From the 31st of April to the 2nd of May I attended the Defense Seminar organized by the Sri Lankan Army. I wish to draw on what I saw as some of the positive and negative points of the conference. I will also comment on some of the many ‘highlights’ that occurred during the conference and perhaps give a different narrative of these from the ones I have read so far. What can be said from the outset is not the fact that the seminar was not the resounding success that it was portrayed by some parties, nor was it a dismal failure. The seminar was a mixed bag.
While the seminar was framed as the “Sri Lankan Experience” in defeating terrorism, it mainly presented the view of the Army’s experience on defeating terrorism. I sincerely believe that the army played a pivotal role in combating terrorism, and that without the drive, courage, and execution of the strategic plan set by the Army the LTTE could not have been militarily defeated. However, there was a lack of emphasis on work done by the Navy and the Air Force, with only thirty minute presentations allocated for each during the three day conference. Furthermore, there was no representation by the Police; this came as a surprise to many as The Special Task Force of the police played an integral role in the thirty year conflict. There was also little mention of the civilian institutions that played a part in the military drive. With the exception of Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha’s honorable mention of the work done by the Government Agents (GA) in the different phases of the war, and singling out work done by the current GA of Jaffna Ms. Emelda Sukumar, who read out a hastily put together statement. There was in my mind little attempt made by the presenters to talk about the areas where the GoSL and the forces may have failed to deliver. For instance, the states of affairs of the welfare camps were given a far too rosy picture from what was the reality. The inability for some of the presenters to self-critical yet again reduced the authenticity of the claims.
Furthermore, the work done by the ‘man whose name cannot be mentioned’ was never mentioned. This to me was rather sad. While the personal merits of this individual can be questioned by some, his efforts in the war effort should have received at least some mention. The deliberate attempts to keep his name away from the dialogue only led to the watering down of the importance of the conference since he was the commander of the army at the time of the operation.
In regards to some of the positives that came out of the seminar, I was glad to see that the Army and the GoSL being ready discuss at least in part some of the concerns in regards to the manner in which the last stages of the war was conducted. It was an opportunity, I thought that was missed by some of the countries, organizations and individuals who purposefully boycotted the event to ask some probing questions (if they chose to) and engage some of the individuals who conducted the war. Furthermore, and most importantly the seminar did lead to a discussion on the issues of human rights, the Internally Displaced People (IDP), rehabilitation and reconciliation where the participants had a chance to question and interact with some of the presenters. There was invaluable information that was presented in terms of the cost of the final stages of the war, maneuvers that were employed by the army to win battles, and the larger strategy employed by the army to defeat the enemy. One of the key themes that were highlighted was the army’s ability to continually evolve as a fighting unit to stay ahead of the game.
I now wish to draw attention two major highlights of the conference that caught attention of the local media. Firstly the speech that was presented by Dr. David Kilcullen, that drew the attention to the possible human rights violations that may have happened during the war. I as a participant was extremely thankful to him for bringing what seems to be a difficult topic in to the discussion. What was surprising was how well both the representatives GoSL and the Army reacted to it. The GoSL and the army personnel that were present did not try to either dismiss the allegations nor did they react negatively to it. The comments in regards to human rights did lead to Prof. Rohan Gunarathne stating that in his estimates nearly 1,400 civilians were killed during the last stages of the war due to indirect fire, based on field research on the aftermath of the battle. I was rather disappointed to see the commentary on Groundviews.org alleging that Dr. Killcullen suggested that President Mahinda Rajapakse was responsible for War Crimes. In my opinion highlighting a ‘comment’ made by a source from the seminar and publishing it hints at breaking away from one of the most basic tenants of journalism, which is to check ones sources for validity. Especially since the accusation carries much weight in today’s context. Quite on the contrary to the above narrative, he stated that Sri Lanka has a great case to make for the end justifying the means because the army was dealing with what has been recognized as an especially ruthless terrorist organization. He went on to state that Sri Lanka does not have anything to fear from having an open discussion on the issue. Dr. Killcullen strongly recommend that the GoSL take meaningful reconciliation and address some of underlying issues that may have contributed to the ethnic conflict, he stated that victory over the enemy by itself may not lead to a lasting peace.
Secondly, I want to briefly discuss the comments that were made by the U.S Defense Attaché to Sri Lanka, LTC Lawrence Smith. While the script that Groundviews has posted on his commentary is accurate (http://groundviews.org/2011/06/01/us-defence-attaches-observations-on-the-end-of-war-in-sri-lanka/), the context in which he interjected is absent, which may have led to the misunderstanding of intentions. My understanding of his comment was simply that in a rapidly changing environment (as in the case of the final stages of the war), individuals do not have the luxury of validating to a high degree all information received and spot decisions have to be made. The implication was that the GoSL had to make decisions with regards to authenticity/genuineness of calls to surrender from third parties that lacked credibility at the time.
In summary, while many things could have done better I was glad that the seminar was organized by the GoSL. It provided an opportunity to discuss difficult issues in regards to the conduct of war even though it was done in rather subdued tones. I personally feel, despite claims to the contrary, that there is some space for concerned citizens, NGO’s, civil society organizations and foreign governments to engage the GoSL in a constructive manner.