External Affairs Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa yesterday defended the right and the responsibility of the government of Sri Lanka to maintain a considerable military presence in the Northern and Eastern Provinces to thwart a possible re-emergence of terrorism.
Addressing a gathering of Colombo-based diplomats and visiting foreign military representatives, at Hotel Galadari, the External Affairs Minister and Defence Secretary said that the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009 meant the military had a different role to play to facilitate the speedy restoration of civil life in war-torn areas.
Dismissing calls for total withdrawal of troops from the Northern Province, Prof. Peiris said that it would be reckless on the part of the government to even consider a total pull-out. Explaining that the military was deployed in all parts of the country, including Hambantota, Prof. Peiris described a move on the part of GoSL to vacate the Northern Province as an extremely unwise decision.
Peiris and Rajapaksa pointed out that there had been a gradual decrease in military presence in the Northern Province since the end of the war.
In his keynote address on the opening day of three-day seminar ‘Towards Lasting Peace and Stability’, the Defence Secretary said that bases and troops in the Northern and Eastern Provinces had been reduced to a bare minimum. He said that 28 battalions had been moved from the Northern Province to the South and the East. During the past three years, over 21,000 troops had been shifted from the Northern theatre of operations, he said stressing the need to maintain troop presence at strategic locations. He assured that their presence would be non-intrusive.
However, retired Maj. Gen Ashok K. Mehta of the Indian Army disputed the government’s position as regards the post-war military presence in the Northern Province on the basis of information received by India. Maj. Gen. Metha, who had served in Sri Lanka with the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), quoted unnamed sources as having contradicted the SriLankan government’s stand on de-militarisation. He referred to what he called an overbearing SLA presence in the North, calling called for an explanation from the Defence Secretary as regards a statement attributed to him that there was no space for re-emergence of Sri Lanka’s problems due to many beneficial developments that had taken place since the conclusion of the conflict.
Maj. Gen. Metha queried whether the government would consider a presidential pardon for 383 ex-LTTE combatants undergoing legal action.
Defence Secretary pointed out that Prof. Peiris had explained the importance of continued military presence in spite of the conclusion of the conflict. Briefing recalling the heavy sufferings experienced by people of all three communities, the Defence Secretary stressed that armed forces’ primary duty was to protect the country. He said that the armed forces would have to ensure that those disruptive elements wouldn’t re-group again.
The Defence Secretary alleged that pro-LTTE Diaspora and other anti-Sri Lanka elements had given false information to India. Citing the difficulties experienced by GoSL in the post-war era. He told Maj. Gen Metha the country wasn’t in a position to rectify shortcomings overnight.
Commenting on Maj. Gen Metha’s comment on the possibility of release those ex-LTTE cadres facing legal action, the Defence Secretary recalled that at the conclusion of the conflict, there had been 16,000 LTTE men and women in detention. Of them 12,000 had either surrendered or been arrested during the humanitarian operations and other had been taken in during separate operations. Of the 12,000 cadres, only 636 now remained at rehabilitation centres, the Defence Secretary said, adding that of the 4,000 persons, only 383 now remained in custody. All others had been rehabilitated and reunited with their families, the Defence Secretary said, adding that the country was proud of its achievements as regards the post-war national reconciliation process.