Retired major general of the
Swedish Army, Ulf Henricsson vacates his
position as Head of the Nordic truce
monitors next week. On September 1,
Henricsson’s country, Sweden, joins fellow
EU member countries, Denmark and Finland in
a pull out from the Sri Lanka Monitoring
Mission, leaving the truce observing group
at exactly 50 percent its original strength.
Outgoing Head of Mission, Henricsson spoke
to The Nation last week on his near miss at
the Mavil Aru sluice gate when the military
launched an artillery barrage in the area,
the prospects for the SLMM’s continuing in
Sri Lanka and the frustration of the
monitors at the deteriorating security
“I think the parties too often forget that it is not Norway’s conflict, it is Sri Lanka’s conflict and Norway is just here as a facilitator. Just now Norway and even the SLMM has no good ideas any more, because our advice is not being taken or accepted. I think people in Sri Lanka, and the politicians, too often forget that it is not our conflict, it is a Sri Lankan conflict. We have not created it, we are trying to help you solve it”
“I think that the importance of the water was exaggerated a lot. Of course it was bad but it was definitely not 30,000 acres which was in the short term dependent on this water. And the crops could have done definitely much more days without water. So I think there were several days for negotiation without launching an attack.
Q: What has been your previous experience with conflict? How does the Sri Lankan experience compare?
A: I have worked two and a half years in the Balkans before as Battle Group Commander but also as a person responsible for security and confidence building measures. The first position was during the war in 1993-94 and the second appointment at the organisation for security and cooperation Europe from 1999-2001. When I got this position a French colleague said “remember, you’re not going to the Balkans. It is another conflict.” But my experience now is that it is much more similar than different. It’s the same mechanism – human beings fighting. The behaviour is very much alike. The biggest difference is the climate.
Q: What can you say about the Mavil Aru crisis which ignited the present conflict situation?
A: As you know the water was closed by the LTTE. We advised them to reopen it and they said that it was to draw attention to the bad humanitarian situation in Eastern Sampur which I would say is very bad, because I have seen it. I advised them to open the water because attention was achieved. And they didn’t do it immediately and then the government started a military offensive which I think came too fast. I think there were still possibilities to negotiate it. I think also that they did what the LTTE wanted and the government has I can see it, not yet conquered the sluice gate, at least I haven’t seen proof or pictures of it yet. I should be surprised if they had achieved that goal.
Q: What happened at Mavil Aru when you went there?
A: Some 10 days ago, when I was in Trincomalee trying to monitor the situation in Muttur and we were denied access to the area which I was bad and created a lot of rumours. It would have been much better if we had been able to monitor it. We were refused transportation across the bay to Muttur so we took the road around. We got through the lines and met with Mr. Elilan and Jon Hanssen Baur had negotiated with the LTTE leadership to open the sluice gate. It was all on the same day and it was more or less a coincidence that it happened that way. We were on our way to open the gate and we had informed the government at least at two levels, and got confirmation from them. They knew where I was. When we closed into the dam, I think we were about three kilometres from the dam, an artillery barrage was launched. I don’t think we were actually at risk, but the problem here is that the government didn’t know where exactly we were. We were on a ferry and if it had been faster we may have been in trouble. The artillery lasted a long time and there was no idea to proceed to the water gate.
Q: Can you tell us at which two levels the government was informed of your visit to the sluice gate?
A: Yes, the Peace Secretariat definitely knew and the division commander, 222 brigade in Trincomalee. I think if that is not enough for the system then something is wrong with the system. I think there was enough information.
Q: Do you think the government’s firing of artillery was intentional that day? What is the SLMM’s view on the matter?
A: Well I think that the government should have known where we were and then they should not have launched artillery fire.
Q: What about the LTTE’s claims that you had been pushed into an LTTE bunker by Elilan? Was that true?
A: No it was not true. I was standing in a rather small hole in the ground, not a bunker. That was a little dramatised.
A: I think that the importance of the water was exaggerated a lot. Of course it was bad but it was definitely not 30,000 acres which was in the short term dependent on this water. And the crops could have done definitely much more days without water. So I think there were several days for negotiation without launching an attack. And I am definitely rejecting the government’s claim that this was a humanitarian operation, because an operation that causes some hundred deaths and 30,000 refugees is not a humanitarian one. I understand the military reasons for it, but don’t call it a humanitarian operation.
Q: With the pull out of the EU nations, what is the fate of the SLMM now?
