Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Eelam war I: The Wimalaratne factor

GR on transformation of SLA : Part 146

War veteran Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne (second from left) on the northern battlefield in he mid ‘80s

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The then Commanding Officer of the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (I GR) Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne, compelled a reluctant Sri Lankan Army (SLA) to change its response to separatist Tamil terrorism.

Wimalaratne had spearheaded the SLA's early efforts to prepare the SLA to face the challenging task of countering terrorism, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said on Sunday. In a wide ranging interview, Rajapaksa, formerly of the I GR, recollected the circumstances leading to the first big ground offensive codenamed Operation Liberation in late May 1987.

Had the JRJ government acted swiftly and decisively, thereby giving the much needed political leadership to the war effort, security forces could have gained the upper hand in the Jaffna peninsula, the main theatre of conflict, the Defence Secretary asserted, emphasising the importance of examining the four-year period beginning from 1984 leading to Operation Liberation.

The JRJ administration's failure to take tangible measures had contributed to the rapid deterioration of the security situation in the northern region, the Defence Secretary said. "Examination of political and military developments during the 1984-1987 period will help us comprehend the gradual rise of terrorism. Such a study is of pivotal importance to prevent a future conflict."

The Defence Secretary recollected what he called the great combination of Wimalaratne and the then Colonel/ Brigadier Denzil Kobbekaduwa, who guided the SLA during that period. They earned the love and admiration of the vast majority of officers and men alike and inspired confidence among troops that terrorism could be defeated. Although the then top political leadership was not convinced that it was an attainable goal, the Kobbekaduwa-Wimalaratne duo pursued their agenda. They relentlessly pushed for a large scale ground offensive in the Jaffna peninsula to eradicate terrorist groups. The war veterans were confident of an outright military victory, though some were skeptical of the SLA's ability to sustain an offensive during the first phase of the conflict (July 1983-June 1987). If not for Indian intervention after Operation Liberation had wrested control of Point Pedro, the SLA could have evicted the LTTE from Jaffna town. Thousands of lives, both civilian as well as military, could have been saved if Operation Liberation had been allowed to proceed. Unfortunately, India threw a lifeline to the LTTE at the expense of a friendly country, which didn't threaten its interests at all. "Had India allowed President JRJ to continue with Operation Liberation, we could have wiped out terrorism at that time. India went to the extent of forcing an accord on us and then ended up fighting its own creation," the Defence Secretary said.

A foolish move

The then Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne, Commanding Officer of the First Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (I GR) spearheaded efforts to change the mindset of both officers and men alike. His intervention made a great impact on the entire SLA, though he was only the CO of I GR. The then Major Gotabhaya Rajapaksa succeeded the celebrated Colonel in time for Operation Liberation, Sri Lanka's first brigade-level operation since the outbreak of major hostilities in July 1983. Rajapaksa believes that had Wimalaratne failed in his bid to transform the SLA during the early years of the conflict, the country would have faced a catastrophic situation. Wimalaratne's role in preparing the SLA for big battles could never be disputed or challenged, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa stressed. Wimalaratne's resolve to wipe out terrorism and his untiring efforts to prepare the SLA for major battles should be examined and recorded for posterity.
The Defence Secretary asserted that the government should never have sent thousands of Tamils from Colombo and its suburbs to Jaffna in the immediate aftermath of the July 1983 riots triggered by the killing of 13 soldiers in Jaffna. At that time, the first battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI), commanded by the then Major Upali Karunaratne had been deployed in the Jaffna peninsula. The Defence Secretary said: "Terrorists exploited the situation to the hilt. They recruited those arriving in Jaffna. Many ended up in training camps in India and returned months later combat ready. We struggled to contain terrorism. For want of political will as well as strategic military thinking, we experienced serious difficulties. We basically reacted to terrorist attacks, conducted limited operations and defended our bases. The enemy always had been free to take the initiative, until the launch of Operation Liberation in May 1987."

