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Sunday, 18 May 2014





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Defeating the ruthless LTTE :

We achieved the impossible in May 2009 - Rohitha Bogollagama

Putting the record straight with regard to the US's and India's involvement in the tail end of the humanitarian operation which eliminated the LTTE, former Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama says the two countries never created a passage or made an attempt even to see that Prabhakaran could be assisted in a fleeing operation.

“I can categorically state that the US nor India never had a hand in assisting Prabhakaran's fleeing from Sri Lankan soil. India's ethical and bilateral relationships stands well above a terrorist organisation,” he asserted.

On the fifth anniversary of Sri Lanka's war victory against terrorism, the Sunday Observer interviewed the former minister, who had the difficult task of painting an outfit that was given legitimate status on par with the Sri Lankan government by the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement, a terrorist organisation that had to be militarily crushed.

Excerpts of the interview,

Q: In May 2009 we achieved what everyone said was impossible – defeating the LTTE, a ruthless terrorist organisation in the world. While a bitter war was being fought by the soldiers in the battlefront, another decisive battle was taking shape on the international front. You were the Foreign Minister during that crucial phase from 2007 to 2009. It's been five years, how would you describe the part played by your ministry in this decisive operation?

A:The task that was assumed by the Foreign Minister at that time was to win over international support to counter terrorism. In doing so it was important to target the LTTE as a terrorist organisation. The responsibility fell on the Foreign Ministry to tackle both issues. I as Foreign Minister had to convince the world to arrive at a new agenda that was coordinated by the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

In 2002, the LTTE was brought in as a party on par with the Government in terms of the Ceasefire Agreement dated February 22, 2002. With that the LTTE had status of an equivalent party seeking a dialogue with the Government for a negotiated settlement of a civil conflict within Sri Lanka.

In conversation with Condoleeza Rice in the US
In discussion with Manmohan Singh during the trouble times
Bogollagama with former Italian Ambassador Pio Mariani who was injured in an LTTE artillery attack during a visit of Colombo based heads of mission to the North in March 2007

That is the status conferred on the LTTE legitimising it as a party fighting for a cause for their people. The Agreement had international acceptance. Changing this image was the biggest challenge. Norway was given the role of peace facilitator. Five co-chairs US, UK, EU, Japan and Norway were appointed to oversee the process.

The task of the Foreign Ministry was to convince the international community, that the LTTE could not be trusted and therefore we cannot treat the LTTE as a party on par with the Government.

The moment the LTTE was identified as a terrorist organisation, the international community was compelled to stop any type of support and funding since a terrorist organisation cannot have any legitimate activity. Towards this I undertook a mission with the guidance of President Rajapaksa. This was our new agenda in freeing the country from the clutches of the LTTE.

Starting with India my first call was on the Indian Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh, followed by his foreign Minister, at the time Sri Pranab Mukherjee.

Then I went across to Germany, the UK and Washington, likewise the passage started in terms of seeking appointments, meeting leaders, and making Sri Lanka's case known to them in the struggle against terrorism.

Within three years we were able to accomplish it, total international support to crush the LTTE in Sri Lanka and register the dawn of peace in May 2009.

Q:There were calls from certain international big wigs, to halt the offensive but Sri Lanka defied these calls. How would you describe the international community's reaction to Sri Lanka's stand.

A:President Rajapaksa laid the framework to work within.

On the one hand, President Rajapaksa had the military Chiefs under the direct supervision of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to engage fully on the military offensive, there was no question of compromising the military offensive.

Secondly, the LTTE was branded as a terrorist organisation with whom we did not want to have any negotiations, thereby when other countries started to talk to us of the need to halt the offensive, we had a clear strategy laid, that we will do so only with the unconditional surrender of Prabhakaran. We had already brought the international community to accept our stance.

It gained legitimacy since the LTTE was committing violations non stop.

They never respected any international humanitarian concerns, legal concerns and the humanitarian aspect of any engagement.

We were all the time highlighting the shortcomings associated with the LTTE and justified our engagement in crushing the LTTE as a terrorist organisation. Our efforts were never directed in the elimination of or liquidation of Tamils.

We demonstrated that through the rehabilitation of LTTE cadres after 2009. While the war on terrorism was going on we had been setting up rehabilitation camps for child soldiers, and these efforts received the acknowledgement and appreciation of the international community including the UN body.

I must state here this war on terrorism was never fought without witnesses, we had the international community present in this country. Some quarters try to accuse the Government in certain areas, but there is enough justification for the actions of the Government in the manner in which the war on terrorism was conducted - the humanitarian values that were protected, enhanced and promoted and the way in which the LTTE cadres were treated even after defeating LTTE.

