Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2611

The Good Soldier

By Rajiva Wijesinghe

Target: The attempt to assassinate the Secretary of Defence, in the very heart of Colombo, came as a shock. It should not have. Some months earlier, when there was an attack on the Pakistani High Commissioner, it was rumoured that the actual target had been Col. Rajapaksa.

That however was forgotten, as rumour mills all over the subcontinent went into overdrive, fuelled by allegations such as Mr. Sambandan's that Sri Lanka was trying to bomb the North and East into the Stone Age on Pakistani advice.

But even without that earlier attempt, we should have realized that Col. Rajapaksa would be an obvious target.

The Tigers have consistently sought to eliminate those who threaten them and, with the possible exception of the Foreign Ministry, it was clearly the Ministry of Defence that was causing them the greatest worry.

Whatever the achievements or otherwise of other Ministers, no other branch of the Executive has contributed over the last few years to a resolution of the national question, and indeed, as I have mentioned before, some elements seem determined to lose the battle for hearts and minds.

For the last few years however these two Ministries have done much to win back the ground lost during the UNP regime, and in the last year the leadership provided by the Secretary has instilled confidence and coherence into the Defence establishment.

I say this in a context in which critics of the government claim that, while its diplomatic achievements were remarkable in the first half of this year, given the scurrilous stories being spread about a possible Rajapaksa Government before the Presidential Election, those achievements have been stymied recently by the activities of the army.

Certainly there has been much bother over allegations that the Army has been engaging in attacks on civilians, and the Tigers seem to have been more successful in the last few weeks in creating this impression at least in Tamil Nadu than they did earlier.

But in reality, given the readiness of the world from last November on to condemn this Government, the actual instances in which allegations have been raised of serious violations of combat norms have been minimal.

This is despite the campaign of systematic provocation the Tigers began soon after the election. Unfortunately the large numbers of servicemen killed in December, many of them from the Navy, were forgotten in the furore caused by the deaths of five students in Trincomalee.

That indeed was an instance when the military was caught on the wrong foot, in that initially they denied responsibility, without highlighting the actual situation.

Of course higher standards of caution are expected from State Forces than from terrorists, which is why investigation of State Action is so thorough.

But, at the same time, violent reactions to life threatening situations are not in general considered culpable, and the military was at fault in not explaining clearly the circumstances in which the deaths had taken place.

Certainly the fact that at least some of those killed had been carrying dangerous explosives at the time would have reduced the sense of outrage raised internationally.

After that, the army has managed generally to respond reasonably to the allegations made against it, and indeed the paucity of these, as compared with the last occasion on which Indian feelings were roused, indicates the much greater professionalism now of the army.

Unfortunately even a single actual incident exacerbates feelings roused with regard to previous false alarms, as we can see in the raising anew of the bombing of the orphanage which was shown clearly to be a training centre.

But listing the incidents that have been highlighted - the five youths at Trincomalee, the orphanage, the Mutur Aid Workers, the Muslim deaths attributed to the STF, the shelled refugee centre, assistance to Karuna to recruit children - makes clear both the lack of clear culpability in most instances as also the comparative propriety of military action despite continuing extreme provocation.

The contrast with twenty years ago cannot be greater. In those days the Army seemed to deserve the characterization of it as one of the worst disciplined in the world - and as we know, that indiscipline extended even to its treatment of the southern insurgency, with many decent Army officers being shunted out so that politicians could have full control.

That situation began to change with the less authoritarian regimes of the nineties, and training with regard to the responsibilities of an army, in particular with regard to human rights, became a priority.

Col. Rajapaksa's achievement however has been to ensure adherence to these norms while not remaining passive in the face of provocation. Given his understanding of the situation of the army, this has ensured greater confidence than existed previously.
Of course this can lead to misjudgment as we saw at Muhumalai, and he needs also to ensure better training with regard to tactics and strategy, than the self-congratulatory approach of earlier Ministers allowed.

But it must be a relief for the forces to have at their head a professional soldier whose adherence to military norms has never been questioned.

It was predictable then that the LTTE should have been so anxious to remove him, and we have to be thankful, while hoping for continuing vigilance, that he managed to escape.

- Asian Tribune -

Share this