Triumph over terrorism
SPECIAL REPORT : Part 148November 22, 2016, 6:54 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Wartime Navy Chief, then Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda (Sept.1, 2005-July 15, 2009), in his memoirs, Adishtanaya, dealt with the controversial decision to destabilize LTTE’s stealthily established fortifications, at Sampoor, in early 2006.
The decision taken by then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, on WK’s request, plunged the problematic Norwegian-led peace process into crisis at the onset of the Rajapaksa presidency.
The Navy planned project was meant to thwart the LTTE from consolidating its fortifications in Sampoor, in the wake of air strikes directed at identified enemy targets, to avenge the LTTE’s assassination bid on Army Chief Sarath Fonseka, in late April, 2006.
Sarprisingly Wk, perhaps, inadvertently, mentioned April 26, 2006, as the day on which the LTTE made an abortive bid on the Army Chief’s life. The attempt was made in the afternoon, on the previous day. Apart from that lapse, Adishtanaya is undoubtedly the best book that dealt with the war and related matters. As the Commander of the Navy, WK had been part of President Rajapaksa’s top team.
Had the LTTE succeeded in eliminating the Army Chief, the war effort would have certainly collapsed. Fortunately, the Sinha Regiment veteran survived. On Dec 1, 2006, an LTTE suicide attack, directed at Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, too, went awry. Had that succeeded, the end result would have been the collapse of the war effort.
Having obtained Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s approval, WK had flown to Trincomalee where he personally supervised the operation carried out by renegade LTTE cadres. WK briefly explained the circumstances under which the elite Special Boat Squadron (SBS) had secretly inducted approximately 150 renegade LTTE cadres in to Sampoor in the night. Their mission was to mount hit and run attacks.
The Sampoor operation achieved successes. The deployment of renegade LTTE cadres had been in accordance with the overall military strategy pursued by the Rajapaksa administration.
WK launched Adishtanaya, in Nov. 2014, at the tail end of war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term. Having spent about four years on Adishtanaya, the naval veteran launched memoirs during his tenure as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Tokyo. WK had been among a group of senior military officers who had received top diplomatic postings through the intervention of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. WK played a significant role in enhancing Sri Lanka-Japan diplomatic ties at a time Tokyo was under US pressure to undermine Sri Lanka.
Having bought a copy, at the book launch, held at Nelumpokuna theatre, under the patronage of President Rajapaksa, the writer perused WK’s memoirs within a few days. Unfortunately, due to a lapse on the writer’s part, Adishtanaya couldn’t be reviewed. However, in the wake of retired Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne’s account of the war, Rana Maga Osse Nanthikadal, the writer felt the requirement to discuss WK’s memoirs.
Adishtanaya, dealt comprehensively with the entire gamut of contentious issues including infighting in the Navy, damaging dispute with war winning Army Chief Fonseka, relations with Scandinavian truce monitoring mission, sinking of floating LTTE arsenals, political matters, attack on the then Rivira Editor Upali Tennakoon (a senior colleague of the writer at one time) and the worst single loss of lives suffered by the Navy during the entire war et al. Most importantly, KW talked about the Navy receiving US assistance to track down LTTE floating arsenals. Securing US intelligence support had been crucial for Sri Lanka’s triumph over terrorism. In fact, KW successes in obtaining specific US intelligence surely brought the war to an end, in less than three years. KW revealed a secret meeting he had with the then US Defence Attache, in Colombo, in April, 2007, followed by another meeting with the US defence official and the then US Ambassador, in Colombo, Robert O Blake, in May, 2007. The May meeting led to the US providing in Aug. 2007, satellite images of vessels suspected to be owned by the LTTE. In September, 2007, the US provided further proof in respect of four LTTE vessels. The Navy achieved the unthinkable before the end of 2007.
WK dealt with issues in his own style, reiterating his version of various events. The indomitable KW had performed a high profile diplomatic task years before he got an opportunity to serve as Sri Lanka’s top envoy in Tokyo.
Although, WK had been the Navy media coordinator (Dec 1987 to Aug 1991), the writer had no close rapport with him. Print media largely sought information from Army Headquarters and the Joint Operations Command (JOC). The JOC media unit had been always dominated by the Army in the absence of a proper system to release information to the media. Having joined The Island editorial, in June, 1987, the writer had an opportunity to report on terrorist-related incidents, though the coverage on the Navy was minimal. The writer couldn’t recall an instance WK seeking undue media coverage from The Island at the time he had been at the helm of naval operations. The writer had the privilege of having swift access to WK during eelam war IV.
