Sri Lanka’s path to peace: The Americans were very, very helpful

conflict last days   Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Selvarasa Pathmanathan used to be the deadliest of enemies. Now they have the same message.

I meet the two within a period of 24 hours in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city.

Pathmanathan, or KP as he’s widely known, was for several months in 2009 the supreme leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, for many years the world’s most ruthless and bloody terrorist group. For a long time before that he was effectively No 2 to the Tigers’ leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. When Prabhakaran was killed in May 2009, Pathmanathan took over the LTTE leadership until he was arrested in September of that year.

You may not know much about the Tamil Tigers. They were the most supremely deadly and effective terrorist group to emerge at any time in the second half of the 20th century. They pioneered two terrorist innovations — suicide bombings, later copied by al-Qa’ida, and child soldiers and child terrorists.

One of their signature gestures was the cyanide capsule each cadre was given to facilitate suicide in the event of capture.

The long Tamil Tiger war against the Sri Lankan government ran from 1983 to 2009 and resulted in perhaps 70,000 dead. In the course of this bitter conflict some members of the Sri Lankan army certainly committed human rights abuses. But there is no overall moral equivalence between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tigers.

The Tigers were ultimately defeated by a military campaign designed and run by Rajapaksa, secretary of Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence. A brilliant career soldier, he had migrated to the US after retiring from the army but came back to help his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, become President. From 2005 to 2009, Gota, as he is popularly known, oversaw the military campaign that finally crushed the Tigers.

But in one of those remarkable quirks of history, Pathmanathan tells me it was Gota who ensured he was treated properly in captivity and rehabilitated him so that he can now play a role in the reconciliation process under way between the minority Tamil and majority Sinhalese communities.

The Sinhalese-Tamil division is the central fault line of Sri Lankan history. They follow different religions — the Sinhalese are Buddhists, the Tamils are Hindus. They speak different languages. They are ethnically different.

The situation is complicated by the presence of 50 million Tamils next door in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Some Tamils would like a separate nation in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, although most Tamils live in Colombo and the south, and don’t support separatism. The majority Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan state will never allow partition. So it’s best if they work out a way to get along.

Meeting Pathmanathan is quite a business. It takes many days of arranging, lots of phone calls and lobbying of friends and acquaintances. A tall, straight-looking man, cool enough, he strolls into the lobby of a big Colombo hotel. The government provides him with a couple of bodyguards and I have been asked to arrange somewhere discreet for our interview. Lacking a better alternative, I take him up to a small coffee lounge on the hotel’s 18th floor.

The lounge has two rooms and we choose the less densely populated one, but I notice that quite soon people have recognised him and we are left alone. The bodyguards wait outside. The hotel staff serve coffee and scurry away.

Pathmanathan’s English is not bad, but over a long discussion I find it gets less good when I ask him about personal matters, or about some of the Tigers’ more controversial tactics.

Where did the idea for suicide bombing, which the Tigers used to devastating effect, come from?

“It was Prabhakaran’s own idea,” he says. “We used it first in the 1980s. Actually, I remember early in the 80s some people sat with us and we talked of the Japanese in World War II and the kamikaze bombers. Somehow that came from Prabhakaran’s mind. Also, in Tamil Nadu there was the tradition that people sometimes set themselves on fire (in protest).”

Pathmanathan was in charge of procuring military supplies for the Tigers and for years lived in India, then Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, with periods in Singapore and Europe.

“The state government of Tamil Nadu used to give us direct support for a period in the 80s,” he says. Before Rajiv Gandhi came to power, the national Indian government also gave the Tigers some support, he says.

“When that stopped we raised money in Europe and North America. We raised some in Australia, but Europe and Canada were the main source of funds.”

At one time Western intelligence believed the Tigers raised $200 million to $300m a year from the million-strong Tamil diaspora, and from a variety of illegal businesses. They used this money to buy heavy conventional weapons, artillery and heavy-duty guns, and even to buy ships. For many years the Tigers controlled a substantial swath of territory in the country’s east and north; they had a small but formidable navy and even a small air force.

No other terrorist group has ever reached that degree of sophistication and Pathmanathan was its central organiser. For a time he was wanted not only by the Sri Lankan government but by the Indian authorities, who believed he played a role in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, as well as by Interpol, MI6 and the CIA.

“Prabhakaran made the decision to kill Rajiv Gandhi,” Pathmanathan says. After India sent a peacekeeping force into Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers and the Indian army became enemies.

“Prabhakaran thought the Indians had tried to kill him, so he thought he’d kill Gandhi first.”

Certainly the death of Gandhi, killed by a female suicide bomber, was a turning point, both in showing the world what the Tigers were really like and in turning India into an implacable enemy of the LTTE.

