Political Solution, not killing, will resolve Ethnic Conflict


Austin Fernando

Former Defence Secretary

Interviewed by Marianne David

(Courtesy: The Bottom Line of January 30, 2008)

Q: How was the CFA implemented?

A: The CFA has four sections. One is about the military operations, the second is about normalisation, the third is about the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, and the fourth is about the abrogation of the CFA – it’s about how you can break away from the CFA, which happened a few days ago.

I was mostly interested in Article 1, which concerned military operations. When you come to military operations, there are several sub articles. These sub articles had to be implemented in the background of what was happening.

Take for example what economist Saman Kelegama perceived about how we did it. First, we withdrew the economic embargoes. Later we de-proscribed the LTTE and gave it a political space and sense of dignity. Then, other than in the High Security Zones (HSZs), we gave the LTTE an opportunity to come back to normal life.

What we expected was that the LTTE would come to the negotiating table satisfied with what was happening. This way, the LTTE would get some strength and dignity and it would accept the space for talking. That was what we expected from them.

Then we appointed the monitors selected by President Kumaratunga because we believed in third party monitoring. By doing this, what we were hoping for, was to see whether we could get the LTTE onto the right track, where they would think in terms of developing their areas, eradicate poverty and want and other problems, and reach normalisation. Article 2 of the CFA was to address normalisation issues.

We expected donors to support us. This was forthcoming as seen from the Oslo Declaration and Washington Declaration where they pledged to support peace. With the Tokyo Declaration, internationals pledged US$ 4.5 billion.

We thought we could negotiate the peripheral issues at talks for the well-being of the citizens, and then strengthen confidence building measures and bring the north and east under better political management, so that the gun culture would be replaced by democratic culture.

Ultimately the intention was to develop some arrangements to welcome peace. This was a long-term business and for people to expect Ranil Wickremesinghe to bring peace within two years was a total mockery of the process. It was in this background that we went in for talks, and it was basically the way in which we were thinking of implementing the CFA.

Q: Why did CFA interventions to make peace fail?

A: There are several reasons for that. First take the CFA. It was not acceptable to the Executive, though positive statements were made on rare occasions. The Executive was the authority for security and having negative responses would not help implementing the CFA.

In addition, there was ambiguity on security matters in the CFA. Take the case of vacating public buildings or LTTE cadres doing politics in cleared areas. Further, the LTTE did not adhere to CFA in the best possible manner in comparison to the military. They were trying to smuggle arms and we destroyed some ships. They did not stop conscription. Some of the time frames in the CFA for follow up actions were not realistic. For example, vacating schools (160 days), temples and kovils (30 days).

The SLMM had powers to inquire but no power to enforce. Even the media was hostile to what we were doing in good faith.

Peace making failed due to several reasons. The ‘battle’ between the Executive (PA) versus the Legislature (UNF) and lack of co-operation was one main reason. Terminologies used were provocative. For example, federalism was a bad word in the south and unitary was a bad word in the north.

Division among Tamil political groups was disadvantageous as we were pressured by some parties. Division among Sinhalese political groups was really detrimental as consensus could not be developed. It is the same even today. The Muslim factor was an important problem. They felt that they were not given due recognition when they were an affected lot. It was true to a great extent. We could not do much to alleviate their difficulties because of the LTTE’s weak responses.

Delaying of structural reforms like state reforms, police reforms, and public service reforms to suit peace was another reason. Weakened focus on core issues, such as federalism and power sharing, was an anti-peace status. Maximum demands by LTTE that may have been provoked by the uncertain political situation in the south, embarrassed the government. Unnecessary haste to rush the peace process by both parties created frustration as peace dividends were slow to come by.

Limited international involvement was another reason though some countries were helpful in intelligence sharing, financing etc. The steps they took recently by being tough on the diaspora, were observed less during the period when peace was pursued with higher conviction. In addition some political groups were very vociferous on internationals.

Take the example of Norway. Rightly or wrongly, there were allegations that the Norwegians were engaging in peacemaking to start oil exploration in the northern seas. Then there were some saying they wanted to have some Christian influence on Sri Lanka. There was an allegation that they were training Tamil guerrillas. When we have that type of thinking – I repeat, rightly or wrongly – you cannot expect things to happen positively.

Then the Indians were very careful since they had a problem at their doorstep. They had the South Indian block which no government would shake. Even today India is having the same problem and they cannot be blamed for that.

Then there was the US. It was taking a global anti-terror stance. The JVP was questioning why a similar stance was not being taken here. The US was training our military and sharing intelligence, other than being of help as a Co-Chair.

Under these circumstances, it was very difficult to implement and market the CFA. We were doing something which was very difficult, but we were giving it a good try.

Q: What did we gain from the CFA?

