Instead of implementing the commitments they have made through UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolutions, the Sri Lankan Government has said it will pursue a national effort to achieve “sustainable peace” through an “inclusive, domestically designed and executed reconciliation and accountability process.”
Almost twelve years since the end of the war, Sri Lanka is still struggling to find a solution that would unite all the communities in the country.
In an interview with the Daily News, Defence Secretary General (Rtd) Kamal Gunaratne responded to some of the allegations levelled against the Government and Security Forces and outlined possible avenues that could lead to a better environment of peaceful co-existence.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: Currently there is a lot of talk regarding the cremation of Muslim bodies and this issue has drawn the two main minorities, Tamils and Muslims to band together and complain that they are being discriminated. Will this be a problem for the Government with the UNHRC sessions coming up?
A. Tamils’ and Muslims’ issues are two totally different aspects. The Tamil issue is based on separatism. In the case of the Muslim issue, Islamic terrorism is based on extremism. But when it comes to the cremation of Muslim bodies infected with Covid, it is based on other factors. Hence, we should be able to differentiate between separatism, extremism and this social issue.
Speaking of separatism, there is a large Tamil Diaspora but they are all not supporting the separatist Eelam concept or ideology.
By May 19, 2009, we managed to eradicate terrorism and reduce the Eelam concept to just an ideology. Militarily we defeated the fighting elements who wanted a separate state, but the ideology still remains. It is also there with the Diaspora supporters and whatever funds they have collected have been directed towards the Eelam ideology in order to buy the politicians of certain countries and bribe very powerful people, especially from European countries to stand against the Government of Sri Lanka.
I say this because in certain constituencies in certain countries, including USA and Canada, a member would be elected totally depending on the mandate received from the Tamil community of that constituency. Therefore, they are bound to support the Eelam ideology and as a result, all this pressure is focussed on the Sri Lankan Government.
Hence, what they have been saying about Sri Lanka since 2009 was that Sri Lankan Forces had committed war crimes or crimes against humanity, which is not true. I am a military officer who was in this whole scenario right from the start and I witnessed how the LTTE mushroomed and became this mammoth organization and eventually, I was also there and saw the end of the LTTE and how the Eelam concept was reduced to just an ideology. Hence, whatever they could not achieve through the bullet, they are trying to achieve through some form of ballot. They either depend on votes from Tamil communities or the votes of other powerful countries in the Security Council.
Anyway, this has been going on since 2009 and now it is 2021 and already almost 12 years have passed and they are still going at it and levelling numerous allegations against us. However, we should be able to face it as a Government, as a country and as the Security Forces because our hands are clean. We never wanted carnage, we wanted to conduct a humanitarian operation to liberate our people in the North and the East, which we did.
Before 2009 there were so many bodies being sent to all parts of the country, be it that of soldiers or civilians, but today that is no longer the case. Back then so many artillery rounds were fired and how many were injured, but today the guns are silent and there is peace.
Around 6,000 ex-combatants were arrested by us and around another 6,000 surrendered and altogether 12,242 ex-combatants were rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. Anyone can level allegations against us, but our hands are clean and our intentions were clear and we engaged in a humanitarian operation and the people are free today. Hence, we are happy we established peace in this country and people are free.
In terms of Islamic extremism, it is dangerous and they are highly motivated by wrong teachings. It is the result of misinterpretation of one of the greatest religions in this world. Islam is a great religion which is spread across around 52 countries in the world and it is saddening that this great religion is misinterpreted by a few in this manner.
In terms of the Easter Sunday bombings, I don’t see it as being a result of the capability of these terrorists, instead, I see it as an incapability and negligence due to ignorance by the law enforcement authorities. However, there is no purpose in conducting post-mortems now. So, after assuming office I brought all the intelligence apparatus under the Defence Ministry and I feel we are better organised now. But, there is one more part that needs to be done and that is the rehabilitation of the Islamic youth.
In term of the cremation of bodies of those of the Islamic faith, it is beyond our control and it is carried out based on the advice of medical experts. It is their recommendation and not that of the Government. Anyway, the President and the government is reviewing this situation and looking into how best this issue could be resolved without endangering the lives of the citizens of this country. The issue here is that the water table in this country is at a higher level and it poses the danger of the virus getting into the water table. Anyway, the President and the Government are looking into ways of resolving this issue to the satisfaction of the Muslim communities while safeguarding the health of the rest of the country.
Q: One of the main allegations levelled against the Sri Lankan Forces is ‘genocide’ against the Tamils. What is your response?
