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Using food as a weapon – The Tigers and The Darusman Panel

One area in which there is an element of truth in the report of the Panel is its accusation that Government underestimated the figures of IDPs in the Vanni towards the end of the conflict. This is correct, and I myself was under the impression that the figure was less than it finally turned out to be.

What is wrong is the claim that the Government used these figures to ‘deny humanitarian assistance’. The fact is that, from the very beginning, there was uncertainty about the figures. At my very first meeting with UNHCR, when I was actually impressed with the commitment of Elizabeth Tan and her immediate boss, I asked why the UN still maintained a distinction between what were termed Old IDPs and new ones. I could understand this in the case of those in static situations, for instance the Muslims chased out of the North by the LTTE in 1990, who had mainly stayed put in Puttalam since then. But in the Vanni it was clear that the IDP population had to be treated as a whole, and we needed to make sure that everyone there was adequately fed.

What was also crystal clear was that it was in the interests of the LTTE to deprive them of food, not out of wickedness, but for propaganda purposes. This had become clear to me way back in 2007, when I took over as Head of the Peace Secretariat, and found in my consultations with people living in those areas, in particular the Chambers of Commerce in the North, that this ‘was perhaps the single most important topic, rivalled only by the issue of restrictions on fishing’.

I quote from a press release I issued shortly after we succeeded in having the A9 opened six days a week, whereas previously it had been open just three days a week, because the LTTE refused to agree to more. Negotiations regarding this were conducted through the ICRC, and I can do no better than set down what I wrote at that time –

When the Peace Secretariat took up the issue of the opening of this road with the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, back in June, it was to find a markedly liberal approach to the issue. It was pointed out that opening the road southward from Jaffna would not be possible, given that the LTTE had taken advantage of such opening to launch its attacks at Muhumalai in August last year. Though the sequence of events is largely now forgotten, it should be noted that, after a series of guerilla attacks between November 2005 and July 2006, the LTTE then launched two concerted efforts, amounting practically to regular offensives, in both the Eastern and the Northen Provinces. These attacks, in Muttur first and then in Muhumalai, were successfully repulsed.

Though the armed forces have since then successfully eliminated the threat of further such attacks in the East, this has not happened in the North. It was therefore understandable that the road southward from Muhumalai could not be opened at this stage. However the Secretary made it clear that he had no objection whatsoever to opening the road northward from Omanthai, but at that stage the ICRC had not been able to sanction this.

The Peace Secretariat at this stage contacted the ICRC, also raising the issue of sea transport toJaffna. ICRC involvement in this had been stopped after what was reported in the press as LTTE warnings. These followed on a helpful relief operation by the ICRC, following an LTTE attack on a vessel carrying a member of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission.

E-mail correspondence with the ICRC suggested that indeed in both these cases the government of Sri Lanka was keen on greater mobility. Following further questions on the part of the Peace Secretariat, the ICRC discussed the matter confidentially and indicated its reasons for its approach, but agreed that the matter should be reconsidered. Though the ICRC complacence with three days a week was based on the indubitable fact that movement of personnel was limited, SCOPP pointed out the need, based on actual demand, for greater movement of goods, which the ICRC acknowledged.

Meanwhile our Economic Affairs Unit was concerned with the possibilities of a scanner that would help reduce delays at checkpoints, whether at Omanthai or at Medawachchiya. However the Secretariat felt that the costs involved were too high, given the threat of violence. The ICRC restriction had in fact been decided upon following an incident in which the LTTE had fired in close proximity to the checkpoint.

At the meeting of the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Affairs which was attended by Sir John Holmes, the Peace Secretariat had been asked to report on progress with regard to the scanner. We noted then that this seemed unnecessary if the road northward from Omanthai could be opened for more than the current three days a week. The Secretary of Defence then made it clear that he was happy to open it even seven days a week, but noted that it was the ICRC that was responsible for the restrictions.

