I would like to thank Mr. Geoffrey Dobbs, Mr. Herman Guneratne and the others involved in the Serendip Coast Festival for inviting me to speak here today. I am aware that many of the organisers were also responsible for the Galle Literary Festival that was held on an annual basis over the last few years, which brought many world-renowned authors, poets and other illustrious individuals to this historic city. I believe today’s event and the Serendip Coast Festival represents the continuation of their efforts to promote Galle as a hub for similar events. This deserves encouragement and appreciation, because it provides an opportunity for a particularly discerning and influential segment of the international community to visit Sri Lanka and see the situation on the ground. As you will have noticed, the ground realities are rather different from what is often reported about this country internationally. Particularly in context of the fact that Sri Lanka only emerged from a vicious, three decades long terrorist conflict less than four years ago, I believe it is fair to say that the progress we have achieved is remarkable.
Just over a month ago, I had the opportunity to accompany His Excellency the President Mahinda Rajapaksa on his official visit to Jaffna.During this visit, he presided over the inauguration of a new power plant in Chunnakam, the opening of a new building complex for the Jaffna Hospital, and several other official functions. He also took the opportunity to travel throughout the peninsula and make a number of unscheduled stops to talk to the ordinary people in the area. He did all of his travels by road. I particularly remember that on the last day of his visit, he opened the Pier at Nagadeepa at about 6.30 in the evening, then attended a ceremony at a Kovil in Karainagar. This event ended at around 8pm. Afterwards, he travelled by road across the Peninsula to Palaly, which is a journey that takes about an hour. This is the President of Sri Lanka, travelling across the breadth of the Jaffna Peninsula, by night, on road. A few years ago, I don’t think even a military convoy could have travelled from Karainagar to Palaly by road without being confronted by a terrorist attack. Yet today, the Head of State is able to make such a journey. This exemplifies the peace, stability and security that exist in every part of the country after the defeat of terrorism in May 2009.
Unfortunately, some people seem to have forgotten the situation Sri Lanka was in before the dawn of peace. They seem to have forgotten just how horrific the terrorism of the LTTE was. By the time His Excellency the President assumed office in December 2005, Sri Lanka had suffered nearly thirty years of LTTE terror. Its atrocities had become part of our day-to-day lives. People in vulnerable villages near territory captured and held by the LTTE lived in constant fear of attacks. So too did civilians throughout the country, especially in Colombo, which was all too frequently rocked by bomb explosions. Many of our leading politicians and public figures were assassinated, including President Premadasa, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgarmar, Minister of State for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne, former Opposition Leader A. Amirthalingam, and numerous other illustrious leaders from all communities.
Economic targets were attacked ruthlessly, including the Oil Refinery at Kolonnawa, power plants at Kelanitissa&Kerwalapitiya, and the International Air Port at Katunayake. The attack on the Central Bank in 1996 killed close to a hundred people and injured more than a thousand. Even places of worship such as the Sri Maha Bodhiya in Anuradhapura, the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, the Kaththankudy Mosque and Churches were targeted. Other such attacks by the LTTE claimed thousands of lives and deeply affected hundreds of thousands more. No one was safe. All Sri Lankans lived in a state of constant tension, never knowing when a sudden terrorist attack would take their lives or kill their loved ones. A veil of fear hung over day-to-day life. Parents did not travel in the same vehicle together for fear of leaving their children orphaned. Many of our best and brightest left the country to seek better prospects abroad. Foreign and local investment halted. Tourist arrivals slowed to a trickle. Our economy, our people, our way of life suffered incalculable harm due to the LTTE’s acts of terror.
It is important to stress that the LTTE was not a small band of separatists, but a large, sophisticated terrorist organisation with a formidable fighting force and international reach. By 2005, the LTTE had approximately25,000 battle-hardened cadres in its ranks as well as a large auxiliary force comprising trained civilians which was known as Makkalaipadai. It had access to large stockpiles of modern armaments, ammunition and equipment, including heavy artillery, medium artillery, mortars, machine guns and missiles. Most of these items were equivalent weapons to those possessed by the Sri Lanka Army. Uniquely amongst terrorist organisations the world over, it possessed a very sophisticated naval wing as well as a fledgling air wing. At its height, the LTTE had influence over nearly two thirds of the country’s coastline and controlled most of the landmass in the Northern and Eastern provinces.In fact, the LTTE controlled virtually everything within that region, including the civil administration, through its military power. Although the Government provided funding for all administrative services and public services, it did not have the power to monitor what was taking place. Neither the Armed Forces nor the Police could enter these areas. These areas were ruled by the LTTE at gunpoint.
