How disputes over numbers can distort truth…Controversy over Vanni death toll

By Shamindra Ferdinando

British High Commissioner in Colombo James Dauris recently warned that disputes about the number of people killed or missing, during the war, or in the immediate aftermath of the conclusion of military offensive, in May 2009, could easily distort the truth.

Sri Lanka launched a sustained combined security forces campaign, in Aug/Sept 2006, in response to the massive LTTE offensive, directed at the Jaffna front line, at Muhamalai and Mandathivu island. Western powers had never really tried to stop the LTTE aggression during the Oslo-arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) until the group launched an all out war.

The LTTE quit the Norway arranged CFA, in April 2003. The move was meant to undermine the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The LTTE destabilization project paved the way for the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to call for early parliamentary polls, in April 2004.

The LTTE exploited the change of government to achieve its objectives, both political and military. The group stepped up hostilities.

The Western powers remained silent. The UK allowed LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham to continue his role, unhindered, in spite of the group committing atrocities. The LTTE violated the CFA at will. Peace facilitator, Norway, as well as the four-country peace co chairs, the US, EU, Japan and Norway, lacked the will to rein in the group.


The UK allowed Balasingham, a British citizen of Sri Lankan origin, to continue his stay there even after the assassination of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, in Aug 2005. The UK’s current role here should be examined with its previous response to LTTE terrorism.

Subsequently Wiki Leaks revealed how Balasingham and Norwegian government representatives had met in the UK to discuss Kadirgamar’s assassination.


Dauris, in an exclusive interview with The Sunday Island, in its Dec 17, 2017 edition, underscored the UK’s position on the ongoing simmering debate over the number of people killed in Sri Lanka.


Dauris was quoted as having said: “while a single death is a tragedy, a large number of deaths is a statistic. If people allow themselves to lose sight of the tragedy of what had happened, reconciliation and the guarantee of future peace will become more elusive. I think we need to be careful not to allow ourselves to get distracted by arguments about numbers, because figures can too easily get in the way of the truth.”


It must also be noted that the LTTE International Secretariat too was based in London for a long time even after it assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991. When a visiting Lankan journalist raised the issue during a visit to the BBC, in London that year their stock reply was that the group had not violated English laws!


The British never called Kadirgamar’s assassination a tragedy.


Educated at Oxford and a lawyer by training, Kadirgamar played a key role in getting the group listed as a banned militant organization in the US and the UK.


The UK refrained from condemning the LTTE. The UK could have taken action against the Balasinghams, or blocked the massive fund-raising operation of the terrorist organisation. The UK could have done so to prevent war. Unfortunately, the British did absolutely nothing. Their unwillingness contributed to the hardening of the LTTE’s position. The world demanded that Sri Lanka implemented the CFA, regardless of Kadirgamar’s assassination.


British envoy Dauris was obviously responding to Lord Naseby’s challenge to the UNSG’s Panel of Experts’ (PoE) claim of 40,000 civilians, killed by the Sri Lankan military in his Oct. 12, 2017 speech at the House of Lords on the Vanni east front. The PoE made its claim in March 2011. Interestingly, Lord Naseby in his Oct 12, 2017 speech at the House of Lords strongly criticized the UK for harbouring Balasingham.


Turning blind eye to Male coup attempt


Dauris represents the UK in Colombo and Male, where, in early Nov. 1988, Indian, trained Sri Lankan terrorists mounted a sea-borne raid on Male. Having left Mannar, Sri Lanka, in two large trawlers, the members of the People’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) raided Male. India had to intervene to save the then Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, though the Sri Lankan assassins killed several Maldivians before commandeering a ship MV Progress Light.


India called its military operation, to save Gayoom, Operation Cactus. The Indian Navy coffee table book proudly declared: “After the success of this operation, the Time magazine featured the Indian Navy on its cover, hailing it as ‘The Next Military Power.’ Had terrorists succeeded in eliminating Gayoom, the Maldives would have plunged into an unprecedented crisis. The writer had an opportunity, in Nov. 2011 to interview Abdulla Luthufee, who had mounted the operation to oust Gayoom.


What would have happened if Abdulla Luthufee’s bid to oust the then Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom succeeded on Nov. 3, 1988?


The Maldives is a founding member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) which was formed in 1985. The grouping NEVER EVER had referred to the Male coup attempt carried out by citizens of one SAARC country, trained by another SAARC nation, targeting citizens of a smaller SAARC member.


