Address by Prof. G. L. Peiris, Minister of External Affairs on the 'Challenges and Prospects of Counter Terrorism' at the 'Defeating Terrorism - The Sri Lankan Experience' international seminar held at the Galadari Hotel - 31st May 2011
In the end, almost all governments that interacted with us explicitly stated their opinion that Sri Lanka may be able to win a battle or a skirmish, but victory against the LTTE in the field of battle, was inconceivable. This was the advice which we received almost uniformly. How was it possible then, for Sri Lanka to achieve this victory? This was a matter which has evoked widespread interest.
When I accompanied His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapakse to the Ukraine on an official visit, we visited one of the best known military academies in that part to the world, in Kiev (?), and I saw for myself how interested that Institute was in getting more information about the Sri Lankan experience. So that is why I consider it exceedingly timely that this seminar should take place in Colombo and it is certainly hearting that the representatives of 41 countries are present here to participate in the three days seminar which opens this morning. It provides you with an opportunity of looking at our experience, interacting with us, asking any questions, that you considered to be of importance and in taking part in rigorous discussions which I have no doubt, will take place during the next three days.
An excellent start in formative, systematic, comprehensive was offered to you in the earlier part of the morning by Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who within a relatively brief compass placed at your disposal his perception about every facet of his operation. Thinking that went into it, the strategy, the implementation of that strategy, the impact of it, all of this was admirably dealt with by Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa and one can conceive of no better point of departure for the deliberations that you are about to embark upon. Now I want to emphasis one particular point at the very commencement of my presentation. It was indeed implicit in the remarks of Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa and it is this, that this operation was qualitatively and fundamentally different from an orthodox military operation.
When you evaluate the Sri Lankan experience, I think it is vitally important to bear that consideration in mind. Wars have taken place since the dawn of history. In the world of antiquity we have graphic description of military operations by Zeolaphan (?) , the famous Greek Historian and Julius Caesar himself was a worrier, was an emperor, and he was also a writer, and there was a very well known chronicle that he wrote with his own pen. The emperor Julies Caesar, he called it the “Bello Gallico” (?) about his operation in Gaul, that was the classical name for France. So the ancient world was also familiar with wars. Wars took place between Athens and Sparta in the time of the Greek Civilization between Rome and Carkage (?) in the time of the Roman Empire. But all these wars were directed towards one central objective. That is, the conquest of territory. So in the ancient world that was the dominant objective, the conquest of territory. That is why wars were fought.
In the Middle Ages one of the dominant objectives was the imposition of religious beliefs. The wars between Protestants… between Catholics… the 7 years war… the 30 years war… it was to do with human faith, religious belief and so that was one of the dominant characteristics of military operations in the Middle Ages.
Then going on to the age of Kantianism, the age of Colonials… wars were fought principally for an economic reasons… to secure and to retain control of colonies… to have access to raw material at cheap prices… to find markets for the goods that were produced in the conquering countries. That was the history of wars which took place during the age of Colonialism. France in the continent of Africa, Great Britain ruling the seas, presiding over an empire on which the Sun never set. The military operations of Spain, in Latin America and in the Philippines, those were wars that were dominated by an economic objective.
There were also wars that were fought in order to enable the conquering countries to impose taxes on these subjects of these subjugated nations. King George the III of England waged a war against the American Colonies that was the birth of United States of America. So these are the conventional reasons for military operations. The operation in Sri Lanka was entirely different. The objective had nothing to do with any of the matters that I have mentioned so far. Its objective was very special, completely different from the conventional, the orthodox objectives of military operations.
Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa in his remarks to you spoke of the environment of fear in which a whole segment of Sri Lanka’s population lived. So, in embarking on this operation, as Mr. Rajapakse explained to you, after every endeavour had been made to resolve this problem by discussion and when it all failed… it was proved abortive, because of the intransigence of the LTTE. Then this operation was embarked upon. This was to rescue a part of Sri Lanka’s population from the caldrons of fear.
