Gota’s War The Author’s Account
By Maryam Azwer
“Gota was in Weli-oya at that time and one day, Ranjan Wijeratne had visited his headquarters along with Major Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa. After the usual briefings followed by lunch, minister Wijeratne had a one to one chat with Gota under a tree in the compound of the brigade headquarters and wanted to know why he was trying to leave the army. Gota explained that he had not made a decision yet, despite the report in the Sunday Island.
Wijeratne told Gota that he was doing a good job and that since he has been in the operational areas throughout, he would like Gota to take a break in Colombo.
Gota said he was quite happy commanding his battalion, but Wijeratne had insisted that he should take up an appointment in Colombo. On minister Wijeratne’s orders, he was posted to the Kotalawala Defence Academy (KDA) as the deputy commandant at the end of 1990. Several weeks later, on 2 March 1991, Ranjan Wijeratne was assassinated in a massive bomb blast just metres from his private residence in Colombo.
It was after the charismatic deputy defence minister was assassinated that Gota put in his papers for retirement. He retired from the army on 1 November 1991. Looking back at this period, Gota says, ‘A lot of good officers left because they thought the way the war was conducted was an exercise in futility.
The LTTE would be cleared from one place only to return the moment the army withdrew. There was no driving factor to remain because nothing worthwhile was happening.”
From Gota’s War: The Crushing of Tamil Tiger Terrorism in Sri Lanka, by C. A. Chandraprema
Gota’s War, a book on Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict and the end of the LTTE, has been the centre of attention since its release on Monday. With some praising the author’s efforts at compiling and narrating these events, and others questioning why the book focuses exclusively on the role played by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
In an interview with The Sunday Leader, author and Divaina columnist C. A. Chandraprema discussed the reasons behind writing this book, his choice of the title, and some of the responses to Gota’s War.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: What motivated you to write this book?
A: Motivation comes in different ways. When I wrote about the JVP insurrection in 1990, that too didn’t occur to me on its own. It was just my editor who said to me, write two or three articles about this. So I started, and it became fifty two articles, and it became a book. So that’s how things happen. I suppose every writer has his own story about how he started writing something. Here, I have to say that it was
Kumar Rupesinghe. He kept prodding, over a period of time. He first made the suggestion, and it took me more than a year to get started on it.
Q: So this was not a long-term plan of yours?
A: No, it was not planned at all. In fact, the reason why I was hesitant was that these military things never really interested me… certainly the war was important, no doubt, but I never really considered myself a defence correspondent. I just left that to the defence correspondents, and I’m a political correspondent, I do my thing.
Q: In writing this book, were you at any point, approached by Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, or the President?
A: Absolutely not.
Q: You have however interviewed a lot of people, including Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, especially for this book – who else have you spoken to, in writing the book?
A: Well, Mr. Basil Rajapaksa and Mr. Chamal Rajapaksa, from the family side. Then, Mangala Samaraweera, Anuruddha Ratwatte of course, a lot of the Tamil politicians, including Kumaran Pathmanathan, Douglas [Devananda], Siddharthan and Varadaraja Perumal. Varadaraja Perumal is a virtual walking library. He is the most senior of the surviving Tamil militant leaders, so he has been in it from the very early seventies.
Q: And what was their response, when you approached them, about this book?
A: Well, they are my friends, I have known them over a period of time.
Q: Why “Gota’s War?” You said previously that it was a book that encompassed the entire conflict…
A: It’s a very simple thing. You take the second JVP insurrection, without Ranjan Wijeratne, nothing would have happened. Same here. Without Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, nothing would have happened. That is because, you know, the political authority can make a decision, but it has to be translated into action on the ground, and that whole process has to be co-ordinated. For example, it was Ranjan Wijeratne who acted as the interface between the military and the political authority. Here also, it is Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who acted as the “interface between the military and the political authority. Of course, he had the advantage of being the president’s brother, so that puts him in proximity to the political authority and that certainly helped and facilitated the whole thing as well.
Q: So even before you wrote the book, had you already decided that you were going to write about the war, with Mr. Rajapaksa’s role in mind?
A: Well, it’s like this, I had the title in my mind, even before I started it… because it was so obvious to me, that he played a central role in translating the decision into action. Now that is very important – remember that he doesn’t make the decision. The decision is made by the president finally, and of course the cabinet.
Q: The book actually seems semi-biographical, when, for instance at the beginning, you have on one hand described historical events, and on the other you describe how Gotabhaya Rajapaksa first entered the army…
A: Yeah, that was for a very specific purpose – to show what the army, or the military, was like those days. You have to start at that, because it was definitely not a combat-trained army, and Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was one person who had a ringside view, and ringside participation of course, because he was the deputy to Vijaya Wimalaratne.
You can say he is General Wimalaratne’s principal golaya, because [Gota] took over the Gajaba regiment, when Vijaya Wimalaratne was promoted as Brigadier.
