Monday, 24 June 2013

Gota survives blast at Mankulam

War on terror revisited : Part 148

Late Dec 2010 Saliyapura, Anuradhapura: Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa speaks with Gajaba Regiment soldiers wounded in action during Eelam War IV.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The then Major, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa of the First battalion of the Rajarata Rifles (I RR) in Southern India, was at the Staff College in Wellington in the Nilgris hills of Tamil Nadu when a section of the RR troops went on the rampage in Jaffna, following the killing of a colleague providing security to a polling booth at Kandaramadam, Jaffna, on the late afternoon of May 18, 1983.

At the time terrorists armed with small arms swooped down on the polling booth, it was almost time for the polling at the local government election to close.

Troops torched about 175 houses. They were also accused of killing one person and wounding scores of others.

Although the RR as well as some troops were involved in the incidents for some unforeseen reason, army headquarters squarely placed the blame on the RR commanded by the then Lt. Colonel K. M. S. Perera. Army headquarters went to the extent of sending Lt. Colonel Perera as well as the first Commanding Officer of the battalion, the then Colonel V. K. Nanayakkara, who had been away from operational areas, on compulsory leave. Nanayakkara was originally from the First battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (I SLLI).

Army headquarters dealt harshly with those officers and men of the RR who had strongly protested against the disciplinary action taken in the wake of the Jaffna violence. (At the behest of the Army chief, Lt. Gen. Tissa Weeratunga, the then Col. Cecil Waidyaratne dealt extremely harshly with the RR on the basis indiscipline among troops couldn’t be tolerated under any circumstances. Waidyaratne, too, had to quit the service over the humiliating battlefield defeat at Pooneryn in November 1993 during President D. B. Wijetunga’s tenure. But he was rewarded with a cushy diplomatic posting to Thailand).

Major Rajapaksa, who had been the second in command of the battalion at that time of the rampage, survived the purge as he was away in Wellington. As part of a vigorous retraining programme for the RR, the then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Tissa Weeratunga (Oct. 14, 1981-Feb 11, 1985), announced his intention to amalgamate the RR with the Vijayabahu Regiment (VR), to establish a new infantry formation. It had been a momentous decision taken at a crucial stage of the conflict, though Lt. Gen. Weeratunga wouldn’t have realised the significance of his move at that time. Although other senior officers would have influenced the decision, it was the army chief’s prerogative to decide on the fate of the formation.

Interestingly, both the RR and VR were raised in 1980 by Lt. Gen. Weeratunga’s predecessor, Lt. Gen. Dennis Perera (Oct. 14, 1977-Oct 13, 1981), in support of the then three infantry regiments, the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI), the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (SLSR) and the Gemunu Watch (GW). Of them, the First battalion of the GW was the youngest, as it was raised on Dec. 7, 1962. Lt. Gen. Perera’s decision meant that the SLA realized the urgent need to strengthen the fighting capacity to face the growing threat of terrorism years before the July 1983 killing of 13 soldiers at Tinnaveli, Jaffna.

The SLA raised I RR and I VR on Jan. 15, 1980 and Dec 1, 1980, respectively. Unfortunately both formations failed to live up to expectations.

Having disbanded the I RR and I VR, Lt. Gen. Weeratunga established the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR) on Oct. 14, 1983. Captain Rajapaksa was still away in Wellington.

Fortunately, the then Lt. Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne received the appointment as the Commanding Officer of the I GR. Until then, Wimalaratne had been the Commanding Officer of the I VR.

Explaining the circumstances leading to him being forced to join yet another unit, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said that having completed the one-year-long mid career course at Staff College in Wellington, he had returned to the country in Dec 1983. "I left Sri Lanka as an officer of the RR and returned as a member of the newly formed I GR. It was an unexpected development, though I liked serving in the new formation under Lt. Colonel Wimalaratne".

The RR and VR officers and men accepted the challenging task of turning the newly formed I GR into one of the foremost fighting units in the eelam conflict. At a time when the Indian sponsored terrorist groups spearheaded by the LTTE had the upper hand in the Jaffna theatre, the entry of I GR wouldn’t have made a significant impact on the battlefield, if not for Wimalaratne, who earned the respect of friends and foes alike.

The Defence Secretary said that during his stint with the RR, he got married to Ayoma. "In fact, I was the first as well as the only serving RR officer to get married. At that time, I held the rank of Captain. Our marriage took place in 1980 two years before I was selected to join the Staff College in Wellington for one year. "

Major Rajapaksa was away in Wellington when the LTTE wiped out a foot patrol on the night of July 23, 1983. Although it was standard for an officer to receive Grade II Staff Officer appointment immediately after his return from overseas Staff College, in Major Rajapaksa’s case, due to the deteriorating situation in the north, the then Lt. Colonel Wimalaratne called him to join the I GR deployed in the Jaffna peninsula.

Among the officers who had been to overseas Staff Colleges after Major Rajapaksa were former army chiefs, Lt. Commander Shantha Kottegoda and Gen. Sarath Fonseka. One-time head of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Chula Seneviratne was another. The SLSR veteran Fonseka was at the Staff College in Bangladesh.

Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said: "In Pakistan and India, Staff College experience is a must. Those wanting to hold higher positions need to gain such exposure. We are grateful to all those countries which accommodated our officers at their facilities at a time of crisis."

