By Rajan Hoole –
The Army was not used in combatting the Tamil insurgency until July 1979, following the passage of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Its manner of entry was most unpropitious, and set a precedent for the use of the security forces in what their actions rendered increasingly a ‘bloody impasse’. The President then bypassed the Army Commander, Maj. General Denis Perera, and gave a written brief to his kinsman Brigadier Tissa Weeratunga, ‘to wipe out terrorism in all its forms from the Jaffna District’ by the end of the year, placing at his disposal, ‘all the resources of the State’.
Another army officer, Maj. Gen. H.V. Athukorale, reflected later (Sunday Times, 10.9.95), “This period in Jaffna witnessed the climate being created for the launching of state terrorism… There were many things that were achieved in this ‘operation’. The Army was politicised and political commissars emerged. The Army Commander’s powers were usurped by those political commissars to carry out acts of state terrorism and torture against innocent civilians.”
Conscientious officers who had a high sense of civic responsibility and thought of the long- term interests of the Army were disturbed. Among them was Colonel Jayaratne, who was deeply upset and communicated this to the Army Commander. General Denis Perera, who had been bypassed in the whole affair sympathised with Jayaratne, and told him that if he was unhappy he should not stay there, and Jayaratne was removed from Jaffna. Jayaratne was an officer for whom his colleagues had the highest respect. What exactly was so wrong with the ‘operation’?
There was a law and order problem in the North. Banks were being robbed and policemen and so-called ‘traitors’ were being killed. But it had a political dimension in the grievances of the Tamil minority. Bank robberies and killings were not to the liking of the Tamil people. The people had shown their dislike of killing by a record attendance at the funeral of Alfred Duraiyappah, the murdered Jaffna Mayor. They showed their dislike of lawlessness by helping the Police give chase to Sivakumaran after a robbery, and apprehending him. But the sense of oppression led increasingly to admiration for the militant youth. Even if the people doubted the ‘Boys’ being freedom fighters, they were reluctant to regard them as criminals. They felt that the Government had no moral right to demand that the people betray them. Yet in those days, before July 1983, it was a manageable problem. It was not until 1985 that the security forces faced problems of mobility in Jaffna.
All officers we spoke to agreed that it was legitimate for the Government to order the Army in to combat a situation of that nature, but they also felt that the way it was done was all wrong. One senior officer described the correct procedure. First the President should apprise the Army Commander and call for a report. Then the Army Commander should summon the officers concerned for a conference on the ‘Appreciation of Situation’. The Army Commander must then submit a report on the options available, what can be done and what cannot be done. It is then that the President issues an order. In this case the President did not call for a report from the Army Commander, but rather bypassed him and issued a pompous order to a brigadier handpicked by him.
Thus Brigadier Tissa Weeratunge was sent to Jaffna with all the officers and resources he wanted. Rather than uphold civil authority, the Brigadier booted the Government Agent, Mr. Yogendra Duraisamy, the symbol of civil authority, out of ‘The Residency’ in Old Park and turned it into a torture chamber. For the first time, there was an official in Jaffna with an Air- Force helicopter at his disposal to move around the small peninsula. Those arrested before and released were asked to surrender. Many were arrested and tortured. A few were killed. At the end of six months Brigadier Weeratunge submitted a 70 page report to President Jayewardene claiming that he had rid the North of terrorism. The report was never shown to any others, not even to the Army Commander.
Following this, in 1980, Brigadier Athukorale who was Inspector General of Field Forces, a responsible gazetted position under the reorganisation of the Army effected by Denis Perera, was posted to Jaffna. He was not given any briefing by Weeratunge, as he was bound to do in writing about what he had done, what he had achieved and what could be done in the future. In place of the helicopter and several colonels and naval officers Weeratunge had in his personal staff, Athukorale was left with just one lieutenant. It was as though the party was over.
On looking back, many officers regard it as more an operation to display pomp around Brigadier Weeratunge and to boost his image, so as to make him the next army commander. Lawrie Fernando, A.B.R. David and Justus Rodrigo were other senior officers who were said to have notable leadership qualities.
To call the operation an image-boosting operation is just one side of it. There was also crude political calculation behind it. Jayewardene and the key ministers around him actually believed that the way to solve the Tamil problem, or any problem involving opposition for that matter, was to break a few heads. It was thus understandable that they would consciously promote officers in the Army who would do this for them. It was also to change the outlook of those, who would otherwise have been good officers.
*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