|WCCATV13 INTERVIEW WITH AMBASSADOR BERNARD
GOONETILLEKE - 05 MAY 2008
The LTTE’S intransigence in demanding
30% of Sri Lanka’s landmass for a population of 6%, is
utterly impractical, said Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke, during
a one-and-a haf hour long interview with WCCATV13 in Worcester,
Massachusetts, in May 2008, which was aired on cable TV recently.
Answering Masha, the interviewer, the Ambassador
said, “I always bring the example of the size of the country,
a small country, 25,000 sq. miles in extent, a size similar
to West Virginia, or twice the size of the island of Hawaii.
Population of West Virginia something like 1.8 mn, and Sri Lanka’s
population is something like 20 mn. And so, there is a huge
pressure for land, resources, water, and everything. And this
particular group, known as “Sri Lankan Tamils,”
earlier known as “Ceylon Tamils,” today comprises
less than 12% of the population. There are two interesting aspects
here - if this demand comes to fruition, this less than 12%
of the population, will get almost 30% of the country’s
landmass. That is going to be difficult. The other issue is,
more than 50% of this less than 12% Tamil population lives outside
the North and the East. Then, you are talking about less than
6% of the population demanding 30% of the landmass, while ½
of that population would be elsewhere in the country, and one
could ask what kind of arrangement we would have to make to
accommodate their aspirations, desires, ambitions etc.”
Ambassador Goonetilleke said that at a time
when the whole world is turning itself into a global village,
it is no longer possible to divide nations according to ethnic
or religious lines. After all, he said when one considers the
ethnic ratios of the multi-ethnic Eastern Province of Sri Lanka
it is utterly impossible to incorporate that province as part
of a mono-ethnic Tamil Eelam.
He added, “The demand made by the LTTE
for a separate state, comprising the North and the East, is
not going to be something the government can agree to. Take,
for example, the Eastern Province. It comprises Muslims, Tamils
and Sinhalese - three different communities. According to the
latest statistics, it appears Sri Lankan Moors form the majority
of population in the East, Tamils comes second, followed by
the Sinhalese. So, how can you separate that particular province
and attach it to the Northern Province, which is predominantly
Tamil? - which is partly due to the fact there has been ethnic
cleansing starting in the 1980s and 1990s, during which time,
large numbers of Sinhalese and more numbers from the Muslim
community, were expelled from the Northern Province.”
However, the Ambassador pointed out that the
current conflict in Sri Lanka has not been the status quo all
the time. He said, "Looking back at history, at our community
relations, people-to-people relationships go back to over 2000
years. Our conflict has lasted about 30 years, and it seems
a long time to us because we are living in these times. But
what is 30 years in relation to 2000 years?"
As all communities have lived harmoniously
in Sri Lanka in the past, it should be possible for us to live
together harmoniously again, he said.
Q: Mr. Ambassador, to begin our interview,
could you define for our viewers, what terrorism is?
A: Marsha, defining terrorism is not an easy
task. The international community has been trying to define it
for many decades, without success. But terrorism is an ancient
phenomena. The Greek writer, Xenophon, who lived in 3rd Century
B.C., spoke of terrorism as a tool to use against the civilian
population to achieve certain objectives. This was in the pre-Christian
The word “terrorism” comes from the
Latin terminology “terrere” or terror, meaning “the
use of terror as a certain goal.” This terminology did not
appear in the English language until about 1798, when it came
into the dictionary to mean, “the systematic use of terror
as a policy.” I think the London Times used it first in
1795. Since then in modern times, the League of Nations, the predecessor
to the United Nations, in 1937, attempted to define terrorism.
However, the Terrorism Convention that was drafted by the League
of Nations did not become a reality. Since then, the United Nations
has been dealing with the issue through resolutions of the General
Assembly as well as the resolutions of the Security Council of
the United Nations. Resolution 1566 of the Security Council attempted
to define terrorism. But the problem is, in the United Nations,
any decision, particularly of this nature, is reached through
consensus. So, if there is no consensus, no finality. We have
had several resolutions in the General Assembly and in the Security
Council, without reaching the finality on the matter. We also
have a number of conventions dealing with specific areas of terrorism
such as terrorist bombing, nuclear terrorism and similar subjects.
But none of them were successful in having a specific terminology
acceptable to the global community, or at least to the members
of the United Nations, defining what terrorism is.
