SPECIAL REPORT : Part 139September 13, 2016, 7:44 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
A seminar, titled ‘The Geneva resolution and federalism as it is today’ organized by Sri Lankan Global Forum (SLGF), at Sri Lanka Foundation, on Sept. 5, 2016, received the attention of Groundviews, the first citizen journalism website in Sri Lanka. In an article, titled Policy vs Politics: Global Sri Lankan Forum’s telling myopia, website Groundviews, dealt with views expressed by former UN staffer in Colombo, Mohan Samaranayake, President’s Counsel Manohara de Silva, eminent attorney-at-law Gomin Dayasri, and the writer, Shamindra Ferdinando.
At the onset Groundviews quite rightly pointed out that the Sri Lanka Foundation, where the seminar had been held, was largely empty. However, Groundviews had felt the need to analyze the event, as well as provide online links to full speeches, thereby giving wide access to them.
Having dealt with the four speeches, separately, Groundviews asserted:... a common thread could be seen among all the speakers – many of them echoed sentiments, spoken by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was all there – the dismissal of critics as "LTTE stooges", the pointing fingers at evil foreign powers, the casual dismissal of allegations of human rights violations – just as earlier on, Rajapaksa said there had been "zero civilian casualties", before having to backtrack, resulting in the admission made by the Paranagama Commission.
The following is the section which dealt with the writer’s presentation: Senior Journalist at The Island, Shamindra Ferdinando, said that there were "missed opportunities" that the Government had failed to capitalize on in Geneva. In the first instance, he mentioned that the allegations made, in the Geneva resolution, could not be verified until 2031, and even then, has to be UN approved. Drawing mostly from his own work, Ferdinando pointed out the case of a former US defence attaché, Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence Smith, who had defended the Sri Lankan government, at a seminar, hosted by the Army, in 2011. He was, subsequently, recalled, and the US embassy said the remarks he made were his personal opinion. The revelations of Wikileaks could also have been used in Geneva, he added. Once again, the final bloody weeks of the war were glossed over. There was no withholding of medical supplies, the military acted humanely to save civilian lives, and foreign relief workers were able to go ashore in Pudumathalan, and were only barred from the second week of May, in 2009, – a week before the war ended.
In the first instance, the Indian medical aid team, cited by Ferdinando, flew in only on March 9, 2009, and flew out in six months. This hospital consisted of, initially, just 50 beds, according to the Indian High Commission, and later on, was upgraded to 115. More than 40,000 people sought treatment at this facility alone – not counting referrals from local hospitals. This was not mentioned at all by Ferdinando – he seemed to blithely assume that this single facility was enough to treat the thousands of injured who were caught in the crossfire in the last stages of the war. The ICRC’s own reports show that its workers were injured, while trying to evacuate citizens. "The violence is preventing the International Committee, of the Red Cross (ICRC), from operating in the region," said Jacques de Maio, ICRC head of operations for South Asia, in Geneva, in a press release, in January, 2009. This was also not dealt with by Ferdinando. He continued on to allege that the figure of 65,000 missing people, given by the Government was false, as many had fled overseas. As evidence of this, he cited three cases of people who had surfaced overseas – which presumably refuted the figure in entirety. No mention at all was made of the submissions made by families of the disappeared to a Consultation Task Force, on reconciliation, recently, in the lead up to the creation of the Office of Missing Persons.
Groundviews declared the event, rather than being a balanced discussion on the positives of the unitary system of governance was a rehash of rhetoric already spoken about in the context of the Geneva resolution, and much of it in support of former President Rajapaksa.
Need for FCID probe
The writer’s presentation can be accessed at (http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=151582) to examine whether an attempt was made to defend war-winning former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, or his administration, or echoed Rajapaksa’s sentiments. In fact, the writer entirely dealt with the previous government’s pathetic failure to use credible statements, and evidence, to counter unsubstantiated allegations. The writer suggested that those who had hired costly US PR firms, at taxpayers expense, to engage in futile exercise, should be hauled up before the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID).
Indians treat 7,000 war wounded
Groundviews should organize a seminar with the participation of persons with different opinion on Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE, issues of accountability, and the requirement to retain the unitary status of Sri Lanka’s Constitution.
In spite of Groundviews assertion that the final bloody weeks of the war were glossed over, the entire presentation dealt with the previous government’s failure, though, at the onset, reference was made to outgoing UNSG Ban Ki-moon’s diabolical comparison of Sri Lanka’s Vanni offensive with cases of genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia, in 1994 and 1995, respectively.