Luthufee, in an exclusive interview with the writer on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of his failed takeover bid, said, “I wanted to get rid of Gayoom at any cost. As the election process in my country never gave a reasonable opportunity to the Opposition, I felt an outside force should be used to oust Gayoom. Due to my close association with the then PLOTE leader, Uma Maheswaran, I negotiated for the deployment of an 80-member strong PLOTE raiding party. In fact, we discussed the sea-borne raid since 1987 after the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force, in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka, in line with the July 1987 Indo-Lanka peace accord.”


The interview was Luthefee’s first since the coup. The writer invited Luthufee to his home at Negombo as Luthufee was reluctant to be interviewed at The Island editorial or some other place. Longtime The Island journalist Ivan Alvis alerted the writer to Luthufee’s presence here after meeting him at a Colombo hotel (formerly the Ramada).


Western powers, including the UK, NEVER EVER referred to the Indian-trained Sri Lankan terrorists storming Male. India, a major member of UK-led Commonwealth, NEVER EVER acknowledged the far reaching consequences of its destabilization of Sri Lanka in the 80s. The Commonwealth NEVER intervened on behalf of tiny Sri Lanka, terrorized by her giant neighbour India.


Maldivian Ambassador, in Colombo, Mohamed Hussain Shareef, recently discussed the Sri Lankan terrorists making an attempt on the Maldivian leader’s life, in response to a query posed to him by the writer on Bandula Jayasekera’s Sirasa Pathikada on Nov. 28, 2017. Asked by Jayasekera, whether Shareef, who has had his education at the Colombo International School, could respond to that query, the Maldivian said: “Absolutely. It’s a day we never forget, third of November 1988.We still marked that day as the Victory Day and you were right. In fact, for a small country it was a dark day. And that is part of the reason why we still stand with the Sri Lankan government in its fight against terrorism. I was 11 years old… personally I have recollections because immediately after that I moved to Sri Lanka to complete my studies.”


Obviously, Shareef, one-time presidential spokesman and top level politician, believed the then JRJ government had nothing to do with the attempt on Gayoom’s life.


The Bottom line is that none of those who had been demanding accountability on Sri Lanka’s part made a genuine effort to compel the LTTE to reach a consensus with Colombo.


Dauris had served in Colombia as UK Deputy Head of Mission, from 2005 to 2009, during Eelam war IV, the period currently under international scrutiny in terms of Geneva Resolution 30/1, co-sponsored by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, in Oct 2015.


BHC is certainly right


Those who had moved Geneva Resolution on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations never felt uncomfortable until Lord Naseby challenged them, citing wartime Colombo-based UK Defence Attache Colonel Anton Gash’s confidential cables sent to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The British officialdom had never expressed concern over various interested parties making wild accusations until Lord Naseby confronted them with their own man’s impeccable reports. When the writer recently sought an explanation from the British High Commission as regards the circumstances under which Lord Naseby had his Oct 12, 2017 declaration, The Island was told such information couldn’t be shared with the media.


Obviously, the UK never anticipated the Geneva lie to be challenged in the House of Lords on the very basis of its own dispatches from Colombo. Suddenly, Dauris has felt threatened by exposure of dispatches, hence the shameful assertion they shouldn’t be distracted by arguments about numbers, because figures could too easily get in the way of the truth. Dauris is certainly right. But, he never uttered a word until the numbers game took a different turn with Lord Naseby bringing up a verifiable account that tallied with still confidential UN report (read C)


Various interested parties, including the British, had propagated lies regarding the number of civilian victims. When Sri Lanka was overwhelmed by propaganda, Dauris, or his predecessor, as well as those wanting Colombo to address accountability issues, never felt such lies could hamper post-war national reconciliation here. Four years after the UN’s so called Panel of Experts declared the Sri Lankan military had massacred 40,000, the British parliament was told the actual figure was 100,000, 60,000 of them LTTE cadres.


(a) British Labor Party MP Siobhan McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) told the House of Commons, in September, 2011, that 60,000 LTTE cadres and 40,000 Tamil civilians perished during the January-May 2009 military operations. Hers was the only specific reference to the number of LTTE cadres killed during a certain period. The politician ignored the writer’s emails seeking a clarification regarding her sources. The British HC in Colombo declined to comment on the MP’s claim.


