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Direction Jaffna (1980) - Reminiscences

Jaffna circa 1980

Jaffna always appeared to be a special place in SL. Its people were sturdy, tall, hard working, chaste, thrifty and gave priority to education and service in the government. Southerners used to visit Jaffna frequently and in great numbers especially to visit Naga Deepa rivaling any foreign tourist competition. It was a land of palmyrahs, market gardens, farming, fishing and smuggling, its houses and inhabitants hidden behind six foot fences of thatched palmyrah and the school children, including girls, cycling to school blocking the roads almost completely.

Its farmers worked from early morning to noon (because of salinity problems in the water) and then from evening to night just like the school children who went to school in the morning and studied into the night at home without any parental persuasion. The peninsula produced brilliant professionals especially doctors, engineers, surveyors and lawyers. Maybe because of the latter there was much litigation.

There was fresh toddy to drink and bathing at Casuarina beach where daring Jaffna ladies bathed in their saris and Myliddy baths to entertain visitors. Sinhalese parents from Anuradhapura and Kandy sent their sons to Jaffna to study and pass exams. Saiva food was never tastier elsewhere.

Skill at games and sports

Jaffna produced some super cricketers like Major John Bala Francis who used to entertain the spectators at Sandhurst with his lusty batting (he would have given Jayasuriya a run) and in 1956 with Premachandran had rocked the visiting South Australian schoolboy cricketers by taking 7 wickets for 31 runs at which stage the game was stopped to enable the Australians to catch the Colombo train and escape defeat.

It also produced champion athletes like Major VG George(late Capt Mathew’s brother) who held the British Empire record in the schoolboys’ long jump (whose memorial service I attended in Jaffna College in 1980) and the famous Ethiriveerasingham who won the country’s first gold medal (for high jump) at the Asian games in the 1960s.

Caste

Jaffna gave leadership to the Tamils in every sphere but was also very caste conscious. When the army first moved there (1961), low caste women were not allowed to wear jackets with their saris. Bathing at the wells of the high caste, sitting in buses and exclusion from certain temples was ordained. Prabakaran exploited this situation.

Officer Commanding Troops Jaffna 1980

I was appointed Officer Commanding Troops (OC Troops) Jaffna (which included the districts of Mullaitivu and Vavuniya) with effect from 01 Jan 1980. All Majors who were going to be promoted Lieutenant Colonel were called up by first Sandhurst-trained Commander of the Army, Major General (later General) Denis Perera to be given the good news. Apparently I gave him a shock when I told him that one of my seniors also from Trinity College and ex-Sandhurst like me, who was overlooked, should be promoted instead.

The next day General Perera sent for me together with my boss, Engineer Group Commander Colonel (later General and Army Commander) Nalin Seneviratne to tick me off as he explained that it was not up to me to tell the Commander of the Army who he should promote. When asked for an explanation I first kept mum as Col Seneviratne had asked me to, but was then told that I could speak. I explained to the Army Commander with some facts why the officer career planning (and promotion) system was flawed. Gen Perera mellowed his remarks after that but advised me to keep my opinions on such matters to myself.

Jaffna security situation

The previous year (1979) Brigadier Tissa Weeratunge (later Major General and Army Commander and called ‘Bull’ for varied reasons) had been sent not by the Army Commander but by the President and C-in-C JR Jayewardene ostensibly to wipe out terrorism "in all its forms"etc in Jaffna but in reality to undermine once again the authority of the Army Commander, Gen. Perera, who was responsible totally for every aspect of military operations.

Northern based terrorism had been spreading fast since 1977 and Tamil government servants especially those in the police like the redoubtable Inspector Bastianpillai were betrayed, captured and beheaded or worse. Weeratunge who was apparently connected to JRJ was given extraordinary powers including direct access to the C in C over riding the Army Commander.

Carte Blanche and
repercussions

Weeratunge was also armed with an extraordinary emergency regulation that gave a draconian carte blanche power to dispose of dead bodies without magisterial inquest.

On hearing of this I went over to the Army Legal Branch and said it was a dangerous precedent even though the president was enamoured with the Cicero’s phrase "In times of war the laws are silent.’

Colonel (later Maj Gen) Niriella told me tersely that if I wanted to serve in the army to pipe down. Two days later two dead bodies without heads were observed by a culvert in Jaffna town. The heads were on the culvert. The Jaffna citizens were shocked and brutalized. Many in Jaffna held that that was the turning point of an insurgency becoming a terrorist war and the turning of the Tamils from law abiding citizens to onlookers of crime and terrorism.

Jaffna in January 1980 saw hardly any movement after dark, something which I addressed very quickly to bring back normalcy. Fear had ruled the roads and by ways. Weeratunge had four majors as his closest advisors. They were referred to as the gang of four.

