Shocking revelation of Army Commander agreeing with Minister that LTTE cannot be defeated
SPECIAL REPORT : Part 142
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Having perused retired Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne’s (KG) memoirs ‘Ranamaga Osse Nanthikadal’ (Road to Nanthikadal), the writer felt that the period, from early 80s to the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, on the night of Aug. 12, 2005), should be discussed before examining Eelam War IV (Aug. 2006-May 2009). Ranamaga Osse Nanthikadal is a must read for those appreciative of the armed forces triumph over the LTTE, in May, 2009, after battlefield gains, debacles amidst political and military miscalculations, and Norwegian intervention.
KG dealt with an incident at Nagarkovil, in Vadamamaratchy (Jaffna peninsula), soon after the signing of a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), in Feb. 2002, to underscore the growing threat, posed by the LTTE, in the wake of the then UNP-led United National Front (UNF) administration as well as the Army top brass bending backwards to appease terrorists. At the time of the Nagarkovil incident, KG had been the 55.1 Brigade Commander, an appointment he received before the CFA. Having taken over the Brigade, deployed along the northern front line, KG had seized an LTTE fortification, situated 200 meters, south of Nagarkovil junction. Soon after the signing of the CFA, the LTTE had demanded that the Army withdraw from that position to facilitate the Norwegian-led peace process.
Due to KG’s refusal to quit the forward position, the LTTE had sought Norwegian intervention to get rid of the Army point. Subsequently, the then powerful Minister Milinda Moragoda, accompanied by Army Commander Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, had visited KG’s Nagarkovil headquarters before proceeding to the Army point. KG explained that Moragoda, having praised the peace process called for the withdrawal of troops from the disputed territory. Moragoda explained the requirement, to compromise, to ensure the success of the peace process. When KG stressed that position couldn’t be vacated, under any circumstances, Moragoda bluntly declared the Army could never defeat the LTTE. KG quoted Moragoda as having told him that the Army could never win this war. Although, the Army had waged war for about 20 years, it couldn’t bring the war to a successful conclusion. As the Army couldn’t achieve success, in the future, the government was going ahead with negotiations. Therefore, quit the disputed territory to facilitate the peace process.
Much to the disappointment of KG, the Army Chief had endorsed Moragoda’s position. KG examined the stand taken by Moragoda and Balagalle on behalf of the political and military leaderships, respectively, to highlight the Army’s plight. KG described their disgracefully fearful response to terrorists with disgust. KG couldn’t stomach the commander of the Army meekly giving into Moragoda, who, at that time, wielded immense political clout. Moragoda had been a member of the then government’s four-member peace negotiating team tasked to engage in talks with the LTTE. The team comprised Prof. G.L. Peiris, Moragoda, SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem and career diplomat Bernard Goonetilleke, the first head of the Peace Secretariat.
A few weeks later, Army headquarters shifted KG, from Nagarkovil, to the Army Command and Staff College. Obviously, Balagalle felt that KG’s presence, at Nagarkovil, could undermine the ‘peace project’ and moved him out of the then temporarily-merged North-East province. KG declared that Balagalle’s endorsement of Moragoda’s assertion that the Army could never have finished off the LTTE caused him great pain and disappointment. According to KG, it had been the first such distasteful experience KG had been a Lt. Col at that time he took over the 55.1 Brigade, in the run-up to the CFA.
However, the war veteran hadn’t examined efforts made by the government to hinder reportage of incidents taking place in the Northern and Eastern areas in spite of the CFA. The government ordered the closure of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) operated Wanni Sevaya, meant for troops and police deployed in the Northern Province (Wanni Sevaya closed down, The Island April 7, 2002). The government ignored the Army’s call to restore the special SLBC radio (Military wants Wanni Sevaya restored, The Island April 19, 2002). The government also ordered the Army to stop releasing daily situation reports, pertaining to LTTE activity, to the media, while the LTTE prohibited the sale of the EPDP’s Thinamurasu, a weekly Tamil national newspaper (Incidents continue in east but no situation reports, The Island April 5, 2002) and (LTTE bans EPDP’s Thinamurasu The Island, April 5, 2002). Pressure was also brought on the writer to discontinue coverage, though a section of the military provided the required information.
Having studied KG’s thorough coverage of battlefield developments, including the fall of the isolated Mullaitivu Army base (July 1996), the disastrous Jayasikurui offensive (May 1997-Dec 1998), and the humiliating defeat at Elephant Pass (April 2000), the writer felt Moragoda shouldn’t be faulted for being so frank in his assessment of the Army’s capability. KG had painted an extremely bleak battlefield picture in the northern theatre of operations where the LTTE held the upper hand, especially in the wake of the Army giving up territory, brought under its control, both east and west of the Kandy Jaffna A9 road in 1997, 98 and ‘99.
