Foreign Minister speaks on Counter terrorism: Sri Lanka experience at the Cairo University

Foreign Minister speaks on Counter terrorism: Sri Lanka experience at the Cairo University

Counter Terrorism: Sri Lanka’s Experience

Mr Chairman
Ladies and Gentlemen

I am delighted to have this opportunity to address you at the Asian Study Centre here in Cairo and to share my thoughts on the challenges Sri Lanka faces today. Yours is a highly reputed institute with a distinguished history as a centre of scholarly excellence and discourse and I thank you Mr Chairman for your invitation and kind words of introduction.

Sri Lanka as many of you are aware is one of Asia’s oldest functioning democracies. From the time we gained independence in 1948, a system of Parliamentary democracy has firmly taken root. Presently elections are held based on a system of proportional representation that is accommodative of minority communities. Our electoral tradition is sustained by a vibrant multi-party system. Elections have been held without interruption since independence and different political parties that have come to power have striven to introduce political and economic policies that have demonstrated sensitivity to the aspirations of our people.  Reflecting the heterogeneous composition of our society, Sri Lanka has two official languages; Sinhala & Tamil with English serving as the link language. Our Constitution guarantees freedom to practice a religion of one’s choice among other fundamental freedom. Through the introduction of the 13th amendment to the Constitution in 1987, we have also evolved from a largely centralised system of administration to one that has gradually devolved power to the provinces with a view to involving people in different parts of the country in the development of their respective areas. Our government has recently taken a series of steps to fully implement these provisions on the recommendation of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) which was set up by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The APRC is currently engaged in consultations with all political parties to reach a broad consensus on further devolution of power.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I have attempted to outline broadly Sri Lanka’s demonstrated commitment to democracy and pluralism. This is to put in context the challenge of terrorism that Sri Lanka is faced with today by the actions of a ruthless terrorist group called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that pioneered suicide bombing of civilian targets long before 9/11. The LTTE claims to be the sole representative of Sri Lanka’s Tamil community and is engaged in an armed campaign. It is indeed ironic that the LTTE has killed a significant number of Tamil people most notably those members of the Tamil community who were committed to the democratic process.

Professor Jean Elshtain of the University of Chicago in his book “Just war against terror” states “terrorists are those who kill unarmed people whom they consider their objective enemies no matter what these people may or may not have done.” The suicide bomb attack on the Central bus station in Colombo in 1987 which killed over 200 innocent civilians, the bombing of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka in the heart of our commercial capital, Colombo, in 1996 resulting in the death of over a thousand office workers, the bomb attack on the sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic in 1998 and the continued bomb attacks on civilian buses around the country will exemplify the challenge we are facing from this ruthless terrorist group. This is besides the assassination of a large number of political leaders in Sri Lanka including President Premadasa in 1991 and our Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, an ethnic Tamil, in 2005 and also the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

Michael Walzer in his book “Arguing about War” states that “terrorism’s purpose is to destroy the morale of a nation or a class, to undercut its solidarity, its method is the random murder of innocent people”. Experts on terrorism have categorized terrorists into two groups - corrigible and incorrigible terrorists. However, there is agreement in these circles that the LTTE belongs to the latter category. I say this because of their indiscriminate violence, intransigence and the total absence of a realistic political agenda. They are an entirely militaristic group who seek to achieve their objectives only through terrorism.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is widely accepted by scholars who have researched on political violence that it is only after relative political stability, including bringing illegitimate violence to heel that social questions can be addressed meaningfully. I believe that without a structure of political accountability there can be no meaningful tackling of the social problems of local communities. Thus terrorist activity including its denial of the space for pluralistic politics has to cease in order to implement meaningful political reforms.

Take for instance recent military operations carried out by the Sri Lankan security forces in the eastern province which has resulted in the province being cleared from the clutches of the LTTE. The eyes of the world must now open and see how the people who lived in these areas under LTTE control had for over a decade been treated like slaves; denied the free exercise of their franchise, their children conscripted as cannon fodder, subjected to cruel forms of taxation and denied their basic freedoms including the freedom of movement.

