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I would not have done any different…

Lt. Gen. Shantha Kottegoda

By Lt. Gen. Shantha Kottegoda

Principles of war are the same. It is how you apply the principles to suit the existing requirement to fight the enemy and make your military plans accordingly. I must admit that Gen. Sarath Fonseka has done extremely well. He has been a good field commander. I have been asked if I would have done differently to Gen. Sarath Fonseka. The question does not arise. 

Why it was possible to win the war this time as against previous times was that, on this occasion there was no direct pressure from India as on the previous occasions. Whatever pressure that was exerted on Sri Lanka was superficial. All what the Indian government did was to bring pressure on the Sri Lankan government on humanitarian grounds viz. internally displaced persons. Even the European Union made a hue and cry for displaced persons.

China and Pakistan gave their fullest support to the Sri Lankan government by way of weapons etc. The LTTE having fought for 26 years had lost a large number of cadres and weapons. Unlike in the past, the security force commanders were given a free hand to crush the LTTE.

A severe blow

The defection of Karuna to the government was a severe blow to the LTTE. Karuna knew exactly the strategy adopted by Pirapaharan and the security forces were able to counter attack and thwart the moves of the LTTE. With the defection of Karuna to the government side, the LTTE lost its control in the east, and the STF was able to contain the LTTE in the east while the army, navy and air force jointly were able to concentrate on the north.

Although Pirapaharan and his deputies kept shifting their locations, Karuna knew exactly where Pirapaharan would move and this helped the army to locate their hideout and hit targets accurately.

When I assumed duties as Army Commander, the peace process was in force and it was during the peace process that the LTTE high command was able to acquire weapons, air power, communication equipment etc. The President was able to negate through diplomatic means pressure exerted on Sri Lanka.  He has a Secretary Defence, who is his brother with a wealth of experience in the war and had access to the President at anytime of the day or night. The Secretary Defence was able to monitor the developments and he knew exactly what the security force commanders were doing.

A viable political solution

In my view, it would be difficult for the LTTE without a leader to raise its head with the same charisma as Pirapaharan. The government however must now move quickly and come out with a viable political solution for the Tamils.

The Tamil diaspora is in complete disarray at the moment. All they could do right now is to harass the minority Sinhalese in foreign countries and hope for a backlash in Colombo. With the war over, Tamils living abroad will in all probability be returning to Sri Lanka. With this in mind the Tamil diaspora will come out with something new to keep the heat on and justify their existence abroad.

It maybe true that there is a renewed fear psychosis among Tamils that they will continue to be targets.  More so in the backdrop of a military victory.  

The fear psychosis will continue for sometime. The security forces will have to nip it in the bud if there is any form of harassment of the Tamils.  There were criminal elements who exploited the war situation and were responsible for abductions, kidnapping etc. for ransom.  There were several ex-security forces personnel who figured in killings, abductions etc., for their personal gain.

Some were ex-army personnel. Even the recent bank robbery committed at Wellawatte was by an ex-army captain. With the war over the government may not need the entire strength of the army. Hence action should be taken to employ them gainfully.  Private security companies should be encouraged to recruit them.

‘Special Forces’

I do not think the ‘Special Forces’ — the fighting strength of the military, should be done away with.  They should be sent to the UN on peace keeping missions etc. or gainfully employed in South Korea and in the Middle East countries which will bring in revenue to the government, so that the government could utilise the revenue for development projects and further training of special officers. 

There is still fear, particularly amongst sections of the media, that the Special Forces unit within the army may be used to stifle dissenting or critical voices amongst the press.  As a former Commander of the Sri Lanka Army I can state there is no evidence that the security forces were utilised to stifle the media. Leaders all over the world who have tried to stifle the media have learnt it to be a terrible mistake. History shows this. If there is evidence of any such move to stifle the media that should be nipped in the bud.  

The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi was a turning point in this war. With this killing, India stopped pressurising the Sri Lankan government to give in to the demands of the Tamil Tigers. The then Sri Lankan government should have exploited this political situation and gone flat out to crush the LTTE, which they failed to do.

