Created: Wednesday, 21 August 2013
TEXT OF THE ADDRESS DELIVERED BY PROFESSOR G.L. PEIRIS, MINISTER OF EXTERNAL AFFAIRS, AT THE ARMY SEMINAR HELD ON 8TH AUGUST
I would like to begin by congratulating Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the defence establishment on this very timely initiative. It can truly be described as the need of the hour. When there is a great deal of criticism founded on erroneous premises and there are false assumptions made, I think the best answer to this is complete, accurate, up to date information. That was precisely what was provided to all of you in abundant measure by the comprehensive presentation that was made by Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa this morning.
The purpose of this seminar is to focus on the role of the armed forces during the conflict, remembering that it is not a role that came to an end with the cessation of the conflict in May 2009. It is very much a vibrant and continuing role, and we need today to understand clearly the nature and the scope of that role. It is to create that understanding that this seminar was conceived of, and it is the spirit in which it is now being presented to you.
I spoke of false impressions and misinformation. A great deal of this is attributable to local situations being approached from a cultural perspective, which is fundamentally different from the ground situation in Sri Lanka. There has been in some quarters considerable misunderstanding about the nature of the armed forces and their relationship to the Sri Lankan State and to the Sri Lankan community. European history has been dominated during extensive periods by conflicts among nations. During these epochs high profile military leaders have dominated the political stage. Indeed it would not be an exaggeration to say that European history during these periods has revolved around personalities like Napoleon and across the water the Duke of Wellington, Bismark of Germany and Garribaldi of Italy. It is these personalities that have moulded the basic forces of European history at that time. Professor Harold Laski, in his classic work, The Grammar of Politics, describes the armed forces of the State as the most visible expression of the coercive authority of the State. Prof A. V Dicey, in his famous Vinerian lectures delivered at the University of Oxford, defines the relationship between the armed forces and the State in strikingly similar terms.
I want to emphasize to you that the Sri Lankan situation is fundamentally different. What the armed forces were doing during the conflict was not an engagement against a foreign force. It was not an adventure of conquest. It had an entirely different objective. That objective was to release an oppressed people from the thraldom of terror and make it possible for them to lead a life that was built on dignity and freedom. That was the role and objective of the armed forces. People who could not even think of making decisions for themselves, or making choices in a spirit of spontaneity, and were subjugated and intimidated, these are the people to whom the army brought relief during that turbulent period in the contemporary history of our country.
What are the manifestations of this? I recall a visit to Nagadeepa, the historic Buddhist temple situated in the North, and I recall the chief priest of that temple telling me "Minister, I want to tell you that, at the height of the conflict, when there was so much violence, no harm came to us at any time". The Army and the Navy at that time provided the priests in that temple with every meal and he told me that the Army and the Navy looked after the priests in the temple just as they would look after their own parents. That was the spirit of empathy and compassion which marked the activities of the Sri Lankan armed forces during that operation.
In order to assess critically the validity of some of the criticisms that are heard, let us look at the factual context. The situation in Nandikadal in the closing stages of the war represented the most serious hostage situation in modern military history, in terms of numbers 300,000 civilians trapped on a narrow strip of land between the lagoon and the sea, the LTTE using these civilians as human shields, compelling them to accompany the LTTE from place to place to dig trenches and to do other work for them. The Government of Sri Lanka announced that they are welcome in the government controlled areas where food, medical facilities and freedom awaited them. The film that we were just shown provides visual evidence of the measures that were adopted by the LTTE to prevent these people from exercising their freedom of choice and having access to government controlled areas. Indeed the LTTE opened fire and killed many of them. There are also very moving photographs that I myself have seen of members of the army helping the aged, the sick and the children to cross the waters of the lagoon. They do not epitomize aggression of the armed forces. On the contrary, the armed forces were performing a very unconventional and unorthodox role, because of the nature of the operation and its inherent objectives.
