Former LTTE combatants at a rehabilitation centre

Having reflected a couple of months back, after the Emergency Debate, on the changes we were able to achieve over the last couple of years, I thought this time I should consider a few more things that could be done. I will do this in the context of the remarks made by the Opposition during the debate, since I believe we should take seriously the serious points they raise, even while regretting the knots into which they have tied themselves through their relentless and unprincipled opposition to government.

This was most apparent in the counterpoint as it were between the pronouncements of General Sarath Fonseka, and the issues raised by some minority politicians who were forced, due to the infinite genius of the Leader of the Opposition, to have supported the General during the Presidential Election. One has already granted that this was a mistake, but I felt in particular sorry for the members of the TNA, as they engaged in criticism of the cantonments that they felt were springing up all over the North.

In this context I wondered how many of them remembered the General’s reason, as expressed in his letter of resignation, for distrust springing up between him and the President. He claimed it was because the President vetoed his plan to increase the army by 100,000 men. Taken in conjunction with his claim that the displaced were being released far too quickly, without proper attention to security concerns, it seems clear that, if there was any plan to change the demography of the North by planting it with soldiers, on the lines of the old Roman Empire, it was inspired by him. Fortunately the President thought otherwise, and said so graphically, as the General’s letter makes clear.

My own view is that security requirements must be paramount, and therefore military outposts in select areas should not be a problem. However I would agree that government needs to minimize inconvenience, and in this regard rationales for any particular choices should be made clear, along with systems of compensation that will be implemented as necessary.

But there is also another area in which reassurance could easily be provided, and that is by making it clear that the security forces are representative of the entire Sri Lankan state, and not merely of one of its components. In this context government would do well to consider the agreements reached shortly after the institution of Provincial Councils, that the armed forces would reflect the population of the country. This was a very positive step, because it affirmed the fact that, whatever responsibilities were devolved, the responsibility for security would remain with the central government. Equity in this regard would be ensured by making the armed forces of the country representative of the country as a whole, working under a unified central command.

In this context I was reminded of another of General Fonseka’s characteristic pronouncements, when he expressed what seemed an exclusivist majoritarianism, that we had to make clear in those days was not the view of the government. My own view at the time was that he had not meant to suggest that there was no role for the minorities, and I believe that, whatever he felt then, he is now more enlightened, and would also welcome enhanced recruitment of minorities into the forces. Certainly, given the positive steps taken by the Secretary of Defence, even in the midst of terrorist threats, to recruit Tamils to the police, and also to the Cadet Corps, I believe there should now be an even more pro-active policy of such recruitment, so that the message will be clear that the forces, deployed in all parts of the country for the security of all, represent the nation as a whole. I believe swift action in this regard would go a long way towards removing the suspicions that are expressed about any cantonments that will be constructed.

The second area in which I believe some concerns expressed by the Opposition should be addressed concerns what they claim is a culture of impunity. This was claimed during this debate with regard to the attack on the Siyatha television station. The implication was that government was responsible for the attack, which I believe is nonsense. Such an attack was obviously damaging to government, and no sensible supporter of the government could imagine otherwise.

However we have to recognize that there may be those supportive of the government who have personal reasons for behaving wrongly. Though we cannot be sure, it is possible that this is what happened in particular instances in the past, with regard for instance to Keith Noyahr and the ‘Nation’ newspaper, as well as the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga. Unfortunately the relative slowness of police investigations in such instances lends credence to the view that government was responsible, if not for the actions, for allowing the perpetrators to get away.

I am aware myself that sometimes investigations are slow, because police are not sure how to proceed. There was an example of this a couple of years back, when there was a sudden spate of abductions in the East, and organizations that prided themselves on their advocacy claimed that government was responsible. As I pointed out to them at the time, this was the surest way of encouraging the police to do nothing. Instead, we urged the police as well as the Security Forces commander to ensure that investigations were pursued, and sure enough, two separate gangs, with no connection to government or to the TMVP, were soon apprehended.

It is desirable therefore that government makes it clear that untoward incidents will be investigated, and measures taken against the perpetrators. The excuse that was proferred, with regard for instance to the Keith Noyahr case, that there were other priorities, is no longer tenable. And, if investigation provides some leads, they should be followed up and charges pressed as possible. It does not matter if the case is not proved, since justice is not simply a retributive exercise, it is concerned also with deterrence and reform.

These last must be paramount, in the process of Reconciliation that needs to be promoted. I have noted before that Reconciliation based on the past and on retribution is not going to get us anywhere, we need to concentrate rather on reconciliation that looks to the future, reconciliation that brings people together. I believe that better policing is essential for this, and policing based on equal justice for all. That is as important for the future as inclusivity in the armed forces as well as the police, and the perception that all these serve the people as a whole.

Rajiva Wijesinha

The Island Online 5 August 2010