Nation must support war effort to achieve victory: Army Chief5th November 2000
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|Maps and charts adorned the walls
of the spacious Operations Room at the Security Forces Headquarters in
Jaffna. Holding bits of paper or map pointers, officers and men almost
knocked into each other as they walked from point to point, in apparent
The voices that crackled over communication sets filled the air. Clasping microphones in their hands, officers periodically monitored movements of troops on the ground and heard field commanders report encounters and progress.
In June, 1987, it was the first and the biggest ever military operation since the LTTE emerged as a formidable guerrilla force. "Operation Liberation" had been launched to seize control of the Jaffna peninsula an offensive the then Government of President J.R. Jayewardene, was forced to abandon in the wake of threats of an Indian invasion.
Those were days when there was no prolonged censorship. Nor was there a ban on media visits to operational areas. The media was not only given an opportunity to report from the frontlines on how the soldiers, the real heroes of this protracted war, fought it out but were also exposed to those who directly ran the war effort.
When "Operation Liberation" was under way, I accompanied veteran soldier and accomplished bureaucrat, General Sepala Attygalle, on a special flight to Palaly. As Defence Secretary, he was going there to make a first hand study of how the operation progressed.
He was to report on his return to then President, late J.R. Jayewardene and then Minister of National Security, the late Lalith Athulathmudali.
The visit began with a helicopter tour of the battle areas, something which is inconceivable today in view of Surface to Air Missile (SAM) threats.
The seats of the Bell 412 helicopter had been removed to accommodate extra boxes of ammunition for the two fifty calibre guns mounted on either side. General Attygalle sat on one of the boxes. General Cyril Ranatunga, then General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Joint Operations Command (JOC) was on another. Together with their aides, I sat on the floor. The communications set held by one of them crackled. It was information that Tiger guerrillas were loading supplies into a lorry.
The chopper was soon at the location. As it flew low, the door gunners began spewing fire towards the lorry. As the belt fed ammunition ran through the door guns, the helicopter shuddered.
At one point, the gun was stuck after the belt was badly twisted. Alighting from the box, Gen. Attygalle kneeled on the floor to straighten out the ammunition belt. He kept exhorting to the Door Gunners "fire, fire ."
At the SF Headquarters in Palaly, Gen. Ranatunga, walked me into the Operations Room. Gen. Attygalle had asked that I be briefed on the progress of the offensive.
The task fell on two senior officers at the Operations Room Brigadier Rohan de S. Daluwatte, who had been assigned by Army Headquarters to be an observer at the operation and Lionel Balagalle, chief of intelligence in the north. It was the latter who had asked his men to radio the helicopter with the news that Tiger guerrillas were loading supplies.
Thirteen years later, Gen. Daluwatte is Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) of the Joint Operations Command the highest ranking official in the security establishment. He is in Hawaii this week attending a US Army sponsored conference of Heads of Defence Staff in the Pacific region at Hawaii.
Lt. Gen. Balagalle is the 16th Commander of the Sri Lanka Army. Unlike most of his predecessors, he devoted a substantial part of his career away from the limelight, in intelligence. He raised the intelligence arm for the Sri Lanka Army and became the first Commanding Officer of the Military Intelligence Corps (MIC).
Like in all intelligence activity, the accompanying secrecy, obscured the key roles Lt. Gen. Balagalle has played in the 18 year long separatist war. If and when military historians compile the country's official record, his contributions will find a few significant chapters. Main among them is the role he played to persuade some of the Tamil militant groups to join the mainstream of politics. He personally arranged for their leaders to meet senior defence officials. Later, one after the other met then President, the late J.R. Jayewardene. What followed thereafter is history.
Seated in his office at Army Headquarters last Thursday, Lt. Gen. Balagalle spoke exclusively to The Sunday Times about the origins of the ongoing separatist war and answered questions on many aspects. Since assuming office on August 24, this is the first interview he has given the media. Here are edited excerpts:
Q. You have held some key positions in the Army (including Director of Military Intelligence) before assuming the high office of Commander. Can you please give an overview of the growth of the ongoing separatist war and how the military has been coping with it? What are the difficulties that have prevented you from stemming its growth in the past 18 years? What are the weak points and what have been your strong points?
