The Diaspora factor: War on terror revisited: a battle abroad – 1

GTF spokesman, Suren Surendiran with South African President Zuma -June 14, 2012, 6:29 pm-   ‘President Rajapaksa is in a hell of a predicament also because as the Commander in Chief of the Military, he is alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. With mounting evidence, he is trying to negotiate, perhaps barter justice with a political solution as he knows that the day he relinquishes his position as head of state, he is likely to be arrested just as Charles Taylor of Liberia or Milosevic of former Yugoslavia.’ While the LTTE was retreating rapidly on the Vanni east front, following a debilitating setback at Kilinochchi in the first week of January, 2009, the Tamil Diaspora groups emerged as its successor. The UK-based Global Tamil Forum (GTF) is now at the forefront of an internationally backed campaign to haul Sri Lankan leaders up before an international war crimes tribunal over accountability issues. The GTF displayed its power when President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited London at the invitation of the UK, to participate in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations recently.

The UK-based GTF spokesman Suren Suendiran, in an exclusive with The Island vowed to pressure the GoSL to take meaningful measures to address accountability issues. “We’ll not cease our campaign until those responsible for atrocities are identified through an international investigative mechanism and punished.”

Surendiran said that he last visited Sri Lanka in 2010, though he wouldn’t want to come back again until the restoration of law and order.

The following are excerpts of the interview:

(Q) What is your perspective of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord?

(A) Part of Sri Lanka’s history

(Q) At the time of the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord in July 1989, where were you/your age?

(A) I was in the UK. I was 25

(Q) What is the relationship between GTF and BTF and when did they come into being, respectively?

(A) GTF is an umbrella organisation with member organisations from around the world. BTF is the UK member organisation of GTF. GTF conceptually came into being in August 2009 and BTF in 2006.

(Q) The then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe made a genuine attempt to reach an understanding with the LTTE even at the risk of his political career. He finalized the CFA with the LTTE in Feb, 2002 under the auspices of the Norwegian government. The agreement had the backing of the US, EU and Japan. The LTTE quit the negotiating table in April, 2003 and paved the way for then President CBK to dissolve parliament and call for parliamentary polls. Why did the Diaspora fail at least to issue a statement urging the LTTE not to quit the negotiating table?

(A)There weren’t any recognised Diaspora organisations at that time as far as I know. I am not sure whether your reasons for CBK dissolving parliament are entirely correct. Also, if I remember rightly, the CFA was formally abrogated by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, unilaterally in Jan 2008. However, I also want to acknowledge that the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) reported that there were breaches by both sides, during the time of the agreement.

I am sure there were many from both communities in Sri Lanka and outside who prodded both parties to return to the negotiating table. In spite of many wanting a genuine negotiated political solution, some were hell bent on achieving and supporting a military solution.

(Q) President Rajapaksa sent his representatives thrice to Geneva and Oslo in 2006 to meet the LTTE under the auspices of the Norwegians, but the LTTE rejected them. As long as the LTTE felt that it could achieve its objectives through military means, the fighting cadre and the Diaspora pursued conventional military strategy. Did you as a leading member of the GTF or any other member of the GTF, make an attempt to convince the LTTE not to resume hostilities?

This description of history seems selective. Your preamble to the question is subjective in its assumptions and not entirely accurate either. As I said before, the GTF came into being only after the end of the war in 2009. As I said in my previous answer I know there were many from both communities in Sri Lanka and outside who counselled both parties to return to the negotiating table.

(Q) The Diaspora and Western powers never raised accountability issues before the LTTE fled Kilinochchi in January, 2009. Until that particular defeat, foreign powers and a section of the media asserted that the LTTE had the capability to encircle the SLA and annihilate SLA fighting divisions. When did the GTF first call for an international war crimes inquiry?

Again in your preamble, you make presumptuous and sweeping statements. Like I said before, the GTF came into being only after the end of the war.

It is alleged that international human rights and humanitarian laws, Geneva conventions, treaties and covenants were openly breached, for example by targeting civilians, hospitals, use of banned munitions like cluster bombs, claymore mines targeting civilian targets, denying adequate food and medicines. We called for international investigations into alleged breaches of international laws and committing of war crimes and crimes against humanity, months before the end of the war.

The GTF wants an international independent investigation into the actions of both sides during the war.

I also want to acknowledge, that there are allegations of genocide before and after the end of the war as history will prove that actions of successive governments and leaders since independence could potentially support that school of thought too.

(Q) Did the GTF and the BTF pressure former UK Foreign Secretary, David Miliband to rush to Colombo in April 2009 in a bid to persuade President Rajapaksa to halt the offensive? Miliband is on record as having told the US mission in London (according to Wiki Leaks) how he spent 60 per cent of his time on the SL issue, because of impending parliamentary polls.

(A) Like I said before, the GTF came into being only after the end of the war. However, the answer to your question is yes, we did pressure the then British government as members of the BTF and the Diaspora community with loved ones caught up in the so called ‘no fire’ zone. It didn’t take too much of persuasion for Mr David Miliband or for other world leaders to see what was happening as reports and evidence of massacres and carnage were coming out regularly. It is a shame that there was a deafening silence from communities in the country outside the war zone and from local journalists who kept numb without reporting independently.

