by Gotabaya Rajapaksa
(Text of special address by Secretary Defence and Urban Development, Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the workshop for Sri Lankan ambassadors and heads of missions conducted by the Ministry of External Affairs at Sri Lanka Military Academy in Diyatalawa.)
During the course of this session, I will be speaking on the actions taken by the Government to address the key issues that affected this country after the achievement of peace in May 2009.
It is important that the Heads of Mission and Staff of Sri Lanka’s High Commissions and Embassies in other nations are fully aware of this, because of the challenges we face in the global arena today. Although the benefit of peace is evident to all Sri Lankans, we have seen that some sections of the international community have been largely critical on issues relating to Sri Lanka in the recent past. Countering this criticism is a key national priority.
I believe there are several reasons for this criticism. These include the work of the LTTE’s international propaganda machine; the active Tamil vote base in certain countries; undue fear in some capitals about the influence of China in Sri Lanka; the actions of some international human rights organisations; and a certain degree of cynicism about the Government’s genuine efforts to address the issues of the Tamil community. Whilst appreciating the hard work of several Ambassadors and High Commissioners in countering this criticism, I wish to stress that more needs to be done. The Heads of Mission and Staff of our Embassies and High Commissions around the world must counter this anti-Sri Lanka propaganda with facts. They must make sure that the true picture about what is happening here dominates the dialogue, instead of the propaganda of those who wish to harm our nation.
In setting about this, it is firstly important to fully appreciate the situation that the Government faced after the conclusion of the Humanitarian Operation in May 2009. During the last stages of the operation, as our Armed Forces advanced further and further into LTTE held areas, the LTTE moved the civilian population out of their towns and villages and retreated towards its final destination. It was the LTTE leadership’s intention to use the civilian population as a human shield. As the military advanced, the Government tried its best to inform the civilians to cross over to territory under its control. Announcements were made over loudhailers and radio, and leaflets were dropped to encourage the civilians to leave the LTTE. More and more civilians crossed over to Government controlled territory, but in early February the LTTE realised what was happening and took action to disrupt this movement. It sent a suicide cadre to blow herself up at a reception centre in Vishvamadu, and its cadres also started shooting at civilians who were trying to cross over. It was only in the final stages that the Armed Forces were able to rescue the majority of the trapped civilians, many of them in the last two weeks. By the time the LTTE was finally defeated, 295,873 IDPs were in the care of the Government.
Because the LTTE had laid antipersonnel mines, antitank mines and created obstacles using different types of Improvised Explosive Devices in the towns and villages it left behind, it was impossible for the civilians to go back soon after the war ended. The places they had been displaced from by the LTTE were no longer safe for human habitation. As a result, the civilians had to be looked after by the Government at newly created welfare villages while every effort was taken to demine their homes.
In total, mines were suspected to have been laid in more than five thousand square kilometres of land. Demining such a vast area was a very difficult challenge that the Government undertook. I am pleased to note that many foreign organisations stepped forward to assist us in this process. These included the Danish Demining Group, the Indian Sarvatra Group, the UK based Mines Advisory Group and the Indian Horizon Group and a few others. All of them contributed generously to the demining effort. However, it should be stressed that a considerable portion of the demining work was entrusted to the Sri Lanka Army. The Army was responsible for demining approximately 1,500 square kilometres of land, the largest single area assigned to any of the parties involved in demining.
The demining programme was carefully conceived, and priority areas were chosen to maximise efficiency and enable the speedy return of the internally displaced. The first priority was to demine the towns and villages. The second priority was to demine the plantation areas and paddy fields. The last priority was accorded to the forested areas. As of today, I am pleased to report that nearly 97% of the areas identified for demining effort have been cleared. Work only continues in areas where the brunt of the fighting took place, and in areas where there was a very high concentration of mines. The extent of the problem the Government faced in this regard can be clearly seen from the sheer number of mines and other devices unearthed and neutralised during the demining process. As at 31st May 2012, more than 434,679 antipersonnel mines, nearly 1,400 anti-tank mines, and nearly 369,311 unexploded ordnance devices had been recovered. Another 116 square kilometres of territory with a high density of mines remains to be cleared. It is expected that this process will take some time. However, I am pleased to note that the land that needs to be cleared to facilitate the return of the IDPs will be de-mined before the end of this month.
