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Did we fail to market the atrocities of the LTTE?


The world is still sympathetic to the terror organization LTTE

India with strong marketing caught the world attention on Mumbai 26/11

War has cost Sri Lanka 70,000 lives and cost US$200 billion to the economy

The Diaspora is only 1 million but Sri Lanka has 20 million voices

Last week when I saw my former colleague from the Government Peace Secretariat appearing before the "Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC)’ and later that evening we saw the adverse publicity on BBC and CNN, it was very evident that global perception were very sympathetic towards the LTTE. It was then that I decided that it is my duty to write these thoughts, given that we were part of the larger team that fought the war with the LTTE.

What the world repeatedly forgets is that the LTTE has brutally killed over 70,000 Sri Lankans which includes presidents, leading Tamil intellectuals, foreign ministers, clergy, school children, mercantile employees and civilians and is a banned organization in over twenty five countries around the world. Whilst this is the reality, the question is why the world is yet sympathetic to the LTTE and this is an issue we have to resolve if we are serious about making Sri Lanka the Wonder of Asia.

The Cause

Some say it is the 1 million strong Diaspora that is linked to a global network of financial terrorism that is brewing the global agenda against Sri Lanka, whist another view is that Sri Lanka has failed to market the atrocities committed by the LTTE during the last thirty years. Both views have their own merits but something that’s more within our control is the latter, and if we can correct it with responsibility, then we can say that Sri Lanka is actually investing on building Brand Sri Lanka.

The logic being that the Diaspora is only a million plus whilst we have twenty million plus strong Sri Lankan voices means that we can out smart the Diaspora’s voice twenty times over, but due to an absence of a coherent plan in the last 30 years we as a nation have failed. On the other hand, we saw how India with an integrated communication campaign shook the world on 26/11 when terrorists stormed a high-end hotel in Mumbai. This is the gap Sri Lanka needs to fill in my mind.

With my own eyes

I have seen many theories that keep flying in the media but I had the unique experience of actually seeing and feeling the jaws of war and it’s an experience that sure beats my global multinational track performance that won me many local and global leadership awards. Our challenge in the Economic Unit of the Government Peace Secretariat was to keep the Northern Economy afloat so that the LTTE could not infiltrate and create issues in Jaffna which would effect the ground operations that were being intensified by the security forces. There were many times that our aircraft came under enemy fire on route to Jaffna. Once on the ground, we moved around in an ‘unicorn’ or an ‘armed tank’ so that we were protected. Though it sounds interesting, in reality it was a challenging way to travel, especially when the outside terrain was so beautiful in Jaffna.

With all the issues we yet staged industrial exhibitions, trade visits by the private sector and chamber meetings. By the end of the 1st quarter 2009 we had over 142 companies either appointing an agent in Jaffna for business or setting up a branch so that the cash-rich Jaffna population could be reached. Today, Jaffna is swamped with businesses from the south and this has resulted in a 15% plus growth in GDP value in the last three years, which is testimony that the LTTE could not create an economic war in Jaffna. We, as a team, did not allow this to happen.

There was one incident that will not leave me for a very long time to come. In March 2009 we had taken the game of Cricket to Jaffna and the big names of cricket were in Jaffna training a squad of 76 youngsters. I had just landed in Palalay and reached St John’s College when I was once again summoned back to base given that the C-130 aircraft had to turn around to Anuradhapura to pick up the severely injured soldiers from the battle front. Once the logistics were in place I spoke to a soldier who was placed just beside me with his leg amputated. He wowed to return and finish the task assigned. I kept close contact with him after reaching Colombo, but sadly he succumbed to his injuries.

This close encounter strengthened my hatred towards the LTTE and in mid May when I saw the photographs flashed in the media of the last battle once the security forces had dissipated the LTTE, I felt justice had been done to that soldier that I knew and had sacrificed his life for his country.

Unfortunately, this is what the world did not know. This is why I argue that Sri Lanka has failed to market the atrocities committed by the LTTE during the last thirty years and hence the microscopic attitude of the western world towards us.

