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Transcript- Rajiva Wijesinha

23 August 2010

 Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

 

C.R. de Silva: Prof. Wijesinha, at the outset I must outline the procedure of the Commission.  You are entitled to give evidence either in public or in camera. The choice is yours.  At the conclusion of your representations the Commissioners are entitled to ask you questions to clarify any matter that transpired in the course of your representations or any matter that is relevant to the Warrant, and only the Commissioners can ask you any questions.  No member of the public can ask you questions, and as far as your response is concerned you are entitled to respond either in public or in camera. 

Wijesinha: Thank you.  I took the liberty of typing out something yesterday which I can table if you need. I was not certain as to which aspects of the work of the Commission I should address, so I thought it best to prepare some points in writing, to be expanded on further as the Commission sees fit. It seems that the work of the Commission can be divided into three components as follows: (a) Consideration of what should be done now to promote reconciliation. (b) Examination of the peace process and what led to negotiations proving unsuccessful so that other options had to be followed to achieve peace. (c) Inquiry into incidents during the process which might prove barriers to reconciliation.  

I believe the first of these is the most important. It is also the easiest to achieve. In fact we have done much in this respect already, since inequitable development in the country was one of the principal reasons for resentment and the gradual move to separatism and then to terrorism.  Rapid infrastructural development, accompanied by strategies for targeted investment, has made clear the commitment of government to ensuring better opportunities for all. But at the same time we need to ensure that human resource development parallels the tremendous achievements with regard to physical development. We need also to ensure greater integration of people in the context of equity and finally we need to develop confidence in government through ensuring constant consultation and respect for different perspectives. 

I have already proposed some simple initiatives, this is my position in Parliament and otherwise. Some of these spring from the initiatives I recommended while at the Peace Secretariat, that will help in this respect.  Amongst these are:  (1) Establishment of 6th form colleges functioning in the English medium for talented students of all races and religions particularly in deprived areas.  This is an action which the Ministry of Education needs to take.  (2) Encouragement of a culture of synergy and entrepreneurship, through fine tuning curricular at Vocational Training and other educational institutes (Ministries of Youth Affairs, Education and Higher Education) and these are in particular areas where we have not been providing enough opportunities particularly for people from deprived areas.  (3) Institutionalization of mechanisms to ensure that talented young people not only meet regularly, but also learn and create together in the fields of culture and sports (Ministries of Cultural Affairs and Sports) I have also suggested establishment of institutions like a national theatre, a national dance theatre which can show-case things together, but also give talented people the opportunity to feel that their talents are fulfilled within Sri Lanka on the basis of equity. (4) Expansion of recruitment of minorities to government positions, in particular to the police and the armed forces (Ministries of Public Administration and of Defence).  We have been bringing up these issues in various fora. (5) Enhancing training for officials, including language training, to ensure sensitivity to the needs of particular groups (Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration). (6) Improvement  of non-formal mechanisms for redress of grievances, in particular for the vulnerable through Consultation Committees, Women and Children’s Desks at police stations, School-based local welfare associations etc. through the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs)

 Co-ordination of such initiatives and others should be done through the Presidential Secretariat.  The Peace Secretariat had begun some work in this regard, but this had been overshadowed by its other work in the last couple of years of its existence, which led to the view that it had fulfilled its role and could be closed down in 2009 which I believe was a mistake. No single Ministry however can provide the overall conceptualization that a long-term programme of reconciliation needs, which is why I believe it should be directly under the Presidential Secretariat for the co-ordination and the initiatives.

 But the most important thing I want to say today is, it should be noted that the importance of this aspect of reconciliation, which is forward looking, has been comparatively ignored, given the pressures to dwell on the past. These pressures are understandable on the part of the remaining supporters of the LTTE, so as to revive tensions, but all those truly concerned with peace and reconciliation should remember that the future must take precedence over the past, and I am afraid in a lot of the pressures being applied on Sri Lanka that is lacking.  There is a lack of concern for the future of our people together and I believe that it needs to be redressed.

 The second area which again I think is worth deep study, though it is not as important for the future as the first is the failure of efforts at a negotiated peace. This area is of importance not only for the Sri Lankan state, so that it can prevent the recurrence of past mistakes, but also for the world since it is vital that international terrorism must be dealt with firmly while attention is paid to the grievances of those who might be tempted into terror. 

The cardinal mistake in the process in Sri Lanka was the confusion of those who had grievances which needed to be addressed, and these are people we need to care about, with those who had turned to terrorism to redress those grievances and refused to move away from terrorist practices and absolute aims. 

Though it is essential to combat terrorism, any state must be sensitive to what might have made people turn to terrorism.  Therefore it must be ready and willing to engage in discussions.  Remedial action with regard to grievances should however be on the basis of general principles and should benefit all those affected, not just the proponents of terror. 

