Sri Lanka on LTTE war opens public hearings

Sri Lanka on LTTE war opens public hearings Colombo: A high-level commission appointed by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to look into the last seven years of conflict with the LTTE opened public hearings on Wednesday, amid global apprehensions over its credibility and mandate to probe war crimes.

The eight-member 'Lesson Learnt and Reconciliation Commission' recorded the testimony of its first witness, former top diplomat Bernard Goonatilake, who participated in the talks between the government and LTTE in 2002-2003.

It is to report to the President within six months from the date of appointment, May 15, on the events in the period between February 21, 2002 and May 19, 2009 when the war had ended.

The commission opened its proceedings a day after a group of 57 US lawmakers asked the Obama Administration to call an independent international probe into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka.

The group said such a probe is in the best interest of the US and people of Sri Lanka to ensure lasting peace after a quarter century of ethnic conflict. "Such a peace can only be reached once the truth about the past is understood," it said in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

After holding sittings in Colombo this week, the Commission is scheduled to operate from Vavuniya to facilitate the persons in the conflict-affected areas to give evidence and state their grievances.

The Commission comprises persons of eminence, representing the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nature of the Sri Lankan society.

Its findings will seek to take Sri Lanka towards the common goal of a multi-ethnic polity, in a spirit of cooperation, partnership and friendship, learning the lessons from recent history to ensure that there will be no recurrence of such tragic conflict in the future.

While assessing the conflict phase, the commission will search for any violation of internationally-accepted norms of conduct in such situations. It will also go into the circumstances that may have led to such actions and identify persons or groups responsible for such acts.

It is also expected that recommendations would be sought on the nature of compensation to be granted to the victims or their dependents who have suffered in this conflict situation.

The commission will also look into the institutional, administrative and welfare measures already taken in the post- conflict phase and that should be taken further in order to effect reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation.

The legislative and administrative measures that may be necessary in order to prevent such situations in the future and to promote national unity and reconciliation among all communities are also part of the mandate of the Commission.

Former diplomat Goonatilake, who participated in the talks between the Government and LTTE in 2002-2003, told the commission that the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) was signed without any serious negotiations.

It was signed on the text presented by the Norwegian mediators with inputs from LTTE theoretician Anton Balansingham. It was full of shortcomings that could be seen as beneficial to the LTTE, he said.

Appearing as the first witness at the commission at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Strategic Studies, he said the government did not have any option other than entering a ceasefire at that time.

This was because of several factors such as the military losing territory and camps, including Elephant Pass, attacks on the Katunayake Air Force Base and International Airport and economic growth falling below zero for the first time, he said.

Goonatilake, former Ambassador to US and China and first Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat, claimed that although the military wanted some amendments to the CFA draft, the LTTE did not accede to them.

He pointed out that when the ceasefire came into operation in December 2001, there was no agreement to guide it. Hence it was decided to sign the CFA "as early as possible" and "this had led to its many shortcomings."

The former ambassador also said that when the 'Oslo Declaration' on a federal solution was announced, it appeared that Anton Balasingham was reprimanded by the LTTE leadership for going beyond the mandate given to him.

When the LTTE wanted free movement for political activity outside North and East, the military wanted reciprocity. But that request was brushed aside by the LTTE.

When the need for international scrutiny of human rights in the North and East was proposed, Balasingham said that there was no need for any international institute for scrutiny of alleged human rights violations in these areas, according to Goonatilake.

"Though LTTE generally expressed mistrust about the institutions in the South; on this issue Balasingham had said Sri Lanka's National Human Rights Commission could scrutinise the alleged human rights violations in the North and East," he said.

Goonatilake said he agreed with the Chairman of the Commission, C R de Silva, that this had been stated when the government's writ did not extend to some parts of the North and East.

"We also proposed a clause on child recruitment in the CFA, but Mr Balasingham expressed opposition to that. When this matter was pursued in negotiations, Balasingham asked whether we would like to see his neck being cut, gesturing with his forefinger across his neck, as Ambassador Goonatilake demonstrated," an official statement said.

Goonatilake said the LTTE leadership did not want its delegation to cooperate with the government side.

The talks were limited to facilitating rehabilitation and reconstruction and the LTTE was not prepared to discuss any substantial issues, he said.

Answering questions posed by the members of the Commission, Goonatilake said that although die-hard LTTE diaspora leaders or pro-LTTE Tamil expatriates would not give up their campaigns, the government should take effective action to win over the other Tamils living abroad.

He said the Sri Lankan missions abroad could play a major role in this campaign, and that as in India there should be institutional arrangements to serve the interests and needs of Sri Lankan Tamils living abroad.

He said there was a danger of the Tamil youth living abroad -- who are not aware of the situation here -- being misled by the pro-LTTE leaders.

These pro-LTTE leaders, who were serving their own cause of raising funds and to impress the Tamil community, were engaged in lobbying foreign politicians and governments and international financial institutions against Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has rejected a separate UN probe into the alleged rights abuses during final stages of the war, which ended with troops defeating the Tamil Tigers in May 2009.

According to the statement, the commission members "have been asked to report back to the President within six months from the date of appointment 15th May, 2010."