No clear policy

The former Sri Lankan government never had a clear policy to crush the LTTE. They were more worried about the repercussions from abroad and they forgot the ulterior objectives of the LTTE. This shows how weak the UNP government was at that time.

Mahinda Rajapakse who came to power much later seized this opportunity and built a better rapport with the Indian government and this helped him to declare all-out war against the LTTE. The then UNP government had a blow-hot, blow-cold policy and was never determined to finish off the LTTE.

All credit should be given to Gotabaya Rajapakse who insisted that the war could be won with proper planning and correct political leadership. Mahinda Rajapakse did not give in to foreign pressure and did not bend backwards to accommodate the foreign powers. The President clearly understood the geo-political needs of Tamil Nadu and exploited this situation to the maximum. Although Jayalalitha made a claim that if she were to return to power, she would declare Eelam, this idle threat only turned out to be a myth.

Attacked army camps      

It was during the peace process that the LTTE attacked the three army camps in the north and instead of retaliating or defending the camp, the army decamped. The LTTE then came in and removed all the weapons. This boosted the moral of the LTTE and won the confidence of the Tamil people that Eelam was at hand.

They realised their folly only when they attacked the STF camp at Kanchanakuda in Ampara. The STF personnel retaliated and killed six LTTE cadres and injured several others. With this assault, the LTTE stopped attacking STF camps or the army camps.

Although the magisterial inquiry exonerated the STF personnel who opened fire at the LTTE cadres on the grounds that they acted in self-defence as provided for in the Penal Code, the then UNP government appointed a commission to go into the actions of the STF on this attack, which resulted in the transfer of the OIC, Eric Perera of the Kanchanakuda camp and six others who opened fire at LTTE.

The government then led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also ordered the immediate transfer of the then Commander of the STF, DIG Nimal Gunetilleke, to a special forces branch where he was forced to go into cold storage. The transfer ruined Gunetilleke’s chances at any further promotion in the police force.

During the peace process several STF camps were withdrawn from the east giving way to the LTTE to reoccupy the territory they lost. This resulted in the loss of morale of the entire security forces. This action on the part of the UNP government demoralised security forces personnel and thereby they lost faith in the government.

I want to emphasise that the Special Forces should continue to remain to face any threat internally or externally.

(The writer is a former Commander of the Sri Lanka Army.)

War’s end in Sri Lanka: Bloody family triumph

President Mahinda Rajapakse saluted members of parliament on Tuesday after his victory speech to the nation

By Somini Sengupta

NEW DELHI — Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapakse, on Tuesday savored a victory that had eluded every Sri Lankan head of state before him. He declared on television that after more than 25 years, his troops had defeated one of the world’s most enduring guerrilla armies on the battlefield.

Behind that victory speech was a historic and bloody family triumph, guided by two of the president’s brothers: Gotabaya, the influential secretary of defence, and Basil, a so-called special adviser who devised the political strategy around the war effort.

Together, the Rajapakse brothers defied international pressure to stanch civilian casualties, squelched dissent, blocked independent reporting of the war and achieved what many had thought all but impossible: they vanquished the Tamil Tigers, who had waged a pitiless war of terror and once ruled swaths of Sri Lankan territory as a de facto state.

Doubled the military

With Gotabaya Rajapakse in charge of the defence portfolio, the government sharply increased defence spending; bought new weapons primarily from China and Pakistan; and nearly doubled the size of the armed forces, to roughly 160,000.

The political cunning of Basil and Mahinda Rajapakse was put to use. The President asked India for weapons first. Only when it refused because of domestic sympathy for the Tamil cause did he turn to its rivals.

The military strategy paid off, too. Starting in 2006, the government forces staged intense air, sea and ground assaults against rebels in the east and the north, sustaining the attacks even though the two sides were still officially engaged in cease-fire negotiations. The government also adopted some guerrilla tactics from the Tamil Tigers, using small groups of troops to penetrate deep into the jungle and assassinate rebel leaders.

Upper-caste landed gentry

The brothers, who come from upper-caste landed gentry, are not part of the English-educated elite of the capital, Colombo. Snubbing pressure from the West did not hurt them; it helped them consolidate their southern Sinhalese nationalist base.

