By Rajan Hoole –
The credibility of the Defence Ministry reached another low point about the time of the October 2000 general elections. The Press reported complaints by senior government politicians, D.M. Jayaratne and Rauf Hakeem, that there was a massive plan to rig the election in the Kandy District in favour of Ratwatte. Even the DIG Police, Kandy, Sirisena Herath, is reported to have pleaded that he was helpless and had asked the complainants to go to the President. The abuses on election day and associated attempts to intimidate the DIG, where Ratwatte’s son was again implicated, were reported both in the Press and by election monitoring groups. After some weeks of hesitation, the President re-appointed Ratwatte deputy minister of defence. The DIG, Kandy, who came under Ratwatte was then transferred.
The men who are risking their life in battle deserve, as the minimum, to have the assurance that their interests are being looked after by persons of competence and integrity. The consequences of cynicism among the rank and file that were evident in the early 1990s, have soon been forgotten. This state of affairs too is most unfair by the people in the battle zone who would be directly affected, as has been the case in the past. It is unfair to impose on the men a minister who has repeatedly given rise to cynicism by being seen to abuse his position for personal gain. Ratwatte should have resigned in early 1997, when after he claimed that there were no human rights violations in Jaffna, Amnesty International produced a detailed list of more than 600 disappearances. Only then could a bona fide inquiry have taken place. The Government is yet to make a case by case response to this list. The miscarriage of Police investigations under Ratwatte, especially the Pera case, has been very costly to the country. One may argue that it was the thin end of the wedge, causing the Government to lose direction.
It is the fault of the entire Government rather than the individual alone. If the country continues to be governed in this manner, acute crises, where the country goes on war-footing to be followed by long hibernation will continue in cycles. This would comprise the greatest threat to human rights, democracy, stability and civilised life. At every crisis scores of civilians are caught up in the fighting, soldiers lose their lives and thousands are displaced. Sinhalese extremist groups make their presence felt to feed on the insecurity and humiliation of the Sinhalese people. The Government adopts some of their rhetoric and goes on a crusade (war- footing) to marginalise the influence of extremist groups, and the fate of the Tamil victims gets drowned.
The Press reported complaints by senior government politicians, D.M. Jayaratne and Rauf Hakeem, that there was a massive plan to rig the election in the Kandy District in favour of Ratwatte. Even the DIG Police, Kandy, Sirisena Herath, is reported to have pleaded that he was helpless and had asked the complainants to go to the President. The abuses on election day and associated attempts to intimidate the DIG, where Ratwatte’s son was again implicated, were reported both in the Press and by election monitoring groups. After some weeks of hesitation, the President re-appointed Ratwatte deputy minister of defence. The DIG, Kandy, who came under Ratwatte was then transferred.
If the Army had to abandon Jaffna town as almost happened in May 2000 and then retake it, many more civilians would have been killed in the fighting. In the Chavakacheri area more than a hundred civilians died in aerial bombing and shelling by both sides. All this was avoidable. Given that the Army has the ability to re-establish control over the Jaffna peninsula after suffering severe reverses, it would have been far easier to avoid the reverses in the first place. Why was this not done?
This again highlights the Government’s lack of vision, lack of understanding and lack of courage in tackling the Tamil question. At the very outset, the Government ought to have gone beyond party loyalty and put into place a team bringing together a variety of expertise, to work on different aspects of the problem. The Government to some extent realised that the primary task was to effect political measures to address the alienation of the Tamil people. The military role was to be subservient to the former. But in practice there was no co-ordination and no plan. The political aims remained mere intentions. On the military side there were impossible deadlines resulting in ad hoc revisions without any serious planning. The back-up services, it turned out, were seriously flawed.
As to what the Tamil people feel about the impact of military operations, the old arrogance has prevailed. If one puts together all that President Kumaratunge, ministers and military spokesmen have been saying since 1995 about incidents which occasioned large Tamil civilian casualties, one would see shades of Lalith Athulathmudali and Ranjan Wijeratne. The continuance of these attitudes shows that even from a pragmatic standpoint no thought has been given to their impact on foreign and Tamil opinion. This weak country can ill-afford such indifference. With every incident where civilians are beaten up or publicly humiliated – as happens only too often to be noticed – the poison accumulates.
