Responding to the report ‘Sri Lanka will not tolerate targeting of war heroes: Gotabaya Rajapaksa’ published on May 20 in The Hindu, the office of the President of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has said the article did not reflect “the real situation”.
The President’s Media Division, in a written response, pointed to its reference to several Sri Lankan soldiers, especially top officers, being accused of human rights violations during and soon after the war, and said: “In any armed conflict, maintaining human rights of an individual is akin to preventing muddy puddles during rain.” Due to the “volatile” nature of warfare, International Humanitarian Laws are “not a set of clear-cut rules in black and white that one may tick off against.” “Instead, it must take into consideration the principles of distinction and legitimate targeting, military necessity and proportionality to judge a military operation for its action,” the statement said, adding that no official documentation had “proven allegations” of war crimes.
On the reference to Mr. Rajapaksa recently pardoning a soldier convicted for the murder of eight Tamil civilians, the statement said, the President had used his powers according to the Constitution. “After taking 13 years to sentence Ratnayake, the court still held reasonable doubts. Sri Lanka pardoned, without trial, 14,500 arrested or surrendered LTTE cadres. Amongst them were those who too had committed similar or worse acts as the one Ratnayake was embroiled. Therefore, for Sri Lanka to pardon Ratnayake also is not unreasonable or unethical,” said the statement.
The reference in the report to Sri Lanka’s Army Commander as “a general accused of war crimes” is “very unfair”, the statement said, noting that the allegations are “unsubstantiated and arbitrary”. The National Ranaviru [‘War heroes’] Day “is not just a day to salute the fallen soldier, but to celebrate the peace that their supreme sacrifice ushered into the country”. Pointing to the report’s description of the LTTE as a “rebel” outfit, the statement said it was a “terrorist” group. Further, contesting the reference to an estimated 40,000 casualties during the final phase of the war, the statement said the figure, cited in past UN reports, was a “guess” and “not an estimate”.
Denying that militarisation was “a lingering concern in post-war Sri Lanka” as mentioned in the news report, the statement said there were “a number of instances where closely bonded relations between the security forces and people in the area had surfaced.”
Sri Lanka will not tolerate targeting of war heroes: Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Tuesday said the country will not hesitate to exit international bodies that continuously “targeted” its soldiers.
“If any international body or organisation continuously target our country and our war heroes, using baseless allegations, I will also not hesitate to withdraw Sri Lanka from such bodies or organisations,” he said, speaking at the 11th anniversary of the end of the civil war, marked as “Ranaviru [War Heroes] Day” in the island’s south.
Human rights violations
Several Sri Lankan soldiers, especially top officers, have been accused of human rights violations during and soon after the war. The UN and international human rights watchdogs have repeatedly flagged serious allegations of rights abuse, pushing the Sri Lankan government on war-time accountability.
In Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-majority south, however, military personnel are hailed as “saviours against terrorism”, and enjoy state patronage.
In March, President Rajapaksa pardoned a solider convicted for the murder of eight Tamil civilians, including children, in 2000. In August 2019, then President Maithripala Sirisena named a General accused of war crimes as the Army commander. Major General Shavendra Silva is currently leading a task force to combat the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
The annual celebratory event to acknowledge the military’s role in ending the separatist war comes a day after northern Tamils observe ‘Remembrance Day’, to pay tributes to several thousands of their relatives, including civilians, killed as the state armed forces took on the rebel LTTE during the nearly three decade-war. In its final phase alone, in May 2009, an estimated 40,000 persons died.
While police in the north asked citizens to avoid gatherings on Monday, and in some cases, questioned those who held prayer meetings — despite physical distancing and masks — the government went ahead with an event at the war memorial near the Parliament in Colombo, with senior military officials and ministers in attendance.
President Rajapaksa said that while leaders of powerful countries had emphatically stated they would not allow any action against their war heroes, he too would not allow anyone to exert undue pressure on “war heroes” of a small country. “Pain of the war is not strange to me,” said the leader, who served in the Army before being appointed Defence Secretary under his brother and current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was President for a decade until 2015.
In a statement released on Monday, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa lashed out at political opponents for creating an “artificial social dichotomy” between ‘military’ and ‘civilian’. “If a retired member of the armed forces is appointed to some position in the government, that is being portrayed by the opposition as militarisation,” he said, referring to criticism of his government’s recent appointments of serving and retired military men to top bureaucratic posts.
Militarisation has been a lingering concern in post-war Sri Lanka, with the Army’s visible involvement in many areas, including agriculture and education.
Mahinda Rajapaksa said the ‘Ranaviru [war heroes]’ constituency was now an integral part of the clergy, doctors, teachers, farmers and workers. “So whenever we happen to be in power, there will always be former members of the armed forces and police holding various positions in the government,” he said, commending the military’s efforts in combating COVID-19 in Sri Lanka.