I am personally aware that during that period when a child who was attending school in the North was asked to draw the picture of a tiger, now this is a small kid in school… 7 years… 8 years…, he was asked to draw the picture of a tiger, what he drew was a picture of man carrying a gun. That will give you some measure of the extent of psychological penetration; the whole psyche of a generation was dominated by fear. It was a fear psychosis.
The LTTE, claimed among other things, to be the sole and exclusive representative of the Tamil people. Sole and exclusive. Nobody else was permitted to cross their path. This is why, in those days, it was quite impossible to persuade anybody of stature from academics or professional backgrounds to come into politics from the Tamil community. It was not merely difficult, it was absolutely impossible, because whoever came forward knew that his days would be numbered. One of my close associates, the late Dr. Neelan Thiruchchelvan, who proceeded to United States of America to Harvard University on a Fulbright Scholarship, when I proceeded to University of Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. We were undergraduates together in the University of Peradeniya and our path crossed again when we entered Parliament together in the same year 1994. He was one of the outstanding intellects not only of the Tamil Community but also of Sri Lanka, acknowledged as such all over the world, particularly in the United States. He was brutally killed by the LTTE for no other reason than that he was projecting a point of view different from that of the LTTE.
So there was no space, absolutely no space for the articulation of any point of view which differed in any manner whatsoever from the views and ideologies of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. A complete stranglehold on the Tamil people. As Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa said, Tamil businessmen were totally inhibited because they would be kidnapped if they did not pay ransom. So that was the climate of fear that prevailed in the North and the East of the country at that time and we trust you bring that tragic state of affairs. Tragic, not in a political sense, but tragic in the human sense. It was to bring that the tragic states of affairs into an end that this military operation was embarked upon. The idea was to bring the whole island under the aegis of the legitimate Government of Sri Lanka. To empower the Tamil people, to create an environment which was conducive to their living, a life of freedom and dignity, the full flowering of their personality, the full exploitation of their potential in all walks of life. Let them play their role, in the economic life of their nations, in the political life of the nation, the people of Jaffna had a very proud history.
There are celebrated names like Sir. Ponnambalam Arunachchalam, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Sir. Arunachchalam Mahadeva, who played, not just a significant but indispensible role in the struggle which culminated in the Independence which Sri Lanka won from Great Britain. These were silver tongue orators, they were outstanding intellects, they were people who were looked up to by the people of the North and indeed by the people of Sri Lanka as a whole. The purpose of this operation was to revive those memories. To enable people to participate fully and vigorously, in business activities, in educational activities, to live their life to the full without surrendering that their inalienable birth right., their right to freedom, their right to dignity, without surrendering that to a terrorist organization. So that was the purpose for which this military operation was embarked upon. Very different from the conventional reasons why wars are fought. I think it is very important to bear this in mind. Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa told you that this brought about a situation in which the armed forces were called upon to discharge duties that were different from the classical role, he used the phrase “classical role”, that is certainly the case. The functions, responsibilities that were attributed to the armed forces had to be different because the objective of the operation was entirely different. Now what was this role, what Mr. Rajapaksa described as being different from the classical role, what is this role that was ascribed to Sri Lanka’s armed forces at that time? Let us look at some of the actual duties which they performed on the ground and how different those are from the aggression that is typical of military action.
Before the war came to an end on the 18th of May 2009, the armed forces were called upon actually to intervene in situations where the LTTE was abducting children. There are heartrending stories of parents, trying desperately to prevent their children from the recruited by the LTTE. At one time the edict of the LTTE required a Tamil family to surrender one child. Later on, in a military operation, that was increased to two children. Now I know, students of mine, there is a student of mine who occupies a very senior position in the University of Colombo in the Law Faculty, he has close a relative in the University of Jaffna, I am familiar with some of the happenings in that part of the country at that time, out of my own personal knowledge. In those days, Tamil families were reluctant to put their washing out to dry, they did not want to put their washing out to dry because that would be an indication that that house was occupied. It was inhabited and that would then make possible for the LTTE to possible to visit that house and to demand that the parents surrender custody of their children. So our armed forces had to intervene in that situation to protect, to protect the Tamil people of this country from the LTTE.
