SLMM Spokesperson Helen Olafsdottir Interview
Sri Lanka Leader, 16
"..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... 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..."
Comment by Newswatch:
It is, perhaps, not without interest that it has taken 2
years after Karuna was given refuge by Sri Lanka (helped by a UNP
Parliamentarian to get to Colombo and Karuna's aides housed in a safe house
by Sri Lanka intelligence agencies) for the SLMM to publicly question
Sri Lanka's claims of ignorance of the activity of para military groups. In
July 2004, the US based think tank Stratfor reported that
promoting Karuna to destroy the LTTE with the tacit approval of US
"...The plan is to destabilize the Tigers, bait the group into
confrontation and ultimately launch an offensive aimed at destroying the
fractured Tamil movement once and for all." Was all this not known to the
SLMM? In any case, for how long has the SLMM known about Sri Lanka's
use of para military groups in violation of the Ceasefire Agreement? And was
it because the Sri Lanka plan to weaken the LTTE had failed and
because the LTTE had responded in kind that there is now, at long last,
a 'public outing' by the Co-Chairs and the SLMM of Sri Lanka's use of
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
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
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
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
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
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.