Censorship of a different kind

February 18, 2022

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Having entered into a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE in February 2002 brokered by the Norwegian government, the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) quickly realised the need to control dissemination of information relating to LTTE operations.

In spite of the CFA, the LTTE caused chaos in the temporarily merged Northern and Eastern Provinces, with the help of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which, in the run-up to the Dec. 2001 General Election declared the group as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people. The TULF and its allies called a media briefing at a five star hotel in Colombo to make the announcement.

TULF veteran, the late Murugesu Sivasithamparam, who had experienced LTTE terror on many occasions, was among those who spoke in favour of the LTTE. They declared that the LTTE would represent the Tamil speaking people at future talks with the GoSL. The stage was set for the Norwegians to take forward a controversial agreement, which would take Sri Lanka on a dangerous course.

As the UNP and the Norwegians felt that adverse media coverage could be a serious impediment to their initiative, they sought remedial measures.

Instead of compelling the LTTE to adhere to the CFA, the UNP believed it could protect the CFA by keeping the people in the dark. The UNP realised the disastrous raid on a safe house run by the Directorate of Military of Intelligence (DMI) in Jan 2002 emphasised the urgent need for tighter controls on armed forces and police as regards dissemination of news.

It would be important to examine media and related issues during the conflict, with emphasis on the period when the CFA was in operation during Ranil Wickremesinghe’s tenure as the Prime Minister (Dec 2001-Apr 2004). The CFA, which came into operation on Feb 23, 2002 was abrogated by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Jan 16, 2008.

In early April 2002, the government directed the army to stop issuing daily situation reports on incidents in various parts of the country, particularly in the Eastern Province. The government felt that the army couldn’t be allowed to issue security statements on its own. The long standing practice of releasing situation reports through the Information Department was discontinued. The army was also ordered to stop posting reports on its website. In a surprising move, the government directed that the release of situation reports would be subject to approval by the then Norwegian-funded Secretariat for Coordinating Peace Process (SCOPP). For the first time in the eelam conflict, the military spokesman was placed under SCOPP-basically a civilian authority!

Although the government constantly exerted pressure on privately-owned media, The Island, in a front-page exclusive captioned "Incidents continue in the east but no situation reports’ revealed the government’s strategy. Some courageous military officers continued to brief the media on the sly and thanks to them, LTTE atrocities could be reported.

Despite President Kumaratunga’s intervention on numerous occasions, state-run Rupavahini and ITN as well as Lake House avoided issues relating to CFA violations. Private television stations, too, shunned taking up the issue, though a section of the print media raised CFA violations, much to the consternation of those in power at that time.

The LTTE, too, targeted ‘Thinamurasu’, a popular Tamil weekly in Apr 2001. Funded by the EPDP, ‘Thinamurasu’ had been extremely critical of the LTTE’s conduct, particularly in the Eastern Province in the wake of the CFA, which envisaged disarming of all Tamil groups, hence making the LTTE the only group authorised to carry arms. EPDP leader Douglas Devananda told The Island that those who distributed ‘Thinamurasu’ in the east quit the job after receiving death threats from the LTTE. None of those demanding media freedom at present had bothered to express their concern, let alone criticise the LTTE, Devananda alleged. ‘The Island’ revealed Devananda’s predicament in a report captioned ‘LTTE ban’s EPDP’s ‘Thinamurasu’ on its Apr 5, 2002 issue. Ironically, the government censorship targeting the army and the LTTE action against ‘Thinamurasu’ happened to be reported on the same day!

While the TNA were spearheading Pongu Thamil rallies in the Northern and Eastern Provinces as part of an LTTE strategy to provoke the armed forces and the police, LTTE units roamed the two provinces looking for fresh recruits. The LTTE was on an intensified campaign to forcibly recruit, train and deploy cadres. The group needed additional personnel to handle fresh consignments of arms, ammunition and a range of other equipment being smuggled into SriLanka by trawlers. Those in charge of the LTTE’s procurement network, operating abroad, remained busy throughout the CFA. In the absence of government and Norwegian initiatives to stop child recruitment, the LTTE simply continued its campaign. The government went a step further by directing the army to stop releasing information regarding abductions of children. Police headquarters, too, remained silent, while many police stations declined to accept complaints from parents regarding their missing children. Helpless Tamil parents rushed to ‘stations’ run by the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), which recorded complaints, though it lacked authority and power to intervene. The LTTE was thus given a free hand to strengthen its fighting cadre before the next round of fighting.

SCOPP did nothing except facilitating LTTE operations. A case in point was making available an SLAF chopper to move the then Trincomalee leader, ‘Colonel’ Paduman from the East to Kilinochchi in the wake of Karuna’s revolt in March 2004. Karuna avoided a certain death by refusing to get into the chopper, though his colleague, Paduman ended in an LTTE dungeon in the Vanni. Paduman, who survived eelam war IV, is among senior cadres now in judicial custody pending legal action.

SCOPP spent funds it received from various donors, including the Norwegians, who provided a staggering amount of money to both SCOPP and the LTTE Peace Secretariat. SCOPP operated from the World Trade Centre to buttress the Norwegian-led government strategy to keep up the momentum in the peace process. On one hand, it interfered in the issue of situation reports by the army. And on the other hand, it helped strengthen the LTTE.

It would be interesting to examine the circumstances under which the government closed down the SLBC’s ‘Vanni Sevaya’, established in the 1980s for the benefit troops and police deployed in the area and also to counter the LTTE’s Voice of Tigers (VoT). The decision to cease the operation was announced at the time the army received instructions not to release situation reports without being vetted by SCOPP. Although the military top brass took up the issue with the government, those in power refused to restore the service, which had operated from a military facility in Vavuniya.

