SPECIAL REPORT : Part 172June 27, 2017, 12:00 pm
Batticaloa, June 21: Minister Swaminathan (left) with US Amb Keshap, British HC Dauris and Australian HC Hutchesson at an event to declare the Batticaloa district free of mine risk (pic courtesy Hindu Affairs Ministry)
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The successful conclusion of mine clearing operations, in the eastern Batticaloa district, was announced at the US Embassy Iftar, in Batticaloa, on the night of June 20, 2017.
US Ambassador Atul Keshap, made the announcement after having addressed the contentious issue of ongoing Sinhala extremists attacks on the Muslim community, US support as well as the long standing US relationship with the Muslim community. The announcement was made the day before the official statement, issued by the Prisons Reforms, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Affairs Minister, D.M. Swaminathan, on behalf of the government.
The US Embassy, quoted Ambassador Keshap as having said: "Ladies and gentlemen, it is a delight to see all of you today, especially during this very holy month of Ramadan. Even as we are all gathered here tonight for this iftar, I’m reminded that all across the United States there are millions of Muslim Americans who are also gathering to celebrate iftar with their family and friends, to enjoy a month that brings together the community with a focus on family and charity. From the bottom of my heart, and behalf of all the women and men of the American Embassy, in Colombo, who are here today, I bid you welcome and Marhabikum!
But, US President Trump unceremoniously ended a two-decade old tradition of hosting an iftar meal at the White House during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The move drew criticism.
A US embassy statement, issued following the US Embassy Iftar in Batticaloa, quoted Keshap as having said: Tomorrow I will join our partners to complete mine clearance operations in Batticaloa, making it the first district, in Sri Lanka, to achieve "residual risk" status. This is a very important milestone to be the first district in Sri Lanka declared mine-impact free. And, we will continue working to ensure that all of Sri Lanka become mine-impact free, allowing people to recover after decades of war."
The Indian-American joined a delegation comprising Minister D.M. Swaminathan, British High Commissioner James Dauris, Australian High Commissioner Bryce Hutchesson, and diplomatic representatives from Canada and Japan, at an event at the Batticaloa District secretariat where Batticaloa was declared mine free, after eight years, since the successful conclusion of the war in May, 2009.
Interestingly, none of the members of parliament, representing the Batticaloa district, attended the event.
Minister Swaminathan, accompanied by envoys of countries which backed mine clearing effort, flew in commercial SLAF flight from Ratmalana to Batticaloa on the morning of June 21 to join Keshap who had reached Batticaloa on the previous day.
Sri Lanka has received Rs 8 bn in US assistance to carry out de-mining operations in Sri Lanka. The US support amounted to be the largest single foreign sponsorship. The Army cleared 83 per cent of mine-affected land, whereas the INGOs and NGOs cleared the rest. Overall, 26 per cent of mine-affected territory in the northern and eastern districts remained to be cleared, with Ampara and Trincomalee expected to be declared free of mine risk next.
The armed forces brought Batticaloa district under government control two years before the conclusion of the war, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon.
Batticaloa district had been one of the worst affected with some of the bloodiest fighting during the conflict. A substantial number died due to fighting among once – Indian sponsored terrorist groups as well as clashes between the LTTE and the IPKF formed Tamil National Army.
Even after the entire Eastern Province, consisting of Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts, had been liberated, in mid 2007, a section of the international community, as well as the media, propagated the invincibility of the LTTE. They believed the armed forces lacked the wherewithal to sustain large scale Vanni offensive on multiple fronts though the offensive got underway a few months before the liberation of the Eastern Province.
AS Deputy Minister Counselor for Political Affairs at the US Embassy in New Delhi, during 2005-2008, Keshap couldn’t have been unaware of what was happening in Sri Lanka.
South Asia expert Keshap presented his credentials to President Maithripala Sirisena in August 2015, a few days after the formation of the UNP-SLFP coalition on the basis of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
US Amb survives LTTE fire
In the wake of war-torn Batticaloa being declared mine free, it would be pertinent to examine the situation there, a decade ago, with the focus on a deliberate LTTE artillery attack, on Batticaloa air field, seconds after an SLAF chopper carrying a group of Colombo based diplomats, including the then US Ambassador Robert Blake landed. Ambassador Blake and Italian ambassador Pio Mariani received minor injuries. The LTTE artillery attack on Feb 27, 2007, was meant to discourage the UN, EU and Western powers from throwing its weight behind the then government’s rehabilitation and reconstructions efforts in the Eastern Province.