There is also misinformed criticism regarding the no fire zones. Not only Sri Lankan government records, but contemporary records of the United Nations system demonstrate beyond any shadow of doubt what really happened in that situation. The LTTE made systematic and persistent use of the no fire zones to come into these areas and with the full knowledge and assurance that the armed forces will not open fire, they considered themselves free to engage in their activities, making use of that situation to fire at government troops. This is documented in reports which emanate from sources other than the government of Sri Lanka.
In all these situations the course of action that was adopted by the army gave pride of place to humanitarian considerations. Indeed, the military operation could have ended considerably earlier with far less loss of life and limb to members of the armed forces. But a deliberate decision was made by his Excellency the President and Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa not to do that. That is the true situation on the ground which has been grossly misrepresented by some of the criticism which has emanated from certain parties. That is how the armed forces behaved during the conflict.
Both Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Lieutenant General Jagath Jayasuriya spoke of the continuing contribution of the armed forces to nation building, which is no less significant than the unique role they played in bringing peace and stability to our land. Let us consider what the armed forces have done after the conflict was over, that is after May 2009.
The defence secretary referred in some detail to the very difficult and hard work that was done by the army with regard to the clearing of mines. This was an incredibly complex operation. Several months ago there was a situation in which a French bomb disposal expert was blown up while engaged in demining operations. In Puthukudrrippu and Merintongpaththu, those are some of the areas that the LTTE occupied in the closing stages of the war - the work is still not 100% complete. It is the mining which had been done in those parts of the country which created considerable delays with regard to the resettlement of internally displaced persons. And as Secretary Rajapaksa pointed out, starting with 296,000 people, it is now down to almost nothing and he said by the middle of this month the resettlement of the IDPs would be completed. So demining was one of the principal humanitarian activities embarked upon by the Army after the conclusion of hostilities.
Then housing : the whole idea is to make it possible for people who have suffered so much agony and pain during three decades to begin a new life with confidence in the future. In order to do that you have to provide them with the basic necessities of living. And among them obviously is shelter. So the government of Sri Lanka very rightly placed a very sharp emphasis on housing. The army played a significant role in the construction of houses by providing, as we were told by the defence secretary, both engineering expertise and manpower.
Today we see an economic renaissance in the northern part of Sri Lanka. One of the principal reasons for this has been the focus on development of infrastructure. No government in Sri Lanka's history has undertaken so much expenditure on the construction of highways and railroads systems. This could not have been achieved without the active contribution of the armed forces. They played not just a useful , but indeed an indispensable role with regard to the construction and improvement of infrastructure in that part of the country, which substantially accounts for the unique economic progress which has been achieved in the Northern Province within a remarkably brief time span.
The other aspect of it is the disarming of violent groups. That is an absolute necessity to provide a backdrop for many other things which need to be done as a matter of priority in the post conflict situation. For example, how can you move towards the conduct of elections in an atmosphere that is bereft of duress if you still have armed groups operating in the areas where elections are to be held? Who can actually do the disarming? The armed forces have necessarily to perform that function. These are some of the activities that the armed forces have been engaged in since the end of the conflict, and without their vigorous involvement, it would have been quite impossible to achieve the degree of success which has been accomplished on the ground during the last three years.
I want to make a comment on the perception in some quarters which has been articulated persistently abroad with regard to the alleged militarization of the Northern Province. Again it is very important to understand the historical context and the cultural underpinnings of that situation. Every country has a culture of its own, a social history, traditions and values. These cannot be regarded as transferable across nations and cultures. It is a fact of life which we all recognize that at the height of the conflict the armed forces were called upon to perform functions that an army would generally not undertake. For example, the retail trade; they had to do that, not through choice but through necessity. In a situation where the LTTE was creating mayhem, there was a total breakdown of community life, creating a huge lacuna. Somebody had to fill that lacuna at that time. Otherwise it is the community that would have suffered because of the lack of provision for delivery of services essential to the life of the community. The army, therefore, had to step into the void and undertake a whole cluster of functions which would not traditionally fall within the scope of an army. Of course, with the return of stability to those parts of the country and indeed to the whole Island, it is no longer necessary for the army to engage in functions of that nature, and they are withdrawing from these functions voluntarily and indeed gladly. It is not that they wanted to undertake those functions, the exigencies of the situation compelled them to do so, and they are now withdrawing from those functions.