There is a reason for this. That is, the belief
that in trying to achieve the right to self-determination, a group
of people can resort to acts of violence, which means acts of
terrorism. And such acts are permissible to achieve that particular
However, this belief is not recognized by the
United Nations. In 1993, there was a meeting in Vienna, which
has resulted in adopting a Declaration called Vienna Declaration,
which spoke of the right to self-determination. However, the Vienna
Declaration, while saying that people under colonial or foreign
occupation have the right to fight for their self determination,
has made it very clear, that the affected people can take only
legitimate action in keeping with the Charter of the United Nations.
In this, there are three areas to be fulfilled. One is that the
people should be under either colonial or alien domination or
foreign occupation. Second, they can take any legitimate action.
And third, any action taken should be in keeping with the Charter
of the United Nations. Therefore, resorting to acts of terrorism
does not really fall within the criteria specified in the Vienna
We are now 15 years down the road from 1993,
and during this time, there have been several international instruments
on terrorism adopted by the United Nations. But the UN has not
been able to come to a unanimous agreement on a definition for
terrorism. That is still being negotiated.
But of course we have other areas. If you look
at the dictionary, there is a particular definition. The U.S.
Department of State has its own definition, which describes terrorism
as “premeditated, politically motivated violence, perpetrated
against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine
agents.” So, the idea there is that any acts used against
the civilian population or non-combatants are considered acts
of terrorism, but some go a little further than that. Such as,
even in the case of soldiers or members of the armed forces, if
they are not engaged in combat, if they are not armed during that
particular time, attacking them could be considered as an act
of terrorism. So generally speaking that there are many definitions
- whether you look at the various Declarations of the United Nations,
legislation passed by individual countries like the United States
Department of State, or even academics or in the dictionaries
trying to define what terrorism is. Depending on what material
you read, you will find various types of definitions with regard
Q: I would like to concentrate on the
armed conflict in Sri Lanka. This is where you come into the picture.
As someone who has battled with this issue for most of your life,
could you please describe some of the acts of violence the LTTE
has done over the years? And can we define or describe them as
“terrorists” or “freedom fighters,” by
looking at the activities they have done over the years?
A: Well, in the context of Sri Lanka, we have
had a number of armed groups in the pre-1987 era - that is, before
the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987. During that period, there
were skirmishes between the armed forces of Sri Lanka, (Army Navy
Air Force) on the one hand, and the Tamil armed groups, on the
other. Following the 1987 Agreement, the majority of the armed
groups embraced the democratic way of life, with the sole exception
of the LTTE. That was when they used terror tactics to achieve
their political objective of establishing a separate State in
the Northern and the Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka. So, in pursuit
of that objective, the LTTE, has over a period of time, carried
out a considerably large number of atrocities, which can be described
very easily as acts of terrorism for the purpose of achieving
a political objective. There are lists of attacks they have attempted
against democratically elected representatives in the Parliament,
starting from the like President of the Republic to the Ministers
of the Cabinet and the members of Parliament, belonging to all
three ethnic communities, not necessarily only Sinhalese politicians.
A large number of Tamil politicians and Muslim politicians too,
have been assassinated. You have, on the one hand, terrorist activities
against public figures, and attacks against economic targets,
like the oil installation, oil refinery, Colombo Port, Galle Harbor
and a number of other places, like Central Bank of Ceylon and
many other economic targets. Another target group comprises civilians,
and terrorist attacks are focused on places where civilians congregate,
like market places, shopping complexes and, very regrettably,
public conveniences being used by the public. So you have situations
where bombs go off in trains in operation, killing a large number
of persons, or in train stations. Major stations in the heart
of Colombo are attacked, and bombs go off in buses. The last one
was a couple of weeks ago, an attack against a bus, killing 26
people and injuring many more. These are innocent people, who
have nothing to do with the Government or the armed forces. Those
were clearly taken as acts of terrorism with a view to achieving
a political objective, and have been carried out over a period
of time, during the last two decades, even three decades.
Q: By looking at these attacks, one can
guess at the loss of lives and economic breakdown. Can you describe
what Sri Lanka’s economy is today?
A: I recall reading the Far Eastern Economic
Magazine of 1983 July, where the cover story was Sri Lanka, where
a prediction was made that Sri Lanka could be the second Hongkong
in South Asia. Unfortunately, that was not to be, because the
conflict started around that time, in earnest.
Speaking of the economy, since 2003 to 2007,
Sri Lanka has been able to register 6.4% growth - that was quite
remarkable. But imagine if we did not have a conflict which consumes
so much of energy, capital and hinders development work, our growth
would have been so much more. During the last 4 years, if you
take the per capita growth, it has gone up - practically doubled.
50% increase from some 900 odd dollars to 1617 dollars. So, the
economy is doing reasonably well in comparison to many countries
in the world, even in the region.
