Sunday, 30 June 2013

Ayoma wins the day

*War on terror revisited : Part 151

Lt. Col. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa taking over the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (I GR) from Gamini Angammana at Saliyapura, Anuradhapura, immediately after returning from Fort Benning, Georgia in 1989. From (L-R) Fazly Laphir (killed during an abortive rescue mission in July 1996 south of Mullaitivu), little Manoj (Lt. Col. Rajapaksa’s son), Ayoma, Jagath Alwis, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Gamini Angammana, Sumedha Perera and Lawrence Fernando waiting for the arrival of Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne, who raised the I GR during eelam war I (July 1983-June 1987).

by Shamindra Ferdinando

The then Lt. Col. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had been under heavy pressure from his wife, Ayoma to quit the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) for quite some time. With the war taking a turn for the worse with the departure of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in March 1990, Ayoma wanted to migrate to the United States, where her parents were living. In spite of Gotabhaya’s reluctance to leave the SLA, Ayoma relentlessly raised the issue with senior officers, particularly the then Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne, who was at that time in Colombo.

Ayoma, like the wives of many other officers had been quite adamant that Gotabhaya should leave the SLA to pursue some other career, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told The Island.

Ayoma had intensified her efforts to convince her soldier husband to leave the SLA following the outbreak of eelam war II in June 1990 with devastating attacks on the security forces. The SLA faced a heavy defeat in the Jaffna peninsula in the wake of the LTTE making significant battlefield gains within the first couple of months in the Jaffna and Vanni theatres.

SLA loses A-9

For want of experienced troops, the SLA had no option but to shift battle-hardened formations from district to district, to counter LTTE attacks as the enemy gradually consolidated its positions in the northern districts, both east and west of the Kandy-Jaffna A-9 road. The SLA fought a series of battles in different theatres. Although the SLA had managed in some instances to cause heavy losses, the LTTE still had the upper hand. The SLA had suffered a debilitating setback at the outbreak of fighting consequent to the 14-month long cessation of hostilities (May 1989-June 1990). Nothing could have been as worse as losing the overland main supply route to the Jaffna peninsula at a time additional troops were being deployed. The loss of the A-9 in June 1990 meant that all supplies to the Jaffna peninsula had to be airlifted or ferried by ship. The unprecedented loss of the overland main supply route was one of the worst debacles experienced by the SLA during Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe’s command (August 16, 1988-Nov. 15, 1991). Several attempts to restore the road failed with Jayasikuru (Victory assured) conducted during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s presidency being the costliest operation. The road remained in the hands of the LTTE until January 2009, when the SLA regained the road. Lt. Gen, Sarath Fonseka, one-time Commanding Officer of the First battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (SLSR), was in command of the SLA.

Gota moves to Summit flats

Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said: "The LTTE resumed hostilities during the second week of June 1990. During the latter part of 1990, we moved to married quarters at the Summit Flats. My apartment was situated opposite the residence of Brig. Wimalaratne. Our families were close. During that period, Wimalaratne was attached to the Joint Operations Command. He was one of the most influential officers whose opinion was taken seriously by those in power."

The Defence Secretary recollected the then State Minister for Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne angrily reacting to a brief front page news item published by The Sunday Island titled Lt. Col. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to retire. Minister Wijeratne had been furious as he felt Gotabhaya’s brother, SLFP Hambantota district MP, Mahinda Rajapaksa was responsible for the move. Minister Wijeratne had inquired from MP Rajapaksa why he wanted his brother to quit the SLA. Mahinda Rajapaksa had rejected Minister Wijeratne’s allegations, insisting that he wasn’t in anyway responsible for Gotabhaya’s decision.

Brig. Wimalaratne in bid to thwart Ayoma’s plans

The Defence Secretary said: "Later, I came to know that it was Brigadier Wimalaratne, who got The Sunday Island to publish the news item. Wimalaratne was reacting to my wife constantly requesting him to release me, as we wanted to migrate to the United States. The Brigadier probably felt that the news item would cause a major scene leading to government intervention to get me transferred to Colombo. At that time, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s battalion––The first battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR)––was deployed in the Weli Oya area. Both Minister Wijeratne and Brigadier Wimalaratne went out of their way to prevent me from leaving the SLA."

One day, Lt. Col. Rajapaksa received a call from Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe directing him to meet Minister Wijeratne, immediately. However, Rajapaksa pointed out that he couldn’t leave for Colombo immediately as his Area Commander, Brigadier Janaka Perera was away. The I GR commander asserted that he couldn’t take the risk of leaving Weli Oya in the absence of his superior officer. Having heard Lt. Col. Rajapaksa’s excuse for not responding to his summons, Minister Wijeratne decided to visit Weli Oya.

Ranjan flies to Weli Oya

The Defence Secretary said: "Suddenly, army headquarters alerted me to the arrival of Minister Wijeratne to Weli Oya. I was really surprised. Obviously, Minister Wijeratne felt that my brother was somehow responsible for my decision to quit the SLA. Minister Wijeratne flew into Weli Oya. The then Northern Commander, Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa accompanied Minister Wijeratne. Brigadier Janaka Perera, too, was present at the briefing given to Minister Wijeratne. Having had lunch, Minister Wijeratne wanted to speak to me privately. As he walked out of the premises, I followed him."

