Situation Report
By Iqbal Athas
3rd February 2002
The Sunday Times on the Web















Whither south in peace push?

A day in June last year, former Defence Sec retary, Chandrananda de Silva, summoned then Chief of Staff of the Sri Lanka Army, Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, for a one-on-one meeting. 

During a closed door conversation Mr. de Silva told him that he would have to go on retirement upon reaching his 55th birthday on June 15, 2000. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, he said, was willing to appoint him to any suitable post in recognition of the services he had rendered to the Army. The choice was Maj. Gen. Balagalle's. 

By then, President Kumaratunga had wanted the Deputy Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera, to be appointed Commander of the Army. A sizable section of the People's Alliance Cabinet backed him. In the forefront was former PA stalwart and now United National Front Cabinet Minister, S.B. Dissanayake. 

Maj. Gen. Balagalle told Mr. de Silva, he had only one request to make. That was not for a job but for an immediate meeting with President Kumaratunga. He urged the former Defence Secretary to convey this to her and obtain a date and time before his retirement. That was done. 

Appearing before President Kumaratunga, Maj. Gen. Balagalle presented his case. He not only traced his parental background to the Attanagalla electorate but pleaded that he be given a chance to command the Army. He made one avowed pledge to her – to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in just two years and thus end the separatist war. He was only appealing for a chance to do so. A 45 minute long conversation, where Mr. de Silva was also present, ended with President Kumaratunga declaring she would soon make a decision. 

Barely three days later, one night, Mr. de Silva, summoned then Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooria and Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, to his official residence. Over a drink of whisky, he broke the news of President Kumaratunga's decision. Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooria would retire. He had been chosen as Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in Pakistan. 

Not withstanding that the Army suffered its maximum losses of human and equipment resources during his period of command, Lt. Gen. Weerasooria's strong qualification was the fact that he was an associate of Pakistan's military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharaff. Both having been colleagues at the Pakistan Military Academy. Now in Islamabad, he has established a strong rapport with Gen. Musharaff and is one of few diplomats there who could pick up a telephone and speak to him directly. 

Maj. Gen. Balagalle would become the Commander of Army. There was still a knotty problem to be resolved. The transition - Lt. Gen. Weerasooria's departure and Maj. Gen. Balagalle's entry as Army Commander - would have to take place only after the latter's 55th birthday on June 15, 2000. And that was not possible under laws that prevailed. How does one get over the legal difficulties to accommodate Maj. Gen. Balagalle ? That saw the creation of military history, fifty long years after the existence of the Sri Lanka Army. The rules were changed. 

Special Emergency Regulations were promulgated. This came in the form of amendments to the Pensions and Gratuities Code, 1981, (under the Army Act and the Constitution). This empowered President Kumaratunga to retain in the same rank, the service of an officer holding the rank of Brigadier or Major General, by extending their services or by reappointing them, in their substantive rank, at the time of retirement, beyond the age of 55 years…... 

If he became the first officer in the Army's history to become Commander after his 55th birthday, that too after the rules were changed by a Government to accommodate him, Maj. Balagalle, now had another problem. He had no designation. Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera, had succeeded as Chief of Staff. Yet, he could not occupy the Chief of Staff's office at Army Headquarters. It was locked up. The name board on the door had also been removed. He continued to operate from his earlier office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for some weeks. Maj. Gen. Balagalle was to be named Deputy Commander but it soon transpired such an appointment was not possible under the law. Moves to change the laws again were considered but dropped after it was pointed out it would have far reaching consequences. 

Hence, during the period June 15 to August 24, 2000 – for 70 long days – he had no proper designation of any sort whatsoever at Army Headquarters but operated from the office of the Chief of Staff. It was only thereafter that Maj. Gen. Perera moved into this office. He served for five months and retired to be named as Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in Australia. After last December's Parliamentary elections, there was speculation that Maj. Gen. Perera, would return. But he told close friends he had no such intention and preferred to remain as High Commissioner. UNF leaders also said they had no plans to recall retired military officers or those from the Police for regular duty, a contrast to the previous PA Government policy. 

Promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General, Lionel Piyananda Balagalle assumed office as Commander of the Army on August 24, 2000. Since then, he tried very hard to fulfil the pledge he gave President Kumaratunga. He directed a major effort, a surprise attack on Tiger guerrillas in the north, barely 24 hours after a unilateral cease-fire they kept on extending from Christmas eve in 1999, ended on April 24 last year. At the auspicious hour of 1.48 am on April 25, troops broke out on "Operation Agni Khiela." to capture Pallai, the first step in an ambitious plan to re-capture Elephant Pass. It turned out to be a debacle and was called off four days after its launch due to heavy casualties. Over 250 soldiers were killed and over 1600 solders were wounded, at least 225 of them seriously. 

