The Sri Lankan government is using the coronavirus pandemic “to whitewash military officers who face allegations of war crimes” said the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) this week, after the regime announced 25 military officers were to be put in charge of civilian health across the island.
Many of the officers had “frontline combat experience in the final phase of the war in Sri Lanka in 2009” when tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed by Sri Lankan forces.
“The same Sri Lankan army officers are now supposed to safeguard the health of the people they once deliberately bombed and shelled, attacking hospitals, starving the population and denying life-saving medicine,” said the ITJP’s Executive Director Yasmin Sooka.
“Their appointment is a cynical attempt to use the COVID emergency to cleanse a tainted organisation,” she added. “It poses a serious problem for the international community in how to respond. Diplomats and donors should not facilitate the dismantling and disempowerment of the civilian administration.”
“It is the ultimate insult that soldiers some of whom may have violated international laws protecting the health and lives of civilians in war are now in charge of the country’s health.”
The ITJP noted that the military record of many of the appointed officers “would preclude them from serving in any UN peacekeeping force”. “Ironically they are now in charge of supervising civilian health, including in areas where they subjugate those they defeated in the war,” the organisation added.
Militarising the administration, as they did in the Tamil regions long ago, is another step towards forming a de facto military regime and tightening the military’s grip over the entire island,” said Bashana Abeywardena of the Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka.
The head of Sri Lanka’s army, Shavendra Silva, currently heads the government’s coronavirus task force. A military officer has also been appointed as secretary of health, noted the ITJP, whilst the State Intelligence Service, “headed by a military intelligence officer allegedly complicit in torture,” has been tasked with Sri Lanka’s track and trace programme “with access to immigration data, which could endanger anyone who enters the country”.
“There are serious questions about transparency and accountability for international aid designed to combat COVID in a government where so many key figures were appointed to office while still accused of corruption. The COVID virus has become a convenient cover for a highly militarised government to entrench its power and violate the rights of minorities, especially Muslims who have been illegally denied their right to burial,” said Sooka.
“Under the guise of providing health care, which is hardly their expertise, the Sri Lankan military is silently usurping the role of the civilian administration, which will cause long term damage.”
See the full press release here.