‘Veni vedi vici’

Most of the terrorists/insurgents and their leaders escaped to South India in that year but Weeratunge grandiosely declared that he had defeated the insurgency and returned to Colombo, quite close to declaring like Caesar ‘veni vedi vici’. I had an opinion on Weeratunga’s professional limitations from the time I served with him as one of the founder officers of the Gemunu Watch.

When he became Army Commander he had the dubious distinction of allowing terrorism to spread. Shocking ill discipline prevailed amongst the troops in Jaffna which even C- in-C Jayawardene admitted to the BBC though without any remorse. The writing was on the wall for the next 30 years.

HQ Task Force (HQTF) Onerrival

On January 1, 1980 I arrived in Jaffna expecting to get to the end of the Northern line railway station Kankasanthurai (KKS) to reach my destination at Pallaly but I was met at Jaffna station by six foot amiable Capt (late Lieutenant General and Chief of Staff of the army) Parami Kulatunge the OC Troops Grade 3 staff officer. We motored down to Pallay from there. Parami was from my regiment and also from Trinity College. He was cruelly assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber on June 26, 2006 at Pannipitiya on his way to AHQ.

Briefings

I received a very good briefing on all aspects of the command from my predecessor, Lt. Col. ‘Tony’ Rajudeen at whose wedding around 20 years before I had been in an ‘All’ Sandhurst ‘sword’ party, the last time such ill advised elitism prevailed.

I then met Artillery officer, Sandhurst trained, British Staff College Camberley graduate and Thomian, Colonel (later Major General) Gratien Silva, the Task Force One Commander. He briefed me succinctly on what was expected of me. I was told that as a Lt. Col. I was very much on my own.

I realized that from now that any incident here would have serious ramifications which could affect national integrity and there would be no one who could bail me out if I erred. My year in Jaffna was nevertheless my happiest command amongst superb officers, soldiers and citizens who were in so many ways an example to the country. I had good guidance from Col Silva whose late brother, Vice Admiral Ananda, later became Commander of the SL Navy.

Challenge and reward

For an Infantry Lieutenant Colonel there could be nothing more challenging and rewarding except Regimental command. This was very exciting too for a first senior command, particularly as the North was the only trouble spot in SL. There was also the necessity for maintaining the peace, preventing hit and run acts turning into a full blown insurgency and winning the campaign for hearts and minds. These I held dear.

Staff Officers

Colonel Silva was very fortunate to have as his staff officers Majors Mangala Ratnayake, Harin Malwatte (Army rugby players) and Abdul Zaheer (SL Hockey player) who were amongst the best majors at that time Mangala being Commando trained showed his skills when there was a cobra in front of my room and later when one was actually in my room. He invited me to eat them too!

I had known them all from Officer Cadet School Diyatalawa (now SL Military Academy) and had played rugby with them. Unfortunately for the army they all took early retirement when the IPKF came to SL thinking their job had been done. Towards the end of the year Sandhurst trained Maj Neil Dias too joined HQTF and pepped things up a bit.

I too was very fortunate in having GW Captains Kulatunge and Hiran Halangode (later Brigadier who took the Jaffna fort in Op Liberation (1996) as my staff officers in succession. I could not have had any better. The latter’s father was the founder and my Commanding Officer in the Gemunu Watch (GW). I also ‘borrowed’ Capt Malik Deen from TFHQ when available.

Jaffna Command area

All troops under OC Troops Jaffna and OC troops Mannar were under Task Force One. Jaffna Command included Vavuniya (170kms) and Mullativu (135kms) from Pallaly with detachments from all regiments including Artillery and Armoured Reconnaissance. The detachments were in Madagal, Thondamanaru, Vellvettiturai (VVT), Old Park (Kachcheri) Jaffna, Elephant Pass (EPS), Pooneryn, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya.

Vavuniya

A huge camp in Vavuniya was being built. It was then exclusively for a detachment of the Armoured Reconnaissance (Recce) Regiment. It was excluded from the peninsula as it was believed that armoured vehicles in Jaffna could be seen as a sign of provocative belligerence. It turned out to be so when they were sent there later by Weeratunge when he became army commander.

Mullativu

Mullativu detachment due to the paucity of regular troops was manned by SL National Guard volunteers. Army HQ believed it was a low priority base although in hindsight it seems cock eyed. Its commander for some time was an Immigration staff officer who was free with the booze and was once ordered back to base from the peninsula just before he took off for a sneak visit to Nagadeepa. His successor late Lt. SK Goonethileke corrected the situation. The Nanthi Kadal lagoon and the light house were prominent landmarks amidst thick jungle. I had been there last in 1952 when I accompanied my father on his six monthly judicial circuits as District Judge Anuradhapura.

Hearts and Minds

The behaviour and conduct of the troops to win the hearts and minds of the citizens mattered as much as military tactics to convince them that the army was there to protect and not to hurt or harm. This was not an easy task when due to under representation of Tamils in the army and language difficulties possibly made the army look, it sadly appeared, alien.

