- The military carried out the world’s most intense and best humanitarian operation
- Atrocities committed by LTTE ‘barbaric’
- We have to put our house in order
- Yahapalanaya has done a lot of damage
- I have faith in the present government as well as the President
- Fighting an internal war has two parts
Former Army Commander Daya Ratnayake says allegations of the military committing war crimes during the final stages of the civil conflict against the LTTE are “baseless and false” and blames the previous government of failing to clear up the military’s image in the international arena. He said the military felt betrayed by allegations levelled against it by foreign agencies and commended the present government for withdrawing from Resolution 30/1 at UNHRC. “People outside Sri Lanka think we are barbarians. But in reality, the Sri Lankan military carried out the world’s most intense and best humanitarian operation during the last days of the war. We executed the best possible strategies to end the war against terrorism which is being accepted by the world,” he told Daily Mirror in an interview.
Q Ever since 2009, the military has been facing allegations of committing war crimes, especially during the final stages of the war against LTTE. Foreign agencies such as the UN have on several occasions called for an int’l probe on these claims. It has been 10 years since the war ended, yet the military has not been able to clear up its image. Why is this so, if no crimes were committed as maintained by the army and government?
When international agencies such as the UN accuse the military of war crimes, it is not the responsibility of the military to clear up these allegations. That is the role of the government. However, at times, the military has gone beyond its boundaries and given answers to local agents and other responsible authorities. The Foreign Ministry too has taken it up on several occasions and since 2009, I can tell you, we have been answering all questions responsibly. I know this because I too was involved in addressing these concerns. However, it all lies in the hands of the government and the Foreign Ministry to clear up the image of the military.
Former government did not do anything to clear the image of the military
Q But are these allegations true?
The allegations levelled by international agencies concerned are completely baseless and fabricated. As a military, we have clearly answered such allegations. We have submitted our proposals to the Defence Ministry which was then forwarded to the Foreign Ministry. They were then taken up internationally. These allegations are being answered ever since 2009. After 2015, we took a completely different turn as the former government co-sponsored a very misleading resolution at the UNHRC. As a military officer, I do not agree with this resolution. The present situation is that the government is going to withdraw from this co-sponsorship. So to answer your question further, we have addressed all allegations of war crimes, but if you have anything specific you can ask me.
Q One allegation is that, even 10 years after the war, Tamil families are still looking for their loves ones. Their complaint is that these loved ones surrendered to the army during the final days of the war but still there is no trace of them. These families want answers. What happened to these people?
You have conveniently come to a conclusion that these people went missing after they surrendered to the army. These remain mere allegations to date. As a military, we said none went missing under our custody. The former Rajapaksa Government appointed commissions to look into these allegations and the military clearly submitted their findings to these commissions. Thereby we have proved beyond reasonable doubt that these allegations are baseless and false.
Also, people claim that a significant number of people went missing. I do not know how they came up with these numbers. During the war, thousands went missing even on the military side. At least 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers went missing during the war. We too want to know what happened to these soldiers. In order to find these people, the former Rajapaksa Government appointed commissions. The findings presented by them are still available. It is false to claim that people went missing when they surrendered to the army. They were all very well looked after when they broke free from the barbarian terrorists.
When the former regime was elected to office in 2015, it appointed the Office of Missing Persons and held inquiries. Their findings will be revealed. As a military person, I request all these commissions to continue their inquiries because even we want answers to what happened to those who went missing, on both sides, as the atrocities committed by the LTTE were barbaric. There are no hidings from our side and we are giving our fullest support to any commission.
Q So let me reiterate your answer: When these people were taken into army custody, they were safe, right?
Absolutely! They were safe. They were well looked after. When these people came to the army, they were taken care of exceptionally well. There were thousands who came. Among the innocent civilians, 14,500 terrorists too surrendered to the military. They were rehabilitated successfully. I know all these because I was the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation back then. Some of these terrorists were captured and handed over to us by Tamil civilians themselves. All of them were rehabilitated. In addition to these numbers, over 1,000 members attached to the UN and several other international agencies involved in humanitarian work, and also those who were used as human shields during the final stages of the war, came safely to us. They were looked after very well. Hundreds of clerics from all religions came out safely. Not even a scratch came upon these people. Some 4,000 government employees came out. The families of terrorist leaders too came out safely. They live in these areas for the past 11 years. So what are these allegations? Why defame the military? These allegations are fabricated. They are the result of an organised move against the government. The previous regime did not take an effort to answer these allegations which is a result of the international community still casting these allegations at us.
Q If no war crimes were committed by the military, as you say, then the governments have let the military down. Do you feel betrayed by politicians?