But I want to tell you very candidly that there are certain hallmarks of the culture to which we are proud heirs. And one of those characteristics is profound and genuine gratitude for people who have helped us in times of adversity. That is deeply entrenched in the psyche of the Sri Lankan people. The people of the North remember how the army protected them, as the priest told us in Nagadeepa. And today if a school principal in that part of the country is organizing a prize giving or sports meet, they do tend to invite a representative of the army. Some foreign observers visiting that part of the country are greatly distressed to see a representative of the army present at a school function like a prize giving or a sports meet. The army is not there qua army, they are not oppressing or intimidating anybody. They are simply responding to a warm invitation by the head of the school who wants to have the presence of a representative of the army as a token of appreciation of genuine service which the armed forces rendered to the community, at the time when the community was in dire need of these services. We make no apology for saying that. That is part of our culture.
We are told that the army should withdraw entirely from the Northern Province. Yet, again, we make no bones about saying that it is not the intention of the government to do so. Indeed it would be unpardonably reckless for the government of Sri Lanka even to contemplate such a course of action. History cannot be forgotten or wished away. I would like to say by way of prefatory comment that there is no discrimination or disparate treatment that is meted out to the Northern Province. You go to any part of the country, there is an army presence there. It is grossly misleading to talk of cantonments, there are no cantonments. But the Northern Province is a part of Sri Lanka, and there is an army presence in some shape or form in every part of the country. It would be entirely unrealistic and exceedingly unwise to think of a total withdrawal of the armed forces from the North of Sri Lanka. That would be to treat the North as a separate entity, which we are certainly not prepared to do.
But having said that, I hasten to add that we are doing two things, one is significantly to diminish the numbers of the armed forces, and that is a matter of record. The numbers have been significantly reduced but we are not stopping there, not only the numbers but the role of the armed forces, the nature of the duties and functions that they are discharging has also undergone a basic transformation in keeping with the changes that have occurred in that part of the country. They are now confined to a far narrower area of duties than was the case during the period of conflict. That is something that ought to happen, and that has happened. These are some facets of the current situation which need to be emphasized, and that is one of the reasons why I particularly appreciate this seminar at this time, because it provides a forum for this kind of information to be disseminated over as wide a spectrum as possible.
There is another point I want to make to you regarding the total situation that we are dealing with in this seminar today and during the next two days. These discussions will be incomplete if we do not address one of the basic elements of the equation, namely the diaspora. There were some passing references made to the diaspora earlier this morning. It is the experience not only of Sri Lanka but of many countries which have gone through conflicts of this nature that there is a certain disconnect between the attitudes of the diaspora, and the attitude of the people affected in the countries in question. That is not surprising, it is a matter of human nature. If you are far removed from the area in a geographical sense, you are no longer sensitive to the nuances of the national situation in any immediate sense. This was one of the matters discussed in a very perceptive manner in Dhaka, Bangladesh during the last three days at a seminar which was convened by her Excellency Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. And I had the honour of making a keynote address on that occasion and being the lead speaker in their session on counter terrorism. Representatives of many countries, particularly from the Horn of Africa, made the emphatic point that this was very much a feature of their own empirical experience.
The diaspora, I want to emphasize, is no longer today in the Sri Lankan context a monolith as they were during the lifetime of Prabhakaran.
At that time there was only one point of view emanating from the diaspora. That is hardly surprising, because anybody who dared to express a different point of view could not expect to be alive much longer. But today in the new situation there are varying nuances and gradations within the diaspora. There is a segment of it that is in touch with the defence secretary, some of them met Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa very recently, and they are by no means averse to investing substantially in the north of the country, not for any political purpose but simply through a genuine desire to contribute to making life easier and better for their people in those parts of the country. That is one segment of the diaspora which is very much there, but we would be deluding ourselves if we did not recognize in a spirit of candour that at the other end of the spectrum, there is another point of view. There is also a section of the diaspora which, quite candidly, has not recognized the irreversibility of the military defeat of the Tigers and entertain within their bosom some hope and expectation that it would be possible to breath new life into this movement at sometime in the future. It is very much there, and to ignore it would be to deceive ourselves.
What is happening now in some countries abroad? I want to emphasize that I am not trying to generalize with regard to the diaspora, I am talking of a section of it, an unyielding, relentless, inflexible section of it. As far as that section is concerned, it is only the modalities that have undergone change, and I need to say this in a very straightforward manner, and I do not hesitate to do so. It is no longer feasible to carry on their struggle through suicide missions, through arms, guns that is not possible, that has ended, and that is never going to happen again. However, what we are now facing is an economic onslaught against Sri Lanka. The object of that is to undermine the economy of Sri Lanka, to dissuade investment, to reduce volumes of international trade, to persuade tourists to boycott the country and, by adopting these means, to strike at the root of an economy which is today vibrant, with growth at the threshold of approximately 8%. That is an economic war against Sri Lanka. It is not a war in the physical sense, but it is a war in the metaphorical sense.
What are the causes of terrorism? One cause, not the only cause, and in the modern world in my view not even the most important cause, is dire poverty, deprivation, and economic exclusion. We are legitimately proud of the fact that the Northern Province is growing at 22%, when the average for the rest of the Island is about 8%. There is infinite capacity in the north. You go to Mannar, it is a green field, the thriving paddy fields. Then fisheries from Point Pedro to Valvethithurai, that whole area from Nagar Kowil down to Elephant pass, fisheries today is a thriving activity. There are also mineral resources in the northern part of the Island ̶ cement in Kannasanthurai, the Paranthon factories, these have been developed rapidly by the government. The two State banks in that part of the country, the Bank of Ceylon and the People's Bank, have been specifically instructed to give a large amount of loans to the small and medium sector with a view to generating employment and ensuring the percolation of economic benefits down to the grassroots levels. That is the economic revival which Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa spoke of. The effort on the part of the groups that I am talking about is to strike at the very heart of that throbbing economy and to rekindle the embers of terrorism by aggravating economic distress.
However important and relevant economic considerations may be, it would be quite futile to imagine that it is the sole cause of terrorism in the world today. University professors, engineers, doctors, lawyers, all these people have become terrorists in different parts of the world, not through economic deprivation, but the causes in those cases have to be sought elsewhere. That is why a sense of togetherness and inclusivity in the body politic is absolutely essential to ensure that our country never goes through the travails and tribulations that afflicted us during the last quarter of a century.
This is why His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksa has a very firm and logical view on this matter. When he met ten members of the British Parliamentary delegation last week and when he addressed the newspaper editors, President Rajapaksa did not mince his words. He said that attempts in the past to resolve problems connected with the political process failed, because they came from the top leadership of the government. What he wishes to do in order to ensure implementation on the ground is something basically different, that is to consult with the people at large, so that thoughts, insights and perceptions emanate from all sections of society in an inclusive dialogue rather than the government imposing its will or trying to do so. It is the latter approach that has failed during the last decade. What you require is a spirit of inclusivity. The instrument for achieving that inclusivity of approach, indisputably, is a Parliamentary Select Committee in the Sri Lankan constitutional and legal context. We have to ask what are the reforms that are necessary, but those must be reforms that are acceptable to a wide swath of the Sri Lankan community embracing different ethnicities, religions and cultures.
What I am about to say is important. This is one of the reasons why we genuinely and profoundly regret the attempts to internationalize this situation, whether in New York ,in Geneva or elsewhere. Those who try to do this forget a very important consideration. Once you do that, you are putting unnecessary obstacles in the path of moderate forces in this country. Today we hear statements from extreme groups "Why are we worried about a domestic process, the international community will give us more. So let us appeal to the international community to get directly involved in these situations to put pressure on the government of Sri Lanka". To impose their will on the Sri Lankan government, that is the way to get the maximum. That is to denigrate a local process but at the end of the day there can be no doubt that the future of this land, the constitution that is appropriate for this country, the legal system that we desire, these are all matters in respect of which decisions will be made within Sri Lanka and nowhere else. It is absolutely inconceivable, given the circumstances and the history of the Sri Lankan situation, that the international community would ever want or be able to impose a solution on us. That is for the elected government of this country. The pity of it all is that those who internationalize this or who want to internationalize this put us on agendas which encourage the hope in extreme quarters that this is the route to follow. And this means the only viable solution that is available will simply be forgotten about or relegated to the background. That is not in the national interest. This is our major reservation about attempts to internationalize issues relating to the Sri Lankan situation.