Now, this is why, and this is a matter for profound sadness more than for anger. The so- called ‘experts’ appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations to report on the situation in Sri Lanka have come out with a preposterous assumption that this was a military action between the Sinhala and Tamil Communities. How can they possibly say so? When the armies of the State had to intervene to protect Tamil families, there can be no greater, no more precious possession to a parent than his child. It is the Sri Lankan army that had to intervene to make it possible for parents to continue to have their children with them. That was the reality of the situation. So those are some of the non classical roles that were attributed to the armed forces at that time.
Now this report which we describe as “Darusman” Report contains a passage in which they themselves accept that when the Tamil civilians, who have been forcibly retained by the LTTE in that part of the country that was being occupied by them, when the civilians tried to escape to Government controlled territory where all facilities awaited them…food, health facilities, housing, all of that was available and as we saw in the video that was shown some time ago, when the Tamil civilians tried to come into the government control territory, the LTTE opened fire. In the “Darusman” Report there is a passage in which there is a graphic description of women and children floundering in the waters of the lagoon when they were trying to cross and how the army, the members of the army had to intervene to help these older people and children to find their way to safety. Now that is the spirit of empathy and compassion that is vividly reflected in the images there. This little child and that elderly man…that is a reflection of our culture. Every country has a culture that is endemic to that nation. These are traditions which we have nurtured over the centuries. Ours is quintessentially a compassionate and caring society, and that is encapsulated in the attitudes of the armed forces during the most difficult phases of this military operation. Then also, do not forget, that something unique in the annals of human history, unique in the annals of war, took place during this period. I knew of no other instance in human history where a government used its own resources to send to a part of the country that was dominated by a terrorist organization. It is the Sri Lanka Government that sent food to the people of that area knowing full well that a substantial part of it would actually be utilized by the terrorists. Knowing that the Government of Sri Lanka did not shrink from fulfilling their responsibilities on the basis that these are our citizens, we have a duty to feed them, to protect them, to care for them. Although there was a very distinct risk that a considerable part of this would be intercepted by, and utilized by, a terrorist organization, the Government without any interruption, sent supplies of food and medicine to these areas.
It continued to pay the salaries of public officials, who were serving at the behest of the LTTE and who in fact were carrying out the instructions of the LTTE. Notwithstanding that because of the sacrosanct obligation with which the Government of Sri Lanka acknowledged to a part of its population, these services were maintained without interruption. I myself, after the operations were over, I have been to Jaffna any times, on one occasion I visited the island of Kayts and I went to the temple there. I spoke to the priest, I worshipped at the bo tree, and the priest told me, he said “do you know Minister that not just on one or two occasions, not for one week not for one month throughout the period of operations it is the Navy that came and fed us every meal”, the priest told me “was provided for the temple by the Sri Lanka Navy. The Sri Lanka Navy looked after the temple as though they were looking after their own family” and he said, thanks to that sustained attention which the Navy lavished on the temple, they did not come to any harm at the worst possible moments of that very difficult, excruciatingly painful period. So here is a different conception of the armed forces. I want to make that point with emphasis. There are certain prototypes of military heroism. Now the world’s military leaders are said to embody certain attributes. If you read a biography of Field Marshal Ronald, or Montgomery or General Patten, there are certain qualities that are attributed to them and venerated. These are the qualities that make up military commanders.
In our case the qualities were again very different. It was like a father of a family looking after his children. It was not a relationship between conqueror and conquered. Not at all. It was a relationship that was pervaded by empathy and compassion and there is no more convincing testimony to that than the words that were uttered to me by the Chief Incumbent of the Kayts temple and all the other junior monks who were within on the occasion when he uttered these words to me. It was my own personal experience in Kayts. So that was the situation…that was the role of the armed forces during the military operations.
