A response to Barbara Crossette (New York Times)

By Dr. Victor Rajakulendran

On March 3rd 2002, Barbara Crossette wrote an article in the New York Times titled “The War on Terror Points a Country Toward Peace”. She started the article by saying, “Just over the horizon from Afghanistan, another war on terror may be drawing to a close”. Is she correct in describing the war between the Sri Lankan Security Forces (SLSF) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a “war on terror”? If she is right, who is fighting against whose terror?

The fact is, under the guise of quelling the Tamil rebellion, it is the SLSF who unleashed terror on the Tamils. This ‘terror’ came in various forms. Tamil population centres, churches filled with Tamil refugees, schools full of Tamil children, hospitals with Tamil patients were bombed from the air by the SLSF. Mass arrests of Tamil youths were conducted by the SLSF under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, and kept in detention indefinitely without trial. Tamil girls and women were gang raped by the members of the SLSF. Tamils of all ages were tortured, killed and buried in mass graves by the SLSF. The LTTE’s ‘suicide bombings’ and ‘other bombings in Colombo’ were only in response to this state-sponsored terrorism. It is well known that the LTTE did not start the suicide bombings until the aerial bombing of the Tamil country by the SLSF began.

Ms. Crossette has stated that, according to many Sri Lankans and foreign experts, it is not a ‘coincidence’ that the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE agreed to a firm cease-fire within months of September 11, implying a cause and effect connection. It is obvious that she doesn’t know the history of the peace attempts in Sri Lanka, or is it that she chose to conveniently ignore it? The Norwegian assisted peace initiative began almost 2 years ago (in 2000), at the insistence of the International Community (IC), and under President Chandrika’s last government. It is due to President Chandrika’s unsuccessful desire to weaken the LTTE militarily first, before meeting them at the negotiating table, what has happened now could not happen earlier.

For what has happened now to happen, the government policy had to be changed and for that the old government had to be replaced by a new government. Also the July 2001 attack by the LTTE on the Sri Lankan airforce complex, and the damage to the aircraft parked in the complex, sent the Sri Lankan economy on a downward spiral, precipitously. No government could have continued the war under the new economic situation – with mounting losses in the warfront, escalating war expenditure, a stagnant growth and the international community withholding funds. This is why Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe’s United National Alliance went to polls on a peace platform and got the mandate from the Singhalese people. He is only implementing now what he promised his people during the election campaign. The LTTE, who has been campaigning for ‘peace-talks under international mediation’ for several years now, is merely continuing its earlier stance.

Furthermore, the US has been urging the Sri Lankan government to negotiate with the LTTE well before (and also after) the US listed it as a foreign terrorist organization, and certainly well before September 11. The statement released by the State Department about the ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, praising it and pledging support to it, and Mr. Colin Powel’s telephone call to Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe assuring his support, and the publicity given to this conversation by the US Ambassador in Sri Lanka, indicates clearly the US stand on the LTTE. If US considers LTTE as only a terrorist organisation, the US administration in its present mood would have actually opposed any talks with the LTTE. Contrary to Ms. Crossette’s assertion, it is a mere coincidence that what has happened in Sri Lanka occurred within months of September 11. The urgency with which the international community pushed for the peace talks, however, may have something to do with September 11.

Ms. Crossette may not have heard this. On the 23rd of February, at the annual Amcham (American Chamber of Commerce in Colombo) Ball, held at the Colombo Hilton, the US Ambassador, Ashley Wills is reported to have raised his glass to toast the government, the Prime Minister, Prof. G.L. Peiris and then Velupillai Prabhakaran. One Colombo businessmen present is reported to have muttered, “It is like the Sri Lankan Ambassador in the US toasting Osama bin Laden - eh what!”

What Ms. Crossette failed to grasp is that the US does not consider the Sri Lankan war as a ‘war on terrorism’. If it was so, US would not have insisted on the Sri Lankan government to negotiate with the Tigers, instead of helping the government to militarily crush them.

Ms. Crossette’s statement, “In Sri Lanka, Norway alone has come to the aid of the peace-minded government by talking the tigers into a truce” also needs comment. Firstly, before the Norwegians came into the picture several countries came forward to facilitate/mediate. The European Union, the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and Malaysia were among the many who offered their services. Norway was a choice acceptable to both parties.

On the subject of “talking the tigers into a truce”, it is a well-recorded fact that when the Norwegians started the process in 2000, it was the then government that was not ‘peace minded’. Only the LTTE wanted peace. It is worth recalling that as soon as the Norwegian special envoy Mr. Erick Solheim met Mr. Prabhakaran, LTTE declared a unilateral cease-fire to facilitate the initiation of negotiations. The then government, interested only in a military solution, failed to reciprocate. Norwegians tried their best to talk the ‘war-minded’ President Chandrika into a truce and failed. When the new government came into power, Norwegians and the Tigers did not have to do anything, other than for the LTTE to declare another cease-fire. The new government promptly reciprocated and invited the Norwegians to come and help again. This is how the new MoU came into existence. Ms. Crossette is completely off the mark in saying that the Norwegians are ‘alone’, and that the Norwegians ‘talked the Tigers into a truce’. Ms. Crossette’s statement on this is nothing but mischievous journalism.

Ms. Crossette, to buttress her story, has quoted Teresita C. Shaffer, the former American Ambassador, as saying, “the Tigers may be weakened militarily which could explain their inability to recapture Jaffna”. Teresita Shaffer knows better. The LTTE was well poised to take over Jaffna immediately after they overran the Elephant Pass garrison and entered the peninsula. The Sri Lankan forces numbering about 30,000 were demoralised and marooned, forcing India to talk about evacuating them on ‘humanitarian grounds’. India played a key role in stalling the Tigers from taking over Jaffna. During this breather, Sri Lankan government managed to get some destructive weapons from Pakistan and Czechoslovakia and managed to keep the Tigers at bay by emptying and destroying entire towns like Chavakachcheri to create a buffer.

It is unclear as to why Ms. Crossette quoted Radikha Coomaraswamy, director of the International Center for Ethnic Studies in Colombo as saying, “there will have to be a major international presence in Tiger territory”. If it is to insinuate that such presence is to save the Tamil people from the Tigers, she is dead wrong. It is a washed-out cliché, used by Chandrika to justify her ‘war for peace’. At the December 2001 Elections the Tamil people spoke, quite clearly indeed, on who they want to represent them. As we say in Thamil, such concern is like ‘the wolf crying because the goat is getting wet in the rain.’

In conclusion, September 11 or the American ‘war on terror’ has nothing to do with the evolving situation in Sri Lanka. The LTTE has been ready and willing for peace talks for a long time. It was President Chandrika’s clumsiness and her refusal to make peace with the LTTE that caused the delay. A new government was needed to grasp the LTTE offer, and make peace.

March 7, 2002