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Civilian Demands on High Security Zones are Based on Expediency while Military Positions rely on Experience

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In its working plan on the LLRC Report, the Army’s Board of Officers has said that there could be no question of shifting military camps out of the North and the East.

Defending the Government’s ‘absolute right’ to maintain its armed forces ‘anywhere in the Island, according to the country’s strategic and security needs,’ the Board has also noted that ‘military bases are located causing minimum inconvenience to the public’ in the regions impacted by the ‘Humanitarian Operation,’ which others however call the ‘ethnic war.’

The Sri Lankan State and Government do not require any defence of its ‘absolute right’ on locating military bases, least of all from the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) itself. It could at times be deemed to be precluding all future discussions on the subject, within the government, as much as without. It is another matter internal discussion between the armed forces and civilian authorities could still lead to decisions that are acceptable to all sides. Ultimately, it would still have to be a governmental decision, over which the government alone has the ‘right’ to defend itself in public – now, or later.

On the issue of High Security Zones (HSZ), the observations in the SLA report, handed over by Army Chief, General Jagath Jayasuriya, to Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, may have to be accepted at face-value. More however may need to be done. On this, the government, the armed forces and civilian groups in the North and the East could discuss and decide upon the issues flagged by the local population without compromising on the ‘security concerns’ aired by the armed forces.

The civilian demands are based on expediency, the military positions, on experience. A balance needs to be struck if one were not to run into the other, thus creating ground situations that had contributed to war and violence in the past. The report does not seem to have considered any via media, other than the sweeping claims of the armed forces that all is well on the HSZ front. The government, in its wisdom, may have to revisit the situation on the ground, without of course compromising on the real and realistic concerns of the armed forces.

What is not mentioned in the report of the Army’s Board of Officers, but concerns the local population, is what the Sri Lankan Tamil polity describes as the excessive, intruding and at times intimidating presence of the armed forces in the midst of civilians, who want to slice away the nightmares from the past, open a new leaf and begin a new life without guns and uniforms in their midst. A noble thought this, but it is not without consequences and cannot be without compromises.

The Tamil polity and the population have had their arguments their way far too long for them to make sense of the counters offered either by the Sri Lankan State and/or the majority Sinhala polity and society. They seem to have developed an integral knack for rejecting government offers when made, but reviving the same as their acceptable position after much water – and human blood – had flowed through. This has given them an image of being duplicitous – the same charge that they have also been throwing at the government and the Sinhala polity, equally from the start. The 13-A is a pointer.

In the post-war era, too, and on the role of the armed forces, too, the Tamil political position, as represented by the majority Tamil National Alliance (TNA), has not been any different. They have been throwing up one issue after another, be it the continued existence of army camps, the ‘intimidating’ presence of soldiers on the streets, or the HSZ, once there is some satisfactory, if not wholly satisfying response, from the other side. Whether purposeful or otherwise, the end result is to choke the officialdom, civil or military, under a heap of piled-up demands, and frustrating the most well-intentioned of governments and Sinhala political and governmental leadership(s).

It was thus after some silence the TNA, for instance, clarified that the party was not opposed to the continued existence of army camps in the North and the East, but only to the ‘excessive and intrusive’ presence of the soldiers on the streets. Yet, it is unclear if the Tamil political demands, one after the other, are aimed at resolving one issue after another – or, to throw one issue over the other, to keep the government in general, and the armed forces in this particular case, eternally on the defensive, and more so in the eyes of the international community.

Secretary Gota R has almost simultaneously said how the ‘civilian deaths’ in the last days of ‘Eelam War IV’ could possibly be accounted for by the LTTE fighters. This need not be far from the truth, considering the ways and means of the LTTE war-machine. Coming as it does long after earlier government claims to a ‘zero-casualty war’ on the civilian front, it is unclear as to how many member-states at Geneva’s UNHCR will be prepared to buy the argument, when the latter reopens the Sri Lanka HR discourse in March.

Yet, there is purchase in the SLA submission that Sri Lanka may have to frame domestic laws to address human rights concerns, going beyond what is implied as the responsibility and accountability solely of the State actor. It may also be time the international community took note of the same, and initiated amendments to existing global conventions, which were mainly derived from the European experience in and from the Second World War era. There are other nations bracketed likewise, near and afar, as Sri Lanka has been.

