Silence of an Ungrateful Nation

By Rajeewa Jayaweera

Nine years ago to this day, guns in the north fell silent. LTTE terrorists who had ravaged the country for almost thirty years were defeated by members of armed forces and police. Over 25,000 officers and men made the supreme sacrifice. Many more thousands suffered serious injuries impacting the rest of their lives.

In less than ten years, the heroic and valiant contribution of these men in defending and preserving the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity has receded to a distant memory in the minds of both the government and general populace.

The plight of disabled ex-servicemen, deprived of pension rights due to retirement resulting from permanent combat injuries prior to completion of the stipulated ten and twelve-year service periods is a case in point. In sheer desperation, these men launched a hunger strike on October 31, 2016. Four days later those not too weakened by hunger tried to march on the Defence Ministry only to be met by baton-wielding policemen, using water cannon and tear gas. The powers that be were quick to condemn the protest march as politically motivated.

Politically motivated or not in this instance is irrelevant. What’s relevant is, each one of us including our exalted politicians is able to move about freely in this country today, due to the sacrifices made by these ex-servicemen. They gave up their arms, legs and eyes in the line of duty. The former President, former Defense Secretary, current President, current Prime Minister and baton wielding Field Marshal among others, would not move out of their abodes without being surrounded by at least a dozen soldiers/STF men. They owe their lives to these brave men who risked life and limb to protect them. Yet, none of them, during both the previous and current administrations considered formalizing pension rights of these men, important enough, until matters were brought to a head with a hunger strike and protest march. Matters should never have been permitted to reach a stage, for ex-servicemen to embark on a hunger strike displaying their prosthetic arms and legs on the pavement.

Much more importance and priority is given by governments to expedite import of luxury vehicles for ministers costing millions and increasing allowances of parliamentarians. The payment of pensions to parliamentarians after five years in office, many without basic qualifications required even to be a bus driver, while depriving those who gave their arms, legs and eyes of their pensions is a travesty of natural justice.

It is this government which is guilty of politicizing the whole issue. Whereas Rs 2 million is paid to kith and kin of 16 prisoners who died in the Welikada prison riot in July 2012 and 20 injured prisoners paid Rs. 500,000 each, kith and kin of soldiers killed in action during the last stages of the civil war received Rs 150,000 compensation, 50% to the spouse and balance 50% among children.

A conservative figure of 250,000 or roughly 11% of the Sri Lankan Tamil population in the country, held hostage by LTTE terrorists as human shields were freed and brought to safety by members of the armed forces in one of the biggest humanitarian operations anywhere in the world. Yet, amidst the clamor for war crime trials and investigation of enforced disappearances, there is no mention of lives saved by those government soldiers from the clutches of their ‘sole representatives’, by TNA stalwarts, diaspora or even those rescued.

The Indian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which gives legal immunity to soldiers operating in ‘disturbed’ areas, introduced in 1958, was negated by the Indian Supreme Court in July 2016. The central government has since endeavored to have the negation lifted. Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi in a recent submission to a bench headed by Chief Justice JS Khehar stated, “The Indian Army has to, in given circumstances, take quick decisions which cannot be dissected later on like an ordinary murder appeal. In other words, the scope of judicial review against active military operations cannot be on the same parameters as in other situations. Therefore, action taken by Army during operations cannot be put to judicial scrutiny.” He concluded stating “in a combat operation against militants and insurgents, who were armed with weapons, Army personnel needed to deal with full force.”

The Indian Attorney General’s argument is equally valid, may it be for members of Indian or Sri Lankan armed forces. Our less capable Minister of Foreign Affairs not articulating a similar argument during the UNHRC Resolution 30/1 which he co-sponsored, can only be termed as criminal negligence.

On the issue of disappearances, it is more conjecture than evidence which supports many claims of disappearances for which members of armed forces are being accused. It is not to say such cases do not exist. However, how is it possible to differentiate genuine disappearances from those manufactured to cover up for thousands who fled to the west and sought political asylum? Most turned up in the west without identity papers and provided bogus names rather than their own. Many of them in reality were economic asylum seekers or those fleeing LTTE conscription. Yet for asylum purposes, they claimed to have fled persecution by the government, armed forces and the Sinhalese. It is also one of the key reasons, western embassies in Colombo failed to successfully investigate and report to their respective countries on asylum applications, when directed to do so by judicial authorities in those countries. Many such asylum seekers could be listed as having been abducted by the armed forces.

How could a credible investigation be carried out on disappearances, enforced or otherwise unless western countries provide details of those granted asylum? This is yet another aspect our worthy Foreign Minister failed to highlight in Geneva.

Sri Lankan leaders have failed to raise the issue of prosecuting Adele Balasingham, former leader of LTTE women’s wing. She was responsible for recruitment of child soldiers, an offense under international law. She now lives in retirement in the UK with no fear of prosecution. Veteran journalist DBS Jeyaraj is on record stating “It is a sad fact that the cream of Tamil society was destroyed extensively as traitors by the LTTE. Members of the Tamil political elite killed by the Tigers outnumber those killed by the Sri Lankan or Indian armed forces.” There are former high level LTTE operatives living in Sri Lanka and overseas. Their parents will not want them prosecuted. Those living in the North and East have not uttered even once, the need to prosecute the likes of Balasingham and others among the living, who forcibly took their children away or assassinated their relatives and moderate leaders. The underlying factor is, they are opposed to the prosecution of LTTE cadre. They are considered ‘our’ children, regardless of crimes committed. Members of the armed forces and police facilitated the safe environment for those in the North and East to lead a near normal life and the freedom they now enjoy. Yet, the cry for prosecution as they are considered ‘their’ children.

It must be stated that members of armed forces and policemen suspected of individual crimes, committed in their personal capacity need to be prosecuted with the full force available under criminal law and no leniency shown when passing sentence, once guilt has been established. That includes those involved in carrying out enforced disappearances unless they are prepared to turn state witness and divulge all facts and identities pertaining to those who gave orders. Both previous and present governments are guilty of dragging their feet. Armed Forces continue to hold land belonging to Tamil people in the North and East nearly a decade after the end of hostilities, without making a decision of what is required and returning what is not.

None of these factors justify the manner in which, disabled ex-servicemen have been treated. The army navy, air force and police responded to the call to duty and successfully defended the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation. It now is the turn of the government and people to defend these institutions, men and women who served so valiantly.

To do otherwise would damn us all to eternal shame.

It would be appropriate to state (with apologies to Winston Churchill), never before in the history of conflict in Sri Lanka, was so much owed, by so many, to so few

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