While the demining programme was underway, the IDPs remained in Welfare Villages. There were 5 Welfare Villages in all: four in the Vavuniya District, including Manik Farm, and one in Mannar. It is significant to note that when the Government was planning to establish Welfare Villages, long before the large influx of IDPs at the end of the war, it had every intention to provide above average accommodation for the people. Knowing the extent of the problem caused by LTTE mines, it was understood that resettlement would take time. As such, it was proposed that the Welfare Villages would have proper roads, semi-permanent shelters, learning centres, parks, IT centres, child and women development centres, etc., to care for all the needs of the IDPs.
Each Welfare Village was divided into blocks of shelters. The shelters were provided with electricity, and each block had separate kitchens, toilets, bathing areas and child friendly spaces. Special priority was given for the public areas and recreational activities within the centres. Provision of water exceeded the standards adopted by the World Health Organisation, and the sanitation facilitates were also kept to a reasonable standard. Food and nutrition was a particular area of focus. During the initial stages, cooked food packets were distributed to the IDPs, but within a couple of weeks, community kitchens were set up in each residential block. Basic rations were issued free of charge, and in addition to what was provided by the Government, significant assistance was also provided by foreign Governments, NGOs, civil society organisations and the general public. Cooperative outlets and markets were established, and the IDPs too soon started individual businesses within the Villages. State sector and private sector banks established outlets inside the villages, and post offices and communication centres were also set up.
Extensive healthcare facilities and adequate medical supplies were provided in the Welfare Villages. A Directorate of IDP Healthcare was established under the Ministry of Health, and medical officers were appointed to be in charge of each Welfare Village. Other health workers, including medical officers, nurses, pharmacists and public health officials worked under their guidance.
Each Welfare Village had a Primary Health Care Centre and a well equipped Referral Hospital. As a result of all the care taken at the Welfare Villages, the IDPs soon recovered from the ill health they had suffered while 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. This 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.
Special facilities for psychiatric care, including support for individuals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, were provided within the Welfare Villages. Psychosocial support, including counselling programmes, was provided. Many efforts were taken to promote religious, spiritual and cultural activities, and places of worship such as Kovils, Churches and Mosques were established through community consultation, and special facilities were provided for all clergy. Community centres and common areas were reserved for adults, and young adults were provided with career counselling. Vocational training centres were also established in each Welfare Village for capacity building and empowerment. IDPs were assisted in setting up home businesses. Special public administrative 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. Schools were established from Grade 1 to 11 in all the Welfare Villages, and special Advanced Level classes were conducted at the Kadirgamar Village.
While the IDPs were being thus looked after at Welfare Villages, reconstruction was expedited in parallel with the demining efforts. Soon after the Humanitarian Operation ended, His Excellency the President appointed a Presidential Task Force for Reconstruction and Resettlement. This Task Force implemented a 180-day crash programme for resettlement. In addition to demining, reconstruction activities including the restoration of infrastructure, the renovation of roads and utilities, improvements to irrigation and rebuilding of houses was carried out. The Government spent a considerable sum of money on this effort, which was instrumental in enabling a large number of displaced civilians to return to their homes within six months of the end of the war.
By the end of June 2012, just three years after the end of the war, the Government had successfully resettled more than 237,000 IDPs. A further 28,398 have chosen to live with host families in various parts of the country. It should be noted that 7,185 had left the IDP camps on various grounds and did not return, while a further 1,380 sought admission to hospitals and did not return after treatment. 802 IDPs died due to natural causes during the time they were awaiting to be resettled. Only 6,034 individuals from 1,800 families remain in the last functioning Welfare Village. These IDPs are from areas that were caught up in the most intense battles of the war, or from areas that were more extensively mined by the LTTE during its retreat. They will be resettled as soon as their homes are made safe for human occupation; in the very rare instances in which this is not possible, they will be given lands in alternate areas. The Government intends to complete the resettlement process by 31st July this year, and will then close down the welfare camps.
