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.
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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