Yesterday the country marked 14 years since the defeat of the LTTE. The day was marked at a ceremony attended by President Ranil Wickremesinghe with members of the armed forces as well as families of fallen war heroes in attendance. Since 2009, the day not only brings back memories of the sigh of relief by the majority of the people in the country that the menace of terrorism which had plagued the country for nearly three decades was over but also the tragic deaths of many Tamil civilians who were caught up in the fighting in the last stages of the war.
On whichever side of the divide one stands, the sacrifices made by the members of the armed forces of this country have to be acknowledged with gratitude. Over 6,000 soldiers were killed, and thousands of others injured between 2006 and 2009 during the last military operation to rid the country of LTTE terrorism. Most of them joined the armed forces knowing certain death awaited them and bravely laid down their lives for the country.
People of this country who lived through years of terrorism are well aware of the brutality of the LTTE. They haven’t forgotten the villagers hacked to their death as they slept in their hamlets, innocents travelling by buses and trains blown to smatterings, promising politicians from all communities blown up, gunned down, places of religious worship attacked.
While acknowledging the gallantry of the soldiers, the deaths of civilians killed during the last stages too must be acknowledged. It’s no secret that the LTTE used civilians as human shields hoping to delay the inevitable defeat that it was facing in the hands of the military and with that many hapless civilians were taken to their death. In the absence of international monitoring groups or independent observers, there was little help for civilians caught up in the fighting between two groups that were determined to take the fight to the finish.
In the aftermath of the war, a large number of LTTE suspects surrendered to the army and subsequently disappeared. The families of these persons have been seeking justice for their loved ones ever since, using every available forum to find out the truth about what happened to their husbands, brothers, and sons. They seek information, justice and closure.
The country’s two main ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and Tamils are unlikely to ever see eye to eye on what led to the three-decade long war. There are many who justify the acts of terrorism perpetuated by the LTTE saying it was in response to decades of discrimination by the Sri Lanka State, a charge not without merit but certainly are not issues that can be resolved by terrorism. The majority of Sinhalese on their part are unwilling to acknowledge the massive toll Tamil civilians suffered during the last stages of the war and prefer to live in denial.
The responsibility of the Government is to bridge the divide between different communities in the country and the best place to start is by acknowledging that there were acts committed in violation of international treaties on the treatment of civilians and prisoners of war (POWs). So far, successive governments have failed to acknowledge such violations took place or punish any service personnel involved in disappearances, extra judicial killings, etc.
It would be in the best interest of Sri Lanka’s armed forces that those men in uniform who committed heinous crimes are punished so that the large majority of those who upheld the rules of war and saved the lives of many civilians don’t have to bear the blame for the crimes of a few. Unlike the LTTE, the State has a moral obligation to safeguard its citizens and ensure justice for crimes committed in the name of the State. It is to this end, the current Government and future governments of this country must work toward if national reconciliation is to become a reality.