The offensive infuriated the Norwegians, who were playing the role of facilitators to bring the Tiger guerrillas and then PA Government to the negotiating table. The fact that it came barely a day after the guerrillas ended a five month long cease-fire drew a bitter response from the LTTE too. The "Agni Khiela" debacle was the subject of extensive discussions at meetings of the National Security Council that followed. Though Lt. Gen. Balagalle continued to insist the offensive was a success, contrary to media claims, the Council decided there would be no more major offensive operations. The position continued until the People's Alliance was defeated at last December's Parliamentary elections. 

There is still seven more months to go for Lt. Gen. Balagalle's deadline on his pledge to President Kumaratunga, to defeat the LTTE and end the war. That would have come in August this year, much after his current extended term expires on June 15, this year. But the Government has changed. So has Lt. Gen. Balagalle. 

Last Thursday, Lt. Gen. Balagalle, was singing an entirely different tune. He declared that the Sri Lanka Army should start considering ways to absorb Tiger guerrillas into the security forces once peace efforts to end the war succeeded. He was addressing a UNICEF sponsored workshop on "Training of Sri Lanka security forces in the protection of captured child combatants while in military custody." It was a soldier, he declared, who could make proposals on matters military and not civilians. What would be the position of the LTTE after the success of the peace process and do we absorb them to the Army, he asked. 

He provided his own answer – LTTE fighters could be enlisted in the Army, the Navy and even to provide security for Tamil political leaders. "….what would be the future of the LTTE ? There are many child soldiers in the LTTE, there are many cadres in the LTTE. How do we rehabilitate them? How do we absorb them into normal society? ..," Lt. Gen. Balagalle asked. Even the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, perhaps, would not have spelt out publicly the role for his men if a peace accord is reached with the Government. If he does have thoughts on the matter, whether he would be happy to ask them to join Lt. Gen. Balagalle's troops is yet to be seen. That is another matter. 

But political leaders of successive Governments, prosecuting peace talks in the past, have on all occasions, focused on the future role for security forces in a peace time scenario. They were all of the view the security forces would undoubtedly require down sizing and defence expenditure pruned. Both the personnel redundant, and the funds saved, were to be diverted to development programmes. If there was no war, there was no requirement to plough vast amounts of tax payer's money to further expand the security forces. Such funds could easily be diverted for economic development. 

Making his Government's policy statement in Parliament on January 23, Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, revealed that with the war, the economy has deteriorated. "For the first time in three decades the country's economy is set to show a zero degree or even a negative growth. It may be even as much as seven points below. The country is near bankruptcy. There has been no significant foreign direct investment and production is in a parlous state. Exports are in decline….." 

If it is not Lt. Gen. Balagalle, it is the Commander of the Army, who appears to have usurped the role of a Head of State or Head of Government, to make pronouncements on an official policy matter. That too on the grounds that civilians are not qualified to speak on it. 

Lt. Gen. Balagalle cannot be faulted for supporting the Government's latest peace initiatives. It is his bounden duty to do so though one may encounter thought provoking moments like his advice on what to do with Tiger guerrillas when peace arrives. But a plethora of problems in his own organisation, the Army, which needs Lt. Gen. Balagalle's immediate attention seems to be going by default. Nowhere is it better reflected than in the Government's latest peace initiatives. 

In a prelude to set the backdrop for peace talks, the Government on January 15 lifted the economic embargo. By the Government's own declaration, it was to "uplift the quality of life of the people of Wanni area, and thereby bring about an atmosphere conducive to invigorating the peace process…" When lorry loads of goods left the security forces controlled areas to Tiger guerrilla dominated Wanni, there were mixed feelings among the officers and men. I had telephone calls from some of them. One senior officer asked "Why didn't they tell us what they were going to do. We could have also advised them on some matters. See, there was a lorry load of welding rods and 1,000 push bicycles. What are welding rods for? The push cycles will increase mobility..", the officer complained. 

The calls underscored one factor – no one has chosen to speak to the officers and men, more importantly in the Wanni, where the troops control the gateways to the uncontrolled areas. Ahead of peace talks during the previous PA Government, then Commander of the Army, Gen. Gerry de Silva, not only advised controversial former Deputy Minister of Defence, Gen. Anuruddha Ratwatte, on the need to brief troops in the field but detailed senior officers to monitor developments closely. To his credit, Gen. Ratwatte flew from camp to camp in a helicopter accompanied by Gen. de Silva. He explained to officers and men that the Government was giving peace a chance. If that failed, he asked troops, whether they were ready to fight again. There was applause as the men said they would be. 

