By Dr. Sarath Amunugama
I consider Mr. Chandraprema’s book “Gotas War” which was launched last week to be the finest and most comprehensive description and analysis of the fratricidal ethnic conflict which affected Sri Lanka for over six decades.
It is also a detailed analysis of the military operations that successfully terminated the armed uprising of the terrorist organization known as the LTTE.
Very soon we will be celebrating the third anniversary of that victory. The Author Chandraprema recreates comprehensively for us the battles which began in Mavil Aru in the East and ended at the Nandikadal lagoon in the North with the deaths of nearly all the top leadership of the LTTE.
I must begin with the title of the book “Gotas War”. When you read the book you learn that it does not mean that Gota won the war single handedly. In fact it describes how it was a joint effort from the President of Sri Lanka down to the most recently recruited foot soldier. Each one played his part.
What the title means is that the war with the LTTE is looked upon, through the eyes of one of its most significant players, namely Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the battle-hardened soldier who became Secretary of Defense and therefore the lynchpin between the country’s executive chief, the President, and the armed services
The book points out that it was a very happy and rare coincidence that the country’s chief executive and the chief executive of the defence forces were so close that there could be no misunderstandings or conflicts in the execution of the military offensive. Such combinations are rare. Military history has many examples of offensives being derailed by political decisions.
In this book there is a chapter on the Vadamarachchi operation in which Gotabhaya played a significant and brave role as a front line commander, which was stopped on its tracks much against the wishes of the armed forces, and even the Defence Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, on orders from the President J R Jayewardene who was pressurised by India to stop the offensive. Many external pressures were exerted on President Mahinda Rajapaksa too. For instance the then Foreign Ministers of France & UK flew down to meet him; but he did not give way. Today our President remains, while the blundering foreign ministers have been thrown out by their voters.
In this book the author has interwoven the biography of Gota with the broader picture of ethnic relations – first in the field of parliamentary politics and then in the military confrontation.
In both areas there are many lessons to be learnt. History is a very demanding teacher and we cannot afford to repeat past mistakes. As Karl Marx said “History repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce”.
When I discussed this book with Mr. Chandraprema, he tactfully suggested that I should concentrate on the early chapters dealing with political processes. Perhaps he quite rightly realized that my reading of the military aspects may, at best, be considered amateurish even though because of my brother who is a Major General, I got to know many of the senior military commanders mentioned in the book.
But one element has always amazed me – I frankly think we should have given much more publicity to the heroic rescue operations undertaken by our security forces particularly at Pudumathalan. Our forces were able to cross the lagoon, take the opposite bank, go past the mangroves, reach the bund and allow the people forcibly held by the LTTE to cross over to freedom. I would like to refer to p. 460 of the book.
“By first light, the people on the other side were able to stampede their way over the bund and for a few hours the LTTE lost control. Over 33,000 people escaped from 6.00 a.m. up to around 10.00 a.m.
on 20 April. This was watched live at air force headquarters by President Rajapaksa and some Western diplomats who had been invited to witness the world’s biggest rescue operation live through UAV images relayed to Colombo. The President and the invitees saw live, how the LTTE was trying to prevent the civilians from fleeing by shooting them. Then there was the sound of three blasts and a lull as the LTTE managed to beat the civilians back. Over the next few days, a further 100,000 people would escape the clutches of the LTTE.”
As a foreign journalist wrote “The breaking of the three meter high embankment in the early hours of April 20 resulted in a flow of 1.15 lakh civilians in to government controlled territory over the next six days. It began as a trickle but turned into a flood within hours and grew into an avalanche over the next four days
Of those pouring in from the NFZ were shrunk and sick old men and women with little children clinging to them. Barefooted and empty handed, they could hardly walk …. they appeared dazed and bewildered, Presumably, they had not had a decent meal in weeks if not months. Living under the constant fear of death for nearly two years they looked like walking corpses….”
Michael Roberts wrote “today, we know that the commando operation was one for the text book; it resulted in relatively few non-combatant deaths and created a path for streams and streams of Tamils to cross the lagoon……This for me was better than the tale of Moses crossing the red sea.” (P. 262)
While many human rights activities are worried about what happened in Nandikadal lagoon they do not refer to the armed forces sacrifices to bring out innocent Tamil civilians across the Pudumathalan lagoon. If they wanted to attack civilins as alleged by these NGOs would soldiers have even given their lives in sniper infested Pudumathalan to bring out the refugees. Let us hope that this book will restore the correct perspective.
I now turn to the earlier chapters of the book which deals with the growing escalation of conflict in the constitutional arena. The most distinctive aspect of this are the attempts on both sides to find a constitutional solution in spite of the periodic outbursts of violence which, except in the 1983 episode, were not directed by the state.
A distinction must be made between mob violence on both sides and the state sponsored pogrom which was launched by the J.R. Jayewardena regime through Cyril Mathew and his followers. Mob violence unfortunately has become a part of the post-independence scenario in Asia.
