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Gota’s War - Review



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By Lalin Fernando


CA Chandraprema (CAC)’s book even if he has got much to learn about SL’s military if not its history, has been called the "finest and most comprehensive …….. of the … conflict" (Sarath Amunugama) and also the most ‘definitive’ (Rajpal Abeynayake). Sadly, though there are riveting descriptions of military operations and background lore, it lacks authenticity, balance, sensitivity and is subtly laced with malice and bias. Yet it does not lack humour. It will certainly challenge Weiss’ ‘The Cage’ and in October BBC’s Francis Harrison’s "Still counting the dead".


Why did the author call it Gota’s war? He answers that by saying abruptly that without Gota (GR) "no victory’. This immediately red cards the "greatest Army Commander in the world" (MR). Of course CAC could have called it MR’s war instead too.


CAC gives a version of the back ground to the appointment of Fonseka as Army Commander. He may have not been privy to the dinner to over 100 retired forces and police senior officers at Temple Trees on 10 October 2005 where it was openly bandied that Fonseka would be made Army Commander, when and not if, MR became President .It was said that it was so because only Fonseka could defeat the LTTE.


The deaths of hundreds of soldiers affected politicians and some others little. The author’s expression "cocktail of human remains" referring to the bodies of soldiers after a landmine blast (pg 126) displays an appalling and pitiless lack of sensitivity. Some believed that soldiers’ lives were expendable. Nearly 200,000, one percent of the population, overwhelmingly rural youth, died in 40 years due to the rebellions. While it is debatable whether the conflicts were avoidable there is no doubt that the death toll was. Life had become atrociously cheap.


The author dedicates his book to an interesting short list of 6 politicians and army officers he "knew and held in high regard’. He then bundles the rest together, (100,000?) as "all others who fell in the war against terror" Conspicuously, if not intriguingly there is no Kobbekaduwa, indisputably until Fonseka the man most linked to SL’s battlefield victories. Instead he almost twins Ranjan Wijeratne with GR. Gota was a thousand leagues above and remained a Colonel unlike Wijeratne, the tea planter who (was) made General! Sensibly CAC did not dare call it ‘Wijeratne’s war’.


CAC outlines in vivid, well researched but targeted detail mixed unfortunately what appears to be gossip, the devastating disasters ("Decade of Darkness", "A failing military", "On the verge of collapse") that befell the army in 10 deadly years from 1991. He dwells on the various power plays and fond relationships at the top but shows little empathy for the endurance, implicit trust and guts of the man who made the greatest sacrifices and bore the brunt of the war- the SL soldier. There is not a single photograph of a soldier in the ‘war against terror’ book which has 6 of Prabhakaran. Yet inured to deaths of the soldiers, (23,000 killed and missing -believed dead), it also makes him say callously of an incident ‘there were no damages except for 70 soldiers killed’. The Western forces in Afghanistan since 2001 and in Iraq since 2003 (total 20 years) have lost just about 6,000 dead. Their countrymen mourn the death of every single soldier.


While CAC’s did research on officers he was unable to trace then Corporal not sergeant Ratnayake as the soldier on leave in the vicinity who rushed to the Mahavilachchiya police station at night 27/28 Sep 1985(pg 141) to set up a successful ambush. Ratnayake was given a double promotion.


CAC has seen well the disadvantages that cursed the army from the start with political heads demanding victory but unable to provide basic resources, especially manpower, weapons and equipment. The consequences were inevitable.


He may not have known that in 1979, Army Commander Gen Perera instructed that presentations be made by selected groups of officers on these requirements. Col (later General) Nalin Seneviratne’s group when there were only 3 regular made a case for 39 regular infantry battalions. Perera eventually was authorized to raise 2 new battalions, Rajarata and Vijayba, in addition to a Commando Regiment and the SLA Women’s Corps. Today each of the 5 infantry regiments has about 29 making a total of nearly 150 battalions. The Chinese equivalent of the AK 47, the T56, became general issue. The LTTE used the AK47.


CAC also fails to point out that in 1979 when JR sent his nephew, the army’s no 2, Weeratunge, to Jaffna to sort the terrorists out, he cunningly by passed and undermined the authority of the Army Commander Lt Gen Perera. After Lt Gen.Perera, Seneviratne took over as Army Commander. His brother Ana the IGP was Weeratunge’s brother in law. Then came Wanasinghe whose professional limitations were not a bar. He was followed by JR’s niece’s husband Waidyaratne. All this while the Defence Secretaries were a volunteer force Colonel and assorted retired Generals. One of the old codgers slept before, during and after work. Premadasa did not like army officers and possibly the army. The debilitating effects of nepotism, favouritism and massive fraud did not draw fire from CAC. He delinked them from the series of disasters that followed. Why?


