In previous reports we have been trying to point out patterns in the conduct of the armed forces. The following adds to what has been said earlier.
The STF is a smaller and more closely knit organisation compared with other arms of the forces. It is also a good reflection of the political culture articulated from Colombo. Its methods are patronage, targetted terror and deviousness. Unlike with the army, this makes it extremely difficult to judge individual character among STF officers. Images are carefully cultivated and used for tactical ends. Some are widely known as decent and understanding. Some tough and brutal. Some play fatherly types who are helpless to prevent what happens.
In the episode of headless bodies, an impression was deliberately given that a young officer was responsible. At the time the incidence of headless bodies became frequent in late September 1990, the ‘good man’ in charge, it became known, had left the station. Comments by officers in the area were devious: “This chap was caught with a grenade. So and so had taken him. You know what would have happened,” or “When we old blood do something we think twice. You know these young chaps. They think only once,” and so it went on. Later this young officer was transferred out. When people started disappearing around Periyanilawanai, just after the ambushing of 7 STF men in Panama in December, the general talk was that the STF was generally alright, but that this happened because the young officer previously associated with headless bodies was now in charge at Periyanilawanai. This supposition though widely believed was wrong. The young officer was actually in Kalmunai. There were others who thought of this same young officer as decent and helpful.
What happened at Periyanilawanai had a touch of macabre artistry, very different from the predictable reprisals of the army. The STF did believe in terror as its creed and was bound to respond to the ambush in Panama. What happened appears to have involved some planning. It responded two days later in the northern extreme of the STF’s area of control for what happened in the southern extreme. The arrival of the nocturnal white van in Periyanilawanai, and the perhaps incidental fact that the OIC was the namesake of the officer commanding the Mankulam army camp when it fell two weeks earlier, gave the incident touches for dramatic speculation. Although more than 25 persons disappeared for unclear reasons, the issue itself became lost. It received no publicity. People who expected reprisals near Panama, once satisfied that there were none, stopped looking. But for the people in the region who received the news from Periyanilawanai by word of mouth, there was a clear message of menace.
The incident for many reasons could not have been unknown to the STF high command. The army at Kaluwanchikudy was conscious of it to the point of warning people not to go south. They would have routinely contacted the STF at a higher level to find out what was amiss. [Top]
It is widely known that among a large class of army officers there is reflected a feeling that they had been ill used by the political establishment, in being asked to fight an ‘enemy’ strengthened and fattened with the blessings of the government over 14 months. When the New Year ceasefire was called off by the government on 11th January, a widespread wrong impression was created and to some extent promoted after his death, that this resulted from the late Defence Minister’s personal belligerence. The reasons were more complicated. A large section of the army is known to have expressed the feeling that, if the government can settle the matter politically, fine. But the process of asking them to stop fighting one day and resume the fight with a strengthened enemy another day must stop.
The lack of firm principles and direction in the political establishment, appears to have left many officers disturbed. What is their future, what and whom are they fighting and giving their lives for? Would their actions of today be scorned another day? are questions that would cross any intelligent mind. To the thinking of many officers, the war has already been messed up, and what can be salvaged must be salvaged politically. The military can best do a holding operation. The ground reality unlike in July 1987, is one where the army controls little in the North‑ East. In the East the forces barely control the towns and the main trunk roads. The rest is no man’s land. Some of these officers are frank in admitting that it is poverty and not patriotism that brings people into the army. These officers would be generally against antagonising civilians unnecessarily and would not risk the lives of their men on doubtful ventures. The knowledge that the battalion which first went into Kalmunai and indulged in widespread massacres, later suffered grievous casualties to the point of wrecking the commander’s career, has also made an impression on them.
Another group of officers tends to believe that the war can be won with more men and material ‑ a political liability for an economically hard‑pressed government. This group is looked upon by the former as furthering their careers by feeding the vain hopes of politicians who should be seriously looking for a political solution. This division is influential in determining the company kept by officers within the army.
It is much to the detriment of the army that the press and the politics prevent the ordinary people from thinking seriously about tragic realities. The games played by the government and the opposition, constantly praising the army without addressing issues, costs the country dearly in lives of civilians and soldiers. The army has become a sacred animal which is bleeding profusely. Everyone vaunts its sanctity. But the medicine to stop the bleeding is too dangerous to contemplate. For it will raise too many questions about the legacy on which the present politics thrive. [Top]
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