Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Mullaitivu debacle



Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at

the recent launch of retired Maj. General

Kamal Gunaratne’s Rana Maga Osse

Nanthikadal at the Kularatne hall, Ananda

College. Gunaratne is seated next to former

President Rajapaksa. Mrs Chitrani

Gunaratne is seated next to KG. Wartime

General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 57

Division retired Maj. General Jagath Dias

is seated in the second row. Sri Lanka’s

former Ambassador in Geneva and veteran

political analyst Dr Dayan Jayatilleka and Sanja de Silva Jayatilleka are also seated in the second row. Both Gunaratne and Dias served in the celebrated Gajaba Regiment.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Retired Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne (KG) in his memoirs, Rana Maga Osse Nanthikadal (Road to Nanthikadal), described the July 1996 Mullaitivu debacle as the worst defeat experienced by the Army, during the conflict.

KG launched the book on September 6, 2016, the day he retired after serving the Army for three and half decades. At the time, the war ended in May 2009, KG had been the General Officer Commanding the elite 53 Division, credited with killing LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

The Island already dealt with KG’s memoirs, on Oct 5, and Oct 12, 2016. The following is the third piece, with the focus on the Mullaitivu debacle.

Having faulted the then political leadership, for maintaining the isolated Mullaitivu base, in spite of it being absolutely of no assistance to the overall military deployment, in the Northern Province, KG discussed, in detail, the swift collapse of the coastal Brigade. The Mullaitivu deployment comprised 9 battalion of the Sinha Regiment (9SR) and 6 battalion of the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (6 VIR). There had been a small naval contingent, consisting of about 40 personnel. Except for those who had been on leave, the rest died in the hands of the LTTE.

The situation, at the base, had been so bad, in the run-up to the July 18, 1996 LTTE assault, KG described Mullaitivu Brigade as an open air prison camp. In the absence of overland supply route, over 1,200 personnel, deployed there, had to be supplied by sea and air. The Navy and the Air Force had been struggling to move supplies to the useless base throughout its existence.

Recollecting him being trapped, in Mankulam, in 1990, at the onset of the Eelam War II, the author compared the Army thwarting a large scale LTTE assault on Mullaitivu at that time and the pathetic failure to defend the same base, six years later.

KG squarely blamed the then Mullaitivu Brigade Commander of the Gajaba Regiment (an officer holding the rank of Colonel) and the Commanding Officer of the 9, SR for the humiliating defeat. An irate KG explained the circumstances under which the duo had left the base, on the day before the assault, in contravention of specific Army headquarters directives, leaving an inexperienced Major T. R. Aliba (6 VIR) to face the multi-pronged assault.

For want of proper supervision, and counter measures, in case of a large scale attack, the LTTE had been able to overwhelm the base, within 24 hours. KG castigated the then top Army leadership for foolishly believing that Mullaitivu could be saved by minefield, put in place, before the Gajaba officer assumed command of the 25 Brigade at Mullaitivu. KG talked contemptuously of the Brigadier who had also commanded the Brigade, involved in Operation Riviresa I, to liberate Jaffna town. KG discussed how the Brigadier had been unceremoniously shifted from Operation Riviresa before the conclusion of Riviresa I.

Only several dozens of personnel survived the LTTE assault on Mullaitivu

KG’s account on Mullaitivu debacle revealed that there hadn’t been supervision at all, at any level, until the LTTE struck. The war veteran pointed out the folly in positioning two 122 mm artillery pieces, four 120 mm mortars and 15, 81 mm mortars at one position. There had been an attack from the direction of the Nanthikadal lagoon leading to collapse of the defences on the Western side. The Chapter on Mullaitivu discussed the heroic efforts made by air borne Special Forces troops, the Army leadership, sending back the Brigadier and Major, who left the Mullaitivu base, on the day before the attack, and them leaving the battlefield in the first available helicopter, claiming they too received injuries in an attack mistakenly directed by the Air Force. According to KG, an Italian built Sia Marchettis had attacked Special Forces troops on the ground, killing 17 and wounding scores of others. The Brigadier and the Major had taken advantage of the Sia Marchettis attack, carried out around 4.30 pm, on July 18, 1996, to get themselves evacuated.

While exposing cowards, KG named those who gave leadership to reinforcements at the risk of the lives. KG recollected the courageous leadership given by Lt. Colonel Fazly Laphir, the Commanding Officer of the I Special Forces Regiment killed in the abortive mission. KG also referred to the leadership given by Major Jayantha Ratnayake as well as Lieutenant Colonel Raj Wijesiri also of the Special Forces. The latter had been the Commanding Officer of the Second Special Force Regiment.