Groundviews further alleged that the writer had not adequately discussed the role played by the Indian medical team, deployed at Pulmoddai, north of Trincomalee. Groundviews referred to more than 40,000 persons receiving treatment at the Indian facility and its deployment, at Pulmoddai, in early March, 2009. The writer dealt with the Indian medical team’s deployment, at Pulmoddai, where it treated nearly 7,000 wounded men, women and children before being moved to other hospitals. Groundviews obviously mixed up those who had received medical treatment at Pulmoddai (from the second week of March, 2009, to late May, 2009), with patients treated by the Indian medical team at Menik farm, Vavuniya (late May 2009 to Aug. 31 2009). No less a person than the then Indian High Commissioner, Alok Prasad, told the writer, at an event at Taj Samudra, to appreciate the services of the Indian team, and how the mission took care of nearly 7,000 war-wounded, during two months before being moved to Menik farm. All of them had been ferried from the Vanni east battle zones, under the auspices of the ICRC. Interestingly, the Indian High Commission statement, used by Groudviews, to underscore its point, placed the number of persons who had received treatment at Pulmoddai at nearly 7,000 and also the fact their evacuation from the Vanni east war zone. Addressing the gathering, the then Health Minister, Nimal Siripala de Silva, explained the circumstances under which the Indian deployment took place at Pulmoddai, immediately after India offered medical assistance. Appreciating the services rendered by the Indian team, Minister de Silva emphasized that there hadn’t any written agreement in respect of the deployment at Pulmoddai and subsequently at Menik farm. In his address, HC Prasad said that India offered medical assistance as a true friend not due to shortcoming on the part of the Sri Lanka government (India: Any country would have found IDP influx difficult to handle-The Island, September 10, 2009).
It would be pertinent to mention that in accordance with an understanding, among the government, the ICRC and the LTTE, every wounded person, who had been evacuated from the Vanni east war zone, was accompanied by a helper (relative), thereby nearly 7000 civilians could leave the area.
During March-May 2009, the ICRC-led operation brought nearly 7,000 war wounded, and nearly 7,000 helpers, on 21 occasions, in ships. The writer was among a group of journalists taken to Indian medical facility, on the evening of April 28, 2009, following a visit to Mullaitivu seas where the Navy maintained a significant presence to thwart possible LTTE attempt to escape. From Israeli built Fast Attack Craft (FAC) the journalists had a glimpse of the ICRC-chartered vessel Green Ocean, which was in the process of receiving the war wounded and helpers. The wartime Commanding Officer of the 4th FAC Squadron, Captain Noel Kalubowila, as well as Captain D.K.P. Dassanayake, were positioned there, temporarily, to oversee small boat operations, which accompanied the media team. The navy vowed not to allow the LTTE leadership to flee (Sea escape not a reality-The Island, April 30, 2009).
India offered to position the medical team in the wake of the closure of overland routes to the Vanni east region, in late January, 2009. Even after the Army liberated Kilinochchi, in the first week of January, 2009, the LTTE desperately sought to halt troops advancing on multiple fronts. The LTTE effort was meant to gain sufficient time for the international community to arrange a ceasefire, thereby retain territory under its control. Having realized the LTTE strategy, the government sought the ICRC’s assistance to launch special operation to move supplies to the Vanni east war zone. The then ICRC Country Director had been among top foreign and local officials who met on February 17, 2009 to discuss arrangements. The then Senior Presidential Advisor, Basil Rajapaksa, had chaired the meeting, and the Government Agent, Trincomalee, issued instructions to take appropriate action.
Fighting block overland routes
Had, at least, the overland route to and from the Vanni east remained open, there wouldn’t have been any need to evacuate the wounded by sea and to position a foreign medical team to receive them, as well as send supplies by sea. During the period, from February 19, 2009, to May 8, 2009, ships unloaded 3,150 mt of essential items. The World Food Programme (WFP) made a significant contribution to this humanitarian project. Those who had been shedding crocodile tears, for the Vanni population, now turned a blind eye to what was happening at that time. They remained silent while the LTTE used civilians as a human shield to protect its leadership. The four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spearheaded efforts, both here and abroad to halt the ground offensive. The LTTE went to the extent of blocking overland transfer of the war wounded, as well as the movement of UN workers.
The Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability, in Sri Lanka, released on March 31, 2011, dealt with the evacuations carried out by the ICRC. The relevant section (paragraph 108): "The ICRC’s ships were also the only means for delivering food, but the supplies, they were allowed to bring by the government, were inadequate. As the conditions in the No Fire Zones became more desperate, on 17 March, a large crowd of internally displaced persons surrounded an international ICRC member who came ashore, begging him to save their lives by taking them out of the Vanni. The LTTE forcibly dispersed the crowd. The final ICRC ship came to the Vanni, on 9 May, 2009. On 15 May, 2009, a ship approached, but had to turn back due to the intensity of the fighting. In all, ICRC evacuated 14,000 wounded persons, and their relatives, from the second and the third no fire zones, and delivered around 2,350 mt of food to Mullivaikkal. Those evacuated were all civilians, as the LTTE did not permit its cadre to leave the conflict area for treatment."
