Vadamarachchi – Was President JR a traitor?


by Izeth Hussain

Several questions arose in my mind while reading the opening paragraphs of K.M. de Silva’s Sri Lanka and the Defeat of the LTTE (2012). In May 1987 the armed forces led by General Cyril Ranatunge routed the LTTE at Vadamarachchi, and Prabhakaran together with some of his top associates fled in disarray to Tamil Nadu where they were accommodated by the regional government. General Ranatunge had planned to proceed thereafter to Jaffna town and its environs, but he desisted on the orders of President Jayewardene. The reason for the President’s decision was that he had been warned by the Indian Government that the military move into Jaffna would be resisted by the Tamils, resulting inevitably in a blood bath and that would be unacceptable to India. The Indian Government took up that position because of pressure from Tamil Nadu.

The author points out that it took twenty two more years to complete what General Ranatunge had begun. "Those of us who knew what had happened were disappointed at the consequences of this Indian intervention but always felt that the LTTE could be defeated militarily …." There followed the years and decades during which the defeatist notion prevailed that the war was unwinnable. "General Ranatunge’s Vadamarachchi campaign was one of the forgotten episodes of the struggle against the LTTE, forgotten by the politicians in Sri Lanka, including heads of government". In his retirement he would talk about the success of the Vadamarachchi campaign to visitors, "especially those whom he trusted to be discreet …..". General Fonseka, who was a lieutenant colonel in the Vadamarachchi operation, knew that the war was winnable and proceeded to win it in 2009.

We have to ask whether the Indian Government was justified in demanding that the armed forces desist from going into Jaffna, and whether President Jayewardene was justified in giving in to that demand. The specific question that arises in that connection is whether there was anything untoward in the Vadamarachchi operation, anything that went against the established norms of war, anything that in any way outraged the moral sensibility of the international community. The problem of food shortages in Jaffna was much bruited about in the weeks preceding the air-drop of 1987. During that period I was second-in-command at the Foreign Office, and I recall a significant exchange that I had with High Commissioner Dixit when he met me on a matter that had nothing to do with the ethnic problem. After finishing with that matter, I asked him what really was the food situation in the North. He began his reply with a statement that surprised me. It went something like this:"I am glad that at last someone has asked me that question". It signified a serious failure in communication between the two Governments. He went on to say that at the moment people in Jaffna ate only one meal a day, which was inadequate for human sustenance, and sooner or later one or more persons would die of hunger. When that happened all hell would break loose in Tamil Nadu, and the Delhi Government would find itself in a difficult position.

However, none of that happened and the Government was not accused of using starvation of Tamil civilians as a weapon of war against the LTTE to any serious extent, which would have been regarded as morally reprehensible by the international community. There certainly were food shortages in the North but that was not a factor in the military operations that decided the outcome at Vadamarachchi. Furthermore there were no allegations of war crimes as in 2009. What took place in Vadamarachchi in 1987 was a straightforward military operation illustrating one of the basics of guerilla warfare: guerilla forces cannot win against Government troops in positional warfare except at the final stages after demoralization has gone far among the government troops and they start running, as in Vietnam in 1975.

So, taking count of prevailing international norms, nothing should have precluded General Ranatunge proceeding to Jaffna and ending the LTTE rebellion once and for all. We must bear in mind, above all, that the State has the primordial duty of putting down armed rebellion as otherwise it loses its very raison d’être: according to Weber’s definition the State legitimizes itself by having a monopoly of the means of violence. So why did the Indian Government demand that our troops desist from going into Jaffna and why did President JR succumb to that demand? Many Sri Lankans, perhaps most, will hold that it was a case of Indian imperialist bullying of a small neighbor. I hold that the explanation is that Rajiv Gandhi believed that he could bring about a negotiated solution of the ethnic problem, which would obviate a troublesome fall-out in Tamil Nadu of a LTTE military defeat. I believe that there was a division within the Indian Government on how to deal with the LTTE. I recall that on April 19, 1995, when the LTTE broke the ceasefire and started fighting again, the Indian Ambassador in Moscow told me that he was not in the least surprised by what had happened. While he was Advisor on foreign relations to Rajiv Gandhi he had led something like five rounds of talks with the LTTE led by Prabhakaran. He had come to the firm and abiding conclusion that Prabhakaran was a psychopath with whom it would never ever be possible to reach a negotiated solution. Alas, Rajiv G’s pacifist line prevailed in 1987.

Why did President JR succumb to the Indian demand? If there had been any responsible thinking on that demand it would have soon become apparent that the international community would frown on it. How can any sovereign state be denied the right, or rather the primordial duty, to put down an armed rebellion by military means? There would have been collateral damage of course but that could be easily contained, if necessarily with Indian help, considering the small extent of Sri Lankan territory. There was no reason to suspect that there would not be reasonable observance of humanitarian standards during the fighting. Considering all that, it would have soon become apparent that India would not have dared invade Sri Lanka over that demand. In that event it would have incurred widespread international opprobrium, and also it would have become embroiled in a thoroughly messy imbroglio in Sri Lanka.

The explanation for JR’s decision could just be that he committed a monumental blunder. He was certainly a man of enormous ability, as shown by the fact that he was the first South Asian leader to grasp that the State-centric economy could only brig further disaster. But in most ways his reign brought disaster for Sri Lanka because of his blunders. The question cannot be evaded – while acknowledging the possibility of a monumental blunder – whether he played the role of a traitor in 1987. This question arises because his nationalism has always been regarded as suspect, as attested by the fact that he was known for decades as Yankee Dick. There are Sri Lankans who believe that in reality he hated the Sinhalese, more particularly the Sinhalese Buddhists, the explanation for which they say is to be found in his family history. It is known that in the late nineteenth century and the early decades of the last century the low-country Sinhalese who rose into the elite sought status by marrying into the Kandyan aristocracy. JR’s family was a singular exception.

It is relevant to recall something that reportedly happened at one of Sir John Kotelawale’s famous egg-hopper breakfasts when he was Prime Minister. JR came to see him on some matter and when he was going away Sir John pointed at him and said, "That fellow wants to become Prime Minister. If he ever does, he will destroy this country". The story was recounted to me also by a well-known Sri Lankan – his is a household name – who said that he was present on that occasion. I recall also what was said by the late Karl Goonewardene, Professor of History, when some horrible injustice perpetrated by the 1977 Government was being discussed by some of us. It went something like this: "The problem really is JR. He hates the people of this country, and since that is so he can only bring disaster to this country." I recalled Karl while the horror of July ’83 was taking place, and I recalled him also while reading the first few paragraphs of de Silva’s book.

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