Now we come to the subsequent phase, the post conflict phase with which Mr. Gotabaya Rajapakse dealt in substantial detail. Now what is it that armed forces of Sri Lanka did during that period? I think these are some of the most valuable lessons. That the delegations which were come to us from 41 different countries can take back to your respective nations. After the military operations were over the role of the armed forces did not end. It would be totally unrealistic to regard the 18th of May 2009 as signifying the termination of the duty of the armed forces. It is very much a continuing exercise. Terrorism cannot be defeated like that. You can’t draw a line and say, on this particular day terrorism ended. You have to be perpetually vigilant and counter terrorist operation have to continue unabated. Because it is a question of winning the hearts and minds of people. Now this is how the armed forces of Sri Lanka engaged in the past.
First of all, a vigorous role with regard to development. The army today is helping with agricultural activities, cultivating fields, helping with the development of infrastructure. Roads, highways, rail road systems, irrigation systems, because once you unify the country you can maintain that situation only if there is connectivity. The North must be connected in every way with the South. The economies must be inextricably interlinked. Fisheries is prospering. Those are waters replete with fisheries resources which could not be commercially exploited for a long time because of the turbulence. What is produced there? The Northern province had more varieties of mangos than most countries have varieties of fruits and the state, President Rajapaksa’s Government, is investing large sums of money in value addition, bring up these products to a threshold at which they would be of interest to sophisticated international markets. Now these goods must find their way to Colombo. That is how the North fields interconnected with the South. So infrastructure is crucially important and the armed forces are today playing an indispensible role with regard to constructing and maintaining that infrastructure.
Then the human part of it. When we speak of internally displaced people and resettling them, within a period of two years the number has come down from 297,000 to 10,000 and a very famous international figure, who played a role in the events which followed the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, he told me, he told me himself ‘what you have done in two years we took fifteen years to do’. And this is accentuated by the reality that when we speak of resettling IDPs it is not a physical process of relocation. We want them to have access to livelihoods. So that they are resettled not as embittered, disgruntled human beings, but people who are contented, who can live with their heads held high with a sense of dignity and start a new life which is full of hope and promise. And that’s why the army together with the government has played a very significant role in persuading the private sector to go there. Large private sector firms have gone there. They have opened factories. It was a matter of deep satisfaction to us that the vast majority of the employees in some of the garment factories that had been opened there by Brandix by Mas Holdings… the vast majorities are Tamil girls who have today become the breadwinners of their families. So, this is what the army has been doing in the post conflict areas.
When the residual activities, after all a terrorist organization which held sway for 20 years, there is bound to be a residual impact. So the army has to be very active in dealing with the petty crime, guns, drugs, narcotics, armed groups, all of this is an in evitable part post conflict scenario and the army is active in mitigating those consequences.
Now I ask you, as distinguished representatives of the 41 countries that are represented here, to bear in mind, some of the things that we need to do to buttress the efforts of governments to combat terrorism. The West or sections of the West are talking about, as Mr. Rajapaksa said, proportionality. Now, I ask you to reflect on this. This is probably the worst instance in human history where a civilian population has been held hostage. If you look at the numbers, if you look at the circumstances there is no other situation that can be regarded as analogous. This is without parallel. Hundreds of thousands of people held at gun point, prevented from leaving, prevented from enjoying their liberty. The largest hostage taking situation in military history. Nobody is talking of that reality. Nothing. People are saying, how did you deal with that situation? Did you inflict more harm than necessary? Certainly not? But what about the initial crime of holding these hundreds of thousands of civilians, hostage? That is one of the most heinous crimes known to international law.
A flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention. Why is it that nobody is talking of that? Shouldn’t there be penal consequences visited on the people who were responsible for that heinous crime? Then, I also ask you to reflect on this. I think the entire body of international law has to be revamped today. I would like you very much when you go back to your countries to engage with universities, with professional organizations, with Research Institutes to examine some aspects of this question. The entire corpus of the international law governing terrorism was developed in an environment in which wars and conflicts and military operations were between and among states, state actors. Today that is not the case.
Some of the most complex situations are arising in the context of conflicts between a state and a non state actor, the terrorist group being the non state sector. Now, surely the principles have to be revamped, because it is asymmetrical, it is unequal. The best example of it was what was stated by the IRA on the day after they made an attempt on the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. That was when she was attending the deliberation of her party, the Conservative Party in Brighton. A bomb went off in a hotel suite. She saved her life by a whisker, by about ten minutes. The next day the IRA in a public statement said “Madam you have to be lucky every time, we have to be lucky only once”. Why, “because we choose the time, the place, the opportunity.”
