US President Nixon’s Mai Lai pardon vs Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapakse’s pardon of Corporal Sunil Ratnayake

A Vietnamese civilian with a gun pointed at the side of her head.

There is much hullabaloo over the pardoning of Corporal Sunil Ratnayake by President Gotabaya Rajapake. The usual set of culprits are 24×7 preoccupied in carrying out a globally hyped campaign against the decision. Everyone does make mistakes. People are afterall human. There is no 100% perfect entity. No one is not unbiased. Plenty of Judges have given questionable verdicts. Plenty of lawyers have misled the jury. Plenty of witnesses have misled the Court too. In such a scenario we must be able to use our common sense to derive our own conclusions. Let us compare the Mai Lai massacre with the Mirusuvil massacre though the US illegally bombed & invaded Vietnam while Sri Lanka was dealing with a non-international armed conflict against non-state actors who were terrorizing the citizens fighting in uniform and in civilian clothing while engaging combatants as young as 7 years with even a trained civilian armed force.

US in Vietnam

US decided to deliver democracy to Vietnam during 1962-1971 resulting in the killing of 400,000 people and left 500,000 babies born with birth defects with some 2million continuing to suffer cancer & related illnesses from the 20million galloons of chemicals including Agent Orange dumped by US military on Vietnam.

The Mail Lai village massacre took place on 16 March 1968 by some 100 American soldiers led by Lieutenant William L Calley.  11th Brigade Charlie Company is alleged to have killed over 500 civilians ordered by Calley. Among them is the name of Private First Class Paul Meadlo who took part with Calley in the shooting.

182 women – 17 were pregnant

173 children – 55 infants

60 – old aged men

In 1968 Meadlo was 19years, married with 2 children while William Calley was just 28years.

Calley’s 3 day court martial ended on 29 March 1971 (3 years after the Mai Lai Massacre)

At the Army inquiry it was disclosed how Calley allegedly even ran after a 2 or 3 year old boy, caught him and after shooting him dead threw him into the ditch where all other dead were.

The Army jury convicted ONLY Calley of mass murder of 22 persons. The charge sheet however accused Calley of premeditated murder of 109 ‘oriental human beings’.

Calley was sentenced to life of hard labor but President Nixon intervened and ordered Calley’s release from Army prison. Calley was put under house arrest and then freed 3 months after Nixon left office.

Calley was a free man by 1974.

Even songs were written for Calley ‘Set Lt. Calley Free’ and hymns were also written ‘Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley’ sold 2million records.

How did Calley become a freeman? Evie Saloman’s March 2014 article claims Nixon attempted to cover up the Mai Lai massacre evident in the release of hand-written notes of meetings with his Chief of Staff H R Haldeman in 1987. On 1st December 1969 the ‘Task Force’ was asked to adopt ‘dirty tricks’ and ‘discredit one witness’ in order to ‘keep working on the problem’


Who were the ‘dirty tricks’ meant to discredit? None other than pilot Hugh Thomson and gunner Larry Colburn who from their helicopter saw the massacre in progress and tried to stop it and even saved a 8 year boy from the ditch and took him to hospital.

But when they returned to US they were treated as traitors.

Colburn says “The U.S. claims to be concerned with collateral damage with civilians that are caught up in war zones, but I don’t believe that,”

Colburn says. “That’s lip service.”

The Guantanamo Bay and Abu Gharaib detention camps and the scores of illegal invasions and bombings prove how correct Colburn’s statement is.

Their story came out in 1998 – Back to Mai Lai” produced by Tom Anderson, reported by Mike Wallace & aired on 29 March 1998.

Both travelled back to Mai Lai in 2001 and met the 8-year old boy they saved who was now 41 years. Thompson died in 2006.

Among the many articles on Mai Lai the series of articles by Seymour M Hersh are of interest. He had visited Vietnam in the 1960s as a rookie journalist and again in 2015 at 78 years.

His 1971 article on Mai Lai was first published by the New Yorker and reissued in 2015.

Ironically the US Army filed charges against 14 officers just like the 14 Sri Lanka Armed Forces personnel arrested in connection with the Mirusuvil murder in Sri Lanka in 2000.

Some soldiers claimed to have disobeyed Calleys orders but Private First Class Paul Meadlo had joined Calley in the shooting. The next day Meadlo had stepped on a land mine and his right foot had blown off. Instant karma.

A GI also recalls Meadlo cursing Calley when he was being evacuated to be treated God will punish you for what you made me do,”

Meadlo’s mother was to say I sent them a good boy and they made him a murderer.”

Another relevant detail in Hersh’s article is the unpublished August 1967 report by retired Pentagon Official W Donald Steward at the request of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (later became President of World Bank)

The report showed that US troops in South Vietnam did not know the Geneva Conventions. The soldiers, felt they were at liberty to substitute their own judgment for the clear provisions of the Conventions. . . . It was primarily the young and inexperienced troops who stated they would maltreat or kill prisoners, despite having just received instructions” on international law.

