Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Gotabaya’s military career, role as Defence Secy under a cloud


Two main contenders at the Nov 16, 2019 presidential election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa are pictured after handing over their nominations on Oct 07 at the Election Commission. SLPP Secretary former State Counsel Sagara Kariyawasam looks on.

by Shamindra Ferdinando

Having declared Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka as the defence and law and order minister in the event of Sajith Premadasa’s victory at the Nov 16, 2019 presidential poll, the UNP - led New Democratic Front (NDF) is working overtime to belittle wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s role in the Eelam War IV (August 2006-May 2009) as well as his 20-year military career.

The NDF and the civil society, affiliated to the political outfit, as well as some sections of the media, stepped-up attacks on Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the wake of his inaugural media briefing at the Shangri-La Hotel, on Oct 15, 2019.

A despicable attempt was made to question Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s role in the country’s history, especially based on Rajapaksa’s recent response to Colombo-based, The Hindu correspondent, Meera Srinivasan’s queries as regards the accountability on the part of the wartime Defence Secretary. Sections of the local media interpreted Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s response as an admission that Lt. Gen Sarath Fonseka won the war.

With the presidential election, just 10 days away, it would be pertinent to examine Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s wartime role. Of course, there cannot be any ambiguity in respect of the Sinha Regiment veteran Fonseka’s leadership. If not for Fonseka, the war couldn’t have been brought to a successful conclusion, in May 2009. Fonseka’s leadership had a huge impact on the battlefield strategy.

Having survived an LTTE suicide attack, in 2005, Fonseka, ruthlessly pursued the enemy until his Army wiped out the group’s once celebrated conventional fighting capacity, within two years and 10 months. Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka worked closely in formulating a strategy. In fact, Gotabaya Rajapaksa played a significant role in the overall strategy as President Mahinda Rajapaksa allowed him a free hand. Gotabaya Rajapaksa intervened, in Nov/Dec 2005, to accommodate Sarath Fonseka in the National Security Council (NIC) as the Commander of the Army.

New Norwegian Special

Envoy visits Colombo

Norwegian Special Envoy Jon Hanssen – Baur and the then Norwegian Ambassador, Hans Brattskar, met Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, on April 06, 2006, in Colombo.

The Norwegian team was here to convince the Rajapaksas the urgent need to resume talks, or face the consequences. The Norwegians felt the LTTE was in such a militarily strong position that the newly elected President had no option but to quickly resume talks on the LTTE’s agenda.

The LTTE resumed hostilities, in early Dec 2005, in the wake of Mahinda Rajapaksa securing the presidency, at the Nov 17, 2005 polls. The resumption of operations was part of its overall strategy. The LTTE underestimated the Rajapaksa government.

Hanssen-Baur, who replaced controversial peacemaker Erik Solheim in the previous month, arrived in Colombo in the first week of April 2006. Hanssen-Baur and Brattskar met Gotabaya Rajapaksa to pressure him to accept a negotiated settlement. Their three-point formula comprised (1) strengthening the Ceasefire Agreement to pave the way for the resumption of negotiations (May2006 -September 2006), restoration of normalcy (Oct 2006-April 2007) and (3) consensus on permanent settlement (May 2007-Dec 2007).

Hanssen-Baur, a Norwegian conflict resolution expert, replaced Erik Solheim in the wake of the latter assuming the position of the Minister of International Development in the Norwegian government.

The appointment was one of the two changes in the Norwegian peace facilitation process in Sri Lanka.

Ulf Henricsson, a Swede, assumed duties as the Head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), the five-nation truce monitoring group.

The Norwegians met Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the run-up to talks, scheduled to take place in Geneva, on April 19, 2006.

The Norwegians believed the Rajapaksas would succumb to stepped-up LTTE pressure. The LTTE launched claymore mine attacks in the north, within weeks after the Nov 2005 presidential polls. In January 2006; an LTTE suicide attack destroyed a Fast Attack Craft (FAC) off Trincomalee.

Norwegians always emphasized the need to settle ethnic and political problems here through negotiations. They conveniently forgot the fact that the LTTE maximised the use of its conventional and intelligence capabilities to achieve its political objectives. In fact, the LTTE strategy worked well, with that of the Norwegians’ own, meant to pressure Sri Lanka to accept, what was prescribed by the former.

The Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in spite of Velupillai Ptabhakaran’s overwhelming conventional military challenge, was confident of meeting the threat in case an all-out war re-erupted. The assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, in early August 2005, underscored the inevitability of war.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa realized the certainty of resumption of the war though the Norwegians were pushing for direct negotiations. Gotabaya Rajapaksa firmly believed in crushing the LTTE, militarily, in case the national problem couldn’t be resolved through negotiations. The wartime Defence Secretary never hesitated to take a firm position regardless of the consequences.

Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka (1997-2009) briefly dealt with Hanssen-Baur and Brattskar meeting Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Colombo. The report, released in Sept 2011-over two years after the conclusion of the war, revealed the tough stand taken by Gotabaya Rajapaksa on negotiations with the LTTE. The relevant part verbatim from the report: "On 06 April, 2006 Hanssen-Baur and Brattskar have a tense meeting with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In response to a question about whether the ethnic and political problems in Sri Lanka could be solved by military means, Gotabaya answers, "yes."

Obviously, the Norwegians briefed the LTTE as regards Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s tough stand. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s role couldn’t be compared with that of any previous Secretary to the Ministry of Defence. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s predecessor, Austin Fernando, played ball with the LTTE. Fernando earned the wrath of the military for succumbing to the LTTE. Fernando, currently Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in New Delhi, followed instructions from the then UNP leadership, regardless of security considerations.

Younger Rajapaksa changed the security strategy. Against the backdrop of Kadirgamar’s assassination, Gotabaya prohibited air transport to LTTE leaders under any circumstances. The Defence Secretary emphasized that the SLAF wouldn’t be deployed for the benefit of LTTE leaders even though Velupillai Prabhakaran demanded the facility as a prerequisite for the resumption of talks.

Those trying to demean Gotabaya Rajapaksa should examine as to why the LTTE made an abortive bid to assassinate the retired Lieutenant Colonel, one-time Commanding Officer of the celebrated first battalion of the Gajaba Regiment, at the onset of the Eelam War IV.

The LTTE quite rightly recognized the formidable threat posed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka, one-time Jaffna Security Forces Commander. Just 19 days after Gotabaya Rajapaksa told the Norwegians that war was an option, the LTTE made an attempt on Fonseka’s life. Had the LTTE succeeded in eliminating Fonseka, on the afternoon of April 25, 2006, the Rajapaksa administration most probably couldn’t have brought the war to a successful conclusion, as early as May 2009.

Soon after Fonseka recovered sufficiently to take control of the war effort, the LTTE made an attempt on Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s life in Colombo. The Dec 01, 2006 attempt, too, failed. Had Fonseka and Rajapaksa perished, Sri Lanka would have suffered an irreparable loss. In that case, the issues at the forthcoming presidential elections would have been different. That is the undeniable truth.

When did Elephant Pass fall?

UNP strategist Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne recently alleged Gotabaya Rajapaka retired, in 1991, in the wake of the Army losing 17 camps, including the strategic Elephant Pass base within three days during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the President.

The SLPP presidential candidate was also accused of leaving the Army, on the pretext of being influenced by his wife. Addressing a UNP meeting at Kalutara, Dr. Senaratne alleged that thousands of soldiers perished as 17 camps fell while Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country though Sarath Fonseka volunteered to save Jaffna.

The Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s campaign didn’t respond to Dr. Senaratne’s claim as regards the collapsing of 17 camps. Did 17 camps actually fall in 1991? Did Gotabaya Rajapaksa leave the Army in the wake of 1991 debacle? The battlefield debacles referred to by Minister Senaratne actually took place in Nov 1999 in the run-up to the presidential polls, and in April the following year, whereas Gotabaya Rajapaksa retired 10 years before.

In the eastern part of the Vanni, the LTTE inflicted an unprecedented defeat on the Army and the Navy. On November 1, 1999, the LTTE evicted the Army and Navy from the Nedunkerni-Oddussudan and Mankulam-Oddussudan roads. The forces gave up the entire area, captured in November, 1998, within 24 hours. The losses were minimal as troops simply abandoned their positions and retreated along a wide front.

In April 2000, the LTTE smashed Elephant Pass. It was certainly the worst defeat suffered by the Army during the entire conflict. The Division plus troops, in spite of having overland supply routes from Palaly-Kankesanthurai complex, couldn’t thwart the LTTE offensive. The Vanni and Elephant Pass debacles happened during the Kumaratunga presidency. In spite of that, the former President continues to claim that she finished 75 per cent of the war before Mahinda Rajapaksa took on the LTTE, in August 2006. To Kumaratunga’s credit, during her tenure, the military brought the Jaffna peninsula under government control, in 95/96. It was certainly an admirable feat though she almost lost the entire peninsula, in 2000, following the humiliating fall of the strategic Elephant Pass base.

The UNP has cleverly depicted Gotabaya Rajapaksa as an officer who abandoned the Army in the wake of massive battlefield defeats.

An end to 20-year

military career

Those opposed to Gotabaya Rajapaksa seeking Office of the President, flay him over his early retirement. The writer sought an explanation from Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in June 2013, as to why he quit the Army. The Island dealt with the issue in an article titled Ayoma wins the day (The Island, July 01, 2013)

Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been under heavy pressure from his wife, Ayoma to quit the Army for quite some time. With the LTTE launching Eelam War II, in June 1990, following the departure of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), three months before, Ayoma wanted to migrate to the United States, where her parents were living. In spite of Gotabaya’s reluctance to quit the Army, Ayoma relentlessly raised the issue with senior officers, particularly the then Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne, who was based in Colombo.

