The Army remains the ultimate protector of the Sri Lankan people but there’s a need to track down human rights violations. The country must also stop demonising Muslims
Last month, the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) held its ninth annual defence seminar under the shadow of the tragic Easter Sunday bombings in Colombo, the much-discussed appointment of Army Commander Lt Gen Shavendra Silva and the political reverberations of a presidential election that might return Sri Lanka to a securitised state under the Rajapaksas.
Thirty years after the Eelam war started, on May 19 around 9:45 am, the 53 Infantry Division of SLA killed LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran around Nandikadal Lagoon. Colombo has celebrated that day by proudly declaring not a single terrorist attack since then. This achievement was marred by the April 21, 2019, terrorist bombings, raising the question: “What happened” after the SLA had eliminated root and branch, LTTE insurgency and terrorism, and ushered in a decade of peace and development but without addressing post-conflict resolution, including transitional justice and accountability.
SLA used the post-victory period to consolidate and savour the fruits of battlefield triumphs earned with heavy human losses. It shared lessons of its incredible success with other countries facing domestic terrorism in the form of annual defence seminars. Lt Gen Silva highlighted “learning from debacles as well” referring to the Easter Sunday bombings. From my privileged position of being a permanent invitee since 2011, it must be said that the proficiency the Army displayed in defeating the LTTE is equally visible in the organisation of the seminar. The cultural evening presented by the versatile men and women of the SLA is getting better every year, especially its innovative themes and special effects.
In the defeat of the LTTE and other insurgencies, what cannot be forgotten is the key role played by India and Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in preventing Eelam, protecting Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and integrity, preserving democracy by conducting three sets of elections: provincial, parliamentary and presidential in the north-east; promoting 13th Amendment on devolution for Tamils; and undermining the military capacity of the LTTE. While IPKF fought LTTE in north east, SLA was enabled to crush the JVP revolt in the south. In the 1970s, too, Indian troops helped SLA in subduing JVP rebels. The IPKF memorial in Colombo is not only Sri Lanka’s salute to 1,200 Indians dead and 5,000 wounded but also the foundation on which stands the defence relations between the two militaries.
Today, defence cooperation includes counter terrorism, maritime security in the Indian Ocean and a trilateral coastal security mechanism with the Maldives, whose Chief of Defence Force attended this year’s seminar.
The “what happened” question about the Easter Sunday bombings still being investigated came up at the seminar. It is simplistic to attribute it to the dysfunctional Government sourced to the 53-day Constitutional crisis starting October 26, 2018, with the President and Prime Minister working at cross purposes. Sharing of parallel intelligence was conspicuously absent. It was total and complete systemic failure. On the sidelines of the seminar, one picked up that India baiters in Colombo, including Pakistanis, were asking how did India “know so much” about potential bombers — it knew their names, cell numbers and details of weapon caches — and why did the suicide bomber earmarked to trigger off his explosive device in India-owned Taj Samudra hotel walk out ostensibly after some malfunction?
The then Army Commander Lt Gen Mahesh Senanayake is reported to have told BBC that some of the human bombers had travelled to south India and Kashmir for training. This was denied by India. Elements within the Army were extremely unhappy with the Constitutional crisis and its aftermath, leading to speculation of a military take-over but was quickly discounted as SLA has a history of civilian control.
Two enquiries are underway: One, a presidential commission and the other, a parliamentary inquisition. Presidential hopeful Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has said that he will order an enquiry if he is elected. In his earlier comments, he had criticised the Government for dismantling after the war, the intelligence network he had set up before it. This is only partially true. Several military intelligence officers and soldiers are being investigated for omissions and commissions.
Intelligence agencies ignored some of the leads at the behest of political leaders. Mention was made of growing polarisation of society, religious and ethnic tensions at the seminar. One could pick up the palpable fear among majority Sinhalese about radicalisation of Muslims, which is not a new phenomenon. At another level, it is the envy about the prosperity and wealth enjoyed by Muslims as a trading community leading to anti-Muslim sentiment. The Muslims, too, live in fear of the Sinhalese Bodu Bala Sena, allegedly responsible for anti-Muslim riots in Amparai, Kandy and Colombo. Fortunately, only two Muslims were killed in the post-bombing riots when SLA swiftly put a lid on the violence and rounded up nearly 100 suspects.
A reorganisation of intelligence and security has taken place. The Chief of National Intelligence, who coordinates seven different intelligence agencies, is an Army officer, Maj Gen JR Kulathunga. Previously, this appointment was held by a police officer. Maj Gen Dayasiri Hettiarachchi, former Jaffna commander, has opened a new department for deradicalisation of Muslims. The new Defence Secretary is Lt Gen Shantha Kottegoda, a former Army Commander. This post was traditionally held by a civil servant. All these new appointments have been placed under the Ministry of Defence, reflecting the great trust in the Army.
In the aftermath of the Easter bombings, national security and the pivotal position of the Army in Sri Lankan society, never in doubt, is soaring high. Colombo’s shrinking Galle Face Green is towered by highrise five-star hotels and a future port city rising from the depths of the Indian Ocean. Soldiers are back at vantage locations “protecting the people”, one of Lt Gen Silva’s top missions. Similarly, checks at the Bandaranaike International Airport have been enhanced. Tourism, which took a big hit after the bombings, has picked up and is expected to return to the 2018 high.
Elaborate inter-faith harmony programmes have been launched by the National Peace Council. The demonising of Muslims has to end if Sri Lanka has to return to the path of sanity, peace and development. The defence seminar has proved SLA remains the ultimate protector of the Sri Lankan people but tainted with alleged human rights violations. The air on this should be cleared soon.
Special Forces’ HS Kumarasiri, Sri Lanka’s most highly decorated soldier, was killed this month in his 681st free fall attempt during a multinational exercise in the east, proving that fear is unknown to SLA.
(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the revamped Integrated Defence Staff)