Sri Lanka, one of the most peaceful and stable countries
I am aware that many of the organisers of the Serendip Coast Festival
were also responsible for the Galle Literary Festival that was held on
an annual basis over the last few years, which brought many
world-renowned authors, poets and other illustrious individuals to this
historic city. I believe these events represent the continuation of
their efforts to promote Galle as a hub for similar events.
Secretary of Defence and Urban Development Gotabaya Rajapaksa
addresses the gathering at the Serendip Coast Festival 2013 in
This deserves encouragement and appreciation, because it provides an
opportunity for a particularly discerning and influential segment of the
international community to visit Sri Lanka and see the situation on the
ground. As you will have noticed, the ground realities are rather
different from what is often reported about this country
internationally. Particularly in context of the fact that Sri Lanka only
emerged from a vicious, three decades long terrorist conflict less than
four years ago, I believe it is fair to say that the progress we have
achieved is remarkable.
Just over a month ago, I had the opportunity to accompany President
Mahinda Rajapaksa on his official visit to Jaffna. During this visit, he
presided over the inauguration of a new power plant in Chunnakam, the
opening of a new building complex for the Jaffna Hospital, and several
other official functions. He also took the opportunity to travel
throughout the peninsula and make a number of unscheduled stops to talk
to the ordinary people in the area.
He did all of his travels by road. I particularly remember that on
the last day of his visit, he opened the pier at Nagadeepa at about 6.30
p.m. then attended a ceremony at a kovil in Karainagar. This event ended
at around 8pm. Afterwards, he travelled by road across the peninsula to
Palaly, which is a journey that takes about an hour.
This is the President of Sri Lanka, travelling across the breadth of
the Jaffna peninsula, by night, on road. A few years ago, I don’t think
even a military convoy could have travelled from Karainagar to Palaly by
road without being confronted by a terrorist attack. Yet today, the Head
of State can make such a journey. This exemplifies the peace, stability
and security that exist in every part of the country after the defeat of
terrorism in May 2009.
Unfortunately, some people seem to have forgotten the situation Sri
Lanka was in before the dawn of peace. They seem to have forgotten just
how horrific the terrorism of the LTTE was. By the time President
Rajapaksa assumed office in December 2005, Sri Lanka had suffered nearly
30 years of LTTE terror. Its atrocities had become part of our
day-to-day lives. People in vulnerable villages near territory captured
and held by the LTTE lived in constant fear of attacks. So too did
civilians throughout the country, especially in Colombo, which was all
too frequently rocked by bomb explosions.
Many of our leading politicians and public figures were assassinated,
including President Premadasa, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgarmar,
Minister of State for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne, former Opposition Leader
A. Amirthalingam, and illustrious leaders from all communities.
A section of the audience
Economic targets were attacked ruthlessly, including the oil refinery
at Kolonnawa, power plants at Kelanitissa and Kerawalapitiya, and the
international airport at Katunayake.
The attack on the Central Bank in 1996 killed close to a hundred
people and injured more than a thousand. Even places of worship such as
the Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura, the Temple of the Tooth Relic in
Kandy, the Kaththankudy Mosque and churches were targeted. Other such
attacks by the LTTE claimed thousands of lives and deeply affected
hundreds of thousands more. No one was safe. All Sri Lankans lived in a
state of constant tension, never knowing when a sudden terrorist attack
would take their lives or kill their loved ones. A veil of fear hung
over day-to-day life. Parents did not travel in the same vehicle
together for fear of leaving their children orphaned. Many of our best
and brightest left the country to seek better prospects abroad. Foreign
and local investment halted. Tourist arrivals slowed to a trickle. Our
economy, our people, our way of life suffered incalculable harm due to
the LTTE’s acts of terror.
It is important to stress that the LTTE was not a small band of
separatists, but a large, sophisticated terrorist organisation with a
formidable fighting force and international reach. By 2005, the LTTE had
25,000 battle-hardened cadres in its ranks as well as a large auxiliary
force comprising trained civilians which was known as Makkalaipadai.