WK earns Clancy’s wrath
WK discussed how he had earned the wrath of Navy Chief of Staff Rear Admiral Clancy Fernando, in March, 1991. Fernando had reacted angrily in the wake WK declining to promote Fernando in the media, while the latter was the Acting Navy Commander in the absence of Vice Admiral Ananda Silva. Silva had been hospitalized, following a heart attack. WK recalled Fernando, in his capacity as the Acting Navy Chief making three abortive bids to transfer him out of Navy Headquarters. Having succeeded Silva, as Navy Commander, on Sept.1, 1991, Fernando had immediately transferred WK to take over Surveillance Command Ship SLNS Wickrema. WK recalled Fernando mercilessly pursuing him, trying to somehow find fault with him leading to an inquiry in Sept. 1992, targeting the Commanding Officer of SLNS Wickrema. The probe followed WK suffering a gunshot injury due to a serious lapse on the part of a sailor engaged in firing practice at sea. One round had hit the inside of the 4 ft. steel wall that goes around the ship, ricocheted and went pass WK, scraping his forehead. Had the bullet travelled 1/4 inch lower, it would have been curtains for WK! Subsequent inquiry revealed the sailor, who had gone to India for engineering training for three years (after only one week training in SLN), had never fired a gun before.
In his haste to penalise WK, Navy Commander Fernando’s ignored the fact that WK had been nearly killed on board the vessel due to the negligence of a sailor engaged in firing practice. Castigating Fernando for being revengeful, WK revealed how the then Navy Chief exploited an argument between him and Colonel Sarath Fonseka at the officer’s mess at Rangala where newly promoted Commodore Cecil Tissera celebrated his promotion. WK had been a Lt. Commander (equivalent to Lt. Col.) therefore Fonseka was senior in rank at that time.
Tissera, must have had some guts to invite WK there and insist on his participation knowing Fernando’s hostility towards WK, who held the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
It would be worthwhile to buy a copy of Adishtanaya just to peruse the section that dealt with the then Navy Chief’s despicable conduct and Colonel Fonseka’s refusal to cooperate with the Navy leadership, even after Fernando personally phoned him. Fonseka hadn’t minced his words when he declared, in no uncertain terms, that he wouldn’t be part of a conspiracy. WK appreciated senior Anandian Fonseka for his forthright stand thereby helping him to thwart the Navy Commander’s project. WK mercilessly ruined Fernando’s reputation. According WK’s memoirs, there hadn’t been any issue between him and Fonseka, until 2006.
WK recalled the period at home, Ananda College and joining the Navy, as well as his early years in the service. Veteran writer, Dr Gunadasa Amarasekera, in his foreword, recommended that Adishtanaya being made available to students. Having joined the Navy, on Sept. 1, 1971, in the wake of the then Sirimavo Bandaranaike government quelling the first JVP-led insurrection, WK received initial training in Trincomalee. WK had been among 16 cadets whose experience at training establishments received adequate coverage. However, at the time, there hadn’t been any indication of the turbulent years to come.
WK earns Fonseka’s wrath
The former Navy Chief attributed Gotabhaya Rajapaksa choosing him over Sarath Fonseka as a member of the Sri Lankan delegation for talks with the LTTE, in Geneva, as the main reason for their dispute. KW discussed their simmering dispute against the background of him being one of those who had strongly backed the Sinha Regiment veteran for the top army post. WK admitted that Sarath Fonseka had the capability to lead the Army, in the final war, against the LTTE. Fonseka succeeded Lt. Gen. Shantha Kottegoda on Dec. 9, 2005. KW explained the rapid deterioration of their relationship, leading to explosive situations. There couldn’t have been a crisis as worse as unilateral Army move to take a part of the Navy held Kayts Island, on Feb. 18, 2008. KW dealt with the incident at length, finally resolved through the intervention of presidential secretary Lalith Weeratunga. Kamal Gunaratne, too, dealt with the Kayts incident, in his memoirs, through a different perspective. KW recollected serious issues caused by their enmity. The situation had been so bad, KW had skipped high level talks held in Army headquarters and avoided flying, in the same helicopter with the Army Chief.
Sandagiri sides with Fonseka
KW also disclosed shocking attempt to procure 30 mm weapons, discarded by the British Navy, and the circumstances under which he rejected the multimillion USD project to mount them on selected Fast Attack Craft (FACs). The deal worked out under the direction of KW’s predecessor, the then Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri had involved the British, as well as the Israelis. The cancellation of the project meant to upgrade the main weapons system on-board FACs from 23 mm to 30 mm cannon prompted Sandagiri, the then Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), to throw his weight behind Sarath Fonseka. Their disputes threatened the overall war effort. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa experienced a difficult time in keeping the warring parties at apart. The situation had been so bad, the Army prevented the Navy from entering some areas under its control. In the wake of spectacular naval operations on the high seas, the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) was ordered to discontinue cooperation with the Navy. Adistanaya paid a glowing tribute to the DMI during Maj. Gen. Kapila Hendawitharana’s tenure as its head. WK explained his decision to call off the costly nearly four-year-long naval operation, codenamed Varuna Kirana, conducted off Mullaitivu to thwart LTTE weapons smuggling bids. Varuna Kirana had been Sandagiri’s concept. Having terminated his predecessor’s project, WK deployed assets to intercept and destroy enemy craft.
