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We daily read and often hear of “war heroes”, and of our duty from protect them from any charges of misconduct. This is one of the few issues on which there is virtual consensus among Sinhalese political leaders. Even non-Sinhalese political leaders seem to be reluctant to directly challenge this position. However, there is much debate on related issues such as terrorism, war crimes, human rights violations and transitional justice.

There are broad internationally accepted definitions of these terms, subject to much dispute on some of the finer points. But I have not come across any clear definition of the term “war heroes”. In common usage, this term seems to cover everyone who fought on the winning side of the protracted war against the LTTE possibly excluding those who deserted or “turned traitor” before the war ended. Are “war heroes”, so defined, entitled to or deserving of immunity from charges and investigations of misconduct and, if the charges are proved, from punishment for such misconduct? Surely that cannot be.

In turn, who are “war criminals”? Are all those who fought on the losing side “war criminals” and deserving of punishment irrespective of whether they were forcibly conscripted and also whether they personally indulged in terrorism, “war crimes” or other human rights violations? Surely that too cannot be. In the Mahawamsa tradition was Elara, and everyone who fought on his side a war criminal? Surely, every law, including those relating to terrorism, war crimes and human rights violations, should apply equally to every combatant and non-combatant irrespective of whether they were on the winning or losing side.

Is not everyone who was involved in a war related crime a war criminal irrespective of any heroism that person might have displayed before, during or after the war? If so, and if there is prima facie evidence of such involvement, that should be investigated, charges framed and prosecution launched and punishment imposed if there is adequate evidence uncovered. Any claim to heroism is irrelevant to the course of justice. Moreover, are war heroes only to be found among combatants on the winning side? Was Elara not treated as a “war hero”? Are not all who died in the course of the war entitled to their due, including being mourned by their loved ones as well as to any memorials that their loved ones or the public may wish to erect for them?

This was a central issue analyzed and explored in the much celebrated fifth century B.C. classic Antigone produced by the Greek dramatist Sophocles. In that instance King Creon decreed that the dead on the losing side are not entitled to any funeral dues, even by family members. This was defied by Antigone the sister of the dead dissident Polynices, and the King punishes her, with terrible tragic consequences. There are timeless lessons to be learnt from evey classic (which is why they qualify as classics) including the Mahawamsa and Antigone.

A “war hero” need not have been an armed combatant. In fact combatants had opted to participate with knowledge of the possible consequences. Noncombatants caught up in the war with options to exit but choosing to stay on and serve in civilian occupations so as to make it possible for other noncombatants with no option to exit to survive are surely displaying commendable heroism. Those from outside who enter the war zone with such intentions are also displaying such heroism.

These civilians may include not only human rights activists, academics and public servants but also those engaged in a range of occupations vital to the local population – members of the clergy, traders, farmers, fisherfolk, community leaders, lawyers, medical and paramedical personnel and those in other occupations too numerous to list but without whose presence life in the war zone would be intolerable.

These persons may continue to stay on and work, knowing that they would incur suspicion and hostility of one or the other combatants. Many of these civilians lost their lives. Are they not entitled to be called “war heroes”? We need to rethink and radically revise our understanding of who a “war hero” is, and also of whether they are entitled to any immunity from the consequences of any crime that they may commit.

  • Jayalath

    It is a sensitive statement .yet, I think that you are wandering missing the main point . The war heroes and their commemoration base on the sacrifice for good cause .the servicemen mean who have obligated by law to defend the country from any kind of threats occur either it internal or external and religious or ethnic , it is no matter for them . So, it should be the duty of the citizens of particular country to commemorate them as heroes if they die in a situation of defending the country , have you ever seen a commemoration take place while a serviceman died from a natural cause . ?
    So, I sadly mind to say this kind of initiatives like the deep meaning of this article indicate the mind set of some people in this country. Im saying this again that country is in an extremely dander today under Sirisena and his collection of clowns , they have no idea of what will happen tomorrow .
    Finally , I would mind to ask you to find out why the world is not commemorate or celebrate HITLER or his colleges died in the war 2 , and I’m pretty sure there you will get the precise answer to your query

    • Independent

      Jayalath,
      Can you tell me,
      1. If you prepare a list of people who should be protected because they brought peace, what will be the top two names ?
      2. What are the “sacrifices” those tow named individuals made ?

    • Devanesan Nesiah

      Jayalath,

      I never said
      that we should not commemorate war heroes. We need to do that. I was only
      questioning the prevailing notions of who our war heroes are. As for Hitler he
      was a war criminal.

