Had the LTTE launched its offensive in mid 1989 instead of June 1990, the government wouldn’t have survived
War on terror revisited : Part 138
Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne, the founder of the Gajaba Regiment with the then Lieutenant Colonel Gotabhaya Rajapakshe (Center) and Colonel Premachandra, one-time Commanding Officer of Fifth battalion of GR
Fighting the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) boosted the LTTE’s morale. In fact, the majority of senior commanders had gained battlefield experience thanks to the IPKF. The LTTE, which had received military training courtesy Indian military instructors in early 80s caused immense losses on the IPKF, both in terms of men and material after the outbreak of fighting on Oct. 10, 1987. The LTTE also defeated the Tamil National Army (TNA) formed by the IPKF in late 1989 to prop up the then Chief Minister of the temporarily merged North –Eastern Province, Varatharaja Perumal. The LTTE had President Premadasa’s blessings to annihilate the TNA in a series of lightning operations which left hundreds of TNA cadres dead.In some instances, the Sri Lankan military actively supported the LTTE project during the latter part of 1989 and early 1990. The government and the military hierarchy realised their folly in June 1990. Fortunately, the LTTE, due to miscalculation on its part delayed the launch of Eelam war II until June 1990. Had it commenced the offensive at the height of the JVP terror campaign, the government wouldn’t have been able to fight on two fronts.
by Shamindra Ferdinando
The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) was fully involved in anti-JVP operations in support of the police from July 1987 to early 1990. Except for a few infantry battalions plus support elements, its total strength was deployed to quell the second JVP inspired insurgency.
In accordance with the Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA) the SLA was confined to barracks. The IPKF thwarted SLA attempts to reinforce its bases which were vulnerable to LTTE attacks.
The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) had been engaged in offensive military operations targeting the LTTE since Oct. 10, 1987.
In spite of the ILA, which prohibited the deployment of the SLA against the LTTE and other Tamil groups trained and armed by India, the recruitment of youth to the ranks of the armed forces continued. With the gradual build-up, the SLA by early 1988 consisted of about 30,000 personnel, though the actual fighting strength was very much less.
In early 1988, the SLA established two Divisions, with the then Army Commander Lt. General Nalin Seneviratne (Feb. 12, 1985 to Aug. 15, 1988) declaring that reorganization was an urgent necessity for better chain of command. Seneviratne asserted that the SLA could no longer delay the formation of Division due to rapid increase of its strength (Sri Lanka Army to be revamped with a strap line For a better chain of command––The Island March 13, 1988).
In accordance with the reorganization plan, the SLA upgraded the North Central Command headquartered at Anuradhapura to Division I headquarters. The then Colonel A. M. U. Seneviratne, who had been in command at Anuradhapura was succeeded by Maj. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe. Seneviratne remained at the Division II headquarters. Except for the SLA deployment in the Trincomalee district, all other troops stationed in the Northern and Eastern districts were placed under Division II.
Division I headquartered at Panagoda was responsible for the SLA deployment in support of the police battling the JVP. Having examined shortcomings in the overall security forces response to the JVP threat, the government towards the latter part of 1988 established ‘Operations Combine’ under the command of the then Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Cecil Waidyaratne. The then Military Secretary Brig. Lucky Wijeratne functioned as Waidyaratne’s deputy. ‘Operations Combine’ operated outside the normal chain of command with the then State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne personally in charge of the operation. Those spearheading operations had the authority to conduct raids in any part of the country without having to alert coordinating officers responsible for respective districts. Interestingly, the government included a police element in ‘Operations Combine’ with DIG A. S. Seneviratne, in charge of Colombo at the helm. The writer had the opportunity to report on the dispersing of ‘Operations Combine’ at the BMICH on March 3, 1989, with Maj. Gen. Waidyaratne proudly declaring that it had taken only months to break the backbone of the JVP (Ranjan Wijeratne thanks ‘Operations Combine’ for wiping out subversive movement –The Island March 4, 1990)
At the inauguration of the Sixth battalion of the GR several weeks before outbreak of eelam war II on June 10, 1990. Second from left Major Tissa Jayawardena (CO/6 GR), Captain N. Senadeera, Major Neil Dias ( Second-in-Command 6 GR)
The ‘Operations Combine’ functioned well under Waidyaratne’s command though a section of the military despised some of its tactics. At the onset of anti-insurgency project undertaken by the ‘Operations Combine’ the command of the SLA changed with Hamilton Wanasinghe succeeding Lt. Gen. Nalin Seneviratne on August 15, 1988. The then Major General Mike Silva, in spite of being the Chief of Staff during Lt. Gen. Seneviratne’s tenure as the commander was overlooked.