Of course the ICRC only recommends and it is the government that makes decisions on such matters, but in the current situation it is desirable to act in consultation with the ICRC. At the CCHA meeting the ICRC response was cautious, but Secretary of Defence made clear the urgency of the situation and the ICRC promised to look into the request.

This took some time, because it was reported that the ICRC also needed to consult its Head Office in Geneva. This was finally done, and then the ICRC also approached the LTTE in Kilinochchi, since as had been mentioned earlier the ICRC needs guarantees from both parties. Finally the required guarantees were received. As mentioned before, the government of Sri Lanka had been ready for extended opening for a long time previously. The Peace Secretariat therefore welcomes the ICRC response to the request made at the insistence of the Secretary of Defence, and its success in getting the LTTE to respond positively.’

I should note here that in the North too, it was the LTTE that tried to restrict shipping so that food supplies would run low. Government asked the ICRC to escort food ships, when a crisis seemed imminent, but the LTTE pulled the plug on this after one voyage, so that the navy had to expend a lot of time and energy and money in providing escorts to commercial vessels. And it is now forgotten how the LTTE fired on a ship carrying members of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission. They claimed then that they did not know these were on board but, at the farewell party for the SLMM, one of them told me that they knew perfectly well what they were doing.

4 May 2009 – Letter to Paul Castella (ICRC) from the Office of the Commissioner General of Essential Services – Sri Lanka

Conversely government made it its business to feed its own people. It is often forgotten that, in addition to food supplied through the World Food Programme, the Commissioner General of Essential Services sent truckloads of food to the Vanni for general consumption. And when, given the problems they were causing, NGOs were asked to move out, Government specifically asked WFP and UNHCR to remain, and it was only because the UN Resident Coordinator was misled – I suspect by the Coffee Club which wanted to affirm that the UN’s first obligation was to NGOs, not the Sri Lankan people – that all UN agencies withdrew, leaving only the ICRC in place.

During this period Government provided facilities for the UN to take up the food that had been provided for when original estimates were made for the 2009 Common Humanitarian Action Plan. It was well known that the LTTE took first possession of the food trucks when they went up, and no one objected. I still remember the Head of USAID telling me when this was brought to her notice that the US might have reconsidered its support to WFP if they had known this was happening, and I could only express surprise at her ignorance of what the whole NGO community knew – though she was basically a decent sort, and they might well have concealed from her the level of their complicity with terrorists.

It is certainly true that towards the end supplies were short, and there were cases of malnutrition amongst those who were rescued, but we found that the majority of these were of long term malnutrition.  Within a few months, we had reduced malnutrition levels considerably, as was acknowledged by the UN Resident Representative.  Given the superb work of our Ministry of Health, which directed operations very systematically despite the massive demands on the system they set up, the number of deaths in the displaced population soon stabilized and was much lower than in comparable situations. By June it was below the 0.25 per 10,000 population per day for South East Asia in general.

The condition of those we had to look after showed that we had basically managed to provide basic rations over the years, though there certainly had been deprivation. But for the Darusman Panel to ignore the fact that it was the LTTE which, commandeering the bulk of rations themselves, kept the rest of the population in deprivation, is symptomatic of their venom.

The best comment on this was provided in the account by Jon Lee Anderson, who penned in the ‘New Yorker’ a forceful attack on the Sri Lankan government. But he was basically a journalist, anxious for sensation, and he did not omit a telling detail in his account of the suffering of the civilians. He describes a pastor looking after a group of sixty orphans ‘who had run out of food and went foraging in an abandoned bunker nearby. “We found food packets—meat, chocolates,” the pastor said, and they took as much as they could carry, dodging incoming fire.

It is possible the members of the Darusman Panel did not read the New Yorker article. But it is also probable that, given their particular political agenda, they would have suppressed such a telling detail, about how well supplied the Tigers were, in their determination to throw the whole book at the government of Sri Lanka.

Daily News 20 May 2011

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