Pity the Country

by Tisaranee Gunasekera
"Once later came the Pandu King from Jambudipa and began to take possession of the Island. When the (Sihala) King heard thereof he sent a strong army against him, but owing to the discord among the high dignitaries, the Pandu king found opportunity to get a firm footing.... The (Sihala) King took all his valuable property and left the town.... The Yuvaraja thought: ‘Alone it is impossible to kill all these; but death at the hands of these base people is not beautiful’ and sitting on the back of his elephant, he cut his throat. When his men saw that, many of them likewise cut their throats and when the Damila army beheld this it rejoiced with exceeding joy." — (Culavamsa)

One of the most inglorious chapters of the PA regime’s inglorious career was the Kobbekaduwa Commission, appointed barely a month after the election of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. From its inception the Commission was guided by the sensational revelations of Ms. Kelum Rohini, introduced to the nation by the tabloid, Yukthiya (25.12.94) as a war widow deprived of her pension unfairly by the Army. Kelum Rohini began her evidence with a lie — that she was married to Susantha Hathurusinghe of 1 GR Regiment Recruit No. s/21373 in the Army. The Army denied that there was any such person.

It would have been easy to verify her claim using Army records but this obvious step was not taken. The Army was disbelieved and Kelum Rohini was believed. That choice set the tone and the direction of the Commission’s entire investigation which eventually concluded that the Araly Point blast which killed Gen. Kobbekaduwa was the result of a conspiracy by the UNP and a section of the Army, including General Vijaya Wimalaratne and Lt. Col. Stephen, both victims of the blast.

The recent media hype concerning an alleged conspiracy by a section of the Army to target leaders of the UNF reminded me of this other "conspiracy tale". A cache of arms, LTTE uniforms and cyanide capsules were "discovered" in a house in the "Millennium City" in Athurugiriya and a group of army officers was arrested by a police raiding party from Kandy. It was subsequently revealed by the media that this was a "safe house" operated by the Directorate of Military Intelligence as part of its counter-terrorist operations in LTTE controlled areas and that this group was responsible for the killing of several key LTTE operatives.

According to media reports when the Director of Military Intelligence made desperate attempts to prevent the exposure of the Long Range Reconnaissance Petrol by getting the IGP to intervene, the officer in charge of the raiding party enlisted the backing of the new Minister of Interior. As Iqbal Athas reported: "Interior Ministry officials were soon to assume that the police were trying to suppress matters relating to the raid. The media was tipped off and there was wide publicity. Minister Amaratunga dispatched his relative and now a senior official Lal Ratnayake to Athurugiriya to make sure that nothing was done to suppress matters" — (The Sunday Times - 6.1.2001).

Implicating the army

A lurid conspiracy theory thus came into being and grew in the telling, particularly in the Sinhala media. It was said that this group was planning to assassinate Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe during the recent parliamentary election campaign. It was even stated that these arrested officers had some connection with the barbaric killing of 10 SLMC supporters in Udathalawinna. The Army issued a statement declaring that these officers were not acting in excess of their duties and were not engaged in any illegal activity. But this denial was not taken seriously by either the relevant government authorities or by the majority of the state and private media.

The Athurugiriya "investigation" was remarkably similar to the investigation into the death of Gen. Kobbekaduwa by President Chandrika’s hand-picked Commissioners. For that Commission, Kelum Rohini’s claim that Gen. Kobbekaduwa was killed by an explosive device placed by a faction of the army in his vehicle, on the orders of Premadasa/UNP became the "idee fixe". Any "evidence" which was congruent with this theory was accepted with alacrity; any evidence which did not (including that of two foreign experts) was rejected out of hand. And since Kelum Rohini claim to be the wife of one of the conspirators all her utterances were believed by the Commission and given wide publicity in the media.

"Almost everything she said was highlighted in the daily papers, on Television and over the Radio. She said the Late Major Gen. Wimalaratne was the person who murdered the Late Gen. Kobbekaduwa. The public treated her as a truthful witness." — (The Kobbekaduwa Commission Report). Neither the Commission, nor the police nor the media bothered to investigate the veracity of these fantastic claims — not even after Kelum Rohini was exposed as a fraud and arrested by the CID for giving false evidence.

The Kobbekaduwa Commission crucified the innocent and the dead and whitewashed the guilty — the LTTE. And by accusing the Army of a crime it was not guilty of, the Commission undermined its morale and its authority and tarnished the memories of several brave officers who fought and died for their country. The tale of the Athurugiriya "conspiracy" is an ominous sign that the Wickremesinghe administration maybe headed the same way. The army was once again unfairly accused of a politically motivated crime and a witch hunt launched against a group of courageous officers risking their lives for the country. And the whole issue was played out in the media, which churned out endless "facts" and "interpretations" without making the slightest effort at verification.