Sri Lanka removed the institutional reasons for grievances in 1987 with the Indo-Lankan Accord.  Much practical work however remained to be done to restore a sense of equity.  That was not done quickly enough.  This is not the place to discuss whether inadequacies were due to lethargy on the part of the state, and I think sometimes we condemn as due to bad faith mistakes which are entirely due to lethargy and inefficiency or whether this was  due to distractions arising from the continuation of terror  on the part of the LTTE.  What is important is that, following the destruction of the LTTE in Sri Lanka, although it is still trying to rear its head elsewhere, practical work should proceed apace.  We have no excuse now to going slow.  It should also be noted that this government actually began some practical work that should have occurred long ago through for instance measures instituted by the Ministry of Constitutional Reform and National Integration to ensure bilingualism amongst new recruits to the public service – a small thing, but an important thing.  The targeted recruiting of Tamil policemen is also an example of the positive approach of this Government, which started about four or five years back, and it had not been done before. 

Unfortunately the intransigence of the LTTE, which refused unlike the  former terrorist groups to accept the provisions of the Accord, was encouraged by domestic politics.  Whether out of genuine belief that the LTTE had been badly treated, or simply to score brownie points against political opponents, Presidents Premadasa and Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe gave the impression that peace remained elusive because of the inadequacies of previous governments, and that they would succeed in negotiating peace with the LTTE. 

The first two soon recognized their mistakes, but either because of greater naivety or greater ambition (or perhaps the greater skills of the LTTE) Mr Wickremesinghe found himself totally in thrall to the LTTE.  Though he consoled himself with the idea that the international community, by which he meant the West, he had a very  limited idea of what the international community meant, he thought the West would bail him out if the LTTE went too far  This showed complete ignorance of the way the world works.  Indeed, given that he had been part of the government which failed to get British and American assistance against Indian interference – some of you may remember Mr. Hameed travelling to Britain to invoke the 1947 Defence Treaty – despite its belief that commitment to the West during the Cold War had created a security blanket, his naivety seems culpable. Not only foolish, I think it was culpable to have thought that what failed in the ’80s, that the West would protect us from any bad thing.  The West told us, don’t be silly.  Similarly I think the West would not have rescued us if the LTTE had gone too far. 

But I need not however dwell here on the follies of the Cease Fire Agreement which has been looked at or rather on the manner in which Mr Wickremesinghe allowed it to be interpreted.  His failure to be firm when there was clear evidence of continuing belligerence, indeed his continuation of lavish subsidies to the LTTE, suggest a man blind to what was happening around him, and I say this as someone who thought that the Ceasefire Agreement was a good idea to begin with.  I was supportive of it, but it soon transpired that he had no idea of how to implement it.  I should also note, in passing since I believe the principle is well understood, that the terms of the CFA were a betrayal of all Tamils who were opposed to the LTTE.  The decimation of groups opposed to the LTTE that took place over the next few years was appalling, and the failure of the government of 2002-2003 to do anything about this remains a blot on the Sri Lankan state. 

If I am to mention an anecdote I remember asking PLOTE which had a list of people who were killed, why they didn’t complain to the SLMM – the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission whom I,  contrary to what some people were saying,  felt in many cases they were trying to do a good job and PLOTE said to me  very simply that we have no standing.  The only people who would complain to the SLMM were the government and the LTTE, which meant that when Tamils were killed no one cared. 

More significant, but because less well understood, is the role of the International Community as its termed in supporting this myopic approach and thus benefiting the LTTE.  I myself do not believe that many of those who ended up giving financial and moral support to terrorism were actually supporters of the LTTE.  Rather I believe that the indulgence the LTTE received during the period from 2002 until in fact 2006 sprang from three different mindsets, viz., (1) Those who felt sympathy for the Tamils, largely because of what they knew about the manner in which Tamils had been treated by government in the early eighties.  Something I continue to say was appalling.  What had happened then was bad enough, but its memory was also kept alive by agents of the LTTE who were able to present the LTTE as innocent victims of state brutality. 

Perhaps the most important of those who felt like this was the Norwegian Ambassador at the time the CFA was signed, Jan Westborg.  He had been in Sri Lanka with an NGO during the early eighties, and he felt tremendous sympathy for the abused Tamils, a factor that contributed to his promoting colonization of the Vanni by Tamils of Indian origin who had been treated badly three times during President Jayewardene’s first government, and never let us forget that.

(2)Those who saw themselves as holding the balance between two hostile but equal entities, viz., the Tigers and the elected government.  The manner in which the CFA was drafted allowed what are termed international aid workers to believe that they had to sit in judgment on conflicting claims – the government and tigers: equal, international community: up there.   We have to remember that most of the people who come to Sri Lanka are not the brightest or the most capable in the world. They are pocket Napoleons. They gave these people an inflated idea of their own importance.  So they clung to this interpretation.  Naturally when you are put on a pedestal you want to stay there. 