I will conclude with a few remarks. The effort of the government and indeed the people of Sri Lanka today is to ensure that we learn from history. This is a land bountifully endowed by nature in every possible way. And among our principal strengths is the uniquely high calibre of the human resources of our country. We owe it to our people to ensure that these resources are fully exploited in the future without the pain that we had to endure for the last thirty years. The government of Sri Lanka under the leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is very sharply focused on prioritising our objectives and also identifying a trajectory that will carry us forward towards the accomplishment of these objectives.
We consider three things to be fundamentally important.
One is the spirit of togetherness, which is essential. We are focusing very sharply on language. I am speaking to you now, not as the country's Foreign Minister but as an educationist, somebody who has spent 26 years of my life educating two generations of Sri Lankans within the universities of this country and also somebody who has had some experience of teaching abroad. Language has a great deal to do with our problems : because language resulted in the creation of artificial barriers, the stratification and the compartmentalization of our society. If you have young people in the Sinhala community not able to converse with their counterparts in the Tamil community, neither side able to speak to each other, because the Sinhalese don't know Tamil and the Tamils don't know Sinhala and neither group is really comfortable with the use of the English language. It was different when I was an undergraduate student in the University of Peradeniya and in the University of Colombo. We made friendships on the basis of shared values and interests. And we were not overly conscious of ethnic identity. Today that is no longer the case because of the difficulty in communication. In order to address that, President Rajapaksha embarked upon what I consider to be a very exciting and timely initiative which we describe as the trilingual capability initiative. On that occasion he invited the former President of India, Shri Abdul Kalam to come to this country, because Abdul Kalam had taken an interest in these issues throughout his career. So in December last year President Rajapaksa inaugurated this very exciting initiative. It is also the effort of the government of Sri Lanka to ensure that public officials serving in the northern part of Sri Lanka have a working knowledge of the Tamil language, so that they can relate better to the people who inhabit that part of the Island. So language is very important.
The second issue is land. Land is very important in our country. It has deep roots in the pride and dignity of our people. The Government of Sri Lanka is addressing these issues. The chapter on land is the longest and the most elaborate chapter in the Report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. We must remember that it is not one community that is affected by this situation. All three communities suffered. And today we are engaged in a genuine effort to resolve these issues.
Finally, on the subject of Provincial elections in the Northern Province, we are not hesitant to confront issues, there is no need to run away from anything. What is the value of holding an election on the basis of electoral records prepared in 1981? It can be done, but it would be a sham. We do not propose to do that. During the conflict it was quite impossible to conduct a census in that part of the country, because public officials who dared to do that would obviously have been physically annihilated. But it is now being done. So you have to conduct a census, and on the basis of the census you have to prepare your electoral records. There have been changes in the demography of these areas not in respect of one community but in respect of all communities. The election must be a fair, genuine election which gives the people of the area the opportunity to express themselves and choose their representatives without duress or coercion. As soon as those steps are completed, and they must be completed in order to enable a fair election, the elections to the Provincial Council of the Northern Province will be held.
I would like to conclude by telling you that, in my view, the information that was imparted this morning is of the greatest possible value in dispelling myths and enabling the truth to be seen and recognized for what it is. As soon as the text of these speeches are available, we will transmit the text to all our missions abroad. We will also be sending the text to foreign missions in Colombo. What we wish to do is not to embroider, not to embellish, not to create artificial images but simply to share the truth relating to the role of the armed forces during the period of the conflict and their continuing salutary role in the post conflict situation. With those words I congratulate Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the commander of the Sri Lanka army, and all those who have played their role in making this seminar possible.