Interview with SLMM Spokesperson Helen Olafsdottir

[TamilNet, Sunday, 15 January 2006, 02:03 GMT]
15 January 2006


Courtesy: Sunday Leader


'LTTE, Army both violating CFA'

Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) spokesperson Helen Olafsdottir is deeply concerned about the recent spate of incidents in the north and east. She feels if this is not addressed by both factions - the LTTE and the government-a war is inevitable. Though she says the relationship the SLMM has with both the government and the LTTE is 'good,' the monitors are not satisfied with the response received to the call of peace from both parties. She says though the LTTE has consistently been violating the CFA, the army too has been responsible for violating the CFA. Asked whether the failure to disarm paramilitary groups by the government was a violation of the CFA, she said yes. "When we inquired from the government about the Karuna faction, the government said it was unaware of Karuna's existence.

But when we visited the spot and asked the army, they showed us where he was," she told The Sunday Leader in an interview.

Following are excerpts:

By Wilson Gnanadass

Q: How do you view the escalation of violence in the north-east?

A: It is a dangerous escalation that at one point we came out with a statement warning that if this is not stopped there would be war. That is how serious we think it is. For some reason the major attacks have stopped but that does not mean it cannot flare up again. Trincomalee is more tensed at present. The hotspots are trying to move around. Batticaloa was the most violent district in the last year. But Jaffna and Trincomalee have become more violent now.

Q: Is there evidence to prove which party (government or LTTE) is mostly responsible for violence?

A: We certainly do not have evidence in the attacks that took place in Jaffna. When these attacks take place it is difficult to find out who is behind it. Whenever there is a claymore mine attack we do not know who is behind this. But the army says they have evidence. We approached the LTTE in the month of December and asked them whether they were involved and they denied. And we asked them if they knew who is behind this and they said the people were behind.

We did not find the answers to be satisfactory. We found it quite frustrating. So we sent them a letter asking them that if they know for sure that the people are behind this that they should identify them for us. But to date there has not been any reply. We will pursue this because we are not satisfied with their answers. These attacks are well orchestrated. An organised group of people could be responsible for such attacks.

Q: According to your monitoring observations which party has violated the Ceasefire Agreement more? LTTE or the army?

A: You see everyone will think that my answer will be LTTE. If you look at the numbers, I think the LTTE has violated the CFA more. But it goes a lot deeper than that. The current dilemma stems from beneath the surface. There are several paramilitary groups operating and we have seen one of these camps and it was quite clear that the army on the ground was aware because this was in the government controlled area.

The killing spree that was started after the LTTE split created certain chaos on ground and in some way a vacuum was created allowing various elements to utilise the situation. And some of this is also criminal activity that is allowed to hide behind the conflict as well. What is disturbing is that this mission was set up to monitor peace and if you look at all the killings from last year, 346 people have been killed in suspected conflict related killings. But of course private disputes can also be amongst this number. But in none of these cases, have the police, army or SLMM been able to identify the killers. This is not normal in a time of ceasefire.

These killings have in fact created nothing but mistrust between the two sides and undermines any chance of coming back to the negotiating table. I don't think these killings would stop until the two parties sit down and find a solution. These killings would continue until these two parties solve the problems between them and then think of solving the ethnic crisis. The parties say that they are committed but the more people are killed the more the LTTE and the government are moving away from each other.

Q: One of the principal clauses in the CFA was to disarm paramilitary groups. But so far the government has failed to do this and it is a fact that Karuna's group operates openly in the east. Don't you think this itself is a serious violation of the CFA?

A: We brought this up with the government last year. Waited for their reaction. The government claimed that it had nothing to do with this group and was not aware of their existence. But when we visited the spot in the east and asked the Sri Lankan army where we could find Karuna, they told us where to go. So it was clear that the local army knew where he was. We have stressed this to the government that they need to be disarmed. You have also seen the Co-chairs asking the government to disarm paramilitaries.

We do not have evidence that the government is directly supporting or harbouring Karuna. But the government is aware of such a group and its existence but has not addressed it properly. This makes our monitoring even more difficult. If there are only two actors in a situation then monitoring becomes easy. But we have other elements, which makes it more difficult to identify whenever there are attacks. The CFA is a good document but I don't think people foresaw the current situation when it was drafted.

Q: The SLMM early last week reported that the claim by the LTTE that a schoolgirl was abducted was false. Now under the powers vested with the SLMM what type of action could be taken against any group for spreading such false rumours?

A: It is true one of the major problems this country faces is the disturbance within the community in the north-east. Demonstrations could lead to people dying. There is unfortunately the problem of flow of correct information and rumours being spread around causes violence and disturbance within the communities. Both the LTTE and certain politicians in the government could be accused for fighting a propaganda war.

