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Balasingham: Sri Lanka can still avert new war

Sunday Times: Mr Balasingham, the LTTE is fighting – they are fighting shy of peace? Are they not?

Balasingham: The LTTE is seriously committed to peace and negotiated settlement. During the last four years, since Ranil Wickremesinghe assumed power, we have made every attempt to seek a negotiated arrangement to resolve the immediate and long standing problems of our people. Peace talks with Ranil’s administration could not progress due to the obstructionist and confrontationist policies of President Kumaratunga.

We participated in the peace talks with President Rajapakse’s government in the earnest with the hope of stabilising peace and normalcy through effective implementation of the CFA. We strongly believed and continue to believe that the peace process should be undertaken on a strong foundation of peace, for which the stabilisation of the truce accord is extremely crucial. Unfortunately, contrary to our expectations, the Sri Lankan army backed Tamil paramilitaries, soon after the Geneva talks, launched offensive assaults on LTTE’s border positions in the east, seriously disrupting the peace environment. The government’s attitude to paramilitary violence against the LTTE was hypocritical and deceitful. In total contradiction to the pledge given at the Geneva talks, the government refused to rein in Tamil armed groups and denied the very existence of such groups in the military occupied areas.

I should say in all honesty that the failure on the part of the Sri Lanka government to create a conducive atmosphere of peace and goodwill by containing paramilitary violence is the primary cause of the current turbulent situation and the stalemate in the peace process.

Sunday Times: The government refused theatre to theatre transport for the LTTE leaders, but agreed to peace process related travel and escorted surface transport, navy ferry and the option of a civilian ferry. Was this not good enough for the LTTE? If so why was that?

Balasingham: It has been the agreed modality, ever since the CFA, to provide theatre to theatre air transport for senior regional commanders of the LTTE. We cannot understand why such an agreed practice was suddenly suspended. A Central committee meeting, with the participation of regional leaders prior to crucial sessions of peace talks, is vital to prepare issues for negotiations. The LTTE leadership was eager to discuss the volatile security situation in the east due to increasing paramilitary violence. Therefore, this is also a peace related mission. If the government had adopted a congenial attitude and provided Air force helicopter transport as a goodwill measure to enhance the peace process, the negotiating process would have continued, avoiding the current war like situation.

The modalities proposed for surface and sea transport, in our opinion, were too risky for the safe passage of senior LTTE leaders. We could not take chances with paramilitaries on the ground and the hostile navy on the seas.

Sunday Times: Will the LTTE allow the Sri Lanka Airline engineers in to do depth checks for landing of float planes so that they can land safely in the Wanni?

Balasingham: The LTTE is prepared to allow them. But this is not the issue now. The government is refusing to grant permission for the LTTE commanders to carry personal weapons intended for their safety.

Sunday Times: The government is accusing the LTTE of a string of ceasefire violations. Minister Nimal Sripala de Silva gave a catalogue of LTTE violations in April to Parliament this week. The Minister said the LTTE is trying to create a communal riot once again. What do you say to this?

Balasingham: This is a typical mode of accusation levelled against the Tamil Tigers ever since the July 83 racial violence that followed the LTTE’s ambush assault on Sri Lankan soldiers at Thinnavelly, Jaffna. At that time, the LTTE, even in its wildest dreams, would not have anticipated a racial holocaust of that scale, emanating from a minor military incident.

Racial riots and mass killings of Tamils have occurred even before the birth and growth of the LTTE. We deeply despise racial violence since it has always been the Tamil community who has faced enormous suffering in terms of mass scale destruction of life and property. The elements of political sympathy that may be generated in India or from the outside world cannot compensate for the monumental tragedy that could befall our people in the event of racial riots. Therefore, the government’s propaganda that the LTTE is bent on creating situations to provoke communal violence against its own community is malicious and preposterous.

Sunday Times: Your Peace Secretariat handed over a dossier of alleged violations by security forces to visiting Japanese Special Envoy, Yasushi Akashi. He told a news conference in Colombo that relations between the government and the LTTE have ‘never been worse’ since the CFA of February 2002. What do you say to this? Did the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabakaran send a message to President Rajapakse through Mr Akashi?