Liberating the hundreds of thousands of people in the North and East from the LTTE’s dominance was one of the President’s key objectives soon after he was elected. He had been given a very clear mandate by the people to solve the terrorist problem once and for all. One of his very first acts was to invite the LTTE for direct talks with the Government so that the stalled negotiations for peace could be restarted. However, instead of accepting his invitation, the LTTE increased its provocations considerably. It launched brazen attacks against key military targets and killed dozens of innocent civilians. The Government bore these provocations with patience, but it was compelled to take action after the LTTE shut down a crucial sluice gate at Maavilaru in July 2006, cutting off water supply to more than five thousand households and thousands of acres of agricultural land. This threatened a humanitarian disaster, and a limited operation was launched to reopen the sluice gate. Almost immediately, the LTTE launched attacks on the key city of Trincomalee in the East and military targets in the North, making clear that its true intentions at Maavilaru had been to restart a full-fledged war. The Government had no choice but to widen the ongoing military operation into a Humanitarian Operation to liberate all of Sri Lanka from the LTTE’s terrorism.
This was not, by any means, an easy task. During the last three decades, successive Presidents and successive Governments had attempted to solve this issue through negotiations as well as military means. There were even third party interventions from time to time, notably the Indo-Lanka Accord and the arrival of an Indian Peace Keeping Force in 1987, and the Ceasefire and peace process facilitated by Norway in 2002. However, the LTTE never had any genuine interest in peace, and it used ceasefires only to strengthen itself. As a result of its growth and increasing sophistication over the years, it was a formidable military threat when the Humanitarian Operation began in August 2006.
Defeating the LTTE required many success factors to converge. The first and perhaps most important factor was the unshakeable determination of His Excellency the President to fulfil his mandate and free Sri Lanka from terrorism once and for all. There had been many successful military operations in the past that could not be consolidated to a permanent victory because of the lack of sufficient political will. The clear, unambiguous aim of the President and his firm commitment to eradicating terrorism from Sri Lanka was critical throughout the Humanitarian Operation. This combined with committed personal leadership. For the duration of the Humanitarian Operations, over three and a half years, the President chaired the weekly Security Council meetings, where the debrief for the past week and the plans for the coming week were discussed. By constantly keeping in touch with the unfolding situation, the President, as Commander in Chief, was fully aware of the progress being made. Whenever there were setbacks, as there can be in any military operation, he understood that they were only temporary.Instead of being deterred, he instead gave the military the confidence to press ahead towards the ultimate goal.
The President’s decision to expand the Armed Forces was another critical factor in the success of the military. The strength of the LTTE, its military capability and armaments, the sheer extent of land it controlled and the guerilla tactics and diversionary tactics it used against the Armed Forces all meant that a large military was essential in combatting the entirety of the LTTE threat. As a result of the expansion of the Army, we had enough troops to operate on a number of different axes and on a wider frontage, and to hold territory in strength once it had been captured. For the first time, we were able to create more and more battalions, brigades and divisions to progress with, and at the same time to cater for battle casualties whilst maintaining the required strength of all units. By expanding the Navy and the Air Force and by using their personnel beyond their classic role to protect sensitive areas on ground, and by strengthening the Civil Defence Force and increasing the responsibilities of the Police, we were able to protect sensitive areas throughout the country while the war was being waged. This meant that there were no reversals on the field of battle, nor any need to divert the military to protect against LTTE attacks elsewhere.This made an enormous difference to the success of the entire military campaign.