Clearing the Batticaloa district of mines wouldn’t have been a reality if the armed forces failed to achieve their military objectives. In spite of the vast majority of the Batticaloa District LTTE cadre switching its allegiance to renegade commander Karuna, in early 2004, Western powers, India, civil society and a section of the media remained confident the LTTE still could thwart the armed forces.
Less than a month after the LTTE artillery attack, on Batticaloa air base, online Bloomberg news agency quoted defence and political analysts as having said that Sri Lanka’s war couldn’t be won by either side.
March 22, 2007, datelined story headlined ‘Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger Rebels Fight a War That Can’t be Won,’ by Colombo based Anusha Ondaatjie, quoted head of terrorism research at Singapore’s Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Rohan Gunaratna as having asserted: "Continuing the current spate of violence is not going to bring about a different outcome or change the status quo. Both parties have developed significant support to be able to recover from losses, but this type of warfare is protracted." Gunaratna declared: "What is needed is a negotiated settlement to the conflict."
The website also quoted Gunaratna as having claimed: "The two parties have decided to fight each other", hence conveniently forgotten the circumstances leading to eelam war IV in Aug 2006.
The then President Mahinda Rajapaksa reluctantly responded to the LTTE military challenge, after making a desperate bid to revive the Norwegian initiative. President Rajapaksa made both overt and covert efforts to reach an understanding with the LTTE. Sri Lanka’s efforts should be examined against the backdrop of Western powers steadfastly refusing to pressure the LTTE to return to the negotiating table. The LTTE quit the negotiating table, in April 2003, during Ranil Wickremesinghe’s premiership to facilitate the change of government in early 2004.
Just three months after Dr. Gunaratne called for a negotiated settlement, the military liberated the entire Eastern Province. By then, ground operations were underway on the Vanni west front with the newly raised 57 Division struggling to make headway.
Commenting on the split caused by Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, alias Karuna, Sanjana Hattotuwa, a senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), was also quoted by Bloomberg as having said, "Karuna’s departure was a major debacle to the LTTE, in the East, but it will be a stretch for the government to think they can liberate Jaffna using Karuna."
The renegade LTTE cadre hadn’t been involved in the nearly three-year long high intensity northern campaign.
At the time of the LTTE attack, on the Batticaloa air base, President Rajapaksa had been away in China. The then Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, accompanying President Rajapaksa, issued the following statement: "The government of Sri Lanka condemns this attack by the LTTE in the strongest terms. This is a reminder for the international community to take effective measures to eliminate fund raising and weapons procurement by the LTTE in foreign countries."
Many an eyebrow was raised when Ambassador Blake sort of defended the LTTE when he had met Bogollagama and the then Foreign Secretary Dr. Palitha Kohona a few days after the incident. Ambassador Blake had asserted that the LTTE wouldn’t have launched artillery attack on the Batticaloa air base if they were aware of his presence. The US envoy declared the LTTE might have been aware of the presence of his diplomatic colleagues though the group was certainly not unaware of his presence (LTTE would not have attacked us if they knew I was there – Blake, The Island, March 6, 2007). The then French ambassador Jean-Bernard de Vaivre, Japanese ambassador Kiyoshi Araki, German ambassador Juergen Weerth, UN Resident Coordinator Frederick Lyons and UNHCR Representative Amin Awad had been among those accompanying Ambassador Blake. The US embassy never contradicted The Island story.
A few years later, after the conclusion of the war, Wiki Leaks released a confidential diplomatic cable that dealt with the LTTE attack on the Batticaloa air base. The released cable revealed the pathetic US response to the LTTE attack. Ambassador Blake has decided not to join delegations led by the then Human Rights and Resettlement Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe in the wake of two separate attacks.
Wiki Leaks released a spate of revealing cables originating from the US mission, in Colombo, as well as the US mission, in New Delhi, during the war as well as the post-war period. Unfortunately, the Rajapaksa government lacked foresight to study Wiki Leaks cables pertaining to Sri Lanka. Foreign Ministry neglected its duty to ensure the best possible defence for Sri Lanka in the face of unsubstantiated war crimes accusations directed at political and military leaderships until the Yahapalana government co-sponsored the Oct 1, 2015, Resolution to pave the way for hybrid judicial mechanism.
The US forced Sri Lanka to accept the Oct 1, 2015 Resolution in spite of Sri Lanka rejecting the draft resolution at the first informal session called by the "Core Group’ pursuing the matter. Ambassador Keshap had been present at that meeting along with US Ambassador in Geneva Harper.