A. During the period before 1983, there was a situation where none of the terrorist groups could have an upper hand. They were small in number. As a matter of fact, if you put all of them together, it would not have exceeded 100 members. I am referring to the hard core. They could not recruit more. No one was willing to join because they feared the consequences. At that time, even the small group was always on the run.
Every time they were hunted by the security forces, they escaped to India. Then came the unfortunate events of July 1983. I need hardly explain its origins or the events that followed. Government troops were ordered into barracks. It remained so till 1984.
Even then, the movements of security forces were controlled. It had wide repercussions.
During this period, the LTTE embarked on a massive recruitment drive utilising the powerful propaganda machine they had developed following the events in 1983. Within a matter of one and half to two years, their ranks swelled into many thousands from a meagre two figure membership.
They developed their procurement mechanism making use of the 1983 incidents. The 1985-86 period saw the LTTE developing themselves as a guerrilla outfit. The security forces conducted limited operations during this period culminating in "Operation Liberation." The capture of Vadamarachchi led to food drops by India and the subsequent arrival of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) after the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord.
This gave a breather to the Sri Lankan security forces but unfortunately there was no effort to strengthen and modernise it. During the period of the IPKF, the other militant groups like the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), People's Liberation Organisation of Thamileelam (PLOTE) and Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) denounced violence and came into the mainstream of democratic politics.
I am happy to have played a role in this historic transition. I explained to the respective leaders the futility of fighting the Government forces and facing the brunt of the LTTE. After discussions with their cadres, they all agreed to come into mainstream politics.
Then comes the period of the departure of the IPKF and the State assistance the LTTE received purely to get the IPKF out.
Q. Are you saying this enhanced the guerrilla capability of the LTTE?
A. The LTTE was weakened to a great extent having suffered at the hands of the IPKF. The assistance, therefore, became extremely important to them. It was like giving water to someone breathing his last. The State help to the LTTE was done without much thought and without any proper study.
When hostilities broke out on June 11, 1990, the security forces were not fully geared to face the situation that arose. The emphasis then was to focus on managing the economy whilst containing the war.
In 1994, the People's Alliance Government came into power. They conducted peace talks with a lot of hope. The security forces too did everything possible to make it a reality. At times, the SF were humiliated by the conduct of the junior cadres of the LTTE.
In spite of all this, the LTTE commenced hostilities without any warning on April 19, 1995, by attacking Naval vessels in the Trincomalee harbour. This was followed by attacks on SLAF transport planes in the North.
It must be said that the Government gave the green light to procure urgently needed equipment despite the strain on the economy. The SF recovered from this shock very quickly and commenced their offensive operations. The re-capture of Jaffna peninsula was a key achievement. This was followed by the re-capture of Kilinochchi and the linking of Mannar with Vavuniya. Thereafter the SF commenced the offensive with a view to opening the MSR (Main Supply Route) to Jaffna.
The capture of Mankulam co-incided with the loss of Kilinochchi, which temporarily halted the SF move further northwards. A change of strategy at this point saw the re-capture of Odusuddan followed by the capture of larger areas with the population intact, west of the A-9 highway. Thereafter, we saw losses in the Wanni followed by a major effort to retain Jaffna.
Q. The separatist war has been going on for nearly 18 years. Some of the LTTE cadres now and very soon your own recruits, would not have been born when the fighting began. How do you now say you are confident of victory? What do you mean by victory?
A. I believe this victory is for peace. But it means a victory for the security forces without which peace is not possible. In order to achieve victory, the nation must support the war effort. As many organisations and individuals are now beginning to realise this. They are extending their support.
Q. Do you believe a solution to the ongoing ethnic conflict should be through negotiations or by defeating the LTTE militarily? Some say until the LTTE is weakened there is no possibility of having peace talks. What is your view and why do you say so?
A. Having looked at the past experience with the LTTE, I will answer that question briefly. There should be a reasonable political solution for the Tamil community and a military solution to the LTTE.
Q. Since November, last year, the Army has suffered a string of losses. After the debacles in the Wanni, you chaired a Court of Inquiry and the Government punished those responsible. Then came the fall of Elephant Pass and the loss of sizable extent of territory in the Jaffna peninsula. How do you explain these reversals? If those responsible for the Wanni reversals were punished, why was no one taken to task for Elephant Pass and other events that followed such as the fall of Pallai, Chavakachcheri, Thanankilappu, Navatkuli, Ariyalai, Kaithady and Madduvil?