Balasingham: I agree with Mr Akashi’s characterisation of the current relations between the parties in conflict has not been worse since CFA. The Tamil paramilitary violence has escalated ferociously since President Rajapakse assumed power. Karuna’s armed men in the east and the armed EPDP cadres in the Jaffna peninsula launched a series of violent attacks on LTTE cadres. Prominent Tamil politicians, civil society leaders, popular journalists and innocent civilians sympathetic to the LTTE have been brutally eliminated. Almost all these killings have taken place in the government controlled areas with the active connivance of the state’s security forces. We have ample evidence to substantiate our allegations.

At the Geneva peace talks during February this year we presented a comprehensive dossier to the government delegation providing details about the existence, functions, command structures, leadership and locations of camps of Tamil paramilitary organisations and secured a written assurance from Rajapakse’s administration that these armed groups would be disarmed in accordance with the obligations of the CFA. The LTTE also agreed to strictly maintain peace and take all necessary measures to cease all acts of violence against the security forces and police. In accordance with our commitment we strictly observed peace before and after the peace talks, putting an end to all hostile acts. To our deep disillusionment, the GoSL has not only failed to take any action to disarm or contain Tamil paramilitary groups, but also denied their very existence in the government controlled areas. Following the Geneva agreement the paramilitary violence escalated manifold. During the first week of March Karuna’s armed group, with the active backing of Sri Lankan troops, attacked LTTE forward positions in Batticoloa and Trincomalee inflicting serious casualties on our cadres. These incidents were followed by a series of civilian killings in Batticoloa and Jaffna. The brutal murder of Mr Vigneswaran, a prominent Tamil leader on the 7 April, by paramilitaries with the connivance of the security forces, became the critical tuning point in the escalation of violence and counter violence.

The government’s calculated reluctance to contain the violence of paramilitaries against the LTTE and the Tamil civilian population, is the primary cause of the current turbulent war like situation, which has ‘never been worse’ since the CFA, as Mr Akashi has rightly observed.

Our leader, Mr Vellupillai Prabakaran did not send any message to President Rajapakse through Mr Akashi.

Sunday Times: The LTTE has been accused of claymore mine attacks on government troops that have led to over 150 deaths. What do you say to this?

Balasingham: The LTTE leaders in Wanni have already clarified that militias of the Tamil resistance movement, opposed to Sinhala military occupation and repression, have been carrying out these subversive operations. Unable to comprehend and identify this phenomenon of resistance, the Sri Lanka security forces are unleashing violence, killing with impunity innocent Tamil civilians as collective retaliatory punishment of the whole Tamil society, thereby committing blatant acts of genocide.

Sunday Times: There is controversy now about the use of the sea by the LTTE. This is the result of a belated ruling by the SLMM. What is the LTTE’s position?

Balasingham: The ruling of the SLMM, denying the right of sea movement of the LTTE’s naval force, is unwarranted and imprudent at this critical conjuncture. I do not understand why the monitors have made this uncalled for pronouncement on a disputed issue extremely sensitive to the parties in conflict, thereby creating controversy over maritime rights and conflictual situation at sea. I do not wish to elaborate on this matter since Mr Tamilselvan is dealing with this issue with the SLMM, seeking advice from international lawyers.

I can only say that the LTTE, possessing a powerful naval force, is an indisputable fact, an existential reality. During the times of war, before the signing of the CFA, the Sea Tiger naval wing played a crucial role in major sea and land battles and posed a serious threat to the Sri Lankan navy. Though the CFA did not specify modalities for the freedom of mobility of Sea Tiger vessels, this matter has been subjected to continuous discussion between the LTTE and the monitors. It is a well known fact that General Tellefson, the former Head of the SLMM was forced to relinquish his post by President Kumaratunga when he called for legal recognition of the LTTE’s naval wing. I think the present Head of the SLMM, General Ulf Henricsson should have studied the history of this dispute before making his provocative ruling.

