COLOMBO: Former Sri Lankan President and leader of the Joint Opposition in Parliament, Mahinda Rajapaksa, says that a “serious” breakdown of the morale of the Lankan armed forces since his ouster from power in 2015, may have caused the blast at the armory in Salawa near Colombo on Sunday, which had leveled all buildings within the complex and destroyed several civilian houses in the vicinity.
“Several incidents since January last year have had the effect of seriously undermining the self esteem and morale of the armed forces to an extent unseen even during the years of the 2002 ceasefire. Any inquiry into the causes of the Kosgama (Salawa) disaster should also look into the general state of morale in the armed forces at present,” Rajapaksa said in a statement on Tuesday.
Suspecting a lowering of vigil at the armory as a result of low morale, the former President said that the armed forces might be going back to the “defeatist mentality” which prevailed during the 2002-2006 ceasefire.
He recalled that conditions were so bad at that time that the LTTE was able to infiltrate the Army Headquarters in the heart of Colombo and stage a suicide attack on the then Army chief (Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka) in 2006.
Though Rajapaksa did not give instances of unhappiness in the armed forces since the regime change in January 2015, the armed forces have come under an unprecedented mixture of international and domestic pressure since the end of Eelam War IV.
Following the joint US-Lankan resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in September 2015, there is a threat of a war crimes tribunal staffed by international judges and prosecutors.
Though President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have assured the armed forces time and again that the tribunal will have no foreign judges, the armed forces are apparently not convinced that the US will allow that.
The opposition parties’ campaign against an international Judicial Mechanism is only deepening the doubt.
To add to the fears, wartime Army chief Field Marshal Fonseka, who is a cabinet minister in the Sirisena government, has been saying that international investigation is good because it will help clear the name of the Lankan army.
Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, now in-charge of reconciliation, has said that any inquiry into war crimes should fix “command responsibility” so that ordinary soldiers who carry out orders are not held responsible but officers are.
The LTTE too committed war crimes, but the LTTE’s commanders and intelligence wing leaders cannot be tried simply because they were all dead. Therefore, the entire judicial process will be against the Lankan military.
In February this year, Maj.Gen.Chagi Gallage took on Foreign Minister and peacenik Mangala Samaraweera when he addressed the troops in Jaffna on the reconciliation process.
Gallage was transferred to Colombo for insubordination. More recently, several war time commanders met opposition stalwart Basil Rajapaksa apparently to gather political support for their fight against any war crimes tribunal, domestic or international.
Besides international pressure, there is domestic pressure from Tamil politicians and the Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C.V.Wigneswaran, who have been criticizing the continued massive deployment of the armed forces in the North even seven years after the war.
According to the US-based Oakland Institute, there are 160,000 troops in the North, which means one soldier for every six civilians.
But the armed forces urge continued vigilance to stem a terrorist revival. Security conscious nationalists led by Rajapaksa, have been crying hoarse about a possible revival of the LTTE with Tamil Diaspora support.
They oppose scaling down of military deployment.
There is pressure from the Tamil politicians and peaceniks in the Sirisena government to give back lands that had been seized by the armed forces from Tamil civilians during the war.
Tamil politicians oppose military involvement in civilian work such as agriculture. There is opposition to the building of houses for troops’ families on the grounds that these will be forerunners of Sinhalese colonization of Tamil lands.
The Tamil politicians’ stance creates apprehensions among the majority Sinhalese about the trajectory of Lankan Tamil politics. The armed forces cannot be unaffected by this as they are overwhelmingly Sinhalese.
Loss of Pre-eminence
The Lankan military, which enjoyed a pre-eminent position after Eelam War IV, lost its exalted status after January 2015. During the Rajapaksa regime, the victory over the LTTE was celebrated every year on May 18, as “Victory Day” with an impressive military parade n Colombo.
But since Sirisena came to power, it is being observed as “Remembrance Day” with a solemn military function at the War Memorial in Battaramulla followed by a cultural and religious program with ethnic reconciliation as the theme.
While Lankan liberals across the ethnic divide welcome the exit of triumphalism in the observances, hardcore Sinhalese nationalists feel that the role of the Security Forces in bringing about an end to terrorism, war and separatism, has ceased to get due recognition.