A. As a matter of fact, Elephant Pass did not fall but the troops carried out a withdrawal on orders received by them.
This decision to withdraw was made on a recommendation by my predecessor (Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooria, now Ambassador to Pakistan), to prevent troops in Elephant Pass being isolated. That would have been a major disaster. I fully supported that decision considering the gravity of the situation although I myself found it difficult to take in the shock.
A withdrawal is the most difficult type of operation, particularly when we have to conduct it whilst being engaged with the enemy. This was the type of withdrawal troops had to conduct in Elephant Pass on April 22, 2000, where we suffered heavy casualties including the loss of lives of senior officers.
During the events that followed, troops fell back from the locations you mentioned, as a result of the reversals we have suffered.
This, of course, is not to say troops did not fight. But suffice to say many minor operations were conducted by the troops with limited success. The debacles in Wanni were inquired into and a decision made by the higher authorities. The withdrawal took place without much fighting except during the initial stages.
In the case of Elephant Pass and subsequent fall backs, a Court of Inquiry is conducting a probe to ascertain the losses suffered during this period.
As far as other aspects are concerned, the authorities may have been convinced about the facts as well as reasons that led to it at that time. Hence, they may have thought it not necessary.
Q. How did such a large number of troops face a threat from a small group of Tiger cadres?
A. As far as SF are concerned, we have to defend and hold larger areas, particularly the populated areas. The Government writ is established in these areas. In the case of the LTTE, they can muster all their forces and concentrate on a few places to get a breakthrough. Even in the recent past, they have attempted to do so but with a heavy sacrifice of their cadres, dead and wounded.
Q. Your predecessor (Lt. Gen. Weerasooria) admitted publicly that the Army reversals, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula, was because they did not have some equipment including guns on time. Is this correct? Have you now received all the equipment you require? If so, are there any more impediments that are affecting the war effort?
A. The Army had difficult times, particularly when the threat of Elephant Pass being isolated became imminent. By that time the Government had ordered the necessary guns and equipment . There was unavoidable delay in bringing the items into the country and shifting them to Jaffna.
The Sri Lanka Air Force too found it difficult to support the ground troops by way of supplying Elephant Pass , particularly in the event of this area being cut off. However, with the arrival of additional weapons and equipment, the troops have now been able to turn the tide.
Most of the weapons/equipment required have been ordered. More than fifty per cent of them have arrived in the country.
The most important thing is to have adequate manpower so that the momentum of operations can be maintained without giving respite to the enemy. A recruitment campaign is already on for this purpose and will go on till November 30. The response is gradually picking up.
I have appealed to many including the clergy to assist in the process in order to achieve a lasting peace in the country.
Even here, I would like to appeal to all responsible, peace loving citizens to encourage the youth to join the Army.
Q. The on-off censorship on military related news is not one that the Army wants. Is this not a negative approach to bringing the news of the war to those most affected by it the people. Cannot the media and the military work towards a common objective like in other theatres of conflict?
A. I am firmly of the view that the support of the media should be fully solicited in our campaign against the enemy.
In doing so, there had been practical problems at times. But this does not mean that we should run away from the issue.
We should find ways and means of over-coming such problems.
The answer lies in the closer interaction and being truthful. Both the military and the media have a common goal the national interest. There are, of course, some limitations and restrictions in reporting matters of a delicate or sensitive nature. There lies a great responsibility for the media to differentiate between public interest and national security.
I do agree it is sometimes a difficult task. But greater interaction and confidence building measures on both sides can overcome these difficulties.
I will continue to help the media and thus reach out to the public. I am trying to provide additional resources to the Directorate of Media so they in turn can provide a better service. I will personally attempt to improve my friendly relations with the media.
Q. What is your response to reports of corruption in procurements? What do you propose to do?
A. It is a known and accepted fact that local agents get their share of commission from their principals whenever a transaction takes place. This may be considered legitimate in the business world. It is also possible that a few of them may be throwing some of it to others to secure orders. Some of these offers may have attracted a handful of people in the Army.
I have warned continuously and continue to warn. If such a thing is detected, stern action will be taken against those concerned.
We have had officers being asked to pay back and we have cashiered them from service.
Most of them have not been able to find any employment outside. Their families are also at the receiving end as a result. I will continue to streamline procedures so that transparency and accountability is maintained.
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