A: Sweden is going to leave the mission because the LTTE is not going to guarantee full security for EU citizens. So it affects the Swedes, the Danes and the Finns as well. That means that the mission will be cut down from 60 to 30 monitors. They will come from Norway and Iceland only. That will happen on September 1. I will also be leaving.
The SLMM will stay here. But reduced by 50 percent. There’s been discussions to bring in other countries into the mission. But in the present situation I doubt that will be possible. Because of the security on the ground. I think with the respect, or rather the lack of respect the parties have shown, I think the country that was thought to be possible is not interested.
Q: Can you elaborate on what country this is?
A: No. But I think those in tune with the situation would be able to figure out which country it is. It cannot be an EU nation, it can’t be one which has put the LTTE on the terrorist list. Then the country should also be approved by the government.
Q: Have Norway or Iceland shown a willingness to send more monitors to replace the EU citizens that will leave the mission at the end of this month?
A: They will add some, I think, but not upto the full strength. I think Norway is not very happy to getting all the criticism for everything down here. I think the parties too often forget that it is not Norway’s conflict, it is Sri Lanka’s conflict and Norway is just here as a facilitator. Just now Norway and even the SLMM has no good ideas any more, because our advice is not being taken or accepted. I think people in Sri Lanka, and the politicians, too often forget that it is not our conflict, it is a Sri Lankan conflict. We have not created it, we are trying to help you solve it.
Q: With the CFA now largely confined to paper and monitors being recalled from combat areas deemed high risk, has the role of the SLMM become redundant?
A: We are no longer in our previous accommodation in Trinco because there were some shells that came down a few hundred metres from it. And then of course my monitors are not very happy. So they withdrew to a more secure facility. The monitors are not here to be any peace enforcers or a peace keeping force. We are here to monitor a ceasefire and there is no ceasefire. Some of us might be ready to take risks, but they haven’t signed a contract for this and we are not equipped for it. So I cannot force people to take risks. I think that has to be understood. I think that it is different to risk your life for your country or nation than to be far away from home and with a job to help people to keep and comply with the CFA, and then end up in situations where you risk your life. Most people are not comfortable with that situation. We have left our previous accommodation for a safer place, but we are still operating in Trincomalee.
Q: The SLMM visited that site in Mullaitivu that was bombed on Monday (14). Could you tell us what the monitors’ observations were?
A: My monitors up in Kilinochchi visited the area. They saw the premises that was definitely bombed by the Sri Lankan air force. I think we counted 12 bombs which was confirmed. They were mostly fragmentation bombs which explode in the air and spread out a lot of pellets or fragments. They were dropped at premises that have been or is said to be an orphanage although at that time it was not used as such because there were no children there. According to the LTTE, it was used to train young women in first aid. Nobody was left when we came to the site, but obviously people have been killed there. I cannot count the number. I doubt it was 61, as claimed by the LTTE for several reasons.
Q: Was there any evidence to prove it was an LTTE training camp of some kind?
A: It was a training camp – but for first aid. We found no traces at all for military training or military equipment.
Q: There is a popular notion that the SLMM is quick to pounce on the government but is less harsh with the Tigers’ misdemeanours. Your comments?
A: If you go through our rulings on these matters you will find that we are as quick on the LTTE. The government is rather happy when we punch the LTTE and critical when we punch them. Sometimes the formal ruling takes a long time to get the right indication. We are not ruling a case from comments from just one side and I am not too impressed by the police reports that we get and if you look into all the cases we have ruled on, very few have been put forward for prosecution at all. We will never rule on a one sided view on an issue. So I am punched on both sides, I have big problems. I think if you had an impartial judge, he would say that we are not biased.
Q: Norway and the SLMM has been subject to severe criticism from both parties to the conflict over the last four years. Do you think that this is common to any conflict situation or unique to Sri Lanka?
A: I think it happens in all these kind of conflicts, where you blame someone else instead of looking at yourself. We are prepared for that and I don’t take it personally. I have a rather good cover of Teflon and it is a part of the rule I have and the facilitator has. But then of course there is a limit. A lot of people are very badly informed about the mandate of the SLMM or the facilitator and they criticise us. So we understand that.
Q: Where do you think the situation is headed? Is there any hope as far as you see for a resumption of talks?
A: I think the international community is not very happy with the present situation and is not very impressed with the peace work of either the government or the LTTE. I think they should stop and go back to talks. Because there is no military solution to this conflict. And I can’t understand how so many can believe that. You have tried for 25 years and it hasn’t worked. I think people should learn from history.