Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, in an interview said not many civilians were killed in the war although LTTE propagandists tried to exaggerate the numbers to defame the Sri Lanka Army and the Government.
Q: When you assumed duty as the Defence Secretary, was there a will to end the war?
A: The aim was to build peace. It was the end result and there were two ways to achieve it. One was to negotiate and the other was to fight. Former Presidents had tested both ways. The governments from J.R. Jayewardene to Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga followed these two paths. The assistance of India and Norway was also sought. President Mahinda Rajapaksa also did the same, but with an understanding. We both had studied the past actions of the LTTE and their position then. An idea was rooted in society, locally as well as internationally, that the LTTE could not be defeated militarily. But I had the confidence that we could win, if we followed the right path. The President gave a chance to the LTTE to negotiate, but they resorted to their usual tactics, as expected. His Excellency was different right from the beginning. He visited India two weeks after his election. He handed over a special document to the Indian Prime Minister and stated that he would recommence the negotiations with the LTTE. He also said the past experiences had proven that the LTTE would not stick to peace negotiations and in such a context he needed the support of India to resolve the problem by way of military means. The President informed India on the military needs within two weeks after his election. He said the same to Pakistan as well. This proves that we had a clear policy right from the beginning. I explained the motives of the LTTE to the former Adviser on National Security, M.K. Narayanan, and then Foreign Minister and present Adviser on National Security, Shivshankar Menon. Just after two weeks we said we needed to get ready for war. We prepared ourselves as the discussions were underway.
Q: Why do you think the LTTE urged the people to boycott the Presidential Election in 2005
A: The people had faith in Mahinda Rajapaksa although they were unaware of who he was. He did not have a chance, even as the Prime Minister, to show his mettle. Prabhakaran might have thought he was a weak personality that could be easily overcome. On the other hand, Prabhakaran never went to elections and he was of the view that elections are a matter in the hands of the Sinhala government. I don’t think he had any will to make either Mahinda Rajapaksa or Ranil Wickremesinghe win. His principles were more important to him. For example, when he was nearing defeat, KP had asked him over the phone to move out. But he had said he could turn it the other way. He was power blind and was unable to see the reality. In 2005, he thought he had almost won and he wanted to elect none.
Q:Do you remember the exact moment you and the President decided to start the war?
A: I don’t think the President had any reason to make me the Defence Secretary. After he learnt that he won the presidential election after the results of Ampara District were released, he spoke with me and asked me to accept the Defence Secretary position. He had a firm plan and he said we would have to fight a war. With my experience in the Army, I was 500 per cent sure that Prabhakaran would not like my appointment and I would definitely have to do this. I was ready from that moment.
Q:That means you were getting ready to fight the war while Geneva discussions were underway?
A: Yes, we were getting ready. The President said this clearly. We asked for weapons from India. He asked the Commanders of the armed forces to get ready to end this militarily in case the negotiations failed. He was of the view the negotiations were a political action. He stopped the Norway-sponsored discussions between the army and the LTTE. He asked the forces to engage in the military affairs like recruiting, training and fortifying, while he himself took the responsibility for political action.
Q: The first outburst was the Mavilaru water issue, wasn’t it?
A: We needed to show that the LTTE started the war. Otherwise the blame would be on us. They gravely violated the ceasefire twice. One was the Kebithigollewa bus bomb that shocked the President. Second was this water issue. We were discussing about opening the sluice gate, but they attacked Muttur, Muhamalai and Kayts. They tried to capture those areas with the first assault. They started it, then we proceeded until the end.
Q:However, in the past, the military operations had to be ceased due to international pressure. How did you overcome this pressure?
A: Both the President and I were determined that we would continue this until the end. We knew that this could not be done in parts. In the past, there were various operations. But we insisted that this was a single humanitarian operation. We had a clear ambition to wage a war from the beginning to the end. There were many military challenges. The biggest was building the people’s mentality. We understood that we needed a massive recruitment drive to win this war. We had to do many things to build trust among the people that we would fight till the end. Then the recruitment drive gathered momentum. We increased the strength not by two-fold but by three-fold. In two years, we recruited about 5,000 per month. Training them in a brief period of time was a challenge. We had to control the media and the people’s mindset. Military procurements were the other task. Keeping India on our side was also important and luckily, India did not make any objection. The President had a strategy for this called the ‘Troika.’ Lalith Weeratunga, Basil and I visited India from time to time and briefed the situation. We were able to maintain peace with them. The other countries also opposed, but the President was firm and insisted he needed to see the end of the war.
Q:What was the first major victory?
A: We were confident after liberating the Eastern Province. The East was freed several times in the past also. The Opposition Leader and others also said that it was not a big success. What they failed to notice was that we not only liberated the area, but also fortified each inch of the land so as the LTTE could not infiltrate. We deployed a large manpower for this purpose. Previous governments failed to do that.