(b) Special Amnesty International report, titled When will they get justice: Failures of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, also released in September 2011 estimated the number of civilian deaths at 10,000 during the final phase of Eelam war IV. The AI didn’t give a specific period. When the writer raised the sharp discrepancy in figures quoted by various interested parties, including the AI, its current head Indian national, Salil Shetty, struggled to explain shortcomings, at one point seeking another AI official’s help answer the query. Finally, Shetty admitted that the very basis of the Geneva Resolution 30/1 adopted in Oct 1, 2015, was questionable.


The query was raised on April 5, 2017 when the AI called a media conference at the Sri Lanka Press Institute.


The London headquartered AI acknowledged that it couldn’t even vouch for its own report, titled ‘When will they get justice?: Failures of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’… The report submitted to the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) dealt with Eelam war IV (Aug. 2006 to May 2009).


The AI asserted that a credible investigation is required to examine unsubstantiated allegations directed at Sri Lanka. Can there be a situation as ridiculous as calling for a credible investigation to verify accusations two years after adopting Geneva Resolution 30/1 on the basis of the same unproven claims.


AI Secretary General Shetty admitted that a credible investigation was required to ascertain the number of people killed as well as enforced disappearances during the conflict in Sri Lanka. Bengaluru-born Shetty was flanked by Biraj Patnaik (Regional Director, South Asia) and campaigner Yolanda Foster. The AI delegation included David Griffiths, Chief of Staff, Office of the Secretary General, Jeannine Guthrie, researcher, Grant Bayldon, Section Director, AI, New Zealand, and Omar Waraich, Media Manager, South Asia and South East Asia.


(c) A confidential UN report placed the number of the dead and wounded, including LTTE combatants, at 7,721 and 18,479, respectively. The report dealt with the situation in the Vanni, from August 2008 to May 13, 2009. The war ended a week after the UN stopped collecting data due to the intensity of the fighting.


(d) Attorney-at-law Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, MP, recently declared that the nearly three decades long war had claimed the lives of 150,000 Tamils. As always, the Trincomalee district MP conveniently refrained from differentiating civilians from those who had died fighting for the LTTE. Sampanthan asserted that 50 per cent of the Tamil population had fled the country, during the conflict, while blaming successive Sri Lankan governments for the plight of his people. The 84-year-old veteran politician was addressing the Counter Terrorism Conference 2017 at the Hyatt Regency, New Delhi, organized by the India Foundation, in association with the Government of Haryana, and the National Investigation Agency (NIA). India established NIA close on the heels of the devastating Mumbai massacre, in late Nov 2008, blamed on Pakistan-based Islamic terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba (l-e-T). The Indian government-sponsored event coincided with the 34 sessions of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).


In spite of being so sure about the numbers killed and fleeing the country, Sampanthan is yet to answer the following questions posed to him by the writer on Nov. 27, 2017.


The TNA hasn’t responded to The Island queries regarding Lord Naseby’s call to amend the Geneva Resolution 30/1. The Island submitted the following questions to TNA and Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan on Nov. 27 and repeatedly reminded the Opposition Leader’s Office of the delay on its part to respond: Have you (TNA) studied Lord Naseby’s statement made in the House of Lords on Oct. 12, 2017, What is TNA’s position on Naseby’s claims? Did TNA leaders discuss Naseby’s claim among themselves? Did TNA respond to MP Dinesh Gunawardena’s statements in parliament on Naseby’s statement? And Did TNA take up this issue with the UK High Commissioner James Dauris?


In the wake of the British rejecting Lord Naseby’s presentation on Sri Lanka’s behalf, the former Royal Air Force and NATO pilot has written to the UNSG, outgoing human rights chief, as well as Special Rapporteurs, underscoring the requirement for reappraisal of Geneva Resolution 30/1.


But an ungrateful and embarrassed Sri Lankan government is struggling to keep its distance with Lord Naseby’s initiative. Having co-sponsored Geneva Resolution, the government is hell bent on undermining the effort. Having spurned an opportunity to exploit Lord Naseby’s initiative at the recently concluded Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to the country’s advantage, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government would need to take a clear decision, especially because the next Geneva sessions are just three months away.


