Who Won The ‘War’?
This is the time for war time stories. Such stories quite often remind us of a saying common to many African nations: Until the lions have their own historians the history of the hunt will glorify the hunters.
Already there are tomes written about the history of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka which involve attempts made politically, diplomatically and militarily to resolve the conflict.
Most writers and commentators consider the armed conflict to have commenced after the riots of 1983. But there is enough and more evidence of preparations for an insurrection by Tamil youths who had gone underground, and India under Indira Gandhi was promoting these groups by financing, arming and training them for guerrilla war many years before 1983.
The history of the origins of the so called ‘war’ could be traced back to about three decades and during this period there have been many commanders of the armed forces as well as politicians and political bureaucrats who played lead roles in directing the military effort while attempting to resolve the causes for the conflict.
My friend and colleague C. A. Chandraprema launched his book ‘Gota’s War’ last week amidst much publicity and fanfare. Unfortunately we have not been able to read his book as yet, but an excerpt of it published in the Daily News appears to convey the impression that the war was won by President Mahinda Rajapakse and his brother Gotabhaya. Perhaps we may have got the wrong impression having read only an excerpt of the book but we write in haste because our impression having watched this ‘War’ from the sidelines as a journalist for over 30 years is that that the Rajapakse brothers cannot be crowned as the sole leaders in this conflict that went on for a near 30 years. Gota, it has to be recalled, resigned from the Army after serving it for 20 years and resided in America from 1992 till 2005 – an absence of 13 years while the war was raging. There have been political leaders as commanders-in-chief of the armed forces and military commanders who have led our forces during the 30 years and had nearly wiped out this terrorist menace but were prevented from doing so by our mighty Big Brother across the Palk Strait.
Certainly, we give credit to the Rajapakse brothers for their political leadership as President and Defence Secretary in directing the War. Chandraprema in Chapter 76 of his book ( reproduced in the Daily News) recalls the severe impact the world financial crisis of 2009 had on the finances of Sri Lanka, foreign currency held by the Treasury coming down from $ (US) 800 million to $ (US) 17 million. The IMF stand-by loan was not coming even after 5 months of the scheduled time. The globetrotting Central Bank Governor, Nivard Cabraal flew out to Washington to urge the IMF to release the loan but it was not forthcoming. America, the largest contributor to the IMF, was putting spokes into the Sri Lankan wheel. Hillary Clinton had said it was not the time for the money to be released.
Cabraal in desperation then phoned President Mahinda Rajapakse and apprised him of the situation. Rajapakse telephoned Mummar Gaddafy who granted a $ 500 million loan. Thus ‘Due to the deft footwork of Mahinda Rajapakse Sri Lanka survived the financial crisis that was almost upon the country just as the war was in its final stages’, says Chandraprema.
In this chapter reproduced in the Daily News, no mention is made of the role of China, whose Exim Bank was pouring in finance into the war effort and ‘infrastructure development’. Perhaps the role of China in the Sri Lankan ‘War’ is dealt in other chapters in the book.
Certainly both Mahinda Rajapakse and his brother commendably resisted tremendous pressure brought on by Western powers to halt the military operation in its last stages. In this they were tremendously fortunate. There was also the possibility of terrorism being wiped off the face of Sri Lanka in 1987 under President J. R. Jayewardene with Lalith Athulathmudali as the Minister of National Security. in the Vadamarachchi Operation.
General Cyril Ranatunga, who was General Officer Commanding of the JOC (Joint Operations Command) in his memoirs , ‘From Peace to War, Insurgency to Terrorism’, recalls a conversation between the then Indian High Commissioner J. N. Dixit and President J. R. Jayewardene on the eve of the Vadamarachchi Operation.
‘When President Jayewardene asked Dixit how Rajiv Gandhi (Indian Prime Minister) would react if Sri Lanka did not want Indian help or involvement, [To fight the LTTE] he responded: ‘You will forgive me for saying this Mr. President. The unpredictable consequences may be LTTE asking for operational support from Tamil Nadu and it might end up with the break up of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka may not remain a united country.’ The President shot back: Mr. Dixit, true we are a small country but I want you to know that I will not succumb to terrorist violence regardless of what you are saying. Please note that this violence has been and is being supported by your government and your country’. Dixit continued unabashedly: ‘Government forces were strategically and tactically dominating the Vadamarachchi area. The Sri Lanka government should note the fact that under no circumstances would military action against the Tamils be allowed to succeed’. Jayewardene then called off the Vadamarachchi operation telling Ranatunga: ‘I can’t fight India’. This authoritative account indicates that Sri Lanka could have wiped out Northern terrorism 22 years before but prevented by India’s belligerent stand and its geopolitical ambitions of being a regional power. Now being recognised as a regional power it could not interfere when the final operations were on against the LTTE by the Rajapakse government.
Defenders of the faith
Some defenders of the Rajapakse faith have argued that it was the Rajapakse diplomacy that kept India from not militarily intervening in Sri Lanka in 2009. This is indeed an extremely naïve argument because India having sent on a near 200,000 troops over two years in the eighties and lost 2,000 of them in the battlefield and ultimately having a Prime Minister assassinated is in no mood for another Sri Lankan adventure. Apparently time and stars favoured the Rajapakse brothers. They seized the opportunity. All credit to them. Meanwhile Chandraprema book has raised the question: Who won the War? The military Commander General Sarath Fonseka who led the troops was imprisoned soon after he dared to contest the presidential election against Mahinda Rajapakse. He was hailed as the best ‘military commander in the world’. Why was he jailed? Now he is released. Why? It will take historians a long time to decide on who won the 30 year old war. Chandraprema may take up cudgels against me for commenting on an excerpt without going through his entire works. I will endeavour to do a comprehensive review in due course.