As the Army celebrates its 64th Anniversary today, the Daily Mirror spoke to the 20th Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Daya Ratnayake about the evolving role of the Sri Lankan Army. To mark this important event, religious observances of all faiths, an all-night Pirith ceremony to invoke blessings on the Army, and some festive activities are underway. During the interview, The Army Commander responded to allegations against the Army with regard to its role in the North, its involvement in post-conflict projects in the country, the recent incident in Weliveriya, and also explained the ever-evolving role of the army and its support for the development projects. The following are some excerpts of the interview.
Q: As the Army celebrates its 64th Anniversary today, what do you see as the evolving role of the Army?
Yes, the Army has a huge role to play in the post-conflict scenario. We have to take leadership once again with the country currently experiencing a massive development drive. The Army being one of the most disciplined organisations, we have a huge role to play. The sustaining of the national security is our first priority. Although the LTTE was destroyed physically, the psychological elimination has to be achieved. That includes taking the ideologies out and winning the hearts and minds of the people. Apart from that the organisation outside the borders of Sri Lanka is very active and they are trying their best to have a foothold in the country, so we have to maintain surveillance in the entire area including jungles and other places which could be breeding grounds for terrorist activities. This aspect of national security is highly important. This is prominent in the security perspective. For thirty long years, we have been holding back our aspirations, hopes and dreams due to the conflict, and now in the absence of it- it’s like opening up a sluice gate. Everybody wants to achieve everything within a very short period of time, and managing this situation well is a huge task for the government.
Here, I believe the Army can play a major role which the government can use, being the disciplined organisation that it is. We are one of the key elements the government can use in its nation building efforts. We are currently playing a very vibrant role in that sphere.
"we held an inquiry and we found that the Army had exceeded its framework. The way the Inquiry was conducted was that we looked into three aspects, firstly, the deployment of the troops- if it was right or wrong, then the shooting and thirdly the post-shooting incidents"
Q: During the run up to the Northern Provincial Council elections there were allegations against the Army made by many people including independent international election monitors about the role it played including heavy surveillance. What do you have to say about it?
You cannot term it as usual or unusual surveillance as that is the level of usual surveillance we have to keep. The elimination of the LTTE was only physical, but the intelligence organisation, those who did covert operations and all other facets except for the material and physical ones still exist and in order to ensure the security of this country and its people surveillance must be carried out. Again, as I told you before, the international fronts of the LTTE are still in operation and they are trying their best to have a foothold in the country, which is something we can’t allow. Therefore, the surveillance programme will continue in the coming years to ensure that nobody would be allowed to espouse violence.
The Military is also getting involved in other civil activities where the government organisations do not have the necessary resources or capacity and the military supports them. As a result, you will see military personnel working in those areas, building houses, building roads and looking into the people’s needs. Therefore, you will see that it is not only in the North and the East, but in all other areas of the country, the military is active in these spheres. In the absence of war we are using these people gainfully for the benefit of the country.
Q: But with regard to the concluded elections, the widespread criticism was that the Army was involved in campaigning and other activities that were beyond the purview of the Army?
We totally deny these allegations, people make such allegations when they see that the Army is involved in activities like these which are really beneficial for the people. Some people want to see that the Army is completely out of these activities because they know that when the military is there no room would be left for problems to crop up unnecessarily. Especially in a post-conflict scenario there will be problems and the people look towards us for solutions. This is not an unnatural phenomenon and it is common especially given that it is only four years since the end of the conflict. The military is the most respected organisation by both the people of the North and the people in other parts of the country, and our involvement is the same in all parts of the country.
People can make allegations but they have to prove these allegations that they constantly make. If any of these allegations are proved by any organisation or person be it political or civil, we are willing to take action. We would never tolerate any indiscretion by our soldiers, and if there is proof of anyone being involved in any activity that goes beyond the framework of the Army, we will take stern action. We have proved that we are willing to take such action before, and we will continue to take that stance of zero tolerance towards any activity that exceeds the framework of the Army. However, we simply can’t take any action only based on allegations made by some.
Q: One aspect that may have been ignored is the fact that during the conflict, many of the soldiers had witnessed scenes that no civilians would ever have seen. Inevitably, there could be psychological scars. In other countries such as the US there is a system of therapy or counselling to heal these psychological wounds, do we have anything of that sort happening here?
Yes, we do have such a system in place and it’s been there for a long time. But if you judge the Lankan Military by the perspective of western militaries then you are heading the wrong way. Yes, I know that the military is a military in any sense, but western militaries are artificially created elements, but our Army isn’t. The Lankan Army is a reflection of the society and when we train our soldiers we train them to be well-balanced personalities. We train them in the psychological, spiritual and vocational aspects- all three aspects are balanced. This is also something that we learnt over the years. Therefore, the existence of these problems that you explained is very minimal within the Sri Lankan Army. It is something very unique to us and something we take a lot of pride in. Because of the culture, the background, the families and the Sri Lankan standards that we are brought up with, the results are in a very low percentage of such trauma. This doesn’t mean to say that it doesn’t exist at all, there of course is a certain segment that undergoes such trauma and they are being taken care of very well.
Also, we get the soldiers involved in many cultural activities, religious activities, educational activities, developing farms and other civilian activities, like helping children, and all these activities inevitably help in normalising the soldier. These things you don’t see in western countries but they are unique to Sri Lanka.