Surprisingly, the closure of ‘Vanni Sevaya’ as well as restrictions imposed on the army failed to attract the attention of the then Opposition, which was preoccupied with political issues. We exposed the closure of ‘Vanni Sevaya’, too, in a report captioned ‘Vanni Sevaya’ closed down in our Apr. 7, 2002 issue. On April 19, 2002, The Island reported the government humiliating the army over the same issue, in a report captioned ‘Military wants Vanni Sevaya restored.’

The closure of the radio station had been prompted by fears that it would antagonise the LTTE and hence be detrimental to the peace process. Those at the helm of the decision making process also felt that in the wake of the CFA, nothing could be achieved further through its operation. Some asserted that it could cause embarrassment and undermine the peace process, thereby the SLBC was directed to use the facilities to set up a Tamil commercial service.

In the absence of a cohesive Opposition strategy to mobilise people against the CFA, the UNP pushed ahead with its plans. Some of those demanding media freedom and right to information spearheaded the campaign to control the media at that time. They strongly opposed what the proponents of the CFA felt injurious to the Oslo-led initiative. The UNP had been extremely sensitive to reports on the Buddhist clergy opposing the peace process, particularly the issue of de-proscribing the LTTE. In fact, the government forced The Sunday Island to kill its first edition lead story captioned ‘Sangha opposes Tiger de-ban’, which dealt with the Mahanayakes of the Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters, Most Ven. Rumbukwelle Sri Vipassi and Most Ven. Udugama Sri Buddharakkhitha, supporting an Opposition campaign spearheaded by the JVP.  The government felt that the report could undermine its efforts, hence strengthen those opposed to the Norwegian initiative.

The Buddhist monks demanded the then Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa’s intervention to thwart the Norwegian peace process, which could lead to the division of the country, on ethnic lines.

The UNP decision to facilitate the LTTE, bolstering its propaganda arm should be examined against the backdrop of curbing the media, which the then UNF government considered hostile to the Norwegian process.

Had the UNP at least taken seriously, security reports made available by its own intelligence services, it could have avoided political disaster. Unfortunately, Wickremesinghe tended to believe those who agreed with his opinion. Retired Senior DIG Merril Gunaratne, one-time Director General of Intelligence has, in his memoirs, ‘COP IN THE CROSSFIRE’ revealed Wickremesinghe dismissing their assessment that 6,000 fresh cadres had been trained by the LTTE. (Page 45). Gunaratne quoted Wickremesinghe as having told a gathering of intelligence officials that the LTTE didn’t enjoy the infrastructure required to train 6,000 men and women.

In spite of Gunaratne reiterating the intelligence assessment, which he claimed was based on information provided by those who had fled LTTE training facilities, Wickremesinghe pooh-poohed his contention. Gunaratne quoted the UNP leader as having declared, "Even the Indians think the numbers are highly exaggerated." (emphasis added)

At the onset of major operations of eelam war IV in August 2006, the LTTE is believed to have had 30,000 cadres, including auxiliary units.

The UNF government believed in appeasing the LTTE. Nothing explains this better than the government’s acquiescence to an LTTE proposal to install and operate an FM station in Kilinochchi.

Bradman Weerakoon, Secretary to Wickremesinghe, described the agreement on the FM station as a confidence building measure. Weerakoon, in an article titled ‘Initiating and Sustaining the Peace Process: Origins and Challenges’ accommodated in ‘Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons’ revealed the circumstances under which the equipment had been brought into the country, with the support of the Norwegians.

The upgrading of the LTTE propaganda arm took place after the closure of ‘Vanni Sevaya’ and restrictions on the army with regard to dissemination of security related news.

Although Weerakoon described the installation of the new equipment as a confidence building measure, he inadvertently exposed the LTTE strategy. Had it been a genuinely confidence building measure, the LTTE would have discussed their move to establish an FM station before ordering the equipment. In fact, Weerakoon discussed in considerable detail how the LTTE had conducted the transaction with the help of the Norwegians. Weerakoon said: "The Political headquarters of the LTTE in a letter to the PM’s Office on Oct 1, 2002, informed the government that it had purchased a new FM transmitter, which they would like to bring to the Vanni to be used in their dissemination campaign about the peace process. The equipment had already been purchased by them in Singapore at a cost of USD 93,265 and was on the way by sea. The letter requested customs clearance and duty free importation and no delay."

Weerakoon also discussed how the Norwegians utilised their diplomatic privilege to clear the LTTE cargo duty free by substituting itself as the consignee of the goods. But once the Norwegians handed over the goods to the LTTE through SCOPP, the peace secretariat became liable for duty amounting to Rs. 3 mn, which according to Weerakoon, was paid with funds made available by Norway to the peace secretariat. He estimated the annual donation received by SCOPP from Norway at Rs. 12 mn.

Weerakoon admitted that the LTTE had informed the GoSL of its move, while the cargo was on its way to Colombo and the Norwegians stepped in at the right moment to have the equipment delivered to the LTTE.

The government ordered the army to transport the equipment from Colombo port to Omanthai and hand them over to the LTTE, while their ‘Vanni Sevaya’ remained closed.

While Weerakoon referred to Norwegian funds being utilised to pay for import duty, the then Director General of SCOPP, Dr. John Gooneratne claimed using funds received from Sweden. The revelation is made in a letter Gooneratne wrote to Treasury Chief, Charitha Ratwatte. The letter dated Jan. 16, 2004, referred to the role played by the Prime Minister’s Office in carrying out the controversial transaction.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know, at least now, who actually paid duty for LTTE equipment?

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