Reinforcements withdrew under heavy fire on July 25, 1996. Having mounted the assault at 1.20 am, the LTTE overwhelmed the base within hours and by the time first reinforcements landed on the late afternoon of July 18, 1996, the base had fallen and the enemy seized all long range weapons.

Anyone wanting to know the gradual development of the war-winning Army should definitely read KG’s memoirs. The author had fearlessly acknowledged faults on the part of the Army leadership, as well as senior command and control structure, as they battled the LTTE. There had never been a better account of the humiliating Mullaitivu defeat.

It would be pertinent to examine the battlefield situation in the run up to the Mullaitivu debacle. The Mullaitivu defences collapsed in spite of being manned by two regular battalions, backed by artillery, and mortars. Fortunately, for the Army, there hadn’t been any armoured fighting vehicles deployed at the ill-fated base. The Army suffered the Mullaitivu debacle during the then Lt. Gen. Rohan de S. Daluwatte’s tenure as the Commander of the Army (May 1, 1996 to Dec 15, 1998). Lt. Gen. Daluwatte had obviously felt relatively comfortable that the LTTE lacked the wherewithal to launch a large scale operation. The Army

liberated the Jaffna peninsula during Lt. Gen. Gerry De Silva’s tenure (January 1, 1994 to April 30, 1996) as the Commander of the Army. Having liberated the entire Jaffna peninsula, in 95/96, the Army leadership explored ways and means of restoring the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road.

In late June/July 1996, Lt. Gen. Daluwatte ordered a sizable ground offensive, north of Trincomalee. Government censored print and electronic media reports pertaining to the security situation. All reports had to be faxed to the Government Information Department before they could be published. Those at the Government Information Department went out of their way to prevent the public from knowing the truth. They deleted entire paragraphs, names, battalions and any specific reference to losses suffered by the military. In the absence of internet, Mrs. Kumaratunga’s government had been largely successful in depriving the public of their right to know. The government operated on the premise as long as the people could be kept in the dark actual battlefield situation is irrelevant. However, the LTTE almost, on a daily basis, issued situation reports from its International Secretariat, situated in the UK.

In mid-July, 1996, the LTTE mounted an attack on troops deployed in Sarasalai, south in Tennamaratchchy, killing 13 personnel. Although, the Army acknowledged 13 deaths, the actual loss of life could be much higher. It was the biggest attack, on the Army, in the Jaffna peninsula, since the recapture of Jaffna town.

Also in July, 1996, the LTTE killed Jaffna town commander Brig. Ananda Hamangoda. Obviously, the stepped up activity in Jaffna was meant to deceive the Army.

The LTTE seized control of Mullaitivu even before first hell-borne Special Forces landed a couple of km, south of Mullaitivu, on the evening of July 18, 1996.

The then Military Spokesman Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe, as well as the de facto Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte, continued to insist the base could be saved even 48 hours after the LTTE seized control of it. The then main Opposition, the UNP exploited the crisis on the northern front to its advantage. By then, the UNP had conveniently forgotten the worst defeat experienced by the Army, in early November, 1993, at the tail end of the UNP administration. The LTTE overran a large section of the Pooneryn-Nagathevanthurai security complex on the Vanni mainland killing several hundred Army and Navy personnel. The then Army Commander Lt. Gen Cecil Waidyaratne resigned from his post, on Dec 31, 93, having taken responsibility for the defeat. However, the then Maj. Gen. Rohan de S. Daluwatte, who had been the Northern Commander, at the time of the Mullaitivu debacle, survived to become the Commander of the Army on May 1, 1996. Daluwatte survived even after the demeaning Mullaitivu defeat. Mrs Kumaratunga promoted him to the rank of Gen and placed in charge of the Chief of Defence Staff. Her successor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, rewarded him with a diplomatic posting.

Daluwatte (May 1, 1996 to Dec 15, 1998) was seen seated alongside Gen. Gerry Silva (January 1, 1994 to April 30, 1996) and Gen Srilal Weerasuriya (Commander of the Army Dec 16, 1998 to Aug 20, 2000) at the launch of Ranamaga Osse Nanthikadal at the Kularatne hall, Ananda college, on Sept 6, 2016.

KG briefly dealt with despicable LTTE attempts to sabotage essential food supplies to the Jaffna peninsula. Subsequently, KG discussed the transfer of his battalion from the Jaffna peninsula to Sittandy in the Batticaloa District in late 1996. Identifying the then Batticaloa Brigade Commander as a person who had entered politics after retirement, the war veteran revealed severe difficulties experienced by battalion commanders due to the Brigade Commander demanding fish and wild meat free of charge. KG unmercifully explained the Commanding Officers of volunteer battalions deployed under the purview of the Batticaloa Brigade having to provide wild meat and fish. KG refrained from mentioning the name of the Brigade Commander. The Gajaba veteran discussed the difficulties he had to face in the wake of his refusal to provide wild meat and fish at the expense of his troops. KG’s 6 GR had been the only regular battalion deployed at Sittandy (battalion headquarters), Kaluwankerni, Mawedivembu and Vavnathivu. The KG’s account on Batticaloa Brigade Commander is evidence that those who had served the Army suffered at the hands of their own officers. Revelation of the Brigade Commander refusing to call for a helicopter to evacuate two of KG’s soldiers in the night due to the recurring enmity between the two, highlighted the crisis on the front.