Like in the case of the Kobbekaduwa Commission some obvious questions arise concerning the Athurugiriya incident as well. Why didn’t the Interior Minister or top Ministry officials check the veracity of the DMI’s claims with the Army top brass and the Ministry of Defense at the outset? Why was no attempt made to maintain some degree of confidentiality, at least until the claims of the Military Intelligence could be verified? Why was there such a hurry to leak the story to the media? Why were attempts made to connect this group of anti-LTTE operatives to the politically motivated massacre at Udathalawinna? How was it possible for one middle ranking police officer to cause so much havoc, if he did not have (at least) the tacit acquiescence of powers that be? If a group of army officers can be detained illegally notwithstanding the objections of the Army, what guarantees can civilians have of basic justice and due process?

Glasnost ad infinitum

Heraclitus said that man’s character is his fate. If that is true of a nation, then periodic self-inflicted defeats may well be our collective fate. Because chronic divisiveness and sacrificing national interests for partisan/factional gain seems part of our ontology. Our 2,500 year old written history is replete with such incidents — and they certainly constituted an important contributory factor to our inability to protect the civilisational wonders we created as well as to our habit of slipping down rather than moving up the civilisational/development ladder during our 2,500 year history.

President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s ire against the LTTE which tried to kill her was always less than her ire against the UNP of J. R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa which kept her family in the political wilderness for 17 years. The Wickremesinghe administration too does not seem to have any qualms about targeting a national institution which is standing in the way of the division of the country and the final victory of the LTTE, for short-term partisan political gains. The problem is not the fact of the Athurugiriya investigation but that the way in which it was conducted — clumsy, irresponsible, rash and seemingly politically motivated. One does not need to be a military expert to understand that the successes of this group of under-cover operatives would have dealt several significant blows to the LTTE. At least that indisputable fact should have been taken into consideration in dealing with the issue.

The Athurugiriya incident is but one act in the policy of unilateral glasnost the new administration has been following since the inception — removing checkpoints, ceasing recruitment to the Army, allowing the free transportation of items with potential military uses to the LTTE controlled areas. With each act we undermine the morale, the self-confidence and the fighting capacity of the Armed Forces, and thereby the ability of the Lankan state to deal with the LTTE both at the negotiating table and the battlefield. The fact that this country needs peace and that the majority of its people desire peace is no guarantee of peace. These are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the peaceful resolution of a conflict. A lasting peace is something that is to be achieved and not a fait accompli.

Many of the "confidence building measures" the new administration is undertaking unilaterally may actually enhance the LTTE’s capacity to create mayhem in the South if peace does not materialize — a possibility which cannot be ruled out. After all even the most innocuous and humane act can have negative implications in a situation of conflict. For example according to a US Intelligence Report during the WWII, "Frenchmen who were Nazi agents used the cover of being refugees under Red Cross protection" (Hitler’s Secret Bankers — Adam Lebor). And even though there is a ceasefire currently, it will do well to remember that the war is not really over. Consequently it is imperative that this interregnum is not misused to weaken the one instrument we have to counter the LTTE, if the Tigers decide to go back to war, as it did in 1987, 1990 and 1994.

There is an old Sinhala saying: "Denegana giyoth Kataragama; nodena giyoth atharamaga" (If you know the way you will get to Kataragama; otherwise you will get stranded). What the economic crisis needs is creative solutions which take a holistic view rather than the policy of unlimited liberalization the new administration seems to be opting for; similarity on the military front what is needed is slow, cautious steps and not the marathon of "reforms" that is being implemented. And just as the reaction to laissez faire economics in the context of a global recession can be populism of the worst sort, the reaction to unlimited glasnost in the security sphere in the context of an unresolved conflict could be a violent outburst of majoritarian racism.

This is particularly so given the historical nexus between class and ethnicity/religion and the traditional majoritarian perception of the economic elite as non-Sinhala and non-Buddhist. "In every period a certain view of the world....dominates the whole mass of society.... Far more than the accidents or the historical or social circumstances of a period, it derives from distant past, from ancient beliefs, fears and anxieties which are almost unconscious — an enormous contamination transmitted from generation to generation. A society’s reaction to the events of the day, to the pressures upon it, to the decisions it must face are less a matter of logic or even self interest than the response to an unexpressed and often inexpressible compulsion arising from the collective unconscious" — (A History of Civilization — Fernand Braudel).

"Defeat is a lesson that has to be learned", wrote Sartre in "Iron in the Soul" his novel dealing with the defeat of France by Nazi Germany. Given the criminally irresponsible behaviour of our political class, our people may be forced to learn that bitter lesson yet again. And in their desperate attempt to deal with it, they may revert to old practices, guided by ancient fears and prejudices. The new administration is likely to be one of the first casualties of such a conflagration, together with the unity of the country and any prospect of economic regeneration.