Two weeks before the change of SLA command, the then General Officer Commanding (JOC) of the Joint Operations Command (JOC) General Cyril Ranatunga retired paving the way for retired SLAF Chief Air vice Marshal Walter Fernando to take over the JOC. Still, the top priority remained the quelling of the JVP insurrection with the focus on districts outside the temporarily merged North-East Province, where the JVP was causing mayhem. Although a section of the military establishment remained seriously concerned about the Tamil terrorist groups, the political leadership ignored the threat. The military neglected training troops to face any eventuality. In the northern and eastern districts, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula, the military lost ground due to the IPKF taking over major sections of their bases.
Having entered into a direct round of negotiations with the LTTE in May 1989, President Ranasinghe Premadasa ordered the SLA to strictly observe ceasefire regardless of provocations. He immediately after having won December 1988 presidential election, ordered the release of nearly 2,000 JVP suspects. Their release resulted in immediate increase in attacks. An angry President directed State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne to go all out against the JVP. As mentioned before, the establishment of the ‘Operations Combine’ headed by Maj. Gen. Cecil Waidyaratne took place a few months after the JVP spurned President Premadasa’s peace offer.
Army Chief Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe ordered change of command in operational areas on May 15, 1989, with Brigadier J. R. S. de Silva of the Engineers Regiment placed in charge of troops deployed in the northern and eastern districts. Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne, the Principal Staff Officer of the Operational Headquarters of the Defence Ministry was named the senior officer responsible for North Central and Central Provinces. The remaining provinces came under Army Chief of Staff Major General Cecil Waidyaratne (Changes in army from tomorrow––The Island May 14, 1989).
In spite of the change of command, the government continued to neglect urgent requirements of security forces. President Premadasa went to the extent of declaring after a meeting at Sucharitha attended by service commanders and LTTE representatives led by their theoretician, Anton Balasingham that security forces would now have to find a new enemy to fight. President Premadasa had been confident of a negotiated settlement, whereas a section of the military felt resumption of hostilities was inevitable. Unfortunately, no one dared advise President Premadasa against arming and financing the LTTE during direct negotiations (May 1989 to June 1990) though some of those who were close to him are critical of his actions today.
Former UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, MP, insisted that his father had been genuine in his efforts to reach a negotiated settlement with the LTTE. Having realized that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had been trying to take advantage of the situation, President Premadasa sought to cause a split in the organization by strengthening LTTE deputy Gopalsamy Mahendraraja alias Mahattaya, who had been a member of the outfit’s negotiating team, MP Premadasa told the writer. Had President Premadasa succeeded, the LTTE would have had experienced a debilitating setback at that time and the ground situation conducive for a devastating counter attack in case the LTTE resumed hostilities. Unfortunately, the plan went awry as Prabhakaran executed Mahattaya and his loyalists.
Amidst negotiations between President Premadasa and the LTTE, the JVP stepped up attacks on security forces and the police. A wave of attacks on off-duty personnel in early 1989 sent shock waves through the military, with the JVP warning security forces and police to resign or face the consequences. The JVP also targeted family members of serving security forces and police personnel. But, some felt that it had been part of a despicable strategy aimed at compelling security forces and the police to go the whole hog and finish off the JVP.