But, we have to remember two factors. One is
- the economy is doing well, despite the war. The second factor
is - just imagine what would have been the status of the economy
if we did not have a war. We would have done much better. The
considerable amount of money we spend in combating the Tigers,
could have gone for infrastructure development. We could have
spent more on health and education, and the stability of the country
would have enabled a large number of foreign investments to come
into the country. All those things got stood down because of the
conflict. And, if the LTTE is trying to promote the welfare of
the Tamil people, it is not only one community that is undergoing
economic difficulties and suffering because of the war. The situation
is the same for all communities living in the area.
However, that situation changed since July 2007,
since the government was able to evict the LTTE from the east,
the larger of the two provinces of the North and the East, and,
now, we have had local government elections in that area, after
a lapse of 14 years. On May 10th, there will be Provincial Council
elections, which will enable the people of the Eastern Province
to elect their own representative. Besides their priorities, be
they economic or otherwise, they will be able to decide and act
on the completion of elections.
So, economic development is possible in the Eastern
Province. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has given priority to develop
the East, so, the people there, especially the youth, will not
be inclined to join the current conflict, but they will be able
to focus on their economic development by promoting skills training
and promoting their economic lives. There is great economic potential
in the Eastern Province - it has the best of facilities for tourists,
for surfers, sunbathers etc, very attractive for tourism. There
are agricultural resources too. Great potential for economic development
in the East. And, we hope, in the not too distant future, that
we will be able to replicate this experiment in the North as well.
Q: I heard that the breakaway group from
the LTTE is running for elections and turning to a more peaceful
way of solving problems. Can you explain that a little more to
A: There have been critical remarks about the
government’s attempts to work with this particular group,
called the “Karuna Group,” which broke away from the
LTTE main body in April 2004, because they had difficulties with
Tigers in the North. They were of the view that the main LTTE
group in the North did not have in their hearts and minds, the
welfare of the Tamils in the Eastern Province. This was the reason
for the break up of the LTTE in 2004.
But, let me take you back to 1971, when we had
a youth rebellion in the South, the party responsible for the
rebellion, (JVP), was the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna or People’s
Liberation Movement. There were two uprisings - in 1971 and in
the post-1987 period. We then realized there are many ways of
tackling that kind of insurgency. But, we had to take into consideration
the fact that it involved youth, and they were youth from the
majority community, the Sinhalese. Fortunately, the government
considered the best option was to make it possible for them to
come into the democratic fold. Eventually, their party, the JVP,
was recognized by the Elections Commissioner, and they contested
elections. During the last elections, they won almost 40 seats
in the 225 member parliament. This was the first experiment with
regard to an armed group.
In the post-1987 period, there were more than
a dozen armed Tamil groups, along with the LTTE, fighting for
a separate state in the North and the East. What happened was,
following the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, all the Tamil armed groups
decided to join the political mainstream, with the exception of
the LTTE. That was the second experiment with regard to armed
groups abandoning their arms and joining the political mainstream.
And, today, we have a member of the Cabinet, Mr. Douglas Devananda,
who once represented one such armed group, and today is a Cabinet
The third experiment - as you mentioned, the
breakaway group of Karuna. As I explained before, there was a
choice. The government had to decide whether it wanted to take
on the Karuna group, in addition to the LTTE. The government,
fortunately, decided it was more prudent on its part to assimilate
the breakaway group into mainstream politics.
And so, in the Batticaloa District elections
in March 2008, the TMVP group, which is the Karuna group, managed
to win the majority of seats and captured local government in
that particular district. Thereafter, what they did was run for
the Provincial Council elections with the government. Very interestingly,
the government has Tamil groups represented by the TMVP and Muslim
groups, contesting under its banner. The Eastern Province consists
of Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese, and is truly a multi-ethnic
province, and the government has under its arm, Sinhalese, Tamil
and Muslim representatives, while the opposition party is also
contesting, like a good number of other parties, like the JVP.
A very interesting election coming up - after a lapse of 14 years.
The people in the areas under LTTE before, are now freed. They
are free to decide their fate, their future and their representatives.
Q: Mr. Ambassador, should we dare hope
that the LTTE will follow in the footsteps of the Karuna group
and join mainstream politics?
A: If they are pragmatic, and if they see how
the current situation is moving, at some point or other, they
will have to decide whether they want to be a part of the whole
political structure that we have in Sri Lanka. If so, they will
have to take a very crucial decision. You need to remember one
thing, that is, even the LTTE has a political party, which it
registered in the 1980s, which is still recognized by the Commissioner
of Elections. So, at any given point, if the LTTE decides to run
for office in the East or the North, they are able to do so. They
have the necessary institution for it. It is the political will
to join in that they require now. If they deicide to keep away,
they will get excluded from the North as well, the same way they
did in the elections in the East.
