In the hall, Mano Ramanathan, C. Chanmugam, HMGS Palihakkara, Chairman CR de Silva, A. Rohan Perera, Karu Hangawatte and MP Paranagama sit, in commission. The Chairman looks visibly nervous. He presses his hand to his face and slightly trembles, but when he begins to speak he is quite authoritative. The commission guides and at times leads the first witness Bernard Goonetilleke through what quickly becomes a lengthy indictment of the peace process and the CFA. If the controversial UN Panel is an investigation of how the government of Sri Lanka ended the war, this is an investigation of why.
“My fellow brothers and sister commissioners,” said Chairman de Silva. “As we’re all aware, the people of our country have gone through the trauma of thirty years of war. Only one year since the military vanquished the most ruthless terrorist organization, time has come to ensure that this country veers away from the insidious rocks of communal disharmony and distrust and sails to the tranquil waters of peace and prosperity.”
In reading out the writ of the commission, Varuna de Saram stated that the job of the commission was to “report on 2002 to 2009, the facts that lead to the failure of the Ceasefire Agreement and the events thereafter, whether any person has responsibility, whether any require reparations, and lessons to be implemented for future.”
To that end the commission called the former head of the Peace Secretariat, Bernard Goonetilleke. His testimony broadly identified the LTTE’s unwillingness to address substantive issues as the root cause with the LTTE being the party responsible. He further said that civilians required repatriation to their lands, particularly in areas occupied by the military and that, in hindsight, one lesson learnt was that the CFA was not a good model.
A Ceasefire That Favored The LTTE
While external parties have called for an investigation into the latter phases of war, this commission pointedly began in the deeper past. Goonetilleke – a former Ambassador to the US and China as well as to the UN in Geneva – spoke of the multiple political and administrative failures dating from independence.
“Sufficient attempts were made,” he said. “An important fact to remember is that 1987 (negotiations) forced the death of the Indian Prime Minister, then there was an attempt on Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, etc. We saw at various phases, those that were involved in negotiations faced threats, attempts and death.”
While Goonetilleke said that the cease-fire was the best a divided government could do in the face of divided LTTE, he was clear that it was not good. In questioning he agreed with Chairman de Silva when he asked whether the cease-fire was drafted by Norway in consultation with Anton Balasingham in London, ultimately resulting in a document that favored the LTTE. “I am inclined to agree with you,” he said. “Given circumstances on the ground, it appears the administration thought this was the best they could get.
Constant Violations And Bad Intentions
“When we look into process of negotiation that went on, the LTTE side never allowed substantive issues to be discussed. All we were allowed to discuss was existential issues affecting the civilian population in the North and East,” Goonetilleke said. Later he cited an anecdote involving LTTE negotiator Balasingham. “When we tried to engage Balasingham on substantive issues, he said you are putting me in great difficulty. He said if I discuss, you do this [making a sign of his throat being cut]. He was trying to avoid his neck being cut.”
Goonetilleke said that the LTTE plan appeared to be using the cease-fire to buy time in a post 9/11 landscape that tolerated less of their overt terrorism. He said, however, that then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was also buying time by weakening the LTTE through peace. “There was a decision not to confront the LTTE because the longer you keep them in the negotiation process, you weaken their foundation. By allowing LTTErs to go on vacation, visit their parents, have girlfriends and boyfriends, get married, that weakened their strong foundation.”
He said the LTTE violated the cease-fire from day one, accumulating far more violations than the government, unchecked by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission which he called a watchdog without approval to bite. In the end, he said, it was clear that the LTTE wanted to resume military actions, blockading Trinco and trying to re-occupy Jaffna. To that end they prevented citizens from voting in the 2005 Presidential election (likely in favor of Ranil Wickremesinghe), instead tacitly supporting Mahinda Rajapaksa, who they thought a hardliner.
The broader conclusion of the first sitting of the panel seems to be that the Ceasefire Agreement was a hasty failure that favored the LTTE. Even then the LTTE proved difficult, violating the ceasefire in act and intent precipitating the final war. The unsaid but implied conclusion is that this final war, however it was conducted, finally addressed what Goonetilleke called a ‘running sore’ that had political and administrative attempts had been unable to fix.