KW discussed briefly his efforts to improve various ‘branches’ of the Navy with the focus on FAC squadrons and intelligence service. Adshitanaya detailed unprecedented operation leading to the acquisition of US manufactured 30 mm Bushmaster cannon and them being mounted on FACs at a crucial stage of the war. KW appreciated controversial politician Sajin Vas Gunawardena for facilitating the project under extremely difficult conditions.
Sri Lanka never adopted counter measures to thwart foreign intelligence services operating here. The former Navy Chief asserted Colombo-based top Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) official making a desperate bid to mislead the Navy; engaged in hunting floating LTTE arsenals. The information provided by the official, based at the Indian High Commission, in Colombo, had been contrary to specific US intelligence, hence the Navy decision to follow US Navy advice. Adshitnaya speculated about Indian Navy officer, based at Trincomalee, being part of the operation. KW’s revelation is evidence that RAW could have had an ongoing clandestine mission meant to undermine Sri Lanka’s war against terror. Obviously, Navy movements, out of Trincomalee, and Colombo, as well as Galle harbours, could have been under constant Indian surveillance in addition to those within the Navy who may have leaked information to various interested parties. KW also disclosed a specific planned operation going awry due to an exclusive media report on impending weapons shipment on the basis of information provided by a senior Navy officer.
Perhaps by re-examination of information available with officers and men can help Sri Lanka to verify matters and to establish the truth. Adishtanaya as well as Rana Maga Osse Nanthikadal, can be the basis for such a study.
CBK steps in
WK won President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s confidence during Norway-led peace process. WK received Mrs Kumaratunga’s attention especially due to his efforts as the COM East (Commander, Eastern Naval Area) to strengthen government defences in Trincomalee. KW earned the wrath of the UNP. At the behest of the UNP, a section of the state media castigated KW. KW responded to media onslaught through The Island. No other media dared to stand with KW at that time.
Adishtanaya explained events leading to KW succeeding Sandagiri following his second stint at Trincomalee, a few months before the change of command of the Navy. In fact, Mrs Kumaratunga had intervened personally to shift WK from North Central Command to Eastern Command in the wake of rapid deterioration of security in Trincomalee, partly due to the actions of the Eastern Commander. KW boldly attributed the explosive situation in Trincomalee to the then Eastern Commander throwing his weight behind a group of Sinhalese who put up a Buddha statue in the middle of the town. KW refrained from naming the officer. However, the writer felt the right of the public to know. KW’s reference was to the then Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera, who had earned the respect of vast majority of people for taking a principled stand against terrorism and all those associated with the LTTE.
If not for Mrs. Kumaratunga’s intervention, Sandagiri wouldn’t have transferred WK from the North Central Command headquartered at Punewa to Trincomalee. Sandagiri’s choice had been another officer though Mrs Kumaratunga ordered that WK took over the strategic Trincomalee command. From there, Mrs Kumaratunga shifted WK to Colombo, in August, 2005, to take over the vital command.
The change of Navy command took place over two weeks after the LTTE assassinated Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, who certainly played a significant role in WK’s career. WK had been so lucky to receive Kadirgamar’s attention, during the Norwegian project here. WK dedicated Adishtanaya to Kadirgamar whose assassination on the night of Aug 12, 2005, at his Bullers Road residence. The LTTE wouldn’t have assassinated the Statesman if the group hadn’t been prepared to wage a full scale war. But Mrs Kumaratunga’s administration lacked the backbone to declare war on the LTTE. This assessment is mine.
Like many Sri Lankans, WK, too, obviously is a strong believer in astrology. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is another believer. Rajapaksa paid a very heavy price for depending on so called Royal Astrologer Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena who deceived him, though President Maithripala Sirisena asserted his predecessor called early presidential polls for other reasons. WK had always consulted Soma Rajapaksa, of Gampaha, before vital decisions were taken. WK underscored the importance of him taking over the Navy at the auspicious time of 10.10 am as suggested by Soma Rajapaksa. WK had been such a firm believer in astrology; the Navy launched major operations in accordance with auspicious times. Six ships had left Colombo and Trincomale harbours within a 36 -hour time span, in keeping with auspicious times. The vessels had begun leaving harbours at 2 pm on Sept 2, 2007. Commanded by the then Captain Travis Sinniah (present Commander East, Sinniah holds the rank of Rear Admiral), the Task Force, comprising two vessels each, had specific intelligence provided by the US. Could the Navy have succeeded without US intelligence, even if it had the services of the best astrologer in the world, is a question some may ask. The writer doesn’t think so.
Adishtanaya is a must read for those wanting to know the Navy’s role in the successful conclusion of the war, in May, 2009. In hindsight, WK may have missed the opportunity to command the Navy, had Clancy Fernando succeeded in roping in then Colonel Sarath Fonseka to undermine WK’s career on a trivial matter.