22 May, 2024


The Operation In Jaffna: July 1979; What Was Wrong?

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Law Enforcement and the Security Services: Politicisation and Demoralisation – 11

According to dissenting officers, if a proper ‘Appreciation of Situation’ had been done, it should have led to an integrated operation with a political solution to address the root cause. Military force should only be used economically so as not to alienate the people. The Army can in the short run restore a sense of order, but then the politicians have to do their bit.

Asked what he thought was most wrong with the operation, one officer said, “Soon after the operation started, two corpses of youth were found in Jaffna town. If you are going to tolerate or encourage that sort of thing, then things have gone badly wrong. All right, the Police may have done it. But I was co-ordinating officer during the 1971 insurgency and I know how these police fellows operate if you allow them. After all, the militant youth are also human. You must win them over and correct them or take them into custody. What the Army did in Jaffna was to terrorise the civilians.”

A younger officer reflected, “What the Government did wrong was to treat the militant youth as criminals. By acting against them as terrorists to be eliminated, they were cornered. There should have been a dialogue.” A dialogue about what? Lalith Athulathmudali, the main author of the 1978 constitution, was very clear about it when he told Mr. Nadarajah, the Jaffna DDC Chairman just before the July 1983 violence, that there would be no devolution. The only thing on offer was some money to put up a few structures. This was the bottom line, and so the Army had to be pushed to do the impossible.

A New Culture

General Denis Perera took over as army commander in 1977 after General Attygalle had held that position for 10 years. General Perera did some major re-organisation and it was one of the best periods in the Army in recent times. The Commander was viewed as an impartial and courteous man who did what was best for the institution and the men. With adverse political changes, the Tamils had been leaving the Army. General Perera took pains to ensure that the Tamils stayed and got what was their due according to merit. There is a reply from General Perera in the files of the Civil Rights Movement. This was regarding terms on which women were to be recruited into the Army. The Commander acknowledged the CRM’s concerns and promised to look into them. In the coming years any meeting ground between two such institutions ceased to exist.

Lalith AA good outgoing commander seeks to ensure that his successor is the best man, a man of character and moderation who commanded the respect of the men. Denis Perera duly recommended Justus Rodrigo whom he described as ‘a very straight man having the backing of the officers’. Denis Perera had an easy relationship with Jayewardene with whom he felt free to disagree. Here Jayewardene disagreed, and in a crucial manoeuvre after his own fashion, in October 1981, made Tissa Weeratunge army commander. From being a professional body, it changed the Army into an instrument of bludgeon, to deal with problems after the inclinations of the ruling clique. Two soldiers were killed in an ambush at KKS soon after Weeratunge became commander. These were the first army causalities.

With the accession of Weeratunge, there was a feeling that a clique around the new Army Commander had taken over. Partiality and manipulation appeared to be the new norm. The clique could roughly be identified with the officers handpicked by Weeratunge for his Jaffna operation. Some of them who became famous in later years were Denzil Kobbekaduwe, Cecil Waidyaratne, Lucky Algama and Ariyasinghe Ariyapperuma. Many of them would have become better officers had the country’s leadership set them a more benignant example and not placed the country on a malign political course. But here the Army was being moulded to take their cue from politicians who were driving the country and the Army towards ruin.

In dealing with the Tamil insurgency, Athulathmudali as national security minister kept on delivering homilies to the civilians that they would suffer unless they give information about the militants. Such remarks set the cue for the Army’s dealings with the people.

Weeratunge remained in charge into 1985 and the general trend was set by his handpicked men. Colonel Ariyapperuma who was Commander Operations in Colombo during the July 1983 violence was again a favourite of Weeratunge’s and failed miserably during that major crisis. Some saw it as a reflection of the political culture of the times. Choice arises out of need. One officer observed, “To do undisciplined things you select undisciplined people.”