Now, that is why as Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa said the Temple of the Tooth was bombed, International Airport was bombed, the Central Bank was bombed, schools, hospitals, bus halts. It is only they who know where they are going to operate on a particular day. In that situation, the entire thrust, the balance of the principles of international laws have to be reformulated, because we are not dealing with two equal situations. The state is governed by all the laws and conventions of the international legal regulations. The terrorist cares nothing for it, recognizes no constraint or limitation outside their own will. In that situation, I would submit for your consideration, that the entire structure of the international legal system has to be renewed.
Now, very quickly I want to tell you one another thing, it is this. ………….. they quoted in their saying, that Sri Lanka demonstrated the capability of ensuring the safety of the oceans, the safety and the security of sea lanes, sea lanes, which are absolutely crucial for transnational commerce. We were able to do that. You are aware that about two months ago there was a Conference in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where the focus of attention was a problem of piracy. Sri Lankan fishermen have also suffered, not close to our country but in the Gulf of Aden and large slots of the Arabian Sea. But we have been able to ensure that these problems did not spill over into Indian Ocean or the Bay of Bengal. I think credit has to be given to the armed forces of Sri Lanka. The armed forces under appropriate political direction have also been able to deal with problems connected with refugees. If there had been a huge influx of refugees out of Sri Lanka that would have de-stabilized the whole region. We did not allow that to happen. Mr. Gotabaya Rajapakse and I are going to attend the deliberation of the Shangri-La Meeting in a few days time. The last year when I was there, the then Defence Minister of Australia Senator John Folkman thanked me. He said he wanted his appreciation conveyed to the President and the Government of Sri Lanka that as a result of action that we had taken here, their problems with regard to influx of refugees had been significantly mitigated. So that is the significant achievement of armed forces of Sri Lanka that go beyond the national situation. We have also been able to prevent collusion among different terrorist organizations in this region. Terrorist organizations do not act alone.
Lakshar-E- Taiba, Taliban, Al-Qaida, they work together. That we were able to make certain that the problems generated by the LTTE did not spill over in that way and result in concerted action among terrorist groups that are active in this region. So these are among the achievements of the armed forces which go well beyond the national situation. I won’t deal with the factors which made this achievement possible, because in the last part of Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presentation, he did that exceedingly well. But there is this one factor that he did not mention, which I will mention now, and that is the last point that I will make.
Apart from what he said the conduct of foreign relations with finesse, handling situations in our own country to mitigate tensions, the cost of living, the fertilizer subsidy, which he mentioned, but two other matters was that Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was instrumental in setting up a mechanism with regard to procurement. Procurement, of military equipment, and he cleaned up the procedures that had been resorted up to that time and he set up a mechanism which ensured that there would be no waste or corruption. I think that played a significant role in enhancing the efficiency of the military operations and ensuring that resources were properly spent. And of course, the complete confidence that existed between the political leadership and those who were formulating military strategy. That is absolutely necessary. If there is any vestige of doubts with regard to that, that is, that would be a very great disadvantage.
Here there was total unison. They worked in tandem and that is one of the main reasons, the leadership of President Rajapaksa, his ability to inspire the nation, that the fact that he never wavered at worst of the time. As Mr. Rajapaksa said, nobody wins all battles, some are lost, but he was able to so handle the domestic situation in order to ensure that there was no loss of hope, that people were not disheartened. That together with the close collaboration with the military establishment, made this achievement possible.
So these are some of the thoughts I wanted to share with you. I am particularly happy that I had this opportunity of articulating some of these thoughts to you. I consider it a great honour bestowed upon me to be invited to share these thoughts with the representatives of 41 countries that have come here to access, to evaluate our experience for themselves. I hope that you will see something of our country, its scenic beauty, the formal Kandy hospitality of its people, the vibrancy of our cultural traditions and that you will take back home with you, happy memories of this island and its contribution to the peace and the stability of the world.
Thank you very much.