US cable on LTTE attack
The following is the relevant sections of Ambassador Blake’s classified cable in verbatim on the LTTE attack on the Batticaloa air base:
SUBJECT: LTTE HEAD REGRETS ARTILLERY FIRE ON AMBASSADOR DURING BATTICALOA TRIP
1. (S) SUMMARY: On February 28, Ambassador Blake received a faxed letter (full text para 2) dated February 27, 2007,from S.P. Tamilselvan, Head of the Political Division, LTTE, apologizing for the February 27 artillery attack on the delegation in which the Ambassador was traveling to Batticaloa. Comment: Since this is now the second delegation led by Samarasinghe that has come under fire from the LTTE, we will likely refrain from joining similar missions in the future. While we do not believe the LTTE intentionally targeted the Ambassadors, the LTTE clearly was aware that a high level GSL mission would be coming to Batticaloa to meet with civil society and other representatives. Their decision to shell a group that was seeking to address the same humanitarian and human rights problems that the LTTE claims to be concerned about, reflects the ruthless and cynical attitude of the LTTE. END SUMMARY.
2. (U) Begin text.
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
HE Robert Blake, The Ambassador of United States, Colombo.
I write to express my deep sadness and shock that you were slightly hurt in an artillery fire on 27 February 2007, as the aircraft carrying you and others landed in military air bases in Batticaloa. We truly regret the unfortunate incident.
Please allow us to explain the circumstances that led to this unfortunate incident. The two landing sites where the aircraft, carrying you and other ambassadors, landed are Sri Lankan military artillery positions. Early on that day, Sri Lankan military launched artillery shelling into our areas, in Batticaloa, provoking us to fire back. Such shelling into our area occurs regularly and is continuing to create new IDPs on a daily basis.
We like to inform you that we have well established and effective channels of communication with UN and ICRC for informing us about the movements of foreign diplomats and delegates into war zones. This arrangement has worked well to ensure the safety of diplomats who have to travel into war zones in the course of their duties. Indeed, foreign diplomats, UN and INGO staff regularly fly to the Palaly military air base in Jaffna after informing us through this well established channel.
The failure of the Sri Lankan Government (GoSL) to follow this well established practice is criminal negligence on their part. We are forced to think that GoSL deliberately avoided this practice and put your safety and the safety of the other ambassadors in jeopardy in order to ruin the relationship of the Tamil people with your country.
Fortunately, prompt action by UN staff and our staff at our Head Quarters in Kilinochchi has avoided serious harm to the foreign diplomats.
Please allow me to use this opportunity to say how much the Tamil people and LTTE value the good relationship with your country and recognize the concerns you show for the welfare of the Tamil people.
(S.P. Tamilselvan) Head of Political Division, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
3. (S) We have confirmed that there was an outgoing artillery barrage from the Sri Lankan military into the jungles west of Batticaloa on the morning for February 27th. This is not an unusual occurrence; the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) has told us that artillery barrages into the jungles west of Batticaloa are practically a daily occurrence. The LTTE letter does not specifically allege that the fire came from the helicopter landing sites. (Note: It is not likely that the Tigers have a technical ability to locate the source of the incoming fire, but they may very well have spotters with radios or cell phones in the vicinity. This appeared to be the case in this instance, as the incoming mortars landed progressively closer to the arriving delegation.) To avoid recurrences of this unfortunate incident, RSO plans to set in place a notification procedure to either the UN security liaison or the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission liaison in Kilinochchi for future Ambassadorial and high-level visits to the conflict zone.
4. (S) The idea for this trip was originated by Human Rights and Resettlement Minister Samarasinghe, who is making a good faith effort to address humanitarian and human rights problems. However, this is now the second delegation led by Samarasinghe that has come under fire from the LTTE. The first was a mission to Jaffna several weeks ago that the US did not participate in. We will likely refrain from joining similar missions with high level GSL officials in the future. While we do not believe the LTTE intentionally targeted the Ambassadors, the LTTE likely was aware that a high level GSL mission would be coming to Batticaloa to meet with civil society and other representatives. Their decision to shell a group that was seeking to address the same humanitarian and human rights problems that the LTTE claims to be concerned about, reflects the ruthless and cynical attitude of the LTTE. BLAKE"
Boastful Thamilselvan was killed eight months later in an SLAF strike on Kilinochchi. A pair of aircraft comprising Kfir and Mig 27 bombed Thamilselvan’s underground hideout. The LTTE suffered a debilitating setback due to Thamilselvan’s killing.