Q: Speculation was rife at that time that the LTTE hierarchy was trying to flee the country and some countries had offered protection including the US and Norway. The US marines were standby for a possible emergency evacuation, and also that certain countries were trying to broker a surrender of Prabhakaran and the LTTE top-rung. How true were these speculations?

A:I can categorically state that the US or India never had a hand in assisting any fleeing of Prabhakaran from Sri Lankan soil.

That is important. I maintain that they never created a passage or made an attempt even to see that Prabhakaran could be assisted in a fleeing operation.

That I must state, otherwise these misconceptions can lead to unnecessary concerns being raised in our bilateral relationship. They are world leaders, their ethical and bilateral relationships stand above a terrorist organisation.

There was one valid allegation levelled against one western country whose ambassador even visited KP in Malaysia when we were trying to locate him in the final phase of the military operations.

I had information that there was this particular country's ambassador making arrangements to facilitate Prabhakaran's either surrender or his escape, this was an allegation. When I did check on his whereabouts and tracked him through our intelligence sources I found he had in fact met with KP in Malaysia.

I summoned the Ambassador to the Foreign Ministry, assuming that it was a violation of our diplomatic relationship, he conceded that he did visit KP as he had a role that was assigned to him to see how best the war on terrorism could be brought to an end.

That sufficed an answer but the allegation in terms of this particular country and the ambassador were valid. I do not want to disclose the name of the country.

There were instances where countries were genuinely trying to assist us. Their representatives met me on several occasions offering assistance for a possible surrender of Prabhakaran. I shared that with the President, his advice was taken and different establishments were kept informed of these moves.

Certain countries were also kept informed of requests that were coming, above all we wanted to avoid our regional cooperation being affected, particularly relations with India. I was the Chairperson of the Council of Ministers of the SAARC at the time, after President Rajapaksa took over the Chair of the SAARC the previous year in 2008. Hotlines were operated between offices of my counterparts in several countries and my approach was play it in the open in terms of our sincerely in defeating terrorism. And to keep my counterparts including that of the UK, EU, the US and India informed on all important matters, and seek their cooperation, so that we don't leave room for them to level criticism or find fault with our approach.

Hence defeating the LTTE and the terrorists became a collective approach. The goodwill got Sri Lanka registered on several multilateral platforms.

In 2009, we held a SAARC conference where nine heads of state took part, inlcuding PM Manmohan Singh Spending three days in Sri Lanka. In 2008, 13 Foreign heads of state visited Sri Lanka. We entered into ASEAN cooperation Forum, where US is also a member along with China and Russia.

Q: How many countries were offering to help facilitate Prabhakaran's surrender?

A:In particular, there was one country which offered assistance for a legitimate surrender. For instance when there is a conflict, countries offer help to see how best the conflict can come to an end, maybe to avoid a bloodbath, protracted fighting, avoid collateral damage and to avoid other consequences.

But we never accepted any of these offers.

Q: Because Sri Lanka had bitter past experience with the LTTE ?

A:No, the way we looked at it was, it was entirely a matter for Sri Lanka to handle. Prabhakaran was a Sri Lankan and a criminal, he had the right of surrender and the Government would have respected a surrender of any person, and acted accordingly.

But we were not ready to allow a surrender outside Sri Lanka's sovereignty. That is the firm conviction under which President Rajapaksa worked.

We stood firm on that. It was fairly accepted.

If there was a surrender to a third party, then there would have been issues, in terms of the process to be followed. We did it right, and I am happy that with President Rajapaksa's advice we avoided any consequences for Sri Lanka during that period.

Q: Just before the war on terrorism ended, Chief of Staff of UN Secretary General Vijay Nambiar arrived in the country. The visit gave wings to many speculations. As the then Foreign Minister, only you could either endorse or shoot these speculation down as mere heresay. Your comments?

A:I would say on May16 when I was in Jordan with President Rajapaksa, Vijay Nambiar was sought an appointment with me for a meeting The Foreign Secretary then was Dr.Palitha Kohona, he informed me of the request. I met him on my return with the President, the same afternoon itself.

He met me at the Foreign Ministry. He wanted to see how ‘WELL’ the war on terrorism was coming to an end, with the large exodus of civilians trapped by the LTTE. Their arrival to government-held areas itself was evident of the fact that there was an endorsement of our actions.

I thanked the UN for all the humanitarian assistance that was extended. Then there were certain matters of concern to the UN that were mentioned to me. Those matters I cannot reveal to the media, for the time being.

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