By Rajan Hoole –
A contemporary general had no doubt that the North was by far the priority. At the same time he felt that there should have been a clearly thought out strategy to block access to the East and prevent the LTTE from escaping from the North and regrouping in the East. This would have also entailed mustering adequate naval cover. He said that there was no such strategy in place.
We also mention here contemporary arguments in favour of ‘East First’. One was the political one that if the government forces firmly controlled the East, the LTTE would be denied any possibility of its separate state of Eelam and would be forced to negotiate. The other was that Eastern Tamils could then be weaned away from the LTTE, to bring about demoralisation among the LTTE’s Eastern cadre and deny the LTTE recruitment from the East. It is true that recruitment from the East fell during this period. The LTTE was forced to compensate by intensifying brainwashing and virtual press- ganging techniques to get school children from Jaffna into the fighting ranks (see the last chapter of our Report No.13 of 1994 and also Special Report No.6).
Premadasa too may have been happy not to bother the North unless the North bothered him. It was consistent with the deal he entered into with the LTTE in 1989, whom he very likely continued to have back-door contact with even after hostilities commenced (see Sect. 19.4). Thus, quite often, major operations in the North were viewed indifferently or even undermined. It is a fact that the political establishment allowed defence officials to fight each other for the good part of 1992 and ’93 without intervening decisively. One intervention was Premadasa’s removal of JOC (i.e. Wanasinghe’s) control over operations about April 1992, which was restored by him after 5 months. But Wanasinghe’s initiatives for operations in the North did not get far.
The East First policy also had glaring flaws that should then have been evident to military professionals and the Government and, certainly to the layman by 1995. If this policy were to be followed, the Government’s military and naval establishments in the North would have ceased to be viable. This realisation after the renewal of hostilities in 1995 shifted the military thrust to the North and forced the take- over of the Jaffna peninsula. Moreover, a policy of neglect leading to the abandoning of bases in the North was politically and militarily dangerous. The LTTE would have had a free run of the coast, enabling it to declare Eelam and build up further capacity to ‘liberate the East’.
In a system where a soldier needed political patrons to succeed, Waidyaratne had a card up his sleeve. He had cultivated Premadasa’s lieutenant, Minister Sirisena Cooray, who was the political co-ordinating authority with whom he worked closely when he headed Ops Combine to fight the JVP insurgency. It is understood that at the time Premadasa was killed, Cooray had already asked for an extension for Waidyaratne, against Cyril Ranatunge’s recommendation that he be retired. Waruna Karunatilleke records that upon Premadasa’s assassination, Waidyaratne was present for almost an entire week at the Presidential Secretariat, leaving important security operations in Colombo to the second- in-command. Wijetunge, the new president, granted Waidyaratne a year’s extension a week before the latter’s term expired on 16th May.
Waidyaratne appeared to have succeeded in getting an edge over the camp of his rivals. Gerry de Silva was to retire in December 1993, which meant that Waidyaratne’s protege, General Algama, would succeed him as army commander in May 1994. But it was a period of drift and infighting and things went wrong on the battlefield. President Wijetunge did not appoint a minister for defence and kept that place vacant. In July, Janakapura camp in Weli Oya was overrun by the LTTE. Under pressure to show some movement in the North, Waidyaratne launched ‘Operation Yarldevi’ from Elephant Pass in October, the purpose of which was to go to Kilaly and destroy the 1000 boats used by the LTTE to maintain transport between Jaffna and the Vanni mainland. The troops got there losing about 150 men, but the LTTE had moved most of the boats and all the engines away. The troops then withdrew. In November, the LTTE attacked Pooneryn camp, a part of which was overrun. Up to 700 soldiers and more than 400 LTTE cadre were killed. Although the losses had been exacerbated through a failure to heed the alert issued from Palaly and prepare the troops, Lt.Col. Ranjith Silva did regroup and hold out until relief troops arrived a few days later.
Waruna Karunatilake raises the point that Waidyaratne gave the rare honour of a battle- field promotion to Ranjith Silva although his overall performance left something to be desired. But no such recognition was given to Major (now Brigadier) Sanath Karunaratne for having successfully repulsed several LTTE attacks on the Elephant Pass camp over more than a month in July 1991. This was a time when everything appeared to go by favour. According to Karunatileke (Counterpoint, January 1994) Waidyaratne sat on promotions of many deserving officers because of his personal dislike for them. Under widespread criticism over a series of failures, Waidyaratne quit at the end of 1993. He pushed for General Algama, who was junior to General de Silva, to be his successor. But the Army was very badly in need of a change and President Wijetunge appointed General de Silva, who was otherwise due to retire, as Army Commander. de Silva’s even- handed approach brought much needed relief to the Army.