Another essential success factor behind the Humanitarian Operation was the ability of the President and the political leadership to maintain domestic political stability whilst resisting international pressures. It is important to remember that it was a coalition Government in power during the Humanitarian Operation. The President had to somehow keep his coalition partners together and even persuade key opposition figures to support him in order to consolidate the Government’s position and ensure it did not collapse hallway through. At the same time, essential subsidies had to be granted on fertilizer and other items of key importance in order to control food and commodity prices that would affect the populace. Infrastructure development also could not be ignored despite the large war budget. By skilfully managing the economy as well as domestic politics, the Government could sustain its popularity and the country’s economic growth despite the hardships of the war and the international economic downturn. This helped maintain the popularity of the war effort as well as sustain the Government.
An even greater challenge, however, was resisting the various international pressures that were brought to bear on us to stop the war. I would like to remind the audience of the last minute visits of the Foreign Ministers of the United Kingdom and France, as well as the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General to pressurize the Government to stop the Humanitarian Operation. As a result of its vast international network,its extremely effective propaganda machine, and the large number of expatriate Tamils in many powerful foreign capitals, the LTTE was able to influence the political leadership of many western states to be critical of the Government’s success on the warfront. This led to numerous practical issues as well, including restrictions on the sale of weapons to Sri Lanka by certain countries. These issues had to be overcome through the skilful building up of our diplomatic relationships with key regional allies as well as countries such as China and Russia.
Without doubt, the most important country that had to be managed was India. Because of the political pressures in Tamil Nadu, the Sri Lankan situation has always been a very sensitive one in that country. In 1987, when the LTTE was on the brink of defeat during the Vadamarachchi Operation, India intervened and effectively forced the Government to stop its military campaign. In order to maintain the relationship with India and to prevent any such problem occurring this time around, the President went out of his way to keep New Delhi briefed on developments at all times. In addition, a special bilateral committee was set up at the highest level, including then Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa, Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga and myself as Defence Secretary from the Sri Lankan side, and former National Security Advisor M. K. Narayan, then Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and then Defence Secretary Vijay Singh on the Indian side. This troika had continuous discussions and ensured that any sensitive issues were dealt with as soon as they arose.
With the confluence of all these strategies and factors, we were able to conclude the Humanitarian Operation by defeating the LTTE on the field of battle in May 2009. The book Gota’s War by Mr. C. A. Chandrapremaoutlines the history of the conflict and its development over the years, and goes into great detail on howSri Lanka’s victory over the LTTE was ultimately achieved.
It has to be acknowledged that this victory was not easy and did not come without a price. During the latter stages of the Northern operation, the LTTE withdrew from its entrenched positions and retreated towards its strongholds on the Northeastern coast. As it withdrew, it took three hundred thousand civilians out of their homes to serve as its human shield. During the last stage of the war, the LTTE set up its artillery positions within civilian encampments and fought amidst the civilians, often dressed in civilian attire. This was a very challenging situation for the Armed Forces, which acted with great restraint and suffered considerable losses in their efforts to minimize civilian casualties. The use of heavy weaponry was curtailed and then stopped outright. The minimum amount of necessary force was used at all times to ensure that harm to civilians and civilian property was minimized. However, the LTTE had no compunctions about putting civilians deliberately in harm’s way, and its cadres mercilessly shot at all civilians who tried to escape into Government controlled areas.
Despite all of these challenges, it is important to note that by the end of the Humanitarian Operation, nearly 300,000 civilians were left in the Government’s care. In spite of the absurd claims made by various parties with vested interests, the Armed Forces did their best to keep civilian casualties to a minimum. A comprehensive survey entitled an Enumeration of Vital Events undertaken in 2011 by the Department of Census and Statistics demonstrates this beyond doubt. The Enumeration was conducted between June and August 2011, with field data being collected in July. The enumerators were Government School Teachers attached to the Northern Province, all 2,500 of whom were Tamil. Apart from the gathering of usual census data, the enumerators paid attention to the deaths that had taken place in the North from 2005 to 2009, with a particular emphasis on the deaths that took place in the last stages of the war. The Enumeration Report states that 7,896 deaths occurred due to unnatural causes during this period. It is extremely important to stress that this figure includes all the LTTE leaders and cadres who died in battle, all the civilians killed by the LTTE, and all the civilians who died as a result of crossfire or collateral damage.
