24th December 2000

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War heroes

Dusty drama in KKS cement tank

By Hiranthi Fernando

Cpl. P.A.P.S. Perera of the Sri Lanka Army Ordnance Corps received the Weera Vibushanaya from President Kumaratunga on October 10, 1998 for his act of bravery in saving the lives of two policemen trapped in a cement tank.

On February 27, 1996 when this incident occurred, Cpl. Perera, then a Lance Cpl., serving in the Sri Lanka Ordnance Corps in Jaffna was on duty at the Kankasanturai ammunition stores, located at the Cement Factory. The Police Training School stood opposite. The area was guarded by the Forces.

After the Tigers had attacked the Cement Factory, it was closed down. The premises were under the control of the Army. Stocks of cement remained in the pipes and these were used when necessary by the Police and Armed Forces for their construction needs.

That day, as a consignment of cement was required by the KKS Police Station, some police personnel had come to the Cement Factory to collect it. Cpl. Perera explained that a cement tank was about 200 feet high, with a door at the bottom for cleaning and repairing the tank or taking out cement. Two of the policemen, went in and started filling cement into bags. Suddenly, the hardened cement in the upper part of the cylinder collapsed on them. The entrance to the cylinder was blocked and they were trapped inside. Nearly suffocated by the cement, the two policemen were in grave danger. 

The policemen who remained outside the tank raised the alarm. "Our guard point was about 20 metres away," Cpl. Perera said. "Two others, Lt. Rodrigo, Capt. Kithsiri and I rushed there in a tractor. Several other soldiers from other units too were gathered there by then in response to a radio message." 

Beside the tank was a tower seven storeys high which reached the top of the tank. "We climbed up the tower and located the tank the two policemen were trapped in," Cpl. Perera said. "We heard faint sounds coming from the second tank." By this time, various Army units had sent men up to try entering the cement tank from the top. However, all attempts failed became of the cement dust escaping from the opening at the top.

When Cpl. Perera's Commanding Officer asked him if he could get in to the tank, he rose to the occasion without hesitation. He asked for a torch and two strong ropes, securing the end of one rope to the top of the tank, and tying it around him under his arms. Taking the other rope with him, he climbed down slowly and carefully through the hardened cement. "Although there was a ladder, it was corroded in places," Cpl. Perera said. "I went down, flashed the torch and looked for the policemen through the cement dust that was everywhere. I spotted them about 20 feet away, one in cement up to his neck and other waist deep in it."

Cpl. Perera did not go near the two men for fear of sinking into the cement. He threw the torch to them and the one who had his hands free picked it up. Cpl. Perera then tied a knot on the rope and threw the rope to them. "I told one of them to tie the rope under his arms so that I could pull him out and then come back for the other," Cpl. Perera said. "However, the other policeman started shouting and clung to the rope as well, so I had to pull them both up at the same time. I lifted them up and slowly pulled them towards the top. Halfway up they could not even talk, being suffocated with the cement they had inhaled. Finally with the assistance of the soldiers who were at the top of the tank, Cpl. Perera managed to pull himself and the two policemen and safely out of the tank. They were flown to Colombo immediately. Both survived their ordeal.

Cpl. Perera was recommended for the Weera Vibushanaya by Brigadier D.T.R. de Silva, his commanding Officer, who was then Colonel. His citation states "it is recommended that L/Cpl. Perera of the Sri Lanka Ordnance Corps be awarded Weerodhara Vibushanaya as a reward for his individual act of gallantry and conspicuous bravery of a non-military nature of the most exceptional order. Performed voluntarily with no regard to the risk to his own life and security, with the objective of saving or safeguarding thereby the life of persons imperilled by death."

Cpl. Perera, who is married and has an infant son, is now at the Kotmale Training School as a Physical Training Instructor. Although he did not expect a reward or medal for his actions, Cpl. Perera feels somewhat disappointed that he has not had any word from the two policemen whose lives he saved.

Slip of the tongue Mr. Hain?

Is it just my imagination or has Peter Hain, the British Minister of State for the Foreign Office, been talking of a Tamil Kingdom. Just last week I read in a Sri Lankan newspaper that speaking at the British Council during his brief visit to Colombo in November, Mr Hain had reminded the LTTE that a Tamil Kingdom constitutionally split from the rest of the island will not receive recognition by Europe, the United States or even India.

Now I cannot vouch that he was accurately quoted. Ministers, even junior ones get rather touchy about these things - as recent events here have shown- particularly when they take a political battering for unguarded and misconceived comments.

