By D.B.S. JEYARAJ Q:The recent media exposure about an internal report compiled by the UN regarding its role and conduct in Sri Lanka has focused much attention on the final phase of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. You also made several observations in this respect when I interviewed you in detail in 2010 for the “Daily Mirror”. In view of the media spotlight on this issue I am thinking of focusing on it again to clarify certain matters. Shall we re-visit those past events again?
Yes. I am also seeing a lot of interest in the subject again. Old things are being dug up again. As usual some facts are being suppressed or distorted by interested people. I am ready to talk about whatever I know in this so that some aspects of the truth are made known.
Q:It was only some weeks ago that former Norwegian special peace envoy Erik Solheim made comments in this connection to the BBC. He specifically stated how Norway was trying to bring about a ceasefire with UN backing in those days and how they were making plans to get you down to Oslo for this. Solheim said that LTTE leader prevented you from doing so and thus the moves were scuttled. Solheim has been criticised severely by sections of overseas Tamil media for making these statements. The so-called Prime Minister of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE) Visuvanathan Ruthirakumaran has refuted Solheim’s statements publicly. What do you make of this?
What Erik said is 100% true. There were such moves and it was blocked by the LTTE leadership. If those moves had been allowed to proceed, much of the bloodshed may have been averted. Many leaders of the LTTE may have been alive today.
Q:Then why is Ruthirakumaran saying that there were no such moves at that time?
Ruthirakumaran is only talking of what happened in February 2009. He is willfully pretending to be ignorant of what happened after February.
Q: It is well-known that you were appointed as head of a newly created department in the LTTE known as International Relations in January 2009 and tasked with the mission of bringing about a ceasefire. Can you talk in greater detail about what happened then?
Yes. Definitely. It was clear to most observers of the situation that the end for LTTE was drawing near in 2008 itself. The Army was slowly but surely advancing and the LTTE despite its rhetoric was retreating. Most of the fighting then was done on the regions west of the A -9 highway (Jaffna-Kandy road) then. It was possible that an honourable ceasefire could be brought about before the Army moved in bulk to the regions east of the A -9 highway. But the LTTE leadership and its overseas structures were unable to comprehend this.
As you are aware I had been relieved of my duties and sent on “retirement” from the movement since early 2003. Practically I was out of the LTTE but continued to observe and worry about the situation from a distance. It was in the latter months of 2008 that the LTTE leadership re-established links with me again. When I emphasized the need for a ceasefire to protect the lives of the people as well as LTTE leaders and cadres the tiger hierarchy seemed to agree but still Prabhakaran let matters drag on. Finally in December 2008 end Prabhakaran agreed to appoint me as head of LTTE International relations with the mandate of bringing about a ceasefire.
Despite the decision in December 2008 the LTTE was still delaying matters about going in for a ceasefire. But then with the new year dawning the Army made significant breakthroughs with Paranthan,Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass falling one after the other.
Now the leadership got worried and appointed me formally. The overseas LTTE branches were instructed to work under my orders in this matter and give all support. But the LTTE leader in charge of overseas matters “Castro” (Veerakathy Manivannan) through his representative “Nediyavan”(Perinbanayagam Sivaparan) kept on sabotaging my mission. I was not given adequate financial resources. In spite of this I did my best to bring about a ceasefire and kept contacting a variety of influential persons in the International Community for this purpose.
Q: How did you do this? Did you contact them directly?
I sent a lot of letters, faxes, e-mails. Wherever possible they were contacted in person. In some cases I contacted directly. In many other instances I had others representing me. I used to get the help of people who had greater access to key individuals in making entreaties.
Q:What was Norway’s role in this?
Oslo was the accredited facilitator for the ceasefire and peace process. Though Norway was not playing any meaningful role as the war escalated, that Scandinavian Country was still concerned about Sri Lanka. The Norwegians wanted to prevent the loss of lives as much as possible. So for humanitarian reasons they wanted an end to the fighting.
Q:So what did Oslo do?
Solheim was in touch with me. We decided to set up a quiet meeting to discuss ways and means of bringing about a ceasefire. A confidential meeting was arranged during last week of February 2008.
Q:Where was this meeting held?
It was in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur at the Hilton Hotel. It took place on two days.
Q: Who were the participants? Did Erik Solheim attend?
No because as a Norwegian Minister he was too high-profile for it but he sent a key Norwegian official as his representative. There were two other Norwegian officials from Oslo and the envoy in Colombo.
Q:Who was that?
The Norwegian ambassador in Colombo then was Tore Hattrem. He is now in Afghanistan I think.
Q:Who represented the LTTE?
