Today November 11th is observed in many parts of the World including Sri Lanka as Remembrance day or War memorial day. It is also called Poppy day due to the tradition of wearing a poppy flower. Remembrance day has its origins in the end of world war one. Although world war 1 concluded officially on 28 June 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, hostilities on ground had ended “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” of 1918 with the signing of the armistice . Hence Nov 11 is observed as remembrance day on which soldiers who fought and died for their country are commemorated.
It is against this backdrop that this column remembers a fallen Sri Lankan soldier in this article . Brigadier L.A.R. “Larry”Wijeratne the then commander of the “Vadamaratchy” division in the Jaffna peninsula was killed on 14 May 1998 in an explosion triggered by a suicide bomber assassin of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE). Larry Wijeratne who was posthumously promoted as Major – General personified the hackneyed phrase ‘an officer and a gentleman”.
The fair, handsome Sinhala officer mistaken very often for a burgher was killed in Point Pedro on the last day of his tenure in Jaffna. The erstwhile commander of the Vadamaratchy divisional zone was returning to base after a farewell ceremony. Fate in the form of a suicide bomber decreed that it was not a case of Larry bidding au revoir to Jaffna but adieu to the world.
Larry Wijeratne n became commander of the Vadamaratchy divisional zone from May 1996. The Jaffna Peninsula consists of six broad territorial divisions. There are the outlying Islands that in a strict geographical sense are not part of the peninsula.Then there is Jaffna town and the Nallur area, the various AGA divisions of Valigamam, the Thenmaratchy division in the South, the Pachilaippalli division further to the South and Vadamaratchy in the north and north-east of the peninsula. “Vada” itself means north and Point Pedro where Wijeratne was headquartered is the northernmost point of Sri Lanka. The Vadamaratchy area itself is virtually like an Island because of the Jaffna lagoon surrounding the greater part of it on one side and the sea on the other.
Vadamaratchy itself bears a special place in the contemporary military history of Sri Lanka and is considered the cradle of Tamil armed struggle. The LTTE supremo Veluppillai Prabakharan was from Valvettithurai in the Vadamaratchy. So too were many like Mahathaya, Kittu, Raghu, Vasu, Ranjan, and a host of others. The Pioneering Leaders of the TELO, Thangathurai and Kuttimani were also from Vadamaratchy. Balasingham the political advisor to the LTTE was from Karaveddi and Balakumar from EROS was from Thunnalai. Both villages are in Vadamaratchy. Miller the first black tiger too was from Thunnalai in Vadamaratchy. The name Vadamaratchy became well known after “Operation Liberation” of 1987 where the fighting was concentrated in this region.
Larry Wijeratne took over Vadamaratchy in the aftermath of three phases of “Operation Riviresa” that led to the LTTE relocating from the peninsula to the Wanni mainland. The LTTE that fought fiercely during “Riviresa” phase one in Valigamam and Jaffna did not offer much resistance in Thenmaratchy and Vadamaratchy during phases two and three respectively.
Only a comparatively small number of civilians from Vadamaratchy had opted to move to the Wanni with the LTTE. More significantly many residents had strenuously objected to the tigers resisting the army in the Vadamaratchy as they did not want the trail of destruction from Valigamam there. This civilian resistance was a causative factor that influenced the LTTE to abandon Vadamaratchy without a fight.
There is a radically progressive non conformist streak in the Vadamaratchy community that has in the past elected the only Tamil Communist Pon.Kandiah from Point Pedro to Parliament in 1956.After it was carved into two electorates of Udupiddy and Point Pedro the latter sent the first non- Vellala MP from Jaffna Peninsula K. Thurairatnam of the Federal Party to Parliament. The other electorate Udupiddy returned the solitary Tamil Congress MP M.Sivasithamparam to Parliament in 1960 March and July when most Tamil areas were submerged in a wave of federalist support. Later in 1977 Udupiddy made history again when it elected a Tamil from a so called depressed caste Rasalingam from the TULE.