A. I totally disagree with the term ‘genocide’ as there has not been any genocide in this country during recent times. Of course, during the colonial period, especially after the 1818 uprising. After that there was no genocide in this country. No such thing happened in this country. If we engaged in genocide, then how did we rescue over 300,000 Tamil civilians from Wanni? It is just to tarnish the good name of the country and the Government at that time. However, it is sad that many of the powerful countries don’t want to accept that we carried out a successful humanitarian operation and they are not willing to accept the outcome.
Instead, they are trying to level any and every allegation against us. But anyone can understand that during a war invariably there are casualties, but there cannot be genocide. When the two sides are at war and there is exchange of fire between these two sides, civilian casualties are inevitable. The Government had given us instructions to ensure zero civilian casualties. But that was impossible.
We did it to liberate the people. Using the word ‘genocide’ is wrong. If we engaged in genocide, then we would not have rescued over 300,000 people, they would all have been killed. So the accusation is very unfair.
Q: One of the main demands of the Tamils is to be given self-governance on the grounds that Tamils are deprived of their rights. Do you agree?
A. I would like to invite anyone who is levelling these allegations to go around the South of this country and see the percentage of Tamils living in these areas. See if they have any problem living among the other communities. They are in fact, doing very well. Of course there are the rich and the poor in every community and that is not limited to just the Tamils. But some are highly educated and others are top class businessmen. I too have so many Tamils who are my very good friends and I assure you Tamils in this country are definitely not ill-treated. This is a ploy played by politicians who want to inculcate hatred among the people. They want to create hatred and anger in order to come into power. The Tamil people have suffered enough and they should now stop trying to ride to power on the sufferings of their people. They should be discussing with the Government and trying to get the best for the people they are representing.
Q: One of the recommendations in the UN Resolution is the releasing of lands of the Tamil people in the North. How far has this requirement been fulfilled?
A. More than 90 percent of the lands that were held by the military have been released already. However, there are certain issues in releasing all the lands. National security is of paramount importance in terms of airports, harbours and military institutions. These are grounds of tactical importance. But if such lands are taken over, then the necessary compensation would be paid as per the Government’s valuation. All the lands that have been released have been demined costing the Government a considerable amount in terms of funds and risk to the lives of those engaged in demining. Many demining operations were carried out by the military and several other agencies, with the lion’s share done by the military.
So all the Tamil politicians levelling allegations against us, they are well aware of what we have done, but they are just levelling these allegations to discredit the Government and the military.
Q: The Office of the Missing Persons (OMP) was established during the previous regime as per the UNHRC recommendations. How effective do you think this was?
A. This is absurd. Anyone can just come and complain that their son or family member is missing. But you need to ascertain the accuracy of these claims. They are just accepting complaints and those giving evidence are kept secret and they want the members of the Security Forces to be charged, without being given any opportunity for cross-examination as those people are not identified. This is a totally wrong procedure and it does not suit our legal system.
Q. Isn’t there some form of closure to offer the families of disappeared persons?
A. How can we even issue death certificates when no one knows what has happened to those who are missing. If we issue death certificates, and later that person is found, this whole process will become a joke.
We have to start a new mechanism and go into lots of details and if we are issuing death certificates or compensation then it has to be established without doubt that the person concerned is really dead. This cannot be done by this OMP and it is of no use. The motive of this organization is questionable as they have been going to people’s houses and getting them to come forward and say that their loved ones are missing. How can we trust them and cooperate?
But I agree with you there has to be a system to give closure to the sufferings of these people, so we must scrutinise this list and try to find solutions.
Q: Two of the key figures in our country, the Army Commander and the Defence Secretary are targets of international bans. How best could we resolve these issues?
A. Here, the bigger role would have to be played by the international community who are levelling allegations against us. Rather than pointing fingers at us, they should appreciate what we have done for the country.
We are targets because we led the war and the so-called ruthless terrorist organisation was defeated. So the people who funded the LTTE and supported them are very upset with us and that is why they are levelling allegations at us. Hence, the international community should understand this situation, otherwise this will drag on and the sad part is that the public is not allowed to get on with their lives.
Q: A term generously used has been in identifying the military as ‘Sinhala Army’. What have you done to change this and include other communities?
A. There are more than 3,000 Tamil youth serving in the Civil Security Department (most of them ex-combatants) and this government has recruited Tamil-speaking police officers. We have also opened the gates for Tamil youth to join the forces. The response is not ideal, but it is a start.