Pathmanathan now admits much that the Tigers did was wrong, but he also lists a series of injustices and provocations that he believes the Tamil community suffered, such as a language policy that favoured Sinhalese. But he recites this list reluctantly. He wants his fellow Tamils to stop thinking always about the past, because that kind of thinking only leads to more bloodshed.

When I ask him directly about Prabhakaran, he responds, but with some reluctance: “Prabhakaran was a very charismatic leader. When I met him he was a genuine, friendly character. He was always willing to die for the Tamil cause. From the first day when I met him, in 1974, to the last day when he died, in 2009, he never changed from his philosophy, his determination.

“But also he was never flexible, never willing to change to accommodate the changed world.

“He should have been more flexible. It was wrong for him to kill his own people. Prabhakaran became more like a dictator as the years went by.”

There are two themes on which Pathmanathan and Defence Secretary Rajapaksa are strikingly in tune: the key role the Americans played in the final defeat of the Tigers, and the role they would both now like the Tamil diaspora to play for Sri Lanka.

Pathmanathan believes the transformed international environment after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks led directly to the Tigers’ defeat.

But let’s have Rajapaksa take up that part of the story. Gota is a national hero in Sri Lanka and his office, next to the President’s compound in central Colombo, is crisply military. He is sharp and precise and very businesslike.

One of the greatest problems the Sri Lankan military had, he tells me, was that the Tigers would bring in heavy-duty weaponry on big ships that would loiter outside Sri Lanka’s waters while flotillas of small craft would go out and collect the weapons from them.

“Most of their weapons they bought on the open market,” Rajapaksa says. “Many of their artillery pieces were North Korean in origin. They even had anti-aircraft missiles. “Their artillery and mortar was often enough to match the Sri Lankan army, or even more than the Sri Lankan army had. Their artillery caused a lot of our casualties.”

One turning point in the war came when the Sri Lankan navy was able to sink these Tiger supply ships: “Between 2006 and 2008 we destroyed 12 of these floating armouries.” What made this possible? “The Americans were very, very helpful. Most of the locations of these ships were given to us by the Americans,” Rajapaksa says.

American satellite technology located the ships and enabled the Sri Lankans to hit them. Before that, the Americans had been somewhat ambivalent about the Sri Lankan struggle. They never remotely justified or approved of the Tigers, but nor would they supply weapons to the Sri Lankan forces. Yet throughout the conflict, Sri Lanka got most of its military hardware from Israel and Pakistan, two military allies of the US that would probably have been susceptible to American entreaties not to supply arms.

Pathmanathan believes the transformation of American and international thinking generally after 9/11 meant the Tigers’ path of armed conflict was no longer a viable long-term strategy.

“We couldn’t oppose the whole world,” he says. “But Prabhakaran was opposed to peace negotiations. He used peace negotiations only as time out to rebuild his army.” Pathmanathan says he constantly urged a negotiated settlement on Prabhakaran, but to no avail.

The other issue on which Rajapaksa and Pathmanathan present an odd unity ticket is the role they would like the Tamil diaspora to play in Sri Lanka. Pathmanathan wants the diaspora groups to drop all ideas of separatism, to stop trying to stir up trouble, and instead come back and spend time in Sri Lanka, and above all invest and build there.

Pathmanathan is now involved in running orphanages and vocational training centres.

Rajapaksa makes the same point. He thinks there is a danger of the Tamil diaspora promoting extremism within Sri Lanka: “The diaspora should understand that they live in countries distant from Sri Lanka. Mostly they live in developed countries and enjoy all the facilities of developed countries. But some of them want the poor people of Sri Lanka in this difficult environment to take up arms to further their (the diaspora’s) ideology. They don’t send their own children, who go to university in developed countries, who enter the professions. But they will talk of the fight for a Tamil homeland — who is doing the fighting?

“The diaspora can raise money and make propaganda, but who will suffer from their efforts?”

Pathmanathan makes a similar case: the situation in Sri Lanka today, especially in the Tamil areas, is infinitely better than it was during the Tigers’ war. Who would want to go back to the killing and the suffering? What his people want now, Pathmanathan says, are jobs and development.

Rajapaksa understands the challenge of reconciliation: “This is not an easy task, especially for the people of the north. More than 55 per cent of Tamils live outside the north and the east and have no issues of reconciliation.

“They mingle with other communities all the time.

“But people in the north were so long isolated from the rest of the community and brainwashed into separatist attitudes. Although we have built a lot of infrastructure in the north, reconciliation won’t take place fully overnight.

“It will take time and the concentrated efforts of all the major parties involved.

“The majority community also has to extend its hand to show that we can live as one nation.”

Later this month, provincial council elections will take place in the Tamil north. They may be a positive political development, or conceivably an occasion of difficult polarisation.

But if Rajapaksa and Pathmanathan can come together on the need for reconciliation and development, and given the booming economy all across Sri Lanka, there is surely a lot to be hopeful about.(The Australian)

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