Larry Wijeratne was born in 1950 in Nugawela near Kandy. He had his secondary education at Nugawela Central College where he became a Queen’s Scout. He joined the Army as an officer cadet and was commissioned as a second Lieutnenant. He served in many parts of the Island in different capacities as a soldier earning many decorations and medals during the war years. Larry Wijeratne was appointed Commanding Officer of the 52-4 Brigade in the Vadamaratchy sector in May 1996.
This was after the Sri Lankan armed forces had re- established control of the Jaffna peninsula after three phases of “Operation Riviresa”. The LTTE had withdrawn in bulk to the Northern mainland known as the Wanni. However small groups of tigers maintained a clandestine presence in Jaffna. Their presence was strengthened at times by LTTE reinforcements from the Wanni. While the LTTE engaged in positional warfare in the Wanni, the tigers in Jaffna launched guerrilla operations and at times conducted terrorist attacks. The armed forces responded by targeting civilians with brute force.
After taking over in Vadamaratchy Wijeratne adopted a very enlightened approach in administering the region. He sought to capture the hearts and influence the minds of the Vadamaratchy people.It was not brute force and the naked exercise of military power that he employed to manage the area. This endeared him to the people very much. Different teams of journalists discovered during their guided tours of Jaffna that Wijeratne had well and truly established a rapport with the people.
After serving for nearly two years Larry Wijeratne was transferred on promotion to the Kotelawela Defence Academy in Ratmalana. When hearing of his transfer there was a genuine outpouring of sadness in the Vadamaratchy zone. The citizens committees organized a series of farewells to be culminated by a grand function at Nelliaddi on Thursday. The Vadamaratchy traders association planned to give him a lot of presents including a gold chain of sixty sovereigns as a present.
When Thooyavan the political chief of the LTTE in Jaffna peninsula heard of this he sent a message to Nelliaddi that no such grand farewell including the presentation of a gold chain should be afforded to Wijeratne. Thooyavan incidently was based in Aaladi in the offshore Island of Punkudutheevu that is many , many miles away from Vadamaratchy. Also thanks to Wijeratne’s efficiency the Vadamaratchy South-West sector was more or less cleared of an active tiger presence. Vadamaratchy East comprising the seaboard of 18 miles from Vallipuram down to Thalai Adi had a strong LTTE presence but was not under the direct purview of Wijeratne.
So the Vadamaratchy people chose to defy the LTTE and go ahead with the farewell. The chief motivating impulse here was not bravado but a genuine desire to display their sense of gratitude to a man who treated them with respect, dignity and understanding during trying circumstances.
Wijeratne himself was somewhat reluctant about a grand farewell for two reasons. Firstly he was concerned about inter-service rivalry as this was perhaps the first instance in those times of a spontaneous people’s demonstration of goodwill towards a military officer who in the final analysis was a controller of sorts. No other senior military officer has been given such a farewell and so Wijeratne was wary about treading on official corns.
Secondly Wijeratne was very worried about the reaction of the LTTE towards the ordinary civilians who were organizing the farewell. He knew that the LTTE would treat this defiance as an affront and take revenge on the people. Larry realised fully well that the tigers hated the popularity enjoyed by him among the people and considered the civilians as traitors for it. There was a strong chance of the LTTE targetting civilians at the farewell. Still he could not overlook the sentiments of the people and agreed to a farewell on a lower scale.
Larry Wijeratne was returning after the farewell to the 524 Brigade headquarters at Point Pedro.He was departing to Colombo by plane from Palaly on the same day. People who knew that he was bidding farewell were waving to him and he was waving back. Wijeratne was visibly touched at the sentiments being manifested openly by the people. He may have perhaps even relaxed his guard. The jeep that he was travelling in slowed down slightly at a speed breaker “hump” on the road near the Point Pedro bus stand. Then the suicide bomber sprang towards Wijeratne and then came the blast. It was about 3.30 pm.
