Disabled Servicemen back in the Streets

The disabled soldiers have taken to the streets in protests yet again. That would make it their fourth attempt to get a pension. One would have thought an issue for disabled soldiers to take to the streets would be volatile enough to make the government shake in their shoes. Men without limbs, some prostrate in make shift 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, 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 won without the political leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The other camp believed with equal firmness, that credit belongs to then General Sarath Fonseka. For all the charisma 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.

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 heavy weight, venerable 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 been tarnished as war criminals. The incumbent government is univocal in their assertion that their efforts is 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 are 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 protestors 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 leaves an odd aftertaste to the affair. Perhaps it is the wordings such as, “inconvenience the commuters”, “public nuisance” and “disturbance” that puts law at odds with morality.

These are not ordinary protestors. 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 in 2008 February 03, 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 DS Senanayake College’s baseball team and their coach. Hundreds were injured.

That same year, on May 26, 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 June 04, 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 in 1996 July 24 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. Coming 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 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 mad. It is these sacrifices that are now translated into disabled 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 soldiers 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 until retirement at the age of 55 and thereupon an allowance. Thus, as at 2015 a disabled soldier who is 55 or more was entitled to only Rs. 12,500.

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 2014 December 17, a cabinet decision was taken to change the existing system and 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 to pressurize the incumbent government to implement this decision. This agitation 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 Defense 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 2016 November 13, 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.

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 October 31 to November 07. By the end, the highly charged men tried to walk into the Presidential Secretariat and were deterred with water cannons and tear gas. It was a shocking sight for the nation to witness the prosthetic limbs flying off in all directions due to the force of the water jets. To make matters worse, a tear gas cannon hit a soldier 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. 2000. Thus, as a pension they get a sum slightly more than Rs. 1500.

Perhaps the government is tripping in 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, it is questionable as to the reason for this issue not to be fast tracked and resolved 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.

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 should do is continue in our current path and ignore the national issue.

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