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Measuring Janaka’s worth

The role played to drive out the LTTE from their stronghold in Toppigala in the eastern theatre of war in 1993, the conversion of defence into attack, culminating in the annihilation of over 300 terrorists when the LTTE laid siege to the military camp at Weli Oya in July 1995, and, along with Lt. General Fonseka, the rescue and relief of the Palaly military base in March 2000 when the LTTE, to most military minds stood poised to starve the camp to submission and surrender, were some of the feats. They brought Janaka Perera public fame and focus. It is widely acknowledged that he was exceptional in handling, motivating and communicating with troops. His ability for combat was also predicated upon valour, resilience, knowledge of tactics and strategy, and often, an intuitive comprehension of the adversary’s plans, their strengths and weaknesses. The degree of fame that Janaka inherited was of the kind accorded to Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Vijaya Wimalaratne; perhaps even more, for Janaka’s flamboyance attracted the print and electronic media; and continuous publicity extolling his deeds and accomplishments placed him in the same elite class to which Denzil and Vijaya belonged.

Denzil, Vijaya and Janaka thrived in times when silver linings in the context of triumphs were relatively few. Perhaps such paucity caused a magnification of their deeds. They came to public notice easily; and in a general climate of despair and gloom, people wanted heroes. Tragic death often embellishes persona, achievements: and the accentuation of how they lived and led helped legends to grow around Denzil and Vijaya. Janaka who has won many battles through fearless, resolute leadership, was already on the road to such status when death engulfed him; and now, his legend will grow in leaps and bounds. It must also be said that though only three or four names of officers surfaced to be called national heroes over a period spanning two decades, there were other outstanding officers who worked alongside this elite club, but were less in the limelight. Gamini Hettiarachchi and Seevali Wanigasekera (retired Major Generals) are two names that come to mind of a limited number of such ilk.

The country is currently witness to a relentlessly successful drive against the LTTE. The hitherto seemingly impregnable group has been driven out of the East, most parts of the North, and are reportedly confined to two districts. The public perception is that the LTTE is on the threshold of annihilation, though this may not occur so swiftly or as easily as anticipated. In the course of the successful pursuit of this war, many Janakas, Denzils and Vijayas should surely have bloomed, leaders who have at great risk and peril and in extremely hazardous terrain continuously triumphed over adversity, and are on the march. Their identities are yet unknown, but should receive prominence in course of time. The campaign is led by Sarath Fonseka, whose life and existence was imperilled by an attempted assassination, but having survived, has risen like a phoenix to be the scourge of the Tigers. Therefore, within virtually an year, the current war has given birth to many heroes, in contrast to a handful previously in two decades. The monopoly of Vijaya, Denzil and Janaka has diffused rapidly to a wider coterie of officers.

And yet Janaka’s claim to pre-eminence will not suffer. He led troops with panache in an era when the security forces suffered many reversals. The successful defence of Weli Oya was a classic example. Carnage of troops and loss of expensive military hardware accompanied the rout of the security forces in Pooneryn (1993) and Mullaitivu (1996). Successful forays into camps of security forces became so commonplace as to provoke the boast of Pirahakaran that he had acquired his armaments from the army. Weli Oya is perhaps the only instance where the military scored so massive victory with virtually no loss. Even his rescue of Palaly in end March 2000 assisted by Sarath Fonseka, at a time when the government was seriously considering foreign assistance to provide relief to the beleaguered troops, occurred in a climate where success was more the exception than the rule.

Janaka fought his way through in difficult times. First, where the pendulum had swung in the adversary’s favour, the morale of the troops had suffered erosion. Second, a ‘defeatist’ outlook engulfed the establishment and the troops. Third, the LTTE found it relatively easy to identify military targets (human) for assassination, for their pursuit was essentially of those few who constituted thorns in their flesh. Above all, as the successful rescue of Palaly demonstrated, only Janaka and Sarath Fonseka were prepared to dare, when others had suffered such a loss of confidence as to seriously contemplate virtual capitulation. It is therefore arguable that success and able leadership have greater intrinsic worth, when displayed in a general environment of despair and gloom. The current war has had its pitfalls and obstacles to surmount in the incipient stages, but the security forces have successfully and swiftly converted a climate of gloom to one of hope and promise; so much so that victory upon victory has produced its own momentum, adequate to invigorate the morale of the officers and their troops. In such an environment, a relatively dispirited LTTE has appeared far less formidable, and a number of officers have surfaced, inspired to engage in combat in the hope of winning the war.