There were some doubts about the identity of the suicide bomber who according to some news agency reports was a woman but the then Jaffna overall Commander General Lionel Balagalle set the record straight by confirming that the bomber was a man.Wijeratne was travelling with three other soldiers when the suicide bomber struck.Bleeding profusely he was taken to the base hospital at Manthikai where he succumbed to his injuries. The other three received medical treatment and recovered later..
Shocked and Saddened
Hard as it may be to believe the people of Vadamaratchy were truly shocked and saddened by Larry Wijeratne’s demise.One of the things remembered by a grateful Vadamaratohy public was the conspicuous lack of disappearances in the area under Larry Wijeratne. Only 13 occurred in Vadamaratchy whereas the rest of Jaffna particularly Thenmaratchy recorded 648 in 1996.Even the few disappearances that took place in Vadamaratchy according to the people had nothing to do with Wijeratne
. Also there were very few accusations of rape against soldiers in the Vadamaratchy. On the contrary there were many army – civilian romances in the region. This was because of the cordial climate built up chiefly through the efforts of Wijeratne.
Essence of Soldiering
Praising Wijeratne does not mean that the military officer was some namby pamby bleeding heart liberal who sacrificed security interests for the sake of building up a good relationship with the people. He was very much a soldier but a good one who realised that the essence of soldiering was not in harassing helpless civilians but in protecting them. Larry did not have any chauvinist hang-ups and treated his position of authority with a great sense of responsibility instead of exercising macho power.
By doing this he was very successful in his duties too. Not only was Wijeratne popular but also efficient. By building up healthy relations with the people instead of intimidating them through force he created a climate where the people were quite relaxed with him. He became easily accessible to the people and always kept his doors open to civilians collectively and individually.
Also Larry travelled extensively , met with people from all walks of life and helped them out as far as possible. He minimised cordon and search operations, reduced check points and restricted excessive patrolling. Wijeratne also entertained many Tamil special interest groups and helped build many civilian structures instead of imposing exclusive military rule.
Whenever the LTTE struck in Vadamaratchy, Wijeratne would rush to the spot immediately. His overwhelming presence prevented troops from indulging in reprisals against civilians. Whenever complaints were received about alleged army misbehaviour, he immediately inquired into them and meted out punishment when necessary.As time went on the soldiers themselves became well -behaved and better disciplined. Knowing that “lokka” will get to know became a deterrent for potential mischief makers.
But the conduct of Wijeratne was not solely altruistic. It was of great utilitarian value.Wijeratne built up the most efficient information gathering set up in the peninsula. People trusted him and appreciated him for treating them with respect. They wanted nothing but peace and prosperity. The presence of tigers meant that situation would be affected. So after a while people started passing information about the tigers to him. Just as a journalist assembles a variety of information sources, the links Wijeratne built with multiple Tamil civilians helped him greatly.
He also followed a unique approach after an anti- LTTE operation. When it was discovered that the LTTE was staying in a house and the forces conducted an attack, there was no retaliation against the neighbours. But the house of the civilians used by the tigers was blown up. Wijeratne would summon all the neighbourhood for a meeting where he would explain the situation and say that he has no choice other than to blast the house of those giving refuge to the tigers.
When he first summoned a meeting of this type people refused to come. So Wijeratne forcibly rounded up people and started the meeting. After a while people started voluntarily attending these meetings.Wijeratne’s genius lay in getting people to collectively endorse the “punishment” imposed instead of alienating the entire community by meting out collective punishment to the locality. Gradually people began resenting tiger intrusion into what was considered their peaceful neighbourhood and began passing more information about the LTTE.
Once a landmine on the road killed some soldiers. Wijeratne went to the spot and prevented retaliatory activity. Then he visited the surrounding homes conversing freely with all and did not display any tension. Larry started playing and conversing with some children too. This paid dividends when a child innocently told him that her mother and aunty staying in the house knew the tiger uncles who came last night and put the landmine. The adults were arrested immediately.
