The eminent panel is obsequious to the gray haired gentleman that takes the stand. He sits with his back to the crowd, thick with reporters from the BBC, Reuters, and India. The man is Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the first star witness and the first with any real power. It is palpable.
Mr. Rajapaksa has very little personal security but a big pile of files that he brandishes at various points. The Chairman of the commission requests each one greedily like they are hot hot hoppers. This is not an inquisition, it is an exposition. The Chairman uses his first question to ask if there will be a video.
It has already become clear that the Commission is intent on indicting the Ceasefire Agreement, the LTTE, the UNP and the Norwegians as failures. The man before them is presumed to be a success, and promoted as one. In many ways, he is. There have been many myriad civil servants testifying before as to what made the war persist for so long, but Mr. Rajapaksa has as much claim as any to ending it. He begins.
“Most people have forgotten that the government has defeated the most ruthless terrorist organization ever. That’s the history.”
The Defence Secretary then begins a long exposition of the LTTE’s formidable military capability, brandishing files at various points, sometimes stopping to unwrap more lengthy tomes wrapped in red ribbon. He’s wearing a brownish suit and his hair is white. He looks to have put on a bit of weight since the shirtsleeve days of war.
He then goes on to what he calls the Humanitarian Operation, the name itself being important as it in itself shapes perception.
“The President told that this is not a military campaign,” he said. “This is a military operation conducted to liberate the people in those areas. He said just call it Humanitarian Operation. Some might think it’s a minor thing, but it’s an important fact.”
Despite rejecting most appeals from the West, his brother’s government has absorbed much of their language. Gotabhaya takes his brothers statement that the troops marched with a gun in one hand and the Human Rights Charter in the other and fleshes it out, going into detail about military training in Human Rights that began in 2003 and explaining a separate Army Directorate tasked with training, investigation and enforcement of standards.
The panel is deferential to the Defence Secretary. They are appointed by his brother and all effectively toe the party line. Chairman C.R. de Silva interrupts Mr. Rajapaksa. “The ICRC had said this was a model to all of the world.”
“Yes,” the Defence Secretary says, “The ICRC helped up.” He finds another report which is introduced into evidence, about human rights cases the Army has prosecuted internally.
In his testimony, Mr. Rajapaksa portrays the end of war in almost purely human rights terms. He mentions that if they’d stopped the war they couldn’t have killed Prabhakaran with some mirth, but there is not much emphasis on the military objectives, in hindsight.
“You can say this is the Sri Lankan model,” he said. “People talk about the Sri Lankan model you can adopt in other places there is terrorism from the military side. It’s more important to use this Sri Lankan model in humanitarian assistance. The measures the government took and the plan. To minimize civilian casualties and to look after the civilians affected.”
As he finishes, Chairman de Silva interjects with a largely pointless and leading question. “Last weekend, some of the LTTE cadres testifying before us, they said they were guided by the Army to avoid the landmines. Had you given orders to the Army to guide the people?”
It seems unlikely that the Army would not be following orders, but Mr. Rajapaksa takes this softball in stride. “Yes, we have orders for safe passage. By providing this we had to suffer. In Kilinochchi, in the very front lines, easily we knew a suicide cadre could come out, and he did, came out and exploded himself, killing civilians as well as himself and service personnel.”
In between the lines, you can get a sense of the magnitude of life lost at the end of the war.
“Over this period, from when we started the humanitarian operation, the three services suffered nearly 6,000 killed in action. Nearly 30,000 were injured. But you can see if the services suffered, you can imagine the intensity of fighting which was going on. Because of the weapons and obstacles they had used. This is another fact that some of the people have forgotten. I want to bring out this fact because some people talk about these civilian casualties. It is a very difficult thing to identify civilian casualties. If the military suffered, you can imagine the number of LTTE casualties. Nobody talks of LTTE casualties, they all put these figures into the civilian casualty figures. Obviously if the Army suffered that much, it was at least the same amount of casualties from the LTTE. I’m sure it is much more because the fire power of the government forces. Nobody knows how much and nobody talks about it.”
Mr. Rajapaksa sticks to the talking point of no civilian casualties, but there was obviously a lot of death, especially since he spoke of LTTE cadres wearing civilian clothes. His narrative, however, is not of tough choices but of complete control. He speaks of moving a no-fire zone three times, of dropping leaflets and then rescuing the civilians that escaped through set corridors. He also spoke of Air Force pilots taking out pinpoint targets as was obvious from the non-destruction of foliage if you would visit today.
“There was a plan, starting from the naming, to avoid civilian casualties, continuation of food and essential services, no-fire zones, at the policy level, zero civilian casualities, restriction of use of heavy weapons, training of the soldiers, all of this was done to prevent civilian casualties. They were using civilians as a human shield to protect them but as from the government part, this was taken seriously, we have taken action to prevent and to address the other issues that come up.”
From naming the operation and entrusting his brother (and the now court-martialed former General Fonseka) Mahinda Rajapaksa set the narrative of the war. Now in his own appointed panel he is trying to seal the narrative, and his brother was eager to testify. The panel was eager to receive him and asked fawning questions, though they did take time to ask for basic services for the people they’d met in the north. They say that the winners of the war write the history and this, as Mr. Rajapaksa said, was the history this Commission seems set to write.
“The government has defeated the most ruthless terrorist organization ever. That’s the history.”
by Indi Samarajiva