I would say it is a war of words between the two parties. The way the two sides fight their propaganda war and the way they point their fingers at each other is a large part of the problem today. I must say both sides are wrong in doing this. We may not have powers to take action but we could only point out that it is wrong to do this.

Q: The ongoing violence in the north-east makes one wonder whether the CFA exists. How does the SLMM view this?

A: It is a good question and we too are concerned about it. The only thing we could do in our position as monitors is not to abandon the ship. We are committed and we will stay until either of the parties asks us to go home. The CFA should be ended by either of the parties and not by us. We are committed. We would continue with our task until the security situation permits us to do our job as monitors.

There are five Nordic governments supporting this mission. And they would not be ready to accept any loss of life of any of their people in this mission. It is a peace monitoring mission and not peace keeping. In theory the CFA exists until either of the parties call it off.

Q: We see a situation where both parties keep blaming each other after every incident. When civilians are killed the army denies any involvement and when soldiers are killed the LTTE denies responsibility. What is your observation?

A: Both parties fail to understand that this attitude is completely detrimental to the peace process. The two parties at some point must accept the reality and face their responsibilities. There is a worrying trend that more and more civilians are getting caught.

In the beginning of 2005 it was more political killings. But now we see more civilians are dying. The police are unable to find evidence for many of the killings. People out there are getting away with murder. There is increasing worry that at some point instead of just assassinations and attacks there could be actually an outbreak (of hostilities) between the two factions because the situation is getting hotter.

In the three-and-a-half-years there was no direct or return of fire. The forces were quite disciplined. But now at present with the situation heating up the mood is changing and it is a question now as to how long we could keep the two forces away from each other. Escalations are very difficult to predict. You see, for a war to begin one does not have to wait for a signal from the top. The present escalation itself is sufficient.

Q: Are you of the opinion that talks could ever take off given the present ground situation?

A: It has to. There is no other option. The parties have a responsibility to their citizens to try to obtain peace. Nobody can realistically say they want war. This country has already been through too much. For me I just cannot see anyone choosing to go to war. I don't think the people on the ground want war. They want peace.

Q: How comfortable has the SLMM found its monitoring exercise in the north-east?

A: We genuinely feel that our presence in some of the hottest areas have made a world of difference when it comes to calming down a situation. We have tried to engage the local community and this has proved a success. Normally if you get people to sit down and talk to different communities we could often find a solution. So locally the work is quite satisfying and gratifying but unfortunately it is not the same here in Colombo where high politics take place.

Q: Several parties including the JVP and JHU accuse the SLMM to be pro-LTTE? How would you respond?

A: If we were pro-LTTE then the government of Sri Lanka would have kicked us out long ago. If those who accuse us have a problem with the mission I suggest they should take it up with the government of Sri Lanka who is responsible for our stay here. The people who work in this mission come from five different countries. Most of them have never come to Sri Lanka before. There are lawyers, policemen, army personnel and so on, and they are not interested in politics but interested in coming here to help achieve peace. It means staying away from your family for a long time and it is not a glamorous job but tough.

What people must understand is that the aim of this mission is first and foremost to maintain the ceasefire. That involves dealing with an organisation called the LTTE. And we must not forget that this monitoring mission has its mandate from the LTTE and the government. That does not mean that we want to whitewash the LTTE from their wrongdoings. But it means we have to be realistic, practical and alternatively we need to show a great deal of integrity in our work and focus on facts only.

Q: Some parties even want SLMM to get out of the country? How seriously does the SLMM take this criticism?

A: We read about criticism and try to take it on board and try to improve our work but there comes a time when we need to ignore certain negative statements. Criticism is healthy. But a lot of people who criticise have no idea about what we do.

Q: The SLMM is under criticism for not doing anything about incidents other than just merely releasing statements. What more could the SLMM do with the powers vested with it at least to minimise violence?

A: I think the SLMM would work perfectly if both parties could comply with the CFA. The nature of the CFA is such it calls for the parties concerned to be responsible. We have no enforcement possibility, no guns but only a handful of Nordic monitors whose responsibility lies exclusively with both parties.

Q: Has the SLMM faced any obstacles or impediments during the monitoring process and if so what are they and where do they emerge from?

A: When the LTTE denied access to some key sites that was hindering our work. When the government makes a complaint to us and accuses the LTTE of various assassinations but does not give us access to investigative material then that hinders our work. So there are instances where our work is definitely hampered by both the LTTE and the government but in general our relationship with the people from both sides is good. And we are working towards a common goal. As long as we feel that our relationship is great or good with both sides then we feel they are being quite helpful and we feel they respect us. Or they respect our work.

Q: Given the recent spate of violent incidents, would you say the CFA is at its weakest now?

A: Yes. It is the worst since it commenced. We did not expect that. But we must not forget that this country is still coming out of a conflict that has taken decades to get a foothold. So it is never going to be a quick fix and we remain committed to this country as long as it takes.

 

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