Some understood in time that such an approach was mistaken, as for instance the OCHA official  told me shortly before leaving that they had misunderstood Sri Lanka when they got here, having thought it was a country – and these are his words, not mine – like those African states in which they had cut their teeth, in which the writ of government did not run in vast areas, because there was no authority.  Here where there was authority they wanted to replace it.  Unfortunately the distrust of its own officials on the part of the Wickremesinghe government contributed to the notion of the international community that they controlled decisions as well as finances.  The most distasteful example occurred when the Head of European Union Aid tried to dragoon through a document on Modes of Operation for Assistance which specified that international agencies would hold the balance between the parties in conflict.  When, having taken over as Secretary to the Ministry that co-ordinated humanitarian aid, I noted that the clause would have to be amended, the response was that it had been already agreed.  When I made it clear that this was not a subject for negotiation, the EU lost interest in the Modes of Operation document.  I have always thought it was very significant that having pressed for this when I made it clear that government was in charge, not they, they lost interest in the document.   (3) Finally there were those who actively sought positions of self-importance.  Chief amongst these was Gareth Evans of the International Crisis Group, who kept offering himself as a mediator and guarantor of the CFA.  He was deeply critical of the Norwegians when he came here in 2007 offering himself as an alternative and he was disappointed to find that I held the Scandinavian Monitoring Mission in high regard.  He thought that all Sri Lankans were opposed to the Norwegians and I told him that as far as I was concerned the SLMM was a very decent body.  There were a few people in it who made mistakes – lot of people make mistakes, but by and large they were people who tried to do their duty.  (4) So too Louise Arbour, as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, wanted an enhanced role, argued for by her chief advisor on Sri Lanka who was again critical of the Scandinavians, and tried to persuade me that one reason for a UN Human Rights office was to take on the monitoring role of the Scandinavians. This I don’t think we in Sri Lanka understand what a wonderful place this is for people to come and live in when they have good salaries.  So I think there was a certain jealousy of the Norwegians and all these people wanted to come here and be proconsuls. 

The final result of all these approaches however, even if it was not intended, was parity for the LTTE. That was the problem. This was actively promoted by some of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s advisors, in particular Mr Bradman Weerakoon, who initiated funding projects for the LTTE that allowed them to build up their image. I went into this in detail because there were questions about the Peace Secretariat giving money to the LTTE and I found that it was all true. Most of it was initiated by Mr. Weerakoon in particular in the last days of the UNP government.  Some of these things were signed in December 2003, which I think was particularly shabby. Both the Head of UNDP and the last Norwegian Ambassador, Tore Hattrem, when I asked them about funds given to the LTTE Peace Secretariat, claimed that this was with the full permission of the government, a point I did not contest.  It was true. My point was that they had not monitored what was done with the money, and that they should upbraid the LTTE for using the equipment and funds provided to glorify suicide bombers.  This was what was done with the money that Mr. Weerakoon and his ilk very happily allowed to go to the LTTE.  Mr Hattrem, I am happy to say, and it is one of the reasons I continue to respect him, reported that he had requested the LTTE to remove the offending items, which was of suicide cadres the ones who attacked the Anuradhapura Airport, though of course they ignored him. 

The general lack of monitoring allowed the LTTE to run riot. I should note that I believe we too were at fault in not following up ourselves on funds that were given to the LTTE with our consent.  The worst example I came across – I am sure there are others, which I constantly urged our Foreign Ministry to investigate  but they felt worried to do so – was the $1 million dollars given to the LTTE by UNICEF for rehabilitation of former child soldiers. I believe Dr. Wijemanne has discussed this. 

My attention was drawn to the disastrous nature of the UNICEF relationship with the LTTE by a conversation with the Head of the UNICEF until 2007, a lady called Joanna van Gerpen around whom the LTTE clearly ran rings. At her first meeting she said brightly that the LTTE was being very good, and would shortly be releasing all combatants under 17. I pointed out that I thought this was what they had agreed to do five years previously, which is why they gave them $1 million dollars, but she said that they have tried, but would now really fulfill the promise. 

I then asked why they were stopping at 17, since I thought those under 18 were also child combatants. Her answer was that they had some difficulties with their legislation, but would amend this shortly. When I pointed out that the word legislation was inappropriate, she realized her mistake and apologized, but I told her that I would complain officially to the UN, as I did in the letter given in the appendix, which I won’t read. She sent me an apology confirming the actual UN position, but her approach with the LTTE was symptomatic of the advantage they took of those who did not really understand terrorism. 

I should note that this mealy-mouthed approach was symptomatic of many UN officials in 2007, since they seemed in general to share the views of the Wickremesinghe government and to assume that there was something wrong with the newly elected government. 

As noted in the letter I cite, I had problems too with OCHA, which seemed to indicate in its weekly reports that all was sweetness and light in Kilinochchi, while tensions continued elsewhere.  If you read the OCHA reports in 2007 they are a disgrace.  I complained about this to Sir John Holmes, the Head of OCHA, during his visit in Sri Lanka, and he did at least instruct that there should be balance. While balance between an elected government and terrorists does not seem to me desirable, it was even worse that previously even that balance was not there.  Sure enough, for the first time the following week, it was reported that tensions continued in Kilinochchi, a place that had been singularly free of such tensions in UN reports earlier. 

Not entirely surprisingly, this happened at a time when the LTTE had stepped up its recruitment, and was insisting on at least one recruit per family, even from the families of NGO workers.  This was reported to us by the Norwegian Ambassador Mr. Bratskar after his final visit to Kilinochchi, soon after Ms. van Gerpen’s very positive report about her own visit.  So the Norwegians were actually more honest with it. 

