The Sri Lanka Air Force, Army and Navy are running a TV and press campaign at the moment which sports the tagline “Sri Lanka Forces – Together for All”. In Sinhala the tagline is “Api Wenuwen Api”. I don’t know the tagline in Tamil, or even whether they are running the campaign at all in the Tamil media.
The purpose of the campaign, I assume, is to increase support for the military and thereby, military operations. Perhaps this is also a response to greater intervention by the military in civilian life at checkpoints, housechecks, area searches and no-parking zones, and the resulting need for greater cooperation by the public.
The 30-second television commercial aims to humanize the three armed forces by depicting three individual service personnel and interactions with their families and the civilian community in general. There is a navy chap who sits on the ground with Muslim civilians while the Muslims eat from a savan. (Interestingly the navy chap does not eat from it). The same chap nods to a Muslim woman as she passes him on the street. An airforce girl is shown helping an old woman up the steps of a Hindu temple. An army serviceman is shown leaving his family, kicking a football with some boys on the street, and getting into a bus where – and this is the culmination of the commercial – a lady notices him and attempts to give up her seat in the bus to him. This all sounds a bit over-the-top, but actually, I think it is a well-made commercial with an excellent catchy soundtrack which ends “apay ekeki may minisa” (this person is one of us).
I know this commercial will definitely appeal to the Sinhalese community, but I have some concerns: is it being run in Tamil? How do the Tamil and Muslim community react to it? And, most importantly, are the armed forces really for all Sri Lankans? Or, is this just lip service and clever propaganda? (Incidentally, the campaign has been created by Triad – the same advertising agency that handled the People Alliance’s highly effective Rata Perata election campaign).
I would like to believe that the portrayal of the armed forces depicted in the commercial is true. Posts like that of the Benevolent Dictator’s latest blog post would indicate that it is. However, I think most Tamil Sri Lankans would disagree with this. It would now appear that the Muslim community of Pottuvil would also disagree with this. And strongly.
This brings me to my main point. How can we expect Tamil Sri Lankans and Muslim Sri Lankans to respect and trust the Sinhalese-dominated armed forces when the Sri Lankan government makes little attempt to investigate allegations of human rights abuses and extra-judicial killings? If the allegations are true, and the perpetrators go unexposed and unpunished, those criminals remain within the Sri Lanka military and represent it. This not only fosters mistrust of the armed forces among the minorities, it weakens Sri Lanka’s position in the international community. Moreover, it weakens the government’s argument that all of us should live in one country and thereis no need to separate. If our own security forces threaten the security of minorities, and are allowed to get away with it, it is understandable that the minorities will want to govern their own security under a political system that they have more control over.
If you speak to any Tamil Sri Lankan from Jaffna, you will hear the same story: when an army outpost is attacked, they don’t care who they shoot, they just come out and spray bullets. These incidents may go unreported, but in the media recently, we have seen three major scandals – the 17 NGO workers in Muttur, the aerial bombing of the “orphanage”, and the massacre of 10 Muslim civilians in Pottuvil. Personally, I am not overly upset by the aerial bombing of the “orphanage”, because children being used by the LTTE as cannon fodder is nothing new, and although it is technically illegal under international law, I would prefer for these trainee cadres to be killed now rather than later with a suicide bomber’s jacket strapped to their chest. I don’t buy the theory that these children were not being trained.
However, in the case of the execution of the 17 NGO workers and in the case of the 10 Muslim civilians, I feel that the military may be to blame. Otherwise, why the dragging of feet over the international investigation of the Muttur incident? Why the refusal to have an international investigation into the Pottuvil incident? Why the intimidation of Rauff Hakeem by removal of his six STF security personnel? Why the refusal of the police to grant the SLMM representative access to the sole survivor? Why the overwhelming aggressive response to the STF by the Muslim population of Pottuvil?
Just as more Tamil Sri Lankans should be distancing themselves from the LTTE, these are questions that all Sri Lankans should be now asking. The Sri Lanka forces – are they really together for all?