It had access to large stockpiles of modern armaments, ammunition and
equipment, including heavy artillery, medium artillery, mortars, machine
guns and missiles. Most of these items were equivalent weapons to those
possessed by the Sri Lanka Army. Uniquely amongst terrorist
organisations the world over, it possessed a very sophisticated naval
wing as well as a fledgling air wing.
At its height, the LTTE had influence over nearly two thirds of the
country’s coastline and controlled most of the landmass in the Northern
and Eastern Provinces.
In fact, the LTTE controlled virtually everything within that region,
including the civil administration, through its military power. Although
the Government provided funding for all administrative and public
services, it did not have the power to monitor what was taking place.
Neither the Armed Forces nor the Police could enter these areas. These
areas were ruled by the LTTE at gunpoint.
Liberating the hundreds of thousands of people in the North and the
East from the LTTE’s dominance was one of the President’s key objectives
soon after he was elected. He had been given a very clear mandate by the
people to solve the terrorist problem once and for all. One of his very
first acts was to invite the LTTE for direct talks with the Government
so that the stalled negotiations for peace could be restarted.
However, instead of accepting his invitation, the LTTE increased its
provocations considerably. It launched brazen attacks against key
military targets and killed dozens of innocent civilians. The Government
bore these provocations with patience, but it was compelled to take
action after the LTTE shut down a crucial sluice gate at Maavil Aru in
July 2006, cutting off the water supply to more than 5,000 households
and thousands of acres of agricultural land. This threatened a
humanitarian disaster, and a limited operation was launched to reopen
the sluice gate.
Almost immediately, the LTTE launched attacks on the key city of
Trincomalee in the East and military targets in the North, making clear
that its true intentions at Maavil Aru had been to restart a
full-fledged war. The Government had no choice, but to widen the ongoing
military operation into a humanitarian operation to liberate all of Sri
Lanka from the LTTE’s terrorism.
This was not an easy task. During the last three decades, successive
presidents and governments had attempted to solve this issue through
negotiations as well as military means. There were even third party
interventions from time to time, notably the Indo-Lanka Accord and the
arrival of an Indian Peace Keeping Force in 1987, and the ceasefire and
peace process facilitated by Norway in 2002. However, the LTTE never had
any genuine interest in peace, and used ceasefires only to strengthen
itself. As a result of its growth and increasing sophistication over the
years, it was a formidable military threat when the humanitarian
operation began in August 2006.
Defeating the LTTE required many success factors to converge. The
first and perhaps most important factor was the unshakeable
determination of the President to fulfil his mandate and free Sri Lanka
from terrorism. There had been many successful military operations in
the past that could not be consolidated to a permanent victory because
of the lack of sufficient political will. The clear, unambiguous aim of
the President and his firm commitment to eradicating terrorism from Sri
Lanka was critical throughout the humanitarian operation. This combined
with committed personal leadership.
For the duration of the humanitarian operation, over three and a half
years, the President chaired the weekly Security Council meetings, where
the debrief for the past week and the plans for the coming week were
discussed. By constantly keeping in touch with the unfolding situation,
the President, as Commander-in-Chief, was fully aware of the progress
being made. Whenever there were setbacks, as there can be in any
military operation, he understood that they were only temporary.
Instead of being deterred, he gave the military the confidence to
press ahead towards the ultimate goal.
The President’s decision to expand the Armed Forces was another
critical factor in the success of the military. The strength of the LTTE,
its military capability and armaments, the sheer extent of land it
controlled and the guerilla tactics and diversionary tactics it used
against the Armed Forces meant that a large military was essential in
combatting the entirety of the LTTE threat. As a result of the expansion
of the Army, we had enough troops to operate on a number of different
axes and on a wider frontage, and to hold territory in strength once it
had been captured. For the first time, we could create more battalions,
brigades and divisions to progress with, and at the same time to cater
for battle casualties while maintaining the required strength of all
By expanding the Navy and the Air Force and by using their personnel
beyond their classic role to protect sensitive areas on ground, and by
strengthening the Civil Defence Force and increasing the
responsibilities of the Police, we were able to protect sensitive areas
throughout the country while the war against terrorism was being waged.
