following is a live transcription of statement by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the Lessons Learnt And Reconcilation Commission. Accuracy cannot be guaranteed.
Most people have forgotten that the government has defeated the most ruthless terrorist organization ever. That’s the history. Specifically I want to inform you of the magnitude of the military strength they have acquired over the years.
In 2005 when I took over as Secretary of Defence. Specially the whole of Wanni area and part of the Eastern province were under their complete control. They have established bases and had nearly 30,000 regular cadre including child soldiers. They have acquired over the years almost equivalent weapons to the SLA. Ground forces equiv of army, navy sea tigers, they had the air force and also the special forces like the black tigers and suicide cadres.
The suicide attacks they have conducted in SL, you take all the suicide attacks of militant islam groups, that’s equivalent to one year suicide attacks of ltte. The weapons they’ve collected, these are not manufactured in sri Lanka, almost the same weapons our military has used. 130mm guns, 120mm mortars, all these things. Still we are recovering all these guns they have.
After the defeat we have recovered brand new weapons, missiles, machine guns. Over and above their military cadres they have started training civilians. This is the LTTE that we have defeated. It was not just a group of revels. That’s the extent of the strength of the LTTE.
CR is smiling asking if he wants to make a video presentation. Gota’s phone goes off. He prings reports, opens his diary.
In 2005 they had clear intention of going into military operations. It was very clear that their intention was a military operation because the way that they established their camps around the Trincomalee harbor, was a clear indication of the way they would conduct the military operation.
As soon as the President was elected, I with the help of Intelligence Agencies and Military Commander, gave a detailed briefing of LTTE strengths, capabilities and future intentions.
After 6 months when they launched the attack, it was exactly the same way we predicited. We had 30-50,000 troops located in Jaffna alone. Only line of communication was the sea line, everything they depended on the sea.
The LTTE knew that and they wanted to cut the communications line and that’s why they were concentrating on Trincomalee, take control so ships can’t go out. At the same time there was similutaneous attacks on Mohamalli and landing on the Western coast. Fortunately we were able to defeat those attacks and that’s how the offensive started. It was very clear the intention of the LTTE.
I want to remind the commission of the atrocities by the LTTE over the years. So many Tamil political leaders were assassinated, over 100. Starting with Duriappah to Kadirgamar. Other leaders, President Premadasa. So many civilians, Tamils, Muslims, Sinhalese. And also, the amount of killings they’ve done, especially in the Northern and Eastern provinces, Sinhala and Muslim villages, and Sinhalese villages bordering these provinces, starting fromt he 1980s.
I’m interested to present the facts of, along with the military operation, how we planned the humanitarian assistance operation. The first thing the President informed the security council was that the practice of the various administrations to name the operations, we conducted Liberation I, Liberation II, but the President told that this is not a military campaign. This is a military operation conducted to liberate the people in that areas. He said just call it Humanitarian Operation. The practice we have for so many long years of naming, some might think it’s a minor thin, but it’s an important fact.
That message from the President himself was that they have to remember.
The President said we have to include the concept of zero civilian casualties. The first heading of all operation logs, this was mentioned. All possible steps must be taken to avoid civilian casualty. Again one can argue this is only the mentioning as a sentence. No, when it goes out from headquarters to batallion level, they know it is important to plan to avoid civilian casualties.
From the very beginning the government took a lot of steps. Because the government was aware that there were civilians in all these areas. They can be a situation where a humanitarian situation can come up from the military campaign to take control of these areas from LTTE. From the beginning we took many measures to address these issues.
Starting from, at a very high level, the Consultative Commission On Humanitarian Assistance, CCHA. The first meeting was held at the Ministry of Defence, 14th of October 2006, chaired by Minister Samarasinghe. In this committee, from the government side, the Secretary of Defence was present. In this particular meeting, Mr. Palitha Kohona, he was present, and Mr. Divaran, Commissioner General Of Essential Services. And there were representatives from Foreign Affairs and all the heads of UN agencies in Sri Lanka were present in this meeting. UNHCR, ICRC, World Food Program, Unicef, all these heads were present. And also, head of the delegation of the European Commission and the Ambassador to Germany, US, UK, Japanese Ambassador, all these were present in this meeting. The chairmen of the local NGOs were present, the government secretaries of the districts, Secretary to the Health Ministry was present throughout.