Sunday Times: Is the LTTE happy with the role of the SLMM? Do you believe they are acting impartially? Do you believe they have been consistent?

Balasingham: On the whole I would say the SLMM has been doing a wonderful job in spite of the difficult task and formidable challenges. They have displayed impeccable integrity and their impartiality is unquestionable.

However, recently we are disappointed with the monitors premature, unnecessary statement on the LTTE’s right to sea mobility. What has further disturbed us deeply is the SLMM’s retraction of their original statement proclaiming the truth that the ‘government security forces have, in the north and east, been involved in extrajudicial killings of civilians’. The SLMM suffered a serious loss of credibility and reliability when they were forced to withdraw their well founded judgement under hostile pressure from the government. This shameful retraction by an international body tasked with a delicate responsibility of dealing with life and death of civilians, had far reaching negative consequences. Emboldened by the peace monitors’ retraction and encouraged by the silence of the international actors, who consistently praised the government for its restraint – extrajudicial killings of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan security forces, have escalated manifold. In this context the Sri Lankan government should also be criticised for undue interference in the delicate task of peace monitoring.

Sunday Times: Sections of Sri Lanka’s political establishment, like the JVP for example, say that Eelam War IV has already begun. What do you say to this?

Balasingham: More than anybody, the political organisation who wants war is the JVP. Like flies feeding and fattening on filth, the Marxists assume that they can enhance their political position, propagating a false sense of patriotism if war breaks out with mass scale death and destruction.

The JVP leaders have a distorted perception of reality. Conceiving the Tamil struggle for self-determination as a phenomenon of terrorism, they falsely believe that war is the only solution to eradicate ‘Tamil terror’, without realising the catastrophe the country as a whole would face in the event of a full scale military conflict.

I do not think Eelam War IV has already begun. What has developed now is a low intensity conflict with a dangerous potential for further escalation. The objective conditions for an outbreak of war are developing. Yet, there is still a space in which meaningful steps could be taken by the government to contain the violence of the paramilitaries and the excesses of the armed forces and create a congenial environment for de-escalation.

Sunday Times: Quite clearly the Karuna factor is a major issue for the LTTE. How do you and the LTTE leadership feel about this? This is particularly in view of the fact that the LTTE said earlier that this was an internal issue.

Balasingham: You are aware that Karuna’s rebellion was successfully crushed with minor casualties and the LTTE was able to take control of territory and command in the Batti-Amparai region, forcing Karuna to flee to safety. It is true that we characterised the conflict as an internal dispute and urged the government not to interfere in the matter. But to our dismay we learned later that the Sri Lankan government, particularly the state’s military intelligence agency, had decided to back-up Karuna, providing all facilities to build his group as a paramilitary organisation to fight the LTTE. Karuna factor became a major issue when his armed group, in collaboration with the Sri Lankan armed forces, launched a series of ambush attacks on LTTE cadres and murdered with impunity a large number of our civilian supporters. The Sri Lankan defence authorities seem to believe that Karuna is a military asset to be utilised effectively to weaken the LTTE and to destabilise the east through terror and by propagating the ideology of regionalism. Unfortunately, this subversive strategy by the government has brought the country to the brink of disaster.

Sunday Times: The LTTE, by banning presidential polis in the north and east, ensured the victory of Mahinda Rakapakse as the fifth executive President of Sri Lanka. How does the LTTE look at this position? Do you feel you made a mistake? Or, do you feel he has not seized the opportunity to address the issues raised? What are your comments?

Balasingham: The LTTE and the TNA jointly urged the Tamil people to boycott the Presidential elections as a collective protest by the Tamil nation, expressing disillusionment over the failure of the Sri Lankan political system to resolve the ethnic issue. Our motive was certainly not to ensure the victory of Mahinda Rajapakse or to cause the defeat of Ranil Wickremesinghe. We never anticipated that the Tamil boycott would help Rajapakse to win with a thin majority.

We are also deeply disappointed with President Rajapakse for failing to grasp the opportunity to address some urgent issues faced by the Tamil community.

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