By Rajan Hoole –
The Withdrawal of the IPKF
During 1989, gross misjudgement and crass opportunism were allowed to override sound military judgement. Wanasinghe, who believed that the IPKF should stay, fell behind the President in undermining their role. The professionals in the Army had few illusions about their government’s much vaunted understanding with the LTTE. When President Premadasa publicly called for the withdrawal of the IPKF in July 1989, the three Sri Lankan army commanders in charge of northern divisions met in Vavuniya. They were Major General Balaratnarajah (Jaffna), Brigadier Srilal Weerasooriya (Trincomalee) and Brigadier Chandra Abeyratne (Vavuniya). They then requested Deputy Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne for additional troops to maintain order in the areas the IPKF had brought under control. Ranjan Wijeratne refused additional troops and confidently said, ‘everything is fine in Jaffna’!
The Chickens Come Home
By January 1990 the IPKF pullout was well underway. General Balaratnarajah who had finished a year in Jaffna was to leave for the National Defence College in India. In a written report briefing his successor Jaliya Nammuni, he recommended closing all the smaller camps, including Jaffna Fort and Valvettithurai, and concentrating the forces at Palaly. This was not done. In June 1990, the LTTE suddenly commenced hostilities and laid siege around Jaffna Fort. The troops were relieved and evacuated in September with great difficulty and the position was abandoned. The camps at Kokkavil and Mankulam were overrun before the year’s end.
After the wisdom of the country’s leaders, the Army set about trying to bring control in the North-East in the manner in which it had dealt with the JVP in the South. It indulged in a series of massacres. The resulting fear, displacement and resentment helped the LTTE reap a windfall of new recruits and inflict a series of blows on the Army. This was ironical because up to the time of the war, resentment had been building up against the LTTE in the North-East. These liberators had been constructing torture camps and detained all and sundry against whom it had the slightest suspicion of being against them. The Sri Lankan Army had co-operated with them in these unlawful detentions and elimination. Even persons detained in Colombo were transported to the North chained to passenger vehicles. Once the war started in June and the Government through the security forces turned its wrath on the Tamil civilians, the Army was in for a series of costly humiliations. The Army lost control of most of the North. It was the nemesis of immorality, of disregarding the Law as the standard.
In the North, the Army came to depend heavily on General Kobbekaduwe, who, reportedly, asked and obtained an assurance that there will be no political interference. One of his notable successes was the relief of Elephant Pass camp in July 1991, by a seaborne landing. Once the relief column was on the way, the LTTE threw in its reserves of child cadre to overrun the camp before relief arrived. It failed and lost about 1000 of its cadre, most of them children.
During this period (1990 to the end of 1995) the LTTE administered the Jaffna peninsula and much of the North collecting taxes, government relief, picking up recruits and running guided propaganda tours for visitors and journalists. It had something of the trappings of a separate state. Remarkably, during this period the Government (mainly of Premadasa) was able to do little about this state of affairs, despite having been overconfident in mid-1990. The Army’s greatest liability was the chickens of 1979 coming home to roost.
In looking back at this period, one is bound to have two distinct points of view from two different worlds. The second is from the world of the victims. The first is from the Colombo based defence correspondents. Their principal criterion was the Army’s successes or failures on the ground. If the Army were successful, few questions are asked and the Army could expect eulogies all the way. If it was a period of failures – such as from August 1992 to 1993 end – then all the criticism and disaffection poured out in secret by officers was bound to get reported in the Press. This is what happened then and one finds that the Army Commander Cecil Waidyaratne received a very bad press.
Going through reports one gets reminded about the bitter hatred that prevailed between Kobbekaduwe and Waidyaratne. Kobbekaduwe comes out as the hero of the day and Waidyaratne the villain. Waidyaratne left himself more open to attack by speaking his mind frankly. In his dislike of Kobbekaduwe, he went to the puerile extent of naming one of his dogs ‘Kobbe’. Waruna Karunatilleke says of Waidyaratne in the Counterpoint (April 1993): “He advocated a hard-line approach to the separatist war and once argued with a group of Western diplomats that killing 1,200,000 people to end the war was cost effective.” By comparison, one is told that General Ranatunge, who was from 1985 head of the Joint Operations Command and then defence secretary until going to Australia as high commissioner in mid-1993, was a ‘dove’ associated with the ‘moderate wing’ of the Army. The latter is said to have included Generals Denzil Kobbekaduwe and Gerry de Silva. How meaningful such categories as moderate and hardline were, remains to be worked out.