The decision to establish such a committee was taken by President Mahinda Rajapaksa following a meeting with the co-chairs. The committee would meet to discuss matters relating to humanitarian assistance, access and the mandate of the agencies. I have the minutes of these meetings and you can see how the committee to details about providing food, medicines, or access to various areas where this fighting was going on. Even the supply of building material was discussed.
In the first meeting itself, the World Food Program Director appreciated the meeting and the access granted to all these convoys.
You have to understand it was a difficult period. It was war fighting with the LTTE. There were difficult situations where we had to stop all the military operation in order to provide safe passage for these convoys to go in, taking the risk of the LTTE counter attacking on those points. We had many instances, starting with Vakarai. We had to send food convoys into Vakarai, we arranged 100 lorry loads of food and medical items and halfway they started attacking these and we had to stop. Similarly we had many occassions when we allowed these convoys to go. And we know that most of these items were going into that time LTTE controlled areas. We knew there were UN agencies, ICRC representatives in those areas, even the local government officials, but we knew that they had no control.
Once the items went in the LTTE took control. We know that some of these items would go to their fighting cadres. But still, because we have to look after the civilians, whatever they requested we sent. Throughout, till the last minute, we sent these food items. In the last two weeks when there was no land access, we took all the measures to send these items from the ship. The unloading and carrying was done by the LTTE. We knew that, but we thought at least some of these will go to the civilians.
Throughout these years, any casualties they had we evacuated. We also knew these could be LTTE cadres. This is another point, the identification of cadres came from civilians, it’s not an easy thing. From videos we knew how the LTTE was fighting with civilian clothes. They were not wearing LTTE uniforms. Also, once injured their changed their uniforms into civilian clothes. But we treated them. We evacuated them and treated them.
At the last minute, most of the time the difficulty was the harrassment of the LTTE. Preventing them either coming in or going out. With all that, we took all the steps that these items would go in, at the same time to evacuate the sick and wounded.
Over this period, from when we started the humanitarian operation, the three services suffered nearly 6,000 killed in action. Nearly 30,000 were injured. But you can see if the services suffered, you can imagine the intensity of fighting which was going on. Because of the weapons and obstacles they had used. This is another fact that some of the people have forgotten. I want to bring out this fact because some people talk about these civilian casualties. It is a very difficult thing to identify civilian casualties. If the military suffered, you can imagine the number of LTTE casualties. Nobody talks of LTTE casualties, they all put these figures into the civilian casualty figures. Obviously if the Army suffered that much, it was at least the same amount of casualties from the LTTE. I’m sure it is much more because the fire power of the government forces. Nobody knows how much and nobody talks about it.
In this case we have very clear evidence how the LTTE used civilians at latter stages for military purpose, like manning trenches. We have clear video of people being taken to dig trenches and the LTTE using them.
All the steps taken by the Sri Lankan government. You can say this is the Sri Lankan model. People talk about the Sri Lankan model you can adopt in other places there is terrorism from the military side. It’s more important to use this Sri Lankan model in humanitarian assistance. The measures the government took and the plan. To minimize civilian casualties and to look after the civilians affected. Nowhere in the world did they adopt this no fire zone.
At one phase we realized that the LTTE was not allowing civilians to leave the conflict zones. They were taking the civilians with them throughout. We realized they were going to use them as a human shield. After Kilinochchi, once they have taken all these civilians with them, this point was discussed at the Security Council and the President decided to earmark certain areas as no-fire zones, for the civilians to come into those areas so the military could restrict their operations in these areas. We dropped leaflets requesting all the civilians to assemble in these no-fire zones. So in this, it’s a fairly large area we earmarked. Unfortunately they were cases were the LTTE fired artillery from the no-fire zone, but we did not react to it. But at one stage when we came closer to the borders of the No Fire Zone. Initially nearly 20,000 people escaped from the NFA.
We adopted a method, we briefed the troops, that we marked a corridor for them to escape and we had a way to receive and register them. Then the LTTE immediately realized the danger. Then they started to take action to prevent that. Then the second day they sent a suicide cadre with the civilians who were coming out of the no-fire zone. If you can remember he exploded himself, killing many civilians and also the unarmed security personnel assisting the civilians.
Also a lot of civilians tried to escape. We have many instances where the LTTE was firing at them. Once they realized this was endangering their motives, they took all the civilians from the no-fire zone to a very thin area. Then we realized that the LTTE had taken all the civilians out to another place, we shifted the no-fire zone to that area. We could have ignored that, but we knew they couldn’t resist the LTTE. The government shifted the no-fire zone to a second no-fire zone. When the troops got closer they shifted further zone and we shifted again. Twice we had to shift the no-fire zone.