The international community (read: West) however cannot itself escape the charge either, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Vietnam – and atomising Japanese civilians, not very long ago. In Sri Lanka, in between, the armed forces could not have escaped the cold-blooded massacre of the JVP cadres, boys and girls in the reproductive age-group, in their tens of thousands. One wrong cannot right another, and any avoidable loss of human lives cannot be allowed to repeat itself.

As Secretary Gota has pointed out, the bodies of 3,000 officers and soldiers declared dead in war are yet to be traced. Again, a valid argument, not forcefully presented to the global community, either when the war ended or when HR-related charges began to be thrown at the government, almost thereafter. It seems as if the government won the strategic war against the LTTE on the military front, but could not win the tactical battle in the global political arena. It had the stomach for the former, not the will for the latter, or so it seems.

It could well possibly be a case of mixed and missed priorities. The international community should also ask itself if they could be happy with winning a tactical political war at Geneva or elsewhere, and conclude that they have won the war for the hearts and minds of the larger Sri Lankan population, if ever that is their goal – whatever the reason. It does not add up, if one were also to consider that most nations, and their leaders, charging Sri Lanka on the ‘accountability’ front are doing so, not only because they have the goodness of the heart, or kindness for the hapless Tamil civilian people in Sri Lanka, but they also have Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora constituencies that are both vociferous and numerous, back home.

The recommendation in the army report that the police should continue to remain under the Defence Ministry also needs to be reconsidered on larger merits. The argument that small and troubled nations have been successful where the police are under the Defence Ministry may be supported by circumstantial performance, and unsupported by realistic assessment of individual nations and their performances under given circumstances.

‘police’ in the hands of the provincial administration is a part of the solution to the ‘ethnic issue,’ was not ever a part of the problem. And most small nations of the description given by the Army Board do not have armies as large as Sri Lanka, that too for a nation of its size. While continuing with the effective coordination of the kind that existed at the time of war might help, it does not behove well for a proclaimed democracy to say that it has policemen reporting to the Defence Ministry, when the State does not see any war or violence looming large even in the distant horizon.

It is not just about individuals who are effective at the top. It is about institutions that have to function, as such. In situations that are unfathomable, such an arrangement could also become a burden in more ways than one. For starters and for the present, delineation would help in recapturing the imagination of the police as a civilian force, easily approachable by, and comforting to the civilian population. Not just the Tamil minorities, but even the Sinhala population in the run-up to the JVP insurgencies had felt alienated from and by the police, for possibly no fault of theirs.

What’s of consequence should be Army Chief, General Jayasuriya’s reiteration that more Tamils would be recruited into the armed forces. The question would remain if the strength of the numerically-large military should be increased even more, for accommodating new entrants. A media report has said that over 32,000 soldiers have been discharged as ‘deserters’ after the mandatory one-year period, and that they were less than half of the total number of deserters, who too would be discharged if they did not desire to continue – but after being put through appropriate rehabilitation courses.

The government has refused to come out with figures, while sought in Parliament. If true, the international community should be happy for it – and also acknowledge the same. When ‘Eelam War IV’ was nearing conclusion, there were those who had begun comparing post-war Sri Lanka with Pakistan, and would quip, “Now the nation has an armed force, but soon the armed forces could well have a nation to itself.” For that acknowledgement to come, Sri Lanka too should come up with facts and figures.

The kind of rehabilitation course being offered to the ‘army deserters’ may be closer to what is being offered to ex-LTTE cadres and convicts, before they are set free, to begin a new life. It may also be the kind of rehabilitation programme that the army unilaterally seems to have decided that Tamil students arrested from the Jaffna University campus on the LTTE’s ‘Heroes’ Day,’ on November 27, should be put through. The issue thus may be the unilateral decision, and not necessarily the rehabilitation programme, per se.

For their part, the Tamils need to come up with an explanation or clarification as to what they now have to say about the 103 girls recruited to the armed forces not very long ago. No sooner did the girls join the forces, rumours began doing the round – followed by media reports – that some, if not all, those girls had either been raped, or otherwise humiliated. If true, they should still proceed with the matter. It is a shame on those that had made those charges, otherwise. ‘Accountability,’ even in making charges of the kind, cannot be one-sided. Deniability cannot be a convenient excuse – for either side, that is.

(The writer is Director and Senior Fellow at the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation)

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