Commenting on Lt. Col. Dahanayake, who had facilitated his transfer from the Signals Corps to the SLSR at the onset of his military career, the Defence Secretary said that during an exercise carried out by the regiment one soldier had died of a heart attack. Unfortunately, various interested parties took advantage of the death to trigger a series of protests targeting Lt. Col. Dahanayake, the then Commanding Officer of the SLSR. Major Rajapaksa obtained a transfer to another unit in the wake of the change of command of the SLSR. The Defence Secretary said: "It was on the invitation of Lt. Col. V. K. Nanayakkara, who was tasked with raising the RR. Once the then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Tissa Weeratunga disbanded it to pave the way for the amalgamation of the RR and VR, I ended up as a Major in the I GR."

Unprecedented land survey

Having felt the need for tough action to neutralize the growing threat of terrorism, President JRJ directed the then Brigadier Bull Weeratunga to take tangible action. His mandate was to crush violent elements.

Brig. Weeratunga was sent to Jaffna four years before the killing of 13 soldiers at Tinnaveli which provoked massive attacks on Tamil civilians. Among those attached to Brig. Weeratunga’s staff were the then Majors Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Cecil Waidyaratne. President JRJ swiftly introduced the required legislation to introduce the Prevention of Terrorism (Special Provisions) Act No; 48 of 1979.

The Defence Secretary said: "Brig. Weeratunga was one of those officers who clearly understood the enormity of the threat faced by the country. The new Jaffna chief wanted to investigate all aspects including the banking sector which he quite rightly believed was part of the problem. He was seriously concerned about those causing mayhem in Jaffna as well as in the Vanni, receiving money. An influential section of the Tamil speaking public servants too, cooperated with them. As Brig. Weeratunga had been equally worried about the ongoing encroachment of state land, he set up a special team under the then Major V. K. Nanayakkara to examine all aspects of land grabbing. Thanks to Major Nanayakkara, I had the opportunity to join the land survey."

At the time, Captain Rajapaksa was still with the I SLSR and based at Diyatalawa. Both Major Nanayakkara and Captain Rajapaksa were stationed in Diyatalawa as instructors. The Defence Secretary said: "The team tasked with the investigating land encroachment included a senior official from the Land Commissioner’s office and a police officer. We carefully studied the situation on the ground. Having launched the investigation in Mannar, we gradually covered Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Badulla and prepared a comprehensive report. Although it was made available to the government, no remedial action was taken. The political leadership didn’t want to take action against those carrying out the organized land encroachment project. Attempts made by the LTTE to drive out Sinhalese from some strategic areas should be examined, taking into consideration the eelamists’ early attempt to establish a buffer zone to protect predominately Tamil areas in the northern and eastern districts."

The Defence Secretary said that the report submitted by the SLA should be lying somewhere. If it could be traced, the government would be in a position to reveal those involved in clandestine projects to boost the eelamists’ campaign for a separate state, he added.

Captain Rajapaksa shifted from the SLSR to VR soon after the conclusion of the land survey, along with the newly promoted Lt. Col. Nanayakkara. After serving the VR for over three and half years (Jan 1980 to Oct 1983), the then Major Rajapaksa ended up with I GR, which he served until his retirement in early 1991.

Gotabhaya escapes death

President JRJ’s government struggled to meet the growing threat of terrorism. For want of a cohesive plan, the political leadership as well as the military eternally couldn’t adopt a realistic strategy. They didn’t even have a mechanism to ensure proper training. In fact, even middle level officers, those who had been tasked with leading men into combat, were in the dark as regards the introduction of new weapons. An accidental blast which claimed the life of I GR Officer Malik Deen on the eve of Jan 1, 1985, a few days after he succeeded Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as the senior officer in charge of troops stationed at Mankulam revealed the pathetic state of affairs.

The Defence Secretary said: "The I GR troops were deployed in the Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni mainland during the late 1984-85 period. At that time, we still could use the Jaffna-Kandy A9 road northwards beyond Vavuniya, though terrorists operated on both sides of the road. Lt. Col. Wimalaratne was at Gurunagar in the Jaffna peninsula. I commanded troops deployed at Mankulam while Deen was at Elephant Pass. Then there was another detachment at Kokavil, which was also under me. The Mankulam police station was situated opposite my base. During that period, troops of a particular battalion used to rotate within the area of its deployment. That strategy was meant to help us familiarize ourselves with as many areas as possible. In late December 1984, the Officer in Charge of the Mankulam police station walked into my base carrying a hand grenade. It was called JR type grenade. The police officer wanted to know how to use it, which he said was something new introduced recently. As I was about to switch bases with Deen I instructed the police officer to get in touch with my successor here within the next few days. And l left for Elephant Pass. As I instructed, the police officer had visited Deen, who promptly called a Sergeant Major and directed him to explain the mechanism. In spite of the Sergeant Major being one of the most experienced men at that time, he hadn’t been aware of the mechanism, as for some reason the Defence Ministry issued the JR grenade to the police instead of the SLA. I didn’t know how to use the JR type, nor did Deen. Unlike the grenade available up to that time, the JR type was factory primed. The Sergeant Major mishandled the grenade causing a devastating blast inside Deen’s office killing the Commanding Officer, the Mankulam OIC and himself. I dispatched a team from Elephant Pass to Mankulam immediately after hearing about the blast. In fact, initially we didn’t know it was an accidental blast. As the incident occurred on the late evening of December 31, 1984, the family and friends of Deen started calling his office in the night wishing him a happy and prosperous new year, without knowing he was dead. Obviously, Deen hadn’t been bothered even to tell his family about him switching places with me. I couldn’t tell those calling Deen that he was dead. I had no option but to indicate that Deen couldn’t be contacted at that time. It was a horrible incident. Subsequently, Wimalaratne sent a team from Colombo to inform his family of the unfortunate incident. Deen was a famous ruggerite and had many friends. Among those who called him on that day was media personality Richard de Zoysa."