Lessons from Resistance/Terrorism and Stalemate in Sri Lanka

 by Donald Jayantha Gnanakone (a speech given at World Affairs Council Meeting, San Diego, California, 9/11/2003)


We have gathered today to share our experiences, express our thoughts, and to reflect on the 20 year civil war in Sri Lanka, which began on the 25TH OF July 1983 under the leadership of former UNP President, J R Jayawardene, and soon-to-be Prime Minister Premadasa. That was the day I had to leave Sri Lanka, and not return until December 2001, when the government changed, and Ranil Wickremasinghe became Prime Minister. Like me, many others also have paid a heavy price, suffered huge personal, and financial losses due to either forced or self imposed exile from Sri Lanka.

We will also attempt to analyze the lessons learnt from armed resistance to state-sponsored terrorism, oppression, repression, suppression, human rights violations, and discrimination. Terrorism is linked to 9/11 forever, permanently etched in our memory. However, oppressive minority or majority governments, rulers, dictators, conveniently and liberally use the label of terrorism and call all their opponents, opposing oppression and repression, terrorists.

The use of the word terrorism serves regimes in a number of ways. It protects regimes from being challenged. Even if regimes have a terrible human rights record, the very invocation of the term "terrorism" provides them some measure of legitimacy and support from the international community. Second, the use of the label "terrorism" seeks to hide the ugly, and violent aspects of regimes, including gross human rights violations, death squads, etc. and thereby providing them with some respect in the international community. Third, the hue and cry about "terrorism" has the prospect of internationalizing the problem. Countries or regimes faced with problems of "terrorism" can certainly count on some powerful countries which have similar problems to come to their rescue, or provide sympathetic material and moral support. More importantly, millions of lives and properties could have been saved from destruction, had the international community not bought the argument advanced by such States in their so called messianic crusade against "terrorism".

In the early fifties the scare word was to label opposing forces, labor unions, etc. as "communists." That was known as McCarthyism. In the 21st century it is fashionable to use the label of TERRORISM or TERRORIST. When our founding fathers in America, opposed the colonial rulers of the British Kings and Queens of England across the Atlantic Ocean they were labeled the equivalent of "Terrorists" 250 years ago, which included great leaders like George Washington. Our forefathers chose to take up arms, organize armed resistance, resort to violent method, to fight for the freedom and independence. But the British rulers perpetrated more violence against America, and in some instances supported by other Americans, and conveniently labeled their opponents as "pirates, thieves, hooligans, etc." although the American people truly believed that they were patriots.

Then came the American Civil War and more violence. Therefore, let us make no mistake that civil wars, unnecessary violence, killings, and armed resistance, are not a new phenomena to this world, or only a Third World feature, like in Sri Lanka. The Western world, beginning in Europe, many centuries ago, has been involved in civil and religious wars, armed revolutions, acts of terror and violence. Of course, now they are very enlightened, and have the audacity to preach morality, and non violent methods of conflict resolution, which we all support in the interest of prevention of further bloodshed and violence, in Sri Lanka.

One of the first acts of Commercial Terrorism was committed on American soil and has a Sri Lankan or Ceylon Tamil connection. It occurred 250 years ago, and was known as the Boston Tea Party. The tea plucked by Tamil labor was exported to Britain, blended, repacked and shipped to Boston. For many years, Americans wore that act as a badge of honor, referring to the Boston Tea party, where a commercial merchant ship was attacked, and the cargo dumped into the Boston harbor. I wonder how the political and international community would react to such an act of violence by any group, in any part of this universe now...

Sri Lanka is a wonderful, and compelling island of diverse beauty, culture and heritage, not just known only for the sincere generosity of the smiling people and the splendor of the landscape, but also for the pulse of this important moment in the history of the nation. This is due to the twenty year civil war, and 55 years of hardly any development since independence from the British. Sri Lanka has seen two terrible decades of violence and terror. Tens of thousands of people have died, many thousands more have suffered, and the whole country has paid the price, and carried a heavy burden. Indian and Sri Lankan armed forces have been involved in the civil war during the past 20 years, fighting armed Tamil resistance fighters, in the mistaken belief of suppressing Tamil resistance against oppression as Tamil terrorism.

But in December 2001, the parties to the conflict led by Mr. Pirabakaran, the leader of the LTTE, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe reached a ceasefire agreement, finally signed on the 24th of February 2002. In the time since, they have engaged in the painstaking process of building a shared vision for a brighter future. Both leaders need to be commended for the courage of their convictions, for realizing the follies of war and armed conflict, and for moving towards peace and prosperity for all, in Sri Lanka. They should be supported, assisted, and encouraged for their display of courage and vision.