KG recalled the efforts made by his 6GR with the support of the Special Forces to suppress LTTE in the Batticaloa district.

The former 6 GR battalion commander also discussed his troops under the then Captain Sudath Dabare’s command fighting ferociously in the face of an LTTE attack, on Vavnathivu detachment, in early March, 1997, and 6 GR troops vacating Mawediwembu, subsequently and the reaction of the Batticaloa Brigade Commander to expose those who had swiftly claimed credit for victories while holding junior officers responsible in case of defeat. According to KG, the Brigade Commander referring to the fight put up by the Army at Vavnathivu had declared that his (Brigade Commander’s) boys taught a good lesson to Karuna’s buggers (one-time SLFP Vice President and Minister). Referring to the 6 GR vacating Mawediwembu detachment, the Brigade Commander had declared Kamal Gunaratne’s buggers didn’t give a good fight.

KG received a transfer to Joint Operations Headquarters, Colombo, in April 1997. The then Major Chagi Gallage succeeded KG as 6 GR battalion commander. Gallage played a significant role in the Army over the years leading to Sri Lanka’s triumph over terrorism in May 2009. Gallage, now a Major General, functions as Director General, Infantry.

The author castigated the Army leadership for setting up a special fighting formation to neutralize the growing threat posed by the Sea Tigers. The war veteran described the swift collapse of the foolish project in the wake of the Sea Tigers killing five Special Forces personnel and wounding five more in an attack, off Pulmoddai, in early September, 1997.

KG discussed the growing difficulties experienced by the Navy in ensuring supplies to the Jaffna peninsula. Supplying the armed forces, as well as the large civilian population, had been an extremely difficult task. The military top brass had felt that there was an urgent requirement to restore one of the two overland supply routes to the Jaffna peninsula. Having considered the restoration of the Mannar coastal road (A 32) via Pooneryn across the Jaffna lagoon, the Army finally decided on the Kandy-Jaffna road. Maj. Gen. Asoka Jayawardena of the Infantry had been the Joint Operations Headquarters chief at the time of Operation Jayasikurui was planned.

There had never been an account of Jayasikurui better than the one given by KG. Having perused the section that dealt with Jayasikurui twice, the writer believes that the revelations therein are surely surprising and shocking. The then Mrs Kumaratunga’s government and the Army leadership had perpetrated a massive fraud, not only on Sinhala civilians, but the fighting forces as well. KGs’ is surely the most comprehensive account of Jayasikurui, the largest ever ground offensive undertaken by the Army up to that time. Of the three Divisions which took part in Operation Riviresa, 53 Division under the then Brigadier Wasantha Perera. Brigadier Shantha Kottegoda, had been named the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of newly raised 55 Division. As KG had been on Maj.. Gen. Asoka Jayawardana’s staff, he received an opportunity to study rapid preparations made to launch the offensive. The offensive got underway on May 13, 1997.

Having discussed the 55 Division and 53 Division launching operations along the A9 road and from Weli Oya, respectively, KG faulted the setting up 55 Division headquarters at Thandikulm. The two fighting formations were to secure Puliyankulam along the A9 road and then advance northwards. KG explained the then Army leadership providing the 53 Division with expert support of the Special Forces and Commandos. The strengthening of that Division had been done on the basis of it being the main front whereas the 55 Division was to play secondary role. The 53 Division, having launched its advance from Weli Oya was to move westwards across Nedunkerni to Puliyankulam.

KG acknowledged that Brigadier Kottegoda’s formation had been exposed to the LTTE and was in a difficult position even at the onset of the offensive due to extremely difficult terrain his troops had to fight in.

In the wake of Jayasikurui, the Joint Operations Headquarters was moved to Vavuniya.

Rana Maga Osse Nanthikadal explained how Jayasikurui neutralized LTTE threat on Sinhala settlements in the Weli Oya region.

In spite of mounting losses on both fronts, the Army leadership remained confident of achieving the primary objective. Against the backdrop of capturing Jaffna peninsula, the Army leadership believed the LTTE challenge could be met.

The Mullaitivu debacle had been forgotten.

KG expertly narrated Jayasikurui offensive until the first LTTE counter attack on the 55 Division headquarters on June 10, 1997, caused devastating losses.