In fact I brought up this deafening silence in my first meeting with the new UNDP Head. He told me that he thought the UN had mentioned such recruitment in its reports. I asked him to show me an instance, but he was unable to do so, and had to acknowledge that this appeared only in confidential reports. Indeed he practically confessed to me the reason for all this, when I upbraided him a year later about the silence of the UN on the failure of the LTTE to release the international UN staff who had gone into LTTE controlled territory in January 2009. This had contributed to a lot of mistakes in the American State Department Report of last November much of which deals with this episode, and the fact that the UN did not publish what they actually were saying is a reason for much misunderstanding. When I noted that a much less serious breach on our part would have been highlighted by the UN he said, “But you guys wouldn’t……” and he paused then, but I could finalize the sentence for him – obviously what he meant was that we would not harm the UN whereas the LTTE would. 

I should place on record here the tremendous change in attitude achieved by Mr Buhne as well as the Heads of OCHA and UNICEF who came to Sri Lanka in 2007.  They were of a different mindset from their predecessors. They did their best to work with government, sometimes despite opposition from some of their staff who still saw the LTTE as innocent victims.  In fact Mr. Buhne congratulated INICEF Head, Mr Duamelle in winning the trust of the Sri Lankans, and I can vouch for this, since by 2008 he and the TMVP were working together.  Earlier when we wanted the TMVP to give us  a few of the former child soldiers they had they said they had taken them for protection because when they released them in 2004 the LTTE re-recruited and it is clear from the UNICEF documents that it happened. The TMVP refused to give them to UNICEF. They said that was the quickest way to make sure that the LTTE would take them over again. Reading the reports, I don’t think that was an exaggeration. Ms van Gerpen would not have been able to prevent such abuse. Incidentally a continuation of intrigue on the part of some elements in UNICEF could be seen last year, with reports that were subsequently denied. There was also UNICEF reports on casualties from landmines, which I challenged them about and they tried to shift the blame on the government, but it turned out that in fact they were not telling the truth. I have urged thorough investigation of both these matters to the Foreign Ministry and I believe we need to continue vigilant. We should note the insidious manner in which UN reports on children in armed conflict suggested that government and the LTTE were on a par.  Condemnation of bombs in Colombo that killed children was equated with unconfirmed reports from TamilNet about child casualties from air force raids on civilian targets. Ms. Coomaraswamy who wrote such reports would not take responsibility for such allegations.  Whenever I challenged them she said, ‘No, I got them from Sri Lanka’, but she referred to a Committee in Sri Lanka, which had not fulfilled its initial responsibility of working with government before dispatching such reports.  I think Dr. Wijemanne had probably mentioned the way in which that Committee on child soldiers very often did not consult with the Sri Lankan Government as it should have done. 

Let me add too that the Sri Lankan failure to monitor properly also had other adverse consequences in that it led to blanket condemnation of international agencies when deficiencies were discovered, with increasing tensions between Sri Lankans and international agencies. This is a mistake, because I think many agencies are very positive. My own experience was that firmness prevented many problems. We need to engage in constant interaction, because often the inadequacies were due to ignorance. In that regard we must ensure better training for our public servants, so that they can deal on the basis of equality (and authority  since they represent the elected government} with what is termed the international community. At the moment there is far too much acquiescence in what is said by others. 

 But it does not mean that we should blindly trust every one. Though most people working in this field have ideals we should respect, their first allegiances are to their own careers, the institutions for which they work, and the countries they come from, and not Sri Lanka and its people. We have to recognize that this is a fact. At the same time, we should be able to show them how our common interests are more important than any differences we might have. But we cannot ignore the fact that, for various reasons, some individuals do not have our interests at heart. We should be careful about these, but not tar all their associates with the same brush. For instance, my own view is that Eric Solheim had his own agenda, and was not someone who could be trusted. It was also clear that his successor as Facilitator was a cipher who sat like an attentive schoolboy when Mr. Solheim was in the room, and could not be expected to act independently, even when circumstances changed. But I believe Mr. Westborg was an idealist of sorts, even though his mindset was outdated. His successor, Mr. Bratskar did a good job and his successor Mr. Hattrem was even more ready to move forward. Of course there was interference from Mr. Solheim, who was still pursuing his own agenda, but I believe we could have taken advantage of the shifting perceptions even amongst the Norwegians, and I think our effort to put everyone in the same boat was always a mistake. We have to distinguish between individuals.

 Again with the UN, we had a much more open-mined leadership in the last few years, while agencies such as ILO and WHO – and those with more experience on Sri Lanka such as WFP and UNHCR – had excellent and very positive leadership during this period. At the same time we must insist on more recruitment of Sri Lankans to senior positions, as happens currently in UNDP. This will reduce the atmosphere of patronage that now dogs some agencies, which contributes to decisions made without understanding of the ground situation. We should also ensure capable and articulate counterparts at all levels and have prompt written questioning of any abuses that might take place on the part of youngsters anxious to make their mark. I think we do not do enough in this respect with regard to a few people such as James Elder or the other UNDP person, an Australian, whose name I cannot remember, who really got away with a lot of wrong information because we will not challenge them and complain to the UN strongly enough.

In short, while I believe that government could have been more firm from the start with regard to the CFA, we must also ensure that the government ensures as the elected representatives of the Sri Lankan people, that it makes the decisions in full consultation with all interested parties, including members of the international community who understands the situation, not people who just turn up and proceed on the basis of dogma.

