Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Parliament reacting differently to images from Vanni




By Shamindra Ferdinando

Video footage and images of villagers killing a leopard that mauled several people last week received the attention of parliament. Print, electronic media, as well as social media, carried the horrific images from the Vanni heartland. The animal that frequented the area to snatch cattle and goats had pounced on the villagers, leading to the it being hunted and killed.

Leader of the House, Lakshman Kiriella, assured an investigation into the killing of the beast at Ambalakulam, Kilinochchi. The UNPer was responding to JVP lawmakers, Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa and Bimal Ratnayake last Friday (June 22). The JVPers demanded to know what action the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government would take.

Jayatissa recollected the arrest of several persons after visuals of an eagle being killed in Habaraduwa, Galle, were circulated on Facebook in March 2016. Those arrested were dealt in accordance with the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance (No.22) of 2009.

Parliament agreed that action should be taken against those responsible for the killing of the beast. It would be pertinent to stress that parliament, struggling to cope up with tainted lawmakers accused of receiving benefits from now-suspended primary dealer, Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL), was reacting to images from Ambalakulam in the Vanni.

Against that background, the failure on the part of parliament to take appropriate action in the wake of recent powerful images from another village, Vishvamadu, of villages carrying heavily garlanded Lt. Colonel Ratnapriya Bandu following his transfer out of the Vanni. Tamils of one-time LTTE stronghold, an area that had never been really brought under military control, during the entire conflict, until the very end in 2009, accorded the officer a reception not given to any other military, police, public servant or politician. Tamil women went to extent of garlanding the officer, an unprecedented development while the Tamil community is not known for carrying people, especially a person who served the armed forces.

Why did parliament not take up Vishvamadu, though it acted differently in the case of Vishvamadu? Can the public be happy the way parliament responded to Lord Naseby’s revelations in the House of Lords, in Oct, 2017, in support Sri Lanka?

The Island dealt with Ratnapriya Bandu’s story in last week’s Midweek Review piece titled ‘Vishvamadu images: BIG BOOST FOR NATIONAL RECONCILIATION.’

Ratnapriya Bandu won the hearts and minds of the Vishvamadu community for his untiring efforts to uplift the living standards of the community, since late 2012, in his capacity as the senior military officer in charge of the Civil Security Department (CSD) in the Northern region. Before proceeding further, let me correct an inadvertent mistake in the last week’s piece in which Ratnapriya’s Bandu’s battalion (1 Sinha Regiment) was referred to as a formation assigned to the 53 Division. It was not. 1 SR was with the 59 Division deployed on the other side of the lagoon. The formation was involved in the rescuing of civilians, fleeing the LTTE held area, during the final phase of offensive action carried out by the celebrated 58 Division and 53 Division.

The following are responses received from the writer to the query how did they view images from Vishvamadu:

Co-convenor of Purawesi Balaya and writer Gamini Viyangoda: Yes I have seen the video footage of the farewell given to the officer. In fact, it is an eye-opener to understand how much a single human being can accomplish in the midst of a community which was not too long ago considered to be an enemy. I am sure this officer must be an exceptional human being in the first place, and intelligent and prudent enough to understand that it was his foremost duty to serve a victim community in a way that their hearts could be won over, which I firmly believe would be linked to, among others, to many steps that he may have taken to uplift their well being, too. I am not sure how he has done that but he has proved beyond any doubt that he was a person to be worthy of emulation, not only for military personnel, but also for laymen like us.

Yes, I am looking forward to meeting this officer to have a glimpse of what he has done to earn such adoration. That experience would definitely enrich and enlighten our understanding towards post-war national reconciliation efforts, for sure.

Yahapalana proponent and prominent civil society Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon who played a critical role in the exposure of those involved in the treasury bond scam: "I didn’t hesitate a second to share Vishvamadu pictures. Of course, some felt, I shouldn’t have done so. They felt the military shouldn’t be promoted under any circumstances. But, I’m glad to have shared those images which proved post-war national reconciliation is possible."

A former Tamil colleague of mine who wished to remain anonymous: It is nice to see the affection displayed by local youth and residents in Vishvamadu. Whatever the right or wrong reasons, cited by some northern extremist politicians and academics, I feel these nice sentiments shown by the people to the army officer seem to be genuine. However, these photos do not give me much political hope though it proves the fact it was always (pre- and post 2009) possible for security forces to win the hearts and minds of people despite the language barrier, if any. But I would stress that Sri Lanka MPs, politicians and some public servants from the nine provinces continue to fail the voters and they keep people divided.