This is not to suggest that the new Minister of Defence, Tilak Marapana, the first Sri Lankan other than a President or a Prime Minister to hold this portfolio, should have left all his other work and toured battle areas in helicopters. The UNF Government could have tasked one of their senior members to undertake this task. Troops in the Wanni or for that matter in the east are still not formally briefed as to why the UNF Government was embarking on peace talks. They have not been told of Premier Wickremesinghe's warning that the nation's economy is in a parlous state. Views of soldiers should have been sought and their doubts cleared. 

The only exception are troops in the North who were addressed by Minister of Economic Reform, Science and Technology Milinda Moragoda, when he toured the area accompanied by Lt. Gen. Balagalle. Mr. Moragoda has travelled to the security forces encampments in the Wanni and East, too. But they were focused more on conferences with officers on "trouble shooting exercises." At a meeting in Batticaloa recently, he had to call a halt to actions of an over enthusiastic Police officer who had taken the peace message a bit too far. He had organised a lunch for hundreds of policemen, Tiger guerrillas and civilians. Such events caused problems to the public since they are compelled to dole out contributions in both cash and kind.

It is no secret that Lt. Gen. Balagalle had been pleading his own case whilst accompanying Mr. Moragoda on visits to military camps in the North, Wanni and East. The young and energetic Minister was so impressed by what he was told, he arranged for a top level meeting for the Army Commander with senior UNF leadership. Lt. Gen. Balagalle was to later boast to confidantes he had succeeded in persuading the UNF to agree to one of his units in the Army to spearhead an important area of activity where other State agencies have been always in the forefront. Little wonder Lt. Gen. Balagalle singled out only Minister Moragoda for praise at this week's UNICEF seminar. He said "Minister Milinda Moragoda says we should have a warm heart and a cool head. We are very happy he conveyed this message very clearly when going around with me to speak to troops……." 

After the UNF's election victory, Premier Wickremesinghe, has chosen not to assign himself any Ministerial portfolio and is dedicating himself to the peace process to ensure it would succeed. He has also, for the first time, set up a separate Secretariat manned by two of the country's respected diplomats – Ambassador in China, Bernard Gunatilleke and Ambassador in Thailand, H.M.G.S. Palihakkara.

Despite all this, the fact that no measures are in place to keep men of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Police briefed on the reasons why Premier Wickremesinghe is now embarking on what he calls "the last chance for peace," underscores the lack of an agenda to prepare the South for peace commensurate with the emphasis given to a negotiated settlement. The entire focus seems to be on ceding or heeding to LTTE requests. Some, like the lifting of economic sanctions, were long overdue. But deeper and serious aspects in this regard cannot be gone into in detail in view of national security implications. 

It would suffice to say it is the security forces and the Police who will be called upon to wage war if and when the peace talks fail. Almost eight weeks after the advent of the UNF, the Army in particular is yet to commence any re-training programme or contingency planning. The UNF has done its part by assuring the Service Commanders and the Police Chief of financial allocations in the March 18 budget for them to obtain emergency requirements to prepare themselves. 

Although the Government is keen to ensure the security forces and Police do not resort to any action that would jeopardise the peace process, the fact that it wants to keep them in a state of preparedness is a matter on which the LTTE cannot take exception to. They have themselves taken up the position that their current recruitment campaign, re-training (even in the north-eastern high seas) were part of routine preparations. Routine or otherwise, hectic preparations are going on. Last week, five Tiger guerrilla cadres surrendered to the Army's 56 Division in the Wanni. They have given graphic details. That included the construction of concrete bunkers. Now free to visit controlled areas, guerrillas are extorting money from shop owners and other businessmen. They are on mass recruitment drives. Shop keepers in guerrilla controlled areas have been told to fully stock up all forms of goods. There have been reports of even financial assistance being offered. 

What of the security forces, particularly the Army? There has been no visible action so far. To make it worse, the Kandy Police raid on the Safe House run by the Directorate of Military Intelligence at Athurugiriya, has led to low morale. Lt. Gen. Balagalle not only failed to either secure the release of his own men or ensure they were not subjected to humiliating treatment. Nor did he deem it fit to pay a visit to the men who were being held in custody like common criminals. If there was no concern for the Army's own heroes, not to mention others, the show of concern for the future of the guerrillas after peace, by an Army Commander, to say the least, is irresponsible. 

Defence Minister Marapana won the acclaim of not only the officers and men in the security forces but also those of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, and her former Deputy Minister, Gen. Ratwatte, for the way in which he prevented a serious crisis over the Athurugiriya affair. 

