Sri Lanka's Military Polishes Its Image — on Reality TV

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Sri Lankan children meet a soldier at a camp for the internally displaced in Vavuniya

During the last years of Sri Lanka's battle against the Tamil Tigers, the military hierarchy used to receive a regular — if somewhat unusual — request: members of the forces wanted to be on reality TV.

At the time, while the decades-long civil war was still being fought, requests were turned down, says Lakshman Hulugalle, the director general of the Media Centre for National Security. Not anymore. The war has been over for almost 20 months and now the soldiers, sailors and air-force personnel are getting a shot at their 15 minutes of fame in Ranaviru Real Star (War Hero Real Star), a new reality-television show that will be open only to members of the forces. Officials say the show, set to debut on Nov. 6, will give the service personnel a chance to showcase their talents off the battlefield.

Up until now, singing and dancing is not what members of Sri Lanka's three forces have been known for. The army, navy and air force were front and center in national headlines for over two and half decades in a bloody separatist war on the island that ended in May 2009. The war that cost more than 70,000 lives created a stereotype of the front-line fighters and their commanders as being hardened, emotionless armed soldiers.

Now that the nation is at peace, the military wants to break that mold. "When someone is holding a gun, there is always a certain image that people have of that person," Hulugalle says. "There is so much that people don't know [about the soldiers]. When we used to visit bunkers at the front, we saw some of them had written poems or drawn pictures." The talent contest is the latest effort by the Defense Ministry to humanize the government soldiers' image. At the show's kickoff press event earlier this month, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the country's Defense Secretary and the man credited with being one of the driving forces behind the defeat of the Tigers, said, "We want to emphasize the human behind the weapon."

It's not the first measure the Defense Ministry has taken to reinvent the image of the military since the end of the war. When Sri Lanka confronted a threatening dengue epidemic earlier this year, armed forces were used extensively to clean up mosquito breeding areas. Military units stationed in the country's former conflict zone in the north have used the large manpower at their disposal to build badly needed public trust that was ruptured during the war — distributing artificial limbs and wheelchairs to war-injured civilians, cleaning up and repairing hospital wards, preparing agriculture land for cultivation, building houses and even repairing Hindu temples damaged during the war.

For now, it appears that the acceptance of the sunshine campaign is still drawn along the same lines that split the country during its long war. The members of the three forces, predominantly from the majority Sinhala community, are hugely popular in the country's south. But a stiffer reception is afforded to them in the north, where most minority Tamils live and over which the Tigers fought for a separate country. Large numbers of troops are still stationed in the Vanni, a wide swath of land in the north that was under the control of Tigers for over a decade until the war's end last year. More than 300,000 Vanni civilians displaced by the last bout of fighting have left the welfare camps, where little over 26,000 remain now.

The returning civilians are trying to shake off the aftereffects of the war and build normal lives as best they can. This is where the new image the military is seeking will be tested. Kandaiah Ramakrishnan, whose name has been changed at his request, has lived in the Vanni for over three decades. He has seen it all: the Tigers, the government forces and even Indian peacekeepers who were stationed there over two decades back. He is willing to give the government and the military a clean slate for now. "I don't think anybody will regret the chance they got to return home and live peacefully," says the 60-year-old government education officer. "The sterner test would be how we get to live from now on."

There are signs that the military has succeeded to some extent in getting closer to the Tamil community, especially due to the construction and development work it has undertaken in the north. "In our research in the north, we found that there were mixed feelings toward the army," says Chris Chapman, head of Conflict Prevention at the London-based Minority Rights Group International. "In some instances, the army is seen to be helping people, building homes and transporting goods so that construction can happen." But the enduring overmilitarization of the Vanni — not to mention the horrific end of the conflict in which more than 330,000 people were displaced and, according to some U.N. reports, as many 7,000 civilians died — has left many residents deeply skeptical. "There is certainly a major issue of trust amongst Tamils. They not only associate the army with human-rights violations in the last stages of fighting, but there have been historical patterns of violations," Chapman says.

Outside Sri Lanka, the government and the military continue to face allegations of human-rights abuses during the final phases of the war. In a May report titled "War Crimes in Sri Lanka," the International Crisis Group said it had evidence of civilian casualties toward the end of the fighting, and that it would hand over the evidence to authorities that could protect witnesses. The government dismissed the report, saying that any investigation into alleged violations would be undertaken by a national body and that they were not open to international investigations, as the Crisis Group demanded in the report.

Last week, Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris told a forum at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies that the government has since invited international rights groups to submit evidence of any allegations of crimes committed during the war to a commission it had set up. But Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Crisis Group, stating in a joint letter that the commission failed "to meet basic international standards for independent and impartial inquiries," have rejected the invitation. An advisory panel on Sri Lanka set up by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also sought public submissions along similar lines last week, but Crisis Group officials told TIME that the evidence they say they have is unlikely to be submitted to the U.N. panel at this time. "We are planning on submitting to the panel some of our public reports on Sri Lanka, including our May 2010 report 'War Crimes in Sri Lanka,' in which we lay out what we believe is widespread and credible evidence of war crimes committed by both the LTTE [Tigers] and the Sri Lankan military in the final months of the war," said Alan Keenan, the Crisis Group's Sri Lanka project director.

Meanwhile, the Global Tamil Forum, a body representing Tamils living outside Sri Lanka, released pictures last week of what it said were incidents of massacres committed by government forces during the last stages of the war. (The organization, however, said that it could not vouch for the authenticity of the pictures, which it said it obtained from a Tiger intelligence operative.) The government rejected the pictures as the latest attempt by the pro-Tiger lobby to discredit it.

That controversy, however, has done little to dampen Sri Lanka's anticipation of the first episode of Ranaviru Real Star. TV trailers are running regularly and weekend newspapers are publishing articles on the show, trumpeting it as the first reality talent show anywhere in the world wholly dedicated to members of the armed services. A helicopter has been modified to serve as the judges' podium and the winner's take is likely to be worth up to $89,000.