Colombo Telegraph

Sri Lanka’s Abu Ghraib Moment

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Evil is unspectacular and always human, And shares our bed and eats at our own table – Auden (Herman Melville)

For once, the military has done something sensible. It has admitted the authenticity of the footage depicting several army personnel inflicting cruel and degrading punishments on a group of female recruits[i].

Crimes of every sort, from rape downwards, happen in any army. But these crimes are often conducted in secret, behind at least a semi-closed door. The scenes depicted in the latest Lankan footage happen out in the open. The perpetrators seem totally at ease, almost nonchalant, with no discernible concerns about exposure, leading to censure or condemnation.

In that sense, and also because they indicate some extremely disturbing truths about a popular ‘national’ institution, these Lankan scenes are reminiscent of the footage which came from Abu Ghraib.

At Abu Ghraib, prisoner-abuse was the norm. In the footages, the uniformed torturers seem supremely at ease; they do not look as if they are concerned about being surprised in an illegal act by either peers or superiors. That very ease of manner indicated a culture of impunity which was subsequently confirmed by a high level investigation into the US army’s prison system (led by Major General Antonio Tabuga).  As the legendary Seymour Hersh revealed, the resulting report’s “conclusions about the institutional failures of the Army prison system were devastating. Tabuga found that between October and December of 2003 there were numerous instances of ‘sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses’ at Abu Ghraib.”[ii] The report determined that the abuses were ‘systematic’ rather than incidental.

The scenes depicted in the Lankan footage too are sadistic; only a sadist can inflict such abuse (especially on a group of weeping women) – and laugh. They are also ‘blatant and wanton’; there is no indication that the perpetrators think they are doing something ‘wrong’, a crime/misdeed which can get them into trouble. Their almost insouciant manner hints that such abusive conduct is neither unusual nor unpopular; that, as at Abu Ghraib, it is ‘systematic’.

The Lankan army’s admission of guilt, despite its tepidity, is welcome. But many unanswered questions remain. Is this how female recruits are generally treated? Or are these recruits Tamil? How widespread is this problem of perpetrating sadistic abuses under cover of discipline? Have there been any complaints about such incidents? Have any such complaints been investigated? Have any of the abusers being punished? Will the army treat this incident as an exception? Or will it carry out a thorough and impartial investigation, as the US military did and take some sort of disciplinary action?

At Abu Ghraib, the American servicemen (and women?) were dealing with the ‘enemy’. The Lankan footage depicts the way some members of the Lankan army treat their own. Imagine what such men could have done to the real of perceived enemy, especially during and in the immediate aftermath of the war. These servicemen, who seem to enjoy their grisly deeds enormously, do not look as if they would have gone into the battlefield, “carrying a gun in one hand, the Human Rights Charter in the other, food for the innocent displaced on their shoulders and love for the children in their hearts”, as President Rajapaksa claimed in his 2011 Victory Celebration Speech. On the contrary, they look quite capable of committing the sort of gruesome crimes depicted in the various Channel 4 videos.

The latest footage also dovetails with various reports and reportage about Lankan military abusing Tamil prisoners, post-war.

What happens when a society is intertwined with a military, which has failed to draw an ‘insuperable line’ against abuse and sadism?

Api Army?

During a 2012 ceremony, the National Cadet Corps Director Major General Gamini Jayasundara praised (school) cadets who receive comprehensive training at the Rantambe army camp; he claimed that they can “face any challenge” and stated that the policy of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was to produce “resource personnel who are confident in taking up any challenge through cadet training”[iii].

That year the prestigious Herman Loos De Soyza trophy was won by the cadet corps of Gampaha Bandaranayake College. Less than two years later, members of the same cadet corps went on rampage, attacking the principal, teachers, fellow students and media personnel, over a minor disagreement.

This incident was a worrying reminder that in Sri Lanka excessive regimentation and burgeoning violence are harmonious bedfellows.

Lankan militarization happens in tandem with an idealised image of ‘soldier-war hero’. This state-manufactured image was a key component of the ‘Humanitarian Operation’ myth. The state laid down the axiom that Lankan soldiers can never kill or harm any civilian Tamil. A cloak of infallibility was thus bestowed on the military. This enabled impunity to flourish, clad in the garments of justice.

Weliweriya brought home to the Sinhala South the reality about their much lionised warriors. When a Sinhala villager asked a Sinhala soldier why the army did not use rubber bullets against unarmed protestors, the soldier replied, “We can’t mollycoddle people with rubber bullets”[iv].

That reply indicated a policy and a mindset which regard extreme violence as the first response to any problematic situation – and contemptuously reject values such as kindness, pity and justice which make a civilisation.

Military abuse can happen due to a breakdown of discipline or the entrenchment of a criminally permissive environment. During the final peace process, the Tigers did their very best to provoke the Lankan military into attacking civilian Tamils. They failed, from 2002 to late 2005, because the political authorities would not permit such abuses. The Tigers succeeded only after Mahinda Rajapaksa won the Presidency. The first act of retaliatory violence happened just a month into Rajapaksa rule[v].

In Weliweriya too, contrary to subsequent claims by military and political authorities, innocent people were attacked/killed not because the soldiers were undisciplined, but because they acted like highly-disciplined killing machines.

The sadistic abuses depicted in the latest footage probably stem not from a breakdown of discipline but from a new, criminally permissive, notion of discipline.

The latest video is a matter of personal concern to all Lankans (including Sinhala-Buddhist supporters of the Rajapaksas) given the rapid and pervasive militarization inflicted on society by the Ruling Siblings. For instance, under the Leadership Training programme, more and more civilians are being herded into military camps. Is there any guarantee that at least some of these civilians (especially students) will not be treated in a similarly abusive manner? Was this why two students and a principal fell mortally ill, while undergoing leadership training in army camps?

Api Army’ is the name given to a Rajapaksa programme to recruit professionals into the military as volunteers. These volunteers too will be subjected to the prevailing disciplinary norms. And they may return to society, more prone to see physical and verbal violence as the optimal solution to many problems.

Abu Ghraib crimes came to light thanks to American serviceman Joseph Darby. Lankan footage too was made and leaked by a Lankan soldier who was obviously horrified at what he/she witnessed.

It is up to the polity and society to generate the much-needed national debate about the nature and the role of Lankan military.





[iv] Reported in the Sunday Times – 11.8.2013

[v] Probably the first such incident was a Navy assault on a group of displaced civilian Tamils in Victorian Hundred Housing Schemes in Mannar, subsequent to a Tiger attack on the Navy in the vicinity. The killing of five students in Trincomalee followed soon after.

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