How TNA cleared way for national reconciliation


Sampanthan and his colleagues, as well as the people of the northern and eastern electorates, should be cheered for clearing the way for post-war national reconciliation. Whatever the reasons, they voted for war-winning Army Chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 January presidential polls, thereby, in no uncertain terms indicating the Tamils as a community didn’t believe in politically motivated allegations as regards the Vanni death toll.


Unverified allegations have been the biggest obstacle to post-war national reconciliation. Now, the world has been given an opportunity to verify the actual death toll on the basis of verifiable sources/reports such as those provided by the UK and the US diplomatic missions.


Such an endeavor shouldn’t be considered as something that could get in the way of the truth unless those opposed to re-examination of Sri Lanka’s case feared their exposure.


Thanks to Wiki Leaks, the world know why UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband made an abortive bid to throw a lifeline to the sinking Tigers, in early 2009. Miliband personally visited Sri Lanka with the then French counterpart to convince President Mahinda Rajapaksa to call off the offensive as the LTTE was being militarily crushed.


The UK never hesitated to praise Channel 4 News that propagated accusations that the Sri Lankan military had massacred over 40,000 civilians. UK Prime Minister David Cameron went out of his way to praise the Channel 4 team accompanying him to Colombo for CHOGM 2013 when he addressed the media at the BMICH. The writer was not allowed to raise a question. The British High Commission picked those allowed to pose questions. Interestingly, members of the British media, who accompanied Cameron to Jaffna, too, were allowed to ask questions. In sheer frustration over independent local journalists not being allowed to ask any questions from the visiting British Premier senior journalist Rajpal Abeynayake shouted hypcrite at Cameron as he beat a hasty retreat from the media conference.


It was certainly an interesting situation. Obviously, the British High Commission, Colombo, didn’t want any local journalist to raise an embarrassing question. The writer wanted to seek Cameron’s explanation as regards the UK demanding accountability on Sri Lanka’s part for defeating domestic terrorist threat at a time the then UK Deputy PM Clegg declared that US-UK led invasion on Iraq was illegal. How the UK had wickedly manipulated its own intelligence reports to justify invasion is in public domain.


The UK should really examine its role here, how it had intentionally contributed to terrorism much to the disappointment of the majority of Sri Lankans. Let me end this piece by recalling a statement made by one-time UK High Commissioner David Tattham in 1996 soon after the armed forces brought the Jaffna peninsula under government control. Tattham, during a visit to Jaffna, urged the Diaspora not to fund the LTTE. But the UK didn’t take any notice of Tattham’s appeal. The LTTE was allowed to operate there with impunity. Although, the LTTE, had been eradicated for once and for all, its agents operate in the UK and elsewhere demanding accountability on the basis of unproven accusations.


A new kind of terrorism


The Diaspora never wanted to be reminded of the ghastly crimes committed by the LTTE on behalf of the community. Three major cinema companies in the U.K. refused to screen Madras Café in their theatres. The political action thriller, directed by Shoojit Sircar — and set in the background of India-funded terrorist campaign in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and early 1990s — was to have opened in the U.K. on August 28, 2013 in cinemas owned by Cineworld, Odeon and Vue. Tamils launched protests outside the head office of these theatres. Protesters carried placards that said, “Inciting violence is not entertainment,” “Ban Madras Café”, “Ban hate speech.” Tamils shouted slogans and burnt copies of the film’s posters.


The anti-Madras Cafe campaign also went on the Facebook page of the Tamil Youth Organization (UK) that spearheaded the campaign.


Obviously, they couldn’t have allowed Madras Cafe that dealt with the assassination of ex-Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi shown in the UK.


It would be interesting to know whether the UK had allowed any other community to terrorize UK cinemas not to show a movie. Probably, British voters of Sri Lankan origin have some special status. Could there be any other reason for the UK allowing the Balasinghams, who oversaw mindless terrorism in Sri Lanka and India, to live freely. The British treatment didn’t change even after Kadirgamar’s assassination.


Anton Balasingham passed away in Dec 2006 in the UK, over a year after Kadirgamar’s killing.


The Times of London described Balasingham as “the one man the Tigers could trust with their destiny in what looked like being a breakthrough in talks”


It was a reference to Oslo-led peace talks that at one point threatened Sri Lanka’s unitary status.


Balasingham’s body was kept at the Great Hall of Alexandra Palace, north London. Certainly, some ‘events’ can distort the truth.


(To be continued on January 3, 2018)


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