Wijeratne struck gold when the army under his command seized a house at Alvai in a surprise. operation This was the military headquarters of the LTTE in the peninsula and had been functional for some time. It was an elaborate underground bunker complex where the entrance was through a cupboard door. It had been constructed in 1995 before the LTTE vacated Vadamaratchy. When the army broke in they killed seven tigers including Arjuna the commander of all LTTE forces in the peninsula then. He had been staying on and off for 14 months there and even tiger intelligence chief Pottu Amman had visited him there.
Another example of his uniquely successful approach was his relationship with the father of a local tiger. The man was an assistant manager in a cooperative society. Larry Wijeratne would often visit this coop and chat with the man complaining in jest that his son was a big headache to him. But no retaliatory action was taken against the father or family whenever the son in the LTTE indulged in an operation. One day Wijeratne got information about where this guy was and surrounded the house but the boy took cyanide. Larry Wijeratne personally handed over the body to the father and apologised for not being able to take him alive.
Convinced Tamil People
Wijeratne had succeeded unlike no other army commander before him. He had convinced the Tamil people that it was in their interest to inform about LTTE activity. He had rationally influenced then into making a choice about continuing a peaceful life or allowing tiger activity. Instead of using brutal terror like others to make the people choose , Wijeratne had appealed to sanity, reason and the enlightened self-interest of the people themselves. His popularity, accessibility, sense of fairplay and genuine concern for the ordinary civilian made him very successful indeed. Once when local authority elections were announced the joke in Vadamaratchy was that if Wijeratne contested he would win.
This state of affairs led to a situation where so much of information about tiger activity reached the army .This enabled the forces to conduct a series of successful operations against the LTTE in the region. Finally the LTTE called it quits and pulled out. They realised that maintaining a permanent presence in those areas of South -west Vadamaratchy coming under Wijeratne’s purview was a high risk affair and changed tactics. Thereafter all incursions were from those in Vadamaratchy east or Thenmaratchy and not the Vadamaratchy South West AGA division controlled by Wijeratne. Wijeratne had achieved the seemingly impossible. He had peacefully pacified a region through a hearts and minds approach.
Self-respect and Dignity
Larry Wijeratne proved wrong the theory that only a hard approach to Tamils would prove successful. He demonstrated that Tamils were humans too and yearned for self-respect and dignity. Like Theodor Rooseveldt Wijeratne believed in “carrying a big stick but speaking softly” . His track record is an object lesson for all commanding officers in how to pacify and control an area.
The LTTE hated Wijeratne. The tigers disliked military commanders enjoying rapport with the people more than those officers treating people harshly. This was because they feared officers popular with the people than those who were alienated from them. The remarkable success of Larry Wijeratne in Vadamaratchy the nursery of Tamil militancy indicated why the LTTE hated and feared him. That is why they had to kill him. His popularity and its resultant success that affected them was too much to tolerate.
Instead of allowing him to depart peacefully to Colombo they chose to kill him on his last day in Jaffna. That too after his farewell. The greatest tribute paid by the LTTE to Wijeratne was their apparent inability to harm him or counter him during his period of duty.The LTTE had to wait until the last day to strike.
Many soldiers and militants have died in Sri Lanka’s military conflict. But the death of Larry Wijeratne created an aching void.He was a true soldier, courageous and compassionate, intelligent and efficient. Above all he was a successful soldier who combatted the tigers without alienating civilians.
The legacy of Larry Wijewratne was the successful establishment of relations with the Tamil people on the basis of dignified treatment and effective countering of the LTTE with minimum inconvenience to the population. It remains a positive legacy.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an Updated version of the “DBS Jeyaraj Column”appearing in the “Daily Mirror”of 11th November 2023.It can be accessed here –