Failure to make these ground rules clear led to the LTTE believing that they could get away with anything, hence their total intransigence during negotiations, their high-handed withdrawals, their refusals to return despite the restraint of the government in refraining from active responses to their provocation, in particular at the very end of 2005 and the beginning of 2006. Mr. Wickremesinghe’s willingness to concede to them an Interim Self-Governing Agency, and also the terms of the so-called PTOMS agreement, all based on the assumption that the LTTE had a right to govern the areas they controlled, also contributed to their dogmatic approach.

We were also too indulgent in allowing them to refuse to have elections at any stage.  In this regard the failure of our media to investigate as to why Prof. Peiris’ very proper announcement in 2003 that local elections would be held soon was countermanded by  higher authority shows a lack of careful scrutiny by the press and other public interest groups during that period.  If you remember Prof. Pieris was anxious to have elections.  I was critical of him for not having.  In fact I was told by Mr. Austin Fernando that he wanted to have elections, but he was stopped from higher up which probably means pressure from the LTTE on the Prime Minister. The absence of any concern for democracy amongst otherwise generally vociferous advocacy groups also testifies to the double standards which the LTTE had succeeded in imposing even amongst well meaning idealists.  For instance the European Union almost threatened us not to have elections in the East. I found that quite appalling and I am sorry that we did not take it up more firmly.    They actually called in our Ambassador in Brussels and told him that we should not have elections in the East.

Finally, I come to the investigation of incidents that might seem barriers to reconciliation. This is the area about which most concerns are expressed, though it seems to me less important than proactive measures to promote reconciliation, through ensuring the future well-being, prosperity and integration of those who suffered in the past. At the same time remedial measures are desirable in cases in which there is clear evidence of violation by the state of laws. Whilst it is not incumbent on the state to look for such evidence, it should certainly investigate instances in which a prima facie case seems to have been established.

My own view however is that in hardly any instance has such a case been established. However I believe there is at least one instance in which the state should have taken legal action, and our failure to do this has prompted blanket criticism which is not warranted and distrust which, if not warranted, is understandable.  I refer to the case of the killing of five youngsters in Trincomalee in 2006. I have long urged that indictments should be issued in that case.  I respect the response of the Attorney General at the time, that a prosecution would not be successful because the evidence was incomplete, but my point was that there was need of a clear message that such conduct was not acceptable. Given the standards of proof required by our courts, there would have been no adverse reflection on the Attorney General’s Department had the case failed, just as there has been no adverse reflection on say British justice even though there was only one conviction in the Abu Ghraib case. There was lot of photographic evidence. Everyone was acquitted, except one person. The point is, the state has made its position clear, and indicated that individual aberrations will not be condoned. If the state does not do this, there is danger that such aberrations might appear systemic, and indeed become so. Fortunately there is no evidence of this occurring in Sri Lanka.

I say this with some confidence, because I made it my business, as Head of the Peace Secretariat, to monitor events during the war, and to ask for explanations when there were reports, on TamilNet and elsewhere, of what might have seemed aberrations. I received prompt responses from the air force on all occasions, and from the army on most, though obviously, with the field of action more widespread, these answers were less thorough.

I have kept with me schedules that my staff drew up earlier based on the allegations that appeared in various places. The first point to make is that, up to the end of 2008, the allegations of civilian deaths made altogether by TamilNet amounted to less than one hundred. The Air Force, in over 400 bombing raids, was accused of causing civilian casualties in under 30 cases, and of these over 20 were of one or two deaths. I exclude the Sencholai case because that case was of a very different kettle of fish and the military targeting that was involved had been amply proved by the Government. There may be one or two deaths too many in an ideal world, but in an ideal world you do not have terrorists who force civilians to fight and to labour at military installations.  Certainly this suggests nothing but slight collateral damage, a much better record than any other country engaging in a struggle against terror. And yet, despite this record, agencies such as Human Rights Watch kept making claims of indiscriminate attacks on civilians, without any effort to substantiate their claims, even when challenged.  The first time they said this I wrote to them pointing out that the whole document they had produced which they advertised as indiscriminate acts on civilians had only one incident which was in the battle in the East.  They tried to answer and very soon they stopped answering my letters and Gareth Evens told me that he had heard that I was a dangerous person to write to. I said I am not dangerous. If you tell lies you must expect me to point out your lies.

In 2009 there were more allegations of civilian deaths, beginning with January 26th on which there were allegations of 300 deaths. That is the first instance of allegations of mass deaths. This related to the No-Fire Zone and I know that incident well, because that morning the UNDP head called up my Minister, Minister of Human Rights at the time with the allegation that our forces were firing on civilians in the Zone. However later that day the Bishop of Jaffna called us to ask whether the No-Fire Zone could be extended, which he would not have done, if we were firing into it, and issued a press release calling on the LTTE not to bring their heavy weapons into the Zone. Later that day the UN Co-ordinator sent us a message to say “For info we believe that firing this morning most likely was from an LTTE position.” That was sent by SMS confirming that the allegation that he had received that morning was incorrect and his information was that the firing that morning most likely was from a LTTE position.

