Who Won The War? (2)
Our comments last week , ‘Who won the War?’ on C. A. Chandraprema’s book ‘Gota’s War’ based only on an excerpt (published in the Daily News) was spot on. We said that the excerpt in the Daily News appears to convey the impression that the war was won by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabhaya but our conviction as a journalist having watched the 30-year-old war from the side lines was that the Rajapaksa brothers cannot be crowned as the sole leaders of this three-decade long conflict.
We expressed our doubts about our perception about Chandraprema’s conclusions having read only the excerpt in the Daily News but Chandraprema, our neighbour, was kind enough to clear our doubts presenting us with a copy of his book the very next day our comments appeared.
Hard hitting writer
Chandraprema is a hard hitting writer who pulls no punches. In his introduction he says: ‘This war would not have ended if not for the drive, vision, experience and commitment of one man, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who orchestrated the war against the LTTE on behalf of his brother President Rajapaksa’s government. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa served the army through the period that politics graduated into terrorism and finally into a fully fledged war. Gotabhaya himself and many of the field commanders who led the onslaught against the LTTE were either students or subordinates of the late Vijaya Wimalaratne…..who took on Wimalaratne’s legacy and applied it not only to the army but across the board to the entire security apparatus of the state. Sri Lanka is the only country in the world that has triumphed against terrorism in recent times……Why Gotabhaya succeeded while everybody failed is because unlike all others he had the full backing of his brother President Mahinda Rajapaksa. No other president would have taken the decision to go for a head on collision with the LTTE which was considered by many western powers to be unbeatable…no other president would have stayed the course so resolutely despite setbacks in the military front and tremendous coming from overseas. Without Mahinda there would have been no decision to wage war. Without Gotabhaya no victory’.
Chandraprema picks just three persons – Gotabhaya, his guru Wimalaratne and brother Mahinda for having pulled off victory in this 30-year-old war. Brigadier Vijaya Wimalaratne was certainly a doughty fighter who featured prominently in major military operations in the eighties and the early nineties. While the Rajapaksa brothers played a decisive role in the final stages of the war, weren’t there other military officers who led, risked and even gave their lives to protect the country?
The answer could be ‘yes’, they did so but the war dragged on and only when Gota took over under Mahinda were the terrorists on the run and never came back.
But there’s quite a slip between the cup and the lip here. Why oh why in the ecstacy of the victory did the Rajapaksa regime – no less then Mahinda Rajapaksa himself – call General Sarath Fonseka, the ‘Greatest army commander in the world’?
As Chandraprema says, Sri Lanka is the ‘only country that triumphed against terrorism in recent times’.
And who was the Commander of the army who led, guided and inspired the forces to ‘fight the way terrorists fought’ and beat them back? Who brought in rigid discipline into an army? Who ordered that there could be no retreat the moment the battalion commander fell?
Arms and men
The armed services till about 2006 were severely hampered by the lack of arms and manpower. Successive Sri Lankan governments not only lacked sufficient financial resources to purchase armaments but Western powers were doing their utmost to prevent armaments being sold to Sri Lanka. Chandraprema says that great pressure was brought even upon the Ambassador to China in Colombo by Western powers to prevent Chinese arms being sold to Sri Lanka.
He quotes former Army Commander Gerry Silva writing to the 50the Anniversary publication of the army saying that troop strengths had to be increased threefold if the war is to be won. Silva had pointed out that [at that time] the Sri Lankan army was the only army in the world which had its entire ‘bayonet strength’ continuously deployed in operations and this was a fighting force that has not had the time to rest, recuperate, relax and retrain in normal cycle of military life enjoyed by most armies of the world.
These young soldiers who served the country at that time too should be considered Rana Viru (War Heroes) and not only those who were in the last lap of the race.
‘Gota’s War ‘is a well documented book giving accounts of the dastardly and brutal attacks by the LTTE on the armed forces and civilians. Unfortunately it does not give accounts of the horrendous havoc caused by Sri Lanka forces as collateral damage – and at times vengeful attacks – on the Tamil people. I don’t blame Chandraprema for that lapse because as editor for 24 years of an English Language newspaper I too must say, mea culpa. It was not possible to get reports of the carnage that went on in LTTE held areas because journalists either national and international were persona non grata to the LTTE, except for specific individuals. However we did try to convey some of it in publications of University Teachers for Human Rights Jaffna).
Chandraprema attributes the two Rajapakse brothers hitting it off – Gotabhaya with his military background and Rajapaksa with his political daring to ward off foreign pressures – for the military defeat of the LTTE. He should also consider the geopolitical scenario that changed and fortuitous circumstances that favoured them. By this time New Delhi who was breathing down our necks earlier could no longer interfere in our internal affairs. After the bitter experiences of the Indian Peace Keeping Force, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the strong support for Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil Nadu, any direct interference by the Central Indian government in Sri Lanka was not posible as what happened in 1987 after the Vadamarchchi operation.
The rise of China as a world power and the inability of Western powers to prevent China providing enough armaments and finance was the second most important factor. The third factor was the split of the LTTE with the leaders of the Eastern Province joining the government forces.
No doubt Gota and Mahinda ran the last lap well enough. But let us remember other military commanders too who have laid their lives to the cause such as Denzil Kobbekaduwe, Janaka Perera and intrepid young men like that soldier who stopped a bulldozer running through Elephant Pass camp by climbing on the improvised bulldozer and lobbing in two grenades while perishing in the attempt and that young Seond Lieutenant who refused to leave his injured men behind when the camp was to be overrun by the terrorists despite orders for him to evacuate.