Q: As you mentioned at the last interview,
if the Sinhalese and the Tamils used to live in harmony throughout
the years, what is the reason to ask for a separate Tamil homeland?
Have there been two separate states in the past?
A: One has to go into history to ask the question
whether there were two separate states. Initially, in 1949, the
Tamil politicians asked for a federal arrangement. That was not
acceptable to the rest of the country, and there was unhappiness
resulting from certain developments that took place in the 1950s
and 1960s, and by 1975, the Tamil United liberation Front (TULF)
decided to ask for a separate state. And, as justification for
this particular demand, they went back to an ancient document
written in 1779 by the first British Colonial Secretary, when
it was said that a certain part of the country, starting from
the western part and going toward the north and all the way down
east, belonged to a separate Tamil kingdom called “Tamil
Eelam.” And this particular statement or minute was an erroneous
statement, which had no historical basis at all. There used to
be a Tamil kingdom from the 13th century onward, for some time,
but if you go into historical records, you will find that particular
kingdom had been a sub-kingdom of the main kingdom of the country.
But, of course, there have been times when the center became weak,
and the sub-kingdom became stronger, and had more power than a
normal sub-kingdom. But this Tamil sub-kingdom came to an end
in 1621. So, if you try to use something that existed in the 13th
century and came to an end in 1621, as a basis of a demand for
a separate state today, that is not going to happen, because there
are other developments that have taken place since then.
Take, for example, the country itself. I always
bring the example of the size of the country, a small country,
25,000 sq. miles in extent, a size similar to West Virginia, or
twice the size of the island of Hawaii. Population of West Virginia
something like 1.5 mn, and Sri Lanka’s population is something
like 20 mn. And so, there is a huge pressure for land, resources,
water, everything. And this particular group, known as “Sri
Lankan Tamils,” earlier known as “Ceylon Tamils,”
today comprises less than 12% of the population. There are two
interesting aspects here - if this demand comes to fruition, this
less than 12% of the population, will get almost 30% of the country’s
landmass. That is going to be difficult. The other issue is, more
than 50% of this less than 12% Tamil population lives outside
the North and the East. Then, you are talking about less than
6% of the population demanding 30% of the landmass, for ½
of that population would be elsewhere in the country, and one
could ask what kind of arrangement we would have to make to accommodate
their aspirations, desires ambitions etc.
We need to remember that the world is fast becoming
a global village. We cannot break countries or divide them on
the basis of ethnicity of people or their religious background,
or whatever else. That is not a sustainable arrangement. And,
in any case, the demand made by the LTTE for a separate state,
comprising the North and the East, is not going to be something
the government can agree to. Take, for example, the Eastern Province.
It comprises Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese - three different communities.
According to the latest statistics, it appears Sri Lankan Moors
form the majority of population in the East, Tamils come second,
followed by the Sinhalese. So, how can you separate that particular
province and attach it to the Northern Province, which is predominantly
Tamil? - which is partly due to the fact there has been ethnic
cleansing starting in the 1980s and 1990s, during which time,
large numbers of Sinhalese and more numbers of Muslims were expelled
from the Northern Province.
Q: Expelled? By whom?
A: By the Tigers. By the LTTE. In 1990, over
90,000 Muslims were removed from the Northern Province with 24-hour
notice, and they were allowed to carry only what they could carry.
The rest of their belongings, properties, they had to leave behind.
Q: By LTTE?
A: That was also by LTTE. So, now, one can say
that the Northern Province is a homogenous province, the great
majority of them being Tamils. But then, what about the rights
of the people who had to leave the province as a result of acts
of intimidation by the LTTE?
Q: When we talk of terrorism, we talk
about lost lives and broken down economies. But most of the time,
we forget about the things that have a fundamental value to us.
Could be places or things like temples, churches, mosques. Have
there been instances the LTTE attacked places like that?
A: Yes, for example, I can take you back to 1985,
to the North Central Province, when the first kingdom of Sri Lanka
came into existence in 200-300 years B.C. Place name is Anuradhapura.
There is a very important Buddhist temple there, where you find
a sapling of a Pipple tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment.
This place has religious significance for Buddhists for thousands
of years. In 1985, the LTTE came there, attacked the worshippers,
killed over 150 of them within a few minutes. And, very interestingly,
they also have the habit of video-taping whatever acts of terrorism
they carry out, for various purposes. Some years later, when the
Sri Lanka army carried out operations in that area, they came
across this video - how the LTTE cameraman, standing on top of
a bus and a roof of a building, videotaped the killings. You could
see people virtually escaping the gunmen.