Well, for four and a half years, the former government did not do anything to clear the image of the military, so I do feel betrayed. Not only me but all soldiers feel betrayed. People outside Sri Lanka think we are barbarians. But in reality, the military carried out the world’s most intense and best humanitarian operation in the last days of the war. We carried out the best possible strategies to end the war against terrorism which is being accepted by the world. We have carried out the best rehabilitation and resettlement programme in the world. All these were done by the Sri Lankan military and I do not think anyone can compare the level of professionalism we maintained.
It is wrong to say we are heading for a military rule as we are fighting an economic war and it is only right we have some sort of a system
Q The US recently banned Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva and his family from entering the US on allegations of human rights violations. What can you say about this?
I feel sorry. Commander of Sri Lanka Army Shavendra Silva has done his best to this country. He sacrificed his youth for the sake of the country. He is one of the most senior officers who led the final phase of operations. He has been an outstanding officer from the very inception. How can people seated outside our country level such allegations of war crimes when they do not know what took place? I am happy that the government has taken such a strong stand in defending Shavendra Silva. Fighting an internal war always has two parts, the physical elimination of the threat and mental elimination of the threat. It is the military’s responsibility to eliminate the first part. What we achieved in May 2009, we surprised the world. Sri Lanka became an example on eliminating terrorism. Some of the top foreign universities came to study how we ended the war. They submitted reports saying the strategies we adopted were the best in the world. They also commended our rehabilitation and resettlement programmes. Unfortunately, no one is talking about all these. No media organisation or local university, that could have taken this to international academic fora, supported this. We request the incumbent government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to take this matter forward in a professional manner. For 20 to 25 years, we fought the war in an ad hoc manner. But under Mahinda Rajapaksa who was the President back then and Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was Defence Secretary, we were led on the right path. We formed a strong strategy under their leadership and set a firm objective. We won the war. The objective of the military and the two leaders was to bring all communities under one flag and end terrorism.
Q Do you feel int’l agencies including the UN are targeting the Sri Lankan military unjustly, especially since Sri Lanka fought against the LTTE who was a ruthless terrorist outfit?
These agencies speak only on vested interests. As a solider, I am not too concerned as to what these agencies say. But as a country, have we actually tried to find out about the grave violations committed by the LTTE? We never did. Before the LTTE, we had two insurgencies. Did we try to find out what led to these insurgencies? As a man with self pride, I cannot blame these international agencies for hurling these allegations at us. I blame those people who failed to find out as to what led to these insurgencies and the war. First, we have to put our house in order.
Q The government said last week Sri Lanka would withdraw from co-sponsoring Resolution 30/1 at UNHRC. What are your thoughts?
I have not studied this resolution in depth, but as a solider and former army commander, I stand by the government for withdrawing from co-sponsoring this resolution. It is something we should not have done in the first place. If the previous regime did not like what the Rajapaksa Government did to address allegations of war crimes, it had many other options than sponsoring against its own country. Perhaps, we are the first country in the world to betray our own military.
Q What do you expect from this government?
As a solider, I have faith in the present government as well as the President as he is a man who always stood by the military. But as an individual, I expect this government to be more professional in clearing all allegations and doubts.
At least 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers went missing during the war
Q What are your future plans?
Well, I am now the chairman of the Ports Authority and we are fighting an economic war. The Ports Authority has a huge responsibility as it is one of the strongest pillars of our economy. Sri Lanka has huge potential and we are working towards strengthening this country. There was a lot of corruption in this authority before. It is not because of the employees but due to political interference. The previous government has done a lot of damage. However, we are now working towards a clean target laid down by the President.
Q Many military personnel have been appointed to head top institutions under this government. Isn’t it attributive to a military rule?
In our 71 years since independence, Sri Lanka has been through a lot, especially in the 30-year war against the LTTE. Finally, it was the military that had to walk in and end the war. So when you look at national development, the military is the one responsible for beautification projects and urban development. The military also ensures national security. Under military assistance, the Colombo city transformed into one of the best cities in the world and we boomed in tourism as we were a beautiful and safe destination. This is all due to the military. This country is in a mess at the moment. We are right now in an intensive care unit. This government came into power assuring national security. Hence, former military personnel have been deployed to key areas where we can ensure the country is well protected. With national security as our top most priority, it is only right that leading military personnel have been appointed to these institutions. It is wrong to say we are heading for a military rule as we are fighting an economic war and it is only right we have some sort of a system. When this government took over, things were a mess in this country and now, as we cleared the country off terrorism, we will help the government win the economic war.