President JRJ declared a three month-long ceasefire on June 18, 1985 to facilitate direct negotiations between the government and the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and five terrorists groups; namely the LTTE, TELO, EPRLF, EROS (all members of Eelam National Liberation Front) and the PLOTE. Regardless of the ceasefire, violence continued unabated in the Jaffna peninsula. Two rounds of talks in the Bhutanese capital, Thimpu, in July and August, 1985, ended inconclusively. Although the government and terrorist groups extended the ceasefire for a further period with the setting up a joint truce monitoring mechanism, the negotiating process collapsed in Dec. 1985.

Terrorists in control

Commenting on the post-July 1983 period, the Defence Secretary said: "Even after the devastating attack on the SLA which claimed the lives of 13 personnel, political and military leaderships failed to take action. Although we stepped up operations and increased our presence in areas vulnerable to terrorist attacks, the enemy made headway. The infantry took turns in serving in the Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni mainland. Each battalion served there for a period of six months. Each infantry battalion comprised 1,000 or more soldiers. The 1 GR once had about 1,800 personnel under Lt. Colonel Wimalaratne's command. In the absence of an overall strategy, the deployment of the SLA in support of the police didn't have the desired impact.

After having served in the north for six months during late 1983-1984 period, the I GR returned to Saliyapura, Anuradhapura, before being redeployed in the Jaffna peninsula in 1985. Commanding Officer Wimalaratne pushed hard for a change in strategy. He wanted to go on the offensive as he quite rightly felt that the SLA couldn't sustain its presence in the Jaffna peninsula on the strength of defensive measures alone. By the then standards, we had a substantial deployment of troops at Palaly, Valvettiturai, Point Pedro, Kankesanthurai, Jaffna Fort, the Jaffna Telecommunication complex and Navatkuli."

With the LTTE emerging as the dominant group in the Jaffna peninsula, the SLA had to make a major effort to sustain its presence. By that time, the SLA had lost overland access among Jaffna bases. The Defence Secretary said: "Instead of fighting the LTTE, the SLA had to concentrate on providing supplies to bases under siege. As nothing could be moved overland, except for troops who could secure their supplies through the Kankesanthurai harbour, all others had to depend entirely on the SLAF. Evacuation of casualties had been nothing but a nightmare. The survival of wounded men in a camp situated in the midst of enemy-held territory entirely depended on the availability of helicopters. Those deployed in the Jaffna peninsula couldn't move 100 meters out of their bases. In fact, we couldn't move freely within our bases. Sometimes, we had to crawl. It was a pathetic situation."

The Defence Secretary recollected how I GR had had to fight its way into the Valvettiturai camp to carry out the routine change of troops. The enemy fired at boats carrying troops approaching Valvettiturai and also interfered with helicopter movements, the war veteran said. "If not for Wimalaratne, the situation would have further deteriorated. The LTTE could have comfortably achieved its military objectives due to the SLA's failure to change its approach. Wimalaratne pushed for an aggressive result-oriented strategy. The Kobbekaduwa-Wimalaratne combination made a significant impact. They continuously pushed for a major ground offensive, until President JRJ finally authorised the launch of Operation Liberation.

An inspiring Wimalaratne

The Defence Secretary quoted IGR Commanding Officer Lt. Col. Wimalaratne as having told those serving under his command: "We have no option but to expand our bases soon or face the consequences. Unless the SLA expands its bases as much as possible, we won't be able to sustain our presence. We gradually began to expand, in spite of fierce resistance offered by the LTTE. They mounted a number of major attacks at that time, though we remained committed to Wimalaratne's project."

The situation was so bad in the Jaffna peninsula that the SLAF couldn't land within the Jaffna Fort. The SLA had to secure a part of the Mandativu Island to ensure that SLAF choppers carrying supplies to Jaffna Fort could land safely. Even the evacuation of casualties, too, had been carried out from Mandativu. As the LTTE had the wherewithal to engage any Jaffna base, the SLA had its work cut out when Colombo-based senior military personnel visited the peninsula. The Defence Secretary recalled how the LTTE had fired a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG), at a bunker outside the Jaffna telecommunication, building killing a soldier while the then Joint Operations Commander, General Cyril Ranatunga was within the premises. The LTTE struck soon after General Ranatunga and the then Major Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had driven in an armoured personnel carrier (APC) from Mandativu Island across the Pannai causeway to the telecommunications building. Major Rajapaksa immediately removed General Ranatunga in an APC to Mandativu Island, where he boarded an SLAF chopper. When the JOC chief and Major Rajapaksa arrived in Point Pedro, the LTTE fired mortars forcing them to leave.