Much admired Lalith Weeratunga, former Secretary to war-winning President who played a critical role in the implementation of the LLRC recommendation: "Whatever policies that may be developed and look good on paper are as only good as those who implement such polices at the ground level. From what I saw, there was personal motivation on the part of the military officer and his team to make reconciliation a reality. This is one instance that has been highlighted and publicized. But there are many. Please check on many other initiatives; an authoritative source told me that the son of former commander Gen Wanasinghe, (I believe he is Brig Wanasinghe) also did a lot of work in Mullaitivu and some old ladies call him Putha. To that extent, they have won the hearts of those people.

The learning here is that the top command must pick the most honest officers whose public relations (in modern management jargon, some call it People’s Skills) are excellent and put them in charge of specific geographical areas with clear instructions to mend fences. The entire Brigade or Division must have this specific aim – country’s armed forces are there to ensure security of every person and also to lend a hand to those in need. Only the Armed forces can do it because they have discipline, they have high self confidence and they have proven systems to make things work.

Prominent civil society activist and National Peace Council spokesperson, Dr. Jehan Perera: As your well researched and heartfelt article points out the social welfare oriented work of Col. Ratnapriya has been exemplary, which explains the gratitude of the people including ex-LTTE cadres who carried him in process at his farewell. This shows that universal values of love, compassionate service and fairplay can override the divisions of ethnicity, race and religion.

Col. Ratnapriya’s achievement as a benefactor shows the need for political institutions that bring democracy and governance nearer to the disempowered Tamil people so that they are empowered. The issue of devolution of power and self determination have been long standing demands of the Tamil people. If there is justice in Sri Lanka, there is no need to fear Tamil separatism.

Retired Maj. Gen. Udaya Nanayakkara, wartime (Eelam war IV) military spokesman: Lt Col Ratnapriya Bandu has not done anything extra to win hearts and minds of the Tamil people in Jaffna peninsula. He has done his duty with utmost commitment and today he gets his reward for good work done. There are many hidden similar stories not highlighted in the media (Late Major General LAR Wijerathna served in Point Pedro is one good example). People of the North have not been allowed to felicitate their dear officers by LTTE and certain politicians in the North for their political agendas. The hatred built by the LTTE to make the general public in the North separated from the military. Now that the people of the North have the opportunity to associate with men in uniform closely and they have realized that they are also another lot of human who can be turned to in need. Lt Col Ratnapriya Bandu is a best example of a disciplined Military Officer of yesterday and today and lesson to those who are trying to prosecute the innocent men in uniform for War Crimes.

Sri Lanka’s former Permanent Representative in Geneva Ambassador Tamara Kunanayakam: Vishvamadu contradicts everything we’ve heard so far about the war – from separatists, communal politicians, the Sirisena – Ranil Wickremesinghe govt., their foreign backers, and mainstream media – that the armed forces had committed war crimes and genocide against Tamils. It is the tale that the US-led Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 presents as the ultimate truth, despite all evidence, because it provides the perfect alibi for illegal unilateral intervention in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs in the name of the controversial ‘Responsibility to Protect’ or RtoP. Unfortunately what suits Washington suits the Yahapalana regime, hence the co-sponsorship and betrayal.

Vishvamadu has an exemplary character, because it conclusively contradicts the dominant version restoring to their rightful place in history the true heroes of the some 30-year war - the people and their armed forces. It was a peoples’ war against terror and separatism, because, first of all, a political victory in which all Sri Lankans – Tamil, Sinhala, and Muslim – participated in isolating the separatists. The soldiers were their soldiers, and Lt. Colonel Ratnapriya Bandu the symbol. The Vishvamadu epitomizes the unity between people and soldier without which the war could not have been fought, or won. It is hopefully the beginning of popular resistance against attempts to rewrite history and undermine popular sovereignty in all matters that concern their lives and destiny.

Vishvamadu demonstrates the unfounded character of the call to renegotiate HRC Resolution 30/1, a demand that implies compromise, an admission it is legitimate.

Former Foreign Secretary Dr. Palitha Kohona: A major lesson from the Vishvamadu experience is that reconciliation is not something that could be orchestrated by foreign NGOs, Western missions based in Colombo with no real access to the thinking of the people or the expatriate Tamil groups who saw their massive investment in a Tamil Eelam evaporate into thin air on the muddy and unforgiving shores of the Nandikadal Lagoon. Reconciliation has to emerge from within through the building of trust and the establishment of hope in the future.

No amount of resolutions in the Human Rights Council will contribute to advancing reconciliation in Sri Lanka. They will only pave the way for more resentment, acrimony and disappointment. Perhaps even create the circumstances for the failed Eelam dream to become a reality through other means.