This meant that there were no reversals on the field of battle, nor any
need to divert the military to protect against LTTE attacks elsewhere.
Another essential success factor behind the humanitarian operation
was the ability of the President and the political leadership to
maintain domestic political stability while resisting international
pressures. It is important to remember that it was a coalition
Government in power during the humanitarian operation. The President had
to somehow keep his coalition partners together and even persuade key
Opposition figures to support him to consolidate the Government’s
position and ensure it did not collapse halfway through.
At the same time, essential subsidies had to be granted on fertiliser
and other items to control food and commodity prices that would affect
the populace. Infrastructure development also could not be ignored
despite the large defence budget. By skilfully managing the economy as
well as domestic politics, the Government could sustain its popularity
and the country’s economic growth despite the hardships of the war
against terrorism and the international economic downturn.
An even greater challenge, however, was resisting the various
international pressures that were brought to bear on us to stop the
As a result of its vast international network, its extremely
effective propaganda machine, and the large number of expatriate Tamils
in many powerful foreign capitals, the LTTE was able to influence the
political leadership of many Western states to be critical of the
Government’s success on the warfront. This led to numerous practical
issues as well, including restrictions on the sale of weapons to Sri
Lanka by certain countries. These issues had to be overcome through the
skilful building of our diplomatic relationships with key regional
allies as well as countries such as China and Russia.
Without doubt, the most important country that had to be managed was
India. Because of the political pressures in Tamil Nadu, the Sri Lankan
situation has always been sensitive in that country. In 1987, when the
LTTE was on the brink of defeat during the Vadamarachchi Operation,
India intervened and effectively forced the Government to stop its
military campaign. To maintain the relationship with India and to
prevent any such problem occurring this time around, the President went
out of his way to keep New Delhi briefed on developments at all times.
In addition, a special bilateral committee was set up at the highest
level, including then Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa,
Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga and myself as Defence
Secretary from the Sri Lankan side, and former National Security Advisor
M.K. Narayan, then Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and then Defence
Secretary Vijay Singh on the Indian side. This troika had continuous
discussions and ensured that any sensitive issues were dealt with as
soon as they arose.
With the confluence of all these strategies and factors, we concluded
the humanitarian operation by defeating the LTTE on the field of battle
in May 2009. It has to be acknowledged that this victory was not easy
and did not come without a price. During the latter stages of the
Northern operation, the LTTE withdrew from its entrenched positions and
retreated towards its strongholds on the North Eastern coast. As it
withdrew, it took three hundred thousand civilians out of their homes to
serve as its human shield. During the last stage, the LTTE set up its
artillery positions within civilian encampments and fought amidst the
civilians, often dressed in civilian attire. This was a very challenging
situation for the Armed Forces, which acted with great restraint and
suffered considerable losses in their efforts to minimise civilian
casualties. The use of heavy weaponry was curtailed and then stopped
outright. The minimum amount of necessary force was used at all times to
ensure that harm to civilians and civilian property was minimised.
However, the LTTE had no compunctions about putting civilians
deliberately in harm’s way, and its cadres mercilessly shot at all
civilians who tried to escape into Government-controlled areas.
Despite all these challenges, it is important to note that by the end
of the humanitarian operation, nearly 300,000 civilians were left in the
Government’s care. In spite of the absurd claims made by various parties
with vested interests, the Armed Forces did their best to keep civilian
casualties to a minimum.
A comprehensive survey entitled an Enumeration of Vital Events
undertaken in 2011 by the Department of Census and Statistics
demonstrates this beyond doubt.
The Enumeration was conducted between June and August 2011, with
field data being collected in July. The enumerators were Government
school teachers attached to the Northern Province, all 2,500 of whom
were Tamil. Apart from the gathering of usual census data, the
enumerators paid attention to the deaths that had taken place in the
North from 2005 to 2009, with particular emphasis on the deaths that
took place in the last stages of battle.