Prabhakaran said it was a tactical withdrawal. ITN interviewed me then and asked what a tactical withdrawal was. I said I would see to it that Prabhakaran would make the last tactical withdrawal to the sea. He had the intention of recapturing the East and actually he tried it several times. We were able to abort his attempts by means of our infantry and naval powers. That was the foundation of success. We did the same in the North as well. There was huge resistance in the battlefront. We moved only inch by inch towards Adampan, Mannar, Vavuniya and Welioya forward defence lines. Within six months, I was confident that we were moving. Pooneryn victory encouraged us. Paranthan and Kilinochchi victories boosted our morale.
Q:Was that the time Vijaya Nambiar attempted to negotiate a ceasefire?
A: No. It was after that.
Q: How did you avoid it?
A: We clearly said it was impossible. We had sacrificed a lot. We would understand now what could have happened if Prabhakaran had been spared. What if he said he was ready for a ceasefire? He would never lay down arms and then restart the war later.
Q: Did you call them to lay down arms and surrender?
A: Yes, we called them several times to lay down arms and surrender.
Q:Did you make the same call at the last battle too?
A: Yes. Then as well as before that.
Q:Didn’t they respond to that call?
A: No, they did not surrender at the last moment either.
Q:The government face many allegations about affairs related to the war. What plan did you have to free the civilians?
A: The war was fought the same way during JR’s time too. That many civilians were not killed in this war. The reason was that there was a clear frontline in this war. There was a clear division between the government and the LTTE. They stayed a few yards away from us, not scattered. The military was directly fighting with the LTTE. They fired at us when we were reaching their line. The civilians were behind it and we asked them from the beginning to come to our side but they did not heed our call. Nobody accused us of civilian deaths in the first two years since the war ended. The civilians were away from the battlefront. They were caught at the last moment. We took measures to establish no fire zones as we passed Kilinochchi. We asked the civilians to gather in one place, but the LTTE prevented it. It was their strategy. Then we asked them to move to certain places. The LTTE did not allow it either. We asked at the last moment as well not to use heavy armoury. The UN, WFP and other NGOs were there from the beginning. They knew how many civilians were there. We have estimated on the amount of food sent there. The Mullaitivu District Secretary said there were 300,000 people. How many died? The UN or any other agency, did not say.
Q: Did you have to wage another war after defeating the LTTE and commemorating victory?
A: I think the major victories were achieved after 18 May 2009. We had to take care of the civilians, demine the land and resettle people in villages. We also had to rehabilitate and socialize the 12,800 surrendered LTTE cadres. Further 5,000 captured are languishing in jail. Demilitarization of the paramilitary forces such as EPDP, PLOTE, TELO, was another need. We could not let them keep arms after we finished the LTTE. We have achieved these 100% now and only a fraction remains. We held elections in these areas. We relaxed restrictions such as regulations on sea going and mobility and the entire country is now under one law. I wonder why this victory goes unnoticed. It was said that 12 years were needed for demining, but we did it within two years. We were accused that the IDPs might not be resettled and the Sinhala colonization would take place. But we resettled all the people in their villages. The other biggest victory is the rehabilitation of the LTTE cadres. We did not sue the Tamil Tigers that had been pushing this country towards hell for three decades attacking all economic nerve points and important places, massacring Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people. We have rehabilitated and socialized them. Those who unfairly demand the military personnel brought before war tribunals must study how we did it.
LTTE cadres among the Tamil Diaspora demand actions against us. But the LTTE cadres here contest elections and are elected to Parliament. We have given up taking action against them. We do not need to drag this on. They produce films and show them worldwide. Why don’t they show films on what Prabhakaran did? They destroyed civilians with their suicide bombs. According to the way they speak now, the LTTE had been a non-entity. They say that civilians died. But 30,000 soldiers also died. In the last phase of war alone, 6,000 were killed. After 2005, over 25,000 were completely disabled. Did they fight with nobody, if there was no LTTE? With whom did they fight if only the civilians died as they say? According to Tamilnet, the LTTE had said they had a 30,000-strong trained force. They had categorized themselves as Army, Navy and Air Force. They also said the civilians had also been trained to fight with the military. We also had a similar force called the Civil Defence Force. When one such person died, we did not say a civilian died. We said that one Civil Defence Force person died. But, they name their civil forces also as civilians and complain they have disappeared.
Q: What action will you take to respond to the pressure from Geneva on investigating the charges?