Some senior officers incurred the wrath of the political leadership for failing to carry out illegal orders. In some instances, the SLA declined to take such orders from politicians. A case in point was the shifting of the First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (I GW) commanded by the then Lieutenant Colonel Hiran Halangode, which had been deployed in the districts of Moneragala, Ampara and Batticaloa. State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne directed Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe to remove I GW from Moneragala as it hadn’t been able to produce the desired results. Lt. Col. Halangode’s formation served in Ampara for 10 months before being deployed in the Batticaloa District on May 18, 1990. Alongside the I GW, the SLA deployed the newly raised Sixth battalion of Sri Lanka Light Infantry (6 SLLI). The Infantry battalions had been badly handicapped as they were compelled to transfer one rifle company and composite platoons to the newly raised Infantry battalions in late May 1990.
Newly raised battalions had to face fire as soon as fighting erupted during the second week of June 1990. The expansion had been in accordance with normal expansion though some felt the SLA was preparing for any eventuality. The SLA raised the Sixth battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (6 GR) in Vavuniya on the morning of May 17, 1990. The 6 GR consisted of elements from I GR, 3 GR as well as 4 GR, three of the SLA’s foremost fighting formations. It was part of the ongoing gradual expansion of the SLA. By the time Eelam war II erupted, the 6GR had been deployed in Vavuniya, the scene of many terrorist attacks. Likewise, the formation of new battalions continued, though it was never meant to destabilise President Premadasa’s peace bid. The infantry consisted of Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI), the Sinha Regiment (SR), the Gemunu Watch ( GW), the Gajaba Regiment (GR) and the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR). The infantry lacked the required strength to neutralize the LTTE threat at an early stage of eelam war II. The situation would have been much worse had security forces and the police failed to eradicate the JVP by early 1990. By late Feb. 1990, the top JVP leadership except for the present leader Somawansa Amarasinghe had been eliminated. Amarasinghe, too, would have met the same fate if not for the help he received from a section of the government at that time to escape to India, where Indian authorities looked after him before facilitating his migration to the UK. Had President Premadasa’s government forced to fight on two fronts, it would have most probably collapsed as it obviously lacked the wherewithal to engage the LTTE and the JVP at the same time. In hindsight, the LTTE could have achieved its military objectives had it launched Eelam war II at the height of the JVP insurgency. The then Brigadier A. M. U. Seneviratne, who had been Security Forces Commander, South at the time fighting erupted acknowledged that fighting on two fronts simultaneously would have been impossible. Seneviratne, based in Galle was directed to lead one column of troops to rescue troops under siege in Batticaloa. Overnight, the SLA shifted battalions deployed against the JVP to the northern and eastern districts. Those at training centres, too, were unceremoniously rushed to the battle front to meet urgent requirement for additional muscle. The Fifth battalion of the Gemunu Watch (5 GW) was deployed in the districts of Galle and Kalutara at the time fighting erupted. It was immediately dispatched in support of troops deployed in Trincomalee before being shifted to Palaly. Within days after the outbreak of hostilities, the SLA hardly had any reserves in the south. By the time, Maj. Gene. Denzil Kobbekaduwa replaced Maj. Gen. J. R. S. de Silva as the GoC of the Anuradhapura based Division II on July 11, 1990, the entire fighting strength was deployed against the LTTE. In spite of that the SLA couldn’t consolidate its position as the LTTE sustained the momentum of its offensive. Within 72 hours after the change of northern command, the LTTE overran isolated Kokavil detachment on the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road, north of Vavuniya. During the last week of July 1990, the SLA abandoned Kilinochchi. In late November 1990, the SLA quit Mankulam hence leaving the A9 road north of Vavuniya right up to Elephant Pass in the hands of the LTTE. Although SLA bases at Mullaitivu and Silavathurai managed to repulse major attacks in August 1990 and March 1991, respectively, thanks to the timely intervention of combined reinforcements, the government couldn’t regain the initiative. The LTTE remained fully focused on offensive operations on multiple fronts, while the SLA struggled to prevent Jaffna peninsula being isolated. Had that happened, the LTTE would have emerged invincible.