A: With the CFA, firstly, we stopped killing. For example, if you take the 70,000 people killed within the 20-year conflict, that’s an average of 3,500 a year. Some years it would have been less, but if you take the 3,500 average for two years 7,000 lives were saved because of the CFA. If we count President Kumaratunga’s tenure in 2004-2005 the number will be 10,500. For one ‘document’ to save 10,500 lives is in itself a merit, in a Buddhist way of looking at it.

Then, we had access to the north and east. If you had been to Jaffna before the signing of the CFA, shops were closed and markets were deserted. But after the CFA was signed, it was completely different and there was vibrant business activity.

The opening of the areas made movement possible, and even some LTTE cadres went in for greener pastures due to this. A large number returned to their homes from India and from local displaced persons camps. It was hell in these camps for the displaced for years.

Then take the economy. The percentage of the contribution from the north and east, was less than 2% but it touched around 12%-14% within the two years of the CFA. GDP rise meant economic boom for the people. It affects us in the south because the produce came to the southern markets.

Change of attitudes of people was great after the CFA. The ordinary people in the north who thought Sinhalese were only khaki-clad, rough soldiers, found the Sinhalese as a whole to be human.

When I went there with Minister Dodangoda in 1995, schoolboys would come and touch us just to see whether we were human like them! That was the attitude and feelings a few years back. Later when we went to Nallur Kovil in Jaffna with Wickremesinghe, there were thousands of people surrounding him and cheering him. There was absolute euphoria. When he went to Chavakachcheri I can still remember how he was surrounded and welcomed.

The benefits of the CFA were free movement, economic benefits, improved business and enhanced understanding, and more, the hope for peace. Some may dismiss them as nothing much but you have to start somewhere. In this game you have to expect criticism and ridicule, and we had all of them in abundance.

Q: What is your opinion on the abrogation of the CFA?

A: There was room for abrogation of the CFA under Article 4. It was expected one day. One advantage of having a CFA, was that there was an instrument which the government and LTTE could fall back on, and point out violations. There was an opportunity of complaining and seeking remedies. Of course, the complaints may not have been properly addressed sometimes, but there was a mechanism in place for the benefit of the parties and the people.

Then, there was reporting, which was going to the facilitators and the international community about the exact situation. ‘Independent’ reporting was made possible.

When we wanted to undertake any new activity we could get a general idea about the LTTE stance through the SLMM monitors. That was very useful. The CFA is not a Bible. One could develop mechanisms to add value to it. For example, Sub Article 1.7 says the LTTE cannot transfer arms and ammunition to the government-held areas and vice versa. However, we made arrangements through the monitors to transfer LTTE cadres from Mullaitivu to Batticaloa in their own boats, with guns and RPGs. If looked at it strictly, that was a violation of the CFA, but the Defence Secretary, Navy, Peace Secretariat and the SLMM together made that happen. It cut down the threat on LTTE cadres, whom we transported by buses.

If some unruly person had thrown a grenade on any bus carrying LTTE cadres, it would have been the end of the peace process, and we thought that we should make alternate arrangements and did it successfully. Though we transferred cadres several times, we did not hear a single shot being fired by both parties. That is a good example of not looking at the CFA as a Bible. Now such innovations are lost.

Q: What are the ill-effects of the abrogation of the CFA?

A: There is no one to complain to, there is no one to monitor, no one to be an intermediary, no one to carry out on-the-spot investigations, at least as accepted independent persons, and there is no independent information flow mechanism, excepting to the government which will be supplied with information by the military and the administration. You have to believe what Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara or Lakshman Hulugalle say at this end, and accept what Irasiah Ilanthirayan says from Kilinochchi. There is no independent point of view.

Of course, the independence of monitors has been questioned, and some one might harshly say that there is no one to inform about the LTTE ships that are reaching Mullaitivu. It was unfortunate we faced such a situation in the past provoking such a comment, if it happened.

But do not forget comparatively independent monitors like Trond Furuhovde or Hagrup Haukland, for example. There had been allegations against them too, that is why I say ‘comparatively.’ Who has not faulted at all in life?

Q: Did we miss a good opportunity by abrogating the CFA, or had it already become a dead letter by the time it was abrogated?

A: It was a dead letter because of the faults of both parties – mostly due to the faults of the LTTE. Also, the CFA violation numbers were cranky. At the beginning the numbers were very high since it included very minor violations as well. The major violations were in hundreds, not thousands.

Why should some one depend only on the CFA for good opportunities? I will tell you one good example. During my time, I had a way of doing things by talking to the Government Agent or Bishop of Jaffna and SLMM to handle tricky situations. I used to engage them or their representatives to tackle problems forced on us by LTTE’s Political Chief Ilamparithi in Jaffna. Sometimes it was after a military truck had killed a person or two.

What happened after we left at the end of 2003? I think during President Kumaratunga’s time when an incident took place, they didn’t talk to anyone, they sent SSP Charles Wijewardene. He never returned alive. Now the authorities may consider these informal channels.