It should also be understood that the LTTE had approximately 25,000 cadres at the start of the Humanitarian Operation. By its conclusion, nearly 12,000 had surrendered to the Armed Forces. Technical sources and the number of bodies of LTTE cadres recovered indicates that a large number of cadres died in battle. These numbers exclude civilians who were forced to fight by the LTTE during the last stages of the war. When considering these numbers, it is clear that the majority of the 7,896 deaths that occurred during the last stages of the war were of LTTE cadres.This is particularly important to bear in mind, because it clearly demonstrates the falsity and quite likely malicious nature of the various civilian casualty figures that are alleged by various parties with vested interests. It should further be noted that the figures in the Enumeration of Vital Events tallies with the figures reported by the ICRC as well as UNICEF. Soon after the war, UNICEF started an independent effort to track the missing persons in the North. By July 2011, it received a total of 2,564 tracing applications, of which 1,888 were about adults and 676 were about children. It was also reported by 64% of parents that their children had been recruited by the LTTE. All of these figures-those in the Enumeration of Vital Events, the ICRC estimates and the UNICEF’s tracing applications-prove beyond doubt that the number of non-combatants who perished during the war is in fact very small.
The success of the Government in the post war era is as commendable as its defeat of terrorism during the Humanitarian Operation. As soon as victory was achieved, the Government faced a new set of challenges that it successfully overcame in a relatively short period. These challenges included:
* accommodating and taking care of nearly 300,000 internally displaced persons
* undertaking de mining and reconstruction of infrastructure and facilities in the places they had been displaced from
* resettling them at their original locations once they had been cleared of mines; and
* rehabilitating and reintegrating nearly 12,000 ex-LTTE cadres who surrendered to the military as well as nearly 4,500 cadres who were in detention at that time.
Accommodating and ensuring the welfare of the IDPs was the first challenge. The Government had prepared for this challenge since late 2008, and had started to construct welfare villages to temporarily house the civilians it anticipated receiving at the end of the war. It was planned that the welfare villages would contain high quality infrastructure and facilities. Accordingly, the Government established semi-permanent shelters at Lakshman Kadirgamar Village and Ananda Kumaraswamy Village in Manik Farm, as well as temporary shelters and huts provided by the funding organisations, to accommodate the IDPs. These welfare villages comprise one of the many success stories of the post-war period.
During the initial stages, cooked food packets were provided to the IDPs. Dedicated medical teams were appointed to each welfare village and extensive healthcare facilities and sufficient medical supplies were provided. The vast majority of IDPs soon recovered from the ill health they had suffered while they were with the LTTE. Between May and June 2009, the crude mortality rate fell from 0.7 per 10,000 per day to 0.5 per 10,000 per day, which is the threshold rate for South East Asia. By July 2009, it had settled at 0.15 per 10,000 per day, which is the threshold rate for Sri Lanka. In addition to physical health, great care was also taken to provide psychological and psychosocial support to the IDPs.
After the early stages during which the people were settling down, life resumed a normal routine in the welfare villages. Instead of cooked meals, kitchen facilities were set up in each residential block and basic rations were issued free of charge. Cooperative outlets and markets were established, and banks, post offices and communication centres were also set up. Special public administration services were provided, including facilities to reconstruct legal documents and issue temporary Identity Cards. ‘Happiness Centres’ were established for children, and various activities including art, music, drama, yoga and sports were conducted. Many efforts were taken to promote religious, spiritual and cultural activities.Places of worship such as Kovils, Churches and Mosques were established through community consultation, with special facilities being provided for all clergy. Schools were established for students, and vocational training centres were established for the capacity building and empowerment of older individuals. Community centres and common areas were built for adults, and young adults were provided with career counselling.
While these efforts were taking place, the de mining programme was expedited in the former conflict areas. In total, it was suspected that mines had been laid in more than 5,000 square kilometres of land. De mining such a vast area was a very difficult challenge, but the Government unhesitatingly undertook it immediately after the war ended. Many foreign organisations came forward to help but the Sri Lanka Army took responsibility for de mining 1,500 square kilometres, including most of the densely mined regions. The entire de mining programme was carefully planned and executed. The first priority was to de mine the towns and villages. The second priority was to de mine the agricultural areas and paddy fields. Finally, attention was paid to clearing the forested areas. During the de mining process, nearly half a million antipersonnel mines, 1,400 antitank mines and close to four hundred thousand unexploded ordnance devices were recovered. This demonstrates the scope of the problem we faced, and clearly demonstrates just what an achievement it is that the two main priority areas could be de mined successfully within three years.
