Medical services for evacuated civilians - 2009

Our Armed Forces have done a fantastic job in recent years. Not only did they deal conclusively with one of the most accomplished terrorist groups in the world, they also assisted the civilian victims of terrorist with strict discipline and respect of rules of engagement, and at the same time ‘a very respectful and kind attitude to help those in need’, to cite a letter sent by the head of the ICRC. However they now find themselves on the defensive, having to face excessive charges that even normally sensible diplomats seem to be encouraging.

I believe there are two reasons for this, one entirely our own fault, the other much more sinister and requiring to be dealt with firmly, though sadly our continuing incoherence of policy in this regard means we will continue to suffer. The first reason is the presence, despite the decency of the generality, and the excellent training that we have provided and improved on over the years, of a few elements that behave badly. Unfortunately we have not dealt with them at all sensibly.

In the old days I used to recommend taking a leaf out of the Anglo-Saxon model, which

Lynndie England drags a detainee known as Gus by a leash around the neck. Megan Ambuhl looks on - Abu Ghraib, Iraq 2004

would charge some individuals when there was basic evidence of wrongdoing, acquit all of them but one, and then claim that they had fulfilled the claims of accountability – as happened for instance with the torture allegations at Abu Ghraib. This was not, I said, the classic Anglo-Saxon vice of hypocrisy, rather it made sense by pointing out to the rest of the forces that what had happened was wrong, while at the same time not being too harsh on personnel who it had to be assumed generally did their best in difficult circumstances.

But if that seemed too tough for us, the Americans have now gone one better, and acquitted all of those who killed Afghan civilians and cut off their fingers. They will, I suppose, claim that the inquiry they held proved their bona fides, while at the same time allowing Barack Obama in an election year to escape charges that he is letting down our brave boys on the front by punishing them from doing what God evidently wanted them to do.

That provides the best answer to what the then Attorney General would tell me when I would urge him to prosecute those considered responsible for the murder of five boys in Trincomalee. He did not have enough evidence, he claimed, and they would be acquitted. It was useless my telling him that that was not the point, he should not fear shame over a lack of success in the classic Sri Lankan way, he should be happy that the State had made the point that what happened was wrong. I should add that, as I have also been constantly suggesting, we need to investigate the White Flag case more thoroughly, and our failure to pay due attention to what the Americans initially brought to our attention, citing a speech in which Sarath Fonseka seemed to claim credit for what had occurred, was a blunder which has contributed to the complete volte face the Americans have since undergone in that regard.

Fortunately we seem after the LLRC report to be moving towards proper inquiry, though there again we see what I can only describe as the sheer carelessness of our decision makers, who waited until after American diplomats had come to Sri Lanka to wag their fingers at us to announce this fact. The inquiries had begun in fact soon after the LLRC report came out, as I found out when I asked the army commander a month ago what was happening. I advised him to publicize the fact, but of course no one ever takes my advice seriously, so we have to suffer the ignominy of international and even national reporting that claims we instituted an inquiry in response to American pressure.

I am immeasurably sad about this, because I see us now as going through some of the absurdities the Jayewardene government went through in the mid-eighties, when it always yielded too little, too late, in the face of pressure. The irony is that this government is actually in many respects doing the right thing – which Jayewardene rarely did – but its incapacity to communicate means that we seem to be granting under pressure what we had decided to do anyway.

De-mining expedited under Uthuru Wasanthaya Program

For our record indeed has been very good with regard to the sinews of reconciliation, much swifter resettlement than elsewhere in the world, effective and sympathetic rehabilitation, excellent infrastructure. Much of this has been done through the forces, including rapid and successful demining, the refurbishment of kovils, the building of shelters and houses. But there is more that the forces could do, which sadly we are failing in, partly because of unwarranted pressures.

One obvious area in which the forces could contribute massively is that of training. I have long pointed out that, while our development of infrastructure has been impressive, the programme of reconstruction will suffer if we do not pay equal attention to the development of human resources. In this regard, given its capacity, the armed forces could provide training in several areas in which – as I found in a survey conducted for me by an NGO that I hope to use to expend some of my decentralized budget in Mullaitivu this year – there are great needs. Construction work (in particular electronics and plumbing), the repair and maintenance of engines, basic English and IT, can all be taught by the forces, to fulfil current demand, and to this we can add nursing and care for the disabled.

To do all this requires a change in the profile of the forces, but this I found is happening already. It will have to work in conjunction with civil agencies, governmental and non-governmental, and while its discipline and efficiency may be necessary for administrative leadership, authority should be entrusted to others. This can easily be done by using too those agencies in the forces that already have a civilian framework, as for instance the Kotelawala Defence University. It has now begun courses that are not directly related to military training, and this can easily be expanded through diploma and certificate courses that provide the sort of package that will maximize employment opportunities, with some personality training and management capacity thrown in.