Apart from the IDPs, the Government faced another major challenge with regard to the large numbers of LTTE cadres who surrendered or were detained during the course of the Humanitarian Operation. A total of 11,989 LTTE combatants surrendered to the Armed Forces during the Humanitarian Operation. All of these cadres were categorised according to their known level of involvement in LTTE’s activities, and treated separately. The Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation was established to oversee the rehabilitation and reintegration of nearly 12,000 ex-LTTE cadres. A ‘six plus one’ rehabilitation process model was adopted, which rested on six pillars. These were Spiritual, Religious and Cultural Activities, Vocational & Livelihood activities, Psychological & Creative Therapies, Sports & Extracurricular Activities, Sociocultural Activities and Education. Community awareness programmes were also conducted, in which efforts were taken to sensitise the public to the needs of the beneficiaries of the rehabilitation programme.
Particular attention was given to the 594 child soldiers who surrendered. A special rehabilitation programme was organised for them, with assistance from UNICEF. These programmes were carried out at the Child Protection Centre in Poonthottam and the Hindu College Ratmalana. A lot of care was taken in providing counselling for the child beneficiaries of the rehabilitation programme. Special spiritual development activities and positive values cultivation programmes were conducted for them. Formal education was provided, with classes being conducted for more than 200 students between Grade 8 and Grade 11, and 65 students in the Advanced Level sections. Several 6 month long vocational training programmes were also conducted in subjects including information technology, aesthetics, carpentry, masonry, beauty culture etcetera.
The child beneficiaries were reunited with their families within one year, although 74 came back to Hindu College Ratmalana to continue the education programmes they had been following.
The adult beneficiaries of rehabilitation were initially housed in 22 Protective Accommodation and Rehabilitation Centres maintained by the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation. All of the centres were built to a good standard. International agencies and Non Governmental Organisations such as the IOM and UNICEF were given access to the rehabilitation centres, as were diplomats, media personnel, lawyers, and the family members of beneficiaries. Special leave was also granted to many of the beneficiaries to visit their families, and attend religious and cultural activities at home from time to time.
All beneficiaries underwent extensive programmes that were designed to equip them with the ability to return to normal life in society. Spiritual, religious and cultural rehabilitation programmes were conducted, with an intention to reacquaint the beneficiaries with cultural and family norms. Psychological and creative therapies rehabilitation was provided, including group counselling and therapy sessions, aesthetics and drama therapy programmes. Beneficiaries were also encouraged to take part in sports activities.
Special training and periodic refresher training was provided to centre administrators on how to provide psychological first aid and counselling. The counselling programme was designed in partnership with the Ministry of Healthcare and Nutrition, Ministry of Social Services and Social Welfare, and many Non Governmental Organisations engaged in the field. This was intended to correct the mind-set of the ex-combatants and affect attitudinal change. Much effort was taken to enable them to develop their personalities as individuals.
A lot of attention was paid to the reunification of families, with married ex-combatants being given the opportunity to re-join their spouses, children and parents at special rehabilitation centres called ‘Peace Villages’. This enabled many beneficiaries to continue their rehabilitation without any disruption to their family life. A mass marriage ceremony was held in June 2010, where 53 ex-combatant couples were formally given in marriage with the consent of their parents and families. The marriages were conducted per religious customs and traditions, and many parents and well-wishers attended the ceremony. A special Protective Accommodation and Rehabilitation Centre was established at Kaithady in Jaffna to cater to the reunification of married beneficiaries as well.
A special programme for ‘catch up education’ was provided in collaboration with the Education Department for young adults who opted for the programme. Under this, 361 students sat for the GCE Advanced Level examination in 2010. 222 of these students passed this exam. In 2011, 304 students sat for the Advanced Level examination, of whom 43 became eligible for university admission. 166 students sat for the GCE Ordinary Level examination in 2010, of whom 91 passed, and 77 students sat for the same exam in 2011.
46 different vocational training courses were also provided to the beneficiaries of the rehabilitation programme. The courses involved many sectors, including agriculture, industry, services and entrepreneurship. Substantial opportunities were provided for training information technology, with assistance from private sector implementation partners, and a computer lab was set up with the capacity to train approximately 100 persons at a given time.
