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War Crimes, War Heroes and Soldiers

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“This insane regime, this tangle of cowardice, blindness, craftiness and stupidity…..”
Count Sergius Witte (Memoirs)

( June 12, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The UNP and the JVP have it right. The government must face the UN war crimes investigation. There is nothing to be achieved – and quite a bit to be lost - through non-participation. 

Whether Colombo cooperates or not, the investigation will go ahead and a verdict will be given. Some of the extreme Diaspora elements will make the case for the LTTE. As the UNP pointed out, Colombo must use the investigation as an opportunity to make the case against the LTTE. And as JVP parliamentarian Vijitha Herath stated, “It would be the responsibility of the government to counter accusations made by UN Panel of Experts….(and) Channel 4 News” .

The UN investigation is unlikely to be anywhere as lopsided as a Rajapaksa investigation. The Rajapaksas are likely to receive a far greater degree of fairness and justice from the UN panel than CJ Shirani Bandaranayake did from the Rajapaksas.

But cooperation would mean allowing the panel into the country. Cooperation would mean letting the panel talk to both alleged victims and alleged perpetrators, including ordinary Lankan soldiers.

Such openness would harm neither Sri Lanka nor Lankan military, as an institution.

The real issue is something else. Can the Rajapaksas afford such openness?

Forget civilian Tamils. If the soldiers are allowed to talk freely, what will they say?

The Rajapaksas are in this predicament primarily because of their insistence on absolute impunity. Had President Rajapaksa not stymied his own Commission of Inquiry in 2009, the need for a UN investigation would not have arisen.

In November 2007, Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed an eight-member Presidential Commission, headed by Justice Nissanka Udalagama to investigate 16 cases of human rights violations. The Udalagama Commission, amidst many obstacles, managed to investigate seven of the cases. There was more work to be done and, as Justice Udalagama told the media, previously extensions were granted as a matter of course. But within a month of defeating the LTTE, the President allowed his own Commission to lapse into non-existence through the simple expedient of not extending its life. The Commission’s interim report never saw the light of day.

The Commission was appointed due to international pressure. As long as the war was on, the regime needed to maintain a façade of accountability and transparency. Once the war was over the Commission became redundant in Rajapaksa eyes. 

It is also possible that the Ruling Siblings had misgivings about what the Commission would uncover and conclude. The comments made by Justice Udalagama to the media, after the Commission ceased to exist, are of relevance in this regard: “In the killing of the 17 aid workers, ‘we are unable to pinpoint and tell exactly who it is, but there are certain possibilities,’ he said. In the slaying of five young people in the eastern city of Trincomalee, he said, ‘What we think is that someone in uniform did it,’ implicating the security forces. Investigations into some of the cases were hampered because witnesses fled abroad and the government stopped allowing the commission to take testimony via videoconferencing, he said” .

If the Udalagama Commission was allowed to do its work, there would not have been any need for a UN investigation. The international investigation became inevitable because the Rajapaksas hampered and throttled their own national investigation.

But if the Udalagama Commission had been allowed to fulfil its stated mandate, what the Rajapaksas wanted concealed, for their sakes, might have been revealed.

Desertions and Crimes

The Rajapaksas are absolute masters at equating Lankan, Sinhala-Buddhist and military interests with their own. 

According to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the calls for military demobilisation, post-war, are part of an international plot to ‘destabilize’ Sri Lanka. “An irate Rajapaksa said that large scale demobilization would cause a major social upheaval. ‘Can any sensible government send home those who risked their lives in the battlefield. Demobilization can cause uncertainty and political turmoil, thereby undermine social as well as economic stability. Perhaps, those working closely with the LTTE rump expected us to send men home believing such a course of action will lead to a major crisis.’”

Demobilisation need not mean throwing soldiers out of a job. A different type of demobilisation, which benefits both the soldiers and society, is possible.

Demobilisation need not be compulsory; it can be voluntary, like the early retirement schemes implemented by civilian state institutions. And if the high number of desertions, post-war, is anything to go by, a properly planned early retirement scheme will find many takers in the army.

Al Jazeera (‘Crime among Sri Lanka soldiers on rise’ by Dinouk Colombage) reports that there have been close to 30,000 military desertions since the war ended. Increasing crime rate is a related problem: “Police statistics suggest that in the first four months of 2014, nearly 18 percent of reported crimes were committed by the members of the armed forces – a large increase on the 5 percent reported for the whole of 2013”

According to Sri Lanka’s effortlessly Orwellian military spokesman, desertion is not really desertion: “Many of our soldiers are from rural areas. They are often absent during the harvest period because they are helping their families….. More often than not they return once the harvesting is complete.”

So the Rajapaksa regime, which gave the world such peerless verbal-gems as ‘Humanitarian operation with zero-civilian casualties’ and ‘Welfare Villages’, has produced another marvel – Seasonal Desertions. Soldiers run away from the military during harvesting season; soldiers come back to the military after the harvesting season.

Wouldn’t it be much better to set up a ‘golden handshake’ type voluntary early retirement scheme for soldiers and officers who had served in the war? Those who want to use the option can be given full pension rights as well as opportunities to continue with their education or obtain some useful vocational training. There can even be a special ‘start-up’ loan scheme to provide financial assistance to soldiers who want to engage in small scale agricultural/industrial/commercial ventures.

And if, as the inimitable military spokesman says, soldiers desert during harvesting season, wouldn’t it be better to give such soldiers extended leave during the harvesting season? That way they can retain their jobs and help their families with harvesting, without becoming criminals. After all, it is not as if there is a war to be fought.

Instead of demobilising, the Rajapaksas are trying to expand the military even further. ‘Api Army’ is the name given to the next step in the Rajapaksa effort to turn Sri Lanka into ‘a khaki- clad country’ . The programme aims to recruit professionals into the military as volunteers.

Sri Lanka does not need a mammoth military. The Rajapaksas do - as the final guarantor of familial power and as a source of cheap, rightless almost bonded labour.

Little wonder soldiers desert in droves.

When the Rajapaksas say that they oppose an international inquiry for the sake of war-heroes they are insulting the absolute majority of ordinary soldiers who fought in the war, without committing any war-crimes. They – and the country - should not be used to provide a patriotic cover for Rajapaksa abominations.

  1. http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=104898
  2. AP – 16.6.2009
  3. http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=98685
  4. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/06/crime-among-sri-lanka-soldiers-rise-2014636328915708.html
  5. Ibid
  6. From Joseph Brodsky’s poem, Allenby Road
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