The LTTE has clearly demonstrated that it is preparing for war whilst talking for peace. It would be better for Lt. Gen. Balagalle to follow suit instead of worrying about the future of Tiger guerrilla cadres. 

But for the Government, it would be imperative to identify problem areas in the security forces and the Police if its peace efforts are to succeed. That would mean taking tough decisions instead of worrying over fears it would give a bad image. 

In the Army today, decisions over several disciplinary inquiries have piled up whilst those responsible have risen in the ranks. Those no longer entitled to official houses or official cars are continuing to use them. As a result some of the high ranking officers have been granted authority to hire luxury cars at a monthly rent of around Rs 50,000. At various levels, both senior and junior officers, are awaiting the UNF's policy with regard to promotions, retirement and re-enlistment. There is confusion Many are worried about their professional prospects on the one hand and to preserve the unauthorised perks they have usurped over the years on the other. These are just a few of the many problems that wait to be resolved. They require equal priority like peace talks. 

A bit of politics in the Army: Tilak Marapana

"By and large the Sri Lanka Army is very disciplined. Officers and soldiers are a law abiding group. But I am sad to say a little bit of politics have crept in," says Defence Minister Tilak Marapana. 

He was responding to a question on politicisation of the Army during an interview with The Sunday Times. 

Mr. Marapana said the Pahalatalawinne murders and other incidents in Kandy showed some politicians have been trying to use the armed forces to achieve their sinister purposes. "It is very unfortunate that there is this very small handful of people who lent themselves to this type of activity. I can assure you we will deal with them," he declared. He stressed that it was necessary in the greater interest of the Army to identify them. It would also be for the good of the country. 

He noted that there was a very high degree of politicisation in the Police. During the last seven years, as a lawyer, I have had numerous occasions when people complained to me about the Police. When UNP supporters made complaints, they were not entertained. Police have been extremely partial. MPs have complained in Parliament about this. 

Mr. Marapana's comments on the raid by Kandy Police on the Army's Safe House at Athurugiriya, during the same interview, appeared in these columns last week. Here are some of the other questions and the answers given by Mr. Marapana. 

Q: On being the first Sri Lankan, other than Presidents or Prime Minister, to separately hold the portfolio of Defence: 

A: Defence or, for that matter any other portfolio, one holds is directly responsible to the Prime Minister. I am not on my own. I have to consult the Prime Minister before making important decisions. That way I am not the sole authority. I cannot do anything I want on my own. 

Q: How do you feel about taking over this portfolio ? 

A: I feel we would have been able to do a better job (on the conduct of the separatist war) if we were better focused with regard to our objectives. I feel we have not given sufficient thought and consideration to the many facets that are involved. 

Q: Can you identify some of them ? 

A: The military strategy over how we have tried to curb the terrorist movement. I am not only talking about the last few years but right from the beginning. It could have been nipped in the bud. It was allowed to grow and ultimately escalate into this present situation. Our strategies have all been ad hoc. 

Secondly, I feel that even with regard to military procurements, we have spent unnecessary sums of money in buying very valuable and sophisticated weaponry. I don't think all that was necessary. 

Q: You speak of strategies. Can you give an example of how it failed and how you hope to rectify them ? 

A: In the first place, I have no intention at all in waging war with the LTTE at the moment. We have embarked on a peace mission and our target today, and my role as Defence Minister, is not to plan strategy to attack but merely to ready ourselves to defend. I would have to ensure important installations and territory in our control are protected. We are on a defensive posture than on an aggressive one. Most of the past operations failed because there was no proper application of the mind. 

Q: How do you view the peace talks: 

A: I sincerely believe that we are going to succeed in this. It is my belief that the LTTE, however and whatever others may say, are serious in their endeavours. We have approached the peace process with some degree of professionalism. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, has been constantly advocating a peaceful settlement. This is not something he has said just yesterday and the day before. He has been consistent. 

Q: What about training of security forces, particularly during talks 

A: The normal training is there. That part of the training is necessary to keep our soldiers fit so they will not become sluggish. That type of training has been done in the past during times of peace. You cannot allow a soldier to remain without training. He has to be put through the rigors. 

Q: There has been complaints of LTTE recruitment, re-training and re-arming. What is your response ? 

A: Our intelligence reports certainly do not show that they are training on such a large scale. They also must be training their cadres the same way we impart normal training. They may continue that. The recruitment may be because there are vacancies in their ranks. They may be doing what we are doing to maintain the forces at the present level. 

Q: What are your comments about widespread corruption in procurements ? 

A: Complaints about them have been lodged with the Commission Investigating Bribery or Corruption. I take it that these investigations will continue. 

The 5th Column
Return to Editorial/Opinion Contents
Situation Report Archives


Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to
The Sunday Times or to Information Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.