As the top brass realised the urgent need to expand wherever possible, the SLA expanded its presence beginning with the strategically located Point Pedro base. The Defence Secretary said: "We expanded our presence at Valvettiturai, Palaly as well as Thondamannar".

Commenting on the Herculean task of moving supplies from Palaly and Kankesanthurai to other bases situated in the peninsula during the deployment of I GR, the Defence Secretary said: "Once we made an attempt to streamline the distribution of supplies. Carrying out Colonel Wimalaratne's orders, troops based at Valvettiturai had to move overland in a convoy to collect their supplies. Due to the heavy LTTE presence in that particular sector, it turned out to be a major operation. Although we somehow managed to complete the movement on that day, the SLA didn't want to make a second attempt."

The Defence Secretary said that in spite of all those setbacks, Col. Wimalaratne had relentlessly pursued an action-oriented policy. The war veteran quoted his superior as having stressed many a time during their deployment in the Jaffna peninsula, the pivotal importance of troops moving out of their camps to prevent the LTTE from consolidating positions just outside SLA bases. "I GR chief demanded an immediate end to the appalling practice of sitting it out in camps until the completion of a six month long deployment. He influenced the top brass and did everything in his power to enhance the SLA's fighting capability."

During IGR's second tour of duty in the Jaffna peninsula, the then Brigadier H.F. Rupesinghe was the Jaffna Commander.

SLA heading for major operation

The unprecedented success in the expansion of Jaffna bases strengthened the hands of those who firmly believed that the LTTE could be militarily defeated. The Defence Secretary is of the opinion that the success of Jaffna operations proved that the SLA could fight. Having fought terrorists since 1983, the SLA gradually enhanced its capabilities to establish two brigades to execute Operation Liberation in May 1987. The then Brigadier, Kobbekaduwa and Col. Wimalaratne had the honour of leading the formations. With Wimalaratne taking up command at a higher level, Major Rajapaksa took over the celebrated I GR. The then junior officer Shavendra Silva, too, had been with the I GR and was seriously wounded in a grenade attack shortly before President JRJ was compelled to call off the offensive, due to Indian intervention (During the military operations between Sept. 2007 and May 2009, the then Brigadier/Major General Silva led the celebrated 58 Division which fought its way from northwestern coast to Nanthikadal).

The I GR was made a part of the Col. Wimalaratne's brigade with the First Battalion of the Gemunu Watch (I GW) being the other. Before discussing Operation Liberation any further, it would be pertinent to explain the circumstances under which the SLA prepared for the big battle. In fact, the SLA commenced training in the wake of President Zia-ul-Haq's visit to Colombo, during the second week of December 1985.

The SLA needed to rapidly train young personnel. Col. Wimalaratne launched a special project to train Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs). Due to Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq's direct intervention, the SLA had the advantage of training a large group of NCOs in batches under Pakistani instructors. The Pakistani leader went to the extent of sending the then Brigadier Tariq Mehmood of the elite Special Services Group (SCG) to arrange the training project at Saliyapura. The Defence Secretary said: "The Saliyapura project was undoubtedly the longest single mission undertaken before Operation Liberation. We are grateful to the government of Pakistan for coming to our help at a crucial period during the conflict. Without Pakistan's help, the SLA couldn't have achieved the required training needed for a large scale ground offensive at that time. Pakistan remained supportive of Sri Lanka's anti-terrorist efforts throughout the conflict, in spite of change of governments both in Islamabad and Colombo."

The Secretary said: "Brigadier Mehmood occasionally visited Saliyapura to ensure the smooth implementation of the project. Several hundred personnel received training in the run-up to Operation Liberation. The Brigadier was affectionately called TM. The legendary Pakistani died in an accident on May 29, 1989. "

On the eve of the launch of Operation Liberation on May 26, 1987, Brigadier Mehmood flew in to Palaly air base. The visit underscored Pakistan's friendship as well as its commitment to the country's defence.