Myself, my assistant cum secretary known as “Appu”, Joy Maheswaran and Ruthirakumaran. There were also a few important LTTE supporters from the Diaspora whose names I don’t want to mention here. Rudra and Maheswaran had officially represented the LTTE as resource persons during the Oslo facilitated rounds of talks earlier.
Q:What happened in these talks?
Since my mandate from LTTE leadership was to bring about a ceasefire I presented a case for it in the talks. I spoke almost in tears about the tragic plight of the civilians and begged Norway to bring about a ceasefire to save their lives.
Q: What was the response?
It was very unexpected. Ambassador Tore Hattrem was very blunt and direct. He responded by saying shall we talk openly and then spoke some harsh but plain truths.
Q:What did he say?
First of all the Norwegian ambassador gave us an actual assessment of the ground situation then. He told us clearly that the Sri Lankan army was right on top of the military situation. The 55 division was in Challai: The 57 division was in Viswamadhu; 58 division was in Devipuram; 59 division was in Mullaithevu town.Task Force -2 was at Udayarkattu:task force – 3 was in Ambagamam: Task force – 4 was in Oddusuddan.
Speaking to the point the Norwegian envoy said that the LTTE was being boxed into a small piece of territory and that it was only a matter of time before the Army advanced further and annihilated the tigers. He pointed out that there was absolutely no need for Colombo to agree to a ceasefire at a time when they were sure to defeat the LTTE.
He also told us straight that the LTTE was also responsible for the civilian plight. He accused the LTTE of keeping the people as human shields and hostages through force. Hattrem then said that the LTTE could not expect a ceasefire without agreeing to a compromise. “You must give up something to get something” he said.
Q:What was he driving at?
An arms surrender?
Exactly. Hattrem told us that Norway or other countries could ask Colombo for a ceasefire only if the LTTE agreed to lay down arms first. He said the tigers had no choice because the Army was definitely going to win. So if we wanted to minimize loss of lives we had to agree to lay down arms. If the LTTE genuinely agreed to do so then they (Norway) with the help of important nations like USA and India could ask Sri Lanka for a ceasefire. “If the LTTE does not agree to lay down arms the war will continue and end in a short time. It will be the end of the LTTE”he told us very tersely.
We told him we would communicate with the LTTE leader Prabhakaran and get his response. The meeting with Hattrem ended on that note.
We were all upset but I felt Hattrem was very realistic. Later we communicated the details of the meeting to the Wanni. But the response from there was disappointing. They rejected the idea of laying down arms and only emphasized that we must keep trying for a ceasefire without any concessions on the part of the LTTE.
Q:So Ruthrakumaran was right in saying that the LTTE rejected Norway’s proposal ?
Yes but that was only as far as this incident was concerned. There were also other developments later. Also he was not present during most of the time we talked to Hattrem.He is not aware of all the details.
Q:Are you saying that Rudra or Ruthrakumaran is ignorant of what happened at that time or later?
He was not aware of all the details but Rudra certainly knows the basics of what happened thereafter. So for him to deny such things now and imply that Solheim was not speaking the truth is wrong. Solheim spoke the truth and it is Ruthrakumaran who is not being truthful.
Q:You said Rudra had missed much of the discussions at the KL Hilton. Why was that?
Because he came late. That’s another funny story (chuckles) You see Rudra bought a ticket from New York and got on the plane. Norway re-imbursed the air fare. I had told him to come to the capital, meaning Kuala Lumpur. He misunderstood thinking I was in Thailand and arrived in Bangkok. I had to send someone to Bangkok to help Rudra to reach KL later. Because of this he missed much of the discussions at the Hilton.
Q:So the February 2009 meeting with Norwegians did not yield positive results. But when I interviewed you in detail in 2010 you told me of a ceasefire scheme you had sent for Prabhakaran’s consideration which he had rejected. You said then that your 16 page proposal was dismissed by Prabhakaran in just three words. So there must have been fresh developments even after the February 2009 meeting. Could you elaborate further please?
That is right. What happened was that I did not stop my efforts to bring about a ceasefire even after the leadership had dismissed Oslo’s suggestions. The situation was getting from bad to worse and I was determined to do something. So I began interacting more and more with Norway and other important members of the International Community.
It was a matter of life and death. I had to somehow work out a ceasefire and save the people, movement and leadership. So with the meagre funds at my disposal and the support of like-minded people I continued my work. I was in touch with international political leaders, top bureaucrats, diplomats, opinion-makers of different countries and also high –ranking UN officials. I contacted some of them directly. Influential people contacted some others on my behalf.
By late March I had a tentative plan with international backing. The LTTE was to lay down arms by storing them in specific locations. The words used were “lock –off”. That is arms particularly heavy weapons were to be stored and locked off in specific places.