Q: Then how do you explain the involvement of Army deserters in various criminal activities in the country?
I’m not going to say what you are saying is wrong, but if you look at the percentages of the crime rates and the incidence of deserters’ involvement, it is very low. You have got to compare this with the rates in other countries which have gone through this type of protracted conflict. In those countries this is a social problem, with soldiers who are both in service and those retired and the ones who desert being involved in a lot of crime and this is a massive problem. What happens in Sri Lanka therefore is very negligible, but even then we use all our authority, the Military Police is equipped and we take stern action against those offenders. If there is any incident which highlights the involvement of a soldier we have never hesitated to take proper legal action. We won’t take the fact that the numbers are negligible as an answer and we will continue to prevent such things from happening and take action against the perpetrators.
"For thirty long years, we have been holding back our aspirations, hopes and dreams due to the conflict, and now in the absence of it- it’s like opening up a sluice gate"
Q: With regard to the Weliveriya incident there was a huge backlash against the Army and the role the Army played. What action has the Army taken against those involved?
Yes, after that we held an inquiry and we found that the Army had exceeded its framework. The way the Inquiry was conducted was that we looked into three aspects, firstly, the deployment of the troops- if it was right or wrong then the shooting and thirdly the post-shooting incidents.
These are the main categories that we looked into. The Inquiry found that the deployment of troops that day was totally legal and was within the law that exists in the country. The second aspect was about the shooting- yes, people had opened fire and three innocent civilians were killed. There is a Police and Magisterial inquiry currently underway and we will give these two inquires maximum possible support at our end. We have given all the assistance that they have requested and this is the most transparent option that was available to us.
With regard to the post-shooting incidents, our soldiers had gone beyond the framework and that is what the Inquiry found. We would ensure maximum punishment on those responsible for this, and within the Army our mechanism for such is through a Court Martial. We have started the process for this, now the summary of evidence is being done by the individual regiments, and anybody who has gone beyond the legal framework will be severely dealt with.
We have taken some administrative action as well, four commanders- one Brigade Commander and three Brigade Commanders have now been posted to their mother regiments in order to ensure more transparency. Thus the entire Commander element has been taken out in order to make the inquiry transparent.
Q: What did the Court of Inquiry report exactly say?
That is what the report said, that the Army had exceeded its remit and based on that, we are now going ahead with the Court Martial. The shooting will be looked into by the magisterial inquiry and if anyone is found guilty they will be dealt with.
Q: So the Court Martial is currently underway?
Yes, the process is currently underway and a summary of evidence is being collected in order to frame charges against those responsible.
Q: What do you want to see in the short-term, within the next one or two years, as the role of the Army?
It’s been four years since the end of the conflict, and there has not been a single incident of any kind of violence. If one looks at the South Asian region we are one of the peaceful countries that exist within the region. It is the Army who has spearheaded the quest for national security and as a result no element has been able to penetrate the country. Apart from that as I told you earlier, our involvement in activities of nation building is very important. Not only were we the flag bearers in ensuring the end of the conflict, now we are the flag bearers of ensuring economic, social and political stability within the country. Today we are the flag bearers of nation building in which we are playing a key role.
Q: But is that a good thing?
Yes, of course it is a good thing because the social fabric of the country is such that there is a dearth of capacity to handle these things. Wherever we are needed we are there and this doesn’t mean that we take leadership, instead we play the role of a facilitator. We play a role of supporter in all these endeavours. Take for instance in the case of rehabilitation, we didn’t take leadership. It is done by the Ministry of Justice. But when there was a vacuum we used all our resources and supported them to ensure a solid rehabilitation process that has not happened anywhere else in the world.
In the next two three years, security will be important and on the other hand, all other activities that I mentioned. Once civilian organisations build their capacity we will gradually move into the barracks.
Q: Your role as Chief of Rehabilitation was highly praised. Do you honestly believe that the process ensured a defeat in the ideology of the former LTTE cadres in the sense of winning their hearts and minds, or was it only a physical elimination?
Yes, I think we have done that. We were able to take the ideology part out from the people who were reintegrated after rehabilitation, about 12,000 of them. They are now responsible, disciplined civilians and members of their respective societies. The best example is that since the time of their re-integration not one of those people has resorted to violence or any other anti-social activity. That is our success. We have no problem with the politics they chose to do within the democratic framework, and that is encouraged. We only don’t want them to resort to violence, and this is our achievement. They have the basic social problems and other grievances and even if they don’t like the government and want to fight against the government within the democratic framework, we as an Army would not get involved.
But if there is anybody going out of that and getting into extremism, action will be taken. However, we are very happy that not even a single person has engaged in extremism, and this is a remarkable success and nowhere in the world would you find a parallel to such achievement.
Q: The Army celebrates its 64th anniversary. Are you satisfied as the 20th Commander of the Lankan Army, about the position the Army has achieved?
Very much so, no Army has had the ability to claim the success we have. We were the organisation that paid the most supreme sacrifices for this country. In 1971, and 1988/89 there were two insurgencies that the Army had to quell. Then of course in the Northern insurgency which lasted 30 long years- we were able to defeat what evolved into one of the most ruthless terrorist outfits.
Pix by Pradeep Pathirana
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