Lt. Colonel Ranapriya Bandu is a glowing example of what can be achieved through hard, dedicated and sensitive effort to realize the goal of reconciliation.

Now that the US has pulled out of the Human Rights Council, the US Ambassador, Nicky Hayley describing it as a "cesspool of political bias," and as a "hypocritical and self-serving" body ", Sri Lanka should extricate itself from from its self-imposed and pathetic cringe and deal with the body with pride and self respect. Reconciliation can be achieved, our own way.

Retired top career diplomat and one-time head of the Peace Secretariat that dealt with Norway and the LTTE, Ambassador Bernard Gunatilleke: "My opinion is that, out there, in the North and East, there are many senior officers who are doing a commendable job that help reconciliation. Regrettably, their good deeds do not reach the general public. Also, those officers may not be interested in seeking publicity. So what they do, generally speaking, are below the radar screen. Viswamadu affair is an exception, where the former LTTE cadres thought it desirable to highlight the good work done by the army officer.

Despite positive action during the post conflict period, we also have to acknowledge the fact that H R violations also took place in the heat of fighting. Civilians always suffer the most, whenever armed conflicts take place.

Sri Lanka’s failure was that when credible violations take place, failure of the authorities concerned to take action against individuals who failed to adhere to human rights norms. I recall instances when senior armed forces officers lamenting over breakdown of discipline, due to failure of authorities to take action against errant personnel.

This failure contributed to the Geneva fiasco. However, this acknowledgment does not mean that I support co-sponsoring the resolution by Sri Lanka, which was a folly.

A former Joint Operations Command spokesman: "The truth cannot be concealed. If "a picture is worth a thousand words" these pictures and a video clip of the Vishvamadu event send a powerful message and would prove invaluable in helping clear the names of the country and its defenders, unfairly allowed to be tarnished internationally. There have been similar instances which belied false propaganda spread by those with vested interests within and outside the country. These pictures provide the proof. Reconciliation would prove an elusive goal until all sides are treated fairly and be seen as such without fault lines. Minister Manoharan Ganesan’s comments say a lot.

Director General of Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) M.S. Jayasinghe : ONUR has noted, with optimism, the developments in Vishvamadu in relation to the news reports about Lt. Colonel Ratnapriya’s farewell event and his approach with local stakeholders. We will get in touch with Sri Lanka Army and seek any relevant inputs from the officer concerned as part of our efforts to understanding various perspectives and learning from experiences, to move forward. We already support initiatives to assist with livelihood, psycho social, development and similar needs of war affected communities including ex combatants, to bring normalcy to their lives.

Harim Peiris, former Chairman Resettlement Authority and Director General for Rehabilitation & Reconciliation: "The Sri Lanka Army has always well understood the post war need to treat DDR (Disarmament, De-mobilization and Reintegration) of former LTTE cadres professionally and in keeping with international best practices. It is some of the politicians, from both sides and especially from the South, who have obstructed reconciliation. This is true of even the issue of releasing private lands and resettlement of IDPs. The military want to do it, some cardboard hero politicians from the South, oppose it for political gain".

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, one-time head of Peace Secretariat and prominent critic of national reconciliation process as well as many other contentions issues: The work of the forces in Sri Lanka was generally fantastic, not only in war but also in the way they looked after civilians and also former combatants. Sadly, no one in authority was at all interested in telling this story. In the last few months we at the Peace Secretariat published a book called ‘We Support Ourselves’ with pictures of the great work of our soldiers plus the efforts made at the IDP Centres, but this was not distributed. Only the Central Bank Governor wanted copies, and one foreign mission abroad. The Foreign Ministry ignored it completely, and then the Peace Secretariat was closed down, and not turned into a Reconciliation Secretariat as I had proposed.

Because of such callousness, we had to face unwarranted criticism, but even to that there was no reply. The document about the war that came out after the Darusman Report ignored that Report whereas what was necessary was a detailed refutation. I did prepare two but again apart from Mr Cabraal, who had started the process of refutation but was then sidelined, no one was interested.

Later, I would write about our positive actions when I was Adviser on Reconciliation, pointing out many positive things done by many members of the forces, for instance the officers in Mannar who tried to resist encroachments, the inclusive work of the area commanders in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, but again the ostrich approach of those in authority led to these not being given the prominence they deserved. I suppose it is understandable that the country takes notice when Tamil people make clear how much they have benefited, but it will be difficult to undo the neglect of the last nine years, and the deliberate distortions of the last three.