By Rajan Hoole –
A superficial position long advanced by a large section of the elite in this country is that military effectiveness and human rights are incompatible. The obvious counter to that is that this country has seen a profusion of gross abuses over the last 20 years without peace or stability in sight. Our Report No.7 of May 1991 gave what certain army officers who mixed with civilians disclosed. They confided how they had been affected in the aftermath of massive and arbitrary reprisals against Tamil civilians in the Eastern Province, beginning in June 1990:
“The lack of firm principles and direction in the political establishment appears to have left many officers disturbed. What is their future, what and whom are they giving their life for? Would their actions today be scorned another day? These are questions that would cross any intelligent mind. To the thinking of many officers, the war has already been messed up and what can be salvaged must be salvaged politically. The military can at best do a holding operation… [Several] of these officers would generally be against antagonising the civilians unnecessarily and would not risk the lives of their men on doubtful ventures. The knowledge that the battalion which first went into Kalmunai and indulged in widespread massacres, later suffered grievous casualties to the point of wrecking the commander’s career, has also made an impression on them!”
Among the officers who felt disturbed were Colonel H. Halangoda who in the latter half of 1990 was in Kaluwanchikudy south of Batticaloa and Colonel Percy Fernando who was in Batticaloa. These officers were friends and contemporaries, and had made friends among the civilian population. They generally liked to think that they were considerate and fair by the civilians, and believed that a political solution was the only way out. Many of them were like General Kobbekaduwe were spoken of as the ‘doves’ or the ‘moderate wing’ of the Army. We had also commended the disciplined conduct of troops under Halangoda.
The Colonel referred to in the quotation above who led a battalion into Kalmunai from Amparai town is Sarath Fonseka. His name has been associated with the massacre of several hundred Tamil civilians in the area comprising Kalmunai and Akkaraipattu during June-July 1990. Fonseka was then serving under General Kobbekaduwe who had taken charge in Amparai, and followed Kobbekaduwe to the Islands (off Jaffna) the next month. Many officers were then fresh from having played an active role in crushing the JVP insurgency.
It must be pointed out here that the fundamental task of human rights activism – that of protecting life – had been rendered far more intricate by the fact that the LTTE had contrived to get Tamil civilians killed. It had broken off the favourable arrangement with President Premadasa by murdering hundreds of policemen who had surrendered, and gunning down about ten unsuspecting soldiers who came to buy vegetables in the Kalmunai market. The LTTE then fled to the jungles taking along frightened youth who feared reprisals, leaving the other civilians exposed to the Army’s wrath.
The Army felt betrayed by the Tamils whom they, thanks to the Southern polity’s polluted dealings the LTTE, collectively identified with that group. On orders from Premadasa the Army and the Government had given the LTTE all assistance from weapons to vehicles and money. The following incident illustrates the resulting mood. As soon as the news of the massacre of policemen reached Amparai town, the security forces went on the rampage killing Tamil civilians in the town’s environs. A Tamil official took refuge at a Sinhalese friend’s. While he was hiding in the house, an army colonel came there and in conservation with the Sinhalese friend, breathed fire and brimstone against the Tamils, saying that they should all be killed. The friend let him finish and told him that he had a Tamil in his house who needed to taken to safety. The Tamil was taken to safety in the colonel’s vehicle, with a more sober colonel explaining why he had been angry and that it was not personal.
The problem was that it was not the anger of the ordinary Sinhalese individual. It was anger and impunity backed by the full resources of the state, with the President saying that the LTTE would be crushed like the JVP. Going deeper, as we had pointed out, it is very difficult to pick out doves and hawks in the Army based on events. Colonel Fonseka caused a river of blood to flow in Kalmunai. But his superior was General Kobbekaduwe who was placed in charge at Amparai – a so-called ‘dove’.
We have referred to the Sathurukondan massacre of 184 civilians on 9th September 1990. A lone, injured and traumatized survivor, Kanthasamy Krishnakumar (21), brought news of the incident to Batticaloa town. When the Citizens’ Committee took it up, the Army denied it. When they insisted, the survivor was taken around in a jeep by Colonel Percy Fernando, but owing to his confused state of mind he was unable to point out the location. On Percy Fernando’s virtual insistence, Mr. Arunagirinathan, chairman of the CC, signed a document to say that there was no evidence of the incident and then resigned as chairman. The document was used by the Defence Ministry to deny the incident. To this day no proper tribunal has gone into who was responsible.
Although Percy Fernando bears responsibility as battalion commander for this “massacre of innocents” (68 children were included), a proper tribunal may have exonerated him from having sanctioned the crime. Major General Percy Fernando died a brave soldier’s death at Elephant Pass on 21st April 2000. Obituaries written by his friends have commended him as a man concerned about civilians. The system in order to protect itself allowed Percy Fernando to depart this life with the outrage at Sathurukondan hovering over his grave.
In the final accounting, whether it was the ‘dove’ Percy Fernando, or the ‘hawk’ Sarath Fonseka, both functioned as tools of the political dispensation. Both acted as agents of the blind rage of the Premadasa Government, and both did what the LTTE wanted them to do. Both Kalmunai and Sathurukondan and the areas around them have from that time sent hundreds of young recruits to the LTTE. Ten years later in, April 2000, the LTTE, much nourished by ten years of Tamil alienation, almost forced a demoralised Sri Lankan Army out of Jaffna. Here we have eloquent testimony to the consequences of an arrogant and cavalier approach to Human Rights.