Construction work of a new two-storied building at Kopay Navalar Government Tamil Mixed School (G.T.M.S.) by the 5th Engineer Services Regiment (ESR) of the Sri Lanka Army.

Unfortunately diffidence about using the forces overmuch may stand in the way of such initiatives. And this is exacerbated by insistence that the forces are too obvious a presence already in the North, a cry that is made more by people in Colombo and Jaffna than in the areas that suffered from the destructive rule of the LTTE. I fear however that, in adding grist to the mill of such people, through for instance the unfortunate incident that took place with regard to a TNA meeting, which has still not been properly investigated, some elements in the armed forces are preventing the productive use of those forces  in the current phase of nation building.

The simple fact is, the army will have to continue in situ in the North for years to come, but unless everyone in it realizes both what it should do, and what it should not do, it will continue to face unnecessary criticism which will limit its effectiveness. It is there first to ensure security, but this does not mean micro-management. It is true that the police are still not efficient, but the answer is better training of police, with secondment if necessary of army officers to make up for the comparatively inadequate training our police was reduced to during the war years (as indeed they complained to me, when I used to upbraid them on their comparatively bad record with regard to Human Rights). Secondly, the forces must develop productive partnerships with civil society based on the needs of the people in each area. Assistance to local authorities with small infrastructure projects, road building and irrigation work, with military personnel working side by side with locals, and training them too, should be pursued, without maintaining distances between the forces and the people.

Another obvious way in which the armed forces can indicate their actual symbiotic relationship to the people, rather than the oppositional impression their critics are trying to propagate, is by fast forwarding recruitment of Tamils, and Muslims too, into their ranks. I am aware that there are efforts being made in this regard, but people are too easily put off by problems that could be easily resolved, and in any case there has been no concerted planning made in this regard. For instance, though cadeting was started in the North, initially it was confined to just a few schools in the Jaffna peninsula, with no effort for instance made to ensure that St Patrick’s (which produced the current most senior Tamil officer in the army) was involved. Fortunately I believe that the programme has now been extended to the Wanni, but there should be active encouragement. Sadly, the innovative plan of the Secretary of Defence, to recruit cadet officers of all communities as English teachers, has been effectively killed by the Ministry of Education after a single I believe successful experiment.

553 Ex-LTTE cadres who were rehabilitated at the Sri Lanka Air Force Trikonamadu Rehabilitation Centre - 10 June 2011

With regard to the police, if there are insufficient candidates with suitable qualifications in the Wanni, then efforts should be made to provide these by alternative mechanisms, instead of waiting for the school system to produce them in time. There are several youngsters amongst the ex-cadres who might make good policemen, and all they need is a quick mechanism to provide them with the necessary Ordinary Level qualifications. Establishment of academies that train for Ordinary Levels in appropriate subjects (the three languages, Maths, IT, and vocational and aesthetic subjects) would not be difficult, but to get our Ministry of Education to think outside the box is difficult. I can only hope that the Provincial authorities, who are much more imaginative, will move in this regard with the guidance of the Governor, and perhaps obtain support from the armed forces for training in areas where they have the expertise.

I believe then that the armed forces have a lot to offer, but they must make sure that they are seen as partners filling in gaps, rather than aliens who are in authority or competitors. Where they do act as producers, they should do this in collaboration with the locals, as is easily possible with model agricultural projects, where they can develop not only cultivation capacity but also agri-business skills. We had indeed suggested this a long time ago, through the Confidence Building and Stabilization Measures project run by the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights when I was its Secretary, but though photographs of what we had achieved were used when plans were being drawn up for the Welfare Villagers, the concept was then forgotten, and my excellent staff, Bindu Urugodawatte and Sujiva Jayasinghe, who had achieved so much with so little, were no longer used. Even now, given the excellent cooperation they had with the forces – for instance in the kovil cleaning project they implemented before Thai Pongal in 2010 – they would be admirable facilitators for Civil-Military cooperation in any agricultural initiative planned in the area, for instance in Manik Farm, where it would be a pity to let the cleared land go back to jungle, if the owners are willing for good use to be made of it for a while longer.

We must move then with confidence but also with sympathy, and with understanding that the main purpose of any action now must be ensuring the prosperity as well as the peace of the civilians who suffered so much for so long. There will be many trying to create diffidence, but while that should be resisted, we need too to make sure that there are no aberrations on our part, and that any that occur are dealt with swiftly and firmly. The message after all must be as clear and constructive as the substance.