Countering terrorism in Asia-Pacific: Lanka’s experience
Foreign Affairs Minister Rohitha Bogollagama at the IISS
The speech by Foreign Affairs Minister Rohitha Bogollagama at the
International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La
Dialogue, Singapore on May 31.
Undoubtedly, there are lessons and experiences to be learnt and
dissected, information to be shared, which could greatly enhance the
individual as well as collective capacities and competences of countries
in our region to deal with the challenge posed by terrorism.
Indeed, the debate on the definition of terrorism continues but for
those of you who are professionals in the military and experts on
defence, the primary concern should be with the methods used by
terrorists and the need to contain and eradicate this menace. This would
lead to the formation of a secure and congenial milieu for the region of
Asia Pacific in particular and the world in general.
Since 9/11 and the Bali bombings of 2002, counter terrorism measures
in the Asia-Pacific region have largely centered around the Al-Qaeda
network and Jihadi movement. This has mainly been a consequence of the
US led ‘war on terror’.
The perception is that the Al-Qaeda network is operating in the
predominantly Muslim states and among sections of the Muslim diaspora in
the West and that their actions are mainly targeted against the US and
its allies. I foresee an increasing danger in this approach which
extends almost exclusive focus on the Al-Qaeda network as the agents of
I wish to illustrate the danger of dealing with terrorist groups in a
compartmentalised manner. In June 2000, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam (LTTE) carried out a suicide attack using an explosive laden boat
on the Sri Lanka Navy ship MV Uhana off the coast of Point Pedro in
north of Sri Lanka.
In October of the same year, the Al-Qaeda used an almost identical
method in its attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. The precision targeting
and execution of the attack by the terrorists on the hull of the vessel
by Al-Qaeda operatives was almost identical to the mode of attack
conducted by the LTTE’s sea Tigers.
One could discern from the similarity of attacks that there would
have been a transfer of knowledge and expertise in the field of maritime
terrorism. The Al-Qaeda attacks in Bali and Jordan also demonstrate many
of the hallmarks of suicide technology that have been previously used in
Lebanon and Sri Lanka.
It is too well known of a fact that terrorists are consistently
learning from each other’s tactics and devices, thus assisting one
another, irrespective of diametrically different ideologies and causes
they claim to represent and portray.
In dealing with the post 9/11 challenge, the US and her allies
rightly agreed to deal with the immediate threat with all its military
might and valor, with fully revamped information and intelligence
sharing arrangements, enactment of tough new legislation and laws,
increasing the number of days in detention etc.
The overbearing concern has been to destroy this network, arrest its
leadership and thereby, diffuse the threat of Al-Qaeda.
The attempt to address some of the underlying causes for this hostile
attitude towards the West as reflected in the rhetoric of the Al-Qaeda
leadership by promoting respect and understanding of other cultures and
people has been a parallel political process.
However, it has been clearly independent of the law enforcement
aspect. Today, it is understood by many an experts that military
victories would not necessarily materialise permanent solutions, but
they could create an environment and space for political and economic
solutions to be evolved. This premise could clearly be a strong
justification of the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
I wish to remind you that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)
or Tamil Tigers who operate in Sri Lanka is unique among other ethno
nationalist terror movements in that they are engaged in trans-national
terrorism and have indeed been so long before the emergence of the
Al-Qaeda on to the centre stage of the terrorism discourse.
Long before the 9/11 bombings, the LTTE rammed an explosive laden
truck in January 1996 on the Central Bank building in the heart of
Colombo city killing a number of people and seriously injuring several
Similar suicide missions were executed against our most sacrosanct
Buddhist shrine in January 1998. The LTTE possesses ships crossing
international waters smuggling arms and ammunition, a worldwide
fundraising and propaganda network through sections of the Tamil
diaspora, involved in the global narcotics and illicit drug trade, money
laundering, credit card fraud, human smuggling and a myriad of other
According to Jane’s Intelligence Review, it has described the LTTE as
second only to Columbia’s FARC terrorist group in its income and has
documented that it raises $200-300 million a year for arms procurement
The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan once described terrorist
groups, which capitalise on the nexus between drug trafficking and arms
smuggling as representing a supra national subversive threat to the
humanity. Today, the LTTE has established a presence in the arms black
market and has been servicing several other terrorist groups as well.
Today, the Government has to grapple with the challenge posed by this
terrorist movement, unlike the war on terror, almost single handedly.
The war on terror is heavily resourced by the world’s most powerful
economies, who have identified them as the most potent threat to global
peace and security.