Perhaps the most debilitating factor for Janaka at the time he triumphed in Palaly and Weli Oya, was the attitude of the government and the defence establishment towards him. They had to turn to him to tide over extremely critical situations, but were not inclined to recognize and reward him for his successes with the offer of professional plums which he richly deserved. Hesitancy, suspicion, even possibly envy, plagued their outlook towards him. He was overlooked for the pre-eminent position in the army. The dilemma of the administration was as to how his skills and services should be exploited, whilst denying him recognition commensurate with his feats and skills.

Janaka’s mission as a soldier thus remained unfulfilled. He won several battles, but his cherished ambition to lead the war against the LTTE remained incomplete. The recent successes of the security forces can mainly be attributed to a salutary institutional arrangement where the government, the defence establishment, including the service chiefs think and act in unison. The army is now led by a commander experienced and skilled in combat situations. The security forces are hence on the march towards success in a manner hitherto unseen. In contrast, Janaka unfortunately prospered in conditions of adversity. It was a time when the government was torn between two worlds, peace and war, and did not consider that the campaign against terror may benefit with a battle proven officer at the helm of affairs in the army. Janaka’s army career was aborted by an establishment, suspicious of him. Perhaps in different times as now, he may have prospered and flourished, because of the institutional arrangement which is so conducive for the prosecution of war. Sarath Fonseka was the beneficiary in this context, but his appointment to the pre-eminent post in the army was delayed because he too encountered impediments somewhat similar to those which plagued Janaka. Taking a macro view of the two, Sarath is presently enjoying the fortune of waging a successful total war or campaign against the LTTE, backed by an ideal institutional arrangement with undiluted goals and unconditional support for him, and where he could employ his strategic skills and experience to the optimum; Janaka excelled only in battles because the government of the time did not offer to the war effort the kind of defence arrangement in force presently; and he was "used and dumped" for expedient reasons. As S.L. Gunasekera said so aptly in an interesting article, he was "needed, but not wanted". The stage that he wished to mount and adorn eluded his grasp for reasons beyond his control.

Janaka’s unfulfilled military mission continued to plague him even after retirement, for the proposal of certain party stalwarts that he be appointed secretary of defence when the UNP assumed power in end 2001 failed to find favour. In hindsight Janaka was fortunate, for given his dash and daring, he would have been totally miscast in a role or government policy which saw wisdom only in the total appeasement of the LTTE.

This analysis would be incomplete without an attempt to comprehend the reasons which restrained political masters from appointing him to the highest echelons of defence. Even his ardent admirers in the army spoke of his ambitions. Undoubtedly he desired to emerge at the top in whatever he undertook. His goal was not only to lead the army, perhaps the entirety of the security forces, but also to be the "bete noir" of the LTTE. He was expressive, articulate, and often did not mince his words in speech. And as he grew in fame and stature, many enemies too grew. A mix of truth and rumour left an imprint in many minds that mattered, that his goals were political, not merely military. Two recent articles by Anil Amerasekera to the print media have illustrated this point. It is a truism that envy breeds vicious gossip and rumour, adequate to prejudice political leaders. That he was politically ambitious is a label that stuck with Janaka, and marred his reaching the zenith of his career.

Janaka’s eventual drift to politics may have been to fulfil his incomplete military mission through politics. If successful in politics, the field was open to him – defence spokesman, perhaps a defence minister, if the UNP assumed power again. He could then re-enter his familiar terrain. His obsession to achieve his goals through the medium of politics proved to be his undoing, for the LTTE may not have ceased to watch him. Having suffered immeasurably at his hands, they surely may have foreseen the danger that he could yet return to the field of defence in a prominent and decisive way. A terror group cannot have so easy a target as a politician in the ranks of the opposition. Janaka may unfortunately have been too vulnerable in Anuradhapura to escape the attention of the LTTE. The choice of politics was clearly Janaka’s nemesis.

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