Rajeewa Jayaweera, in Sunday Island, 24 May 2020, with this title, “Lest we forget those who gave their tomorrow for others to have a tomorrow”
The high-profile commemorative event, held at the National War Heroes’ Monument, in Battaramulla, came as a breath of fresh air after the absence of an event on such a scale for five years. It was also the 11th anniversary of this nation’s victory over terrorism. Justification for the use of the word ‘victory,’ decried by some, is provided later.
There had been sporadic incidents previously. However, hostilities between the armed forces and LTTE commenced with the ambush of Four Four Bravo military patrol in Thirunelveli by the terrorist group on July 23, 1983, using a roadside bomb. One officer and twelve soldiers lost their lives. Shortly after the funerals of the dead soldiers on July 24 evening, pogroms against members of the Tamil community starting in Borella and quickly spreading across most of the island, began. It was the point of no return.
By the time guns fell silent on May 17, 2009, as many as 28,619 members of the army, navy, air-force, and police had made the supreme sacrifice. Thousands more were permanently disabled for life. The cost in lives to the armed forces during the final phase from Mavil Aru to Nandikadal between August 2006 and May 2009 amounted to 6,261 dead and 29,551 wounded.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during his address at Battaramulla, quite rightly stated the following. “In a small country like ours, where our war heroes have sacrificed so much, I will not allow anyone or organization to exert undue pressure on them and harass them.”
That said, the very next sentence was a grave error. “If any international body or organization targets our country and our war heroes using baseless allegations, I will also not hesitate to withdraw Sri Lanka from such bodies or organizations” was a blunder of Himalayan proportion. The net result of such a withdrawal from international bodies will result in Sri Lanka isolating itself. Even our friends will not be able to defend and support us in such forums in our absence.
A clear distinction is necessary to judge members of our armed forces. Regardless of views expressed by members of the international community, Sri Lanka must stand firmly behind our men in uniform for their actions during the closing stages of the conflict.
However, that is not a free pass for soldiers to indulge in criminal activity at will. Any crimes not related to the conflict and those committed after May 19, 2009, must be dealt with using the full force of the law. Bravery, heroism, and contributions during the conflict should not have any bearing in their prosecution.
When we judge members of our armed force, a singularly important factor regularly overlooked is the fact, soldiers too, are human beings. However, the moment they don a uniform, their fundamental rights are taken away due to the nature of their profession. All other professions permit varying degrees of worker’s rights.’ Some demand and are awarded extra remunerations for additional work. Others demand ‘Risk Allowances’ when exposed risks and ‘Hardship Allowances’ to serve in difficult areas. Supreme Court Judges may recuse themselves for what some call ‘Personal Reasons.’ Soldiers have no such privileges and do not have the right to make any demands. Article 100 of the Army Act permits the prosecution of any member of the army under military law for disobeying a lawful order. There are similar Articles in the Air Force and Navy Acts.
It is often said that soldiers are aware (or should be) of the risks involved when joining the forces. Doctors, Engineers. Teachers etc. are all aware of the difficulties they would face, once in employment, but regularly make unreasonable demands. Therefore, it is of paramount importance to consider the needs of our soldiers with understanding and consideration.
One of the photos used today indicates a mass of humanity crossing a lagoon. It is a group [that is a segment] of the 250,000 to 300,000 Tamil human shields rescued by the armed forces from the LTTE. They returned alive as government forces took extra precautions when engaging Tiger forces. According to Lt. Col. Anton Gash, Military Attaché of the British High Commission at the time, government forces suffered higher casualties due to their efforts to minimize civilian deaths. Eleven years later, only a few talks of it. Not even those rescued seem to remember it.
It is time to return to the issue of the use of the term ‘Victory.’ Do the 250,000 + men, women, and children held hostage as human shields by LTTE and saved by the army to live another day consider it a victory or defeat? Do the parents now able to send their children to school with no fear of enforced conscription, consider it a victory or defeat? The Provincial Council for the Northern Province became a reality in 2011, something unthinkable during the previous 28 years. Victory must be understood in such a context. It is a victory for the Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher communities, and a defeat for LTTE terrorism and those pursuing the Eelam dream. There are still some dreamers around.
During the five years of Yahapalana, we witnessed several incidents unseen and unheard of in civilized nations. Disabled soldiers, demanding solutions to pension anomalies, took to the streets. They protested opposite the Fort Railway Station, as seen in the attached photo. After eight consecutive days, they marched nay hobbled on the President’s Officer. Baton-wielding Policemen met them on arrival. In September 2019, the Colombo Fort Magistrate issued an order preventing them from entering any state institution. Their demands may or may not have been reasonable. Nevertheless, matters should never have been allowed to come to such a situation. Not even ISIS treats their own in such a fashion.
There are thousands of wounded veterans. Some are blind, some crippled, and others maimed for life. There are many foreign-funded housing projects to build houses for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), mostly from the Tamil community. Both the Indian and Sri Lankan governments have also been constructing homes for them on state land. Nevertheless, neither the 2010-15 Mahinda Rajapaksa government nor the 2015-2019 Yahapalana government introduced a project to provide land and build houses at state expense for these veterans. What prevented both regimes from constructing at least 5,000 homes a year for these ex-soldiers who gave their tomorrow for others to have a tomorrow? They do not require grandiose speeches on May 19 each year. What they need is at least a roof above their heads provided by the state they so bravely defended.
Napoleon Bonaparte, French statesman and the renowned general when asked to explain the lack of great statesmen in the world, said the following. “To get power, you need absolute pettiness. To exercise power, you need to show true greatness. Such pettiness and greatness are rarely found in one person.”
Sri Lanka has not had such a person in all its 72 years since independence.