The new government has renamed the Victory Day as the Remembrance Day, and the main national event will be held tomorrow (19) in Matara to commemorate those who died in multiple insurrections in the country. Victory Day celebrations held under the previous regime, rather than bringing the nation together, polarized it further. That was one example as to how the previous regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa squandered the chances for reconciliation. That failure stemmed from the ex-president’s manoeuvring to use the military triumph to cultivate a personality cult as the reincarnated Dutugemunu. His personal mission for glory hamstrung the national mission for reconciliation. In the process, a hard -fought military victory against one of the most egregious terrorist groups in the world faced the risk of being discredited.
The problem is not that Sri Lanka defeated the LTTE. Also, though there are concerns of military abuses, how the military fought the war is not the main contentious issue. The real problem was how the political leadership handled the war and conducted themselves after the military victory. This line of argument perhaps could go against the conventional narrative, since Mr. Rajapaksa during his presidency succeeded in indoctrinating a large swathe of public that he provided the political leadership for the military victory. Yes, he did, but only in part. His government kept armouries replenished and authorized large-scale procurement of military hardware, which were useful in the fight against terrorists. He stood by Sri Lanka’s right to fight terrorists when the West came rushing to Colombo to demand an end to military operations. He charmed New Delhi with his various assurances, one of which was the 13th Amendment Plus; thereby winning the subtle approval from the Indian leadership to fight terrorists to the end. All those are statesman-like achievements.
But from the very beginning, he failed miserably to provide refined political guidance on the conduct of war. War is a continuation of State policy by other means. Sri Lankan security forces are a professional military which has been firmly under the civilian political control throughout its existence. The political leadership set the State policy and military duly followed it.
That civilian political control of military includes, among other things, acting promptly against instances of military abuses and excesses. That is because the ultimate objective of war is lasting peace. Peace would be illusive where the society is brutalized and the vanquished hold deep-seated grievances and hatred towards the victor. Despite his earnest contribution to the military victory, the ex-President, who is also the Commander-in- Chief of the armed forces, failed to provide that leadership. The first signs of this particular failure were manifest on the eve of the murder of five students in Trincomalee in 2007 (allegedly) by a team of STF personnel sent from Colombo. The government went on denial, rather than promptly investigating the incident, taking legal action against the perpetrators and thereby managing the damage. I was then told that when the gruesome incident took place, the CO of the Commando Regiment, that was also deployed in the town, worried that his men could have been involved, queried from all units to make sure that they had no hand in the murder. The President unfortunately, did not show a fraction of the concern that the young Major had about the conduct of troops under his command.
Later, when 17 aid workers of the charity (Action Against Hunger) were massacred in Muttur, the government again went on denial. The Presidential Commission appointed to look into several of the high-profile human rights abuses, including the instances mentioned above became, first, an eyewash, then a total disaster.
And the reluctance of the political leadership to hold perpetrators of abuses accountable gradually gave rise to a culture of impunity.
In retrospect, one should ask how it could have if the President acted promptly to take action during the first instances. The fact of the matter is that it was peripheral units and individuals of the security that were implicated in those abuses and by trying to defend the misdemeanours of a few, the government risked the image of a large professional military force. Later, when senior military officers are denied visas for advanced military courses abroad due to their complicity in alleged rights abuses or the military victory against a monstrous terrorist group is denigrated as ‘genocide’, one should look back to those early instances to find the roots of our image problem.
It was not the military that caused it, the rulers of the former regime did. By any account, war is a brutal affair and with all the safeguards of rules of engagement and the rules of war, excesses are bound to happen. Those happened from Chechnya to Palestine, and Algeria to Afghanistan. Ours is not an exception. One could even argue that given the maximalist nature of the enemy we were faced with, our military responses had often been appropriate. Where there had been transgressions, the government ought to act to rectify them, and take disciplinary and legal action against the offenders.
Our problem was that the former administration that was by then sliding into authoritarianism and of which State policy is driven by Rajapaksa’s dynastic ambitions could not live up to those basic standards. When faced with negative publicity on the military abuses, it began shooting the messengers, sometimes literally. That did not solve the problem, rather worsened it. During the latter part of the war, the government’s reaction to any allegations of military excesses was a standard denial, describing them as ‘conspiracies’. However, many such events, in fact, happened. The fog and friction of war mean that mishaps can happen. Refugees could get caught in cross-fire, ‘Sencholai’ can be mistaken for a terrorist training camp and mortars can fall on hospitals. It happened in our war just like it happened in Vietnam or Iraq. When that happens, a more sensible approach is to acknowledge it, investigate it and minimize the changes of their recurrence (though such measures are not foolproof). The former regime failed in that, and that failure would later discredit the military victory.
Then the question is whether we could have won the war without doing what the government did. The obvious answer is that we could still have won, with less strain on civilian casualties and more dignity for our security forces.
The war was not won by white vans; it was won by valiant soldiers who paid with their lives and limbs in securing that victory, which was later hijacked by the former President to boost his larger-than-life personality. By doing so, he turned many promising military officers into political stooges, while purging others.
The mishandling of the military victory and potential for peace was an extension of the same flawed strategy. Many post-war challenges stemmed from the culture of impunity that date back to the Trincomalee-five, or even much earlier. Reconciliation became illusive as the government preferred militarization over civil peace. Flimsy military concerns took primacy over immediate humanitarian concerns of the IDPs. Rajapaksa promoted divisive post-war triumphalism and used it to legitimize his regime. A political solution was a nonstarter. The annul Victory Day was choreographed to boost his personality cult. Within our shores, he became the king, outside; he was more or less a pariah.
Of course, his political leadership was crucial to defeat terrorism. But, his mishandling of the situation is also responsible for the grave local and international problems we are currently faced with. He was indifferent towards those existential conditions, or he preferred to ignore them, in order to bide for time. And, those problems multiplied during his second term.
Now, the new government will have to address them. Its decision on a National Remembrance Day is a hopeful sign that it has a better understanding of the situation than its predecessor.