Although dictated by pragmatic considerations and sheer necessity, the Government simply lacked the organisational strength even to rehabilitate Jaffna. It was an attempt at rehabilitation by outsiders without counting local potential that is in turn being destroyed. The effort has got mired in an anarchy of corruption. The ordinary people have been reduced to a servile state, having to beg officials and ‘representatives’ for what is only their due. They are harassed by being made to stand for hours in queues to complete travel arrangements to Colombo, addressing officers and even soldiers as ‘sir’ out of sheer helplessness. The unseen side of this is not at all healthy. It will erode the legitimacy of the State and make matters worse for the Army.
That there was a problem of confidence and morale in the Army in Jaffna was clear in December 1999 when soldiers openly supported the UNP candidate at the presidential election. The Army being caught up in loose and irresponsible polemical exchanges between politicians on both sides, especially the Government, made matters worse. The situation urgently demanded a change of command and replacement of the deputy defence minister. Nothing was done.
In early May 2000, in the midst of the crisis, President Chandrika Kumaratunga appealed out of the blue for Indian military help. If this were to materialise, the institutional framework involving the two governments should have been set up some time ago, with an ongoing dialogue. It has been evident for some years that the Sri Lankan Navy was unable to interdict arms shipments to the LTTE. This was bound quickly to outmode existing military strategies and equipment. Concern had been raised in the research of Rohan Gunaratna and the defence column of Iqbal Athas. But there seems to have been next to no discussion of this at government level. Had there been, the question of seeking Indian naval cover would have arisen some years ago. Moreover, if India were to get involved, she would have been obliged to demonstrate to her own Tamils that an adequate solution to the Sri Lankan Tamil problem was being implemented.
The Government cannot be unaware of this. Moreover, a great deal of damage has been done by the Government getting mired for many months in distractions and scandals (e.g. Wayamba (NCP) elections) to the country’s detriment. Given the complexity of the problems confronting Sri Lanka today, the security forces need to be manned by thinking professionals, particularly in the Police and the Army. To this end officers in all the services would be greatly stimulated by institutional arrangements where they are confronted by expertise from other areas, which include human rights, ethnic conflicts and their resolution and international relations.
President Kumaratunge’s earlier concern with human rights was a move in the right direction and her decision to place army personnel named before disappearance commissions on compulsory leave was the right one. It should have been done irrespective of the other merits of the officers concerned and as a part of a package to revamp the Army, give it a new vision and make it a more effective and self-confident institution. Such an institution would be less dependant on individuals and the whims of politicians. The Army should also be part of a regular evaluation process. In such a process, the contribution of different institutions to the Government’s overall policy goal (solution to the ethnic conflict, security, reconstruction etc.) would be matched and steps taken to rectify the shortcomings.
A move for reform on a broader front would have dispelled fears about the Army being at a loss in prosecuting the war as a result of several officers being sent on compulsory leave. The Army needed a clear break with a malign past to forge ahead as an effective and modern institution. From 1981 the security services have been treated as the feudal property of presidents and ministers having portfolios in defence. Their image and practices have been moulded by the prejudices, ambitions and intrigues of these personalities. They have been victims of the indiscipline of governments, a lack of national consensus, lack of a programme and of uncertain objectives. The weight of all this descended heavily at Elephant Pass.
Every major issue requiring frank appraisal quickly degenerates into party politics, where in discussing the fall of Elephant Pass for example, the President had to drag in the UNP giving cement for the LTTE to build bunkers many years ago. Finally every aspect of the system lacks credibility.
It is in this context of institutional degeneration that certain individuals acquire the appearance of indispensability. They may even play the role of being a temporary expedient at a critical juncture, as with General Janaka Perera after Elephant Pass. Kobbekaduwe had earlier played a similar role when Elephant Pass was besieged in July 1991. A year, later just before Kobbekaduwe’s death, the mood was up-beat about a quick end to the war. But the system was too much in crisis to go forward.