A number of programmes were created to support beneficiaries who wished to set up their own businesses, with courses being conducted on self-employment, entrepreneurship and micro enterprise development. A special loan scheme for self-employment was also launched. It is important to note that steps have also been taken to recruit a large number of these rehabilitated ex-LTTE combatants to the Civil Defence Force. They will be used for development activities in their areas of residence.
The reintegration of the rehabilitees to society takes place after trained counsellors assess their preparedness to adapt to society and resume normal lives. Reintegration programmes have been conducted at various stages, including a large ceremony that was held at Temple Trees in September 2011 in the presence of His Excellency the President. In all, 10,949 rehabilitees have been reintegrated to society as of now. 121 were released in 2009; 5,227 were reintegrated in 2010 and 5,027 were reintegrated last year. So far this year, 574 beneficiaries of the rehabilitation programme have been reintegrated to society. Only 630 still remain in rehabilitation, at four centres located at Maramadu, Welikanda, Kandakadu and Poonthottam. These rehabilitees are not yet ready to be reintegrated to society, as they require more time to recover from the LTTE’s indoctrination and regain full capability to lead normal lives. It should be noted that a further 403 ex-combatants who were in the rehabilitation programme have been identified and detained for further investigations and legal action.
It is important to stress that the Government’s attitude towards LTTE combatants has been extremely generous. Most of these cadres were involved in attacks against Armed Forces personnel on the field of battle, and some would have also participated in atrocities against civilians. However, because of the Government’s deep and abiding commitment to reconciliation and peace, the vast majority of cadres were rehabilitated and released to society in just two years. This is a truly remarkable achievement, and it stands in stark contrast to the attitudes that many other countries have adopted towards former combatants. Nowhere else in the world have enemy combatants been treated with such generosity and rehabilitated at such speed. The commitment and good intentions of the Government of Sri Lanka is best exemplified in this act.
These good intentions have also extended to the LTTE cadres who were arrested and detained at various stages for their involvement in terrorist activities. Out of the approximately 4,500 cadres who were arrested and detained since January 2006, more than 2,000 were released after ascertaining that their involvement in LTTE activities was at a very low level. A further 1,592 detainees were sent for rehabilitation after being investigated and after preliminary court hearings. 40 suspected cadres have been acquitted by the Courts. 71 are currently in prison after having been found guilty as charged. All remaining cadres are either still under investigation or are being prosecuted under the law. Of these suspects, 268 are in remand custody pending further investigations and indictment. A further 365 are in judicial custody, and are awaiting trial after having been indicted. To speed up due process for these individuals and clear the backlog, a special High Court has been established in Mannar, and the courts in Vavuniyar and Anuradhapura have also been allotted their cases.
The cadres currently in detention are mainly housed at the Terrorist Investigation Unit at Boossa, while the others are in custody at the other divisions where they are being further investigated. These facilities are of a much higher standard than the facilities given to ordinary criminals in Sri Lankan prisons. The inmates are treated well, and they have access to psychological counselling and other services not dissimilar from what was provided to the cadres under rehabilitation. Opportunities to engage in spiritual activities and participate in cultural activities such as drama and music, has been given to them.
A database of all the cadres in detention was created in and released by April 2011. Information was made available on a round-the-clock basis to the spouses, children, parents and siblings of the detainees through the Terrorist Investigation Division in Colombo 1, and the Terrorist Investigation Units in Vavuniya and in Galle. Various agencies and organisations including the ICRC and the Human Rights Commission were given free access to the detention centres, as were several diplomats and foreign dignitaries who visited Sri Lanka from time to time. These included Justice Steven Rap, the Ambassador at Large of the Global Office of Criminal Justice in the United States, Lord Naseby of the United Kingdom, and many High Commissioners and Ambassadors in Sri Lanka. It should also be stressed that relatives of the detainees have been given access to the camps as well, as have the lawyers who represent the detainees in their legal affairs.
In addition to dealing with these pressing and highly visible issues of the IDPs and the ex-LTTE cadres, the Government was also very much committed to restoring normalcy to the North and East as quickly as possible. Several steps were taken to achieve this. One necessary step was to disarm the other Armed Groups that had been in operation in these areas during the war. Groups such as the EPDP, EPRLF, PLOTE and TMVP stood in opposition to the LTTE. Until the LTTE was defeated, their members carried arms for self-protection.
