Indiscipline doesn’t spare even Dalada Maligawa
Army and police embarrass the country once again

By our Defence Correspondent
The army and police showed that indiscipline is the order of the day among their ranks, when they fought a gunbattle in the street outside the sacred precincts of the Dalada Maligawa on Wednesday, with mobs of soldiers even breaking into the temple to attack policemen inside.

The Commander of the Army, Lieutenant General Lionel Balagalle, apologized for the attack to the Mahanayakes of the Malwatte and Asgiriya chapters as well as the Diyawadana Nilame, and has promised a full investigation. He should actually apologize to the nation, for his soldiers jeopardizing the lives of men, women and children who had come to worship at the temple. But this appears to have been conveniently ignored.

However, it is high time the Army Commander and the Inspector General of Police did something more concrete to arrest the rot of indiscipline that prevails among their ranks, than make cosmetic gestures of apologies to the Mahanayakes week after week, we hear of mobs of soldiers and policemen going on the rampage. The massacre of 12 Sri Lanka Muslim Congress members oN December 5 was the most horrible example. This week’s attack on the Maligawa was merely the latest.

The alarming trend for mobs of soldiers or policemen to act as if murder and mayhem are a privilege of wearing their uniforms continues unabated. In the past it was not serving soldiers or policemen who were the problem, but deserters who operated either singly or in small groups, robbing and acting as hired guns. But now, it is not deserters, but entire units of serving personnel, who are holding the nation to ransom, brazenly using their official weapons and service vehicles, and wearing their uniforms while committing the most horrendous of crimes.

It is more than evident that the structure of junior officers and non-commissioned officers in the army and police has broken down, and discipline has eroded to the point where it is almost non-existent. Senior officers either have no control over their juniors and men, or are actively allowing these events to happen.

This particular incident began when a traffic policeman asked an army driver to move his vehicle, escalating into soldiers assaulting police, soldiers being assaulted by police, army reinforcements arriving in force and attacking the police, who in turn fired into the air, with the army responding by shooting to kill and vice versa. It’s a good thing all motorists who are told by traffic police to move their vehicles, don’t behave in this fashion! But as everyone knows, the armed forces follow no laws, when it comes to traffic!

Quite apart from the immediate impact of this type of criminal behaviour, it is pertinent to query whether these are the types of soldiers whom the army commander expects to do battle with the LTTE, which is one of the most highly disciplined guerrilla forces in the world. It is small wonder that the army has been getting nowhere in prosecuting the war.

Another crucial point that must be raised is the bad feeling which clearly exists among the army and the police, and to a lesser extent involving the navy and air force as well. The four arms of law and order and security are clearly too busy fighting each other, to protect the nation. This situation begins at the top, where some service commanders are not even on speaking terms with each other. It is time that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Defence Minister Tilak Marapana laid down the law, and give the top brass their marching orders, if they do not shape up and get discipline in their services back in order.

As this column reported two weeks ago, there is plenty of mudslinging within the ranks of each service, as officers compete for top spots. But the present trend of the services (including police) fighting each other, and having pitched gunbattles in city streets in broad daylight, is a lot more serious. How Velupillai Prabhakaran must be laughing. The Tigers may even be thinking that they no longer have to fight, because the forces are killing each other.

As exclusively reported in this column two weeks ago, the LTTE this week released ten persons whom they were holding for many yeas as prisoners of war. They include three soldiers who were captured by the Tigers during the Battle of Pooneryn in 1993, and seven merchant sailors taken during the Tiger attacks on the cargo ships MV Misen and Princes Cash.

Relatives of missing servicemen, headed by the Association of Relatives of Servicemen Missing in Action, immediately called on the government to release detained Tamils to reciprocate the gesture, in the hope of obtaining the release of more prisoners from the Tigers. The association this week asked to meet Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to plead their case.

However, one fact that must be considered is that seven of the prisoners who were released are merchant sailors, and not members of the armed forces. Human rights groups should make note of the fact that the LTTE has been holding such civilians for many years, which is clearly in contravention of all international treaties and conventions on the treatment of civilians during wartime. The LTTE’s contention that these were prisoners of war due to the fact that they were on board ships which were in northeast waters, which are claimed as LTTE territory is nonsense.

While prisoners of war can be held by the warring parties until such time as the war ends, it is common decency that civilians accused of merely working on merchant ships in the northeast, should be released immediately after being captured. These civilians did not put on uniforms or take up arms against the LTTE or for the government. They have committed no real crime, even if one recognizes that the waters or the northeast coast are a warzone claimed by the LTTE. At worst, they should be treated in the manner in which countries treat fishermen found straying into another country’s waters, and released in due course.

In fact, the LTTE holds such civilians merely as pawns in its political game. When peace talks and ceasefires begin from time to time, the LTTE makes a grand show of releasing "prisoners of war" and releases such civilians. The International Committee of the Red Cross is aware of such civilians in LTTE custody, and informs the government and relatives of their status and health. Yet, the Tigers continue to hold them for years, without even bothering to charge them with any crime and try them in their kangaroo court system.

In fact, the ICRC is to be complImented for its magnificent efforts in keeping these civilians alive. No sooner civilians go missing in the northeast, the ICRC contacts the LTTE immediately and checks on their fate. This usually forces the LTTE to admit that they have them in custody, after which such persons cannot simply disappear or be killed. If not for the efforts of such international humanitarian organizations, the fate of civilians seized by the LTTE would indeed be grim.

The civilians released this week were sailors on board the ferry MV Misen and the cargo ship Princes Cash, which were sunk by the LTTE in 1997. In the case of the Princes Cash, two Indonesian sailors on board were quickly released. How is it that the LTTE, while claiming that all these sailors committed some crime against the Tigers for simply being in northeastern waters, released sailors of one nationality and not another? The Tiger’s duplicity is very clear.

It is high time that the international community makes it clear to the LTTE that the imprisonment of civilians for no reason, will not be tolerated, and that their release after years of confinement cannot be viewed as a genuine gesture for peace, but a belated act that should have been done years ago.

If the Tigers want to make a genuine gesture of peace, they should release all true prisoners of war, by which we mean armed forces personnel. The LTTE has never said how many POW’s it holds, or their identities. This has kept relatives of missing personnel in agony for years on end, not knowing if their loved ones are dead or alive. In contrast, relatives of LTTE cadres or suspected LTTE cadres who are arrested or captured by the armed forces and police, can always petition Sri Lanka’s courts to find their loved ones.