BY Ruwan Laknath Jayakody
Much decorated soldier, one time Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, Diplomat and now author, General Gerry H. de Silva is a man of many parts. His memoir ‘A Most Noble Profession – Memories That Linger’ (2012) and more recently ‘War Heroes Killed-In-Action’ have been launched and is currently working on the biography of Lieutenant General Denis Perera titled ‘The General of all Generals’.
In a wide ranging interview he expressed his frank opinions on a variety of subjects.
Here are excerpts of the interview:
What were the main challenges the military faced during the war, when you were at the helm of the Army?
A : Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa were the persons behind the military victory. They gave the Army all the facilities including the increase in manpower strength (approximately 300,000 in the Army alone and the Navy and the Air Force had corresponding increases), state of the art weaponry ammunition and communications, even ships and aircraft respectively for the Navy and the Air Force, to fight the war.
Having insufficient strength was always an issue. When I commanded the Army, it was 120,000 and it was not possible to fight in the North and the East simultaneously. This is probably why the campaign and the war went on for so long.
This is because politicians are never happy with a large Army as they fear the Army will take power. When I mentioned this to then Minister of National Security Lalith Athulathmudali, he said “Look, I am convinced, but please come and try and convince my Cabinet colleagues that you need this amount of manpower.” Actually, right throughout we were telling them that we needed at least twice the number of troops we had. This was to fight and to hold. When one goes forward and brings areas under the Government’s control, one has to place troops on the ground. This denudes one’s fighting strength as the troops are reduced. We could not do both. We could not convince the Governments at the time. We asked for the troops but never got.
We got the strength and the combat supplies was during the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government because Gotabaya Rajapaksa had operational experience (part of the Vadamarachchi campaign). He had knowledge of what was required to finish the war (and what we lacked) and also about the measly treatment given to us.
We could have finished the war during the Vadamarachchi operation. Deceased LTTE Leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran and his troops were beaten in Vadamarachchi and were packing their bags to go to India.
Unfortunately, the Indians intervened then and we had to stop the war at a time when we were moving towards Jaffna, following Vadamarachchi. I as the overall operations commander was summoned from the field when Lieutenant General Denzil Kobbekaduwa was leading from the West axis from Keerimalai to Jaffna (and had come up to Chunnakam) and Major General Vijaya Wimalaratne was leading the second brigade group with the axis from Achchuveli to Jaffna, and we were asked to stop. I was called to the operations room and General S. Cyril Ranatunga told me, “Stop, and consolidate where you are. Otherwise, the Indians will come.”
Indians had ideas of invading Sri Lanka, because the Tamil politicians of then, who were in India at the time, had influenced the Union Government (the Tamil Nadu factor was important as they formed part of the then Indian Government) to in turn influence the Indian Government to get us to stop the operations in Jaffna.
What did you make of the proposed political solution to the issue?
A: Successive governments tried to bring about a political solution. Just before Kumaratunga came in, we discussed with the Prime Minister of the then UNP Government, Ranil Wickremesinghe from 1 January, 1994 till the election took place. He approved of our plan to take Jaffna but when it went to the President, he said that there would be too many civilian casualties. Two weeks later, he dissolved the Parliament and called for an election.
When Chandrika Kumaratunga became President, we briefed her. Then she told the BBC that we were warmongers and that as she had come on a platform for peace, let us negotiate. The LTTE had the same organization operating in Kilinochchi. I said if you do not allow us to go to Jaffna, at least allow us to take Kilinochchi because our troops were in Elephant Pass and also even if one wanted to negotiate with the LTTE, having Kilinochchi would leave one in a better bargaining position. She said “I will let you know next week,”, and came back and said ‘sorry’. This is how the negotiations started.
What was the role of the then General and current Field Marshal, Sarath Fonseka?
A : Actually, even the Government recognized that Fonseka was the only Commander who could deliver. Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Fonseka got together and worked out a strategy, which was the success of the entire final operation where we destroyed the LTTE. He must be given a lot of credit for all that.
He was a very strong willed commander. He could motivate his troops, enhance the morale of the troops to fight the war and win it, especially the senior officers and get them to see his way of thinking.
The biggest drawback for the LTTE was the Deep Penetration Patrol (DPP) Units, which they called Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols, which is a misnomer because reconnaissance personnel do not fight. These guys secretly went behind enemy lines and knocked off a lot of the LTTE leaders. So much so that they were so scared to come out, they said “We are not going to come out.”
Then the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) signed by Wickremesinghe came in 2002. Wickremesinghe never referred the matter to the Army or didn’t let us know. Even Kumaratunga did not know. We were kept in the dark about the CFA.