Regarding WikiLeaks – it is interesting isn’t it that in the same token of reporting what Mr Miliband had said or otherwise, it also reports that President Rajapaksa and the brothers were responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

(Q) At the 19th sessions of the UNHRC, Geneva, the US successfully moved a resolution on Sri Lanka. The US resolution received the backing of 23 countries, including India, while the GTF, BTF and TGTE actively supported the ‘Geneva operation.’ Now that you have dealt a blow to the GoSL, how do you intend to exploit the situation?

(A) A direct answer is that only time will tell. Yes, 23 voting countries explicitly supported the resolution, whilst 40 countries co-sponsored it. With the ‘logic’ used by Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Minister Prof G L Peiris, who classified that the countries that abstained as not supporting the resolution, the professor forgets that it could also be equally argued that they didn’t reject it either. That was a staggering over 68% of the voting 47 countries either supporting or not rejecting the resolution.

Remember, this is not about dealing any decisive blows to the government of Sri Lanka, or anyone for that matter. This is about seeking justice, bringing a closure to the past and establishing sustainable reconciliation between communities, bringing better governance in Sri Lanka for all of its people and providing a path to resolve the long standing unresolved conflict in Sri Lanka through political negotiations that could bring prosperity and stability to all communities in the island.

This is about using all the available legal and political instruments to the fullest in granting justice to the loss of life of tens of thousands and to ensure that such grave abuses, assaults on human dignity and humanity will never take place ever, in any part of the world against any community.

What this certainly is not, is a resolution against the Sinhala people!

(Q) Although, you have tried to portray the Geneva vote as a defeat for the GoSL, you have conveniently forgotten how Israel, in spite of heavy US support, experienced heavy defeats (altogether five separate resolutions/votes) also at the 19th sessions. Don’t you think the Diaspora had failed to realise that the GoSL wasn’t the only party under fire over accountability issues? You have also ignored the fact that your key supporters, namely the US and UK, were accused of large scale atrocities in various theatres of operations.

(A) The GTF has never claimed to have inflicted any blows or engineered a massive defeat of the government or anyone else. We have always maintained that sustainable reconciliation in that island is only possible when justice is served. As a small Diaspora community based organisation, we don’t have the capacity or capability to address in any credible way on international matters or injustices beyond what directly matters to us and our people.

(Q) Are you aware that the UN/UNHRC also criticised India over human rights violations and went to the extent of demanding the immediate removal of security laws, including the National Security Act, at the 19th sessions of the UNHRC and soon after the sessions?

(A) Yes, but not in so much detail as you have articulated above.

(Q) On the basis of the ‘Darusman report’––The Island recently revealed how UNSG’s Panel of Experts (PoE) had collected information/petitions and UK productions, ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ and ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished’––the GTF and various other Diaspora groups allege massacre of many thousands of men, women and children. A British MP, who recently raised UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague’s failure to expel the Sri Lankan Defence Attache in London, for killings committed during January-May 2009, last year, claimed that the final phase of the conflict claimed the lives of 40,000 civilians and 60,000 LTTE cadres. There were many other examples. ‘Tamils for Obama’ said fighting during the final few weeks claimed the lives of 75,000 civilians. How many Tamil civilians perished in the fighting? How many LTTE cadres died in action?

(A) I can only go by credible reports such as the one by the United Nations Panel of Experts, which states that an estimated 40,000 men, women and children died during the last weeks of the war. Also Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar alleged at the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) that over 146,000 people are missing.

As you have quite rightly pointed out, that there are various estimates and quotes exist. The best way to resolve this issue and other related issues is to allow an independent international investigation to establish a credible figure. If the government of President Rajapaksa has nothing to hide, they must permit such an investigation to clear these allegations once and for all, will be my advice.

(Q) Do you have any idea of the LTTE fighting strength at the onset of the fighting in mid 2006? How many survived?

(A) No idea and this could be another issue that can be resolved credibly, if such an investigation as described above is carried out.

(Q) Are you aware of a programme conducted by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to help LTTE cadres to return to civil life?

Yes. After you explained to me in Geneva at the Human Rights Council’s corridors. Like I said at the side event conducted by the Government of Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council session in March 2012, we as GTF are not in the business of accusing and criticising the government without reasons. I have gone on record acknowledging progressive moves and steps suggested by the government and others. Unfortunately, these ideas and steps do not get implemented.

(Q) Do you believe the recent visit undertaken by an Indian parliamentary group can help resolve post-LTTE issues? Do you accept the DMK’s and the AIADMK’s decision to pull out of the delegation at the eleventh hour, citing insincerity on the part of the Rajapaksa administration?

Issues that remained before the LTTE ever came into existence and the issues that are currently faced, in post LTTE time remain the same. As a matter of fact, these issues have got worse. However, I hope the Indian Parliamentary delegation’s visit in some way could help. Yes, I accept the DMK’s and the AIADMK’s decision.

(Q)How do you view President Rajapaksa’s efforts to set up a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to resolve the problem?