There was no basis for Groundviews assertion that the writer felt that the Indian medical team was sufficient to treat war wounded civilians. The temporary medical facility, managed by Indians, swiftly transferred the wounded to government hospitals, depending on their condition.
The vast majority of those arriving at Pulmoddai were moved to government hospitals within hours. Those who were now concerned about the well being of Tamil speaking people never bothered to, at least, visit government hospitals where the war wounded were treated. The TNA, or the Diaspora, refrained from urging the LTTE to give up human shields.
Apropos Groundviews accusation that the writer hadn’t dealt with the difficulties experienced by the ICRC, in the Vanni, as pointed out by Jacques de Maio, ICRC head of operations for South Asia, the writer really appreciated the services rendered by the ICRC, since 1989. Having arrived in Sri Lanka, during the tail end of the second JVP inspired insurgency, the ICRC moved to the Northern and Eastern Province soon after the LTTE launched Eelam War II in June 1990. It would be pertinent to mention that India never invited the ICRC to set up offices in the Northern and Eastern Provinces during the deployment of the Indian Army (late July 1987, to late March, 1990) neither did the international community seek any supervisory role.
The writer would soon discuss the ICRC role in Sri Lanka in a separate article. The ICRC deserves the praise of all Sri Lankans for making a significant contribution, in overall efforts, to provide relief to the war affected, as well as the Sri Lankan military, and the LTTE. The ICRC did much more than those who had been propagating lies and influencing public opinion at the behest of various foreign sponsors over the years. The writer deeply regret had he unintentionally failed to mention difficulties experienced by the ICRC and sacrifices made by its personnel during his Sept 5, 2016, speech at Sri Lanka Foundation.
Let me reiterate that there is absolutely no basis for the recent government assertion that various state commissions had received over 65,000 complaints in respect of missing persons, since 1994. The claim was made in a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry on June 7, 2016. Wouldn’t it be fair to name these commissions, and estimates, regarding the disappearances made by them without further delay. All available information and reports, of the above mentioned commissions, should be made available to the proposed Office on Missing Persons (OMP) as well as the public. As the Foreign Ministry statement had been made subsequent to having cabinet approval, the government should now give the public a breakdown in respect of complaints pertaining to disappearances that took place during the tenure of Presidents JRJ, Ranasinghe Premadasa, D.B. Wijetunga, CBK and Mahinda Rajapaksa. The writer strongly believes that proper investigation, into disappearances, can never be conducted without the participation and support of the international community. Those who had been opposing the establishment of OMP do not realize the ground situation. A thorough inquiry is required against the backdrop of varying estimates with the Maxwell Paranagama Commission receiving over 19,000 complaints. The complaints dealt with cases reported since 1983.
According to ICRC mission, in Colombo, its offices, since 1990, had received over 16,000 tracing requests, including approximately 5,200 from families of missing military and police personnel. In addition to presidential commissions and the ICRC report, the Norway-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), too, recorded many cases of abductions/disappearances during the implementation of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA).
Groundviews also asserted that three examples of people who had surfaced abroad were meant to deny complaints in respect of disappearances entirely. Nothing can be further from the truth. These examples highlighted the pivotal importance of launching a thorough inquiry with the participation of the international community.
Yasmin Zooka’s revelations
In fact, Sri Lanka OMP should seek the assistance of Yasmin Zooka, South African member of the Panel of Experts (PoE), to inquire into disappearances. Those who had been objecting to international participation in the proposed inquiry are really denying the armed forces an opportunity to counter unsubstantiated allegations. Zooka, in a special report titled Forgotten: Sri Lanka’s exiled victims, claimed that she was in touch with those who had fought for the LTTE and were now living overseas. Launched in June, 2016, the International Truth and Justice Project, revealed that former LTTE cadres, the majority of whom left Sri Lanka after the conclusion of the war in May 2009, were interviewed in the UK, Switzerland, France and Norway whereas those in Germany declined. Having demanded to know the truth Zooka, the writer is certain will not hesitate to fully cooperate with the OMP. However, the proposed OMP should be set up in accordance with the Constitution.
Disappearances during Indian
Every effort should be made to estimate the number of disappearances caused by the Indian Army during its deployment here, due to fighting among various Indian sponsored terrorist groups in the 80s, members of the PLOTE (People’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) who went missing in the wake of its raid on Male in early Nov. 1988, the Sri Lankan military and the Police and the LTTE, the sole representative of Tamil speaking people. The recognition was given by the TNA in the run-up to the Eelam War IV. The same grouping urged Tamil speaking people to vote for the then Gen. Sarath Fonseka, war-winning Army Chief at the January 2010 presidential poll. Had the TNA really believed the Army caused such widespread death, destruction and disappearances, the party should explain its decision to back Fonseka, without whose leadership the war could never have been won. Peruse Wikileaks, you’ll come across a confidential diplomatic cable which will shed light on the TNA’s decision.
Members of the Joint Opposition should examine Wikileaks, at least now.