It was evident that during the crisis of May 2000 there was hardly any politician, or officer in the field, who could give confidence to the men and revive the Army’s fortunes. Due to perhaps no fault of their own, the senior officers had been compromised by being seen to take orders from Deputy Defence Minister General Ratwatte. Senior officers who disagreed with him had left or been sidelined. It was for example reported (Island 31.10.1997) that Gen. Asoka Jayewardene was replaced as the commander of the northbound operation in the Vanni less than 48 hours after Minister Ratwatte visited the frontline troops. Gen. Weerasooriya was appointed in his place. The Government and Ratwatte were then keen on capturing the Kandy Road from Jaffna before the 50th anniversary of Independence due on 4th Feb.1998.
At this juncture events took a strange turn. Percy Fernando was killed at Elephant Pass upholding the highest traditions of a commanding officer in a situation where he had been let down by the military and political hierarchy above him. When the fall of Elephant Pass was imminent, the Army too seemed at the point of collapse. At this juncture, on 20th April, Major General Janaka Perera was placed in charge of operations in the North. This step was obviously taken reluctantly, since former army commander Rohan Daluwatte was by another subsequent order placed in a supervisory capacity above him and later again Perera was given complete control. Major General Sarath Fonseka was the other officer posted to Jaffna to work alongside Perera.
Janaka Perera was among the last of those remaining in the Army who were prominently associated with the circle around General Waidyaratne in anti-JVP operations in the late 1980s and in consequence attained some notoriety in human rights circles (see Sect.17.3 & 21.3.4). This had also brought them close to the Premadasa establishment. Janaka Perera raised the Special Forces Brigade and was placed in Batticaloa under Major General Algama about 1992-94. He took part in the operations which brought Jaffna under government control in 1995. In January 1997 he was sent abroad on scholarship, and thereafter was not given an active role in operations, although he became deputy chief-of-staff. This also helped him to look a fresh, untried option when the Army ran into crisis from November 1999.
With the qualification that soldiers are also favoured by chance, the right opportunity and appropriate back-up services, Janaka Perera had acquired a reputation as a thinking soldier who combined strategy with political acumen. The latter is witnessed by the manner in which he appealed to the people in Jaffna through the local media. As a strategist he has several times successfully lured the enemy into a vulnerable area and inflicted heavy casualties on them.
Thus, given the plight of the Army at that time, Janaka Perera found himself thrust from virtual retirement into becoming Sri Lanka’s final hope. Sarath Fonseka from being regarded a write-off in 1990, joined Janaka Perera in Jaffna. At this juncture they prevented the fall of Jaffna which earlier seemed foregone. It also confirmed that any residual prospect of the Kumaratunge government punishing officers responsible for gross violations had vanished. Two such officers had evidently become indispensable. The process by which this came about entails a heavy price to be borne by the country that is already manifest. However, it must be said that throughout the crisis the Army behaved reasonably well towards the civilians in Jaffna.
Following the crisis in Jaffna, sections of the elite who always opposed action being taken against service personnel guilty of violations, made a point of the turn of events. Had the government taken action on violations, they argued, the Tigers would have achieved Eelam. The error here is that a crisis (e.g. fall Elephant Pass) which occurred at a particular point of time is being isolated from the five year long process that led to it.
Janaka Perera became indispensable because of a crisis brought about by institutional stagnation, with the Deputy Defence Minister acting for many years as though he were indispensable. Meanwhile, others were happy to sit there and comply with his wishes while the country was sliding towards disaster. In a working professional system no one is indispensable. If someone is seen to be indispensable the system is in deep crisis. It is worth pointing out that the situation in May 2000 was substantially what it was in October 1995, when the Government was forced to take the whole of Jaffna to prevent the fall of its bases in Jaffna.
Censorship was then (in 1995) imposed on news coverage. Ministers spoke of putting the country on a war-footing (Sect. 21.3.3). The rhetoric was tinged with chauvinism and xenophobia and reports of Tamil civilian casualties were greeted with official hostility. Moreover, Anuraddha Ratwatte ceremonially played the feudal conqueror of Jaffna by presenting the President a scroll in a golden casket.
After four and a half years the country was again placed on a war-footing with similar results. It only reveals that between the crises the system had gone into hibernation. During this period, the LTTE was very clear about what it was doing. To take one example, in April 1999 the LTTE compelled school children 14 and above, their teachers and many others to begin self-defence training. A year later when it attacked Elephant Pass, it virtually closed the schools and forced the children, 14/15 and above, and all civilians from 16 to 45 years to take compulsory military training without a time limit (see our Bulletin No.23).
Far from pussyfooting or being confused between war and peace talks, the LTTE was very efficient in its diabolical scheming. The Government and the defence establishment have been too lazy or distracted even to understand the LTTE.
By mid-May 2000, civilian sources from Jaffna reported that the Army morale had improved and they were fighting back. At the end of May, Deputy Defence Minister Ratwatte went on television to claim that he had just returned after spending ten days in Jaffna and that the Army, which had been withdrawing when he went, was now advancing. He added that this happened after he sorted out the problems faced by frontline troops and counselled them. This was his first lengthy public appearance after he told Parliament six weeks earlier that the Army would never leave Elephant Pass and it fell the next day. The Minister never acknowledged responsibility for disasters. With a smug look of contentment General Ratwatte down-graded Janaka Perera and took credit for the hard work Perera and his officers had done. It was they who had turned round the Army’s morale during those several weeks when the international media were talking about finding ships to pull the Army out of Jaffna.
Where the people of Jaffna were concerned, in spite of a particular side of Janaka Perera’s record, they, and no doubt also the troops, felt relieved that he had been sent. On 23rd July, after nearly three months in Jaffna, Perera was taken out of Jaffna and was returned to his new substantive post of chief-of-staff. His post of Overall Operations Commander in the North was scrapped. There may be good reasons for it. However, the Minister’s conduct and its possible repercussions, raise disturbing questions about this episode. What was the Army Commander’s plight in all this?
*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