After the LTTE’s defeat, and the full re-establishment of Government control in those areas, immediate steps were taken to disarm these armed groups. Their members were encouraged to engage in democratic activities. Many of them are now involved in mainstream politics, and some are involved in other peaceful social activities. The disarming of armed groups is another success story that deserves wider attention
Another essential step in the restoration of normalcy was the removal of the various restrictions that had to be put in place due to the conflict.
There were restrictions on travel to the North, including restrictions on foreigners, media personnel and both foreign and local Non Governmental Organisations. Since the dawn of peace they were progressively curtailed. As of today, there are absolutely no restrictions on travel, and there is complete freedom of movement for all people in the North. The complete removal of restrictions imposed on various items is also noteworthy. During the war, transport of selected items, were restricted for fear that they would be used by the LTTE in offensive operations. As of today, these restrictions no longer exist.
The restoration of the freedom of movement has been a tremendous boost to all the people of Sri Lanka. Large numbers of local tourists travel from the North to the South and from the South to the North on a daily basis. Large numbers of visitors from abroad have also come to Sri Lanka and travel to the North and East. Since August 2010, there have been over 53,000 foreign passport holders from more than 100 countries who have visited Sri Lanka and travelled to the North; a considerable number of them have been expatriates who visited their ancestral homelands and their relatives in Sri Lanka. This is a testament to the freedom that is there throughout this country, which in stark contrast to the situation that prevailed while the LTTE continued to pose a threat.
Many restrictions used to be in place on sea due to the grave threat posed by the LTTE’s Sea Tiger wing. This section of the LTTE launched attacks on our Naval assets after infiltrating sensitive areas in the guise of civilian fishing boats. As a result, restrictions were introduced on fishing not only in the seas off the North and East but throughout the country’s coastline. These included limitations on the times and the locations in which fishermen could put to sea as well as restrictions on the size of their fishing craft and the power of their outboard motors. All these restrictions were removed in phases after the end of the Humanitarian Operation. Restrictions on the times at which fishing could take place were gradually phased out between June 2009 and February 2010. The remaining restrictions, including those on the power of outboard motors, were removed by October 2011. Restrictions on fishing near critical harbours have also been greatly reduced.
In terms of restricted areas on ground, the High Security Zones in the North have been greatly reduced in extent over the last two years. In five stages between October 2010 and November 2011, much of the area covered under the High Security Zone near the Palaly Cantonment was released, with lands in seventeen Grama Niladhari divisions being fully handed back to civilians. The Palaly cantonment is now the only area in which some security restrictions remain, but even within the Cantonment, civilians have free access to the airfield and the Kankasanthurai harbour.
While it is true that there are still some civilian properties included in the Cantonment, it must be stressed that civilians have not occupied these properties for the last twenty to twenty-five years. The Government has taken measures to pay compensation to the owners of these properties and to provide alternate land to them. It should also be noted that lands that had been forcefully taken from the people and occupied by the LTTE for many years have also been released to their legal owners. For example, the ancestral property of former Ambassador Charlie Mahendran was handed back to him after nearly 30 years of LTTE occupation. Other such properties have also been handed back.
In addition to the reduction in the High Security Zone, the reduction in the numbers of security barricades, roadblocks and checkpoints in the North and East is also significant. There were large numbers of such security measures in place during the course of the conflict and immediately after, but these were gradually withdrawn after the dawn of peace. In 2009, there were approximately 2,000 checkpoints, sentry points and roadblocks in these two Provinces. Today, there are hardly any.
It must be noted that despite the removal of security barricades, roadblocks and checkpoints, and the reduction in the High Security Zone, the Government will take all necessary steps to ensure the continuation of peace and security throughout Sri Lanka. However, the number of troops deployed and the number of camps that will remain in the North and East has been reduced to a bare minimum. 28 battalions that were in the North have been relocated to the South and the East. The overall number of troops in the North has also reduced by more than 21,000 since 2009. Troops will remain in strategic locations, but their presence will be non-intrusive. The day-to-day maintenance of law and order has already been handed over to the Police.
