Correcting a response

I must thank Gen Gerry de Silva (Gerry) who I contacted before writing my piece (13 Aug 11) for his response to my ‘corrections’ to his book and for saying that ‘corrections’ will be made in future copies. This means he has included completely unauthenticated material in his book. He will probably have to rehash his "What might have been" section (pgs 29-30) if not other sections too.

Both of us served not in one but two regiments (Sinha and Gemunu) having being trained at RMA Sandhurst, 18 months apart. We have shared many happy and some very exhausting experiences together as brother officers including firing on the ranges from crack of dawn to sunset, field exercises in Diyatalawa, Ridiyagama and Lahugala and long marches from Haputale to Ridiyagama (71 miles in the jungle), route marches to Badulla, playing cricket for the army and both regiments (we were regimental champs 3 times), hockey and rugby for the Gemunu Watch and rollicking mess parties in SL’s best regiment. There is thus no reason for either of us "to reach unwarranted conclusions" as he puts it ending with a quote from the Bible.

Gerry would remember an incident in 1962. There was a nasty witch hunt in the army after the attempted coup d’ etat by Catholic military and police officers mainly. Gerry was questioned by a court of inquiry headed by Major MO Gooneratne (former Ceylon cricketer whose son served in the SLAF) the second in command of the Sinha Regiment at the Army Training Centre (ATC). The inquiry was about live ammo being profusely and illegally in the possession of some troops in Diyatalawa. It was a very serious court martial offence if not connected to treason as well at that unhappy time. Gerry created a sensation by suddenly producing a live grenade to the court. It may have sent the court diving desperately for cover. On recovering the court not wanting to jeopardise Gerry’s career asked him if any one else knew about his exhibit. Gerry blurted out my name!

On his return to the regimental mess that was temporarily based in the Volunteer Force Camp he told me what he had done and that I would be called to give evidence on the morrow. I asked him why he produced the grenade in court. He said he did so as he could not tell a lie having sworn on the Bible. Not withstanding of course the fact that he had decided before hand to take the (live but not primed) grenade to the inquiry!

I asked him why he brought me into it and he said the same thing. The next day giving evidence on oath I admitted to the court when questioned that it was true that Gerry had confided in me about the grenade. I said I had also advised him to paint the chocolate brown of the live grenade surface white to make it look like a drill (training/practice) grenade. It was a hopelessly naive suggestion as drill grenades are not only white but have holes drilled in them to make doubly sure that they cannot by accident be used as live grenades.

It was clear that the Court wanted to hush things up because although Gerry’s was a court martial offence there was no conspiratorial or evil intent. Gerry was still a fresh faced second lieutenant whose father Capt (Quarter Master) GH de Silva was known to all the Court officers. Had I, to save my skin, denied Gerry’s Bible inspired story and my complicity as a brother officer to help him out of the situation, he may have had his career short circuited. Instead I too had jumped into the same well.

Gerry may also remember that I told the sergeants mess in Jaffna before I handed over command to him in around December 1980 that the ‘problem’ would not be solved by bigger weapons but with better conduct and behaviour. At Ampara at Ekgal Oya (Aru) I showed him the villu at which Maj (later Maj Gen) Sathis Jayasundera and I had seen a leopard in full flight over hundreds of yards, the most exhilarating and thrilling sight I had ever witnessed. I told him to ensure that the wildlife there was always protected for future generations. I think Gerry may have agreed with me on the first although in 1981 the Jaffna library was burned to the ground. However I am told he disregarded my advice on the second and at the Combat Training School (CTS), training was not his first love. He remained a happy ‘grenadier’ of sorts through out his career.

But I must correct Gerry’s ‘responses’ too. I did hand over the Combat Training School to him in the first week of October 1981. I have with me a photo of the flag handing over ceremony (which I had innovated like the double march of the Sinha Regiment) and a group photo. I could not have handed over to him in December 1981 as I had retired from the Army in October as shown in gazette no 385 of 1981.I started working as the first Comptroller of Security at the Central Bank from 11 October 81. So his quoting me within inverted commas too but in the third person (!) could not be right and certainly about the date (18 Dec 1981) what ever Weeratunge had told him in December. Like him I too could not be in two places at the same time although I have travelled from Jaffna to Ampara in one day and had done a return journey likewise.

It is true that one of the reasons that I retired prematurely was Weeratunge. But I did not say anything about him to Gerry or anyone else until long after I had left the army. I was not worried about Weeratunge taking over command and ‘harassing’ me. I was quite used to that. I just did not wish serve under him (advised by his gang of 4) and be politically victimised through out my career every time the UNP was in power especially while JRJ’s nephew was the army commander. Not even for one day.

He had twice victimised me. The first was when I was due for promotion to major (1969) as explained in my first article ’Corrections’(13 Aug 2011).The second was when I was nominated by an Army Selection Board for a Infantry Officers Training course in USA in 1981. I was then told by Army Commander Gen Denis Perera that Col CA Dharmapala ( Secretary Defence) had called him on the phone and told him that he had to send some one else instead of me. The General asked why it was so. Dharmapala had said that the US Army had wanted an officer who was under 40 years of age and that I was 41 years.

