Violent behaviour and deep insecurity are two sides of the same coin

6718efd27961f6cbb2edf15a88c88c79A man was walking along a deserted beach at sunset. As he walked, he could see a young boy in the distance. As he drew nearer, he noticed that the boy kept bending down, picking something up and throwing it into the water. Time and again the boy kept hurling things into the ocean. As the man approached even closer, he was able to see that the boy was picking up starfish that had been washed up on the beach. One at a time, the boy was throwing the starfish back into the water. The man asked the boy what he was doing. The boy replied, “I am throwing these washed up starfish back into the ocean, so they don’t die.”  The man replied, “But, you can’t possibly save them all. There are thousands on this beach. This must be happening on hundreds of beaches along the coast. You can’t possibly make a difference.” The boy looked down, frowning for a moment. He then bent down to pick up another starfish. Smiling, he threw it back into the ocean and replied, “I made a huge difference to that one!” ~Author Unknown~

 The starfish story is about a boy who lives with hope; his life richer and more meaningful for trying. His action may have saved the lives of a few starfish and he lives with hope not knowing the ripple effect of his actions; perhaps it also inspires other people to save starfish. This boy valued the life of a starfish, but not so in Sri Lanka where successive governments in the past have failed to respect human life and values.   Our nation since ‘independence’ has, for the most part, been in the grip of internal war of various kinds or, of ethnically hostile actions that led up to bloody civil war. Be it……..1958…….1972……..1983….…1987……..1995…….2009…….so on where thousands and thousands of human lifes were lost. The effect caused by years of various discriminations started from the days of Independence. Every Sri Lankan suffered by it only the magnitude of suffering differed from one community to the next. In our post-colonial period, Sri Lankan youth died as rural youth rebels in two successive southern insurgencies and, as soldiers defending the State against these rebellions. In the thirty-year-long Tamil rebellion, again thousands of youths died either as secessionist rebels or as soldiers of the State defence forces. On the sidelines of the armed combat or, sometimes right in the centre of battle, civilians too died in their tens of thousands – citizens of all ethnicities and religions, young and old, urban and rural.

The bitter truth  accepted by the President himself, who has said one has first findout what caused the Tamils to ask for federalism before opposing it. When violent behaviour and deep insecurity that are two sides of the same coin were the norm in Sri Lanka; a situation created by the state due to its failure to honour the rights of the people enshrined in the constitution. The resulting discrimination against the people caused an uprising that was suppressed by brutal force cumulating to a civil war. All Sri Lankans are guilty and responsible for this mess, for it was they who blindly voted each time at every election since independence their representatives to the parliament.  However it must be said that Tamil parlimentarians went out of their way in parliament to explain the discriminations faced by their people;  it only met with negative response from succesive governments. Having exhausted all avenues for a negotiated settlement within a unitary state so much so over decades they are now requesting for a federal system of government in place of the unitary state.

Earlier 18 years ago, the government acquired huge amount of heavy weapons to increase the fire power of the tri-forces involved in the civil war. The top ranks of the defense ministry had overlooked the short comings of keeping huge amount of heavy weapons in storage near a built-up area adjacent to a major road.  The armoury was established in this residential area in Kosgama against acceptable international practices and standards a clear case of disrespect for human lives. Thus the state had equipped the military tri-services with many types of deadly modern weapons which helped them to muzzle the rebellion to end the bloody civil war seven years ago; armed rebellions perished and it must be appreciated did rid the country of the curse of terrorism.  The security forces ably assisted by foreign military experts and modern arsenal cornered the Tamil fighters by land from north; west and south by narrowing them into a small confined area, while at sea on the east foreign battleships blocked the sea route that ensured rebels were starved of ammunitions depleting their armory. As the battle dragged on with reduced fire power the top echelons of government ordered the military to move in and conclude the war. Many thousands of civilians moved to the no fire zones informed by the government, yet as many without mobility were caught in the confined area perished.

In this backdrop, last Sunday, fire broke out with explosion at the ammunition dump at the Salawa Army base in Kosgama, containing the deadly weapons such as multi-barrel rocket launchers, heavy artillery guns, light weapons and some 600 container loads of explosives.  The fact that fire erupted while a fire drill was being carried out in the camp and that the army was able to advise the locals in the area immediately to evacuate had helped to keep casualties to minimum. It could have resulted in a much bigger disaster if not for the prompt actions of military personnel, firefighters and the media. There was one fatality from the blast and at least 47 people received treatment had suffered from various ailments. The fire was brought under control and the army was able to go into the base and hold inspections. Only the ongoing investigations could reveal the cause of fire and if internationally accepted methods and standards have been adopted to store the ammunition.

Even if the camp was maintained very well, a minor mistake may have triggered the explosion into a man-made disaster at the Salawa Army base. Even worse the previous regime had built the war heroes village bordering the ammo dump; it was severely affected with 107 houses badly damaged. Around 7,763 families were evacuated from a six kilometre radius around the site that night and the evacuees were assisted to return to their homes by next morning, except those within a kilometre radius from the site. Around 1,120 persons belonging to 186 families were housed in temporary shelters. Other than the military and top strata of government, no one else knew the extent of the armoury and how much ammunition it carried, hence people were indifferent to it. Unfortunately, a request was made two years ago to move the armoury to a less populated area, but it never materialized and the residents of the area never pressured the authorities to shift the armoury out as they did not realize the gravity of it until this incident took place.

The government has accorded all dignity to the security forces who in turn has responded positively to its calls during emergencies. But allegations remains to date that war crimes were committed by the State military and the Tamil rebels during the last few days leading to the end of war in May 2009.True the task was performed in the line of duty of by professional soldiers; yet the security forces are not foolproof and are prone to the follies and weaknesses of all mankind. As the result, it has to be acknowledged that many thousands of civilians’ lives were lost and many more maimed for life.

Furthermore with the country in peace, the need to have such a large army personnel and armaments could be questioned, because the upkeep is too costly to a nation with a small budget; we see army personnel being assigned to tasks that could be undertaken by ordinary civilians, which deprives the civilians of their earning and in particular antagonizing the people in North and East. On the long run it will cause low morale to the men in uniform; while the expensive armory dumped without proper care may cause more man-made disasters to occur in the future.

This cannot be cited in justification for reprieve from any crime committed by men in uniform. There can be no room in a civilized country for any individual, whatever may be the sacrifices made, to take the law into his own hands. That should be the bottom line. Then top echelons of government refused to accept this bitter truth, even went a step further attempting to mobilize this issue for political advantage and called for ‘war heroes’ to be ‘protected’; in an attempt to cover-up the top ranks of government, who were very much involved and in control of events leading to the closing stages of the battle and beyond after the guns were silenced at the battlefront.