Mumbai 26/11 shook the world

On the other hand, the power of media and creativity of broadcasting channels like NDTV in India, were able to elucidate world attention and even drive global leaders to make sudden visits into the country post ‘Mumbai 26/11’. In fact I feel we need to pick up a few strategy lessons from India on how they sensationalized the Mumbai attack with a continuous flow of information that kept the interest of the viewer almost, almost like a James Bond movie. India was able develop a brand name and register it in the minds of global viewers called ‘Mumbai 26/11’. It became the most marketed event at that time.

Even though the terrorist attack on Mumbai took away only 193 lives as against the thousands of lives in Sri Lanka, we saw the whole world waging war on Pakistan with even US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice making a hurried visit to India and calling on Pakistan to hunt down the terrorist organizations that were operating on from its soil. Sri Lanka, on other hand, has been under threat of the LTTE for the last 24 years, where the LTTE carried out 1/3rd of all suicide attacks in the world, whilst also being the only terrorist organization that had air power capabilities that attacked the capitol of the country seven times. But sadly, we have never had the response from powerful economies that we saw India was able to elucidate post 26/11.

The question is, is it that the world did not know what Sri Lanka was facing or was it the duplicity of the world super powers that was fuelled by the Diaspora in each of those countries?

What the world does not know about the LTTE

If I may pick up the most horrifying facts about the 24-year of life of the LTTE they would be; the killing of 120 devotees in the Buddhist sacred city in 1985, 110 people killed in the bomb blast in Pettah, 70 Muslims killed in the Kattankudy mosque, the Central Bank attack killing 86 people and injuring 1,338 which far exceeds the Mumbai casualties on 26/11 which was only a 193 people that got killed.

It would be interesting to analyze the share of media space that Sri Lanka was able to get in the world’s media as against 26/11 to determine where Sri Lanka had slipped. A point to be highlighted is that even when the LTTE assassinated one of the greatest sons of India, Rajiv Gandhi, or when in 2007 a group of diplomats accompanied by a cabinet minister came under fire in Batticaloa by the LTTE, we could not garner the media exposure that Mumbai 26/11 attracted. There was much done by many quartets, but the impact did not shake the world. Even after the attack, research reveals that collection of funds by the LTTE in countries like Switzerland, France, Germany, Australia, Canada and the U.S for funding this terrorist organization’s activities yet continued. Some estimate that the last LTTE P&L has recorded a profit of 200 million dollars.

Whilst pointing the argurement in this direction, I am not fully convinced whether it was our poor marketing efforts in highlighting the atrocities of the LTTE that we have failed to get the eye of the global leaders, or was it the double standards of the powerful economies play that is causing the issues for Sri Lanka.

What Sri Lanka lost?

If we take a look at the cost of the war on the Sri Lankan economy it exceeds a $200 billion. On tourism alone in 1983, Sri Lanka enjoyed 337,530 arrivals whilst a country like Cambodia had around 200,000 tourists at that time. Today Cambodia has over two million tourist arrivals whilst Sri Lanka is at around 0.5 million with a revenue of 43 billion rupees whilst actually, Sri Lanka should have had around 1.8 million tourist by now if not for terrorism, with earnings touching a 200 billion rupees. On a GDP contribution basis it would have contributed almost eight percent to the country. Some one could argue that by marketing the ruthless activities of the LTTE would it have hurt the tourism industry, but given the marginal growth numbers we can easily determine that collateral damage being very limited.

The impact of FDI’s that Sri Lanka could have attracted would have been around 3,000 billion rupees which stacks up to the cost of the war due to Terrorism. If we hypothetically take the 400 billion rupees that that has been spent on the war in the last 3-4 years and divert it to the investment that can be made on Research and Development (R&D) it will be almost 7% of GDP which would have been way above the 4% spend by Industrialized countries like South Korea who have produced power brands like Samsung to the world beating brands like Sony of yesteryear.

SL tried 6 times for peace

Given that I am reading for a doctorate my research clearly demonstrates that a case study must be written on the history of ceasefire agreements that the Sri Lankan governments has entered into and the many times that LTTE walked away. We also need to market this to the world so that we give clarity to this burning issue. I also feel that all universities that teach conflict resolution must take Sri Lanka as a case study where negotiating with a terror organization is a fruitless task.

