Saviours of the Nation | Sunday Observer

Saviours of the Nation

10 October, 2021


The Sri Lanka Army, which celebrates its 72nd anniversary today under the dynamic leadership of Commander General Shavendra Silva, has turned out to be a multifaceted force in peacetime. Of course, its biggest achievement is still the massive victory it gained in the mission against terror in 2009, with the ample support of the Navy, Air Force, STF/Police and the CDF. Many Armies around the world are still learning from that experience, as only a few armies have defeated and eliminated a ruthless terror group. Thousands of brave warriors from the Army (as well from the other Forces) made the supreme sacrifice while many thousands have been maimed for life. We can never forget their selfless service.

But a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then and the Army too has to adapt to changing times. Amazingly, the Army did not bear a grudge against the former LTTE combatants and took the lead in rehabilitating them. The Army reformed more than 12,000 former Tiger cadres and turned them into useful citizens. This program was so successful that when one of the top Army officers involved in the rehabilitation program received a routine transfer to another camp, the former LTTEers, all grown men, cried and urged him not to leave them. That was the power of forgiveness.

The Army has also started many programs to win the hearts of the Northern and Eastern population battered by battle for more than three decades. Most of the lands and buildings previously occupied by the Army have now been returned to their rightful owners and where that is not possible, ample compensation given. In areas where resettlement was not possible due to landmines, the Army has taken the lead in clearing them so that the residents can come back and rebuild their houses and restart the cultivation of various crops. Now only a very few areas remain to be cleared of landmines in the North. The Army is assisted in this endeavour by several specialist foreign landmine clearing organisations.

Not only in the North and the East, but wherever civilians face a difficulty, the Army has sprung into action. Today, the Army has special units that can deploy personnel for flood rescue, disaster response and other such emergency situations at a moment’s notice in coordination with the Navy, Air Force and Police. These personnel have saved countless lives over the years. They also have a special kennel unit that can look for survivors buried under rubble in case of landslides or earthquakes. The same canines can also detect any bodies buried underneath in such situations.

The Army, having earned a reputation internationally for its combat performance, has become a natural fit for United Nations Peacekeeping “Blue Helmet” Operations worldwide. Currently, Sri Lanka Army troops are engaged in three UN Peacekeeping Missions – Lebanon (125 personnel for close protection), Mali (243 personnel for Convoy Combat Duty) and South Sudan (66 personnel for a Level II Field Hospital). The Army is likely to be invited for more peacekeeping operations in the future. They have earned medals and plaudits for their dedication to the UN peacekeeping mandate.

But the entire world has been preoccupied with one phenomenon for the last 18 months – Covid-19. Armies around the world have risen to the occasion and Sri Lanka is no exception. Apart from the health services, it is the Army that has borne the brunt of the anti-pandemic operations in Sri Lanka. They have been literally working round the clock to turn the tide against Covid-19 and the results are now becoming clear.

From maintaining quarantine centres to conducting 24/7 vaccination campaigns, the Army has rendered a yeoman service to the nation in the battle against the pandemic. Its latest venture is to go the doorsteps and vaccinate those over 60 who are unable to go the vaccination centres due to whatever reason. They have gone to some of the remotest areas in the country on this noble mission.

Even as they have been engaged in this selfless service, there have been allegations from some quarters of ‘militarisation’ as the Government has obtained the services of some serving and retired military personnel for various organisations and functions. Nevertheless, this is not unusual at all. Even in Western countries, the Army is often is called in to deal with emergency situations. One example is the recent fuel crisis in the United Kingdom, which prompted the Government there to induct the Army to drive fuel trucks. Yet, no one has called it ‘militarisation’.

This is not the only allegation against the Sri Lankan Security Forces as a whole. They are accused of violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) during the final days of the battle against terrorism in 2009 by Western and some other countries at the UN Human Rights Council and other forums. Various figures of the number of civilians killed and disappeared are being quoted, based mainly on accounts of sections of the Tamil Diaspora sympathetic to the cause of the Tigers. Several resolutions have been passed against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC based on these dubious accounts.

Both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former military officer who served as Defence Secretary during the battle years and Field Marshal MP Sarath Fonseka, who was Army Commander during the same period, though now at opposite ends of the political spectrum, have categorically denied that the Sri Lanka Army (and other Forces) engaged in any IHL violations. The Government is now making a concerted effort to clear the good name of the forces, which should hopefully succeed in the near future.