Then, in 1990, in the Eastern Province, there
were two or three instances where the LTTE went into mosques,
where people were at prayer. They entered the mosques and gunned
down the worshippers. One was in a place called Eravur, another
called Kaththankudy, and another called Palliyagodella. In all
three instances, at least 300 persons were killed while they prayed.
In the third instance, another place of Buddhist
worship was attacked. This is in the Central Province of Sri Lanka,
city of Kandy, the last kingdom of Sri Lanka, where you find the
Temple of the Tooth, which houses the tooth relic of the Buddha
- venerated by Buddhists, not only in Sri Lanka, but the world
over. In January 1998, they brought a truck laden with explosives,
and exploded it and did great damage to the building, which created
a large hue and cry.
The intention with regard to the first attack
in Anuradhapura, and the second one in Kandy, was to get the people
in the south to act against the Tamils living in the south, so
that there would be clashes between the Sinhalese and the Tamils
, which would create a situation that would be helpful to the
LTTE to carry out their own propaganda to say that the Sinhalese
people are carrying out atrocities against the Tamil people. So,
the intention was to unleash a backlash against the Tamil people
- which did not happen.
There have been instances of this nature when
the LTTE had attacked Buddhist shrines and Muslim places of worship.
Q: What has been the international community’s
response to all that?
A: Well, the international community has responded
to political activities as well as individual acts of terrorism.
The first was designating the LTTE as a terrorist
organization, done by the government of India following the assassination
of former Indian Prime Minister in May 1991. This was followed
by US designating LTTE as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO),
in October 1997. In 2001, UK followed suit. Then Canada and the
27 member EU in 2006. Generally speaking, the western democracies
and India have taken action against the LTTE.
Meanwhile, countries like Australia are taking
other action. You may have heard during the recent past, in the
last two weeks, the cases in London and Canada - the Royal Mounted
Police (RCMP)in Canada has published certain documents in the
last couple of days, saying that the World Tamil Movement (WTM),
which functions as a charity organization, is actually being dictated
to by the LTTE, and that funds are flowing from that organization
to the LTTE coffers.
Then, there are countries that have not only
designated the LTTE as an FTO, but which are also taking action
against operatives. For example, in November 2007, the US banned
the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO), as an LTTE front
organization. Similarly, a couple of years ago, UK banned the
TRO. But what happens is, when they ban one organization, another
springs up in its stead.
Q: This actually takes me back to our
previous interview, where you mentioned that these front organizations
raise money to support the terrorist organization.
A: Yes. Actually, there are two things. Out of
the goodness of your heart, you make contributions, and people
do not know where that money actually goes. If you make a contribution
in this country to the TRO, you can be 100% sure that the money
goes elsewhere. In Canada, according to activities there, the
WTM has been functioning like TRO. Likewise, there are many such
organizations in various parts of the world, and people have no
idea, when they make contributions, which they are funding terrorists.
They believe they are giving to a worthy cause. But they end up
giving money to carry out acts of terrorism, to commit murder
and mayhem in a country like Sri Lanka. And while we are trying
to bring the conflict to an end, people in this country, in most
cases, unwittingly, pour oil onto a raging fire in Sri Lanka -
which is unfortunate.
The second thing is, they will have to bear in
mind one factor - that if they make contributions knowingly, they
would be violating the laws of this country.
Q: I know there have been several attempts
at peace talks between the Sri Lanka government and LTTE, throughout
the years. In fact, in 203, you were heavily involved in these
peace talks. Unfortunately, it happened to be one in a long line
of unsuccessful peace negotiations. So, why did all these peace
talks fail? And what is your personal perspective on it?
A: Well, if you look back at history, there were
at least six different occasions that the government of Sri Lanka
decided to sit down to negotiate with the LTTE, and during the
earlier years, also with other Tamil armed groups, to seek a solution
to the conflict. In 1985, with the assistance of the government
of India, we went to Thimpu, in Bhutan. In 1987 - involvement
of the Indian government, resulting in the signing of the Indo-Lanka
Peace Accord. In 1989/90, we had another attempt at peace talks,
during President Premadasa’s time.In 1994/95, President
Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge’s time, yet another attempt.