Ration vehicle

An army ration vehicle was noticed in Jaffna market parked in a No Parking area. I sent my driver to ask the other driver to report to me. His explanation for so parking was that the notice was for ‘these people’. An entry was made (in green biro-my trademark, so that it could be immediately recognized as the OC Troops remarks and acted upon) in the vehicle work sheet. No more traffic problems occurred as the transport officer took heed.

Wesak ‘Uthum dane’

On Wesak poya led by Rev Mahinda of the KKS temple we donated blood to the Jaffna hospital. The lady doctor in charge of the blood bank pulled me up for not sending a B+ donor when requested. I had to gently remind her that our solders were posted only for six months and her list of donors was out dated. Obviously OC Troops Jaffna had not impressed the lady doctor a whit.

Girls Orphanage

We made a contribution from the soldiers and officers to the Illaveli Girls’ Orphanage. This had the little girl who gave the vote of thanks in English saying she never thought that the iron hearted (pronounced eyeron) military could also be so generous. In response while thanking the orphans for the super song and dance welcome routine, I said we had not seen so many pretty girls before. It had the little ones cheering wildly as the nuns tried to suppress their smiles.

Near miss

I was on my way back from visiting EPS when a very small child broke loose from his grandmother and jumped onto the road near Iyakachchi. By braking hard we missed the child by inches. Greatly relieved but angry with the grandmother for almost making me party to homicide, I tried to explain to her what a calamity we had just avoided. The language barrier prevented me from proceeding beyond ‘periyar karachal amma’ (big problem mother) when along rolled in Sergeant Vadivel, a huge mustached GW wrestler of no mean size, on his way back to EPS. Quickly sizing up the situation from my few words he went into a harangue in Tamil that made the old lady weep. I last met an enormous Vadivel at Wellawatte a few years ago. He had come from Jaffna on a holiday.

Pooneryn ferry incident

Finally was the letter from Capt. retired Chinniah (Chin) about a driver who had abused him on the Pooneryn ferry the previous year in front of silent witness, an officer whose brother was my classmate at S. Thomas’ College. The driver had not faced charges because of his ‘political’ connections to the then Minister of Fisheries and the witness’s ‘silence’. The driver was summarily stripped of his lance corporal rank despite Chinniah, whose son was an army recruit at Diyatalawa, asking me to forgive the driver.

Sign boards in Tamil

I ordered that all camp sign boards had to be in Tamil as well as given in army and government instructions. This had been an unhealthy omission before. There were on going Tamil language classes being held regularly for troops at Pallaly too.

Death of a policeman

Our test was to come when a truant soldier (Upul) of the Gemunu Watch Rapid Deployment Force based at Old Park shot and killed in a drinking den the Jaffna court’s Goliath like popular police sergeant. Upul slipped back into the camp. His platoon commander Captain (posthumously promoted Lt Col being killed in a battalion operation against the LTTE at VVT in 1987) Srimal Mendis was devastated. I had the soldier produced.

I knew him as a gutsy recruit; athlete and budding rugby player from my days commanding recruit training at the Army Training Centre. He told me how it happened. It was an unpremeditated act under the influence of liquor. I handed him over to SP (later DIG) Nizam who I had known from our days in Mannar to be remanded and produced in court. Upul was charged with murder. He later died violently in his home town of Galle while on bail during the JVP insurrection of 1988-9.

Funeral

I went unarmed as normal, accompanied by Capt Malik Deen (who pleaded with me to carry a weapon) to the police sergeant’s house, saluted the dead body, condoled with his parents and attended the funeral. This death was a cruel blow to our efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people of Jaffna.

Fitness for role and admin inspections

It was a tradition and necessity to visit all detachments to get a feel of the command -mainly its’ officers and men - before planning on how the situation should be met. I set about it ASAP knowing how inadequate we were especially in troop strengths, weapons, communications, mobility and even clothing. Our maps were pre WW2. Having completed the visits I made my plans. Some of them were already hatching when I was informed of my posting.

Contingency plans

AHQ made my task easier by asking all commands to produce contingency plans for their areas for both conventional war and Counter Insurgency Operations (COIN Ops). I designated India the conventional enemy, even though such ideas were taboo, and made a case for an infantry battalion at EPS and two more for Jaffna. (SL had only four battalions then and empire building(Caesar?) could have been suspected). I was amused later when the OC troops in Galle, 329 kms away, asked for my plan to formulate his. He later became army commander!

I asked the detachment commanders to formulate their COIN Ops plans and decided to test them in their preparedness for operations during my visits to ensure they were fit for their roles. Earlier visits had been purely admin ones which made the detachment commanders experts in fighting paper wars. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) were issued for both contingencies for the first time.

Continued next week

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