Sri Lankan armed forces have not been in the habit of talking about themselves, even during the 30-year war, or after, when sinister allegations of misconduct were (and still are) levelled against them. Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake’s recent forthright media interaction with Colombo-based foreign correspondents therefore came as an eye-opener about the activities, outlook, military culture and future plans of the Sri Lanka Army (SLA).
Nine years after proving its professionalism on the battlefield as a victorious army, the SLA, as the country’s biggest reservoir of human resources, is engaged in transforming itself into a peace-time force with a focus on nation building and contributing to world peace, he said. The SLA will also engage in fighting its own case now, with regard to allegations of war crimes. This is one of the tasks mandated to be carried out by the army’s ‘Directorate of Overseas Operations’ that was opened last month.
Pressed by reporters on what internal measures had been taken regarding claims of extra-judicial killings and demands for ‘accountability,’ the service chief pointed out that those who made the accusations are ‘not here.’ Presumably referring to Tamil diaspora-based war crimes lobby, he asked “Why don’t they engage with us?” If those making the charges were ready to talk directly and give specific details of incidents the SLA would be the first to look into them he said. “It was a war! … People forget how many we rescued” he said. Nobody talks about the 3,400 soldiers who went missing in action (MIA).The army was not looking at the past only, but supporting ‘all endeavours of the government to address the accusations, he stressed. “We want to clear our name.”
"There was no military or political advantage to GoSL in killing civilians or shelling hospitals indiscriminately, indeed the reverse is the case. High civilian casualties would have made an international/Indian push for halting the final phase, more likely"
Asked why reports by foreign military experts supporting the view that Sri Lankan forces acquitted themselves honourably were not being used by the army to help clear its name, Senanayake revealed that the new army think-tank at DOP would compile all the relevant material and present it in order to educate the public. Now we want to fight our own case he said. “All these years we were depending on someone else. We thought they would tell our story.”
There have been reports by at least two British military experts relating to Sri Lankan forces’ conduct of the war in its controversial last stages. They are Lt. Col. Anton Gash, war-time Defence Attache at the British High Commission in Colombo whose dispatches to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London are now public, and Maj. Gen. (Retd) John Holmes DSO OBE MC a former Commander of UK’s elite Special Air Service (SAS) and Director of Special Forces, whose Military Expert Opinion forms an Annex to the Paranagama (2nd mandate) Report. Senanayake recalled also the remarks of ‘an American officer’ in 2011 - referring no doubt to the intervention at a defence seminar by Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith, Defence Attache from the US Embassy. “They were not our ‘friends,’ but they were telling the real story” he said.
It’s worth noting that the above-mentioned reports and statements, conveniently ignored by the OHCHR war crimes probe, were made by persons with specialized military expertise, whereas members of the Darusman panel on whose findings the OHCHR heavily leaned on, had no military background, never visited Sri Lanka and largely drew on anonymous testimony to make their claims.
Holmes’ report is as detailed and thorough as one can expect from a military officer with special expertise in hostage rescue operations. In his ‘Conclusions,’ he starts by pointing out that “There was no military or political advantage to GoSL in killing civilians or shelling hospitals indiscriminately, indeed the reverse is the case. High civilian casualties would have made an international/Indian push for halting the final phase, more likely.”
On civilian deaths he wrote: “The precise number of civilian deaths and their exact status at their time of death may never be known. The accusations against GoSL imply either a deliberate policy to target civilians or disinterest in the scale of civilian casualties in achieving their strategic objective. All the available evidence discounts any form of deliberate policy or systematically reckless or disproportionate conduct, despite the civilian casualties, to the extent that it is even possible to determine what proportion of those killed were civilians.” He points out that “It is undeniable, though, that had LTTEnot driven civilians before them and executed them when they attempted to escape, then civilian casualties would have been significantly lower.”
"Nine years after proving its professionalism on the battlefield as a victorious army, the SLA, as the country’s biggest reservoir of human resources, is engaged in transforming itself into a peace-time force focusing on nation building and contributing to world peace"
Rubbishing the Darusman report’s peculiar arithmetic he said“ A figure of up to 40,000 civilian deaths is much quoted and has been simply arrived at by subtracting the number of IDPs processed (290,000) from the Darusman estimate of the number of civilians caught up in the final months of the war (330,000). The author believes that, in principle, there is every reason to challenge this estimate of the numbers killed …”(he then goes on to explain why). Holmes concluded that “The figure of 40,000 civilians killed which has been repeatedly published is, in my view, extremely difficult to sustain on the evidence which I have seen.”
On the hostage situation created by the LTTE using civilians as a human shield, he wrote:
“It was, in the view of the author, an entirely unique situation and the fact that 290,000 people escaped alive is in itself remarkable. Indeed, given the allegations of the use of MBRLs and use of heavy weaponry against the civilian population, had the SLA embarked on an indiscriminate campaign of bombardment, the trite but obvious point that any military expert is forced to conclude, is that 2/3 days of shelling would have decimated all those in that final confined area. I reiterate, in my experience of hostage rescue, the fact that so many escaped, is remarkable.”
Holmes’ assessment is that it is “extremely difficult to sustain an accusation of the deliberate killing of civilians by the SLA by shelling, which had the artillery potential over a very short period of time to devastate the temporary civilian encampments, particularly in NFZs 2 and 3.”
He concluded saying:
“In my military opinion, faced with a determined enemy that were deploying the most ruthless of tactics and which involved endangering the Tamil civilian population, SLA had limited options with regard to the battle strategy they could deploy. This would have posed a dilemma for the very best trained and equipped armies in the world.The SLA had either to continue taking casualties and allow the LTTE to continue preying upon its own civilians, or take the battle to the LTTE, albeit with an increase in civilian casualties. The tactical options were stark, but in my military opinion, justifiable and proportionate given the unique situation SLA faced in the last phase. Therefore, on the evidence available to me, taking into account my own combat experience, I do not find, in broad terms that the military and artillery campaigns were conducted indiscriminately, but were proportionate to the military objectives sought.”
The full Military Expert Opinion of Maj. Gen. John Holmes may be retrieved at: