A Soldier’s Life

This article contains the text of a speech made by Rohan Pethiyagoda at the launching of An adventurous journey, the memoirs of General Cyril Ranatunga, at the BMICH on 1 July, 2009.

Almost everyone who crossed the path of Cyril Ranatunga in his long and illustrious career in the army, or at least those of us who have survived, are here today. That in itself is a celebration and thanksgiving for the life of this great man.

When he enlisted in the Ceylon Army, as it then was in 1950, the regular army was just a year old. In his memoirs he tells us why he enlisted. It was not to serve his motherland; it was not to serve and die for his country. Being a modest man—and a truthful one—he tells us the real reason was that as a schoolboy at St. Athony’s Katugastota, when Lord Mountbatten’s Eastern Command was based in Peradeniya during World War II, he stood in awe of the smartly-uniformed soldiers in and around Kandy. He was attracted primarily to their attire and their lifestyle, rather than the cause they were serving.

So he applied to be one of the first officer-entrants to the regular army of newly independent Ceylon, and was recruited. As a subaltern he was sent for training to Aldershot, Sandhurst and Bovington in England. On the last of these trips, he travelled to the UK on the P&O liner Orontes that plied between Brisbane and London. On board he met an elegant, dashing young lady, Myrtle Sumanasekera, and in the course of that three week passage, a romance began and blossomed. By the time the ship docked in London the couple had decided to become engaged. They were shortly thereafter married. That then, was the first of many conquests he was to make in the course of his eventful life.

Having returned to the comparative peace and prosperity Sri Lanka enjoyed in the early 1950s, he found there was little role for an army at the time. It was a gentleman’s army, focused on training, sports and the periodic tattoos in the course of which servicemen would perform for the public’s amusement. Even when the 1958 race riots took place, and Sri Lanka was convulsed by violence for the first time in its post-independence trajectory, the army played only a marginal role. The police was able to control the disturbances largely on their own. Many may have questioned in those early years whether we needed an army at all.

Costa Rica

As an aside I want to recall a discussion of this very question I had some years ago with Dr Óscar Arias Sánchez, who is now President of a small country of some four million people, about the same size as Sri Lanka, diametrically on the other side of the planet to ours: Costa Rica. At about the time when Sri Lanka became independent, Costa Rica shook off the last of its military dictatorships and became a democracy. It is one of the oldest democracies in the Americas.

In 1948 the Costa Ricans decided to abolish their army. It was a heretical idea, but they became the first country in modern history to do it, largely to avoid a military dictatorship ever happening again. Many people thought then that Costa Rica was doomed, because immediately to its north and its south lay Nicaragua and Panama, two extremely politically unstable countries. In the course of their internal turmoil in recent decades, Nicaragua and Columbia exported hundreds of thousands of refugees to Costa Rica. Yet, without an army, Costa Rica, as small as it was, managed to retain its sovereignty, identity and independence.

President Arias, as he is now, had visited Sri Lanka and knew of our struggle with separatist terrorism. The first question he asked me was, "What is it about your people that makes you fight with each other?" (He is not only a pragmatist but also a pacifist, having won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987). He gave me the example of why Costa Rica had not only done away with her army but, despite being rich in oil, had serious reservations about exploiting this resource. The reasoning is as simple as it is courageous: all the other developing countries that have exploited their oil have not in fact developed much, but have the highest levels of both corruption and authoritarian rule. Despite doing things different, Costa Rica, having started way behind us in 1948, now has a per capita GNP four times that of Sri Lanka.

On the topic of war, Dr Sanchez drew an interesting analogy from the world of insects. If you prod a nest of ants, a horde of angry ants will emerge to fight you off. These are not the young braves. It is the geriatric ants, well past their prime, that are sent out to do battle and give their lives up for the good of the colony. Sanchez’s point was this: if the whole world made it a rule that you had to be 50 before being allowed to enlist in the army, there would be no more war. We find it so easy to send young men out to battle. The tragedy of a country like ours, as we recover from this 30-year spasm of violence, is the number of young people who, having hardly tasted of life, have been killed or crippled. It is a tragedy that so many unfulfilled lives—lives on both sides—has been lost in vain.


So it happened that it was 21 years before Cyril Ranatunga saw blood as an army officer, when in 1971 Sri Lanka was rocked by the first JVP insurrection. As a lieutenant-colonel at the time, he was appointed Military Coordinating Officer of the Kegalle District by Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike. He did an excellent job there. Not only was the rebellion quashed very rapidly, it was done in the most humane way possible. But that was not generally true of that conflict.

We often forget that wars, whether it be with the JVP, the LTTE or between America and Iraq, are a result of a failure of politics. Every war in history has been the same. In 1971 and 1987, when the southern youth rebelled because of a lack of opportunity, our solution was not a political one. We simply killed them. Similarly, when a section of the Tamil people wanted what they perceived to be a separate identity, the solution amongst the militant ones was to kill other Tamils and other Sinhalese. We often forget that the biggest victims of Tamil separatist violence have been Tamils themselves.


In the course of my life I have been to many funerals and one of them presented an unusual irony. A few days before the assassination of the TULF leader Mr. A. Amirthalingam, we met at dinner at the home of my late brother-in-law, Gamini Dissanayake. There, in the course of a lively discussion, Mr. Amirthalingam probably for the first time in his life frankly admitted to Gamini that he had been wrong all along. He admitted that the TULF should not have stood idly by and applauded as the LTTE decimated the other Tamil parties. Prabhakaran had picked off one by one those he saw as his future political rivals. As this spate of barbaric murders progressed, there was not, from the mainstream Tamil parties, a single voice of protest. Each had watched with glee as the other was slain.

A few days later, when we met at her husband’s funeral in Jaffna, Mrs Amirthalingam reminded me of the fact and said that until the very end, he never thought he too, would fall victim to Prabhakaran’s bloodlust. It was too late for him, and she knew there would be yet other Tamils that were gloating at his murder, by people he had, until nearly the very end, referred to affectionately as "the Boys".

That the war was largely the result of a failure of Tamil politics (apart from Sinhala insensitivity) is among the key insights that serve to enrich General Ranatunga’s autobiography. He has subjected Sri Lanka’s recent history to careful scrutiny, though unfortunately so briefly. Why the JVP rebellion failed; what it was that made us the nation we are today.

Casualty Care

The period immediately following his retirement from the army in early 1983 as a Brigadier, saw the beginning of the most traumatic period Sri Lanka has suffered in its post-independence history. The war started in earnest that year, but as General Ranatunga points out in his book, Tamil militancy had been building up ever since the accession of the DMK to power in Tamil Nadu in 1967. Successive Sri Lankan governments failed to heed regular and persistent warnings from the intelligence services that a militant movement was in the making.

At the time of the 1983 riots I was a junior government servant working in the Ministry of Health as Director of Biomedical Engineering Services. As service casualties mounted, it became clear that the army’s medical service was finding it difficult to cope. Ours had, after all, from the beginning been essentially a peacetime army. As a gung-ho 28-year old, I asked to be sent to train for a short time with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Aldershot, to learn how fighting armies normally managed to care for casualties.

This was soon after the Falklands War of 1982 and there were still casualties from that conflict in British hospitals. I was amazed to learn that in the whole of the Falklands Campaign, in the course of which more than 250 British troops lost their lives, not a single serviceman (from either side) who reached a British Army medical facility alive went on to die of the injuries that brought them to hospital. Their medical services—even so far from home — were that good.

I decided then that we should do all we should to make this happen also in the case of Sri Lanka. With no time for procedural niceties, we siphoned large sums of money voted to the Health Ministry to help improve casualty care services for the army, acts for which the Auditor General is yet to catch up with me. In addition to equipping the forces hospitals in Palaly, Vavuniya and many other camps, we also ensured that every soldier carried with him a field dressing and, in combat, pain relievers.

It was in the course of this association with the army that I first came into contact with General Ranatunga, who in 1985 had been recalled to service and appointed General Officer Commanding the Joint Operations Command (JOC). It so happened that Cyril Ranatunga recognized even then that at least as far as medical services were concerned, the army was not yet equipped to manage a big operation.