A: The President appointed a commission to look into the disappearances. I gave evidence before this commission and explained the way the individuals went missing needed to be probed. I said that if one died in battle, the LTTE was responsible for that. My problem is not the disappearances, but the way the disappearance had taken place. Anybody may understand that the LTTE had certain manpower. They fought and were killed. Their bodies were not claimed. For instance, let us take the case of Pottu Amman. Now he is missing. For his wife and parents, if they are alive, Pottu Amman is a missing person since his body was not recovered. Luckily, Prabhakaran’s body was found. Otherwise, he would have also been categorized as missing. How many unidentified bodies were there? How many of the dead bodies of the LTTE leaders were identified? A rumour spread that Pottu Amman is in India or France. If someone gives evidence that his relation surrendered to army and disappeared, we can probe. But we have not been informed of anything clearly. Some say that their relations came to Colombo and disappeared. What is the proof? We asked them to register whenever they move to Colombo. There were suicide cadres. One committed suicide before the Hilton Hotel. We traced his identity with much difficulty. He was a resident of Trincomalee. He had come to Colombo on a motorcycle with another person posing as a Muslim. A day before he left for Colombo, his mother lodged a complaint that her son had disappeared. This was the reality.
Q: A few weeks ago, we reported in one of our lead stories that a local government member had proposed to rebuild LTTE cemeteries. On the other hand, the TNA wants the land taken over by the army returned. Amirthalingam’s son has filed a case too. How do you face these issues?
A: The LTTE is a banned terrorist organization. We shall take legal action if anyone show support to the LTTE. One who appears for the terrorists is also a terrorist. They must remember that. They have no right to speak about the LTTE, its cadres and Prabhakaran. Nobody has the right to build cemeteries for them. The local government members must serve their people with the powers they are vested with. Building cemeteries is not a service. It is unnecessary. We shall never allow such things. We will simply remove them. We suffered for 30 years and we would never allow re-occurrence. With regard to lands, yes, we have taken over lands for security purposes. The majority of them are State lands. The army needs camps and their venues cannot be decided by the US, the UK or the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council. It is decided by the President, the Defence Secretary or the Commanders. When we came to power in 2005, Jaffna was liberated but there were bunkers and camps everywhere. We have relocated them at specific places. It must be understood.
Q:Are you of the view the statements issued by the TNA after their victory a threat to national security?
A: I told MP Sampanthan that we would not interfere into his party’s rule in the North. However, I said that we would not tolerate acts against security. It is understandable to anybody that no order can prevail without security. Wigneswaran is there since we eliminated Prabhakaran and established peace. We are not afraid to say even to the international community that we would take stern action in case they act against security, although they are people’s representatives.
Q: After the war, you have started a new battle of renovating Colombo and Kotte cities. War and development are worlds apart. How do you manage both?
A: War caused drawbacks. The President’s second battle was development. Colombo and suburbs are crucial in that regard. Investors first come to Colombo. The first impression they get must be a good one. Therefore, development in Colombo is very important. Some say that Colombo is used by only those living in Colombo. But only a fraction of people dwell in Colombo. Many work and study there. Colombo must be developed for the benefit of all of them. I was appointed as the Secretary of the Urban Development Authority after it was taken under the President’s purview. I prepared a plan for that and I explained it at the first meeting.
Q:In the 60s, Lee Kuan Yew visited Sri Lanka and said he would rebuild Singapore to be like Colombo. Do you have any plan to develop Colombo like another city?
A: There are many views on urban development. The world trend today is for people-friendly, environment-friendly cities. For example, Manhattan in New York is being renovated. Green is added to the city landscape. We are moving along the same path, but we need to make Colombo outstanding. It must have a unique identity. People must come to Colombo with the purpose of seeing the city. There are no big roads in Colombo. But there are houses, hotels, vegetation and so forth. We need good drainage, pavements, walkways, parks and public spaces that are people-friendly. We are making Colombo a matchless city using these assets.
Q: Do you have plans to enter politics after completing this work?
A: You don’t need to come to politics to serve the country. The President gave me the opportunity to serve the country first as the Defence Secretary and now I can do similar service in urban development. I am committed to it now as I was in the past. I think one can be content with performing his duty well. I can have that satisfaction from this post. I have proven it. On the other hand, a number of members of our family are engaged in politics.
Q: Are you of the view that politics is not suitable for a military officer?
A: No. Military personnel also can thrive in politics. But the mindset of an individual that joins the army is completely transformed within the first three months. When one is in the army for 20 or 30 years, his entire character is modelled according to military standards. Such a person has to sacrifice immensely to adjust to politics. I don’t mean military officers fail in politics. There are many successful former military officers. But I personally think that I am more comfortable in this position and I can perform a better service.
Q: Don’t you have plans to bring your son into politics?
A: It is difficult for him too. Already two members in the third generation of our family have come into politics.