SPECIAL REPORT : Part 223
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Pictures posted on the internet and video footage of people carrying a person in uniform, recently, jolted the Tamil community.
The bespectacled man in uniform was quickly identified as Lieutenant Colonel Ratnapriya Bandu, originally of the elite Special Forces before being transferred to the Sinha Regiment. The pictures were taken in the morning of June 10, 2018 in one-time LTTE den, Vishvamadu, as the officer was felicitated by a grateful community. Ratnapriya Bandu was leaving Vishvamadu after completing an unenviable post-war task, winning hearts and minds of the people.
Ratnapriya Bandu served the Civil Security Department (CSD) for nearly six years in the Northern Province where a politically motivated campaign meant to discredit the military is underway.
Initially, some sections of the Tamil community expressed doubts regarding the circumstances under which the felicitation ceremony was organized. They were skeptical. The pictures were a quite a shock for those who had been demanding the withdrawal of the Army from the Northern Province. For those who depicted the man in uniform as the main obstacle to the post-war national reconciliation were dismayed and concerned. Some obviously felt threatened.
Mano on Vishvamadu
National Integration, Reconciliation and Official Languages Minister Akilan Manoharan Ganesan was one of those who reacted positively to Vishvamadhu Tamils expressing their true feelings. Thanks to a former Tamil colleague of mine, I was able to get a translation of what Ganesan posted on his Facebook. The outspoken politician said: ‘Should we see this (Lt. Col. Ratnapriya Bandu matter) as positive or negative? Is this reception, ‘open support’ also available to any politician in north?
Is northern Tamil leadership failing to live amidst the people and win their hearts?
Is this tendency only for Kilinochchi or Vanni or is it spreading to Jaffna peninsula as well?
Is the system wrong only in the North or is whole system wrong in whole country?
Ganesan, in his Facebook post also quoted the Lieutenant Colonel as having told him how he served the people without taking any weapon in his hand. The minister has phoned the officer on June 11, the day after his transfer. The minister revealed that former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had come to meet him a few months ago and tearfully pleaded with him to delay the transfer of the officer who had already served five years in the area. I have answers to many such issues. But if I publicly comment, some jokers in the North and South will get angry."
The outspoken politician has delayed the officer’s transfer by a few months following the intervention by a group of ex-LTTE cadres.
The Vishvamadhu felicitation took place on June 10, the day, 28 years ago, the LTTE resumed the war a few months after the departure of the Indian Army. Ratnapriya Bandu, having joined the Special Forces in January, 1990, during the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s honeymoon with LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, served in many areas before receiving appointment as Director, Training of the CSD, in 2006, at the onset of Eelam War IV. Ratnapriya Bandu played a significant role in the development of the CSD during 2006-2008 period before joining the First Battalion of the Sinha Regiment (1SR) in 2009 as its Second-in-Command. The battalion, attached to the 53 Division, fought on the Vanni east front.
Ratnapriya Bandu returned to CSD in late 2012 and served in Vishvamadhu, east of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road, until he was moved recently to Sinha Regiment Regimental headquarters in Ambepussa. In ‘Gamini’, directed by Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera, the then Director General of the CSD, versatile actor Bimal Ratnayake played the real life experience of a Major under fire by villagers following the massacre of 57 men, women and children in an isolated Ampara village by the LTTE. Under pressure by the Sinhala community there the Major threw his weight behind CSD. ‘Gamini’ dealt with how the Army transformed the CSD finally to play a significant role in protecting vulnerable villages during Eelam War IV.
The previous government earned the wrath of an influential section of the Tamil community for trying to enlist former rehabilitated members of the LTTE to the CSD. The project was in addition to the recruitment of Tamil speaking youth to the Army. The northern political leadership quite rightly realized the danger in the government project and reacted strongly to former LTTE combatants joining the CSD where they served the Northern Province public with distinction.