This is due to a lack of awareness and knowledge, in my view, on the
manner in which the terrorist groups network and mostly groups, such as
the LTTE, whose commercial activities are not confined and limited to
the areas, where they are physically waging violence and acts of
Sri Lanka has adopted a similar approach in countering the threat of
terrorism and as a democracy, our people very much supported and have
endorsed the Government’s courses of action. Successive Governments of
Sri Lanka attempted to negotiate with the LTTE to evolve a political
settlement. This would be something alien to the West.
We entered into a ceasefire in 2002 with the LTTE. To restore trust
and confidence as well as transparency, we engaged the Royal Norwegian
Government as the facilitator of our peace process but was of no avail.
The LTTE flagrantly violated ceasefires and used the period to
re-arm, re-group, infiltrate into new areas, conscript children and
launch massive suicide bombings. My predecessor the late Lakshman
Kadirgamar was assassinated in 2005, whilst the ceasefire agreement was
They withdrew unilaterally from negotiations and refused to discuss
core political issues aimed at reaching a political solution to address
their purported grievances. Further, the LTTE vehemently insisted at
talks based on seeking strategically advantageous concessions on the
As Hannah Arendt argued in her book ‘Armed struggles’ terrorists
could be described as persons of violence who had taken extended respite
from politics. They have embraced what she calls the ‘instrumentalities
of violence rather than the complexities of generating political power,
to struggle for doable social and political change’.
What options does a sovereign State have under such demanding and
exacting circumstances and vicissitudes? Harold Rood in his book
‘Kingdoms of the Blind’ cautions on what could happen if democracies
such as ours become negligent and fail to take action to enforce the law
in the face of threat to sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Having stated this premise, it is of no surprise that eternal
vigilance would be the price of liberty and democracy.
Our President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his address to the UN General
Assembly, last year, reminded member States that ‘terrorism anywhere is
terrorism’. With this in view, the Government conducted swift and
efficacious courses of action to clear parts of the Eastern Province in
Sri Lanka, which had been dominated by the LTTE.
The successful clearance of the LTTE from the East by the military
took place with a minimum of civilian casualties.
As a direct result of these courses of action, we have been able to
hold Local Government elections in March this year in areas where the
people were deprived of the opportunity to elect their representatives
for a period of over one and half decades.
Last month, we held Provincial Council elections as well. This has
given rise to the full return to a democratically elected administration
in the East. It has provided the space for the commencement of major
development programmes aimed at empowering the people and creation of
employment, among others, in this province.
It is a significant milestone that the party which won the overall
majority in this province known as the TMVP, is a break away faction of
the LTTE. I am pleased to state that the Government successfully and
sincerely managed to assimilate the political group i.e. TMVP, a group
which had resorted to violence in the past to achieve its means, to the
This course of action would not only establish greater normalcy in
the region but would also enhance greater conformity among the
communities as well as more economic opportunities and new vistas to the
people of the Eastern Province.
This political paradigm shift could be viewed as a transmogrification
of the polity of the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka. The results of the
elections did reflect the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and
multi-religious representation within the council.
This was a text book example of assimilation of once a violent group
to the political mainstream. These gains for democracy would not have
been realised if we had not pursued selected and measured military
action against the LTTE. A similar military operations have been
launched in parts of the Northern Province, where the LTTE continues to
The Government’s resolve is to clear the North of the country from
the LTTE and to restore democracy to these parts of the country as well
whist at the same time leaving the door open for the LTTE to disarm and
enter the democratic process. The Government of President Rajapaksa has
a meticulously structured agenda to pursue and achieve peace.
Let me, however, reiterate that the Government of President Mahinda
Rajapaksa has been fully responsive to the grievances of all communities
in our country and that it has sought to address them through the
process of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC).
The APRC has already made a series of interim recommendations which
includes full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution
which set up the provincial council system and wider use of the Tamil
language in public administration. The APRC process continues to examine
at and scrutinise on several issues, including further devolution of
In order to tenaciously and resolutely implement our counter
terrorism strategy, we have confronted many a challenges. This would be
of no surprise to any country, which confronts one of the most ruthless
The LTTE’s propaganda machine via sections of the diaspora in the
West has attempted to distort our Government’s policy and suggest that
we are seeking to resolve this conflict militarily.
Those gullible to this propaganda have turned a blind eye to the
minimal civilian casualties in the military operations in the East and
the precision targeting by the forces of LTTE installations.
