He shared his views but never
interfered in military matters
~ The 71st Birth Anniversary of Lalith Athulathmudali falls on November 26
I first met Lalith Athulathmudali at the Joint Operational Headquarters (JOH). At the time I was recalled from retirement and was Chairman, Airport and Aviation Sri Lanka. President J.R. Jayewardene made it clear to me that he had the right to recall me from the regular reserve, which he did and I was appointed Commander JOC.
|The 71st Birth Anniversary of the late Lalith Athulathmudali will be commemorated tomorrow at Committee Room – B of the BMICH. Dr. Tara de Mel will deliver the memorial oration on the topic ‘Reforming Education in Sri Lanka: Attempts and Failures’. The oration will be at 6 p.m. followed by fellowship.
At this time, Lalith was the Deputy Minister of Defence and Minister of National Security. We met at his office at JOH and had a long discussion regarding anti-terrorist operations. I knew he was probing my thinking and possible plans to tackle the menace of terrorism. I found him to be very clever and quick on the uptake. He had studied terrorist problems throughout the world and made a detailed analysis of our problem, including training in India and induction of trained youth at the behest and initiative of the TULF.
HQ, JOC was at 80 Flower Road, Colombo. His office was next to mine, which was located opposite the Operations (OPS) Room. I had placed OPS room out of bounds to all ranks except the Principal Staff Officer and staff who manned it 24 hours a day for 365 days. One morning when I walked into the OPS room I found Lalith with a pointer in his hand explaining something to two individuals on the operational map.
I closed the door and walked back to my office and continued with my work. Lalith realized that I disapproved of his bringing people to the OPS room and within minutes he walked into my room and said “I am sorry General, I brought two of my friends to the OPS room. I will not do it again”. We had a long chat in my office at the end of which our bond of close relationship and mutual respect grew. I knew he was a gentleman politician with whom I could work in the interest of our country.
Late Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali
He did not interfere with operational planning, but we had a continuous dialogue on the effects of military operations, consequences and the fall out. Being widely read on military matters, Lalith had many ideas, which we used to discuss together. The greatness in the man was that one was able to disagree and argue with him with no hard feelings. With his intelligence, he was open to different ideas and opinions and accepted them in good spirit.
We had our intelligence system working in the adjoining building with military intelligence on one side and civil intelligence handled by Retired IGP, Ana Seneviratne, who also handled various aspects including psychological operations to which Lalith was very supportive.
We discussed the possibility of starting a school to conduct an immersion course in spoken Tamil to enable our troops to communicate with the Tamil people of the north and east. When a soldier taps on the door of a Tamil household, the women naturally get frightened. In such a situation, if he can speak to her in her own language and reassure her, it would make a world of difference.
We decided to establish the school in Kotmale on available vacant buildings previously occupied by the hydro project officials. Lalith was able to get the services of retired teachers to conduct a three month residential course for the three services and the police. We trained 300 students at any given time. We made it very strict. From the word go, they had to speak, think and breathe Tamil. Many came back from the course speaking very good Tamil. I recall Lalith strongly advocated the concept of a national Sri Lankan identity for all citizens, irrespective of ethnicity.
During the Vadamarachchi operation Lalith was very committed and assisted in many ways in civil administration. I discussed the Vadamarachchi operation with Lalith and we were able to keep it absolutely secret, between ourselves only.
The important thing is that he knew secrecy was of prime importance in military operations. It was known, that we were doing an operation in Jaffna but not where it was to be. For the first time in the history of Sri Lanka, we got all available troops together for this operation. To get them together, a tremendous amount of administrative backing was required.
The obvious place to gather the troops together was at the Palaly camp. At that time, we had one sixteenth of the forces available today. With that we had to finish the LTTE.
Getting the troops together with all the military equipment was no easy task. For an operation that can get extended, equipment is necessary. Manpower, weaponry and ammunition should be accessible at the correct place.
Ammunition needs to be replenished. To replenish large stocks, ammunition dumps were needed, accessible to the operational troops. All this needed much planning and logistical support, which Lalith was able to provide. The movement of ships and extra resources were made available,We were also able to establish very good field assistance in medicine.
|Minister Athulathmudali with Gen. Ranatunga on his left at a meeting with service commanders
Advanced field dressing stations were set up close to the fighting troops to enable immediate resuscitation and evacuation to a safer location. Medical officers of Volunteer Medical Corps and a few civilian doctors stood by at the Palaly hospital. It was a powerful medical team that was available to render their services to injured troops who were airlifted by helicopter from the battlefields.
The Palaly hospital was converted into a massive surgical unit. A blood bank was also set up. It was a tremendous morale booster for the fighting troops. Lalith himself visited the camps and spoke to the troops in the north, despite personal security threats.
Many were the areas of Lalith’s interest. Two of great importance come to mind. One was his dedication to agricultural development on which we have had long discussions and the other was his keenness to assist university undergraduates for whom he inaugurated the Mahapola Scholarship Scheme.
After he broke away from the ruling party and formed his own political party, he neglected his own security. I reduced my own security and sent them to his residence even without his knowledge, for which he was grateful. Obviously it was not enough…We lost a gentleman politician and one of Mother Lanka’s devoted sons.