Social media and private television coverage of Vishvamadu farewell revealed the truth whereas the state-run media conveniently turned a blind eye. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration lacked a strategic plan to bring the Vishvamadhu farewell to the widest possible audience to highlight the success of post-war national reconciliation process. Government websites refrained from using those incredible images. The writer received Vishvamadu pictures from several friends, including Tamils who realized the importance of the signal event. The images proved beyond doubt that the Tamil community is ready to move forward though some disruptive elements hell-bent on causing ethnic tensions constantly attempted to whip up animosity.
The CSD couldn’t have achieved success without the support extended by the Army. That is the undeniable truth. Ratnapriya Bandu is perhaps not perfect and certainly made mistakes in his career. But, what is important here is whatever the past blunders, a Lieutenant Colonel in the war-winning Army has now won the admiration and love of civilians and former LTTE cadres alike. That certainly is an achievement Sri Lanka can be proud of 10 years after the war while the likes of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R. Sampanthan keeps on saying that a brand new Constitution is the panacea for all our ills.
Under Ratnapriya Bandu’s command, since late 2012, the CSD grew to a strong unit with its members receiving knowledge and expertise in various fields, ranging from agriculture to teaching. Although a section of the Tamil political leadership resented the post-war relationship between their community and the military-CSD, the majority of officers serving in the Northern and Eastern Provinces pursued people-friendly policies. Ratnapriya Bandu recently proved that his reconciliation model is perhaps the world’s best, one that can be used in any part of the world struggling to contain extremism.
How ONUR can benefit from Ratnapriya Bandu’s experience
The office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) is responsible for post-war national policy on reconciliation and coexistence. The policy drafted over a period of one year was launched at the film festival produced by ONUR. It premiered on February 27, 2018 at the Regal cinema. The writer was among those invited for the event that attracted members of the civil society, a section of the diplomatic community and artistes. Asoka Handagama, Vimukthi Jayasundara and Prasanna Vithanage, the directors of the omnibus film ‘Thundenek’, under the English title ‘Her. Him. The Other’ are on record as having said that the film promoted reconciliation.
‘Thundenek’ is of a genre Sri Lankan audiences are not frequently exposed to; anthology or omnibus film.
‘Thundenek’ is three short films in one. ‘Her’ directed by Vithanage, based on a true story is about a pro-LTTE videographer, Kesa, who travels from the North in search of ‘Her’, the woman in the photograph which Kesa finds in a wallet of a soldier killed in action. It’s a story about coming to terms with his own conscience. Jayasundara’s ‘Him’ is about a Sinhala teacher, who, while professing Buddhism tries, to deceive his own conscience by refusing to believe the re-birth of a Tamil terrorist into a Sinhala family. It is a film about identity. ‘The Other’ by Asoka Handagama is about a mother who comes to Colombo in search of his missing son, an LTTE cadre. She finds a Sinhala solder whom she considers her lost son – again a film about identity issues.
Ratnapriya Bandu’s experience with the Vishvamadu community can be certainly helpful to the ONUR and strengthen its mandate. The officer on secondment to CSD proved that with genuine support from Colombo, the ‘implementing arm’ in the Northern or the Eastern Province can overcome any challenge. Those who had reacted with skepticism at the onset of Ratnapriya Bandu’s second stint with the CSD pointed out to the difficulties that begin in the recruitment process in the post-war Vanni Tiger land. Vishvamadu had been an LTTE bastion considered impregnable until fighting formations converged on the Vanni east front in January 2009. The northerners wept as they realized Ratnapriya Bandu’s untiring and unselfish efforts to improve their lives.
Post-’Tamils Genocide Day’ developments
Ratnapriya Bandu’s effort can easily be called Sri Lanka’s triumph over vicious propaganda meant to deceive the global community. Vishvamadu community shocked the LTTE rump and its sponsors close on the heels of Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran declaration of a ‘Tamil Genocide Day.
Retired Supreme Court justice Wigneswaran on Friday (May 18, 2018) asked Tamils to observe May 18 as ‘Tamil Genocide day’ every year, and sought international support to set up a mechanism that ensures justice for the victims. Wigneswaran, having served the State for several decades, accused Sri Lanka of perpetrating what he called constitutional genocide.
