Abandoned soldiers of a forgotten war!
Posted on February 28th, 2017

BY SHIVANTHI RANASINGHE Courtesy Ceylon Today

The disabled servicemen have taken to the streets in protests yet again. This would make it their fourth attempt to get a proper pension. One would have thought an issue for disabled servicemen to take to the streets would be volatile enough to make the government shake in their shoes.

Men without limbs, some prostrate in makeshift beds, have all the sensation media craves. Men who have lost their limbs fighting a war that ravaged the country for 30 years have all the fodder for the Opposition to have a field day. Yet, from the media to politicians to civil groups, there is mostly silence.

At the time of writing this article, these men have been protesting for 12 days and fasting for 7 days with three hospitalized in critical condition. So far, there has been no discernible response from the government. It looks like this time too these war heroes will eventually have to pack their prosthetic limbs and camp beds and go home with nothing more than another empty promise. Hopefully though, this time they will be able to go home sans the water jets and tear gas.

The war ended in May 2009. However, before 2010 dawned, we could not decide who should get the credit for ending the war against terrorism. One camp firmly believed the war could not have been won without the political leadership of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The other camp believed with equal firmness, that credit belongs to the then General Sarath Fonseka. For all the charisma former President Rajapaksa exudes and the great military strategist Field Marshall Fonseka proved himself to be, they could not put the country back together again. The deep divisions created then, remains to date.

Many to claim credit for victory

By 2015, President Rajapaksa’s predecessor Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had claimed credit for 75 percent of the victory. She very categorically explained that the 2009 victory was the cumulative result of hers and her predecessors’ efforts.

Her successor merely finished off the tail end of a war the others had more or less sorted.

According to one time Jathika Hela Urumaya heavyweight, Ven. Rathana Thera, the credit belongs to them. He explains that, had they not marched to Manidasakulam in protest against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam closing the Marvil Oya anicut and pressured the Rajapaksa Administration to take military action, then, this problem would never have got solved. Hence, the victory belongs to them.

After the 2015 Geneva Session, President Maithripala Sirisena was hailed as the hero who saved our war heroes from being tarnished as war criminals. The incumbent government is univocal in their assertion that their efforts are to safeguard the reputation of our military.

Yet, these disabled soldiers are alone today. If they thought that civilian support will make up for the political lacunae, they have found to their cost that they were mistaken. The authorities at the Fort Railway Station are very concerned that this protest will inconvenience the commuters. They have thus taken their concern to the Police. Accordingly, the Fort Police requested from the Fort Magistrate, Lanka Jayaratna to avoid the public nuisance and disturbance that might be caused by this protest. Magistrate Jayaratna in turn ruled that the protesters may protest peacefully in a manner that would not obstruct the pedestrians.

It is of course a very fair ruling and cannot be faulted at all. Nevertheless, this whole episode makes one wonder the values this society upholds. The obliviousness of all is despicable enough. However, it is the concern of the railway authorities and the request made by the Police that leave an odd aftertaste to the affair. Perhaps it is the wordings such as, “inconvenience the commuters”, “public nuisance” and “disturbance” that in this instance puts law at odds with morality.

Fort Railway authorities ought to remember

These are not ordinary protesters. These men are disabled because they fought against a deadly terrorist organization – the LTTE. More than anyone else, the Fort Railway authorities ought to know the viciousness of the enemy they fought. After all, it was exactly nine years ago on 3rd February 2008, that an LTTE suicide bomber rocked the place by blasting a bomb in a commuter train, stopped at this very station. A female cadre got down from a train and blasted the bomb during rush hour, killing 12 – including eight school children from D.S. Senanayake College’s baseball team and their coach. Hundreds were injured.

That same year, on 26th May, another commuter train running from Colombo to Panadura was blasted in Dehiwela. That bomb killed nine and injured more than 65. Less than two weeks later, on 4th June, another bomb between the railway tracks blasted a packed commuter train between Dehiwela and Wellawatte Railway Stations, injuring at least 24 civilians.

Though the aforementioned bombings all took place in 2008,
the railway authorities have been living with the very possible bomb threats for much longer. The Dehiwela train bombing on 24th July 1996 is a case in point. It is one of the worst railway disasters we suffered. The LTTE stuffed four suitcases with explosives and left it in four separate compartments on the same train. They then blasted all four simultaneously during rush hour, killing 64 and injuring 400 civilians.

For a very long time, we lived in fear of crowded places, suspicious of strangers, especially if they bore unusual scars and panicked at the sight of unattended parcels/luggage.

Families refused to travel together. Mothers would wait by the school gates to escort the child back home. Arriving home after a day’s work was not a guarantee. Rigorous security measures were forced to be adapted that inconvenienced the commuters greatly. However, all bore it with great fortitude. The railway authorities were really living a terrible nightmare. The popular adage then was, we have to be lucky a million times, terrorists only once.

Today, we have none of those concerns. Obviously, our safety is guaranteed to such an extent that we have taken it for granted.

So much so, that we have forgotten the hard battles we had to fight or the sacrifices that were made. It is these sacrifices that are now translated into disabled men.

They were once ‘whole’ men

They were not always disabled. They were once ‘whole’ men, who went to the battlefield in their prime, because that was what the fierceness of the fighting required. Those who opted to the civilian life, like the Railway authorities who are today concerned about the commuters’ convenience, continued to progress with their careers. These servicemen however had their careers cut short as they lost their limbs.

The double whammy for them is that according to military practice established in 1920s, a soldier must enter into a 12-year contract upon completing his training. A soldier who serves lesser period will be entitled to his salary only until retirement at the age of 55 and thereupon a monthly allowance. Thus, as at 2015 a disabled soldier who is 55 or more was entitled to only Rs 12,500 to live on.

When this was brought to the attention of then administration, there were 2,295 military officers and 132 police officers whose careers were cut short before completing even 10 years of service. Thus, on 17th December 2014, a cabinet decision was taken to change the existing system and grant them their full pension. Unfortunately for them, the governments changed and this decision was not implemented.

These disabled servicemen thus began to agitate for the incumbent government to implement this decision. These agitations arose however, by design or otherwise, close to the 2015 general elections. The government moved quickly to promise action after elections.

However, afterwards, despite repeated discussions with relevant officials including Defence Secretary Eng. Karunasena Hettiarachchi and those at the Department of Pensions, the servicemen did not get the relief they sought. According to an interview given by Hettiarachchi to this newspaper on this topic on 13th November 2016, even President Sirisena participated in some of these discussions.

He explains, “We have given everything they had demanded during the protest except the pension. Minister of Agriculture Duminda Dissanayake and I met them near the Fort Railway Station and promised them to find a solution within three months.

We worked hard to meet their demand. In fact, we have had several round-table discussions with all the officials including those from the Department of Pensions to find a permanent solution.”

According to him, the second round of protests these servicemen had towards the end of July 2016 was when these discussions were in progress. That time however, when the protests continued to the following day, Minister Dissanayake gave them a written pledge from President Sirisena to resolve their issue within three months.

Written pledge from President not honoured

However, the government failed to communicate positively or otherwise on the progress though three months passed. Then, for the third time the servicemen took to the streets. This time however, the protest lasted from 31st October to 7th November. By the end, the highly emotionally charged men tried to walk into the Presidential Secretariat and were deterred with water cannons and tear gas. It was a shocking sight that the nation witnessed when the prosthetic limbs went flying off in all directions due to the force of the water jets. To make bad matters worse, a tear gas canister hit a serviceman already blind in one eye and caused such severe injuries to the other eye, that eye too was lost to him.

Though some members of the government were too moved to defend the action, Hettiarachchi was of the view, “It was purely a politically motivated protest. Members of the security forces are a highly trained and a disciplined lot. Certain forces have used the disabled soldiers to fulfil their petty political aims. Both the disabled soldiers and the political forces behind them know that they cannot stage such demonstrations within the high security zone. They were fully aware of the consequences if they started marching towards the Presidential Secretariat.

Police had to use force to prevent them from proceeding towards the Presidential Secretariat. The protesters did not obey the orders and proceeded further towards the Presidential Secretariat and the Police had to take drastic action.”

At the same time though, Hettiarachchi pledged to grant them their pension rights by February 2017. Accordingly, these servicemen became entitled to their pension. Yet, they are back in the streets protesting because they found the government had gone back on their word and had not calculated according to agreed formulae. This mostly affects those injured during the ’90s, whose basic salary was somewhere around Rs 2,000. Thus, as a pension they get a sum slightly more than Rs 1,500.

Perhaps the government is tripping over its own bureaucratic red tape. After all, we are famous for waiting for an issue to hit us to address it. That is why, until the disabled servicemen reached their retirement age, they did not address the gross injustice they were about to face. Perhaps, the government feels ‘giving in’ is tantamount to giving political mileage to politicians such as Udaya Gammanpila – one of the very few politicians to have made this his cause.

If these are indeed politically motivated protests, the government should fast track this issue and resolve it urgently and fairly.

Had that been done, those politically motivated entities would have lost their slogan as well as their power to use these men in dire and desperate circumstances as prey for their own purposes.

