‘CPA- LTTE-Trinco’

Balanced reporting starts at home
The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) Executive Director Dr. Pakiyasothy Saravanamuttu and its director Sunanda Deshapriya, commenting on the visit organised by them to the Manirasakulam camp claimed they were on a 'fact finding mission'.

Dr. Saravanamuttu told The Sunday Times they had organised the visit to the Manirasakulam camp after the LTTE made the offer that anybody could visit the camp. He said he was not sure what transpired as it was Mr.Dshapriya, who co-ordinated the event.

Mr. Deshapriya said their mission was to visit the conflict areas and ascertain whether there was balanced reporting.
Asked why CPA officials sat with LTTE bigwigs and began questioning the contents of a Sunday Times article on the camp, Mr. Deshapriya said, “It must have been to start the discussion”.

He admitted he had failed to contact journalists in The Sunday Times and other journalists who had reported on the controversial Manirasakulam camp extensively before or after their assignment; CPA-LTTE-Trinco.

During the near 20 months of the ceasefire, non governmental agencies or NGOs of various hues, who receive funding from a multitude of foreign sources, have been very active. Throwing money very liberally, some have played the role of good Samaritans. There have been others whose dubious roles have aroused suspicion on many occasions. State agencies have not been able to keep tabs on all their activities though laws concerning NGOs have been tightened from time to time.

In this backdrop, the Colombo based Centre for Policy Alerternatives (CPA), an NGO which has hitherto played its role inthe seminar circuit of the peace process, played a new role this week - acting as virtual brokers for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). CPA-LTTE-Trinco was what they themselves termed the project in their email to newspaper offices.

They arranged a conducted tour for sections of the media to visit the controversial Manirasakulam (Kurangupaanchan) guerrilla camp in the Trincomalee district. A tourist coach was placed at their disposal and overnight accommodation was arranged at a hotel in Trincomalee. Nothing wrong at all, one would say. But there was more. CPA representatives were on hand to play the role for the media, in raising loaded questions and trying to elicit loaded answers from political and military wing leaders of the LTTE who were on hand. They were not facilitators but active participants in the Press Conference. But the mission misfired posing serious doubts on the credibility of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) - whether it was truly an impartial NGO or one that worked to a hidden agenda.

I travelled separately to Manirasakulam accompanied by The Sunday Times Deputy Pictures Editor, Lakshman Gunathilake. Our Trincomalee Correspondent Sinniah Gurunathan accompanied us. I saw the CPA organised media team arrive in the area in a 40-seater coach. We joined them and walked four kilometres. The coach could not make its way.

A side entrance to the camp was opened for us. LTTE Political Wing leader, S. Thilak and the head of Trincomalee's branch of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, Kurt Spur, a Swedish national, who has been serving in the area for six months was on hand.

Upon arrival, media personnel went in different directions to take a glimpse of the Manirasakulam camp, the first ever media visit allowed by the LTTE since the SLMM had ruled that the camp was in a government-controlled area. This visit had been arranged by the CPA in collaboration with the LTTE, something that even the UNF Government nor the SLMM could do. Video cameras rolled while some journalists began making notes. Some guerrillas, armed with brand new American built M16 automatic rifles stood guard. I saw launchers mounted with Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) inside cadjan thatched huts that dotted the area.

A news conference was held close to a massive Tamarind tree. Three people first introduced themselves as from the CPA. They were "co-ordinators" Lionel Guruge and Vijaya Shanthan and a Tamil translator Senthil Sivagnanam.

The first question at the open air news conference came from Lionel. He produced a copy of The Sunday Times (Situation Report of August 3) where a map marking LTTE camps in the Trincomalee district was published. He said, "a leading newspaper in Colombo" (that was how he referred to The Sunday Times) had published details of LTTE camps established reportedly after the Ceasefire Agreement was signed between the Government and the LTTE. Lionel wanted to know whether this was true.
Thilak, the LTTE Political Wing leader replied, "We also read this article. We saw the graphics. These are baseless claims. Whatever camps referred to in the graphics (the reference was to the map in the Situation Report) were in existence before the CFA." It was CPA's translator, Senthil who translated Thilak's statement in Sinhala.

But there was a strange coincidence. At the same time that Thilak was addressing the the news conference on Wedneday, Parliament at Sri Jayawardenapura-Kotte was debating the security situation in Trincomalee. TULF Parliamentarian R. Sambandan, who spoke in the morning told the House he had been asked to inform Parliament that a group of journalists including Sinhalese were being taken to visit the camp. However he did not name the person or group who had told him to do so.
Thilak told the news conference that the SLMM was wrong in claiming that Manirasakulam camp was in government- controlled territory. He kept repeating that there were no new camps in the Trincomalee district-a statement that was echoed in unison by both Lionel (CPA) and Vijaya Shanthan (CPA). They were duly translated by Senthil (CPA).

But that same Wednesday afternoon, Defence Minister, Tilak Marapana told Parliament it was true that LTTE strength in the areas surrounding the Trincomalee port had increased during the ceasefire period. If that put paid to claims made at the CPA-LTTE press conference, (note: Lionel, Vijaya Shanthan and Senthil sat together with Thilak facing the media) there was more.

SLMM local chief, Kurt Spur declared, "the existence of the Manirasakulam camp abrogated the Ceasefire Agreement." He said "we have made our ruling that the camp was set up after the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement based on the information provided by the LTTE itself. The SLMM will stand by this ruling. The SLMM has established that the camp was set up after June 16." He said that the SLMM insists that the camp should be withdrawn but added they had no power to forcefully enforce their determination.

The CPA-LTTE team seated at the head table remained dumb-struck. After this embarrassing moment, CPA's Lionel interrupted Mr. Spur when he was making his remarks to the media after the news conference. "How sure are you to contradict the LTTE statement about the camp when the SLMM came to Sri Lanka only after the Ceasefire Agreement," he asked angrily standing his ground. Mr. Spur then pointed to a dilapidated building and said it was once a mosque - in a Muslim dominated village. He showed two LTTE monuments said to be in memory of cadres Lingam and Ganesh who had "achieved martyrdom" and said they were built on what was once a Muslim cemetery.

There was no comeback from CPA's Lionel. I for myself saw the two monuments that had been newly painted. They bore no inscriptions. When I asked an LTTE cadre, I was told they were being readied for the "Maveerar Week" next month. I asked whether the monuments were constructed in recent months.

The cadre replied that they had been there. We were able to see only a few shelters - a kitchen that could cater for about 50 people and another used as an armoury. The extent of the camp area is some 20 acres surrounded by paddy fields and an irrigation tank bund. There were several sentry points protected by sandbags and newly constructed sheds.

One striking observation I made during the nearly hour-long CPA-LTTE press conference, was that most of the questions were asked by CPA representatives and not the media. As we left the area, many of the media personnel including myself had more questions than answers than when we came to the controversial camp.
One such question was - what is the CPA's agenda? Is it to cover up the truth to help the LTTE, or is there some other game plan? Even the Ministry of Defence that gave permission for the media to travel to these areas may not know the answers.

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