Although this was an infantry war and Army Commanders should logically have been selected from that arm, of 10 who held the post in the crucial period from 1978, six were from other arms of the service. This aberration was never visited on the SLN or SLAF. The army was the guarantor of the government’s longevity.


Victorious armies are not dependant on family or political relationships but on the fighting spirit of well trained soldiers led by experienced, knowledgeable and bold officers. From 1993 except for one exception the appointment of Army Commander was not based on politics or relationships. The success that followed surprised no one. A battered and bruised, tested and willing army cried out for decisive leadership and got it from the well known troika. Those who wanted victory and peace did not question the decision.


Yes, officers approached DBW the simple C in C, by passing the Army Commander. Ostensibly it was to propagate military matters but really to promote themselves. The C in C humoured them. But CAC publicizes their gratuitous tomes. The rusting chain of command creaked perilously.


CAC’s description of the Officer Cadet School (OCS) which GR attended is heavily flawed if dramatic. It is not a correctional facility for the gates to be "slammed shut" after arrival. Vehicle barriers at the entrance are operated by day and the gates are shut at 10 pm. New cadets board the train at Colombo Fort not Maradana. At Diyatalawa railway station there is a reception party of a company sergeant major with drill sergeants to receive them. A truck would take them with their baggage to the OCS. They are definitely not marched through town to the OCS, now SL Military Academy. It is the kit bag and not the kit in it that is referred to as ‘ali kakula’. (Elephant leg). Cadets are treated and trained as gentlemen (they are called ‘Sir’ from the first day) and not recruits in any way or at any time and place. They have to respond accordingly whatever CAC may have heard. Their training however is far, far tougher. Also tactics not strategy is taught to cadets at OCS as they are trained to lead platoons not regiments or brigades on commissioning, not ‘graduating’. Of course discipline is strict. Integrity is not taught. If one does not have it, instant dismissal follows.


It is not correct to say that when officer cadets request selection to units the infantry is ‘not necessarily favoured because they were non technical’. The battle training at OCS is mainly infantry as in all military academies and recruit training centres. At OCS it severely tests the cadets’ leadership qualities. Infantry is the main fighting arm of an army in the tropics. In the SL conflict it took 90 - 95% of the casualties. The cadets, both who wanted to and did not want to join the infantry, knew that well. No more need to be said except that all the best fighting commanders of the Army were from the infantry with one brilliant exception, Denzil Kobbekaduwa, who was from Armoured Corps.


It was Major(later Lt Col) Jayantha de Silva an infantry officer (SLLI), then Staff Officer 2 (R &D) in Weeratunge’s HQ who was selected and responsible for the designs, planning and building SL’s first ten APCs. He decided on his own to have the V shaped hull with double thickness quarter inch metal to deflect the blast (see Wikipedia). While the South African (SA) Buffel APCs were designed to take about 5 kg of explosive he designed the local hull to take the blast of 75 kg of explosives in barrels. He worked with then Major (later Brigadier) KL Rasaputra of SL Electrical and Mechanical Engineers who took over the project later. The first chassis (less engines) for the experiments were off road/condemned vehicles in Army Ordnance. When the metal seam in the hull opened up in trial blasts, he used plasma welding. Pumpkins first and later monkeys were used to test blast effect. The SA Buffels which were imported later carried water in the single sheet metal hull.SA troops needed it to drink in the heat of the veldt. When the extremely powerful LTTE land mines went off in SL, the water boiled and vapourised. The resultant injuries to the troops were horrific.


The founder Commander of the legendary Special Forces (SF) was Maj Gen Gamini Hettiarachchi (GH) WWV, RWP, who lost one eye in very close combat in a closely fought operation to take the One Four Base in Mullativu in the early 1990s.The SF evolved from the combat tracker team started by GH which led to RDF teams too and finally the raising of the Special Forces in 1988 (see Wikipedia). The impact of the SF with its RDF element consisting of 4 man teams that operated deep in LTTE held areas (20kms?) made a stunning difference to the fighting capabilities and morale of the SL army. They were greatly feared by the LTTE. It was then Col Hettiarachchi whose planter brother was murdered by the JVP in Bandarawella who caught Wijeweera with his troops in November 1989, although some others claimed the success. However GH’s role or name is not mentioned in the book. Instead confusingly there are some references to an RDF being formed by some one else. That ersatz RDF consisted of infantrymen in companies being trained in batches for similar roles. It was supposed to be modeled on the SSG of the Pakistan Army. It did not last long.


CAC unfortunately takes a mean swipe at iconic Gen DL Kobbekaduwa (DLK). He says DLK hesitated to attack Jaffna Fort (1990) after the taking of Mandativu Island and this led to severe casualties later. This is erroneous if not mischievous.