If I may take you back, the 1st ceasefire was the famous `Thimphu talks’ where LTTE came in solidarity with 5 Tamil Groups - the TULF, PLOTE, EROS, EPRLF and TELO. It ended with LTTE unilaterally walking out but during this time LTTE strengthen themselves and secured total control on the Jaffna peninsula which was called `Operation Liberation’.

The 2nd ceasefire was championed by Hon. Lalith Athulathmudali from the 11th to the 17th April 1987, for the Sinhala/Tamil New Year. The LTTE reciprocated by ambushing three buses at Kithuluttuwa in the Polonnaruwa district, separating the Sinhalese passengers from the others and murdering every one of them and in total 127. Sri Lanka never saw any leader visit Sri Lanka even after this disaster which was way above the 26/11 of Mumbai in my view.

The 3rd ceasefire came into effect with the so called Indo Lanka Accord. The LTTE, which  pretended to surrender arms [while surrendering only their defective and unusable arms] used the confinement of the Sri Lankan troops to barracks in terms of that ceasefire to engagement and there after went on to murder almost 200 Sinhalese and Muslim civilians along the Eastern seaboard between the 1st and 7th October 1987. Once again the world just watched.

The 4th ceasefire was orchestrated by the then President Premadasa from the 1st June 1989 and `Peace Talks’ commenced. The LTTE once again used that ceasefire to strengthen themselves and then abrogated the ceasefire by attacking all police stations in the east on the 11th June 1990 and murdering about 678 unarmed police officers who had laid down arms and surrendered to them.

The 5th ceasefire came into effect under the leadership of President Kumaratunga in January 1995 that once again resulted in the LTTE sinking two naval gun-boats anchored at Trincomalee, murdering 12 sailors and thereafter murdered 264 members of the security forces and 57 civilians in 27 separate attacks over the next 39 days. Subsequently the LTTE with surface to air missiles brought down two Avro aircraft on the 28th and 29th April 1994 murdering 99 persons including two journalists which one again the world watched with the Sri Lankan Economy reeling.

The 6th and last ceasefire that Sri Lanka saw was in 2002 under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that once again the LTTE violated that ceasefire murdering Sri Lanka security force personnel, informants and political opponents and led to the act that LTTE will never forget – shutting off water at the Mavil Aru anicut in August 2006.

This was when the turning point to the LTTE atrocities in Sri Lanka came to a grinding halt with the Sri Lanka becoming one to fight the LTTE whilst the world once again watched. Today LTTE is part of the history of the country but its global network remains in tact due to the support of certain global super powers.

Next Steps

Hence it is very evident that Sri Lanka has been marginalized by the global media. But now what is required is quick action to correct the world perception so that Sri Lanka can focus on the development agenda and there by become the Wonder of Asia. Some of the typical steps that can be actioned are as follows;

  1. Sri Lanka must develop a white paper on the last days of the war with the consultation of terrorism experts Prof. Rohan Gunaratne and my cousin Shanaka Jayasekera who was the Director Policy in the Government Peace Secretariat and now in his final year on his doctorate on terrorism funding.
  2. This may sound controversial but we must have a museum on the atrocities of the LTTE that once ravaged the phase of Sri Lanka for almost 30 years. This can be a key visit to the 2.5 million tourists that will come to Sri Lanka in the near future.
  3. Set up an Anti Terrorism secretariat for SAARC in Colombo and have a unit that monitors the global funding that happens even today for terrorism in South Asia.
  4. KP must be used to engage the Diaspora and thereby induce investment into the North so that a sense of ownership is given to this group of Sri Lankans who can be the ambassadors for New Sri Lanka one day.
  5. Develop a ‘Peace Collection’ of the merchandise from the Vanni and market via a web site or through eBay.
  6. Commerrate the politicians that has been assassinated by the LTTE including leading Tamil business personalities.
  7. Finally, to build a new attitude towards Sri Lanka lunch a Nation Branding strategy for the country.

~ ~ By Rohantha Athukorala


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