(A)These are delaying tactics.

President Rajapaksa appointed the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) under Prof. Tissa Vitharana a few years ago for the same purpose of coming to a consensus agreement between the parliamentary parties in finding a political solution. I would like to know what the President did with those recommendations.

A ‘popular’ President like Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was elected almost 100% with the Sinhala vote, who also commands a two third majority in ‘parliament’ could have resolved the Tamil political problem with ease if he had the political will and courage, at least since the end of the war, over three years ago.

(Q) Do you think LLRC recommendations can help national reconciliation efforts?

(A) Certainly. It will take a great deal forward if implemented in full. However, until the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity and accountability issues are fully and independently investigated, genuine and sustainable reconciliation will be impossible. Unfortunately, the LLRC report failed to address these issues credibly.

(Q) Your comments on the impending release of the Chilcot Inquiry?

(A) We’ll not comment regarding matters outside its remit. However, I can tell you my personal comments when I meet you next time somewhere, perhaps in Geneva?

(Q) Have you had an opportunity to meet any LTTE representatives in Sri Lanka or overseas? Did you meet Anton Balasingham, his Australian born wife, Adele or members of the LTTE negotiating team involved in the Norwegian peace effort?

(A) Yes, I have met LTTE members. No, I never met Mr Anton Balasingham or his wife. Yes, I have met members of the LTTE negotiating team involved in the Norwegian peace efforts.

(Q) The Norwegian mass killer declared that his actions were influenced by the LTTE driving the Muslim community out of the Northern Province in late 1990. The former Israeli Ambassador in Sri Lanka, told this writer that LTTE suicide bombings, too, had influenced similar attacks on Jewish targets, while former Sea Tiger commander, Soosai, was on record as having told the BBC how Al Qaeda copied Black Sea Tiger operations to attack the US warship, Cole in Aden. Do you agree that the LTTE had influenced like-minded groups all over the world?

(A) If what you have quoted above are factual, then it appears that way. However, three separate isolated quotes by three separate individuals cannot be generalised to arrive at your suggested conclusion.

(Q) Do you accept the TNA as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people in Sri Lanka (Don’t forget the TNA recognised the LTTE as the sole representatives of the Tamil speaking people in the run-up to Dec 2001 parliamentary polls).

(A) I accept that the TNA, as elected members of the Tamils, generally with large majority, at the last general and council elections.

(Q) Do you think the 13 Amendment plus can be a reality?

(A) This is a question that you should pose to President Rajapaksa and his cabinet. However, isn’t it ironic that the 13th Amendment that is part of Sri Lanka’s Constitution for many years now, has not been implemented as yet?

(Q) Do you think President Rajapaksa is genuine in his efforts? Or just trying to deceive your people?

(A) No, I don’t believe President Rajapaksa is genuine in his efforts as proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. Like I said before, a ‘popular’ President like Mahinda Rajapaksa who got elected almost 100% through the Sinhala vote, who also commands a two thirds majority in parliament could have resolved the Tamil political problem with ease if he had the political will and courage, at least since the end of the war, over three years ago.

I am sure he also fears that his vote base, which is an almost all Sinhala vote base, might deny him the votes, if he takes the bold and just step to resolve Tamil grievances.

President Rajapaksa is in a hell of a predicament also because as the Commander in Chief of the Military, he is alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. With mounting evidence, he is trying to negotiate, perhaps barter justice with a political solution as he knows that the day he relinquishes his position as head of state, he is likely to be arrested just as Charles Taylor of Liberia or Milosevic of former Yugoslavia.

The GTF believes the following15-point will help restore post-war normalcy:

1. People should be made to feel free to speak and feel safe to raise their children without fear.

2. End to army occupation of the north and east.

3. Revoke the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

4. Reveal names of persons held without proper legal process and for them to have access to legal counsel, their families and humanitarian agencies.

5. Charge them under the laws of the land or release them forthwith.

6. Stop colonisation.

7. People to have their lands and homes back and be resettled where they originally lived.

8. Structured and well funded rehabilitation and resettlement programmes to be implemented without too much government interference or corruption.

9. Reconstruction programmes to be implemented in the war affected areas.

10. We want the disparity in development between the regions of the island to be minimised, basic priorities of all people (e.g. education, health, employment etc.) to be treated as priorities and dealt without corruption.

11. We want justice for all the wrongs that were done to our people in the name of the war against terrorism.

12. Probe allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity against both parties to the armed conflict by an independent international body.

13. Credible and genuine political process to be initiated with international sponsorship, unlike the ones that the Rajapaksa regime introduces when pressure mounts (e.g. the APRC, negotiations with the TNA and now the Parliamentary Select Committee etc.) to seek a durable political settlement to resolve the long standing and genuine grievances of the Tamil people and all people.

14. We want all of the above to be a part of the process that will lay the foundations for a long lasting reconciliation process that will enable people to live side by side, as friendly neighbours.

15. Above all, we do not want the Sinhala people to feel that they are outcasts for the colossal mistakes and wrongdoings of a few in the government and the military.

Next installment on June 18