Looking back at this period in isolation places Waidyaratne in bad light. But a number of officers do not see it this way. Earlier Waidyaratne had seen himself as a victim. It finally goes back to the Jaffna operation of 1979, and a way of doing things under political patronage that became so pronounced after ‘Bull’ Weeratunge became army commander in 1981. Observers trace the rivalry between Waidyaratne and Kobbekaduwe, the former being senior, back to the time they were favourites of Weeratunge’s and were with him in the Jaffna operation. It is attributed partly to Weeratunge’s way of handling subordinates.
General Ranatunge who was brought out of retirement to head the JOC in 1985 was seen clearly favouring Kobbekaduwe as against Waidyaratne. This period culminated with the group close to Kobbekaduwe, which included Wijaya Wimalaratne and Gerry de Silva, being placed in charge of major operations in Jaffna and the capture of Vadamaratchy in June 1987. There was a feeling in some quarters of the Army that, his merits apart, using the war and his family connections, Kobbekaduwe was trying to get ahead of his seniors such as Waidyaratne. More than to the individuals, this state of affairs owed to the ambient political culture, which had with some delay been introduced into the Army as well.
Rules and gentlemanly restraints, which kept order in the institution, had broken down, and it became fair game to throw in everything to secure one’s advancement. Using caste, ethnicity, religion and family connections became all part of the game. People would differ as to the extent to which caste, religion etc. played their role, but one readily detects subtle operations of these in a context where non- partisan rules had ceased to apply. Waidyaratne only did those things he had learnt from his peers, which he also perceived as having been used against him. The Army was only reflecting the crisis in the Sri Lankan State. In the process, the system lost direction.
The decision-making structures inherited from the British colonial rulers who created Ceylon (Sri Lanka) had given way to something parochial. The minuted discussions and decisions of the highest councils come to mean very little. The real decisions are the orders whispered at private councils. Take for example a remarkable event. In early 1993, President Premadasa at a meeting of the Joint Operations Council approved a plan put forward by the Joint Operations Command headed by General Wanasinghe, to launch offensive operations from Vavuniya. A fighting division was set up under Brigadier Asoka Jayawardena. But this never took off, as most of the troops were moved to the East for General Algama to conduct very low intensity clearing operations in the interior of the Batticaloa District. But it was operations in the North that had been identified as the crucial need.
One would not be far wrong in suspecting that the rationale was a good deal about favourites and who was going to get credit. Wanasinghe’s plan was shelved, and when to save face the Army hurriedly launched an operation from Elephant Pass in October, it turned out to be of no value. The operations in the East too had no long term value, since in 1995 the new PA Government had to abandon the interior areas of Batticaloa District and move troops to Jaffna to face a threatening situation there.
We referred to a second point of view – that which guided our reporting over the years, namely how the Tamil people saw the Army and the security services during that period – the early 90s. Here the distinctions made in Colombo between moderates and hawks, and between gentlemen and cads had little or no meaning. Kobbekaduwe was in charge at Amparai when a battalion under him commanded by Colonel Sarath Fonseka committed terrible atrocities in Kalmunai, Akkaraipattu and the surrounding areas during June 1990. General Gerry de Silva who visited Eastern University refugee camp on 8th September 1990, arrogantly held that the 158 persons removed from there three days earlier in public view, and never seen again, were involved in terrorist activities. The very next day after his visit 184 civilians around Sathurukondan, near Batticaloa, including 68 children, were taken away by troops serving in General de Silva’s area under Brigadier A.M.U. Seneviratne. They were massacred and burnt (see our Report Nos. 7 and 8 and Special Report No. 12).
These are examples of how long-term goals were being sacrificed to an orgy of vindictiveness. Thus the distinctions between hawks, doves etc. talked about in Colombo are not to be discerned from the record in the North- East. At best, one could make out the term dove as pertaining to those who maintained that the Army’s role was not to find a military solution, but to weaken the LTTE and force them into talks. But in practice what even the doves (e.g. Ranatunge and Kobbekaduwe) achieved, by their conduct in the latter half of 1990, was in sharp contrast to their stated aims. They too weakened the Tamil people and correspondingly strengthened the LTTE, so that it saw no need to talk. The Army’s gravest blunder, which prolonged the war for many more years, was in the area of Human Rights.
The Press in Colombo has been largely impervious to the second point-of-view. Hence, the question has been seldom asked whether there a connection between the Army failing in its military tasks and the extent of its unlawful killings. The answer is surely that the correspondence is strong. Both stem from a breakdown of rational decision making structures controlling the actions of the Army. Instead, private councils and whispered orders became paramount. An order to massacre civilians or cause disappearances would not be found in the minutes of any meeting. One sees the relevance of former Army Commander Denis Perera’s words in recommending Justus Rodrigo to succeed him – “he was a very straight man”. Jayewardene for his own ends disregarded the advice, and at what cost? Rodrigo died in 1998, 17 years after he had left the Army. The large crowd of army and ex-army men who attended the funeral was symbolic of the high regard in which he was held.
*To be continued.. next week “Under the PA Government: 1994”
*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