Anyway, it is difficult to think that anybody could have made it up. One could have expected him to have been misquoted. Perhaps he referred to a Tamil nation or Tamil Eelam or even Tamil state.

But to put into Peter Hain's mouth the phrase "Tamil Kingdom" seems unfair. Unless the intention was deliberately to create the aura of royalty and place on the throne of Jaffna a crowned head when in many other parts of the world crowned heads are indeed being seen as an expensive and unnecessary anachronism.

But if Peter Hain did indeed say it, as he appears to have, what was his intention? Was it meant to elevate the head of an autonomous North to the status of British Royalty or, conversely, to reduce the British Crown to the level of a Palmyrah Court.

Even if Peter Hain comes from Tony Blair's "New Labour" establishment, I doubt very much that he intended either. I suppose even he would hesitate to want to see His Royal Highness V. Prabhakaran the First, walking down the stately corridors of Buckingham Palace for a Royal banquet. No, Hain, wouldn't have the stomach for that.

Nor would he want to reduce the British Crown to such comic depths, though one dare say, that the Royal Family has managed to do so without any particular help from the minister.

Then why the reference, assuming he was accurately quoted? The reason is there for everyone to see, but it takes a long time to spot it. The relevant paragraph begins thus: "The LTTE, like the IRA, need to acknowledge that......."

In fact it is intended to be a direct insult to the IRA, an organisation that rejects union with England and is violently advocating republicanism. By speaking of the LTTE, IRA and a kingdom in the same breath, Peter Hain is indirectly hitting at the IRA which he probably considers a thieving gang little better than those in the days of the American Wild West.

While most appear to have let their minds slip on the reference to a Tamil Kingdom, they have all clung to his comments about self-determination. So now we are subject to lectures by the knowledgeable as well as self proclaimed experts on what constitutes self-determination. Whether the concept has acquired wider meaning and significance since it was first mentioned in the United Nations Charter which then became the cornerstone of the General Assembly's decolonisation policy.

Whether one looks at this first definition, or the wide meaning given to the principle of self- determination in the two human rights Covenants the core of it is that an identifiable group of people should make their own determination under what kind of political status and economic system they wished to live.

There cannot be self-determination without the self making the determination. If self-determination means that somebody other than the people directly concerned decide the future of those people, it is to kick the principle in the teeth.

Mr Hain's principle of self-determination means limited self-determination-in other words without the choice of the ultimate possibility-ceding.

Now, there is no reason for anybody to get unnecessarily hot under the collar because a visiting minister advocated this approach. If Peter Hain is to be faulted, it is because the government he represents has not extended this same facility of self-determination to the IRA and those other Irish groups that do not want to continue their links with England.

If Peter Hain's limited vision of self-determination is good enough for Sri Lanka to adopt as a solution to its conflict, why has the Labour Government not done the same on the Irish question?

The British junior minister's interest in the Sri Lanka question must necessarily lead one to ask the British Government whether it is aware of the speech made by the LTTE's Anton Balasingham at the Eelam Heroes' Day meeting at the London Arena three Saturdays ago.

At that meeting Balasingham who, by the way, is a British citizen and therefore makes the situation worse, said that the LTTE had warned the British Government that if it made any moves to proscribe the LTTE in the UK it would go underground. He also reportedly said that if such a thing happened they would become real terrorists.

Has the British Government, which no doubt is aware of the contents of his speech, asked what he meant by this statement? To anybody who listened to that speech or heard of these remarks, it could only mean one thing.

If the British Government is to act against the LTTE in the UK under the Terrorism Act 2000, then the Tigers would become real terrorists.

Many would argue that there is no need for the LTTE to become real terrorists because on many occasions they have proved themselves to be so. Therefore it means that the terrorism practised elsewhere by the LTTE would come to the streets of London.

After all, if it is intended to be a challenge to the British Government, then it is pointless carrying out acts of terrorism against the Italians or the Ugandans. The threat must be directed at Britain or British interests around the world, in order to convince London not to act against them or to withdraw any laws directed against the LTTE.

Is the British Government then just going to lie down and surrender under the threat of terrorism? If the law can be applied against the IRA, then cannot the law also be applied against those who with foolish bravado threaten to bring terrorism closer home to the British people?

Britain has provided refuge for a large number of Tamil people many of whom have genuine grievances and have suffered at the hands of state agencies. But it has also provided a haven to persons of dubious political background. If now those who represent them are issuing challenges that could bring physical harm to the British people and cause damage to their economic and other institutions, then the force of the law must fall on the guilty.

Never mind if some Tory and Labour Party MPs lose some Tamil votes in their constituencies.

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