Another officer was kinder to the individuals concerned. He felt it was not their fault, but they were just the wrong people on the job. He said, “Ariyapperuma and ‘Bull’ Weeratunge are of the same kind. They were no good in a crisis. I knew Ariyapperuma well. He was not anti-Tamil. They are types whose motto is, ‘Do not trouble trouble, until trouble troubles you’. Do you know how Ariyapperuma got killed in Jaffna? (19.11.84). He heard that there was a mine on the road, and he wanted to take a photograph of it. He was advised against going, but when he insisted, he was asked to wear his helmet and not to come back along the same route. He ignored both pieces of advice. The vehicle hit a mine, he was flung into the air and his head hit a metal bar overhead in the vehicle. That was the sort he was.”

Denzil Kobbekaduwe was a different sort. He became a favourite of politicians dealing with defence under Jayewardene, which was remarkable. He got into trouble with the UNP government of 1965-70 as a suspect in the 1966 attempted coup. His uncle Hector Kobbekaduwe was a leading SLFPer, and during Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government of 1970-77, he was associated with Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike’s security and with the Field Security Detachment under Anuruddha Ratwatte, which collected information about officers supportive of the opposition. This was understandable since in early 1962 an SLFP government was almost overthrown by a coup plotted by pro-UNP officers in the security services, most of whom were Christian.

The two coup attempts led to governments being cautious and trying to promote officers close to them. This resulted in some politicisation, but what happened during Weeratunge’s tenure as army commander was unprecedented. Kobbekaduwe was in a difficult position with the election of a UNP government in 1977. But he was more lucky than others because his father-in-law Kenneth Ratwatte was an influential UNPer. Also his wife and Weeratunge’s wife were first cousins. In time, he had the confidence of Jayewardene and Athulathmudali. Some of his junior officers who worked under him became devoted to him, but several of those about his seniority thought him overrated. They pointed out that he was influential with the Government, and other things being equal, he got preference over others in getting the men and materials he asked for. However, his position became more fluid under PremadasaWhere Tamil civilians are concerned, there are conflicting impressions about Kobbekaduwe. The mid-1987 Operation Liberation in Jaffna was headed by him. Of the 200 or so civilians killed, many were massacred by his troops after being apprehended in round ups. We had testimony from an assistant lecturer in Jaffna University that he and a few others were taken to meet Kobbekaduwe at Nelliady. They were, after the meeting, marched along the road towards Pt. Pedro and later the soldiers asked them to run and opened fire. Several were killed. Our informant survived with injuries. The experience of civilians when Kobbekaduwe took Jaffna’s offshore islands in August 1990 was the same. Up to 125 civilians were killed, many of them shot and thrown into wells after the Army had moved in (see out Special Report No.2).

Dr. Devanesan Nesiah who was GA, Jaffna, in the early 1980s found Kobbekaduwe one of the easiest officers to deal with. He found him easily accessible, and whenever he inquired from Kobbekaduwe about an arrest reported to him, he responded promptly, asked the parents to be sent to him and sometimes released even those who appeared to be involved. He did not delay or avoid an issue. Whenever he was told that his men were misbehaving or indulging in arson, he quickly went to the scene and brought the situation under control. He had very good control over his men. He was killed in 1992 in a blast on the eve of his launching an operation into Jaffna, leaving him an enigma both in life as in death (see Sect. 19.2).

Cecil Waidyaratne became army commander and resigned at the end of 1993 after a series of military failures. Allegations of corruption and kickbacks in purchases had become widespread over the years and the names of several service chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force had got dragged into these allegations. The names of Waidyaratne and Algama became prominent during the anti-JVP operations of the late 80s. One may suppose it to be the case of a state picking or moulding the talent to deal with the kind of problems arising in that state culture. The fallout from the 1979 Jaffna operation reverberated through events of the coming years.

Against the failure of the Army during the violence of July 1983, Justus Rodrigo, the man who should have been commander, after he left the Army, was GA in Gampaha. Unable to stand the indiscipline, he went out and got the Police to open fire on the rampaging mob. Several officers felt that had he been commander, it would have made all the difference. But Bradman Weerakoon, a member of the President’s staff, differed. He said, “The Army had been politicised over the years and it was not the same Army that dealt effectively with the communal violence of 1958. Even if the right orders were issued, they would not have been carried out down the line in the way they were intended. The difference would have been very marginal. Justus Rodrigo was a Christian, and so would have been relatively unaffected by the driving force of Sinhalese- Buddhist fervour. But the crucial thing is that there had been a change of culture. The older generation of officers who came from the British Army and the public school tradition could not stand a bully. If a mob was beating a person, they would have instinctively taken the victim’s side irrespective of who the victim was. Now it would first be a question of whether the victim was Sinhalese or Tamil and so on.”

