you asked that question. As I said earlier, President Rajapaksa made it very clear, abundantly clear, not once but many times, that his intention is to have a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Sri Lanka. What he said was that Sri Lanka being a democratic country, it is necessary to have a democratic solution approved by members of Parliament for which purpose, he established a committee involving all political parties in Parliament in 2006. Now we are in 2008. That Committee has been able to bring forth certain proposals with a view to meeting the demands made by the Tamils as well as other minorities. And a couple of days ago, he requested Chairman of this Committee to place its proposals before the government by 23 of January 2008. So whether it is 23rd, 24th , 25th, we expect within the next couple of weeks the proposals to be submitted, and it is our hope that these proposals will address issues to a considerable extent. The issues confronting the minorities, Tamils, Muslims and others, and based on which, we will be able to find a peaceful negotiated settlement.

Q: I am sure they collect funds in various forms. So if someone donates money or anything else to an organization, they might think that it is legitimate, but it is actually an underground terrorist operation. Do you have some advice for people like us?

A: One has to be cautious when making donations. Today, funds collected in New York or Washington can be moved thousands of miles away for purposes not really meant for which the donation was made. Therefore one has to be careful, particularly where you make donations with good intentions, with a good heart, expecting something positive to come out of it. And certainly you do not want that particular donation to contribute toward death and destruction of people and individuals in another country, particularly a developing country like Sri Lanka, which is going through a difficult period for nearly three decades because of this terrorism problem we are facing. So one bit of advice is, know to whom you are giving your money. Is it a well-known and recognized agency? But again, TRO was a well-known, recognized agency, until such time it was proven through investigations, the money was being moved for different purposes. I acknowledge the fact that it is a difficult task for those donors to be cautious, because they themselves can get into difficulties with law enforcement agencies if they contribute to organizations which are supporting terrorists or terrorism.

Q: This a global community. Much more global. Sri Lanka is not just Sri Lanka any more. It is a part of the global community. And if someone is watching and they feel strongly to restore peace in Sri Lanka, are there any action they can take to help support this move?

A: Well, yes, the global community has done many things. In the first instance, they have recognized the LTTE for what it is, recognized the TRO and front organizations for what they are, and banned or curtailed their activities that contribute to death the destruction in Sri Lanka. One has to be vigilant, and one has to be mindful, of the fact that a problem, that is taking place 10,000 miles away from the coast of the USA, is not a problem of Sri Lanka alone. It could visit us in the United States or any other country, sometime or later. And as I said earlier, terrorist groups feed on each other. It is the same with the LTTE today. They will establish links with other terrorist groups, which plan to harm the interests of, for eg. the U.S. Therefore, you cannot say this problem is not a global problem. We live in a global village and we have to work together to eliminate terrorism. The other aspect is the need to rebuild Sri Lanka and in 2003 June when the donor community met in Tokyo, they did a good job. They came up with resources to rebuild, the destroyed and damaged infrastructure in Sri Lanka. Similarly, the international community came forward when the tsunami hit Sri Lanka. So if a helping hand is given, Sri Lanka will be able to rebuild itself. For eg. with all these difficulties what we faced in Sri Lanka, in the year 2006, we were able to produce a growth of 7.4%. 7.4% is a tremendous growth for a developing country like Sri Lanka. Imagine if we did not have a conflict of this nature, our growth would have been very much higher. At the beginning of this interview, I spoke of despondency of the youth. We would have been able to address those issues, build infrastructure, build opportunities for young men and women to take part fully in the development process. So, politically, economically as well as security-wise, there is a role for the international community to play and we are happy that the international community has remained engaged with Sri Lanka all these years. And we believe and we hope that their confidence in this process will continue to be so.

Q: Now, is there anything else you would like to touch on before we say good bye?

A: Well, all what I can say is, as the Sri Lankan Ambassdor to the United States, I would like to thank the U.S. administration as well as the people of the United States for being engaged with Sri Lanka, and trying to be of assistance for rebuilding Sri Lanka following the Tsunami. We appreciate it very much. And we count a lot on the U.S. to continue that support and we hope that that support will be forthcoming to rebuild our country once again.

Marsha Wickramasinghe:

Both sides have lost thousands of precious lives which has broken the economy and social growth. I feel that this issue is worth exploring. I will ask you to do the same. Ask questions and look for the answers. Read and educate yourself about these issues. Let us make an effort to learn about each others differences in cultures, religions and embrace them for what they are. Let us learn to trust each other. Because our generation deserves a world free of violence, heartbreak and pain. It is our choice. What is the legacy we are going to leave behind. It is a global village. And the activities that terrorize and harm all fellow human beings are not acceptable. Death and devastation in Sri Lanka might sound far from your home. But, please, do not wait till it comes knocking down on your door. Take action and let the world know that we are leaving terror and violence behind to build a bridge to a peaceful future where we can share the wonders of humanity as a global family. I want to thank Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke for taking time from his very busy schedule and talk to us and educate us about the conflict in Sri Lanka and terrorism at large. I also want to thank Rajika Jatilake for arranging this interview and Judy. Thanks for being the support for behind the camera.

Thanks for joining me. I will see you all next time.


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