Concurrently, the capabilities of the Police Department to carry out these duties have been significantly improved. Eleven new police stations have been established in areas where they had not been allowed to exist while the LTTE dominated territory in the North and East. 789 Tamil policemen have been recruited between 2009 and 2011, and they have been trained and posted to these police stations. In 2012 alone, a further 425 have been recruited. Training in Tamil language has also been provided to additional numbers of police personnel.
Another critical aspect to the restoration of normalcy was the holding of elections in the North and East soon after the areas were brought under Government control. Provincial Council elections were held in the Eastern Province even before the Humanitarian Operation was ended, and Local Authority elections were held for the Jaffna Municipal Council and Vavuniya Urban Council as early as August 2009. A Presidential Election and General Election were both held throughout the country in 2010. Local authority elections held island-wide last year saw free and fair elections being throughout the North and East. In the areas formerly dominated by the LTTE, people exercised their franchise without fear for the first time in three decades. The Tamil National Alliance emerged first in most electorates, but the main Government party also came close in several of them. The fact that political plurality has returned to these areas is clear from the results of these elections. The swift restoration of democracy to those parts of Sri Lanka previously under LTTE dominance is significant achievement.
Further, it needs to be noted that many former militants are now playing an active role in politics. The LTTE’s one time Eastern Province Commander, Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, also known as Karuna Amman, is a junior Cabinet Minister. A former LTTE child soldier, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, also known as Pillayan, is the Chief Minister of the Eastern Province. A number of former LTTE cadres have also become Chairmen of local government bodies. Their participation in the political process demonstrates the robustness of Sri Lanka’s democracy.
Alongside the restoration of elections, the revival of the economy in the North and East is yet another accomplishment to be proud of. Further development of infrastructure and facilities was a key initiative of the Government to foster economic growth in those provinces. Irrigation infrastructure, including canals and tanks, were restored early on to revive agriculture and farming in the fertile lands of the North. A lot of work is presently underway to develop the road networks and the rail infrastructure is also being rapidly improved. By the end of the next year, the railway tracks to Kankasanthurai and Mannar will be completed. Several important bridges have been built to improve overall access. Township development is taking place in areas such as Kilinochchi and Mankulam, and improved administrative facilities are being established throughout the North and East. These initiatives of the Government have provided the foundation for the flourishing of economic activity, and I am especially pleased to note that more and more private sector businesses are also coming up in these areas.
A great deal of work has also been done to facilitate the resumption of livelihoods amongst the people in the North. Financial assistance as well as assistance in kind has been provided to farmers, fishermen and small business owners. I am also pleased to note that a great deal of work has been done by the military to help the civilians return to their normal lives. I am particularly pleased to note that the military has also provided a great deal of assistance to the civilians. The Army has renovated more than 6,000 houses and constructed nearly 7,000 permanent or semi-permanent houses. It has constructed 19 schools, created 23 school playgrounds, and renovated more than 55 old school buildings. Assistance has also been provided through the providing of fishing gear, utilities for farming and provision of livestock and seeds for agriculture. A number of medical clinics have also been held, and assistance has been provided for the conduct of religious, cultural and other festivals. Today, the people who have been resettled in the North are rebuilding their lives in generally much better conditions than they enjoyed during the time those areas were under LTTE dominance.
Unfortunately, despite all these positive accomplishments, there are some in the international community still continue to carp on what is happening in Sri Lanka. One of the allegations increasingly being made is that the military is involved in economic activities in the North, thereby reducing opportunities for private enterprise to flourish. This is a gross misrepresentation of what is happening.
It is true that the military did establish shops and welfare facilities in these areas in the months after the end of the Humanitarian Operation. This was because there were thousands of people travelling through the A-9 during this time, and no facilities were available for their use. Thousands of Sri Lankans visited the North they had been cut off from for decades by the LTTE. Many were pilgrims visiting places of religious significance such as Nagadeepa. Many people living in the North also came to the South to attend to their day-to-day work, and to visit the rest of the country they had been cut of from for years.
Large numbers of expatriates also visited these areas regularly. Without shops and welfare facilities, all of these travellers would have been in great difficulty. That is why the military established some of these facilities at key locations. However, with the resumption of ordinary life in these areas, and the civilians returning to their livelihoods, the military has stopped all involvement in these activities.