You need two hands to clap, and therefore both these strong leaders are needed for peace in Sri Lanka. These are the lessons of resistance and 'terrorism' experienced in Sri Lanka. We need to look forward to the future with optimism, learn from the mistakes of the violent past, and move forward for economic development. Most Sri Lanka watchers agree that this is the best chance of Peace the country has ever had since independence in 1948.

There has been a series of talks, between the LTTE and the GOSL, 6 in all, in different capitals of the world, like Bangkok, Tokyo, Berlin, and Oslo. It was remarkable in the first round of talks that the LTTE renounced their absolute demand for a separate state, and were prepared to accept a Federal System of administration, without dividing the country. This was considered a paradigm shift in their ideology and demands during the civil war, considering the fact that the main goal and aspiration of the LTTE was setting up a separate, independent state. It was a huge concession by the LTTE leader, Mr. Pirabakaran.

The ceasefire has survived for nearly 18 months, despite 2 of the LTTE tanker vessels being destroyed by the Sri Lankan navy in International waters, with all LTTE crew, and commercial cargo. There has been absolutely no fighting between the two armed forces, and the killings have stopped. No ceasefire is perfect, and there have been minor infringements during the past one and a half years, but nothing which might cause the resumption of the civil war.

However, there has been problems with the implementation of the ceasefire agreement, and the LTTE and the Tamils have serious doubts about the sincerity and honesty of the intentions of the GOSL. I will provide some illustrations of the contentious issues between the two parties. Both parties agreed to enter into a ceasefire, refrain from conduct that could undermine the good intentions or violate the spirit of this agreement, and implement confidence-building measures. Their aim was to restore normalcy for all inhabitants of Sr Lanka. Electricity, phone services, and other infrastructure facilities still remain only an illusion in LTTE-controlled areas. Roads, Bridges, Tanks, and other Irrigation facilities, Health, Educational systems continue in a state of disrepair or in very poor conditions, in the entire Northeast Province.

Shortages in staff for all administrative sectors persist, whereas the Singhalese or Muslim areas in the same Northeast province have excess. Normalcy in Fishing is nowhere near the 1983 levels. It is only 10-15 percent of what it was over 20 years ago. Agriculture is also in a poor state. There are hardly any efforts being made by the GOSL to provide the necessary assistance for the Tamil Fisherman and the Farmers. The main culprit being the High Security Zones maintained by the armed forces both on agricultural land and coastal fishing areas. Only about 10 per cent of the landmines have been removed despite International assistance. It is with all seriousness I have to say that the land mine and UXO problems might persist for another 10 years.

As per article 2.2 of the CFA, "Places of worship (Hindu temples, Christian Churches, Muslim Mosques and other holy sites, etc.) currently held by the forces of either parties shall be vacated by D-day + 30 and made accessible to the public. Places of worship which are situated in HSZs shall be vacated by all armed personal." After nearly 500 days the armed forces still continue to occupy such sensitive places, and have made it clear that they will remain there.

Article 2.3 of the CFA - "Beginning on the date on which this agreement enters into force, school buildings occupied by either Party shall be vacated and returned to their intended use. This activity shall be completed by D-day + 160 at the latest." This has not been complied with. As per article 2.4 of the CFA, - "A schedule indicating the return of all public buildings to their intended use shall be drawn up by the parties and published by D-day 30." This has not been complied with and the armed forces continue to occupy public buildings, several hotels, rest houses, Tourist guest houses, and thousands of private homes. Over 500,000 refugees, or Internally displaced people (commonly known as IDPs) are languishing in refugee camps in Sri Lanka, and South India unable to return to their homes and villages and resume their normal life. Thousands of homes has been destroyed or damaged in the NE province. Additionally schools, libraries, hospitals, markets, roads, bridges have been damaged or completely destroyed.

As per article 2.11 "A gradual easing of the fishing restrictions shall take place starting from D-day. As of D-day + 90, all restrictions on day and night fishing shall be removed." As I said earlier, there are serious deficiencies in this field. As a result of the above mentioned non compliances, and without adequate funding to carry out rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts by the GOSL, and several other violations of the CFA, the LTTE was forced to suspend the progressive Peace talks with the GOSL on April 21, 2003.

The Ministry of Fisheries allowed foreign trawlers of Chinese origin to perform bottom trawling in the Northeastern seaboard. Despite all the private protest and negotiations with the highest authorities and the Navy, nobody could prevent the damages caused by these foreign trawlers to the marine life within our shores and adjoining coastal areas. This finally came to an end by some unidentified naval forces sinking one of the Chinese Trawlers, causing the death of 22 unfortunate Chinese fisherman. This was a sad end to the so-called "Research Fishing" by foreign trawlers.