“There was no vacillation as there has been with previous governments,” said Nilan Fernando, the country director for an American nonprofit, the Asia Foundation. “Previous governments were always playing for a draw. This time, they were playing for a win.” They won.

The victory, like Russia’s smothering of Chechnya’s separatist rebellion, comes at a high cost. The United Nations says 7,000 civilians have been killed since January alone, and more than 265,000 ethnic Tamils who fled the war zone are now interned in overcrowded camps. Some civilians are missing, including three government-employed doctors who worked in the rebel-held area and regularly spoke out about the shelling of hospitals there. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly said the government shelled civilian areas, even as the rebels held tens of thousands of ethnic Tamils as civilian shields.

International commission of inquiry

Now, some of Sri Lanka’s erstwhile allies, including those that had banned the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organisation, are calling for an international commission of inquiry into possible war crimes. Sri Lanka desperately needs foreign aid for post-war reconstruction.

In prosecuting the war, President Rajapakse, a lawyer and member of parliament who was elected, narrowly, in 2005, cultivated tacit backing from India. Though India did not supply offensive weapons, it became less active in seeking to stop the fighting. Sri Lanka’s success in intercepting supply ships in the Indian Ocean is frequently attributed to Indian intelligence.

The Chairperson of India’s governing Congress Party is Sonia Gandhi, whose husband, Rajiv, a former prime minister, was assassinated by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber.

The Sri Lankan President dresses in the traditional white tunic and sarong of the Sinhalese. In the 1980s, when anti-government ethnic Sinhalese activists were being abducted and killed, he was one of their most vocal champions, appealing to the United Nations for support.

Treated dissent as support for the enemy

After his election, however, he put defeating the rebellion ahead of protecting civil liberties. The Rajapakses’ treated dissent as support for the enemy. Some journalists were jailed under an antiterrorism law; some were mysteriously killed, including one newspaper editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge, who in a chilling essay, foretold his death and blamed Rajapakse for it.

Gotabaya Rajapakse, the defence secretary and a former computer systems administrator in Los Angeles, accused international aid agencies working in Tiger-held territory of helping the insurgents. Last fall, he ejected nearly all of them from the area.

In June 2007, the Defence Secretary was instrumental in ordering the expulsion of nearly 400 Tamils living in low-cost hotels and boarding houses in Colombo, on suspicion that they were helping ethnic separatist rebels plot bombings in the city. Sri Lanka’s highest court later overturned the deportation order.

Spoke in generalities

On Tuesday, in his speech to the nation, the President said a new political solution for minority Tamil rights could not be dictated from abroad. “We do not have the time to be experimenting with the solutions suggested by other countries,” he said.

He spoke in generalities about forging a peace settlement, but he gave few details beyond saying it had to be acceptable to everyone in Sri Lanka.

That is, of course, the Rajapakses’ next challenge: reconciliation.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the nonpartisan Centre for Policy Alternatives here, said the President had “struck the right notes by making the distinction between the Tamil people and the Tamil Tigers.”

“What was missing was more details about the post-conflict phase,” Saravanamuttu said. “I would have liked to have seen him make a real commitment to a political settlement and human rights by addressing some of the serious allegations that have been made against the military.”

Helped elect Rajapakse

The Tamil Tigers’ missteps contributed to their downfall. They helped elect Rajapakse by enforcing a boycott of elections in November 2005 in Tamil-majority areas. Almost immediately after he took office, they provoked his government with deadly strikes on his forces.

Their suicide bombers tried to kill Gotabaya Rajapakse and his Army Chief, Gen. Sarath Fonseka. Friends say the attempted assassinations strengthened the Rajapakses’ resolve.

On Tuesday, Sri Lankan television flashed an image the government had pursued for three decades: the corpse of a man the military identified as the ethnic separatist chief Velupillai Pirapaharan, dressed in battle fatigues, his eyes wide open, his mouth agape, as though he, too, were in shock. There were no Tamils left in the homeland he had fought so fiercely to create, only plumes of smoke, and soldiers.

(A reporter for The New York Times contributed from Colombo, Sri Lanka. This article was published in The NYT on May 19.)

  More Realities Articles
War’s end in Sri Lanka:
    Bloody family triumph

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