Professor Rohan Gunaratna is dubbed an international terrorism expert. Having written several books on Al-Qaeda and the LTTE, he is also the head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
This week, he was in Colombo attending a three day seminar hosted by the Ministry of Defence called “Defeating Terrorism: Sri Lankan Experience.” The seminar where Prof. Gunaratna was also a keynote speaker was held from May 31 to June 2 in Colombo.
In this interview with The Sunday Leader Gunaratna commented on the UN human rights panel, and military strategy used to win the war against the LTTE.
Q: In your view how authentic do you believe the Channel 4 video to be? A full scale investigation into the video is being proposed by the international community. Do you agree that such an investigation should be initiated?
A: In every war, civilians are killed. In Iraq and Afghanistan, one million civilians were killed. The scale of civilian death in Sri Lanka is very small compared to this. As a policy, the Sri Lankan military did not target civilians, like the US did. Though they didn’t target them, civilians died in the conflict zones. There are some people who take the law into their own hands. I haven’t examined the video but there would have been such killings. Wherever such killings occurred, the government should investigate, because it is wrong to kill a civilian or even cadre. But there should be a sense of proportion. I don’t think one country or organisation should point fingers. Any country should investigate such cases.
Q: The government insists the images in the video are doctored. Do you agree?
A: I don’t know, I haven’t studied them. But I am sure there are those who can give a good technical analysis of the videos. Investigations are ongoing.
Q: There has been a strident call by the UN for investigations into alleged human rights violations by Sri Lanka in the final stages of the war. The video by Channel 4 is key in contributing to this demand for a war crimes investigation. As a counter terrorism expert what advice would you give the Government or what action do you think the State should take in this instance?
A: The UN has recognised that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) should be the principal agents in handling this matter. When Robert Blake visited Sri Lanka, he made a statement to the effect that the LLRC should be the local mechanism which receives priority.
I don’t see any reason why an international actor should be involved. The LLRC should do its job properly. If it fails, this will create an opportunity for Government critics to say that the international community should conduct investigations.
In my opinion, the LLRC has made tremendous progress. I personally think the Sri Lankan Government should engage the panelists. They should answer their questions. The government should respond, not react to the report. In fact, there should be a comprehensive response to all reports and allegations – even if the allegations are unfounded.
Q: In a 2009 interview, you were quoted as saying that Sri Lanka should work to arrest Kumar Pathmanathan, alias KP, for his support of the LTTE. What is your position on the issue now?
A: Any terrorist who shows remorse should not be prosecuted. He should be rehabilitated and given a second chance. KP sent thousands of tonnes of weapons to the LTTE. But he renounced them, so it doesn’t make sense to prosecute him. Any country should follow these guidelines. Putting people in prison will not change their views. I know there is some unhappiness from Sinhalese hardliners, but we must all sacrifice some things for the sake of national interests. I think even people like Rudrakumaran should be invited to Jaffna, and invited to mainstream politics. If they are true citizens, they will take part in the national development, for the sake of the citizens.
Q: At this seminar you were a keynote speaker. What examples did you laud as military tactics used to win the war against the LTTE?
A: Unlike previous times, the Sri Lankan military increased in number.
From 2006 to 2009, their numerical strength doubled. In early 2006, there were over 100,000 in the army. By May 2009, this had increased to 200,000. This was on multiple fronts. Secondly, the military formation commanders were highly experienced. The commanders proved themselves as highly skilled in their use of tactics and techniques. They went to defence schools in the US, India and Pakistan. So the quality of the commanders was good. Third, the LTTE itself failed to fight. More than 50% were forcibly recruited. They didn’t fight with their hearts. The period of peace also made it hard for Prabhakaran to continue pushing for his dream. Cadres married, fell in love. They came to Colombo to buy curtains, or furniture. Their lifestyle changed. The LTTE used to be a lean, mean organisation. Even Karuna Amman went to Bangkok and England, and said, “Why do I have to stay in the jungle?” That’s why they were not so keen to fight and die. They wanted to live. That’s why more than 11,500 surrendered and were put to rehabilitation.