KG dealt with Operation Riviresa, conducted in late 1995/96, during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s presidency, to regain the Jaffna peninsula. Having liberated the Jaffna peninsula, the Army experienced the Mullaitivu debacle, in July 1996, but regained Elephant Pass-Kilinochchi section of A9 road by Sept. 1996, before Mrs Kumaratunga initiated secret talks, in May, 1999, with the LTTE, through Norway. Five years later, Dr Rohan Gunaratne endorsed Moragoda’s view that the LTTE couldn’t be defeated. The writer had highlighted Dr Gunaratne’s assertion on a number of occasions, in the aftermath of him switching allegiance to the war-winning government. On March 22, 2007, online the Bloomberg news agency quoted Gunaratne as having said that Sri Lanka’s war couldn’t be won by either side. A story, captioned ‘Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger Rebels Fight a War That Can’t be Won,’ by Colombo-based Anusha Ondaatjie, quoted head of terrorism research at Singapore’s Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Gunaratna as having asserted: "Continuing the current spate of violence is not going to bring about a different outcome, or change the status quo. Both parties have developed significant support to be able to recover from losses, but this type of warfare is protracted." Gunaratna declared: "What is needed is a negotiated settlement to the conflict."
The website also quoted Gunaratna as having claimed: "The two parties have decided to fight each other", hence conveniently forgetting the circumstances leading to Eelam War IV, in Aug 2006. Gunaratne ignored that the LTTE forced the war on the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The government responded to the LTTE military challenge reluctantly, after making a desperate bid to revive the Norwegian initiative. Three months after Dr Gunaratne stressed the need for a negotiated settlement, the military liberated the entire Eastern Province.
Dr Gunaratne, another old boy of Ananda College had been among those who were invited by KG to address the gathering at the launch of Ranamaga Osse Nanthikadal and its English version, Road to Nanthikadal, at the Kularatne Hall of the College, early last month. Perhaps, KG hadn’tbeen aware of Dr Gunaratne’s previous assertion that the LTTE couldn’t be militarily defeated, hence the pivotal importance of pursuing negotiations, whatever the provocations.
The Norwegians, too, believed in the LTTE’s capability. According to Pawns of Peace (the evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka), the mediation team, headed by the then Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Store, involved in the Sri Lankan initiative, in May, 2007, asserted that all observers believed that the conflict couldn’t be won by military means, and the majority was of the opinion that the government wouldn’t be able to defeat the LTTE militarily. Norway launched Pawns of Peace, in Sept. 2011, at an event, with the participation of Moragoda, among others. Obviously, KG hadn’t examined Pawns of Peace, or one-time Indian Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit’s memoirs ‘Makers of India’s Foreign Policy’, launched in January, 2004, which dealt with Indian intervention leading to the destabilization of Sri Lanka. Dixit revealed New Delhi intervened, in Sri Lanka, due to then President JRJ’s relationship with the US, Pakistan and Israel. According to him, India also feared the emergence of separatism in Tamil Nadu, unless New Delhi intervened in Sri Lanka, on behalf of the Tamil speaking people.
Let me reproduce the relevant section verbatim from Pawns of Peace: "Strategic thinking thus tends to hinge on the premise that at some point, a new stalemate may emerge, either because the LTTE rolls back the front-line (as it did several times in the past), or resorts to guerrilla style tactics to avert defeat. In hindsight, Norway underestimated the GoSL’s strength, both militarily and politically. The team considered a wide range of likely and less likely scenarios, but (like most observers at the time), it did not reckon with the sequence of events that was to follow: a strong SLFP-led coalition and a military victory."
KG hadn’t made any reference to veteran Canada-based political and defence analyst, D.B.S. Jeyaraj Declaration, in late Dec. 2008, that the LTTE had the wherewithal to roll back the Army on the Vanni east front. In an article titled WAR IN WANNI: WHY THE TIGERS ARE DOWN BUT NOT OUT, Jeyaraj maintained the circumstances under which the LTTE could inflict massive defeat on the Army.
About 10 days after Jeyaraj’s prediction, the then Brigadier Shavendra Silva’s Task Force I /58 Division and Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias’s 57 Division captured Kilinochchi. The liberation of Kilinochchi, on January 1, 2009, effectively ended the possibility of an LTTE fight back. The capture of Kilinochchi and the A9 road, northwards up to Elephant Pass, sealed the fate of the LTTE, with several fighting formations rapidly surrounding LTTE units in the Vanni east.
