Districts, Peace and Conflict

Are we winning hearts and minds?

“The guerilla fights the war of the flea, and his military enemy suffers the dog’s disadvantages: too much to defend; too small, ubiquitous, and agile an enemy to come to grips with,” said Robert Taber, who was the only American among Fidel Castro’s defending forces at Playa Giron.

It is a well-known fact that unconventional forces thrive on the support of the local populace. If a wedge could be drawn between these two factions, the task and the chances of conventional forces achieving success are rendered much easier.

Of course, this is well known to all operational commanders, but, unfortunately owing to a lack of supervision or control, instead of winning the ‘hearts and minds,’ the average Tamil population is being very blithely made to understand that they have no place in Sri Lanka.

My statement seems astounding and may be contested by some who refuse to see reality. This is not a phenomenon of recent origin. In fact it goes back almost a quarter century. In the 1970s and before, persons from the so-called south who had friends in the peninsula looked forward to proceeding there on short holidays to enjoy the conviviality of the very hospitable people.

We sipped palmyrah toddy, gormandized the rice with ‘Jaffna crab’ curry, fried prawns and the drumstick preparation which was in the domain of the culinary expertise from a lady from the north. Whilst the males were exercising their elbows, the ladies were on ‘saree safaris,’ seeking bargains from the Valvettithurai route!

Most unfortunately, the status quo began to change when avenues of employment in the public sector, which in fact was one of the most sought after jobs by the ‘Jaffna man,’ were being virtually shut due to non-proficiency in Sinhala or increments/promotions denied due to an inability to pass the language barrier.

This tragedy, coupled with a multitude of other man-made obstacles which are well known to all of us, made these amiable people feel that they were strangers in the country in which they had lived for generations.

The ‘seeds were sown’ and the Tamil youth felt frustration similar to that of their counterparts in the ‘deep south’ in the late ’60s, well illustrated in the play Apita Puthe Magak Nethe” (it defies accurate translation, but literally means ‘my son, we have no way /future’).

A consequence of this was to induct additional troops with a view to expanding the small detachments in situ as well as opening new camps. The ‘pistol group’ of the small coterie of the frustrated Tamil youth got active and commenced assassinating off duty policemen and servicemen in the town and its environs who were on private errands.

This brought about a massive overreaction to the extent that the entire population was considered an ‘enemy force.’ Armed troops initially harassed school girls by making uncouth remarks, thereby earning the ire of the parents and brothers.

The servicemen were considered an army of occupation. The situation degenerated rapidly with the introduction of ‘cordon and search operations.’ It is an open secret that the immediate aim of most of the troops on this operation was to locate what was pithily termed kaha (gold).
All married Tamil ladies wear a gold chain with a sacred pendant referred to as a thali. This is removed only on the demise of the husband. Thus the immediate aim was to ‘go for the jugular’ by snatching this as well as other gold sovereigns which parents preserved to be given to their daughters at the time of marriage.

Even though pontifical statements were made that all Tamils were not terrorists, these were hollow words. The ‘hearts and minds,’ which our theoreticians sought to win, were in fact being won over very swiftly by the LTTE owing to the generally uncontrolled plunder, which regrettably was either not known to those who should have had their ears to the ground or like the legendary ostriches, failed to see!

Much water has flowed under our bridges. We have graduated from petty thefts, as there is hardly anything left to steal, to ‘more serious operations.’ This malady has now spread to the rest of the country to the extent that the rank and file of our services and police consider any Tamil walking the streets of Colombo and its suburbs to be the enemy.

Given the laments of these personnel who are stopped at checkpoints and harassed, it is certainly not a way of winning hearts and minds. The following are random examples which sadly are known to most of us but ignored in keeping with our local concept of ‘anga bera ganawa’ (saving oneself):

1. If one or more Sinhalese are travelling in a vehicle with some Tamil persons, the immediate question of the personnel at the checkpoint from the Sinhalese is ‘do you know them? Are they reliable?’
2. A Sinhala woman married to a Tamil was asked ‘can you rely on him?’
3. Two Sinhalese women and one Tamil woman were travelling in a trishaw. When stopped at a checkpoint the Sinhala women were asked, “Why do you keep company with a Tamil?” They were also advised to be more circumspect of the company they keep!
4. A Sinhala/Tamil couple driving a car. If the husband who is a Sinhalese is driving, generally there is no problem. If the Tamil wife is driving, it is ‘question time!’
5. Recently a Sinhala girl was walking with her Tamil fiancé who had come from abroad. They were on the sea side of Galle Road near Temple Trees. It was a Wednesday and they were to get married on Saturday. The girl had resigned from her job as they had decided to migrate. They were arrested around noon by the police for the ‘crime of walking past on the sea side of Temple Trees’ and kept at the police station. They were desperate as their wedding, which also involved a small reception, was to be in another two days! Fortunately, the desperate girl managed to contact one of her friends at her former workplace who was able to convince the police that the couple had no intention of blowing up Temple Trees.

I am certain that almost all readers must be aware of innumerable similar instances where our countrymen have been harassed by ill-briefed, unsupervised persons manning checkpoints.
Certainly, checks must be carried out. However, it is essential that there be no bias so that all citizens of our country feel that they belong here. Superiors can cry from roof tops that all are equal and there is no harassment. Sadly, the reality is different. We are not winning hearts and minds. Due to uncouth and despicable behaviour, hearts bleed and minds are going crazy.
A further calamity awaits us. An illusion has been created that the upcountry Tamils are also terrorists. I am aware of a recent incident where a poor Tamil young man from up country who was doing a casual job in a large company in Colombo was questioned, arrested and remanded for eight days. He was in possession of his NIC – the only crime that he had committed was coming to Colombo for a temporary job.

With this attitude of those who should be better briefed, we could have an explosion in the mountains. Apart from having lost the hearts and minds of the majority of the Sri Lankan Tamils, it is only a matter of time that the Tamils of Indian Origin – as per the description of tea estate workers, notwithstanding the fact that almost all Sri Lankans are of Indian origin – will also erupt and our services trapped in the pincer.

Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State (1973-76) stated at the Vietnam negotiations in January 1969 that “the conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerilla wins if he does not lose.”
The heading of my article is, ‘Are we winning hearts and minds?’ My considered answer is, “Certainly not.”

By A.B. Sosa
Retired Air Vice Marshal