So he had a ringside view, and he was a participant in all those things that General Wimalaratne did to modernize and retrain the army and make it a fighting force…the ups and downs, how they changed strategies, why certain things failed, the entire history of that is also… I think that by bringing out the details of Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s early years in the army, that part of it has been adequately covered… and don’t forget that I have used the Rajapaksa family also as an anchor, because they were in politics from the beginning of this thing.
Q: At the beginning of the book, you have also mentioned that a lot of literature about the war has been based on ‘half-truths and misunderstandings’…
A: Yes. I think the problem is, people have been plugging political lines in, when talking about the war. Even in delving back into the past, there has not been an honest discussion about what really happened.
Why did some people make certain decisions? Were those decisions justified when you take the whole picture into account? Those are the important questions that have to be asked, which is why, in the first ten or fifteen chapters, it’s true that I have talked about the early days of the army… but also I have dealt with the political aspect of it.
Going right back, because in the army there was no point in going further back, I just started with the early seventies. Even if you go further back, it’s still more of the same.
Whereas in politics it was different. That is why I started right from ’56. I feel that we have been less than honest, and I would be very happy if the points that I have raised in this book [are taken up], because this is based on research, I have looked at the news reports of that era. I have read the resolutions of the ITAK, which tend to be ignored – not ignored, I think it’s suppressed – and as I have said in the introduction, these are the missing links in this whole story. So my appeal is this: let’s look at the whole picture for once, instead of just looking at parts of it, and get this politicization out of it.
Q: And do you think your book has done that?
A: I think so. Especially when it comes to what went wrong, where it started… let’s get the politicization out. I hope that when the Parliamentary Select Committee meets, that they will take the whole picture into account, without reiterating old prejudices, and ancient conventional wisdom which is not based on fact.
Of course, I recognize the fact that you need leaders who are capable of taking these things into consideration, not agitators. Whether we have a crop of leaders like that, on the Tamil side and the Sinhala side, is yet to be seen… All that people like us can do is to present this to the public and if they feel that it is not reasonable, I’m willing to listen… I’m willing to talk to them.
Q: But even in your account, at the beginning, there is a certain amount of opinion, in terms of what you’ve said about the ITAK, the satyagrahas etc, so do you still feel that this is opening up room for honest discussion?
A: Opinion? Well I have expressed my opinions of course, but also it’s all facts.
It’s not just myself who has expressed such opinions, I have quoted other people, like Senator Nadesan, who has said much the same thing. Obviously, he saw where things were heading, in 1957 itself. So I suppose, you compare my opinions, with that of Mr. Nadesan’s, to what extent will it differ?
Q: After the launch of your book, there have been some news reports, claiming that you’ve criticized India’s role in this. What do you have to say about that?
A: I haven’t criticized anybody’s role. All that I’ve put down here, is what happened… this is the problem, I a lmost 100% sure that most of these people who have been writing, they have not read the book. This book is 520 pages long, and if somebody tells me that they have read it in two days, I am not going to believe them. Most of the comments that have been coming, the ones that you have referred to, are obviously without having read the book.
Q: There was also an issue with the book’s sub-title – “The Crushing of Tamil Tiger Terrorism in Sri Lanka”. Mr. Sumanthiran [of the TNA] brought this up in parliament, and criticized the language used here…
A: That is just a typical way of trying to politicize this whole thing, because ‘Tamil Tigers’ is the standard term used to describe the LTTE by almost all foreign media organizations. You go to the BBC, the CNN, if I remember correctly, even the Channel 4 video clips – they are always referred to as the Tamil Tigers.
Q: Now that the book has been launched, personally what kind of response have you received?
A: Well the people who have spoken to me, it has been overwhelmingly positive, on all sides. I think some people seem to have been surprised… I don’t know what they were expecting, because I have been writing about the war and some people probably expected that General [Sarath] Fonseka would be obliterated from the whole scene, as if he never existed…
Q: But you have made references to him…
A: Yes, at the very beginning, at the very end. In fact there were only three army photographs – he appears in two of them. But of course, I don’t buy these exaggerated claims, by politicians, for their convenience when they say, oh, it is Sarath Fonseka who did the war and nobody else had anything to do with it.
Q: Did you speak to Sarath Fonseka, when writing this book?
A: No, he is in jail, I have no access to him, but I have spoken to people who knew him well, and officers who worked under him. And whatever I heard, has been included in this book.
Q: With regard to the end of the war, there have been rumours and speculation about what really happened, so how have you managed to wrap it up?
A: That was not too difficult. I spoke to the people who were on the spot. It’s through them that I got the details. I would have used the newspapers to verify the dates. Some officers have maintained diaries, but many of them haven’t, so it was mainly from memory. I had to corroborate that with news reports, to ensure that the dates they had mentioned were correct.
Q: Do you feel that this book is an unbiased account, overall?
A: This is my presentation to the world. I suppose I leave it to the reader. I don’t want to say whether it is unbiased or whatever, but let the reader judge, and above all, may the reader cross check what I have said, particularly on politics… I would very much like to discuss it further, if somebody feels that what I have said is not accurate.