15th June 1997

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Crisis of credibility

The security forces have re-established control in the Thandikulam- Nochchimodai sector which came under attack last Tuesday, though with a heavy casualty toll.

As our Situation Report on the next page reveals, 180 soldiers have been killed in action, 27 missing and over 320 wounded. In addition millions of rupees worth of military hardware has been destroyed. This in brief is the magnitude of the tragedy or the cost of victory.

However, the Deputy Minister of Defence, General Anuruddha Ratwatte, in an interview with the Daily News on Wednesday (June 11) is quoted as saying “our troops expected this attack and that is how they were able to repulse it and force them to beat a hasty retreat. This is the usual LTTE tactic. We are prepared. Even our tail is more powerful than their joint forces.”

He adds: “Our troops fought so gallantly and killed every terrorist that crossed the Forward Defence Line. Some damage would have been inflicted on the camp but the counter-attack on the enemy will be remembered by them as long as they live. The casualties on the terrorist side should be ten times ours.”

There is a discernible distinction between the reality of the event and the tenor of the Deputy Minister’s statement. It is a distinction derived, one from the sense of human value of the victory and the other from the exigency of quasi political needs.

There is no gainsaying that the performance by the security forces assures the nation of their dedication and valour. The hard gained victory, in spite of heavy casualties, is in itself testimony of the sacrifices they have made and are prepared to make to protect and maintain the sovereignty of our country. To them the fruits of victory are bitter sweet.

In contrast, the Deputy Defence Minister’s euphoric statement belies the tragic magnitude of the event in its human perspective. Perhaps, when the Minister spoke out, the full extent of the event may not have been known to him. But it is difficult to imagine that claims of “every terrorist that crossed the forward defence line” was “killed”, or that the attack was repulsed and the LTTE “forced to beat a hasty retreat”, could have been made unless the Minister was not more than acquainted with the correct picture.

In making this comparison, the intention is not to highlight the difference of how one views the outcome of the Thandikulam-Nochchimodai engagement, but to illustrate the fact that the nation was not kept informed of the factual situation, or at least near to the facts as the demands of the security situation permitted.

This is a paradoxical situation considering that after 15 1/2 years of conflict, that a public, now highly sensitive and reactive to all things security, invariably acquires knowledge, through an assortment of sources and grapevine, of the correct situation almost immediately after any occurrence.

Thus euphoric government rhetoric is received with light hearted contempt. Sadly this has also forced local broadcasters of international satellite TV news channels to impose a self censorship by wiping out news footage on reports concerning Sri Lanka. Obviously, they do not want to cross swords with what the government declares.

Compounding this crisis of credibility is the fact that the media denied of access to the battlefront is totally impotent in reporting the true situation. The LTTE, on the other hand, has no such inhibitions or restrictions. They are extremely quick to capitalise on events and incidents by distributing their own versions world-wide, Sri Lanka included.

Denial of information to the public is to deny their participation. No government can wage a war unless it is assured that the people as a whole know what the war is about, that they believe in the cause, are enthusiastic about it and possess the determination to win. In other words they must be participatory, for which they must be kept informed.

The defence establishment and its political leaders whilst being responsible for the political direction of the conflict are also accountable to the public for its conduct. After all, the war is being conducted by the government on behalf of the public - a fact often forgotten even by some senior military officials who demand censorship every time an offensive is launched. It is unfortunate that our politicians do not realise that it is they who should serve the nation, and not as they seem to expect, the nation to serve them.

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