The ethnic violence of post partition India and Pakistan, the July incidents of Malaysia between the Malays and Chinese, the massive violence in New Delhi following the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the successive mob violence in Sri Lanka both in the South and North, as pointed out by the author, have been a part of the birth pangs of ‘new nations’ of Asia.
Professor S.J. Tambiah a professor at Harvard University and my teacher at Peradeniya University, has written about the sociological factors involved in such mob violence in his book “Leveling Crowds”. In it he clearly points out structural elements that lend to ethnic based mob violence.
In all these cases a significant fact is the perceived injustice by a stronger community. While that majority community may be stronger in terms of brute strength, they feel that they have been cheated or let down by a partner with whom they have lived together, and even depended on for economic progress.
Leaving Sri Lanka aside Tambiah found similar structural phenomena in the Hindu outburst against Sikhs in New Delhi following the killing of Indira Gandhi. Another tragic finding is that in all these cases the victims are poor, innocent people of a minority community who happened to be in the way. The “innocent bystanders” of whatever ethnic community are victimized because of their race.
Chandraprema highlights the rhetoric which the ITAK (Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kachchi, better known as the Federal Party) indulged in the North and the East and the inflammatory results of media coverage for such statements.
For example the grandstanding by the ITAK inhibited Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike from proceeding with the Tamil Language Special provisions Act which was to be coupled with the Sinhala or Official Language Act. This coupling, which was referred to by journalists as “Sinhala Only but Tamil Also” could not be completed because of communal conflict which frightened Bandaranaike.
While Chandraprema rightly faults the ITAK for its false rhetoric I feel he has tended to downplay the communalism which was deliberately promoted by the anti-Bandaranaike faction in the SLFP to embarrass the Prime Minister. I have personally informed Chandraprema of some of some of the facts I unearthed during my research into this period.
As this book clearly indicates Mr. Bandaranaike was unable to control events in the face of growing communal hysteria. He was a liberal in his thinking on communal matters. But this extremist group, strengthened by the exit of Philip Gunawardene and his radical faction, steadily eroded his base, humiliated him and finally assassinated him.
The violence of 1983 is a different matter. This was encouraged by the government which felt that a “surgical strike” by Cyril Mathew’s goons would warn off the Tamils of Colombo who were not unaware of what the “boys” were doing in the North. Their sympathies were clearly with the terrorists. The overkill by General “Bull” Weeratunga who was sent by the President as described in this book, to root out terrorism also exacerbated Tamil sentiments in Colombo.
As clearly described in this book the country is paying a heavy price for the government sponsored ethnic violence of 1983. We read of the comments made by the PLOTE, TELO, EPRLF and LTTE leaders who welcomed with open arms the battered returnees to the North in ships chartered by the Govt. As a result terrorist recruitment increased, a diaspora was created, foreign countries were drawn in, India changed attitudes, Tamil Nadu was filled with refugees and the Sinhalese were stigmatized.
This was the sorry pass in 1983 and soon after. Though many of the Tamil grievances like language use, education and recruitment were addressed the ‘game’ had changed completely. It is only after the defeat of the LTTE that the space has now opened up for a process of reconciliation and dialogue.
I like to end this presentation by referring to the main protagonist of the book – Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Clearly he encompassed within himself many “wining” characteristics which changed the tide of the war. Firstly, he had the absolute confidence of the President. It was this ready access and mutual affection that helped to fashion an efficient fighting machine.
Few realize that thousands of decisions have to be made in a war on a regular basis. Financing and procuring of weapons, coordination, building up of morale and setting priorities all demand absolute confidence.
As this book shows there were many setbacks in theatres of war. Sometimes mistakes were made. For example in this book we are told of Denzil Kobbakaduwa’s reluctance to immediately attack Jaffna which gave time to the LTTE to regroup and repulse an army attack on Jaffna. But mutual confidence is the best morale booster.
Secondly, Gotabhaya was a soldiers’ soldier. He knew the army from his days as an officer cadet to the highest commanding levels. He could understand the feelings of the foot soldier.
Thirdly, he built up a team of battle hardened commanders. The earlier armchair Generals were eased out and front line commanders were given their place. He probably remembered Napoleon’s dictum “I want only lucky Generals”.
Fourthly, he had a clear objective. Once the war was launched President Mahinda Rajapaksa did not flinch from this objective. No amount of pressure, even from visiting foreign ministers, could make him change his mind.
Finally, I refer to Gotabhaya’s superb administrative and technical skills. He is technology savvy and his administration is exemplary, as we now see in the development of the cities of Colombo and Kotte.
So I see this book as a very comprehensive work and a fitting tribute to a war hero who was destined to come back to his people and his mother land, end terrorism and give his country the space to emerge as a developed nation. We salute him and wish him well.