They were to be handed over to representatives of the UN. Afterwards there was to be a cessation of hostilities in which the people were to be kept in specific “no firing zones”. Negotiations were to be conducted between the Govt. and LTTE with Norwegian facilitation.
Tentatively about 25 to 50 top leaders with their families were to be transported to a foreign country if necessary. The middle-level leaders and cadres were to be detained, charged in courts and given relatively minor sentences. The low level junior cadres were to be given a general amnesty.
I had also got three countries to agree to accommodate the LTTE leaders with their families. One was an Asian country and the other two in Africa.
The scheme was to be endorsed by the west including Norway, EU and the USA. India was also kept informed The Americans were ready to send their naval fleet in to do evacuation if necessary
I wrote an outline of the plan and sent it to Prabhakaran for approval in late March 2009. If he said “Proceed” I would have concretised it and started work on implementing it. But when I faxed the details in a 16 page memorandum he rejected the 16 pages in just three words “Ithai Etrukkolla Mudiyathu” (This is unacceptable) So I had to drop it.
What was worse was that he sent a verbal message that if he saw any foreign ships they would be fired upon.
Q:I would like to know something of relevance at this juncture. How did you maintain communication with the LTTE leader?
At one point of time we used to talk on satellite phones but later due to his security situation we had a go between. I used to talk to someone called Velu (Kumaravel) He would then convey my messages to the leader in person and convey his replies back to me directly. Likewise the leader would summon Velu and give him messages to be conveyed to me.
Later on Political Commissar Nadesan (Balasingham Mahendran) and Sea tiger commander Soosai (Thillaiambalam Sivanesan) also acted as the medium of communication between the leader and myself.
Q: Another point is about UN involvement. At what level was this? Who was involved in the discussions?
The Norwegians were handling matters with the UN but I myself was in contact with UN officials like Sir John Holmes, Vijay Nambiar and Tamrat Samuel.
Q:Tamrat Samuel was the senior political affairs officer covering South Asia for the UN then?
Yes. He is an Eritrean.
Q:Why do you think Prabhakaran rejected your plan at a time when the LTTE was in a dire predicament militarily? Was he not aware of the actual situation on ground? What was he thinking of?
I later realized why he was holding out. You see he had been planning for a big counterstrike at the army under the command of Theepan. Preparations were being made in the Aananthapuram area. Prabhakaran must have been hopeful that a major military success would reverse the situation and demoralize the army.
Q:That seems to have been a wrong calculation. Even if the LTTE had struck resoundingly at Aanandapuram the overall situation was too far gone to reverse militarily. It is doubtful whether the army would have got deflated by a defeat at that stage of the war.Besides LTTE arms supply had been restricted by the navy. So how could he have sustained a military advantage gained?
You are right.I think so too. But that seems to have been the reason for Prabhakaran’s optimism. But the army struck first in Aanandapuram and boxed in the LTTE. Lots of cadres and commanders including Theepan were killed. With that the situation changed completely. I remember that you also wrote in detail about the Aanandapuram battle and called it the defining moment of the war.
Q:Yes I did. The Aanandapuram battle was on April 3rd and 4th. Thereafter in mid April the army succeeded in relocating more than 100,000 civilians from the Maattalan – Pokkanai LTTE control areas to Govt control areas. Also I heard that Prabhakaran was rattled completely after the Aanandapuram debacle.Is that correct?
That is true. After that the leader became inaccessible. Things started drifting.
Q:But you continued with your efforts. What happened next?
The situation was deteriorating. I knew the fall of the LTTE was imminent. I renewed my attempts. The International community was also concerned. Many observers felt a humanitarian catastrophe was looming. It was under this situation that another tentative proposal was formulated.
Q:What was this?
A:This was the one which Erik Soheim spoke about recently to BBC. This was for a temporary ceasefire to be declared and for a ship or ships of UN officials and representatives from the four co-chairs (USA, EU, Japan and Norway)and observers from India to go to the North.They were to take a census of all the people in the war zone both tiger cadres and civilians and photograph them Thereafter they would be transported under Sri Lankan security to Internal displacement camps .
The LTTE was to lock off its arms and hand them over to the UN. The LTTE surrendees were to be treated in the way it was suggested in March. Top leaders and families were to be escorted to a foreign country and kept under supervision. Middle-level cadres to be prosecuted and given light sentences. General amnesty for all the others.
Q:But Prabhakaran and Intelligence chief Pottu Amman (Shanmugalingam Sivashankar)were not to be included in this?
A:No according to the plan they too were to be taken to a foreign country. If they were not given such a benefit they would not gave agreed to it would they?
Q:But Erik Solheim has said otherwise………
A:I know Erik has said differently but that is incorrect as far as I know. According to the plan Prabhakaran and Pottu were included.
