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Sunday, 17 May 2015

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Saluting the Security Forces

The wars that need to be remembered in post-colonial Sri Lanka are all wars within the nation and between Sri Lankans themselves. The executors of the actual armed conflicts are the State armed forces on the one hand and, on the other, various anti-State armed groups fighting for different causes.

The armed forces of a nation-State are the instrument for the ultimate protection of the nation and its political entity, the State. When the armed forces are used by the government of the time as a coercive and enforcement instrument against any segment of the population of that nation-state or against any anti-state armed group with the country, there is a complexity that cannot be easily resolved although that complexity could cause confusion about the moral and social legitimacy of such use within a country.

Even if some sections of the population and their political or even governmental leadership may insist that theirs is the 'right' reason for the deployment of the armed forces for such a purpose, those social groups who become the victims and targets for such internal military deployment may perceive such deployment as a betrayal of the collective sovereignty of the whole nation.

No amount of diversion about 'terrorism' and 'international conspiracy' can hide the truth about serious and unresolved grievances of a social group within a society. How a nation sets about dealing with such grievances will necessarily signify the relative importance given to all of the various communities and classes within a society and nation.

If those persistently raising those grievances are ignored and, when they get more vociferous, are forcibly suppressed and, when, finally, some of the more desperate elements resort to armed struggle and are then even more forcibly defeated, those in that social group are not easily ready to see that 'victory' as a victory in which they, too, share.

This victory by the State armed forces, if celebrated as a victory by one ethnic community, but not so by other ethnic communities belonging to the nation, then becomes hollow and self-defeating. Indeed, the huge endeavours of the armed forces at the behest of the government, become seriously devalued, if not meaningless, if their endeavours are not appreciated by any segment of the population - indeed, segments whose tax contributions also pay for the military effort. This complicated and confusing deployment of the Sri Lankan armed forces by the governments of the day has occurred not just once but in three distinct phases - if overlapping - of our recent history.

It happened in 1971 when a Centre-Left regime deployed the police and armed forces to crush the first rebellion by a movement of impoverished and socially marginalised rural and semi-rural youth. That regime included the biggest Marxist parties of the day claiming to represent both the working class and peasantry.

It happened again in the 1987-1990 period when the second and bloodier southern rural youth insurgency was crushed even more bloodily with many complaints of human rights violations - and none other than Mahinda Rajapaksa running to complain to the UN in Geneva. The third crushed internal rebellion was the ethnic minority-based secessionist insurgency that began in the mid-1970s and ended with the military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. The injustices that occurred along with this insurgency and counter-insurgency were many and perpetrated by all sides with Mahinda Rajapaksa harassing and demonising those who complained to Geneva.

In all of these painful conflicts so internal to our island society, the national political leaderships failed to resolve the issues in a manner that preserved social unity, avoided war and assured justice even at a minimum level. Rather, amid abject failure, successive governments resorted to the military option.

It has been the armed forces of the country that have to do the 'dirty work' left over by the failure of the political authorities. And the armed forces were compelled to implement military operations within the country not so much according to military doctrine and professional practice but according to the electoral timetables and vote bank strategies of the political class. Decades of such incoherent political and social management and opportunistic use of the military for partisan politics, has resulted in the police and armed forces themselves becoming dangerously rife with indiscipline and brutish behaviour.

To their credit, however, both the police and the forces have resisted such inroads of corrupt politics and held their respective banners high in the face of despotic demands and conspiracy to hang on to governmental power.

Indeed the changed behaviour of the security forces with the onset of the reformist 'good governance' regime led by Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe, is remarkable and evidences the finer capabilities of the military and the police that are being drawn out now that they are no longer forced by politicians to ignore laws and obey political diktats. The entire nation will appreciate what can only be a resurgence of a genuine honour and integrity of the 'defenders of the nation' that seems to be occurring under the current government.

May 2009 is remembered by many in this country in different ways. The troops that, at the behest of desperate politicos, slogged it out in the battlefields of the Vanni, will remember proudly their military triumph. Those who also recall crude violations and brutalities occurring in the heat of combat against a politically demonised 'enemy' will, no doubt, hang their heads in regret. The families of the soldiers who died in battle will commemorate their loved ones.

The families of those on the 'other side' - of the rebel militants of 1971, of 1987-90 and 1975-2009 will commemorate their loved ones. Those militants who have survived these rebellions will, no doubt, also recall their prowess but, hopefully, will also recall their coldblooded brutal excesses with remorse.

The biggest number of casualties in all these wars that have bloodied our 'resplendent isle' is among the non-combatant civilian population both North and South. The families of all these civilian dead and maimed must remember them and will.

These remembrances need more than just a single day. They need concrete actions of social rehabilitation, social and economic recovery support, cultural revival and political settlement for Remembrance to be truly meaningful and healing.

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