In short the LTTE was now doing what it had planned all along, using civilians as human shields, firing from their midst with scant regard to casualties, indeed even inflicting such casualties deliberately sometimes in order to get the international reactions it wanted. It was obvious that this had been planned for a long time, but sadly they were encouraged in this ploy by the failure of the so-called international community to roundly condemn the herding of the displaced into smaller and smaller spaces. This began to happen in 2008.  People did not care; The NGOs who claimed to have been working on behalf of the people of the Vanni said nothing when the LTTE held people back, including the families of their workers. In fact I told one of them when they objected publicly to their workers’ families being recruited.  I said I think you all are being very hypocritical.  He said, no. We did not want people working for us there fighting for the LTTE.  I said, I am not objecting to your condemning that.  I am objecting to the fact that for six months you said nothing when the ordinary peasants were being recruited and later when I met people in the camp some of whom said they had been held captive. I said why didn’t you complain to so-called NGOs that were there, who said they were there for protection.  This was part of the problem that NGOs that were there in the Vanni allowed recruitment to go on and did not say a word. Instead condemnation was reserved for the centres the government had set up for the displaced who sought refuge. Indeed agencies such as Human Rights Watch, in what was in effect an apology for the LTTE’s strategy, tried to suggest that people actually preferred to stay with the LTTE rather than escape to government areas – even while there was clear evidence of the LTTE actually shooting people who tried to escape, and I put in an appendix one of the breaches that I received about human rights when they came out with the allegation which to my mind were in effect supportive of the LTTE.

Given the plethora of shrill allegations against the Sri Lankan forces, it is understandable that they have not been taken seriously. This however was a mistake, because at least some were made in good faith by those who have otherwise been categorical in their condemnation of the LTTE. Thus I believe we should have gone into the reports of the Jaffna University Teachers for Human Rights. Though they often get things wrong, given the manner in which they collect information, – they sometimes apologize saying they made a mistake last time – they are balanced, and I believe they make clear the generally humane way in which the forces behaved. Thus, in their last report they describe an incident in which the LTTE fired from amidst civilians, obviously trying to provoke the army to fire back, and the army desisted from doing so.

This does not mean that we can claim government forces did not inflict any civilian casualties.  Sometimes soldiers may have responded to provocation such as the above, especially in the heat of battle, when in fear of their own lives, and civilians would have died. Yet the fact that they did not so respond on occasions suggests that that was what their battle orders were. It is orders to the contrary that would constitute crimes. If the army orders are to take maximum care of the civilians and I think the incidents that were quoted suggests that was happening most of the time.  Whereas individual responses in the context of enemy attacks are not issues that should lead to smoldering animosity and inhibit reconciliation. There is no indication at any stage of responses being disproportionate.

I regret therefore that we did not respond promptly to the schedule submitted by the American State Department late last year. Since they noted that these were simple allegations, and since we already had material on several of those allegations, we should have immediately assuaged concerns where possible. Sadly the political games that were played over the next month, after that report was issued, with the individual who had claimed responsibility for a grave aberration – the worst report of the American State Department of October 2009 refers to a statement by Gen. Fonseka claiming responsibility for killing of civilians – but when that person turned a full somersault and seeming to make a totally contrary claim, some of the reactions led to a belief that the queries were political in character. This should not  have happened, and instead what is generally a positive story should  have been very simply told.

In particular we should have nailed the canard, initially floated by the Times of London, that over 20,000 civilians had been killed. I give in a footnote my own comments about this figure. But should also stress here that the Times gave three different explanations of  how it had made its calculations, each more preposterous than the last. First they said that the UN said there were 7,000 and then they added 1,000.  Then they said that they were extrapolating from the bodies that were identified, but they multiplied this by four. Then they said that they got the figure by looking at the graves. But since they said the graves that they looked at were in the No Fire Zone, the 7,000 they mentioned were in other areas, the conclusion was inescapable that they wanted to propagate a particular viewpoint, and did not care about facts or evidence in pushing this.

What was the reason for this?  I go back to the listing of different motivations for pursuit of what amounts to the same destructive agenda. Amongst these are: (I) Anger amongst Tamils who suffered in the eighties and who therefore believe that all recent suffering must also be entirely the fault of the government. People are so upset that they think that if anything goes wrong it is the fault of the government, because they remember Mr. Jayewardene in 1983.   (ii) Support for Tamils who propagate the above view, either through sympathy for their suffering or through a desire for their support for electoral reasons. (ii)  Desire to assert control, whether for personal or for political reasons. 

I believe we should do all in our power to convince Tamils who suffered in the past that government is committed to reconciliation.  For this we need to move quickly on the types of initiatives described at the beginning of this paper.  I say it again that the attack made on us by some people abroad have led to greater concern about point (iii) to the neglect of point (I) and I think that is a culpable mistake that they should be recognizing foremost in the future.  Such actions would also win over those who support them for altruistic reasons.  It is also necessary in promoting such actions to ensure consultation and explication as comprehensively as possible.  I think for instance the regular press conferences that the Minister of Human Rights had  in 2009 was very helpful and that is something that should be continued.

This needs to be accompanied, as noted, by actions that make it clear government rejects all aberrations and will try to ensure they are not repeated.  Measures that institutionalize the rule of law should also be enacted, and in particular to make clear the commitment of the state to fundamental rights and equity.

