Stephen Cohen’s Q and A Session with Shamindra Ferdinando

Courtesy of the Island, 17 October 2010, following an interview at the Cinnamon Grand on 15 October, 2010. Ferdinando has acess to key government personnel in both civilian and military areas and can be regarded as a “fellow traveller”; but he is an expereinced hand and presented a number of pertinent questions  inclusive of a googly or two. The Questions are in blue, with bacground material provided by the Island in purple; while the Answers in ordinary black. The presentation of this interview in the Island had this title:

                                                                                   Lanka lauded for triumph over Tigers, asked to reconcile with Tamils.

Q: Have you visited Sri Lanka at any time during the 30-year war?

A: Certainly. I have been coming to Sri Lanka since the early 1980s for academic reasons. I helped create the Regional Summit for Strategic Studies in Colombo, which is South Asia’s Regional Security Organization, and had the opportunity to follow the war and related developments in Sri Lanka, not as a specialist, but as  an observer. I was last here about three years ago. I have seen the transformation of Sri Lanka, from bad to worse, though the situation is pretty good now.

Since the end of the war in May last year, the US, and almost all other developed countries have lifted travel restrictions imposed on their nationals.

Q: What was the turning point in Sri Lanka’s war (Eelam War IV from August 2006 to May 2009) against LTTE terrorism, which caused the destruction of the enemy’s conventional military capability?

A: I think it was a combination of a few factors. The decision that the government would not negotiate with Velupillai Prabhakaran or the Tigers and also the development of better military strategies, particularly cutting off of sea supply routes to the Tigers, could be considered the turning point. Although the international community had played some role in this, it had been primarily the Sri Lankan government’s policy, when I say giving up the dialogue with Tigers which wasn’t going anywhere and I was also pessimistic about the outcome of a negotiated settlement.

Q: Did the US help Sri Lanka to destroy some of the floating arsenals belonging to the LTTE on the high seas, though the US and western media were critical of Sri Lankan military action?

A: I hope they did. I heard some great stories about that. Clearly it was in the interest of the US as well as Sri Lanka to cooperate. Sri Lanka received the support of several other countries, including Israel and India, to achieve its military objectives. It was part of an international effort.


Of the eight LTTE ships sunk on the high seas during Eelam war IV, the US helped Sri Lanka track down the last four vessels, including the largest floating arsenal. Sri Lanka also received a range of other items, including an Offshore Patrol Vessel, radars and 30 mm Bushmaster cannon to enhance the firepower of Fast Attack Craft (FACs), which played a critical role in cutting off the enemy supply lines. The US also crippled a major LTTE procurement network, causing a huge setback to the Tigers at the beginning of Eelam War IV.

(Q): You have dealt extensively with Indo-Pak issues over the years. Both countries are victims of terrorism, and the 2008 sea borne raid on Mumbai was the worst single terrorist attack directed at India, allegedly by Pakistan. Could you explain the circumstances, which led to Indian accusations that David Headley, 49, a US citizen, had helped plan the Mumbai attack? Why did US deny Indians access to the suspect?

(A): That is factually not true. In fact, they got pretty good access to him after legal issues were settled. Headley pleaded guilty and from that point onwards, the Indians got access to him. I think the crucial point was that the Mumbai affair was caused by the failure of intelligence services of three countries. The Americans did not know about Headley. He was an American citizen. He went back and forth and may have had connections with elements of the US government, though we are not sure about it yet. The Indians allowed him to operate in the guise of a tourist, unmolested and the Pakistanis for failing to realize that a major operation was being planned in Pakistan. I had an opportunity to discuss this with the Pakistanis a couple of weeks ago. Obviously, there had been an intelligence breakdown. Nothing could be as important as cooperation among intelligence services to thwart terrorist operations, which applies to Sri Lanka as well. In Sri Lanka’s case, there had been better cooperation among the countries.

Q: Pakistan is a frontline State in the US-led war on global terror launched in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the US. In the light of accusations that Pakistan, too, is involved in terrorism, as in the case of the raid on Mumbai, and with the Taliban as revealed recently (Wiki Leaks in relations to ongoing military operations in Afghanistan), do you expect any friction between the US and Pakistan?

A: To say that Pakistanis are supporting Taliban is as astonishing as saying that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Pakistanis themselves have been attacked by the Pakistani Taliban, who are both ethnically and ideologically linked to Afghan Taliban. So the Pakistanis have to understand that they are victims of their support to Taliban in a sense, they are fighting on both fronts of the war in Afghanistan. There is a strange relationship between the US and Pakistan, which goes back to eight or nine years when we realized Taliban was being supported by Pakistan. That does not mean that we did not support Taliban at one point earlier. The Americans, the Saudis and Pakistan were supporters of Taliban. We thought Taliban could bring normalcy to Afghanistan. That turned out to be wrong and the Clinton administration quickly severed links with them.

The alleged Pakistani link to the Taliban was known for years and President Musharraf has acknowledged it. There is no secret about it. The Wiki Leaks got some low level data but at high level people knew of this

Q: Sri Lankan President addressing the 65th UNGA on Sept 23, 2010 said that those who had suggested that Sri Lanka should have conceded to the demands of the terrorists, needed to be reminded that terror is terror, whatever mask it wears and how it is packaged. The President went onto say: “To all those, I say this. My responsibility is to the entire nation. My responsibility is to the lives of millions of men, women and children, and those yet to be born. My responsibility is for peace and prosperity of the nation and the right to a peaceful life for all who live there.”

“In this context, it is worth examining the capacity of current international humanitarian law to meet contemporary needs. It must be remembered that such law evolved essentially in response to conflicts waged by the forces of legally constituted States, and not terrorist groups. The asymmetrical nature of conflicts, initiated by non-state actors, gives rise to serious problems which need to be considered in earnest by the international community.