It was Thomas Hobbes who said that “tyranny and oligarchy are not the names of other forms of government”. The liberation of the east by the security forces has restored to the people their fundamental rights and freedoms. Today the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has launched a massive “Re-awakening of the East Programme” that seeks to rebuild houses, schools, public buildings, roads and bridges and while creating employment opportunities by encouraging investment in these areas. These are people who had long suffered under LTTE tyranny. We are encouraging foreign investors and international non-governmental organisations to support the Government’s reconstruction and rehabilitation programme in the east the results have been encouraging.

As yet another step in this process local government elections were held last month in parts of the eastern province where people had not exercised their franchise for over 14 yrs. Nine political parties and twenty-two independent groups fielding 831 candidates. The electoral turnout was around 60% of the 270,471 voters. The turnout demonstrated the eagerness of the people of the East to participate in the democratic process.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Through this election Sri Lanka has demonstrated that its government has the ability to deliver on its promise to restore normalcy in the areas affected by terrorism. This is manifest in several ways. Firstly, it is an important milestone in the government’s policy of restoring democratic rights to the people. Intrinsic in this development is the transition or shift of faith of some groups who believed intensely in the bullet to being ardent advocates of the ballot. Secondly, the concluded elections has set in train plans for the provincial council hustings that will be held next month in the entirety of the Eastern Province. This is in keeping with one of the recommendations of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC).

It is of utmost concern to my government as indeed all governments that have gone before it that civilians in a small part in the north of the country continue to live under the terrible clutches of the LTTE. Such is our concern for them that the government has continued to supply food, medicine and other essential supplies to these people, while remaining deeply concerned about their condition in the hands of terrorists. To us the Tamil people are citizens of Sri Lanka just as much the Sinhalese, Muslims and other ethnic groups are.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

There are critics who argue that the Government is pursuing a military solution to the conflict without first addressing the political issues. This is far from the truth. I say here and now what I have said many a time before that the Government remains firmly committed to a political solution to address the grievances of all communities and the APRC process is but one manifestation of it. At the same time the government is fully conscious of the need to eliminate terrorism in order for the political process to thrive. I have just outlined to you how the clearance of the LTTE from the east is transmeag the lives of people in the area.

The fruits of this strategy is already evident. The Nagenahira Navodaya Programme (Reawakening of the East) has restored civil administration, resettled Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), provided immediate infrastructure development, encouraged private sector participation and promotion of industries in this region.

Arrangements for improvement of the law and order situation is also underway. New police stations are being established while existing stations are being strengthened to provide a better service to the community. Plans are afoot to recruit Tamil speaking police officers to serve the province.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Sri Lanka while addressing the issue of terrorism sustained an economic growth rate of 7.4% during 2006 - the highest recorded growth in 30 years. Unemployment declined to 6.5 percent. We have seen an export growth of around 8 percent and attracted overseas remittances of over 2 billion US Dollars. Foreign direct investment in this period was in excess of 600 million US Dollars - twice the normal annual level – while the country’s per capita income registered US$ 1,355 in 2006.

The momentum in 2007 was equally promising as evidenced by an economic growth rate of 6.5 per cent during the first three quarters of that year. Such growth is indeed commendable as it was achieved despite major challenges such as high international oil prices; terrorist activity and natural disasters. This progress has been based on the “Mahinda Chintana” : Vision for a new Sri Lanka, a 10-year development framework 2006 to 2016.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

When the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) between the Government and the LTTE was abrogated in January this year, critics of the move envisaged that all these economic developments would unravel. Subsequent events have proved otherwise.