Consider something else that seems indispensable. It is wrong and misleading to argue from an object’s seeming indispensability in a crisis, for the original decision to acquire it. Weli Oya is a prime example of such, where Tamil villagers were driven out and a military complex with Sinhalese settlements was imposed. With the impending fall of the entire North to the LTTE in May 2000, Weli Oya at the narrow boundary of the Northern and Eastern Provinces seemed an indispensable military asset. Yet the original outrage against the Tamils of the area has since then, as pointed out, been held up as a monument to the intransigence of Sinhalese hegemonism.
However in 1984, when the complex was built, there was no significant security problem in the area. The Weli Oya project was rather the cause of the escalation which, 16 years later, made it appear a bulwark against the fall of Trincomalee. While Sinhalese extremists argue that there is no Tamil problem, General Kalkat who commanded the Indian Forces here in the late 1980s was very clear that there was one. He did not learn this from publications of the Minority Rights Group or the International Commission of Jurists. To him Weli Oya, a problem he was confronted with, was a prime example of the Government’s attitude to the Tamils (Weekend Express 29.4.2000).
In mid-2000 it is these same Sinhalese extremists who, jolted into desperation, called for India’s help in defeating the LTTE. Of course, India cannot get involved without a clear understanding that the Tamil problem will be solved in an equitable manner. In this connection Weli Oya is a gigantic long term political liability. This combined with India’s experience of the lack of good faith, particularly with regard to devolving powers to the North-Eastern Provincial Council, raises some searching questions. Is Sri Lanka is capable of being helped in the absence of a durable consensus in the South? If Sri Lanka is incapable of being helped, its human rights record will get worse.
Thus in defending human rights in Sri Lanka, concerned groups will need to be far more innovative than they have been. A major event like President Kumaratunge’s order to the Army Commander to place officers and men implicated in violations on compulsory leave, and its virtual annulment, passed with next to no comment from human rights organisations. This is a crucial weakness. These organisations stand as witnesses to violations without making any significant impact in preventing them.
This partly stems from the fact that human rights organisations have traditionally confronted the security services. In Sri Lanka there is a tacit recognition by these organisations that given the nature of the LTTE, upon the security services depends, not so much a united Sri Lanka, as the possibility of civilised life. Whence, human rights organisations are content to take up a few individual cases of grave violations such as ones involving murder and rape and tend to avoid deeper issues concerning the security forces as a whole. Had it not been so, when the issue of placing several officers on compulsory leave came up, human rights organisations could have lobbied for a wider package of measures, as pointed out. Then the security forces would have had the confidence to go through with sending errant officers on leave. An opportunity was lost.
It is far better to acknowledge that the security forces have a benignant role and help ensure that they play that role. Indeed the organisations can and ought to be uncompromising in challenging violations. But they should not fight shy of structural problems and being vigilant about the observance of democratic norms and efficiency in the administration of the security services. An Army that knows its task and the challenges clearly, is in a state of preparedness and would maintain its morale. It would also be far more successful in respecting human rights.
In this country a broad spectrum of issues has been seen to impinge strongly on human rights:- viz.
* Undemocratic actions of governments (e.g. the 1982 Referendum) that cause dissension and pave the way for abusing the security services.
* The appointment of a bad army commander or IGP to subvert the law for political gain or subverting the authority of the commander through additional structures with political appointees (e.g. the JOC).
* The use of the security services in projects (e.g. Weli Oya) that contravene humanitarian and human rights norms.
* The lack of separation between political and operational roles, so as to facilitate politicians indulging in ego trips at the expense of the security services.
* Corruption. It is known that corruption is a serious problem in the Defence Establishment right down to the level of officers dealing with permits for goods and travel from Jaffna. It erodes the morale of the rank and file who tend to believe that several of those above are only interested in themselves.
These issues, in our context, should no less be the concern of human rights groups, as of those concerned with democracy.
*To be continued..
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here