Former UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs Jayantha Dhanapala, recently expressed similar sentiments at the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) investigating the collapse of the Norwegian led peace process.

Today Western powers are embroiled in anti-terrorist action in several parts of the world. International navies are battling pirates operating from Somalia threatening vital shipping lanes. Taking into account the difficulties in combating non-state actors, do you think President Rajapaksa’s proposal should be further discussed by the international community?

 (A): There is no problem in discussing this internationally. But countries have to be careful in labeling persons or groups as terrorists. I remember the then US President, Ronald Reagan, saying ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’ The American revolutionaries were terrorists as far as the British were concerned. So the language has to be used carefully. In the case of the Tamils, though I am not an expert, there is a long history of grievances and there is no doubt about unfair practices, but then the kind of methods the Tigers used, particularly to wipe out moderate Tamils, was terrorism. Now that the war is over, Sri Lanka should take tangible action to address long standing grievances experienced by ethnic minorities. The government should focus on social and legal grievances. I think a difficult task is ahead of the government. I cannot comment on contemporary politics but the failure on the part of the incumbent government to address contentious issues swiftly may lead to the recurrence of terrorism in five or ten years.

Q: The UNSG Ban-ki-moon recently appointed an advisory panel to advise him on accountability issues in relation to Eelam War IV, though Sri Lanka strongly opposed the UN move. The Norwegian government is also investigating the collapse of their peace efforts, while the US, too, is making inquiries? Taking into consideration international media reports, regarding excesses in Afghanistan and Iraq, drone attacks on targets in Pakistan, transfer of terrorist suspects to bases away from where they are arrested and deployment of private security firms, would you comment on the focus on war crimes in Sri Lanka.

A: I think Sri Lanka is an easy target for human rights groups. It is easy to criticize Sri Lanka as it is a democracy and it is easy to criticize America. We don’t jail journalists who criticize us, but on the other hand, I was present when Sri Lanka External Affairs Minister (during a recent visit to Washington), was asked eight questions, all relating to human rights and accountability issues. Clearly, there had been human rights violations during the war but then possibly after the war! I am not an expert and I cannot comment on that. When a government official is only asked about that question that is a distortion of the reality. Clearly Sri Lanka has to be accountable as a democracy. Sri Lanka has signed many international agreements regarding protection of its citizens, but that is not the only issue. There are other important issues relating to Sri Lanka

Q: Why did New Delhi interfere in Sri Lanka leading to the creation of the LTTE in the 1980s? Interestingly, India supported Sri Lanka’s efforts to destroy the LTTE and today plays a key role in re-building the war devastated Northern and Eastern Provinces. What should be the role of US in post-war Sri Lanka?

A: For the Indians, Sri Lanka is their Vietnam. I remember talking to General Krishnaswamy Sundarji in his office when he was India’s Chief of Army staff in New Delhi at the height of the Indian presence in Sri Lanka. He was supremely overconfident of what the Indian Army could do here. But it was their Vietnam, a humiliation not by a country but by a small group of irregulars at that time

The Island: Trained by the Indians…

A: Yes. Well that was the irony. Some of them were trained by them. I am not sure about the details. The Indians were clearly involved in getting the Tigers going whether they were the only factor or one of the factors, I don’t know. I’m not that kind of an expert. It had a traumatic impact on the Indians. Military intervention and the use of intelligence services to destabilize a neighboring country can cause a calamitous situation. India’s interference in Sri Lanka is a case in point. The LTTE assassinated former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, and also carried out many other killings.

Q: Do you foresee Indian and Chinese investments in Sri Lanka and increased US cooperation with the Sri Lanka government and the possibility of Sri Lankan forces sharing their experience of success over the LTTE with forces from other countries?

A: Sri Lankan forces can share their experience with other countries. Sri Lanka is also important for strategic reasons…

The Indians are up to their necks in fighting insurgency, and Pakistan, too, are engaged in counter-insurgency operations. US forces are engaged in Afghanistan. Sri Lanka is important for a couple of other reasons. She sits right by the sea lanes of communications. Most of the world’s oil goes by Sri Lanka. The energy goes by here. The Chinese, the Japanese, Indians and the US have a common interest in keeping the sea lanes of communications open.

Q: Do you believe in continuous US engagement here, though being critical of the Rajapaksa administration over human rights and various other issues.

A: I talk here as a private citizen. We have a number of interests here, including economic interest. The Tamil Diaspora is still active in Washington. American companies are interested in investing in Sri Lanka to compete with the Chinese, the Indians and the Japanese. But militarily, Sri Lanka can contribute for UN peace keeping missions. Sri Lanka has a large army, which is well trained and disciplined. Cooperation among navies, including that of Sri Lanka, is important. The Sri Lanka navy can play an important role. While human rights and accountability issues are important for democracies, it should not be the only issue…

About 1,000 Sri Lankan peacekeepers are deployed in Haiti, while there are smaller contingents in other parts of the world.

Q: What would have happened if the LTTE had retained its naval capability, expertise and firepower? Could it have threatened international shipping routes like the Somalis responsible for seizure of many ships despite an international naval presence?  

A: That is a hypothetical question.

Q: When compared with the LTTE firepower, the Somalis had only light weapons but still they cause chaos on international sea lanes of communications…

A: I think the destruction of the Tigers, especially their navy (read as Sea Tigers) Sri Lanka did all of us a favour. There is no question about that.  But now the issue is how to bring about peace and reconciliation. How to bring the Tamils to the mainstream and winning overseas Tamils are important issues, which needed to be tackled swiftly.



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