In the CFA, one of the clauses was that we had to stop all these DPPs. Fonseka, when he took over, got four-man and eight-man small teams of DPPs, who went behind enemy lines, breaking into enemy territory, got information, called on enemy fire, and bumped off a lot of their leaders. This was most effective. When the campaign started in 2005, there were only 1,500 DPP personnel. By 2009, he had approximately 35,000. They were given special commando training on how to call down artillery fire and fire from aircrafts. This was one of the biggest factors in the victory.
There was controversy surrounding the procurement of weapons during this period. What do you know of this?
A : I do not think that intimate details of the purchase of MiGs were ever given. There was a lot of controversy over that.
What do you make of the war crimes allegations?
A: It is totally unfair to label a soldier, a war criminal. The thing is that we were fighting a war. The allegations are concerning the last stages.
All civilians in the area, over 250,000, were captured by the LTTE and were used as human shields in their last, sort of hasty form of defence, around Nandikadal and Vellamullivaikkal. They fired mortars and guns from within the no-fire zones (NFZs). One has to react. In any war, there are casualties including civilians.
Parties to the conflict must agree to abide by NFZs. If the other side does not agree, there is no point in having NFZs. The LTTE did not abide by these rules. When one returns fire, there are bound to be casualties. When a bomb falls killing two of one’s fellow soldiers, what is the reaction of the soldier whose comrades are dying? He has been taught to fight a war. He goes to their rescue, and naturally he has to take action and react to the situation.
The people who are propagating this theory of war crimes, like the Western powers such as the United States of America (USA), are the ones involved in the most number of war crimes.
What happens if a soldier is taken to Courts? What will be the morale of the troops? If there is a situation like this in the future, they will hesitate to react. They reacted to save the unity, integrity and sovereignty of the country and to bring back peace, where all ethnic communities can live together in harmony and in justice. That is the purpose of the soldier.
Does this mean that a blanket immunity should be provided to soldiers for criminal offences?
A: A blanket immunity should not be given. If they exceed, as in cases where soldiers at roadblocks had stopped women, and raped and murdered, they should certainly be taken to Court. These are acts of indiscipline which bring a bad image to the military and the country.
Why have you all not raised a voice against this?
A : It is a good idea to appeal to and get civil society groups to stand up to this.
The only thing is that military men do not like to get involved in politics. This requires a lot of discussion and thinking. The Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance and the Organization of Professional Associations can take it up and must be encouraged to do so.
How should the military face this transition following the war?
A : Actually, this is peacetime. The number one priority must be given to training, where one preparesfor war and peacekeeping operations.
The rehabilitation of the troops and their families must take place. A lot of these people need counselling. In fighting the war at the front, they have gone through so much of tension and trauma, also their families. Other countries found that if the soldiers are not counselled and put on the correct path (mentally), and given some sort of occupation, he goes haywire. He is a misfit in society who creates a lot of problems as a result.
I do not think that enough is being done in this regard. There must be civil society organizations that cater to these and organize counselling programmes. It has to reach out to the families. In my own experience, my wife and children would be found kneeling, hoping and praying for my safe passage when I would sometimes come home from the operational area.
Building houses alone is not enough.
What is the role of the military now?
A : The military is being used to help out in national development tasks. This is a very good idea, where they can improve the conditions of the country for the poor and the marginalized.
It is in peacetime that control and discipline must be at the highest.
Did the LTTE have a legitimate cause?
A : They just wanted power. To quote politician Douglas Devananda, “It is not Tamil nationalism now. It is obvious that Prabhakaran wants power to rule with the power of the gun.”
Indian Tamils all over the world saw him as the champion of the Tamils.
They did not want peace. Four times they came for negotiations and they pulled out on some flimsy excuse. Their entire thing was power.
What is the role of reconciliation?
A : If we do not reconcile with all, the Tamils, all of this will go by the boards, if they still do not get a package for the people. It is true that they were discriminated against and they have to be looked after. How the problem started must be analyzed and that problem must be approached and one must attempt to solve it. The Governments, although they have said that they would bring about a package of devolution two years after the end of the war, now almost eight years after the end of the war, there is still nothing.
We have to accept them. They are part of our country and people. We have to live with them. Whatever said and done, in the future we have to live with all communities. We have to accede to their requests. Of course, they should be reasonable requests and we should not accept the fact that they want a separate State.Some sort of package of devolution where we will keep them happy and they have some sort of autonomy must be given, so something must be worked out. We have still not done that. Till then we will have a lot of disgruntled people. Every day is a day too late.