Quite naturally, I used the CFA only to cross the river. Thereafter I did not carry it on my shoulder. I used other means – the Bishop, Government Agents, and Divisional Secretaries, etc. There was some initiative you could take from the CFA. Without the CFA, you cannot take any initiative that could be considered acceptable to other parties. We could even violate the CFA for a good cause when it was in place, like we did when transporting the LTTE cadres, and come out unscathed.

I must take my hat off to the military for having tolerated some of the provocations by the LTTE, which were allegedly quoted as CFA weaknesses. When the LTTE started crashing into the HSZs and when they violated the dress code, the military was very tolerant. It would have been due to the CFA, but it was also definitely due to discipline.

I remember when people broke into our camp in Point Pedro, not a single shot was fired. The discipline of the military was superb. The Army was thoroughly disciplined. When the LTTE cadres break in and burn the Forward Defence Line (FDL) bunkers, if the Army does not shoot, that shows the strength of the Army. The main reason was that the people were unarmed. Of course when they tried it in Kanjirankudah and seven were shot dead by the STF. The attackers were carrying guns during that attack.

Q: In this backdrop, do you feel that abrogation of the CFA is justified?

A: If it cannot be implemented, it is a different story. But I think it will create a big problem. Sometimes a new negotiated CFA could have been tried, to get away from the withdrawal of the CFA. However, I think the political threat to the government would not have changed its mind to withdraw. When words are replaced with bullets, how can we say the abrogation is justified? Now things are said with bullets. What we did with words is now communicated with bullets.

Q: How do you think a lasting solution can be found to the ethnic conflict?

A: It is through a political solution. Even the President says that. Former Presidents have said that and tried it too. Military seniors like General Kobbekaduwa have said that. Even General Sarath Fonseka had more or less indicated that recently.

This is a political problem; it is not a military problem. The problem is firstly a human problem of the Tamils which has been converted into a military problem. It is being tackled by military measures right now. The human problem cannot be solved with a military option. It has to be solved with a human option. The human option comes from the politicians and the society as a whole.

Military action is not only military decision-making, it has political decision-making too. As they say, war is not a simple thing to be left to generals alone. Ultimately, even the military option has to end with a political solution. Killing will not bring about a solution. It may pave the way sometimes. It has to be a political solution.

This has been the experience in every country. After all, the soldiers are killing their own brethren and the LTTE cadres are killing their brethren. How can killing be the solution then?

With peace, the government has to win the hearts and minds of the population in the north and east. That includes Muslims and Sinhalese also, not only Tamils. We have to bring the people together. A political solution is a must.
Austin Fernando speaks on matters of Defence and Secretaries today

Q: What is the role of the Defence Secretary?

A: The role of the Defence Secretary is equal to that of any other Secretary. Firstly, a Secretary is expected to be involved in policy making. Two, supervise policy implementation. Three, be the chief accounting officer, answerable for every cent allocated by the Parliament. Four, carry out the other national policies and other requirements of the government as appropriate with his duties.

The Secretary does not implement, but takes the responsibility of managing affairs through the respective heads of departments and other authorities. He is a leader and not the doer. There are other established procedures as well, and the Defence Secretary has to direct, organise and review performance of the Forces and the Police.

Q: How do you look at the present scenario of the President and his brother being the Defence Minister and Defence Secretary?

A: I must say the present situation is different from what I experienced. The Defence Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, are brothers, and blood is thicker than water. In the past, no Defence Secretary has been a brother of the minister. In fairness to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, I must say that sometimes having a Secretary who is very close to the Defence Minister is a good thing because certain decision making stances could be accelerated because of the relationship.

However, I must also hastily add that in a well-managed organisation, personal relationships need not matter when taking decisions, if people take the correct decisions. Whether you are brother or father or friend or classmate, it is immaterial for the minister and to the country, as long as the job given to you is done properly, honourably, with integrity and commitment. The right decisions must be made.

Q: Do you feel that the correct decisions are being made?

A: I do not want to comment on that.

Q: Should the Defence Secretary be sourced through the military or the public service?

A: In the context of the conflict, we have had more Defence Secretaries from the Forces. There was General Sepala Attygalle, General Cyril Ranatunga, and General Hamilton Wanasinghe. Then it was Chandrananda De Silva, who was a civilian. I took over from him and after me it was former IGP Cyril Herath. Then it was Major General Asoka Jayewardene. There have been five Defence Secretaries coming from the military or the Police and two from the Public Service.

However, what matters is how you act and the environment in which you act. Cyril Herath, Asoka Jayewardene and I – the three people just before Gotabhaya Rajapaksa – were working in a peaceful environment. There was no fighting going on. But all the other Secretaries were handling a war situation.

If someone says that the best person should be from the military, what I have to say is – were the others incompetent? Were they not senior enough? There are several things which matter when appointing a Defence Secretary: the political requirement, the defence and security environment, the threat perception from the enemy, government’s action plan to handle defence and security etc.