The Enumeration Report states that 7,896 deaths occurred due to
unnatural causes during this period. It is extremely important to stress
that this figure includes all LTTE leaders and cadres who died in
battle, all civilians killed by the LTTE, and all civilians who died as
a result of crossfire or collateral damage.
The LTTE had 25,000 cadres at the start of the humanitarian
operation. By its conclusion, nearly 12,000 had surrendered to the Armed
Forces. Technical sources and the number of bodies of LTTE cadres
recovered indicates that a large number of cadres died in battle. These
numbers exclude civilians who were forced to fight by the LTTE during
the last stages.
When considering these numbers, it is clear that the majority of the
7,896 deaths that occurred during the last stages of the battle were of
LTTE cadres.This clearly demonstrates the falsity and quite likely
malicious nature of the various civilian casualty figures that are
alleged by various parties with vested interests. It should further be
noted that the figures in the Enumeration of Vital Events tallies with
the figures reported by the ICRC as well as UNICEF. Soon after, UNICEF
started an independent effort to track missing persons in the North. By
July 2011, it received 2,564 tracing applications, of which 1,888 were
about adults and 676 were about children. It was also reported by 64
percent of parents that their children had been recruited by the LTTE.
All these figures prove beyond doubt that the number of non-combatants
who perished during the war against terrorism was, in fact, very small.
The success of the Government in the post-2009 era is as commendable
as its defeat of terrorism during the humanitarian operation. As soon as
victory was achieved, the Government faced a new set of challenges that
it successfully overcame in a relatively short period. These challenges
*Accommodating and taking care of nearly 300,000 displaced persons
*Undertaking demining and reconstruction of infrastructure and
facilities in the places they had been displaced from
*Resettling them at their original locations once they had been
cleared of mines; and
*Rehabilitating and reintegrating nearly 12,000 ex-LTTE cadres who
surrendered to the military as well as nearly 4,500 cadres who were in
detention at that time.
Accommodating and ensuring the welfare of the displaced was the first
challenge. The Government had prepared for this challenge since late
2008, and had started to construct welfare villages to temporarily house
the civilians it anticipated receiving. It was planned that the welfare
villages would contain high quality infrastructure and facilities.
Accordingly, the Government established semi-permanent shelters at
Lakshman Kadirgamar Village and Ananda Kumaraswamy Village in Menik
Farm, as well as temporary shelters and huts provided by the funding
organisations, to accommodate the people. The welfare villages were one
of the many success stories of this period.
During the initial stages, cooked food packets were provided to the
displaced. Dedicated medical teams were appointed to each welfare
village and extensive healthcare facilities and medical supplies were
provided. The vast majority of them soon recovered from the ill-health
they had suffered while they were with the LTTE. Between May and June
2009, the crude mortality rate fell from 0.7 per 10,000 per day to 0.5
per 10,000 per day, which is the threshold rate for South East Asia. By
July 2009, it had settled at 0.15 per 10,000 per day, which is the
threshold rate for Sri Lanka. In addition to physical health, great care
was also taken to provide psychological and psychosocial support to
After the early stages during which the people were settling down,
life resumed a normal routine in the welfare villages. Instead of cooked
meals, kitchen facilities were set up in each residential block and
basic rations were issued free. Cooperative outlets and markets were
established, and banks, post offices and communication centres were set
up. Special public administration services were provided, including
facilities to reconstruct legal documents and issue temporary identity
‘Happiness Centres’ were established for children, and various
activities including art, music, drama, yoga and sports were conducted.
Many efforts were taken to promote religious, spiritual and cultural
Places of worship were established through community consultation,
with special facilities being provided for all clergy. Schools were
established for students, and vocational training centres were
established for the capacity building and empowerment of older
individuals. Community centres and common areas were built for adults,
and young adults were provided with career counselling.
While these efforts were taking place, the demining program was
expedited in the former conflict areas. It was suspected that mines had
been laid in more than 5,000 square kilometres of land. Demining such a
vast area was a very difficult challenge, but the Government
unhesitatingly undertook it immediately after terrorism ended. Many
foreign organisations came forward to help, but the Sri Lanka Army took
responsibility for demining 1,500 square kilometres, including most of
the densely mined regions.