Another allegation levelled against the Government is that the military is involved in civil administration. This is again not true. Even during the period of the conflict, the civil administration was maintained in the conflict areas. The Government Agents, District Secretariats and Grama Niladhari continued to function, even though they were acting under the pressure of the LTTE. There were schools, hospitals and other agencies of the Government in those areas. The salaries of the civil administration and all these Government workers continued to be paid throughout the Humanitarian Operation as well.
There was never any stoppage in the provision of services by the Government to LTTE controlled areas. However, immediately after the LTTE was defeated, until these areas were fully brought under control, the military assisted the civil administration to restore normalcy in these areas. However, the military is no longer involved in providing such support.
There are a number of other subjects on which sections of the international community still continue to focus. These are connected with the last stages of the Humanitarian Operation, and have been raised by various parties including the so-called Panel of Experts who were appointed to advise the Secretary General of the United Nations. The primary issue is the number of civilian casualties they allege. Even while the Humanitarian Operation was going on, various people started making various claims about the number of civilians killed and missing during the last stages of the conflict. The estimates of civilian casualties ranged from 7,000 to 40,000. Hardly any of these estimates referred to any sources, and most completely ignored independent and credible sources that reported figures very much to the contrary.
According to the Panel of Experts report, a UN Country Team Assessment on Casualty Figures, estimated that there was a total figure of 7,721 killed and 18,479 wounded between August 2008 and 13 May 2009. It is very unfortunate that this document was not released publicly, while the Panel of Experts report was. The Panel of Experts report alleged that there “may” have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths, which is a number clearly contradicted by the Country Team’s Assessment.
The Satellite Analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science seemed to indicate that three graveyards in Mullaitivu expanded during the Humanitarian Operation, and that the highest estimate of burials was 1,346. Another graveyard identified as belonging to the LTTE is said to have shown burials amounting to 960. Taken together, this once more supports the supposition that the number of deaths alleged to have occurred during the Humanitarian Operation has been grossly exaggerated.
Given the controversy about civilian casualties, the Government was aware of the need to address this issue comprehensively. That is why, in 2011, the Department of Census and Statistics carried out an “Enumeration of Vital Events” for the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. The Department of Census and Statistics is the apex body for collecting, processing and publishing statistical data and information in Sri Lanka. It was the state agency with the responsibility for carrying out this survey.
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 beyond doubt that less than 8,000 deaths occurred due to unnatural causes during this period. It is extremely important to stress that this figure includes all the LTTE cadres who died in battle, all the civilians killed by the LTTE, and all the civilians who died as a result of crossfire.
It is also important to note 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 approximately 4,600 cadres died in battle. This figure excludes civilians who were forced to fight by the LTTE during the last stages. 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.
In addition to the enumeration of deaths, the report by the Department of Census and Statistics shows that 2,635 people were reported as being untraceable between January and May 2009 in the Northern Province. Several are likely to have left Sri Lanka by boat during this time, although the Government’s efforts to estimate their number has been hampered by the unwillingness of other countries to provide information on this matter. Some are also likely to have moved to other parts of the country.
In this context, it is worth mentioning that a separate and completely independent effort to track the missing persons in the North was carried out by UNICEF, together with the Probation and Child Care Commissioner of the Northern Province and the Government Agent of Vavuniya. They established a Family Tracing and Reunification very soon after the Humanitarian Operation ended. The work of this Unit was widely publicised, and it sought information from the general public about all people reported missing in the Northern Province. A total of 2,564 tracing applications had been received by July 2011. 1,888 of these applications were about missing adults, and 676 about missing children. According to the parents who made the tracing applications, 64% of the missing children had been recruited by the LTTE.
All of this data, when considered together, clearly establishes that the number of civilian casualties that took place during the last stages of the war have been greatly exaggerated in the various reports made by various parties with vested interests. It is extremely important that our Heads of Mission in other countries take a firm stance based on the facts when this issue is discussed-the allegation that 40,000 civilian deaths occurred during the last stages of the war has been proven to be completely false. This needs to be stressed and stressed again. At the same time, it is important to realise that a ferocious war was being fought, and despite the best intentions of the Government and the military, some level of civilian casualties were unavoidable. The Government had a clear policy on “zero civilian casualties”, but achieving zero casualties in practice was impossible because the LTTE used civilians as a human shield, and forced them to become combatants in the last stages of the war.