KG had been the GoC of the 53 Division, on the Jaffna front-line, at the time the Army brought Kilinochchi under its control. The triumph over the LTTE, in Kilinochchi, in early, January, 2009, should be studied against the pathetic ground situation as explained by KG during three phases of the conflict. By the time, the UNP took over, the Norwegian led peace process (initiated by President Kumaratunga, in May, 1999) in the wake of Dec 5, 2001 parliamentary polls, the LTTE had been in a commanding position. KG had the knack to lucidly explain the situation with the focus on ground operations and related developments. There had never been a similar attempt by a senior Army officer who had been involved in all four phases of the Eelam War.
*KG dealt with the failure on the part of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) to provide required intelligence during Eelam War I, II III though the same Directorate subsequently earned the respect of the services. The war veteran asserted that the war could have been brought to a successful conclusion if the DMI managed to correctly assess Prabhakaran’s safe house.
*KG attributed Sri Lanka’s ultimate triumph, over terrorism, to LTTE overestimating its capabilities, underestimating the military, split caused by Karuna, as well as the transformation of the group from being guerrilla to a standing Army.
*However, KG’s assertion that the LTTE lacked political clout is essentially wrong. Although, the PFLT (People’s Front of Liberation Tigers) in spite of being recognized by the Election Secretariat, in Dec. 1989, at the behest of the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa, didn’t make headway, Prabhakaran found a willing political ally in the five-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Later, TULF leader V. Anandasangaree quit the unholy alliance though the grouping relentlessly pursued LTTE agenda, both here and abroad, until the very end, in May, 2009. The TNA remains committed to the LTTE separatist project. The passage of Resolution 30/1, on Oct 1, 2015, at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is evidence of the TNA’s successful campaign on the diplomatic front. TNA leader R. Sampanthan today holds the post of Opposition Leader in Parliament.
*KG exhaustively explained the sacrifices made by the Sinhala youth in the battle against terrorism.
*The writer wholeheartedly agrees with KG’s dismissal of widely held notion that they (soldiers) should be prepared to sacrifice their lives for the motherland. Instead they should survive to annihilate the enemy.
*Comparison of sacrifices made by the infantry with other fighting formations during the conflict.
*Gradual expansion of the Army, KG with Rajarata Rifles, its deployment in Jaffna during referendum in 80s, isolated terrorist attacks, troops on the rampage, withdrawal from Jaffna finally leading to disbanding of the proud infantry formation. Army headquarters amalgamated Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment with Rajarata Rifles to form Gajaba Regiment.
*KG had acknowledged that inexperienced Army had rampaged in Jaffna in the wake of losing a Rajarata Rifles soldier and he gleefully watched what was taking place.
Those who had bought fast selling Ranamaga Osse Nanthikadal expecting commentary on the largest ever combined security forces campaign conducted against the LTTE with the focus on the elite 53 Division commanded by KG, would have been surely disappointed. KG hadabsolutely no intention of shielding anyone in the military or a particular political party. KG had the courage to accept responsibility for shortcomings on his part at an early stage of his military career. The war veteran also dealt with widespread indiscipline among troops and the failure of the officers to ensure discipline during the early stage of the conflict. The Army had been woefully unprepared to fight an enemy trained in India by military instructors. The Army had initially suffered for want of required training, foreign expertise and equipment though quality of combat troops gradually improved in the run-up toOperation Liberation, in 1987.
*KG also dealt with an issue hitherto ignored by the military. KG admitted that the Army forcibly took over poultry, cattle and even goats for their consumption much to the heartburn of those who had been struggling to make ends meet. There had been officers and men who shared their meals with the poor in operational areas. However, regardless of the Army’s efforts to win over civilians, they essentially supported members of various Tamil terrorist groups.
=KG recollected 1 GR (First battalion, Gajaba Regiment) troops providing security to the then Opposition Leader A. Amirthalingam, in early Nov. 1984, when he travelled from Jaffna to Fort, in the Yaldevi. Amirthalingam had been on his way to attend the slain Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s funeral. Although KG’s task had been to protect the train from a possible terrorist attack, on the day Amirthalingam travelled in Yal Devi, KG’s primary task had been different. KG had to deny an opportunity to an irate soldier causing some harm to the veteran politician. Obviously, there had been a threat on Amirthalingam’s life due to his venomous attacks on the government and the Army. In spite of KG deploying a couple of trusted troops to thwart an untoward incident during the long journey, Amirthalingam lodged a complaint with Army headquarters against I GR troops. The LTTE assassinated Amirthalingam on the afternoon of July 13, 1989, in Colombo. The killing took place close on the heels of the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa entering into a dialogue with the LTTE. The President lacked the foresight to realize the LTTE strategy. Prabhakaran exploited President Premadasa’s weakness to get rid of the Indian Army, in March, 1990, to launch Eelam War IV. KG has expertly dealt with these developments.