More explanatory are personal animosities and bitter feuding between factions in the Army. Now, why did Waidyaratne get such a bad press? When he became army commander in November 1991 after Wanasinghe, he tried to reorganise the Army, which was seen as a move to downsize Kobbekaduwe and those close to him. Kobbekaduwe was reportedly to be shifted to an administrative job. A journalist who met Kobbekaduwe said that this was the only time he saw him so angry. He told the journalist that he felt like slapping a senior officer closely identified with Waidyaratne. The journalist told him that perhaps they wanted him to do a thing like that and get into trouble. General Gerry de Silva too threatened to resign if such reorganisation was carried out. That plan was abandoned.
In July 1991, Kobbekaduwe relieved the siege at Elephant Pass. By this time the Army more or less had the East under control, and many realised that they would make very little impact on the LTTE unless they took significant portions of the North. General Kobbekaduwe and Brigadier Wimalaratne launched a series of operations to cut-off the Jaffna peninsula. The Army took Pooneryn. But instead of allowing civilians going south to go through the army camp at Elephant Pass, the LTTE forced them to travel by boat through the Jaffna Lagoon. Apart from launching a few bloody massacres, the Navy failed to interdict this flow (see our Report No.10). Kobbekaduwe died on 8th August 1992 on the eve of a major operation with Wimalaratne and 7 other senior commanders.
Earlier in the year the conduct of operations had been taken from the JOC and given to the service commanders. In September 1992, again the JOC under Wanasinghe was given command of operations. Earlier Waidyaratne was to retire in December 1992 and was to have been succeeded by Kobbekaduwe. But since Kobbekaduwe died, Waidyaratne was given an extension until May 1993. Waidyaratne had recommended that General Gerry de Silva be retired in December 1992. But Premadasa accepted Defence Secretary General Ranatunge’s recommendation and gave Gerry Silva a year’s extension. Ranatunge as one of his last acts had firmly recommended that Waidyaratne be given no further extension. As things were, Premadasa was expected to appoint General Silva as army commander in May 1993.
At the time Waidyaratne took over as army commander in November 1991, dissonance within the defence establishment had already became noticeable, but this was seldom directly spelt out in the media. In an interview (Island 17.11.91), Waidyaratne, while wanting to strengthen the Special Forces Brigade, said, “Everything possible will be done to take effective control of the East before moving to the North.” About the same time General Wanasinghe who ceased to be army commander, was made JOC Chief. General Ranatunge thereafter moved to the position of defence secretary. During this period Brigadier Janaka Perera was moved to head the Special Forces Brigade and was based in the East. Brigadier Algama was promoted to major-general and moved to the East and Major General Gerry de Silva from the East to the North just after Northern Commander Kobbekaduwe’s death in August 1992. Both Algama and Janaka Perera were closely associated with Waidyaratne who headed Ops Combine in the closing stages of the anti-JVP operations during the latter half of 1989.
Yet, at the same time in November 1991 when Waidyaratne announced the East as his priority, Wanasinghe and most others in the defence establishment felt that it was in the North that the main battle against the Tigers lay. An editorial comment in the government owned Observer said (22.11.91) just after Waidyaratne’s interview: “While mopping up operations go on in the East and North, the task of hitting the Tigers in Jaffna will no doubt be the main objective.” The East was of course more congenial territory for those experienced in the Ops Combine – which involved low intensity operations based on intelligence gathering. The North was of course infantry terrain.
Looking back one is not sure if military priorities were based on considered strategy or on promoting some personalities and downgrading others. About two months after Kobbekaduwe’s death operations in the North came to a standstill.
*To be continued..
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here