ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 04, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 40
Columns - Thoughts from London

Honest mistakes or a new move in an end game?

By Neville de Silva

The narrow escape several Colombo-based heads of mission had when they came under LTTE mortar fire in Batticaloa did make the news here.

Certainly the Daily Telegraph, the Times and the Guardian carried the story. Perhaps other British newspapers did carry it too but I must confess I did not see any.

However this story which was given quite some space in the Telegraph, was naturally overshadowed by the failed attempt to assassinate US Vice-President Dick Cheney in Afghanistan, if that was indeed the intention of the suicide bomber.

Understandably that was much bigger news given the status of the man, the country he represented and the conflict in which the US and other countries are very much involved, trying to tame the Taliban and track down the elusive al Qaeda leaders and military commanders.

Norwegian ambassodor – Hans Brattskar

Yet to Sri Lanka the Tamil Tigers are, in a sense, the local Taliban, adopting methods and tactics similar to the Tigers or fast creating squads of suicide bombers in emulation of the LTTE.

No doubt the Sri Lankan government would try to make political capital of this incident which could have led to deaths or serious injuries to senior foreign diplomats.

It would be inconceivable that the government would not try to get mileage out of this, particularly when those at the receiving end of the LTTE shells were senior diplomats of donor countries and of the United Nations.

For once the LTTE could not deny their responsibility. Had they attempted to do so, they would have not only looked silly but also lost any credibility in the eyes of the several diplomats, unless they believed the army was firing at itself and its troops, not to mention the foreigners present.

The important question is how the chanceries of the countries represented by these diplomats treat the near tragedy. Certainly the European Union and the United Nations condemned the attack unequivocally but of course with the usual proviso that the warring parties must return to the negotiating table.

The condemnation is to be expected. When representatives of governments are exposed to such dangers committed by whosoever it might be, it is customary for such actions to be commented on and generally condemned.

The severity of the language would indicate how each country reacts to such incidents especially if lives were at stake. What is important is not so much the initial response to the attack but how seriously the foreign offices and the governments in their respective capitals take this incident.

Would this be considered a deliberate effront, a “mindless” act to employ the word used by Guardian writer Jonathan Steele to describe President Rajapaksa’s response to the LTTE’s violent provocations or an error of judgement?

Following the incident, BBC World’s “Asia Today” programme interviewed Seevaratnam Puleedevan, secretary-general of the LTTE Peace Secretariat.

In that interview Puleedevan claimed that the LTTE was not informed about the movements of diplomats and of their “travel plans to the Eastern coast.”

What was intriguing was what he said in the same breath. “I talked to the Norwegian ambassador also and he also told me that he also was not informed of the movements and the facilitators were also not informed anything about their movements.”

What is difficult to comprehend is why anybody should inform Norwegian ambassador, Hans Brattskar. He is, apart from his normal duties as Oslo’s representative in Colombo, the representative of the government that has been tasked with the role of a facilitator of the peace talks.

His added role then is as a representative of the facilitator and that is only in relation to the peace negotiations which have not gone anywhere since the LTTE pulled out of them. If there are any developments connected with the Norwegian peace effort which seems to be going the same way as Oslo’s mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, then certainly the Norwegians could be kept informed.

But I cannot understand why the Norwegian ambassador has to be told every time somebody wants to go somewhere, particularly his diplomatic colleagues. The Norwegian ambassador is not a pro-consul with a veto in his pocket. It does not require a nod from him to step out when the arrangements to travel have been made by the government.

Maybe the LTTE peace secretariat officials have to keep him informed. After all it is Oslo that provides the funds to keep this so-called peace secretariat running.

The fact that the monkey which is beholden to the organ grinder has to be obsequious to its master does not require others to seek his authority or even his say so.

One could understand the SLMM which does not appear to do much monitoring these days, being kept informed which is perhaps required by the Ceasefire Agreement which itself is in obvious tatters despite the frequent poojas paid to it by both sides.

If there is a certain reluctance, at least on the Sri Lankan side, to confide all in the Norwegians, it is because of the justifiable suspicion that Oslo or its representatives have not maintained the kind of impartiality that is expected of one who dons the mantle of a facilitator/mediator.

It is now public knowledge that the Norwegians supplied sophisticated transmitting equipment to the LTTE using diplomatic privileges, that it has provided money, that it provided some kind of military training to them in Norway and perhaps in Thailand, and if one is to believe the whistle blowing of Col Karuna, there is a nexus that throws into questions Oslo’s impartiality.

It has also been shown that passing on information to the SL Monitoring Mission could seriously compromise that body in its mandated role. For instance, it is public knowledge that when the navy was hoping to interdict a ship suspected of carrying arms for the Tigers and the information was passed on to the SLMM that information ended up with the Tigers and the ship escaped into international waters.

So keeping Norway and its associated bodies out of the loop is not unexpected. But the more important question is whether the LTTE was unaware of the presence of the visiting diplomats and targeted the landing field as it would normally do and made a horrible mistake. Or was this a deliberate act by the LTTE?

If it is the latter then what was the message or messages that it was trying to convey and to whom? If deliberate, it was also a brazen act for it could very easily have backfired resulted in death or serious injury to foreign diplomats.

If one assumes that there was a failure in its usually good intelligence and the LTTE was not aware of the passengers in the helicopter, it might account for the hurried explanation that they were responding to artillery directed at them earlier in the morning.

But if this is not the case, then what was the Tiger message? Most importantly they were trying to give the lie to the claim, especially from the defence spokesmen that the eastern province had been cleared of the LTTE except for a few pockets that were now being eliminated.

That more than anything else was surely the message they wanted the diplomats to learn first hand, that even the helicopter landing pad at the Weber stadium could be hit and that they had the coordinates and the means to do so.

Another lesson for the diplomats was that even humanitarian development work like trying to make life easier for persons displaced by the conflict, cannot and should not be undertaken without the acquiescence of the Tigers.

They were also perhaps serving notice on civilians in the area who might wish to extend their support to the security forces and their labour to undertake the rehabilitation programmes.

If the LTTE genuinely did not know who was on board and was firing at a military target then their intelligence failure was a horrible mistake.

If on the other hand it was a conscious act of bravado it would well be one of the moves in what the Tigers recently claimed is the revival of their struggle for Eelam and the east is very much a part of that grand design, never mind what the Supreme Court has to say about it.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.