Q:Then why did Solheim say differently? Was it that the original plan was amended later. Perhaps India may have demanded the exclusion of both as they wanted them for the Rajiv Gandhi assassination?
A:Perhaps but I really don’t know. It is puzzling to me also.
Q:So if Prabhakaran and Pottu Amman were not going to benefit they would not have agreed. The plan was doomed then.
A:No it was not doomed because of that reason. The reality is that it never took off. The plan was never submitted to the LTTE hierarchy because the leader did not allow me to proceed further.
Q:Is that what Solheim was talking about when he said you were to visit Oslo in regard to this? What happened? Can you explain please?
A:When we formulated this plan it was very necessary to get LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s consent and approval. Without that nothing could be done. For the International community to proceed on this, the LTTE agreement was essential. Under the circumstances I felt that I had to go to the Wanni directly and meet the leader in person.
Q:Why did you think of such an idea?
A:Well you see Bala Annai (LTTE political strategist Anton Balasingham) and I had done this successfully during the Premadasa (President Ranasinghe Premadasa) period.
Q:What happened then in 1989?
A:The fighting was going on between the Indian Army and LTTE then. President Premadasa was opposed to Indian involvement. When we sent out feelers through intermediaries we got a positive response. But we had to finalise matters without the Indians knowing.
So a secret meeting was set up at Central hotel in Bangkok. Cabinet minister ACS Hameed came quietly as Premadasa’s trusted representative and met Bala Annai and myself. Thereafter we told Premadasa through Hameed that we had to go to the Wanni and explain matters to Prabhakaran in person to get his support. Colombo agreed and arranged for us to go to the Wanni and meet the leader. That was how things worked then.
I suggested that I go directly and meet the leader in that manner again.
Q:How would you have gone to the Wanni?
A:That was a problem. One way was to get permission from the Sri Lankan Govt. and go through official channels under Norwegian or UN protection. The other was for me to take a risk and go by sea-plane from the Malidives to the Wanni.
Q:Like how Anton Balasingham and Adele Balasingham landed in Iranaimadhu tank in 2002?
A:Exactly. Norway felt that we needed to finalise procedures through direct discussions. Solheim was making arrangements for me to come to Oslo before going to the Wanni to meet Prabhakaran.
A:And then I was made to understand that Prabhakaran was not in favour of such an idea. I was advised not to come. So I informed Erik and the whole thing was abandoned. I did not go to Oslo.This was in late April 2009
Q:Who informed you of Prabhakaran’s decision?
A:The usual channels I told you about earlier.
Q:Why do you think Prabhakaran refused even in such a desperate situation?
A:His defiant mindset and long track record of being an uncompromising fighter. He used to think of history a lot and did not want to go down historically as having compromised or surrendered. He was also very suspicious of the west and did not trust their assurances. Another reason I think was that the Tamil Nadu fellows like Vaiko and Nedumaran had given false hopes of a change in the situation after elections in mid – May saying the BJP will win overall and Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu.
Q:But your efforts did not end after this, did they?
A:No they did not. At one point Prabhakaran’s eldest son Charles Anthony got in touch with me and wanted me to fly his family out to safety. I made arrangements for a small plane to go in and airlift Prabhakaran’s family out. It cost 3.5 million dollars. I did not have that kind of money. But despite my constant requests Nediyavan who controlled overseas finances refused to let me have the money.
Things became really bad by the middle of May. Now I was asked by people like Soosai and Nadesan to do something and bring a ceasefire. They told me to also announce a laying-down of arms. I was like a madman then. No sleep, no meals on time despite my diabetes. I tried and tried. I even announced a “silencing of arms” which was a face saving way of saying we are laying down of arms. But it was all too late.
Q:We all know how it all ended. I can understand your pain and frustration but were you confident that even if Prabhakaran had agreed to your plan the Sri Lankan Govt. would have consented given the fact that the army was on the verge of winning conclusively?
A:The Norwegians were confident that the four co – chairs and UN could make Colombo comply if Prabhakaran agreed. But the important point here is that the Sri Lankan Govt. was never put to the test. They may have been told of the plan unofficially but it was never proposed to them officially because the LTTE never agreed to it.
Q:So the Sri Lankan Govt. cannot be placed in the dock in this matter. The LTTE and notably its leader due to his uncompromising intransigence contributed greatly to the situation. Apart from their own lives the lives of many civilians too may have been saved if the tigers had acted more responsibly.
A:Yes. This is my sorrow. This is the Tamil tragedy. As a former senior LTTE member this is a burden I live with.
Q:But you are trying to do penance by serving humanity. We should talk about what you are doing now.
A:Yes. I really want to talk about those things…