Yet it could be argued that what the leadership of the Army regularly communicates to the officers and men down the line, and how it rewards and punishes them, matter a great deal in determining traditions and behaviour. It helps to bring a better type of officer into prominence. It did happen to some extent when the new PA government in 1994 took pains to inform the men repeatedly of norms to be observed when dealing with civilians. Is the deep sense of fairplay among ordinary people that could and ought to be appealed to, any inferior to old public school traditions?

What happened to the Army in the early 1980s did much to damage its traditions and left behind many divisions that were reflected in how General Kobbekaduwe’s death was received. Many officers took the straightforward view that it was an LTTE landmine blast, while his family and many among the ranks strongly suspected an inside job. It is a wonder that such an Army continued to fight a war at all, with the men unclear about whom and for what they were giving their life.

Under Weeratunge, it appears that those given responsible positions by Denis Perera suffered. About January 1983, the post of chief- of-staff became vacant. The next in line was Brigadier H.V. Athukorale who was Inspector General of Field Forces under Denis Perera. We learn that the vacancy was kept unfilled for 8 months. In September, Athukorale went to England to attend a meeting of the Amateur Athletic Federation. When he returned the post was filled with Mano Madawela who was junior to him by one rank. Having completed 4 years as brigadier, Athukorale left the Army at 53, 3 months later. In time, Weeratunge’s style led to bitter infighting among his own proteges.

In conniving with and encouraging this state of affairs in the Army, the level of politicisation was taken to new heights and the Army Commander lost his initiative. The command structure became confused as politicians started dealing with and giving instructions to their handpicked officers. The Army lacked the ability to put up a united front and resist these intrusions. In short, upholding the Law ceased to be, by far, the standard for the Army. The Army became absorbed into the group in power, and had to perform according to the caprices of the politicians of the hour. This was an unequalled disaster that befell the Army in the early 1980s. It lacked the ability to say what could be done, what cannot be done and what should prudently be avoided. Operationally, the Army was in the doldrums by the early 1990s.

*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

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Latest comments

  • 4

    Unlike these days the commissions that were setup to probe events actually worked and produced results.

    The Sansoni commision lays out the reasons for violence starting 1972 and reaching a peak in 1977. That was TULF backed assassinations, bank robberies and arson.

    Reading this article no one would know if such thing even existed. What these Tamil nincompoops should do it be honest with things for once. Dishonesty even with self tend to backfire often.

    • 4

      Why dont people READ before they comment?
      This was in the last instalment:

      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

      Isn’t this honest and open enough?

  • 1

    What is the need for publishing these articles other than confirming the corruption and nepotism prevalent in Srilanka which everybody in Srilanka is aware of ,What we need to do is to campaign to eliminate these basic evils through good and just governance

  • 4

    Vibushana,has had this habit of putting the cart before the horse!

    Anyway,I was told this story by one of my University friends from Jaffna.He had flown in from the UK in 1991 to attend his mothers funeral and perform the last rites being the only son the others being sisters. Not having any influence,he somehow or other met Brigadier Denzil Kobbekaduwa- A Gentleman-Officer,who listened to his story and permitted him to travel to Jaffna.This was at the height of high security arrangements then.Upon his return,after performing his duties as a son he met the Brigadier again to thank him.I SAY IF i cant do this why the bloody hell am I in the Army was his response.

    Denzil Kobbekaduwa was a true Gentleman-Officer.

  • 3

    another great army officer in the 1980s’s was Captain Jayantha Kotelawala in command at Jaffna Fort who was a gem of a man,later on there was brig Larry Wijeratne who was assassinated by the cowardly ltte

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