From the battlefield to the pavement

Sixty-nine ex-soldiers have launched a fast unto death opposite the Fort Railway station over the termination of their services by the previous government without adequate compensation. They demand fair treatment, meaning a compensation package commensurate with the service they have rendered - not just Rs. 125,000 each, which they have been given.

Having joined the army as personnel of the National Armed Manpower Unit, these soldiers have served in various parts of the country including the North and the East. They are said to have undergone both local and foreign training and possess a wealth of experience gathered over 16 years.

They must therefore be given an opportunity to negotiate with the Defence authorities with dignity befitting ex-soldiers.

These soldiers are fasting unto death at a time when the very terrorists whom they helped fight are going places on a fragile ceasefire. They are being whisked past the customs together with their baggage without checks at the very airport, which they devastated two years ago. They are also being flown to and from their hideouts in VVIP choppers. The globe-trotting terror kingpins are enjoying all luxuries under the pretext of talking peace and studying federalism while the ex-soldiers are risking their lives in a fast to win a demand that cannot be dismissed as unfair.

Absence of war, as is well known, is not peace. Any government with an iota of common sense will prepare for the worst while talking peace with a terror outfit. The morale of the troops must be kept high for this purpose. They must not only be treated well but also be made to feel that those whom they defend appreciate their service and will stand by them at the hour of their need. When ex-soldiers are driven to the streets to win their dues, that sends disturbing signals to the troops.

It should be recalled that more than the travails at the battlefront it is the realisation of the troops that they are risking life and limb to defend an ungrateful people and an inconsiderate government that has caused so many military desertions. Worse still, it is no exaggeration that successive governments have treated valiant soldiers worse than common criminals. Last year’s raid on the Athurugiriya safe house of the army’s Long Rangers is a case in point. These deep penetration groups, the pride of the Sri Lanka Army, infiltrated the LTTE heartland and accounted for several key terrorists including Prabhakaran’s right hand man ‘Colonel’ Shankar thus causing the LTTE leaders to confine themselves to their bunkers, were rounded up, paraded before TV cameras and dragged to a police station over bogus charges. They were later released but the damage caused was irreparable. Their identities were exposed and so far over 20 informants of theirs have been gunned down by the LTTE. This is the reward that awaited the Long Rangers and their supporters who proved their capability to beat Prabhakaran at his own game, an achievement which would have earned them laurels had they fought for any other country.

The opposite of this is true of the LTTE. Larger-than-life cut-outs of dead LTTE cadres erected at every nook and corner in LTTE-controlled areas, various other memorials and the war cemetery in memory of LTTE cadres killed in battle are proof of the LTTE’s gratitude to its combatants, which begets the dedication of its members to its macabre cause.

When a soldier who strayed into an LTTE-controlled area was killed by the LTTE recently, he was buried without military honours. But when three LTTE cadres who blatantly violated the MoU by smuggling in arms blew themselves up aboard their vessel on being intercepted by the Navy a few weeks ago, the LTTE declared a day of mourning. Moreover, Anton Balasingham is on record as having bragged that it is from the LTTE combatants that the organisation derives bargaining power to negotiate with the Sri Lanka government. What a tribute! What a morale booster for the LTTE combatants!

The on-going fast by the ex-soldiers has to be viewed against this backdrop. Their counterparts in the active service will tend to believe that the fate that awaits them is the same as that of the ex-soldiers fasting in Fort. Given the callous disregard of the government worthies and the Czars of the Defence establishment, they may not be too wrong in drawing that conclusion.

The government must take immediate steps to redress the grievances of the ex-soldiers without letting them risk their lives. Soldiers, the government must be told, are not there to die on the pavement!

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