Gen Perera said the US Army course instructions sent to AHQ had not given an age limit. He also reminded Dharmapala that the last time this course was offered Lt Col TM Rajudeen was nominated but also rejected. The officer who was selected (like Weeratunge and Dharmapala) was from Matara and was over 50 years. Dharmapala said he had made a mistake then. Gen Perera then asked for a copy of the US Embassy letter. Dharmapala said that the US Defence Attaché had told him this on the phone! (Amended an official US Army instruction on the phone).

Gen Perera then took the army officers’ list and read out the name of the senior most infantry officer under 40 years. It was Maj (later Maj Gen) AMU Seneviratne. Dharmapala had said ‘not him’ and so the next name was read. Dharmapala had said ‘that’s him.

Gen Perera told me that he could offer to resign. I told him that instead I would leave the army. He asked me not to be hasty. I told him that when I was asked to go to any operational area I went but when I was given a career course I was rejected. (The officer who was sent to the USA instead of me was caught shop lifting but still made it to Maj Gen).I saw no respite would be forth coming. After , like Gerry later, I had not been given command of my regiment but purely in my case on political grounds.

Gen Perera asked me to think it over. I agreed. I like many others including I would think Gerry knew who was behind this diabolical move. I went over to Weeratunge’s house which was within walking distance. He was number two to the Commander as Chief of Staff. After normal courtesies I asked him why my name was rejected from the course. He feigned complete, utter and abject ignorance knowing I did not believe him. I switched the subject and asked him what would be my future when he took over as Commander. He who had been with me in the Gemunu Watch from its inception, knew and had used my capabilities for nearly 20 years and commanded it said ’we’ll have to see’.

I knew what he would see. I wanted no part of his vision for me or for my army. I knew it would be vengeful shambles Years later when Gen Kobbekaduwa died he spoke to me for the first time in 10 years and in a conspiratorial revelation hinted openly that Premadasa was responsible by saying "Lalin we both know that a land mine could not have survived in the damp ground in Kayts for so long" making it clear whom and what he suspected. I cut him short by saying that I did not know and did not think so and left. This was a former army Commander speaking about the incumbent C in C. Gerry having served in AHQ under him too refers to him only as "kelle pissa" (jungle nut case).He knew that Weeratunge’s ‘pissuwa’ (madness) was far more erratic.

I then met the US DA a USN officer who had been my immediate neighbour at Barnes Place and whose BBQs I had enjoyed. I asked whether this age limit stipulation had been given by him to the MOD. He categorically denied it.

After I had retired Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe (RW) under whose Youth Ministry I had in 1978/9 coordinated army training for the Mahaveli youth camps at Eraminiyaya (near Ranna in the South) asked me in his office at the Education Ministry in 1983 (after the riots where I met him at the Thurston College refugee camp) why I had decided to retire. I told him. He appeared surprised and said he would inquire and get back to me.

A few days later I phoned him and asked whether he had found out the reasons. He said the reason given was that I was a Lieutenant Colonel and the course was for majors. He made no mention of the 40 year limit. I have the MOD letter saying so. I told him that although even my immediate junior Sena de Sylva had had his rank confirmed a year earlier before retiring (his uncle was Werapitiya, Deputy Minister of Defence) my substantive rank even after 2 years having being Officer Commanding Troops Jaffna and the first Commandant CTS was still Major. Silence but not shame followed.

RW had possibly long surmised what the capabilities of many officers were and this may have led to him believe we could never defeat the LTTE. So, yes, as Gerry says I did not wish to serve under Weeratunge, even for a day. As Weeratunge would say ‘Ask Waidyaratne’. But I knew. Gerry knew too. So did many others who all kept as quiet as doormice.

This gets more amusing. Gerry maintains that the army in Diyatalawa heard about the attack on Wellawaya from a bus driver. Like him, I too was contacted by his "long lost (post master) friend" on the same day 13/8/11. So what? If a former army commander wants to believe that troops were deployed for operations because a post master in Wellawaya sent a note to Koslanda police through a bus driver who on passing Diyatalawa announced to the hoi polloi on the road about an attack on the police station, he is welcome to it. No wonder RW’s opinions of the military’s capabilities were prejudiced and jaundiced.

As Bravo Company Commander I was called by my Commanding Officer Lt Col SB Miyanadeniya to his office around mid morning on 5th April 71when I was conducting a class on (enemy) prisoner of war treatment. He told me that AHQ had informed him that the Wellawaya Police station had been attacked and that I should deploy a platoon there immediately. A short while later AHQ informed us that police in Monaragala (and not the station as Gerry takes pains to emphasise for some reason) had been attacked. Another platoon from my company was to be deployed there making it a company minus one platoon deployment. I took charge of operations in the Monaragala district based at Wellawaya with one platoon directly under me while Second Lieutenant (later Maj Gen) MG Muthalib, who I had trained as an officer cadet, proceeded with a platoon to Monaragala. He had fortunately been deployed there just 2 weeks before on search operations and was familiar with the area.

By the time I arrived at Wellawaya, Major (later Maj Gen) Gratian Silva from AHQ and DIG (later IGP) Rudra Rajasingham had arrived by helicopter from Colombo and Lieutenant B Musafer with his Gunners from Hambantota. If Gerry is right they too must have received the news of the attack through strange sources. What ever had happened to Army/ Police radio Communications? No matter. Hells Bells.

Sorry Gerry I don’t quote from religious texts when writing on or recounting war. It is abominable. I was the man on the spot at Diyatalawa and Wellawaya. But believe me this is getting quite hilarious.

Lalin Fernando

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