It was February, last year, when high ranking military officials from the world over gathered in Hawaii for the United States sponsored annual Pacific Army Management Seminar (PAMS).
Then Chief of Army Staff of the US Army, General Gordon Sullivan, reached out his hand to greet the leader of Sri Lanka's two member military delegation. Clasping his hand firmly, General Sullivan (whose office as Chief of Army Staff is equivalent to Army Commander) remarked "I learn you are going to be Sri Lanka's next Army Commander. Best of luck to you."
That was almost 14 months ago and these months have been riddled with both certainties and uncertainties for Major General Rohan de S. Daluwatte, Chief of Staff of the Sri Lanka Army and Overall Operations Commander (OOC) of security forces.
If in the recent months, the conduct of "Operation Riviresa" made him a certainty to become Army Commander, in the recent weeks, there was loose talk that things were uncertain. Adding fuel to the unlikelihood were the events that followed the departure of Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Gerry de Silva, on an official visit to the United Kingdom, two weeks ago.
For days after Lt. Gen. de Silva's departure, Army installations countrywide were not formally told that Major General Daluwatte has been named to act as Army Commander. Though not a convention, the practice had been followed in the past. In fact a letter from the Ministry of Defence calling upon him to act had arrived much later, though that did not in any way mean he was not overseeing the functions of the Commander in his absence.
But on Tuesday, March 26, Major General Daluwatte was formally told that he was going to be Sri Lanka's new Army Commander. The intimation came personally from none other than President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the Commander-in-Chief. It came soon after the weekly meeting of the National Security Council.
Major General Daluwatte will assume office later this month, when the present Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Gerry de Silva, who undertakes an official overseas tour, returns to Sri Lanka and goes on retirement.
Lt. Gen. de Silva leaves today on a three nation tour that will take him to Malaysia, Indonesia and Israel. In his last overseas stint as Army Commander, Lt. Gen. de Silva's visit is learnt to be both goodwill and business. Upon his return, Lt. Gen. de Silva, is expected to be promoted to the rank of a three star General.
He is expected to assume office as a Defence Adviser to the PA Government. Major General Daluwatte is also expected to be promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General when he becomes Army Commander.
An accomplished sportsman, Major General Daluwatte, joined the Sri Lanka Army on August 14, 1961 and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant on August 1, 1963. He was assigned to the First RECCE Regiment of the Sri Lanka Armoured Corps.
A major highlight of his military career was the training he received in military institutions in the United Kingdom and in India. He was trained at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst and later at the Royal Armoured Corps Centre, in Bovington, UK. He followed post graduate studies at the Defence Service Staff College, Wellington, India and thereafter completed the National Defence College course in New Delhi thus earning the title NDC.
Like in the past months, the weeks ahead before he assumes the mantle of Army Commander, will be crucial not only to Major General Daluwatte but to the country's defence establishment as well.
Three months after the conclusion of "Operation Riviresa", which involved the deployment of nearly 20,000 troops, security forces on Friday morning (March 29) launched another major military operation. It is stage five of "Operation Riviresa."
Contrary to widespread speculation, the operation involving two divisions of the Sri Lanka Army did not focus on either the Vadamaratchchi or Thenmaratchchi sectors of the Jaffna peninsula.
Expecting the military thrust to come from these two sectors, the LTTE had ordered civilians there to vacate. An LTTE press release dated March 28 and faxed to some diplomatic missions and news agencies in Colombo said: "Large number of Tamil families from Vadamaratchchi and Thenmaratchchi are now fleeing their homes due to the fear of the next Sri Lankan military offensive which is due to begin soon on the area in April, 1996......."
In an earlier press release on March 23, the LTTE said "Sri Lankan Government and its armed forces preparing for new military operations on Vadamaratchchi and Thenmaratchchi divisions in April, 1996, LTTE advises the people to take extra care."
The statement, among other matters, "Advised the Tamil people to avoid living in crowded areas and if possible to move to the Vanni Tamil mainland that is not crowded in order to reduce the risk of being hit by Sri Lankan Army shells or bombs." But quite clearly the response to the LTTE call was poor. Perhaps the civilians in Vadamaratchchi and Thenmaratchchi became aware of the severe hardships that befell their brethren in Valikamam, who heeded the LTTE call to vacate their homes and flee to Vanni.
Instead of the two uncontrolled sectors of the Jaffna peninsula, the latest security forces offensive is within the Valikamam sector itself. Valikamam which encompasses the City of Jaffna, the municipal limits and other areas, was re-captured after the 42 day long "Operation Riviresa." After a much publicised ceremony which symbolised the re-capture, the Government launched an ambitious programme of re-construction and rehabilitation in Valikamam. It was only weeks ago the Government appointed a Northern Province Rehabilitation and Re-construction Authority.
It is headed by a one time Ministry Secretary turned lawyer, Somapala Gunadeera, a fluent Tamil speaker and comprises, among others, Army officials and heads of state agencies.
It has embarked on the preparation of a development programme for the north, particularly Valikamam. This is in addition to the Government's much publicised rehabilitation programmes in the Valikamam sector which has included the opening of CWE retail outlets, branches of banks, post offices, transport services, two wards/out patients department in the Jaffna hospital etc.
Why another operation in the already liberated Valikamam sector? A few paragraphs from Situation Report last week (March 24) is relevant.
"Whilst the security establishment focused on extending the security forces control into new areas, the Valikman sector which was re- captured after the 42 day long "Operation Riviresa", has also come under increased LTTE activity.
'Tiger cadres with crew cut hair and wearing uniforms resembling the security forces have been spotted within the secured Valikamam sector. Groups of Tiger guerrillas are also known to have visited the homes of some civilians and photographed them. It was part of a Tiger campaign to declare civilians within Valikamam as "traitors". Several civilians have told Army authorities in Palaly that they have been threatened with death if they provided information about Tiger movements in Valikaman.
But the seriousness of the infiltration factor was underscored by the incident on March 18 at Mallakam, a town which came within Valikamam area and under the control of the security forces.
"A group of newly recruited soldiers, assigned to the Third Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (deployed in the north) for training were travelling in a tractor when an improvised explosive device exploded killing 18 and wounding 22. Some of the wounded were in a serious condition having lost a leg or both.
"These troops were among the 13,500 recruited in the wake of the euphoria generated after the execution of "Operation Riviresa". In the later months, the figure has come down prompting the Army to revive its recruitment drive once more. The new recruits were assigned to various battalions for training in the field.
A senior intelligence official told a security conference last week that as many as 150 Tiger guerrillas had infiltrated into the Valikamam sector and were making attempts to destabilise the area. The operation to cleanse Valikamam of infiltrators is being led by Brigadier P.A. Karunatilleke, GOC, 52 Division and Brigadier Janaka Perera, GOC 53 Division. The operation launched on Friday morning is expected to last several days.
In view of the ongoing operation, Defence Ministry officials say, a major thrust into either Vadamaratchchi or Thenmaratchchi will not get under way until after the Sinhala and Hindu New Year.Go to the Defence Column