Stewart tells Hersh that he understood why the report was suppressed

People were sending their eighteen-year-olds over there, and we didn’t want them to find out that they were cutting off ears.”

This takes us to another important point for discussion. Everyone is quick to condemn military personnel claiming them to be a professional force and should act like one. That paradigm is not applicable when the military is fighting a non-state actor not bound to uphold laws except their own. Therefore, those quick to quote the Conventions and Law Books must first imagine if they could act with professionalism against a brutal terrorist group? The soldiers are not sent as guinea pigs to tabulate how successful the law manuals work during hostilities. While the soldiers go to defend the nation & the citizens the goal of the terrorists is to only kill and become martyrs by killing. So no law can judge a national army on the same benchmark as that of terrorists. Terrorists supporters are today manipulating this area to draw for their terrorist groups undue publicity and empathy.

Let’s also not forget that President Trump in November 2019 pardoned 3 US military personnel 2 US soldiers (who served in Afghanistan) & 1 sailor (served in Iraq) who committed war-zone crimes. But the condemnation against that was primarily simply to target President not so much based on any acts of crime committed by the 3 US military personnel.

Mirusuvil Massacre Sri Lanka

Now let us go to Sri Lanka’s Mirusuvil Massacre in Jaffna which allegedly took place on 19 December 2000 of 8 Tamils including a 5year old child.

Unlike the Mai Lai massacre which involved an entire military unit of 100 soldiers, and soldiers who admitted they committed shooting based on orders, there is no evidence to show anyone witnessing Corporal Sunil Ratnayake committing the murders or even holding the weapon with which the murders were committed.

Sunil Ratnayake’s verdict was based on CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE GIVEN BY A SOLE SURVIVOR (Maheshwaran) 

Maheshwaran’s testimony only accused Ratnayake of assault not murder. 

Maheshwaran has not said that he saw Sunil Ratnayake killing anyone or even holding a weapon. 

Maheshwaran’s account of the incident as sole ‘witness’ is an exercise in imagination.

Only he was lucky to get blindfolded and beaten unconscious despite other men being present.

Only he had been carried by 2 Sri Lankan soldiers and tossed over the fence and he was so lucky that the blindfold got caught to the barbed fence so he could see but he didn’t see Sunil Ratnayake commit the crime.

He was the lucky one to be even taken to the supposed sight of the ‘murders’ and shown the crime and we have to next imagine him running clad only in his underwear ¼ mile to his aunts where the next morning he was again lucky enough for his father to come search & find him & both to complain to EPDP office

Corporal Sunil Ratnayake was arrested under a UNP government in 2002

Corporal Sunil Ratnayake was convicted of murder in June 2015 also under the same Govt that arrested him which had come to power to form a legally questionable ‘national government’ cobbled after a Presidential Election in January 2015.

Corporal Sunil Ratnayake was convicted under the same government in June 2015 while the Court acquitted the other 4 soldiers though all 5 were charged under penal code sections 32, 146 and 296.

Nowhere in the judgement does it state that Ratnayake personally killed any of the 8 victims.

If same charges were brought against all 5 armed forces under penal code 32, 146 and 296 –  why did 4 suddenly get acquitted on the ground that their identities could not be established and only Sunil Ratnayake was convicted. 

The answer lay in the ‘interpretation’ of Penal Code Section 32 that a criminal act done by several persons with common intent is equivalent to a single person committing the act of crime alone. 

How fair is it to declare death sentence based on an interpretation sans concrete evidence of anyone actually seeing him commit the murders?

How possible is it for ONE PERSON to commit all 8 murders, dig a large hole to hide dead bodies and dig another large enough ditch to bury the bicycles while all others stood watching – even the Supreme Court admits this was ‘highly improbable’? 

If so, is it fair to release all others and pass all blame to one man based merely on a penal code interpretation? 

President Maithripala Sirisena released the very LTTE suicide combatant who had attempted to kill him and the media clapped hands chirping the act to be an embodiment of reconciliation. The same media are howling against the pardoning of a soldier based on circumstantial evidence without any proof that he committed the murders. They have completely character-assassinated him as a ‘murderer’ and ‘butcher’ without any thought for the long-term repercussion to him & his family.

If Penal Code Section 32 was applied to LTTE it is more than possible that some Tamil politicians linked to LTTE may also find themselves behind bars!

The Abrahamic justice of eye-for-an-eye as against compassionate justice of Dharmic philoshophy is the reason why close to 12,000 surrendered LTTErs have not been charged for their crimes & why 594 child soldiers were also given a presidential pardon.

However, if justice is what is being sought then definitely it is LTTE and all those connected to LTTE who must end up being charged for their crimes.

The Sri Lankan President’s powers to pardon comes tagged to a process that passes through the Attorney General, to the Minister of Justice for recommendation and thereafter to the President. Therefore, all those barking should first read Article 34(1) of the Constitution before howling. The howlers should ideally question the system that has actually failed Corporal Sunil Ratnayake instead of demanding his death! 

Have any of the entities issuing statements condemning the pardon even read the judgement? Probably not!



Shenali D Waduge

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