Either way, the question is not whether this is politically motivated. Justice must be served to these men. Just as they heeded the call to fight for our country, we must heed our duty and look after them as gods. The last thing we as a national should do is continue in our current path and ignore this very sensitive issue.

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5 Responses to “Abandoned soldiers of a forgotten war!”

  1. Sarath W Says:

    What a shameless and ungrateful nation are we? Mahinda should stop preaching at temples and join these brave and patriotic disable soldiers with Gota and other military leaders to help them to get their pensions. We all know Appa Sira could not be trusted to keep his promises. Let these unforgotten men be a “public nuisance” and a “disturbance” and “inconvenience the public” as they have every right to do so to open our eyes because without them some of us would have been disable or even dead and most of us would have been “inconvenienced” in our day to day lives and lived in fear.

  2. RohanJay Says:

    At the end of the day. It is the SL military personnel on the frontlines during the 2006-2009 war and also before that who deserve the most credit and gratitude. These Sri Lankan military officers put their lives on the line so that future generations of Sri Lankans can experience some semblence of peace. I salute the men and women of the Sri Lankan military during this period which ended in May 2009. It is indeed sad if the abandoned soldiers are not supported properly. Also how can the war which lasted for so long over all and such a devastating impact for so long for two generations of Sri Lankans who didn’t know true peace during this be forgotten so quickly. I lived a good chunk of the 1980s in Sri Lanka. While it was a happy time for me personally when I was in Sri Lanka back then, I was well aware of living in the middle of a conflict. The devastating impact it had on many Sri lankans back then. I was visited Sri Lanka a couple of times in the 1990s and early 2000s and the war still raging with no end to the conflict in site. Only the events of 2006-2009 was this conflict finally brought to an end. Thanks thousands of youth from poor areas of Sri Lanka signing up to finally put an end to the conflict in Sri Lanka. The events of 2006-2009 are really not that long ago. How could people forget so quickly or the brave soldiers who put their lives on the line for Sri Lanka and its future. No wonder Sri Lanka is currently in the mess that its in. When there was so much hope and Sri Lanka being a fine place between 2009-2015. Sri Lanka has gone back down the tubes again fast. It is sad. I will still visit Sri Lanka as often as I can. But the promise and optimism of Sri Lanka post 2009 upto 2015 is now lost.

  3. Fran Diaz Says:

    Disabled Soldiers who fought wars in Lanka must be looked after by GoSL. That is right thing to do. Who is there to champion their needs needs ?
    I am assuming that these are soldiers with physical disabilities. The mentally disabled too, with PTSD etc ought to be taken care of for life, if necessary.
    There ought to be a separate sub-Department under the Ministry of Social Services to take care of the needs of Disabled Soldiers.
    That is the civilised thing to do. It is hearless to ignore their plight. Is this Lanka, the Buddhist nation, ignoring their war disabled ?? Shame !

    Our thanks to Shivanthi for highlighting this unsresolved problem.

  4. Ananda-USA Says:

    RohanJay,

    This is not the time to isolate yourself from our PEOPLE in Sri Lanka.

    The government may have been hijacked by Yamapallas, but the PEOPLE we love still remain imprisoned in their grasp.

    MORE THAN EVER, NOW is the TIME to help the most vulnerable of our people ABANDONED by this Yamapalanaya!

    Help these people overcome the drought, and the destruction of their livelihoods, and lack of food! Help create small businesses or build anew their homes, or improve their mud-walled homes.

    Adopt and educate the hundreds of thousands of needy rural children to achieve their dreams.

    Give them HOPE of a brighter future, one-by-one, family-by- family, in some way, no matter how small!

    By doing so, inculcate in them a PRIDE and LOVE of their OWN people, their OWN community, by coming forward as representatives of their OEN, to help them and cement their loyalty and allegiance to our own community so they can resist the SIREN SONGS of foreign missionaries who prey upon the poor and destitute to grow their alien flocks!

    While allegiance on principles alone sounds good in theory, it will not survive if we do not help the most vulnerable in our own communities in practical ways.

    These people must SEE and FEEL a TANGIBLE BENEFIT to belonging to their own communities!

    That is the way to spark and grow the fires of loyalty and patriotism among our people, one-at-a-time, family-by-family to create that phalanx capable of protecting our own in eternity!

    I PRACTICE what I PREACH here; that is my primary goal now.

  5. Lorenzo Says:

    What a country!

    MILITARY MEN that saved the country cannot ENTER POLITICS, CANNOT RULE SL, CANNOT have a pension, cannot have a disability allowance, cannot protest and cannot have credit for winning the war.

    POLITICIANS claim ALL credit for winning the war!

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