Prompt and proactive measures have been executed by the Government to
investigate allegations of human rights violations via the National
Human Rights Commission as well as the special Presidential Commission
It is our considered view that it could be detrimental to the
interest of the country when some of our friends overseas attempt to
pontificate about conflict resolution, without seeing the clear
distinction between the process of addressing the grievances of our
communities and having to deal with heinous and ruthless terrorist
For record, at the height of the IRA insurgency, the UK Government
launched a massive border surveillance force, arrested terrorist
activists, and interrogated and detained suspects. Stringent emergency
laws were enacted, including the setting up of the non-jury Diplock
In December 1977, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on the
inhumane and degrading treatment of terrorist suspects by the Police in
Northern Ireland. Numerous examples could be drawn from the US-led
military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq from the detentions in
Guantanamo Bay to the accidental bombing of civilian targets around
Kandahar and Basra.
Of course, measured military offensives have certain consequences for
Democracies such as ours. But as Democracies, as I pointed out earlier,
we have an inherent responsibility to protect our people from the
shackles of tyranny and terrorism.
It is in this context, I wished to assess and expound the topic of
this session. We can succeed in countering and suppressing terrorism in
the Asia-Pacific, only if there is an invigoration of cooperation and
concerted efforts in dealing with this trans-national threat.
For all record purposes, Sri Lanka is a signatory to 11 out of 13 of
the UN Conventions for the suppression of various acts of terrorism. We
ratified the SAARC Regional Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism,
way back in 1987 and are now part of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) as
well. Several countries in this region too have proscribed several
terrorist groups, including the LTTE.
I wish to place on record that to a great extent the legal framework
to prosecute terrorist suspects and criminalisation of the various
activities committed by them is in place. Unfortunately, this alone
would not eradicate terrorism in general nor lead to the total
prosecution and annihilation of LTTE in particular. We need closer and
active cooperation in sharing intelligence, exchanging of information
and comparing of developments vis-à-vis and terrorism related
It is extremely vital for countries to proscribe and ban, so called,
‘Front Organizations’ of terrorist groups. Many of these front
organisations, often operate and conduct their functions to raise funds
for charitable purposes. These front organisations, obviously, function
as a pretext of the terrorist organisations.
Needless to state, that these funds would be transferred to the
accounts of the terrorist organisations. I wish to add, that some of
these front organizations function even as legitimate organisations, on
paper, but judiciously shield their end objectives, which are funding of
The Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) operated in the UK,
raising funds for the LTTE. The TRO astutely portrayed themselves as
they were raising funds to uplift the livelihood and empower the people
of the North and the East of Sri Lanka.
The fact of the matter remained that not a single cent had gone to
the said locations but to fund the war chest of the LTTE. I am heartened
to state, at this juncture, today the TRO remains as a proscribed
organisation in the UK. Similarly, the other countries in the West and
in the US had proscribed such front organisations, which extend
financial assistance to varied terrorist groups.
It is often stated by many an expert in terrorism that similar to
fish which cannot live without water, the terrorists cannot live without
funds. It may be presumptuous for me to state to an august gathering
such as this, the front organisations, which extend financial assistance
and other assistance in kind need to be banned and proscribed at the
This is an imperative measure, which countries need to implement if
we were to counter terrorism. On this note, I earnestly and
unequivocally request the countries in the Asia Pacific, in particular,
to ban such suspicious front organisations, after conducting due
diligence of their conduct.
I am of the conviction that greater priority and focus should be
extended to the functions of policing and vigilance in the usage of our
varied sea lanes by terrorists for the smuggling of illicit arms, drug
trafficking and people smuggling. Sri Lanka’s experience is that the
LTTE’s arms shipments transit through many countries in this region,
very often with absolutely no cognizance to the authorities in those
If we were to deter and impede the arms supplies and the movements of
terrorist activists by sea, we need greater assistance and cooperation
of the countries in the Asia Pacific region, in particular.
The other areas of deep concern are money laundering and hawala
banking functions. Needless to state that to address these issues with
the highest degree of efficacy and success, pro-active cooperation and
concerted efforts of the countries in the region of Asia and Pacific are
On the same note, the financial authorities of respective countries,
including central banks, could play a pivotal and instrumental role in
markedly deterring such illegal and illegitimate transactions executed
by all terrorist groups.
In this regard, the financial institutions and banks could strengthen
their respective regulations and make them more transparent, thus
diluting any ambiguous and illegitimate transactions. I believe that
during my address, I have highlighted certain aspects, dynamics and
developments with regard to the experience of Sri Lanka in counter
terrorism in the region of Asia Pacific.
I also believe that I have been able to delineate some aspects and
dynamics of our own experience of counter terrorism, which would
encourage and stimulate further intellectual and pragmatic discussion
and discourse, followed by question and answer session, as customary.