To begin with First Sinha did not come from Pallaly to the naval base at Karainagar. It came straight from the East in landing craft, having been pulled out from some heavy fighting there. The Sinha and Gajaba assault battalions got to Mandativu after evicting the LTTE from Kayts. They found the causeway linking it to Jaffna Fort blasted. CAC fails to mention this. Contrary to CAC’s version it is highly unlikely that the LTTE, as he quotes "World’s deadliest Terrorist Organization" that was trying desperately for weeks to take the Fort, would have abandoned their prepared positions overlooking the landing places, simply because the army was on the other side of the lagoon.


In clearing Mandativu, First Sinha taken by surprise, charged over an open stretch and killed 76 LTTE, the highest body count until Weli Oya. Thereafter about 2 weeks were required to get the resources (boats etc), train and rehearse to make what was to be the first amphibious operation ever. There were incessant and unpopular boat drills, the value of which was realized only when it was done for real.


The attack went in successfully as planned although CAC obtusely makes out it was a ‘defeat’. The trapped 6th Sinha casualties were air lifted. Then Ranjan Wijeratne impulsively insisted that the troops strike out for Jaffna town (despite CAC’s concocted figures of 180 killed in the assault!).He was told that the LTTE had every inch of land into and out of the Fort covered by ferocious fire for months.DLK protested vehemently but was over ruled. Carnage followed. Ranatunge is a witness. Great quantities of gold that had been stored in the Fort were taken out. So was it the soldiers’ lives or the gold that interested the politicians? CAC does not even mention the gold.


Of course two of CAC’s officer friends (both dead) were insanely and shamelessly jealous of DLK’s charisma, professional competence and popularity. Is it their ‘spirits’ that urge CAC to belittle DLK?


CAC also faults DLK for his own death! He says the decision to visit Kayts Island for a reconnaissance which resulted in the deaths of everyone in the vehicle less the driver in which they travelled was because it was DLK who wanted everyone to get into one vehicle. Or was it that someone else said that there was no danger from the LTTE on Kayts Island, then under army control? If only the dead could talk.


CAC bucks the statement of Wimalaratne that the relief of the siege of EPS (1991) was "the greatest victory achieved by the SL Army (pg 204). It was, until the taking of Jaffna in 1996. If it was so CAC says ‘that in itself was a major problem’. This despite the fact this was the biggest defeat inflicted on the LTTE up to that time. Adele Balasingham (Wikipedia) a terrorist thought so too but not CAC. There was also tremendous euphoria over the heroism of rifleman ‘Hasalaka’ Kularatne who died in blowing up a LTTE armoured bull dozer that had broken through the defences. Was this another serial dig at DLK who commanded ‘Operation Balavegaya’ though CAC says it was someone else? Stalingrad, Alam Halfa that preceded Alamein and Bastogne et al are epic defensive battles. What was wrong with EPS? Was it because it was a feather in DLK’s cap? Did not an Army Commander spitefully list it amongst ‘major set backs’ with other battles (pg 203)? CAC slipped in the ‘list’ into his book too.


It should not have been too difficult for a journalist to appreciate the tri service planning, effort, team work and sacrifices that went into the relief of the siege after the biggest amphibious landing ever,(over 10,000 troops, armoured vehicles and artillery) unrehearsed and put together at very short notice.


The LTTE at that time was fighting a guerilla campaign based on hit and run tactics. It did not hold ground, so significant victories over them had necessarily to be during any type of confrontations be they ambushes, defences or raising of sieges. Later the LTTE made bold by over running well defended Army camps, adopted conventional warfare and held ground. It was to be the LTTE’s fatal error.


Chandraprema describes ‘successive’ (sickening and appalling to others) mob actions as in 1983 as "the birth pangs of the new nations in Asia". Was one of these qualifying ‘new nations’ SL? What births did the pangs lead to? He makes light of "stories of torture, ‘bumping off’ of suspected terrorists…" in Jaffna under Weeratunge in 1979. Minister Sarath Amunugama in his review (Sunday Island 22 May 2012) euphemistically labels them "overkills". The people paid the price. The ‘interfering’ west will surely take cognizance of such ill advised remarks.


Fortunately the vast majority of people in SL including the troops did understand that the conflict was brought about by mutual mistakes especially those made by the politicians.


Chandaperuma quotes "Operation completion reports" in plenty but nary a single war diary of any regiment to show what actually happened as it occurred? If there was, SL could have used it as detailed proof of their actions to any international or national inquiry. Instead SL has to reel off reams of explanations which have not been well received even locally. There were also some Army Commanders’ directives /notices galore being quoted like scriptures. While they have added volume to the book they appear to have had little effect on the army- so basic were their contents. What was required was inspiring battlefield leadership-which their authors lacked.


Chandraprema has made a weighty (504 pages) contribution to the literature of the conflict. How much of it is credible is the question. Why did it come to this after a magnificent and glorious victory over 30 years of terrorism?


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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