"Though belated, we are positive that the clear conscience of the world community would open up to the reality of the situation and opt to find justice for the genocide practiced here," he said, speaking at the remembrance event held in Mullivaikkal, in Mullaitivu district, to commemorate the anniversary of the end of war.
In February 2015, the Northern Provincial Council passed a strongly-worded resolution accusing different governments at the centre of committing ‘genocide’ against Tamils. The resolution evoked sharp response from politicians in the country’s Sinhala-majority south.
Wigneswaran on Feb. 10, 2015 called for UN probe on genocide of Tamils since 1948 by both UNP and SLFP-led governments.
The Vishvamadu event should be examined against the backdrop of Wigneswaran and Sampanthan, in spite of their differences, stepping up their campaigns. But the people of Vishvamadu, obviously, had delivered them a knockout punch and proved the civilians and the ex-LTTE appreciated government post-war efforts to restore normalcy. The Vanni community underwent tremendous difficulties during the war. There is no point in denying that many civilians perished as a result of combined security forces action directed at the LTTE. The previous government’s ‘zero’ casualty meant that there was no deliberate policy to target civilians as Lord Naseby pointed out to the House of Lords on Oct 12, 2017. Lord Naseby, on the basis of wartime dispatches from the British High Commission in Colombo (January 2009-May 2009) convincingly challenged unsubstantiated UN accusations as regards 40,000 civilian deaths in the Sri Lankan military and a deliberate policy to harm civilians.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government continues to be silent on Lord Naseby’s revelations. For nearly 10 months, the government refrained from taking up the issue with the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) though there is provision for remedial action. Instead of taking advantage of the Vishvamadu event, the government acted as if nothing extraordinary took place on June 10, 2018.
President’s Office and the Foreign Ministry should re-examine the actual ground situation in the North without being guided by the TNA, Western embassies, foreign-funded NGO community and a section of the civil society - all with a biased agenda. Vishvamadu scenes captured and posted by Tamils underscored the success achieved by the military since the conclusion of the war in May 2009. So far (June 15, 2018), five days after the Vishvamadu event, not a single government website posted the images which brought honour to the Army.
Vishvamadu has given Sri Lanka a boost which previous government couldn’t achieve in spite of squandering millions of USD on an expensive US public relations firm. Controversy surrounds the payments made to such enterprises though some even bigger projects were blocked at the last moment due to differences between those promoting the projects and the Sri Lanka embassy in Washington.
Vishvamadu community has declared that it didn’t take lies propagated by some politicians. Those who had raised the possibility of gas attacks on Tamil civilians (former UNP MP Sri Ranga and UPFA National List nominee in 2015), deliberate targeting of hospitals and makeshift hospital facilities, battlefield executions, organized rape never bothered to verify such accusations.
Vishvamadu images have given Sri Lanka new hope to counter lies.
Let me end this piece by reporting what master batsman Kumar Sangakkara said in his hour long "Spirit of Cricket" talk at the July, 2011, Sir Colin Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s.
Having recollected terrorist attack experienced by the Sri Lankan team in Lahore on March 3, 2009, Sangakkara recounted an unforgettable experience he had with a Sri Lanka soldier back at home during the war. Sangakkara told the audience:
"A week after our arrival in Colombo, from Pakistan, I was driving about town and was stopped at a checkpoint. A soldier politely inquired as to my health after the attack. I said I was fine and added that what they as soldiers experience every day we only experienced for a few minutes, but managed to grab all the news headlines. That soldier looked me in the eye and replied: ‘It is OK if I die because it is my job and I am ready for it. But you are a hero and if you were to die it would be a great loss for our country.’ I was taken aback. How can this man value his life less than mine? His sincerity was overwhelming. I felt humbled.
"For them, avoiding bullets, shells, mines and grenades, was imperative for survival. This was an experience that I could not relate to. I had great sympathy and compassion for them, but had no real experience with which I could draw parallels. That was until we toured Pakistan in 2009.
"We all realized what some of our fellow Sri Lankans experienced every day for nearly 30 years. There was a new respect and awe for their courage and selflessness."
Shame on successive governments which failed to take advantage of such statements to justify Sri Lanka’s war against terrorists.