In all this there is need of a good communications strategy that lays down the tremendous progress made in the last year, in particular in areas in which we were under grave suspicion. The manner in which the government lived up to its commitments regarding resettlement should have led to greater acknowledgment that previous negative pronouncements were misplaced.  Similarly, the work being done on Rehabilitation also deserves more recognition.  If you remember a year ago the allegation was that we were ignoring all this, that we were treating these people like prisoners of war. Now that we have actually dealt very positively, certainly more positively than other countries with the situation, the attacks have changed.

Dealing with those who are less altruistic may be less easy, but progress on the above will make it clear that mutual interests can be served through consultation rather than confrontation.  With the British election out of the way, the worst examples of hypocrisy (sadly also brought to bear on the Americans too) are over, and a positive approach to the new government in Britain should prove successful.

At the same time it is necessary to pinpoint instances of hypocrisy where the predilections of individuals could have damaged relations between countries.   For instance, the readiness of individuals to fall in with the plans of opposition politicians must be changed.  The response to the claim of the Leader of the Opposition that GSP + would be maintained were General Fonseka elected President, led to a pronouncement by the EU Ambassador here on the suitability of military men to take to politics – He was almost comparing Gen. Fonseka to Gen. Eisenhower – which seemed designed to give a political message, which was totally inappropriate..  The impact of such behaviour should be pointed out clearly, instead of being left to fester.  The EU should for instance be asked to explain various pronouncements, such as the effort to prevent democracy taking route in the East, and encouraged to study their own approach to relations with Sri Lanka, since they have contributed perhaps unwittingly, to the view that they are not interested at all in human rights, but rather in increasing their own political influence.  To go back to the incident of elections, they actually told our Ambassador not to have elections because they knew that elections would not be fair.  What was their evidence for this?  What their informants in Sri Lanka had told them and the fact that in 2004 their monitoring mission had said that the elections were unfair.  So I told them, “Do you know that people elected on that unfair election were the people who are now telling you not to have elections, the TNA people who killed the Karuna faction people to take office?” 

We should make it clear that continuing persecution will be addressed systematically by drawing attention to the efforts of a few individuals to fulfil personal agendas at the expense of the Sri Lankan people.  It is no coincidence that Louise Arbour has now joined up with the Gareth Evans ICG to fulminate against Sri Lanka, and seek justification for their previous excesses.  It is also noteworthy that elements in the Arbour stable, for instance the Iranian Canadian Prof. Payam Akhavan had asked the Canadian government to support his claims to sit on the tribunal to go into Sri Lankan war crimes, which he had assumed was being set up in Geneva on the infamous occasion when some Western countries tried to put Sri Lanka on the dock.  I have here a comment from one of the Canadian newspapers: “Rights and democracy board member used ‘inappropriate’ tactics to lobby for UN post.”  Prof. Akhavan had written to the Canadian government saying that there is going to be a war crimes tribunal set up by the Special Session in Geneva on May 27th.  Can I please become a member of this?  What is interesting is this, which was on the blog of several newspapers has now been withdrawn from two of them.  So I think there is a certain amount of hanky-panky going on and we should object to this formally and officially, because this collection of people who want jobs need to be pointed out for what they are trying to do to the Sri Lankan people simply in order to pursue their own desire for self importance.

Contrary to the presumably genuine assertion of for instance the British High Commission representative in Colombo that the Western demand for a special session was to ensure a decent treatment for the displaced, this is what the British High Commissioner told me, and I told him “Why does your British Foreign Minister then announce doubtless as part of his election campaign that the Western initiative was designed to ensure accountability for war crimes?” This approach was encouraged by Ms Arbour’s successor as UN Human Rights Commissioner, and Mr Akhavan had written to the Canadian Government saying “Please apply to her personally because she will have a big say in the war crimes tribunal.”  It is important that Sri Lanka seeks explanations for this insidious uniformity of interest, given too the pronouncement of the most senior Sri Lankan working for the UN that the vote favouring us in the Human Rights Council meant total disaster.  When the Human Rights Council voted by a massive majority in favour of the Sri Lankan position, Radhika Coomaraswamy who talks about child soldiers, sent an e-mail round the world saying this is total disaster.  Something is wrong.

We need then to continue vigilant about the actions and motives of those who engage in insidious and inaccurate criticism of our forces.  Their sudden affection for the former army commander serves only to confirm that their agenda was political rather than moral.  Whilst we pursue equity and justice for all, we must also ensure that we monitor those who sought for so long to prevent us dealing firmly with terrorism, who did nothing to moderate the excesses of the LTTE but continued to ignore the wishes (and the suffering) of the vast majority of the Sri Lankan people, Sinhala and Tamil and Muslim, in their pursuit of their own personal goals.  Thank you.

Q & A

Wijesinha: May I ask you a question?  Are these documents confidential? 

Rohan Perera: No.

Wijesinha: I can publish them on my blog.

C.R. de Silva: This is a public hearing. You also referred to a list of incidents where you have catalogued.  Can you also make that available to us?

Wijesinha: To be quite honest I am very disappointed – not about you all – Thank you for inviting me here.  I mentioned to the Wijesinghe Committee that I had this and I would be happy to make it available if they ask, but no one bothered to ask. I would be delighted to give it to you, but can you make photocopies of it and return it to me?