Alongside the de mining process, Reconstruction was expedited in each area that was cleared of mines and rendered safe. As a result of LTTE action and long neglect, many of the houses, business premises, Government offices, schools, hospitals, other facilities and infrastructure were in need of significant repair and improvement. The renovation of houses and construction of new housing units was one of the Government’s first priorities in terms of reconstruction. The Government extended direct assistance for the establishment of houses. The Army has been involved in several programmes in this regard and has renovated more than 6,000 houses and constructed close to 7,000 new permanent or semi-permanent houses. Other countries have also assisted; the most notable being India, which provided a grant for the construction of about 40,000 new houses. In addition to housing stock, infrastructure was built up rapidly under the Northern Spring and Eastern Dawn programmes.Under them, electricity, water supply and sanitation, irrigation, solid waste disposal, transportation and improved agriculture, livestock development, fisheries and facilities for trading activity were developed in these areas.
Alongside reconstruction, resettlement was also expedited. Under the rapid resettlement programme, all the IDPs were resettled within three and a half years. With the exception of a very few, they were resettled in their places of origin, including even areas such as Vellamullavaikkal where the last battles of the war took place. In addition to speedily affecting their resettlement, the Government has taken great care to ensure that the former IDPs have gained improved prospects in life. Vocational training was provided to young adults, and financial and other forms of assistance were provided for people to resume their livelihoods. The Government has provided tools, equipment, seeds and livestock for farming, donated fishing gear and fishing boats to help fishermen return to the sea, and provided concessionary financing and training for those hoping to start up small businesses. Through all these measures, the Government has ensured that the former IDPs have ample opportunity to return to normal life.
A similar approach was adopted to the LTTE cadres who surrendered or were detained during the Humanitarian Operation. All of them were categorized according to their level of involvement in LTTE atrocities, and the vast majority were sent for a comprehensive rehabilitation programme. All the child soldiers were rehabilitated within one year, and the adult ex-combatants were rehabilitated in stages and reintegrated with society. All beneficiaries of rehabilitation underwent extensive programmes designed to equip them with the ability to return to normal life in society. They were provided counselling, spiritual, religious and cultural rehabilitation, and psychosocial support including creative therapy. They were provided catch up education, given vocational training in various sectors, and even assisted in setting up their own businesses through provision of specialised training and concessionary financing. Many of the beneficiaries have also been absorbed into the Civil Defence Force. According to independent studies conducted by American academics, the rehabilitation process has been extremely successful in reducing the support for violence amongst the beneficiaries.
In the long term, the primary challenge and responsibility of the Government is to restore stability to Sri Lanka. In this regard, ensuring that the problems that led to the conflict in the first place do not arise again is critically important. Keeping some degree of security measures in place is essential. At the same time, the Government was very keen to remove whatever restrictions had to be in place during the war so that the people could feel the benefit of peace as fast as possible. All the restrictions on travel, restrictions on transport of certain items, restrictions on fishing and restrictions on ground in terms of high security zones were gradually removed. Elections have been restored and political plurality has returned. The visible presence of the military has been minimised, and the maintenance of law and order has been completely handed over to the Police. New police stations have been built and Tamil speaking policemen have been recruited and trained to serve in the North and East. All of these measures have ensured that life is returning to normal in the former conflict areas. This is one of the greatest benefits of the hard won peace.
The rest of the country, too, has benefitted tremendously from the restoration of peace and stability. Tourist arrivals are on the rise, with more and more internationally recognised travel magazines selecting Sri Lanka as one of the top-rated holiday destinations in the world. In keeping with this trend, more than a million tourists arrivals were recorded in the country during 2012. Sri Lanka has also been chosen to host several significant international events, including the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting later this year. Last year, it also hosted the 58th annual Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference and the ICC’s Twenty20 Cricket World Cup. Many leading international companies have decided to invest in Sri Lanka. In the hospitality and real estate sector, these include the Shangri La Hotel chain, ITC Hotels, Sheraton Hotels, Indocean Developers and the Krrish Group. Sri Lankan companies too are investing in these sectors, with several planning to construct many new mixed developments, hotels and office buildings.