The entire demining program was carefully planned and executed.
Nearly half a million antipersonnel mines, 1,400 antitank mines and
close to 400,000 unexploded ordnance were recovered. This demonstrates
the scope of the problem we faced, and clearly demonstrates just what an
achievement it is that the two main priority areas could be demined
successfully within three years.
Reconstruction was expedited in each area that was cleared of mines
and rendered safe. As a result of LTTE action and long neglect, many of
the facilities and infrastructure were in need of significant repair and
improvement. The renovation of houses and construction of new housing
units was one of the Government’s priorities in terms of reconstruction.
The Government extended direct assistance for the establishment of
houses. The Army has been involved in several programs in this regard
and has renovated more than 6,000 houses and constructed close to 7,000
new permanent or semi-permanent houses. Other countries have also
assisted; the most notable being India, which provided a grant for the
construction of about 40,000 new houses. In addition to housing stock,
infrastructure was built up rapidly under the Northern Spring and
Eastern Dawn programs. Under them, electricity, water supply and
sanitation, irrigation, solid waste disposal, transportation and
improved agriculture, livestock development, fisheries and facilities
for trading activity were developed in these areas.
Resettlement was also expedited. Under the rapid resettlement
program, all displaced persons were resettled within three and a half
years. With the exception of a very few, they were resettled in their
places of origin, including areas such as Vellamullavaikkal where the
last battles took place. The Government has also taken great care to
ensure that the former displaced have gained improved prospects in life.
Vocational training was provided to young adults, and financial and
other forms of assistance were provided for people to resume their
livelihoods. The Government has provided tools, equipment, seeds and
livestock for farming, donated fishing gear and fishing boats to help
fishermen return to the sea, and provided concessionary financing and
training for those hoping to start up small businesses. Through these
measures, the Government has ensured that the former displaced have
ample opportunity to return to normal life.
A similar approach was adopted to the LTTE cadres who surrendered or
were detained during the humanitarian operation. All of them were
categorised according to their level of involvement in LTTE atrocities,
and the majority were sent for rehabilitation. All the child soldiers
were rehabilitated within one year, and the adult ex-combatants were
rehabilitated in stages and reintegrated with society. All beneficiaries
of rehabilitation underwent extensive programs designed to equip them
with the ability to return to normal life in society.
They were provided counselling, spiritual, religious and cultural
rehabilitation, and psychosocial support including creative therapy.
They were provided catch up education, given vocational training in
various sectors, and even assisted in setting up their own businesses
through provision of specialised training and concessionary financing.
Many of the beneficiaries have also been absorbed into the Civil Defence
Force. According to independent studies conducted by American academics,
the rehabilitation process has been extremely successful in reducing the
support for violence among the beneficiaries.
In the long term, the primary challenge and responsibility of the
Government is to restore stability to Sri Lanka. In this regard,
ensuring that the problems that led to the conflict in the first place
do not arise again is critically important. Keeping some degree of
security measures in place is essential.
At the same time, the Government was very keen to remove whatever
restrictions had to be in place during terrorism so that the people
could feel the benefit of peace as fast as possible. All the
restrictions on travel, restrictions on transport of certain items,
restrictions on fishing and restrictions on ground in terms of high
security zones were gradually removed. Elections have been restored and
political plurality has returned. The visible presence of the military
has been minimised, and the maintenance of law and order has been handed
over to the Police. New police stations have been built and
Tamil-speaking policemen have been recruited and trained to serve in the
North and the East.
The rest of the country, too, has benefited tremendously from the
restoration of peace and stability. Tourist arrivals are on the rise,
with more and more internationally recognised travel magazines selecting
Sri Lanka as one of the top-rated holiday destinations in the world. In
keeping with this trend, more than a million tourist arrivals were
recorded in the country during 2012.
Sri Lanka has also been chosen to host several significant
international events, including the Commonwealth Heads of Government
meeting later this year. Last year, it hosted the 58th annual
Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference and the ICC’s Twenty20
Cricket World Cup. Many leading international companies have decided to
invest in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka companies too are investing in these
sectors, with several planning to construct many new mixed developments,
hotels and office buildings.