      • Jayalath

        Before we come for a conclusion we must recognise who are the terrorists and who are the army . If you define the terrorists as combatants and say they should be recognised as heroes which is totally against the ordinary system . But if the north part of country was a separate country with own army ,then we can regard them as combatants who fight with Sri Lankan army . But it is not the case . Therefore ,it is not possible to recognise a group of terrorists and their companions as heroes . That is the system , but on moral grounds we all can remember or commemorate loved ones in a private manner or level who died in a battle .

        But I will not refuse your right to label terrorism as heroism . Because we live in a good governance today .
        However , the general opinion is Refraining from supporting terrorism verbally or materially . Which is the law . I hope you understand it first. Could you say ,yes to ISIS just because of what Israel is doing to Palestine in the Middle East .

  • Jayalath

    It is a sensitive statement .yet, I think that you are wandering missing the main point . The war heroes and their commemoration base[d] the sacrifice for good cause .the servicemen who [are] obligated by law to defend the country from any kind of threats occur be it internal or external and religious or ethnic , it is no matter for them . So, it should be the duty of the citizens of particular country to commemorate them as heroes if they die in a situation defending the country. Have you ever seen a commemoration take place while a serviceman died from a natural cause ?
    So, I sadly mind to say this kind of initiatives like the deep meaning of this article indicate the mind set of some people in this country. Im saying this again that country is in extremely danger today under Sirisena and his collection of clowns , they have no idea of what will happen tomorrow .
    Finally , I would mind to ask you to find out why the world is not commemorating or celebrating HITLER or his colleagues died in the war 2 , and I’m pretty sure there you will get the precise answer to your query .

    • Kailas Pillai

      Not quite sure as to why HITLER (in capitals too!) was dragged into the conversation. Is it because Hitler came to power by blaming all the ills of the Fatherland on certain minorities? Was it because Hitler called his race Aryans? Was it because Hitler provided his Brown Shirts with the addresses of homes to be looted and set on fire. Hitler was aiming to dominate the world and he went for war. There are some parallels to Ceylonese (now Sri Lankan) situation but not quite the same.

      • Devanesan Nesiah

        Kailas Pillai,

        You are right. Happily, those who ochestrated July 1983 are now dead and gone.

  • Kumar1938

    The political leaders and the military high command who encouraged the massacre of civilians [147,000] Tamils cannot escape from punishment. The curse and the god’s wrath will haunt them each and every day un til their death.No one on earth can escape from this.

  • Father S.J.Emmanuel

    Thank you Mr.Nesiah for provoking a discussion on a fundamental question regarding War-heroes, as to who they are and what recognition or gratitude they demand from us. At present with IS attacks shocking Europe and the western powers escalating their air attacks to “kill mosquitoes with Hammer” there is louder call to rethink our concepts of terrorism, extremism,…. as well as pre-emptive-strikes etc. In Sri Lanka we Need to have the Courage and statemanship to rethink our concepts of terrorism, war crimes, war-heroes and their immunity!.

    • Devanesan Nesiah

      Thanks. I am happy that
      we are now in agreement on some matters.

  • srivanamoth

    It would appear that it is premature to enter into this argument until and unless the mass murders etc committed within the country have gone through a rigorous legal international process to get a more clear idea of who actually committed mass killings, rape etc etc. in the accepted legal sense of the terminology in question. Until then it is all subjective and unacceptable under the banner of the UN.

    • Devanesan Nesiah

      I agree that it is necessary to go through a credible legal process that is acceptable locally and internationally in respect of allegations of war crimes.

  • Devanesan Nesiah

    You are right that the middle east crisis is due to the absence of evenhanded response from the west from the time of the creation of Israel.

    You echo one of the points of my entry, that our understanding of a war hero is biased in favour of the winning side. We particularly see this in the period since the war ended in May 2009.

  • Devanesan Nesiah

    A war hero need not have been an armed combatant. in fact combatants had opted to participate with knowledge of the possible consequences. non-combatants caught up in the war with options to exit but choosing to stay on and serve in civilian occupations so as to make it possible for other non-combatants to survive are surely displaying commendable heroism. Those from outside who enter the war zone are also displaying such heroism.

  • srivanamoth

    One person’s war hero could be another person’s nightmare as the case of SL well demonstrates. But when justice itself is in serious jeopardy all’s lost. The case of SL is a good case in point and it will remain an open sore debate!