Next was the restriction of the area. During the last no-fire zone, because of civilians, because of the small area, the President decided we should restrict the use of indirect fire – artillery, mortars and air. Troops had to identify and shoot. By doing that I should say that we suffered more casualties. We took that risk, obviously you’re restricting some of your fire. We had to use only the personal weapons. Soldiers had to move in, identify and shoot. That was a step we took to prevent civilian casualties. Nowhere in the world is this done.
Then the IDPs that we have received throughout, the people that were coming from these areas. We had seen how the LTTE was preventing them coming out of these areas and even firing on them. We had a very sad occassion where we were able to see that from the UAV, in real time. There was a mechanism to receive all the IDPs coming, to give them food, water and whatever medical assistance, then bringing them to Omanthai where they were received by not only the military but ICRC and civilian officials, and registered, before they were handed over to the authorities sending them to camp.
This process, it’s important to note, that from the very beginning we had realized that we’d have to face this IDP situation. His excellency the President when he visited China, visited camps he built for displaced persons from the earthquake. When he returned he told the Security Council about these camps and he told of semi-permanent buildings with cement floors, this was how he wanted it to be done. So we started building these. Unfortunately, some of the International Community was suspicious, they thought we were making permanent camps and they objected and didn’t give assistance for this type of building. They preferred tents. This caused a lot of problems at the end. If they had allowed for semi-permanent type buildings it would be much better for the IDPs. Unfortunately there was a misconception of the good intentions the government had.
It was mostly the military that looked after the whole process. Of course other parties, but majority of the work was done by the military.
[unwraps report tied with red bow]
I have documented the whole process, the Army relation to the IDPs, forces providing assistance. I have also the orders regarding the ceasing of heavy weapons.
de Silva: Mr. Rajapaksa, you said certain organizations commended you all, do you have those documents? If it’s not available you can send those documents.
I want to read this document sent 14 February 2009 from the ICRC to the Head of the Navy. Dear Sir, following the successful medical evacuation by sea that took place 10th and 11th, I wish to express my sincere thanks to you and the Navy for your valuable collaboration which helped save many lives. I know it was a complex operation that proved to be an task for you men. They displayed a strict discipline and respect of rules of engagement as well as a respectful and kind attitude to those in need. These days demonstrated that soldiery is a noble profession.”
de Silva: Can you make that available to us. [reads, inwardly smiling]
I want to bring out an important point about this education of troops about human rights and international humanitarian law. We started this program in 2003 with the assistance of the Red Cross and ICRC. The Army has a separate directorate at the Army Headquarter, Directorate of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. They have the responsibility of the implementation and compliance with international humanitarian law. They have established human rights cells at each level, civilian headquarters, divisional headquarters, batallion headquarters, all headquarter levels. They conduct training and monitor any complaints. They have a special training school and they have conducted, throughout, these classes, even while operations were going on. At the height of the operations as well, NCOs were trained as trainers and sent to the field. The details of the seminars, the training courses.
de Silva: ICRC had said this was a model to all of the world.
Yes, the ICRC helped us.
Also I want to give a detailed report of action taken by the three services of action taken on all violations, this includes everything. Action taken against officers who committed these offences. It was reported, investigation, and after proper deliberation we have taken action. It shows that we had a clear process to take action against the type of offences committed by the troops. I want to emphasize how we have trained the soldiers from the very beginning, also when there are cases reported, how we have taken action against them.
We had a clear action that any action would be taken only after the approval of the Air Force Commander. When we were planning the targets, we used not only maps but aerial photographs, also, at this time, every area had been under thorough survey using the UAVs and the beach craft of the target area, to see that the civilians are not present and to avoid hospitals, kovils, churches, etc. We did not depend only on normal maps. All these attacks were filmed by the aircraft and all were reviewed, even by the Security Council. Our pilots were trained and capable of taking pinpoint targets. If you can go even today to that location you’ll see how precise the attack was. Without damaging any other surrounding places, they have taken. Because of thorough knowledge of the target, survey according to available means, proper briefing. This practice, this process was throughout. All these requests came all the way up to the Air Force Commander, purely to prevent civilian casualties or attacking the wrong place.