For its part, the Government is undertaking a large-scale development drive to improve infrastructure such as roads, railways, electricity, water supply and sanitation, disposal of solid waste etc. Several flagship projects have been undertaken. A few days ago, His Excellency the President declared open Sri Lanka’s second international airport at Mattala. The Hambantota Port is also now operational, and has the capacity to tap the vast potential afforded by the sea lines of communication that pass within a few nautical miles to the south of Sri Lanka. A concerted effort is underway to develop the quality of our urban spaces. Cities are being beautified and public facilities are being upgraded in dozens of locations.There area number of urban development projects taking place in Colombo as well as smaller cities throughout the rest of the country. The private sector has started to exploit the opportunities that are being created by the Government, and more and more investment in various sectors is flowing into the country. Sri Lanka is on the brink of an economic resurgence that will benefit all our citizens and our residents.
However, despite all of these positive accomplishments and the country’s great potential, we must also realise that Sri Lanka still faces several challenges both domestically as well as from overseas. Despite the military defeat of the LTTE, its propaganda machine remains fully operational in a number of countries around the world. By influencing foreign governments through the large number of expatriate Tamils who comprise an important voting block in many western democracies, the rump of the LTTE is still causing problems for Sri Lanka. There are also many so called champions of human rights in the international media and in international NGOs who continue to attack the country. Some of them have publicly accepted donations from LTTE linked groups; many of them have been misled by LTTE propaganda and others are desperately trying to cling to causes to secure funding. The efforts of the rump of the LTTE and the other parties with vested interests is compounded by the strategic interest that certain states have in Sri Lanka because of its unique geographical position. Even in international forums such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, we can see that certain powerful countries and their allies are blatantly employing double standards when dealing with Sri Lanka. They have completely ignored our achievements. The LTTE’s terrorism has been eliminated. The senseless killing has stopped. Peace and stability has been achieved.
Even in Sri Lanka, some politicians who used to work under the LTTE still believe in its ideology, and continue to try and create problems among the Tamil population so that they can cling on to power. Instead of looking at the bigger picture and seeing the benefits that flow from a unitary state, their agenda is to divide our people for selfish gain. There are also unscrupulous politicians in the mainstream parties who disregard the national interest and resort to false propaganda to get into power. In addition, there are also civil society stalwarts with a distinct anti-national agenda, who do their best to discredit the Government and portray a bleak picture about Sri Lanka to the world. They are aided and abetted by sections of the media that have vested interests.
This is extremely unfortunate. People should not forget about the last thirty years. We must remember the many sacrifices that were made for peace to be achieved. During the conflict, nearly 30,000 military personnel made the ultimate sacrifice. 20,000 more are permanently disabled. Apart from these war heroes, about 10,000 civilians including political leaders and community leaders lost their lives because of the war. We must be careful not to do anything that will create such a situation in this country again. While we must deal with whatever domestic issues remain, we must not do so in a way that will threaten our present peace and stability.
If you think back to the era before 2005 and how things were then, and compare that to the present era, you will see for yourselves just how much better things are now. Today, there is no more fighting. There is no more violence. Families need not fear bomb blasts; children can go to school freely. Everyone has benefitted from the defeat of terrorism. The achievement of peace after so many years of conflict, the return of freedom to all our citizens, the successful meeting of all the post conflict challenges, the revival of democracy and the ongoing rapid economic development are all remarkable achievements. We must not let those with vested interests mislead us. Sri Lanka is one of the most peaceful and stable countries in the world, and if we stand united as Sri Lankans and as friends of Sri Lanka, we will together unleash the immense potential that this country has. In fact, the best riposte to those who stand in doubt of Sri Lanka is to show them what we as a nation are capable of achieving. If all of us commit ourselves to this task and stand united, I have every confidence that we will take this country forward into a bright new era of unparalleled opportunity and success.