The GOSL and some of the chauvinistic forces led by leftist parties, as well as the main opposition part the Peoples Alliance under the leadership of the President, have been critical of the LTTE in certain aspects of the CFA. They also oppose the LTTE having their own Police force, Judiciary, Banking System, Revenue Collection departments, and not fully discharging all their fighters under the age of 18. There are also unproven allegations of the LTTE procuring arms from abroad, which was not an issue covered by the CFA, while at the same time the Sri Lankan armed forces continue to purchase large quantities of arms, ammunitions, aircrafts, missile and patrol boats

A North East Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Fund was agreed between both parties, to be established, independent of the GOSL officials, to cater to the immediate needs of the population of the Northeast. This was never done, nor any such organizations adequately funded. It is a well established fact that there is a very high degree of corruption, wastage, nepotism and under utilization of foreign aid in the public sector in Sri Lanka. The utilization of aid in Sri Lanka is well below 20 per cent of the total aid and grants received. Since the LTTE are a very disciplined organization and abhors corruption, they have insisted from the beginning both privately and publicly, that all foreign aid, Grants, concessionary loans, have to be handled independently of government Ministries, officials, or political appointees.

To circumvent this problem and to have control over how, when, and where projects identified are efficiently, and effectively, implemented, the LTTE has insisted on an independent fund receiving and disbursing facility, supervised by the World Bank officials. Although the GOSL initially agreed, it has not been so far implemented. Due to this and the Provincial Administration not being handed over on an interim basis to the LTTE in the Northeast, the LTTE refused to participate in the Tokyo Aid Conference, despite desperate pleas from the US, European, Canadian, Australian, and the Japanese governments. Although four and a half Billion Dollars has been pledged as aid, grants, and loans to Sri Lanka in the next 4 years, none of the aid has started flowing in. This is due to the fact that peace talks have not recommenced, and there has been no agreement between the LTTE and GOSL regarding the provincial administration in the Northeast. The establishment, and administration of the NERRF is still in its embryonic stage with no signs of life in sight. The sooner such arrangements are finalized by both parties, the quicker the foreign aid would begin flowing into the country.

THIS IS THE PRESENT STALEMATE IN SRI LANKA. I am certain there is a fair amount of International and domestic pressure on the GOSL to recommence the talks by agreeing to most of the LTTE requirements. The future economic development, direct foreign investment, lower interest rates, improvement in Trade and productivity, Tourist Industry, Stock Market and Real Estate fortunes are all dependent upon the recommencement of the Peace talks and substantial progress in those peace talks.

Without the billions of dollars in foreign aid, and soft loans, Sri Lanka cannot progress economically and resolve their unemployment, foreign exchange and other related problems.. Therefore, it is paramount for Sri Lanka to become a vibrant economy, generate employment, improve the quality of life, alleviate poverty slowly but surely, the GOSL desperately needs the funds pledged in Tokyo by the donor countries. Only by entering into a Peace treaty with the LTTE can the GOSL achieve permanent Peace and reduce their defense expenses, that has grown from 50 Million dollars to a Billion dollars in 20 years. The cost of security and Insurance has also increased in leaps and bounds. Production in the sectors of Agriculture, Fishing, and Industry has dropped tremendously. Shipping lines and Airlines have avoided Sri Lanka due to the 20 year civil war, consequently having serious repercussions on foreign trade.

The GOSL has forwarded a discussion document in August to the LTTE offering a Provincial Administrative Council with majority membership to the LTTE. Unfortunately the Machiavellian elements in Colombo, and New Delh,i India are still up to their old tricks, and treachery still prevails. The proposals lack sincerity and honesty in their intention and purpose to transfer the administrative powers to the Province. The GOSL's proposal is basically flawed and I am confident that not even 25 per cent of the proposals will be accepted by the LTTE hierarchy.

A group of about 20 leading scholars of law, led by Mr. Tamil Chelvam, the head of the political section, and other members of the LTTE and peace negotiators like Dr. Maheswaran, a rehabilitation expert from Australia, Eastern Province Military Commander Col. Karuna, Attorney at Law and Constitutional expert, Mr. Rudrakumar, participated in a week long deliberation in Paris ,France 2 weeks ago. Due to medical concerns, the Balasinghams were unable to participate. The results of those discussions, and alternate proposals which were formulated in Paris, are under discussion by the LTTE leadership in the Northern Province. The official response to the GOSL proposals will be forwarded by the LTTE by the end of October.

Depending on the acceptance of the proposal, the Peace talks will recommence by December or January next year.

I will discuss further regarding the proposed administrative councils and functions during the question and answer time. Due to the constraint in time I will end with the famous words of Edward Kennedy who said, "The work goes on, fight remains, Hope still lives and the Dreams shall never Die." So let us all give peace a chance.

###

Posted September 27, 2003