By Rajiva Wijesinha –
The various reactions to the statement issued by Tamara Kunanayagam and several others about the Weliweriya incident indicate why Reconciliation in Sri Lanka is such an uphill task. One extreme is represented by Kumar David who claimed the statement was hypocritical because it ignored what he described as the tens of thousands of Tamils killed during the war. The other extreme was the view that the statement represented a break with the current government by rats leaving a sinking ship, who will end up with Ranil Wickremesinghe. Meanwhile the email address to which responses were originally requested, email@example.com, was blocked, and it seemed that most Sri Lankan newspapers were wary of carrying the statement.
It is a continuing comfort to be attacked by both sides, since I believe the statement represents the Middle Way. In political terms that is what the Liberal Party as well as Bandaranaike’s original SLFP stood for. It is on the basis of such moderation that the statement was made, and it is in line with the general positions on the national question of Dayan Jayatilleka and Tamara and me, who have unfortunately if perhaps understandably been given prominence together in one website which carried the statement.
With regard to the conflict, we have consistently defended the conduct of our armed forces, while we have also made it clear, most compellingly by Dayan in his book which incorporates the idea in its title, that the Sri Lankan government fought a Just War. Though we have all noted that there were civilian casualties, we have, with evidence, noted that charges of indiscriminate firing etc were absurd.
At the same time we have made it clear that there are some allegations, relating to the period after the conflict, which should be investigated. This is now the position also of the Sri Lankan government, following the Report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, and the Action Plan to implement these recommendations which has been adopted by Cabinet.
Unfortunately government has not followed our advice, which was that we should long ago have fulfilled the commitments it made in 2009, with regard both to political reform and a domestic mechanism to investigate charges (which took far too long to even initiate, and should even now be more transparent). In this context it should be noted that for five years and more we have been pointing out the need for prosecutions with regard to the killing of five youngsters in Trincomalee. It is still a blot on the record of our forces that that crime, which was nothing to do with the army, has not been followed up.
It is entirely in accordance with that position that we have asked for an independent investigation with regard to what happened at Weliveriya, and for punitive action against those responsible for abuses. Our statement also gives the lie to those who claim that the demand for justice with regard to the killings there comes only from those who attacked the government for its conduct of the war. And we continue to believe that we are capable of such an investigation ourselves, and do not need international involvement. Unfortunately, in the course of drafting, one important point was omitted, namely that our failure to act will strengthen the arguments of those who do want international interference – which it is possible some of the perpetrators would not mind, since there can be no doubt that what might be termed the Sarath Fonseka mentality still persists in some pockets.
In this context we were pleased by the forthright remarks on the incident of the new Army Commander, who represents what I consider the best traditions of the army. I say this because, in the thorough briefing he gave me on the strategy adopted in the East, for which he was largely responsible, he showed how civilian casualties were avoided. This helped me to give the lie to Human Rights Watch which had alleged that there were indiscriminate attacks on civilians, whereas its own detailed report made it clear that civilian deaths had occurred in only one instance.
This was when the LTTE had introduced mortars into a refugee centre, and I have no doubt that it was the gullibility – or perhaps the active connivance in the tactics of terrorists – that HRW evinced that encouraged the LTTE to repeat that performance on a larger scale in the North (ie, firing from amongst civilians is a win-win situation, because either the forces do not fire back – which did happen, which is why the last part of the war took so long – or else they do, in self-defence, but HRW and their ilk will claim that there were indiscriminate attacks on civilians).
Our position with regard to Weliveriya is precisely because we believe there is a distinct majority in government as well as amongst the forces who are moderate and believe we should fulfil the commitments made in 2009 by the President to the UN Secretary General as well as to the Indian government. Unfortunately there are a few people who wish to promote confrontation, and by claiming conspiracies without proper evidence, they have involved the armed forces in their Tiger-like tactics.
Thus, for the first time, the army has been responsible for civilian deaths. In our statement we referred to previous incidents after the war, but there were no deaths – as opposed to unwarranted strong arm tactics – in the North, and in the two incidents in the South where single deaths occurred, it was not the army that was responsible. One death could be seen as a contingency, albeit of unacceptable methods when there was no armed conflict, but three deaths smacks of a strategy that must be promptly repudiated.
I have no doubt that the President is as disturbed as we were about the incident, and I know how upset several Cabinet Ministers are. They must take the lead in preventing recurrence.