Let us be reminded of the reality. First of all with regard to a ceasefire, the question of confidence and bona fides are of paramount importance. Unfortunately during the period when the ceasefire was in operation some of the events that occurred did not inspire a great deal of public confidence. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission reports and not those of the Government showed that there were over 6500 deliberate violations of the ceasefire agreement by the LTTE as compared with a couple of hundred infringements by the armed forces of Sri Lanka. It is now known and accepted on all hands that there were large quantities of arms that found their way into the hands of the LTTE during the period of the ceasefire, including aircraft parts. So the opportunity that presented itself during the ceasefire agreement was misused by the LTTE in a manner that was gravely prejudicial to the security of the State and the safety of the general public. So that is the memory that is fresh in the minds of the public. And that is the reality that needed to be taken into account when the government decided to abrogate the CFA because it had become a mere piece of paper. These factors need to be recognized by those who advocate a cessation of hostilities.

A word here on the cessation of hostilities. It has been the experience of successful peace processes all over the world that the cessation of hostilities has generally been linked to a peace agreement providing for a mechanism for the decommissioning of weapons. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland is a very clear and convincing example of that; you engage in political discussions to resolve a series of issues. meag a vital part of such discussions is one relating to the decommissioning of weapons over a period of time and under proper supervision. That element was conspicuously lacking in the ceasefire entered into in 2002.

A study of peace negotiations in the past reveal three key strategies adopted by the LTTE. First, the demand for concessions on the ground such as the withdrawal of armed forces from established camps and access to strategic locations such as the High Security Zones. Though described by the LTTE as confidence building measures they were really aimed at giving themselves a strategic advantage over government forces. The other has been the demand for an interim administration with wide ranging powers – a ploy to achieve what they have failed to obtain militarily. Had such an interim administration been granted the hegemony, both politically and militarily by the LTTE in the North and the East would have been an immediate fait accompli. The third strategy evident from the Thimpu talks in 1985 right down to the Geneva talks of October 2006 is that the LTTE has clearly demonstrated a reluctance to engage in a meaningful discussion on core political issues. This brings me to the point that you need two hands to clap. The Government may remain committed to the hilt but if the LTTE does not demonstrate a serious commitment to political dialogue and continues to unleash violence no meaningful headway could be made.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

You would thus see that Sri Lanka is faced with a terrorist group which engages in the indiscriminate slaughter of innocents and is not interested in the subtleties of diplomacy or in compromise solutions to political questions. As Hannah Arendt argues in her book Armed struggles “ terrorists have taken leave of politics”. They have embraced what she calls the “instrumentalities of violence rather than the complexities of generating political power, to struggle for doable social and political change”.

Sri Lanka is reassured however that the international community’s perception of the LTTE has changed in spite of its well oiled propaganda machine. Today the LTTE stands proscribed as a terrorist organization in the 27- member European Union, in the United States, in India, and in Canada. According to Jane’s Intelligence Review – the LTTE has been described as being second only to Columbia’s FARC in its fund-raising and has claimed that it raises $200-300 million a year for arms procurement. Fen Osler Hampson in his book ‘Nurturing Peace: why peace settlements succeed or fail’ has referred to “self-sustaining patterns of hostility and violence”. Getting parties to the negotiating table and building momentum towards an agreement is an enormously difficult exercise. What cripples this exercise is when financial sustainability of an organization prevents it from exploring other options that may eventually result in its transformation. The LTTE’s ability to raise funds particularly in the west through extortion, commercial activities including drug trafficking and credit card fraud etc enables it to sustain its armed campaign.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I have just elaborated to you in the time available Sri Lanka’s experience in dealing with terrorism. No nation state can effectively deal with this scourge without receiving the support and cooperation of the international community. The terrible events of 9/11 have drawn us together, in a manner never witnessed before, in dealing with this issue. Of course there is some way to go before complete unanimity is achieved. The sooner this is achieved the better it would be for world peace and stability.

I thank you Mr Chairman, Excellencies, ladies & gentlemen.

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