The Government is undertaking a large-scale development drive to
improve infrastructure such as roads, railways, electricity, water
supply and sanitation and disposal of solid waste. Several flagship
projects have been undertaken. A few days ago, President Rajapaksa
opened Sri Lanka’s second international airport at Mattala. The
Hambantota Port is also now operational, and has the capacity to tap the
vast potential afforded by the sea lines of communication that pass
within a few nautical miles to the south of Sri Lanka.
A concerted effort is under way to develop the quality of our urban
spaces. Cities are being beautified and public facilities are being
upgraded in dozens of locations. There are a number of urban development
projects taking place in Colombo as well as smaller cities throughout
the rest of the country. The private sector has started to exploit the
opportunities that are being created by the Government, and more
investment in various sectors is flowing into the country. Sri Lanka is
on the brink of an economic resurgence that will benefit all our
citizens and residents.
However, despite all these positive accomplishments and the country’s
great potential, Sri Lanka still faces several challenges both
domestically as well as from overseas. Despite the military defeat of
the LTTE, its propaganda machine remains fully operational in a number
of countries around the world.
By influencing foreign governments through the large number of
expatriate Tamils who comprise an important voting bloc in many western
democracies, the rump of the LTTE is still causing problems for Sri
Lanka. There are also many so called champions of human rights in the
international media and in international NGOs who continue to attack the
country. Some of them have publicly accepted donations from LTTE-linked
groups; many of them have been misled by LTTE propaganda and others are
desperately trying to cling to causes to secure funding.
The efforts of the rump of the LTTE and other parties with vested
interests is compounded by the strategic interest that certain states
have in Sri Lanka because of its unique geographical position. Even in
international fora such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, we
can see that certain powerful countries and their allies are blatantly
employing double standards when dealing with Sri Lanka. They have
completely ignored our achievements.
Even in Sri Lanka, some politicians who used to work under the LTTE
still believe in its ideology, and continue to try and create problems
among the Tamil population so that they can cling on to power. Instead
of looking at the bigger picture and seeing the benefits that flow from
a unitary state, their agenda is to divide our people for selfish gain.
There are also unscrupulous politicians in the mainstream parties who
disregard the national interest and resort to false propaganda to get
In addition, there are also civil society stalwarts with a distinct
anti-national agenda, who do their best to discredit the Government and
portray a bleak picture about Sri Lanka to the world. They are aided and
abetted by sections of the media that have vested interests.
This is extremely unfortunate. People should not forget the last 30
years. We must remember the many sacrifices that were made for peace to
be achieved. During the time nearly 30,000 military personnel made the
ultimate sacrifice; 20,000 more are permanently disabled. Apart from
these war heroes, about 10,000 civilians including political leaders and
community leaders lost their lives. We must be careful not to do
anything that will create such a situation in this country again. While
we must deal with whatever domestic issues that remain, we must not do
so in a way that will threaten our present peace and stability.
If you think back to the era before 2005 and how things were then,
and compare that to the present era, you will see for yourselves just
how much better things are now. Everyone has benefited from the defeat
of terrorism. The achievement of peace after so many years of conflict,
the return of freedom to all our citizens, the successful meeting of all
the post-conflict challenges, the revival of democracy and the ongoing
rapid economic development are all remarkable achievements. We must not
let those with vested interests mislead us.
Sri Lanka is one of the most peaceful and stable countries in the
world, and if we stand united as Sri Lankans and as friends of Sri
Lanka, we will together unleash the immense potential that this country
has. In fact, the best riposte to those who stand in doubt of Sri Lanka
is to show them what we as a nation are capable of achieving. If all of
us commit ourselves to this task and stand united, I have every
confidence that we will take this country forward into a bright new era
of unparalleled opportunity and success.
Excerpts of the speech delivered by Secretary Defence and Urban
Development at the Serendip Coast Festival 2013 at the Lighthouse Hotel
in Galle last week.