Another issue that is frequently spoken about is the one about No Fire Zones. At the start of this speech I discussed how the LTTE moved the civilians in the North out of their towns and villages as it retreated towards its strongholds. It also actively prevented civilians from crossing over to Government controlled areas. The Government was very concerned about the fate of the civilians trapped amongst the LTTE. It was for the purpose of protecting these civilians that the No Fire Zone came into being. The military was given clear instructions to avoid firing into areas where there were concentrations of civilians.
The first No Fire Zone was identified east of Vishvamadu on 16th January 2009. Because of shifts in the concentration of civilians, the Zone was readjusted twice on 19th January.
Because the escape of the civilians meant that it would lose its human shield, the LTTE pushed the people into narrower and less accessible extents of land within the areas it controlled. The fourth No Fire Zone was therefore identified at Putumattalan on 11th February, and the final No Fire Zone was identified at Vellamullavaikkal on 9th May. The Government identified these locations as No Fire Zones because of the civilian concentration in those areas. It is very regrettable that those who criticise the Government for the plight of the civilians in the conflict zone did not request the LTTE to release the people it was holding.
Instead, they remained silent as the LTTE ruthlessly established its human shield and increasingly put civilian lives at risk. If the Government ever had an intention of deliberately targeting civilians, why should it have declared No Fire Zones?
Furthermore, after the first No Fire Zone had been identified, why didn’t the Government refuse to shift it?
The fact that the No Fire Zones were identified and then shifted according to civilian concentrations shows just how committed the Government as to protecting those civilians. The allegation that it had any intention to harm them is absurd.
Another allegation that has been made in the recent past is that the military executed surrendering cadres. This is again absurd. As I mentioned earlier, 11,986 cadres surrendered to the Armed Forces and were either placed in rehabilitation programmes or identified for prosecution. The idea that the military had any intention of executing LTTE cadres who surrendered or were captured is shown to be nonsensical by these facts. It is also important to stress that Armed Forces personnel have received extensive training and exposure to the accepted standards of behaviour under the norms of International Humanitarian Law, and were aware of Human Rights issues. This is not something new, but something that has been in place for over a decade. The idea that the military executed surrendering cadres is not true.
Of course, in the course of a long and protracted war, it is possible that there may have been a few individuals who were guilty of acting outside orders and committing crimes. It is important to stress that the Government has always had strong mechanisms to deal with such individuals, and that the allegation that wrongdoers get away with impunity is completely wrong. The military has strong systems to ensure compliance to accepted norms, and it has mechanisms to investigate and punish any soldiers or officers who violate those norms. These systems functioned smoothly before, during, and after the war.
If any soldier has been found guilty of having done something wrong, the full weight of military justice has been brought to bear in the past, and it will be so in the future as well.
It should also be noted that since the publication of the Recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission in December last year, the Commanders of the Army and Navy have established special Courts of Inquiry to investigate any alleged violations that occurred during the Humanitarian Operation. The public is free to make submissions to the Courts of Inquiry, and if substantial evidence exists against any individual or group, a General Court Martial would be convened to try the alleged offenders.
It is important to bear in mind that general statements about civilian casualties do not suffice, but specific complaints supported by evidence need to be made. This is the case with justice systems in all democracies. Unless there are specific complaints, and substantial evidence of wrongdoing, it is impossible to prosecute anyone.
Sri Lanka today is a country at peace. What we need now is to build a bright future for all our people instead of dwelling unnecessarily on the past. Bringing back normalcy to the areas formerly under LTTE control is of the utmost importance. The principled approach of the Government has been very clear in this regard. Expediting de-mining, reconstruction and the resettlement of IDPs; developing infrastructure facilities and assisting people to return to their normal occupations and livelihoods; disarming armed groups; withdrawing restrictions; rehabilitating the vast majority of LTTE cadres and reintegrating them to society: these were all vital steps in bringing back normalcy to this segment of our society. Instead of suffering due to conflict, the people there are now at peace. Instead of being forced to fight, their children are now free to learn. There is no more war, there is no more suffering. That is the reality about Sri Lanka today, and that is what you must show to the world.