Then came the 5th attempt, where I had some involvement - went
to Thailand on three different occasions, went Germany, to Japan,
to Norway - sat with the LTTE and tried to negotiate. And, unfortunately,
failed. And, you will recall, that in December 2002, there was
an understanding reached under difficult circumstances, that both
parties should make an attempt to have a federal solution - what
was described as “internal self-determination” within
a united Sri Lanka. We thought that was a breakthrough, because,
as I said, in 1949, the original demand was made for a federal
state, and in all those years, there was opposition from the south
for a federal arrangement. And, since 1976, the TULF, and subsequently,
the LTTE, demanded a separate state, and they both came down from
a separate state, to a federal state. So, actually, both sides
came halfway. We went halfway up and the LTTE came halfway down,
and there was meeting ground in Oslo in December 2002. However,
that particular understanding didn’t last three months.
Q: What went wrong?
A: My own assessment was that the LTTE eventually
came to the conclusion that if they went down the road of negotiations,
they would end up having to sacrifice their original goal, which
was, a separate state. And now, looking back, one realizes, that
the decision they reached in Oslo in 2002, was either an exceeding
of his mandate on the part of the leader of the LTTE delegation,
or the LTTE leadership thought they had given too much by agreeing
to the kind of formula agreed to in Oslo.
Also, if you look at other developments, you
can understand exactly what the game plan of the LTTE is. First,
was the meetings the LTTE delegation had with Tamil expatriates,
after each negotiating round, whether it was in Oslo, Germany,
or wherever else. They informed the expatriate Tamils that although
they were negotiating at that point of time, they believed they
could find a solution to the problem only through armed conflict.
And they urged the expatriates to continue to provide resources
to their war chest.
And even during this period of negotiations,
the LTTE position was described in a couple of words, “Thirst
of Tigers is for Tamil Eelam.” Any document they issued
would say that - which meant, although they agreed to seek a federal
solution, they did not really abandon their demand for a separate
Then again, there were expressions by the LTTE
that they did not believe a final solution to the conflict should
come at the negotiating table. It should be at the battlefield.
Only then the Tamil people would cherish and hold dear what they
got - which was a separate state.
Q: So, it sounds to me that they had
already decided before they came to the negotiating table, what
they really wanted to do.
A: Well, if you look back, on six different occasions
we sat down to negotiate, and on six different occasions, they
got up and moved out and never came back to the negotiating table.
So, that leads you to believe that they had their own motives,
although they sat down to negotiate. By sitting down to negotiate,
they perhaps wanted to either convince the international community
that they are indeed seeking a negotiated solution, or else they
wanted to build up their military strength, which they did, for
example, during the post-2003 period. Whatever it is, the eventual
result was that they would abandon the negotiating table and go
In the recent past, they lost the Eastern Province,
and subsequent to that, the LTTE once again expressed interest
in turning to the negotiating table. So, we do not know until
we test the waters, whether the 7th time is going to be the lucky
7, where we will be able to really engage them in negotiations
and come to a solution.
Q: What the LTTE leader’s thoughts
might be, I feel that there might be hesitancy among individuals
who are fighting for LTTE to come forward, even if they want to
leave the organization behind and go back to a normal way of living.
So, are there any ways for them to come forward without fear of
punishment from the government, and once they come forward, are
there any programs for them to readjust into the community without
fear of re-recruitment by the LTTE?
A: Masha, you are talking about LTTE cadres leaving the organization
and coming back to the government. Actually, there are two aspects
to it. One is, if you look at certain situations where the conflict
is raging, with people wanting to move away from areas of conflict,
the LTTE has prevented them from leaving and going into safer
areas. The loss of people is something they cannot accept, because
the very justification for the LTTE’s existence, is, as
they say, they represent the Tamil people. And, if Tamil people
leave those areas, there is no justification for their claim of
being the sole representatives of the Tamil people. So, they prevent
normal civilians from leaving their areas of control. Furthermore,
it is very difficult for LTTE cadres n large numbers to leave
LTTE-controlled areas and return to government-controlled areas.
They would have to do through various check points, walk many
miles, escape LTTE agents in those areas to get to government-controlled
areas, and that would simply not be possible. But we do have men
and women coming into government areas and surrendering themselves.
We have even had situations where suicide cadres commanded by
the LTTE to return to Colombo and wait orders to carry out bomb
attacks, surrendering to government forces.
To answer your question, we do not punish those
who surrender. We try to provide them with various skills, so
that they would be able to gain employment after a specific period
of observation. We also have child cadres who are leaving the
organization and coming to government areas, and we arrange to
keep them in separate camps and provide them with facilities to
And, of course, one of the complaints in the
recent past, including in the US, was the issue of child soldiers
who were with the Karuna group. And, in fact, during the course
of the last months, the Karuna Group, the TMVP, has released two
groups of children - first, 11 child cadres, subsequently, 28.
Altogether, 39 child soldiers. The first batch was given to the
government. Of the 28, 20 were handed over to the parents and
8 decided to surrender to the government rather than returning
to their parents because they feared re-recruitment by the LTTE.