Ayoma, like the wives of many other officers, had been quite adamant that Gotabaya should leave the SLA to pursue some other career.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa said: "The LTTE resumed hostilities during the second week of June 1990. During the latter part of 1990, we moved to the married quarters at the Summit Flats. My apartment was situated opposite the residence of Brig. Wimalaratne. Our families were close. During that period, Wimalaratne was attached to the Joint Operations Command. He was one of the most influential officers whose opinion was taken seriously by those in power."

Gotabaya Rajapaksa recollected the then State Minister for Defence, Minister Ranjan Wijeratne, angrily reacting to a brief front page news item published by The Sunday Island, titled Lt. Col. Gotabaya Rajapaksa to retire. Minister Wijeratne had been furious as he felt Gotabaya’s brother, SLFP Hambantota district MP, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was responsible for the move. Minister Wijeratne had inquired from MP Rajapaksa why he wanted his brother to quit the Army. Mahinda Rajapaksa had denied Minister Wijeratne’s allegations, insisting that he wasn’t in anyway responsible for Gotabaya’s decision.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa said: "Later, I came to know that it was Brigadier Wimalaratne, who got The Sunday Island to publish the news item. Wimalaratne was reacting to my wife frequently requesting him to release me, as she wanted to migrate to the United States. The Brigadier probably felt that the news item would cause a major scene, leading to government intervention to get me transferred to Colombo. At that time, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s battalion – the first battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR)– was deployed in the Weli Oya region. Both Minister Wijeratne and Brigadier Wimalaratne went out of their way to prevent me from leaving the Army."

One day, the then Lt. Col. Rajapaksa received a call from the then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe directing him to meet Minister Wijeratne, immediately. However, Rajapaksa pointed out that he couldn’t leave for Colombo immediately as Weli Oya Area Commander, Brigadier Janaka Perera was away. The I GR commander asserted that he couldn’t take the risk of leaving Weli Oya in the absence of his superior officer. Having heard Lt. Col. Rajapaksa’s excuse for not responding to his summons, Minister Wijeratne decided to visit Weli Oya.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa said: "Suddenly, army headquarters alerted me to the arrival of Minister Wijeratne to Weli Oya. I was really surprised. Obviously, Minister Wijeratne felt that my brother was somehow responsible for my decision to quit the Army. Minister Wijeratne flew into Weli Oya. The then Northern Commander, Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa accompanied Minister Wijeratne. Brigadier Janaka Perera, too, was present at the briefing given to Minister Wijeratne. Having had lunch, Minister Wijeratne wanted to speak to me privately. As he walked out of the premises, I followed him."

Gotabaya Rajapaksa quoted Minister Wijeratne as having told him: "I know you are tired. You have been in the field for a long time. I’ll get the Army Commander to move you out of Weli Oya. Don’t worry; you’ll receive an appointment in Colombo."

In spite of Minister Wijeratne’s offer for a posting away from the operational area, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that he wanted to serve with his battalion, wherever it was deployed.

At the behest of Minister Wijeratne, army headquarters appointed Lt. Col. Rajapaksa as the Deputy Commandant of the Kotelawala Defence Academy (KDA), in late 1990.

Gotabaya. Rajapaksa was at the Summit flats when he heard a massive blast. The former Defence Secretary said: "The entire area shook. We felt the blast. Soon afterword’s, I heard the target was Minister Wijeratne."

Minister Wijeratne was killed on the morning of March 2, 1991, along with six of his police commando bodyguards. Shortly after Minister Wijeratne’s assassination, Gotabaya Rajapaksa sent in his retirement papers. Army headquarters swiftly endorsed Lt. Col. Rajapaksa’s retirement. Much to Ayoma’s relief, Gotabaya quit the Army on November 1, 1991.

During Eelam War IV, the Army killed Shanmuganathan Ravishankar alias Charles, widely believed to be the person responsible for Wijeratne’s assassination. Troops operating behind enemy lines carried out a claymore mine attack on his van in early January 2008. Three other LTTE cadres perished in the attack carried out as part of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) run project in the LTTE-held area. At the time of his demise he was the LTTE military Intelligence Head.

The Tamil net quoted LTTE Intelligence Wing leader Pottu Amman as having said at the funeral of the top Tiger: "When our organization was involved in peace talks during the period of Premadasa, we received credible intelligence reports that Ranjan Wijeratne, the then Defense Minister, and the Sri Lanka military, were hatching a plan to assassinate our National leader in Jaffna. With our limited resources available to us at that time, we foiled their plans and forced them to restrict their activities within Colombo. Col. Charles went to the capital, and with meticulous planning, he was able to thwart the efforts of the enemy and nullify their murderous plan."

With the presidential polls over a week away, opponents are questioning Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s credentials, accusing him of being the beneficiary of the Easter Sunday carnage whereas the TNA having justified the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) massacre in the presence of Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, Human Rights Chief Dr. Deepika Udagama and former President Kunaratunga continue with their despicable projects. Having declared the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamils, in 2001, the TNA remains committed to the abolition of Sri Lanka’s unitary status, though military option is no longer viable, thanks to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s leadership.