And so, with his inspiration and guidance, I was commissioned with the job of coordinating a group of civilian doctors, surgeons and anaesthetists who would form a Rapid Deployment team that could be sent out to wherever operations were taking place. They would be on hand to take care of casualties as close to the front line as possible, and the effect this had on troop morale was remarkable. This volunteer service continued for many years, in the course of which many eminent doctors of the time—Michael Abeyaratne, Narendra Wijemanne, M. H. de Zoysa, Mohan de Silva, to name just a few of the dozen or so medics who regularly volunteered their time and skill—not least my good friend the late Sureon Commander Laki Dissanayake. We were often summoned and sent off at short notice by the JOC whenever action threatened in the North. Today the army is a different engine altogether and its Medical Service is fantastic and doing a great job. But 25 years ago, it was a very different matter.


And so it happened that the watershed of May 1987 came along. Cyril Ranatunga had, with his senior military staff, planned what they hoped was the final battle that would rid Sri Lanka of Prabhakaran and the LTTE once and for all. At his side were brilliant officers, many of whom are in this room today, and of whom I will name only two that are not: Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Vijaya Wimalaratne. The operation was the biggest the Sri Lankan armed forces had fought up to that time. It was brilliantly commanded, efficiently executed, and in many ways it was Cyril Ranatunga’s finest hour. He was clearly walking with destiny. We were all in Palaly in the days before the operation, preparing for the casualties that would come—and did come—and in his book you will see a letter written by Laki to his wife Cynthia from Palaly the day before the operation commenced detailing the preparations that had been made and the inspiration the General had given the troops. Laki compared the general in oratory to George C. Patton. None of us who were there could forget this.

Thus it was that in just 11 days the armed forces completely surrounded the LTTE within a small part of Jaffna. On June 3, facing total annihilation, the call went out to India to come to their aid. And we all know the sequel: the invasion of Sri Lanka by the IPKF in 1987. General Ranatunga makes no bones in his book about the fact that it was India that inspired and planned the rebellion in the north of Sri Lanka, and armed and trained the rebels.

So on June 4, those of us old enough still remember the Indian air force overflying Jaffna. Then there was the flotilla from Tamil Nadu that tried, with support from the Indian Navy, to enter Sri Lankan waters, to be bravely rebuffed by our own navy. And the threatening presence of the Indian Navy, aircraft carrier and all, anchored off Galle Face. Never since 1505 had there been as grave a threat to our island’s sovereignty. We were forced to accede to a ‘solution’ that was thrust upon us from New Delhi. That, to a large extent, broke Cyril Ranatunga’s spirit, and he was not alone. Many of us too, were pretty dejected.


In 1988 he left the army and returned to Airport and Aviation Services as its Chairman; because the IPKF was here, there was no role for him to play. The following year he was appointed Secretary to the Ministry of Defence by President Premadasa. In his memoirs you will find the reasons we had to become dependent on Pakistan and China for armaments: even then, in the post-1983 era, the western world was treating us as a pariah nation they did not want to equip to defend itself from terrorism. The international war on overseas terror came into fashion in the West only after 9/11, when the west finally realized that terror elsewhere could come home to roost.

In due course the General moved on as High Commissioner, first to Canberra and then to London. In 1994 he finally retired to his ancestral home in Mawanella. And there he lives even today, with his wonderful wife, Myrtle. Cyril Ranatunga had earlier declined President Jayewardene’s offer to elevate him to Field Marshal on his retirement. Modesty forbade him to accept such an honour; his career in the army had come to an end and it was time to move on.

And though Douglas McArthur reminded us that old soldiers never die, they simply fade away, he did not fade away. At Mawanella, he became completely absorbed in environmental issues. Whenever you drive to Kandy, remember that the Kadugannawa Pass looks as good as it does, with even the boutiques moved to the left-hand side of the road so as not to obstruct the view, largely thanks to his efforts; likewise the greening of the Balana Pass, where he caused tens of thousands of trees to be planted. This is now the only scenic bit of the Colombo-Kandy highway.

It is wonderful then, that this remarkable man chose to record his years of service in these memoirs that we may all cherish and delight in. General Ranatunga is now entering his late ‘70s and may feel he has lived long. He has certainly lived a wonderful life, and his story is one from which every Sri Lankan could derive inspiration.

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