Defence Secretary Rajapaksa quoted Minister Wijeratne as having told him: "I know you are tired. You have been in the field for a long time. I’ll get the Army Commander to move you out of Weli Oya. Don’t worry, you’ll receive an appointment in Colombo."

In spite of Minister Wijeratne’s offer for a posting away from the operational area, Lt. Col. Rajapaksa said that he wanted to serve with his battalion, wherever it was deployed.

At the behest of Minister Wijeratne, army headquarters appointed Lt. Col. Rajapaksa as the Deputy Commandant of the Kotelawala Defence Academy (KDA), in late 1990.

Gotabhaya quits SLA

Lt. Col. Rajapaksa was at the Summit flats when he heard a massive blast. The Defence Secretary said: "The entire area shook. We felt the blast. Soon afterwards, I heard the target was Minister Wijeratne."

Minister Wijeratne was killed on the morning of March 2, 1991, along with six of his bodyguards. Shortly after Minister Wijeratne’s assassination, Lt. Col. Rajapaksa sent in his retirement papers. Army headquarters endorsed Lt. Col. Rajapaksa’s retirement. Much to Ayoma’s relief, Gotabhaya quit the SLA on November 1, 1991.

It was the writer who contributed that short piece to The Sunday Island on the basis of information provided by Brig. Wimalaratne. Obviously, it was a psychological operation initiated by Brigadier Wimalaratne to compel Lt. Col. Rajapaksa to remain with the SLA. Although Brigadier Wimalaratne had been successful in prompting Minister Wijeratne to intervene, his assassination changed the ground situation.

Minister Wijeratne would have been high on the LTTE hit list for being zealously prosecuting the war in spite of the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa indicating his desire to resume negotiations with the LTTE. Much to the disappointment of the military, President Premadasa appointed Dingiri Banda Wijetunga as the minister in charge of the defence portfolio.

Major drawback

The shortage of experienced battalions had been a major disadvantage experienced by the SLA during eelam war II. Had President JRJ gone ahead with a plan to train 200 officers and 2,000 men in Pakistan during the deployment of the IPKF in Sri Lanka (July 1987-March 1990), the SLA would have been in a better position to face the LTTE in June 1990. For want of a cohesive strategy, the government, as well as the military leadership, turned a blind eye to what was happening on the ground. President Premadasa absolutely neglected security. Having won the presidential and parliamentary elections in December 1988 and April 1989, respectively, President Premadasa went out of his way to appease the LTTE. President Premadasa was so naïve that he told the service commanders on more than one occasion that they would have to find some other enemy to fight, as the LTTE was in the process of joining the political mainstream. Much to the surprise of the military, President Premadasa ordered the then Elections Commissioner, Chandrananda de Silva to recognize the People’s Front of Liberation Tigers (PFLT) in early December 1989. The writer was among a group of journalists at a media briefing called by the LTTE in Colombo to announce Chandrananda de Silva’s decision. A beaming LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham, flanked by armed LTTE bodyguards, declared that Velupillai Prabhakaran wouldn’t lay down arms until President Premadasa took tangible measures to meet the aspirations of the Tamil speaking people.

Six months later, the LTTE declared war with a series of lightning operations in the Eastern Province.

Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said: "Many officers were disgruntled with the situation. Although we felt the then government was wrong and acting in a manner detrimental to the national interests, the security forces couldn’t intervene. The military was supposed to act on political directives. Although the LTTE was preparing for war, we did absolutely nothing to discourage them from resuming hostilities. Had we bolstered our military strength, it would have been a powerful deterrent. Unfortunately, the government weakened the military presence in the northern and eastern districts, instead of increasing the strength."

According to retired Brigadier Hiran Halangode, the total deployment of the SLA in the Eastern Province comprising the districts of Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee consisted of just three battalions plus a company of infantry, at the time eelam war II erupted. Halangode had been the Commanding Officer of the First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (IGW) deployed in the Batticaloa district. Halangode also had a section of the Sixth battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (6 SLLI) under his command. Although the government and army headquarters knew that the LTTE was preparing for an all out assault on government positions in the Batticaloa district, the SLA remained at only five bases. The LTTE was able to bring all five SLA bases under siege within hours after the declaration of the resumption of hostilities. The situation in all northern and eastern districts was the same. The entire deployment in the Jaffna peninsula comprised the Sixth battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (6 SLSR) and a company of Engineer troops. All bases in the Jaffna peninsula simultaneously came under siege immediately after the eruption of fighting. Perhaps no other army in the post World War II era had faced a similar situation. The then government and the military top brass had neglected security to such an extent during the July 1987-June 1990 period, that the SLA had perhaps five infantry battalions in the northern and eastern districts, at the time eelam war erupted on the night of June 10, 1990.