C.R. de Silva: Yes, certainly.

Wijesinha: This is very precious. It is my total evidence, because a lot of the allegations were not at all accurate.

Palihakkara: Prof. Wijesinha, thank you for your very candid presentation.  I think you very rightly observed that the first part of your presentation in your view is the most important, that we should look forward to reconciliation. You mentioned three points; first you referred to an English school and then vocational training area and thirdly, to a youth forum for talent.  Could you please elaborate on those three points for the benefit of the Commission?

Wijesinha: Six points; one of the biggest problems that we have to face in this country is our education system.  I think it is very good at the primary levels, but because we have not moved on to new initiatives we are not really fulfilling the expectations of our people. I think both new Ministers of Higher Education and Education have come out with very, very good ideas about reforms.  My own view is that you should be much more quick because I think there is almost universal consensus on the direction they want to go.  There will be a few objections.  But I think those need to be moved on very quickly.  But we need to think outside the box.  For instance one of our biggest problems in schools is that children are segregated from birth.  There are Sinhala medium schools, Tamil medium schools and then there are Tamil-Muslim schools. What you need to do is to bring them together. One way of bringing people together is of course the English medium, because not only are they in the same school, they will study in the same class and that interaction is important.  I think my greatest contribution for peace was what I did ten years ago when I started English medium when the government finally decided to allow it. In 2002 we started the English medium.  But sadly the Wickremesinghe government tried to kill it.  I do not know why.  I asked him why it was so, he said, “No, we cannot do it now. It will have to stop.”  Fortunately Mr. Karunasena Kodituwakku was very positive about it. But the training was not done. Mr. Wickremesinghe managed to kill all the training that we planned. So it is still more an urban privilege. We need to get into the rural areas. We need to do it very quickly and we should use this opportunity to bring people together.

If I might give you an anecdote, when I was in Muttur three school principals – Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim – all came to me and said, “Can’t we have an English medium school where we are all together?” and they had a very practical point for this as well, they said, “none of us have enough teachers”. They were very small schools. Their cadre was only 20, but they needed 60 teachers and they each had about between 5 and 10.  If they had one school they would have had enough teachers, kids would learn together. So I had suggested, I sent a paper to the Minister of Education and the Secretary and also Mr. Weeratunge, because he told me English comes under English initiative, to set up 6th form colleges, rapid bringing together of the brightest kids to do their A-Levels in English. It is not difficult. I would almost say at least one per district. Preferably more because you can do some of them in educational divisions. So that is one area. 

The second is the encouragement of the culture. We have been trying for ages to get reforms in the curricular for vocational training. I tried this ten years ago on the National Education Commission to actually give people soft skills as well as the vocational training – English, computing, improve their job capabilities and also things like team work, leadership. Those are essential, but our institutions are so slow to change their curricular. For instance, the English course in the Vocational Training Institutes – the diploma- expects the children to read “Anna Karenina” of 50 years ago.  So these things are not changed.  So I think you have to make things more practical.  Then I think you need institutions or mechanisms that bring young people for active work like school exchange programmes, and also things like a national theatre where the best talent can work together – a national dance theatre. I asked about this in Parliament and the Minister of Cultural Affairs said it was a good idea. But of course these need to be done quickly. You do not want to give this to a Committee who might report three years later. These things should be done very, very quickly.

I have also mentioned the expansion of recruitment from minorities to government positions.  I think that many people have spoken about.   I think people have not recognized efforts made by Secretary of Defence five years ago – Tamil policemen plus recruitment of even Tamils into the Cadet Corps of the Army.  Language training; there is a Language Training Institute which is not functioning as well as it should.  It was set up last year.  I think you mentioned that.

The final thing is something which we tried to set up at the Ministry of Human Rights which are committees run by government, especially in the North and East, to look into the problems of women and children, because at the moment there is no formal state mechanism and the idea seems to have been spread especially by some NGOs that they are the source of redress for the people, whereas there should be a government mechanism working with NGOs together to make sure that there can be prompt reactions informal as well as formal to the grievances of especially of women and children.

C.R. de Silva: I do agree with you that English should be given prominence, especially to bring about ethnic reconciliation.  Now you suggested the setting up of English medium schools where the medium of instruction is in English for talented students in each District. Will this give rise to an elitist class being created as a result of special colleges being set up or one college being set up in each district? Wouldn’t it be better to encourage the study of English in all schools rather than create special schools where the medium of instruction is English for talented students?

Wijesinha: I don’t think it is a question of “rather”; what you have said in second phase in theory is what this country has been doing for 60 years with resounding failure. Every government says that they are encouraging the study of English in all schools. Why has it failed? – because there aren’t good enough teachers.

The second point is, I hear it all the time; there should be elites. We have to realize that life is about elites. But the whole point is making sure that the opportunity to join an elite is available to the worst-off. We know that already. We have 12,000 people going to universities. They become elites. Some would claim that they don’t, because the elite is still in Colombo whether they get any educational qualification or not because they speak English well. So to me social equity demand equality of opportunity and we must promote the talents of the worst off. You do two things by actually setting up centres of excellence in rural areas. If one is to give more chance to more people in rural areas rather than now where you ma