By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“The most alarming aspect of the video to me was the seemingly delightful bloodlust they appeared to have. They….seemed not to value human life…” – Bradley Manning (Statement at the Trial – referring to an American attack on Iraqi civilians)
The ‘Rajapaksa Model’ of warfare had eight fundamentals, Indian journalist VK Shashikumar wrote in the Indian Defence Review[i]. These included political will, telling the world to ‘go to hell’, a no-negotiations policy, regulating media, rejecting ceasefires and giving troops complete operational freedom.
All these are discernible – albeit in embryonic form – in Operation Weliweriya.
In Weliweriya, the Siblings had the political will to use brute force against what was essentially a microcosm of their Sinhala-base, during an election season. An army unit (led by a war-hero Brigadier no less[ii]) was dispatched to punish the demonstrating people of Weliweriya.
Most regimes would have baulked at using such tactics, just months away from hosting an international summit. But the Rajapaksas did not give a damn.
Gampaha is Basil Rajapaksa’s newly-acquired fief; logically he should have intervened early, to contain the situation (especially since WPC elections are in the offing). But he did not bother to talk to the Buddhist monk leading the struggle and other community leaders to find a peaceful solution.
The media was regulated, via threats, force and physical violence. The purpose was to ensure a de facto blanket censorship so that Sri Lanka would not know what actually happened in Weliweriya.
The troops did not cease their offensive even after the people fled for their lives[iii]. They chased the terrified men, women and children into homes and even a church.
The troops had complete operational freedom, to shoot and bludgeon, as they liked.
The lies poured forth in torrents, even before the guns felt silent.
Lying was the ninth fundamental in the Rajapaksa Model. No errors/crimes were admitted and no apologies rendered.
“It is not surprising why Eelam IV turned out to be a bloody and a brutal war” Mr. Sashikumar wrote, and quoted an unnamed Lankan Minister: “That there will be civilian casualties was a given and Rajapaksa was willing to take the blame…”[iv]
In reality neither President Rajapaksa nor his brother Gotabhaya shouldered any blame. Instead they dubbed a ‘bloody and a brutal’ war a ‘Humanitarian Operation’ and insisted that the army religiously adhered to a ‘Zero-civilian casualty’ policy. Two years after winning the war, in his 2011 ‘Victory Celebrations Speech’, President Rajapaksa continued to peddle that fairy tale: “I will recall what I said in the past, that our troops went to 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”.
No one said that the troops went to the Balummaharan Junction on August 1st, with a T56 in one hand, a bottle of American Water in the other and their hearts flooded with love for the people of Weliweriya. Not quite. But there were loads of other lies, denying/justifying the rampage and maligning the protestors. It was claimed that the protests were a political conspiracy and that some of the protestors threw home-made explosive devises and shot at the army; that the army just fired a few shots into the air, in sheer self defence; and that there was a plan to burn down the controversial factory[v]. Every crime committed by the army was denied.
Fortunately the media refused to be cowed, the Opposition joined the fray and people spoke out. Thus the rest of the country could see that the Rajapaksa tales were as full of holes as a sieve.
If there was a plan to burn the factory on July 29th, why didn’t the police arrest the suspects and produce them before a court of law? Why wait for almost two weeks to reveal this ‘news’ to the public? Why didn’t Minister Basil Rajapaksa meet Rev. Theripaha Siridhamma Thero and other community leaders, inform them of the diabolical intent of these evil troublemakers?
If the protest was an act of revenge by a group of radical ex-workers of the factory, why did the dead consist of two students and a FTZ employee, none of whom had anything to do with the factory?[vi] If the army was merely counterattacking why did they kill innocent bystanders?
Did President Mahinda Rajapaksa decide to intervene in the matter, after a hiatus of almost two weeks, because he realised that even the Muslim Bogey (via Grandpass) cannot efface the memory of Weliweriya? Plus to scuttle the Opposition protest (the regime’s unease is demonstrated by the police attempt to ban the protest via a judicial order)?
According to the Presidential solution, the factory will be closed-down, if the Government Analyst’s Department concludes that it did pollute groundwater. But can a mere department in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka afford to be impartial in a case involving a key Rajapaksa economic-stooge?
Why didn’t the President promise to give the people free water connections? Surely a government planning to build a multibillion sports complex in Nuwara Eliya[vii] cannot claim that it has no money to provide free water to a couple of villages?
According to an unnamed Defence Ministry official, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was totally unaware of the Weliweriya attack. “No body had ordered the soldiers in Weliweriya to shoot at protesting civilians”[viii]; the soldiers barged into the church sans orders, because the people in the church stoned them. The ground commander could not control the situation: “it is the individual soldier’s responsibility and the ground commander should also have control of it, which he didn’t have”[ix].
If the soldiers attacked without orders, shouldn’t they arrested and triend by a military tribunal for insubordination? If the ground-commander lost control, shouldn’t he be suspended for criminal dereliction of duty?
So someday, if there is a War Crimes Tribunal, the Rajapaksas will try save their skins by blaming ordinary soldiers for indiscipline and ground-commanders for insufficient control.
Does the Lankan military have the sense to think through the ultimate consequences of that Pontius Pilate defence by their Rajapaksa overlords?
After the guns fell silent, a villager of Weliweriya reportedly asked a soldier why he did not use rubber bullets. The soldier replied, “We can’t mollycoddle people with rubber bullets”[x].
That is the real ‘war hero’, not the idealised image of a gentle and just warrior willing to risk his life to battle evil and defend the powerless, but a brutalised tool, ready to kill on command.
From 2002 to late 2005, the Tigers could not provoke Lankan Forces into retaliating against civilians, because political authorities vetoed it. This changed a month into Rajapaksa presidency[xi]. Acts of violence by Lankan forces against civilian Tamils increased exponentially post-2005, not because of a sudden breakdown in discipline but because the Rajapaksa regime embraced criminal permissiveness.
In Weliweriya too, innocent people were attacked/killed, not because the soldiers were undisciplined, but because they are highly-disciplined killing machines, accustomed to following even the most inhumane of orders.
Do the Sinhalese have the sense to think through this horrendous discovery and understand its deadly repercussions for themsleves?
[ii] Brigadier Deshapriya Gunawardana played a key role in the Final Offensive as the 581 Brigade Commander. He was part of the final operation to encircle the Tigers from two sides. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zO3G7__fV8k
[iii] The UNHCR said that during the last phase of the war, it “received persistent reports of physical assaults on men and women fleeing into government controlled areas”.
[v] The Sunday Island – 11.8.2013
[vi] According to the UTHR, “One of the most damning features of the war was that civilians caught up in a shrinking area, were subject to relentless shelling, and particularly in safe zones so declared by the Government…. No effort was made to minimise civilian casualties… Several witnesses consulted by us confirm that one shell from the LTTE or even its firing small arms into the air brought indiscriminate return shelling multiplied scores of times. This was the pattern throughout” (Special Report 43 – 13.12.2009). Wasn’t the same bloody-blasé attitude at work in Weliweriya? Didn’t the army do (and wasn’t the army allowed to do) what it had become accustomed to doing: attacking unarmed men, women and children indiscriminately, with totally impunity?
[vii] The Sunday Times – 4.8.2013
[viii] The Sunday Times – 11.8.2013
[x] Reported in the Sunday Times – 11.8.2013
[xi] 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.