The tactics used by the military also changed. Before, they operated in large formations. This time, they used small teams, like a guerilla force. The entire military elite forces, both commandos and special forces, and long range reconnaissance teams went deep into the jungle and hit the LTTE from the rear, which highly destabilised them. Their logistical network was disrupted when our forces destroyed their ships.
Q: How useful was the seminar on ‘Defeating Terrorism: The Sri Lankan Experience’?
A: The Army shared their experience of fighting terrorism. One of the most important aspects shared was how the military cared for and rescued civilians when the fighting phase ended. One of the commanding officers at a military hospital gave a graphic presentation on how the military doctors and nurses provided the same treatment to soldiers, civilians and LTTE cadres alike. The Commissioner General of Rehabilitation explained how 11,000 released children continued or finished their education. Some are going to university, even medical school. Women and old cadres were released, and the rehabilitation programme is continuing. Foreign participants were shown the humane aspect of the military, who reoriented these cadres and gave them a second chance, in contrast to the traditional punitive approach.
Q: Do you think a terrorist outfit like the LTTE will or could rise up again?
A: I don’t think we will return to the dark age. I’ve spoken to cadres who said that Prabhakaran with all the tanks and mortar couldn’t achieve what he wanted. So even within the LTTE, the cadres are advocating following a peaceful path.
Q: There are many Tamils (including some MPs) who say they are yet not provided for in terms of equal rights. Do you agree? What do you think should be done to ensure this doesn’t happen again?
A: I think people are living happily in the North. There are a few politicians who are not taking part in the development in the North and East. If they are concerned of people’s rights, they should rebuild hospitals and schools. Or they should just go to the North and see what’s happening, without looking at propaganda and coming to conclusions. Sinhalese and Tamils must all work together, without focusing on politically motivated issues.
I think the political leaders need to create a Sri Lankan identity and nationalism rather than Sinhala or Tamil nationalism. There are three challenges. First, the President needs to build Tamil political leadership. The Tamil leadership was chopped off at the trunk and ultimately suffered.
Sri Lanka’s relations with the West suffered as well. More importantly, Sri Lanka needs to maintain its relationship with India. Our relationship with China is important, but India is more paramount. So we need to build a skilled diplomatic service. The Foreign Ministry miserably failed to show the ground reality. A proper foreign service is needed, with no political friends, family and supporters being sent to embassies. Then we need to educate people of the ground reality. Some LTTE newspapers like TamilNet convinced a tiny segment of NGOs that there was large scale death, which never happened.
A huge effort on the part of Sri Lankan leadership is needed. They must understand why the ethnic conflict came about and address the issues. Otherwise, it will lead to a deterioration of the situation.
Q: In this post war scenario, what role do you think the forces should take? Do you think there is a need for more recruits in the service?
A: The Army has transformed from a war fighter and guardian of peace to a nation builder. We should have a larger police and intelligence force. Most of the recruits should be Tamils and Muslims. The minorities should have representation in the forces, especially in the North and East. The Army (special forces and commandos) should focus on nation building. They have already spent Rs. 8 billion on rehabilitation, resettlement, reintegration and reconstruction. That is a very significant percentage in any budget. I was told that of the Army budget of Rs. 120 billion, Rs. 90 billion goes towards paying salaries. So what’s important is to downsize the Army by 50%. These people performed remarkable feats – carrying people, feeding and housing them. So in this humanitarian post war phase I think this is an excellent transition, and indeed should be used as a model by other nations around the world. I think some soldiers should also be trained in Public Relations. We should have ‘Info Warriors.’ Sri Lanka’s reputation has been damaged by those who are angry that we won the war. But we can train some soldiers, even some junior officers in PR.