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Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Is the army and the political leadership on a collision course?

The Noolaham and Alaveddy incidents have seeds of potential mutiny in them. The people of Jaffna have a yearning to regain their political freedom – that they lost to two forms of their adversaries in the past 3 decades. But the army has its own agenda. This is hardly consistent with that of the Jaffna Tamil people.
by I.S. Senguttuvan
 India and the donor community want the Rajapakse siblings to show their notorious credentials for a satisfactory and conclusive settlement of the Tamil question is misplaced. Besides, there is also the moral, ethical and legal responsibility of the government to re-assure the Tamils they are very much an integral part of the “Nation” – after three decades of hell for the people in that region. This is what, in fact, the President assured the nation many a times describing the Tamils affectionately as “my people” The top and effective leadership of the LTTE was eliminated nearly 3 years ago and its survivors – like KP – have surrendered to the State and are now faithfully carrying out its diktat. There is no reason why the Rajapakses should not show their good intent. There is little reason to doubt President Rajapakse is against a genuine rapprochement although this serves his own interest and adds to hispolitical survival. No one disputes a few infrastructure projects, some development work have taken place in the Jaffna District – but they are more cosmetic and for “international exposure” than guided by a definitive desire to raise the living standards of the Tamil people or to develop the Jaffna District. The regime’s credentials once again became suspect when the President rushed to Jaffna to open the multi- million dollar Water Tower – just a day before the Delhi trio arrived. For good measure, he also announced on the same day a further Rs.2 billion will be released to the Northern Development Fund. Meanwhile, the list the Jaffna public have been asking – a break-up of infrastructure development claimed by the Govt viz (1) the Project (2) the location (3) the scope and value (4) the source of funding (5) the current state of work done – should be supplied without delay. This will enhance the grey reputation of the President and the regime. It is learnt in the recent visit of the VVIP Delhi trio also asked the government to show performance and results – assured to them many a time in Delhi – beyond rhetoric. The Indians also have asked for early and free elections in the Jaffna District consequent to the many pleas made to them by visiting TNA delegations. The President has assured the return to civil political rule soon.

The next meeting (8th) between the Govt-TNA due on June 29th can be a sticky one. It is understood of those Tamils held by the TID only around 10% have been identified. The TID is reported to have now placed the onus on the army to come out with their “story” as to what happened to the tens of thousands Tamils taken after May 2009. This is clearly shifting blame and the classical game of football played by politicians when they want to avoid answering a straight question.

In a clear show that difficult days ahead in the District, on May 29 a group of senior academics – with Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole; a Govt favourite for the post of VC/Jaffna University among them – had gathered at the Noolaham Foundation to discuss matters concerning the development of library facilities for the people of Jaffna . While the meeting was proceeding a group of army men – lead by someone claiming to be a
Captain has broken in crudely shouting “Who is in charge here? This is the army. We will not allow any LTTE meetings here” The patently novice and inexperienced young man had not been trained to be an Officer and Gentleman. His savage behaviour was unbecoming of an officer he claimed to be. Ideally, all he had to do was to quietly come in, sit down with permission and watch the proceedings. He could have taken steps under the law if he found any anti-State activity going on. Of course, the Govt got a load of mud in its face. The usual meaningless apologies were tendered – but no one takes this seriously. A return to the savagery was expected soon. The army did not disappoint. On June 03 at Alaveddy, while a group of 6 TNA senior MPs were peacefully holding talks with some supporters about plans to contest the forthcoming local elections, another group of unruly soldiers in a posse of about 40 armed with poles and iron rods, lead by another morose officer showed up. This time they attacked many in the meeting totally without provocation. Some MPs – E. Saravanabhavan and M. Sumanthiran – escaped serious injury by a whiff. While the army, predictably, apologized for both ghastly misdemeanors there is no evidence it took action against the young offenders. The message from the army to its men clearly was “you can go about your licensed thuggery – as usual” The silent and helpless anguish of the Jaffna Tamil people bemoaning the lack of their right to hold a meeting was echoed even in the deep in the South. JVP leader Tilvin Silva, learning of the incident, asked in a JVP Press Conference “do not the people of Jaffna have a right under this government to conduct a meeting – like people elsewhere in the country?” A voluntary body of citizens calling themselves We Srilankans lead by Udul Premaratne (?) also condemned the criminal act. The Govt – that spares no time to assure visiting dignitaries “our Tamils are well, satisfied and happy” should take note of Tilvin Silva’s and Udul’s outrage since the army is likely to twist matters to say “Tamils are making up all these stories to blacken the army’s good image”. Both widely reported incidents cut a poor picture for the Govt in general and the army in particular. The lack-lustre apologies on both by the army higher-ups leaves little doubt the military wants the Tamil people of the area to remember “they are under army rule – whatever others in the government say” The message is “they might as well learn to behave” The government must not forget this shabby behaviour is not going unnoticed. In far away Chennai the Speech made by Tamilnadu Governor Barnala on June 03 – on the occasion of the swearing in of the new Chief Minister Selvi Jayalalitha – he announced to the whole of India in this widely-watched programme “the Sri Lankan Tamils live a pathetic life of subjugation”

Upping the ante of violence in the Jaffna District has a co-relation to the upcoming local elections where a noted government apologist, with his own army of unpopular and hated goons, Minister Douglas Devananda, is candidate for the plum office of Chief Minister, Northern Province. Whatever homilies are preached in political platforms and in talks with visiting political VIPs, the government will not like the new CM to be from the opposite ranks. Devananda, for his own parochial reasons, has proved to be the army’s and regime’s favourite quisling. If the TNA wins their choice of CM is likely to ask for a gradually diminishing role for the army and a progressively increasing role for the political leadership. The army having enjoyed plums for nearly three decades is not going to take things lying down – whatever the political conveniences of its civil leadership in Colombo is. This is why in both incidents where the Police should have gone in to enquire, it was the army that showed up and showed the State’s fascist face. There is no need for the army to do the functions of the Police now – as Ranil Wickramasinghe insists. For the same reason, the army is challenging to ignore the directives of the Supreme Court as well. When the TNA went to the Supreme Court on the photograph and passes issue the Attorney General gave an undertaking that the army will no longer bother the Tamil people in the matter. Now the army comes out with a totally unconvincing story. In brief, they tell the Supreme Court their writ does not work with the army. This happened earlier on the real estate under the HSZ issue – and now this. What justice can Tamils expect in a State where there is no respect for the highest court of the law? While the army hierarchy will cooperate with the political leadership in getting a few soldiers in weighing vegetables or running a wayside tea kiosk if it comes to their high-ups losing the perks they are used to for long there can be ugly and unprecedented conflict. This is one of the risks one takes in militarizing a political state – whatever the temporary gain. The classic case of kotiyage walige. That great tussle between the political leadership and the army one regularly saw in Pakistan – now in economic-political ruin and sectoral-religious division – is likely to visit us soon unless President Rajapakse shows more resolve, courage and political sagacity. The difference between the Pakistani case and ours, in ours the Rajapakse name features on both sides of the divide.

The Noolaham and Alaveddy incidents have seeds of potential mutiny in them. The people of Jaffna have a yearning to regain their political freedom – that they lost to two forms of their adversaries in the past 3 decades. But the army has its own agenda. This is hardly consistent with that of the Jaffna Tamil people. An army-state conflict in Sri Lanka can further place us up in that notorious List of Failed States – where we are condemned in the dubious No.29 as of date. Surely, this is hardly the Miracle of Asia.

I.S. Senguttuvan is a  senior journalist based in Colombo.



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