The UNICEF is associated with such releases and the welfare of
child soldiers. From the UNICEF perspective, the best place for
these child cadres is a return to their families. We do not disagree
with that point of view. However, in the case of LTTE child cadres,
there is always the danger of being re-recruited by the LTTE -which
is eventually what happened when they return home to their families.
So, while home is the right place for a child, in this particular
instance, we believe that protection needs to be provided for
the children, perhaps under supervision of the government and
international agencies, and to be also provided with various facilities
for skills learning, so they become employable once they are ready
to leave the camps and be absorbed into the community.
Q: One of the Human Rights Watch (HRW)
reports says that Sri Lanka is in a very bad position when it
comes to human rights, and it goes on to say that providing human
rights is the Sri Lanka government’s responsibility as much
as the LTTE’s. What is your take on that, Mr. Ambassador?
A: I don’t blame the HRW when they say
violations are taking place in the country. We cannot deny the
fact in situations like what we have today in Sri Lanka. Human
rights violations do take place. Even in other societies with
no serious conflicts of this nature, human rights violations take
place. The fact of the matter is - violations do not take place
in Sri Lanka as a result of the policy of the government. This
must be made very clear. Government policy is not to violate the
rights of the people - please remember it is a democratic government.
In every so many years, we have to go to the people and ask for
their vote. And if you trample on the rights of the people and
violate their rights, can you expect them to return you to power?
What happens is certain individual members of security forces
and police do engage in violations. Our position is this - if
such violations do take place, individual soldiers and policemen
are responsible because they have violated the rights of civilians.
And, when credible evidence is available, we have taken action,
and we are taking action. In fact, there are hundreds of cases
against members of armed forces or the police. In fact, last month,
there was an indictment of a former senior Air Force officer and
some security and police personnel, who had been involved n violations
of human rights. That was just a couple of days ago.
However, there is a problem of laws delays in
Sri Lanka, although we have a well-functioning justice system.
The caseloads the courts have to go through are very heavy. As
a result, there are delays. However, these delays are not peculiar
to Sri Lanka. Take, for instance, the death of Princess Diana-
after 10 or 11 years after te event, only last month, they came
up with a verdict as to how she died. And, in a country like ours,
where all systems are functioning under great strain, it is not
unique for court cases to get delayed.
We have recognized this situation and have asked
for help from various friendly governments, to expedite cases.
So, arrests, indictments do take place, and, if anybody is interested,
authorities concerned have information on a whole load of cases,
all details and the progress of each case, where we are addressing
human rights issues.
So, to answer your question, when HRW says that
violations are taking place, we do not deny the charge, we accept
it. And when such violations take place, and credible evidence
is available, we take action.
You also need to remember that Sri Lanka is party
to as many as 12 or 13 different international conventions relating
to human rights, and, under these conventions, we have to submit
periodic reports to the regimes of those conventions, where our
reports are scrutinized, and officials of the Sri Lanka government
have to appear before international panels who study our report
and come up with questions, which we have to respond to. Thus,
there are mechanisms to check the performance of the government
with regard to our obligations in relation to international conventions.
But, when it comes to the LTTE, although they are bound to protect
the rights of the people living in the areas they operate, because
they are not a state party, there is no mechanism to make them
behave like a responsible party.
Q: I believe it is important to embrace
each other’s cultures and religions, especially when it
comes to Sri Lanka’s armed conflict. Trust and respect go
hand in hand. So, has the Sri Lanka government taken any practical
steps to rebuild trust between the Sinhalese and the Tamils? And,
in your opinion, would there be more ways to accomplish that goal?
A: I will try to answer that question in a different
way. How do you build trust? For example, until late July 2006,
we had two provinces where the conflict was raging. One Northern
Province of predominantly Tamils. The Eastern Province with all
three communities - Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese. And one way
to build trust is to let them know we have not abandoned them.
The government continued with its administration ,even in LTTE
controlled areas - staffing and managing hospitals, schools, providing
drugs, paying for teachers - and so did not abandon the people.
Where necessary, the government took steps to inoculate children
against sicknesses. And, in conflict situation, in areas under
LTTE control, the state looked after the welfare of the people,
to let them know the government had not abandoned them, and even
though they were living under LTTE control, they were being treated
no different to people in government-controlled areas.
I have been dealing with subject for a long period
of time. In the early 1990s, the Special Representative of the
UN Secretary General, Francis Deng, a Sudanese national, came
to Sri Lanka. He said that Sri Lanka was an example for other
conflict situations in the world, where the state looks after
the people in those conflict areas. And coming from Sudan, as
he did, it was a lot to say.
