x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Tamil Tigers 'were not serious' about peace

Government commission into civil war opens but it is not allowed to investigate allegations about ending of conflict with Tamil group.

The former Sri Lankan ambassador to the US, Bernard Gunatillake, with back to the camera, giving evidence yesterday.
The former Sri Lankan ambassador to the US, Bernard Gunatillake, with back to the camera, giving evidence yesterday.

COLOMBO // A government commission examining Sri Lanka's civil war opened yesterday with a former diplomat and peace negotiator saying the rebels were not serious about the 2002 peace talks and used them in an effort to counter international concerns about terrorism.

The eight-member Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission began public hearings facing scepticism abroad about its credibility as it has no mandate to probe allegations that thousands of civilians died in the final months of the conflict. The United Nations says at least 7,000 civilians were killed in the five months before the war ended in May of last year when government forces finally crushed Tamil rebels. The rebels had been fighting for an independent state for a quarter of a century, claiming that ethnic Tamils had been marginalised by ethnic Sinhalese-controlled governments.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed the commission in May to determine why a 2002 cease-fire signed by the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the Tamil Tigers, collapsed and who was responsible. In his evidence yesterday, Bernard Gunatillake, a former ambassador to the US, told the commission that the Tigers' participation in the 2002 peace talks was seen as a major breakthrough at the time. But in hindsight, their attendance was a ploy following the September 11 attacks in the US, which undermined support for the rebels as freedom fighters and lead to their being banned in many countries.

Mr Gunatillake was also head of the government's peace secretariat that handled the peace talks from 2002. It was the collapse of the talks in mid-2005 that led the government to mount a full-scale offensive against the rebels which ended after the rebel chief Velupillai Prabhakaran and his main lieutenants were killed. Its mandate includes studying the causes of the conflict and recommending measures to avoid similar events.

After giving evidence, Mr Gunatillake told The National that he also told the commission that some pro-rebel groups were still collecting funds from Tamils living abroad by claiming that the rebel leader is alive. "I explained in detail about the various facets of the conflict since the early 1970s and that various governments had failed to resolve the crisis," he said. He also told the commission that arrangements must be made to woo thousands of Tamil expatriates back to the country. More than 500,000 Sri Lankan Tamils went overseas after riots against the Tamils in 1983.

Mr Rajapaksa established the commission following repeated calls from the international community and human rights groups for an investigation into the final stages of the war, when the civilians are said to have been killed. He rejected a UN panel appointed in June by the secretary general Ban Ki-moon to advise him on ensuring accountability for the alleged abuses during the war. Sri Lanka says an external panel is an infringement of the country's sovereignty. Tamils, however, have mixed feelings about the commission and some consider it just an effort to placate the West. "No one is interested in these commissions. Everyone knows the result of commissions in the past which have not achieved their objectives. This is just an attempt to show the world that Sri Lanka is doing something about the human rights concerns," said a veteran lawyer from the northern, Tamil-dominated town of Jaffna.

There have been half a dozen presidential commissions that have probed similar issues in the past but led to no action being taken. S Thanabalasingham, an editor at the Tamil-language newspaper Thinakkural in Colombo, said Tamils are generally suspicious of these commissions because they lead nowhere. "However if something positive comes out of it, they would be happy," he said. The commission is headed by the former attorney general CR de Silva and includes representatives from the country's Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities.

In his opening remarks, Mr de Silva said the time had come to address "the root causes of the conflict and establish national integrity and reconciliation". * With additional reporting from the Associated Press