There are also other ways to build trust and
confidence. The government has taken measures in the Eastern Province,
to hold elections so that the people will be able to express themselves,
and there decisions, what ever they are, will be good enough for
the government. So, the people will have to have trust in the
government, and they will have the freedom to select or elect
their own representatives.
There are other things the government could do
with regard to confidence building measures over a period of time,
both in the East and the North. And I am sure it will do what
it can. Meanwhile, we have to understand that civil society, various
religious associations and civilians in general, will also have
a very important role to play with regard to building trust and
confidence among the various communities.
Q: My last question, to resolve a conflict
like Sri Lanka’s armed conflict, there are several factors
which have to come together. Unfortunately, there are no magic
solutions, so everyone has to work together as a team. It has
to be the people, the Sri Lanka government, the LTTE and the international
community. From your perspective, how can each of these parties
participate in Sri Lanka’s peace process?
A: Very important question. You have brought
four different groups. From the government’s point of view,
it has been doing what it can. I have explained with regard to
the Eastern Province. It appointed a Parliamentary committee to
come up with proposals for devolution of power to the provinces.
That particular committee consists of all 13 or 14 different parties
- some have decided not to take part, but a large number of parties
in parliament are participating. That is one step the government
has taken. The government has also agreed to the first proposal
made by this committee, that the government should fully implement
the 13th amendment to the constitution, which came into being
as a follow up of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, which will provide
separate administrative powers, police powers to the provinces.
Already, the government has taken steps to recruit men and women
from Tamil and Muslim communities in the east, to the police force
there. The intention is to recruit about 2000 police personnel
to police the area, so any criminal activities taking place there
could be taken care of by the people in the area. Most of all,
giving an opportunity for the people to vote their own representatives
in after a lapse of 14 years, is a great step the government has
Then, take the LTTE. What could it do? It is
very difficult for me to speak on behalf of the LTTE, but perhaps,
it could see the ay things are moving, and perhaps decide to change
its policies and to adapt new policies so they would be able to
work for the welfare of the Tamil people whom they want to represent.
Beyond that, I do not want to comment on the LTTE.
But, the international community can do a lot,
taking into account the fact that the LTTE has cells in a large
number of places the Tamil diaspora lives - US, Canada, Australia,
NZ, western Europe and many other countries. First and foremost,
to persuade them to return to the negotiating table. Second -
ensure they remain at the negotiating table until all issues are
discussed and solutions are found. Third - take increased measures
to prevent fund collection by LTTE front organizations, which
we know are being funneled to the LTTE war chest. Fourth - to
take action against individuals and punish them when they are
breaking the laws of the country concerned, like the US is doing
right now - there is a case is going on in NY, another in Baltimore,
against individuals who tried to purchase SAMs and other military
hardware from here. There are many things the international community
could do to improve the situation.
Quite apart from these solutions, they could
focus on rapid development of the Eastern Province - investment,
infrastructure, technical and vocational training for youth of
the area, so they could engage in reconstruction of the area damaged
by the conflict in the last couple of years.
Q: What about the people in the area?
How can they help?
A: Yes, the Tamils, the Sinhalese, the Muslims,
Burghers, Malays and all other ethnic groups have a very important
role to play. They need to always keep in mind that Sri Lanka
is their country, and not a part thereof. That it is a multi-ethnic,
multi-religious country, and that we all have a share and a stake
in it, and that we need to accommodate one another. Looking back
at history, at our community relations, people-to-people relationships
go back to 2000 years. Our conflict is about 30 years, and it
seems a long time to us because we are living in these times.
But what is 30 years in relations to 2000 years?
So, all these communities have lived together
harmoniously in Sri Lanka in the past, and it should be possible
for us to live together harmoniously again.
I saw with my own eyes, the reactions of the
people following the Ceasefire Agreement in 2002. Hundred of people
in busloads went to Jaffna, not that there was anything in particular
they wanted to see there, but because it was a place they had
not seen for many years. I recall speaking with a Tamil small
businessman asking him what the CFA meant to him. His response
was, “I can see Colombo.” So, people-to-people relationships
can create communal harmony and amity, and all communities can
contribute toward this end.
Q: Is there anything else you would like
to touch on before we say goodbye?
A: Well, all I want to say is that we are very
happy with the role being played by the government of the US,
as a member of the Co-Chairs of the Tokyo Donor Conference. The
US government has taken keen interest in Sri Lanka, and we hope
that interest will continue and that the US will remain engaged
with regard to developments in Sri Lanka, and will stand with
us until we see an end to the conflict.
Thank you, Masha.