by Shanika Sriyananda, ‘Daily FT,’ Colombo, September 6, 2016
Battle-hardened soldier Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, who has shed his Army uniform which he wore for 35 years, yesterday urged political leaders of the country to maintain the hard-earned peace. Maj. Gen. Gunaratne, who is credited for commanding his troops of the 53 Division to fight the 45-minute final battle of the Eelam IV war, which killed LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and put the curtains down on the 30-year-long war against LTTE terrorism, will be launching his memoir ‘Road to Nandikadal’ today (6) at his alma mater, Ananda College.
In an exclusive interview with the Daily FT, he explained the historical failures that led the LTTE to become a stronger fighting force, the motive of writing of his memoir, the downfall of the LTTE, transforming the SLA to a victorious Army, allegations on human rights abuses and the last days of the final battle.
“I wrote this book for the poor parents who sent their sons to fight with the ruthless LTTE, the elite people in Colombo and abroad and the human rights activists, who were misled by a wrong picture about the our soldiers and the war,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want his memories to be buried with him after his retirement.
Maj. Gen. Gunaratne said that for the LTTE to make a comeback with the same vigour it needed a leader like Prabhakaran, who was an equally committed, dedicated, disciplined and ruthless terrorist leader.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: Why did you think of writing your memoirs ‘Road to Nandikadal’ seven years after defeating LTTE terrorism?
A: Defeating the LTTE was a very difficult task for the armed forces, which had made a lot of sacrifices in the last Eelam war. The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) lost over 5,600 officers and soldiers and had over 25,000 battle field casualties during the final battle of two years and 10 months that ended on 19 May 2009. Thousands of soldiers are still lying on beds like vegetables. All Sri Lankans are happily and peacefully living today because of the sacrifices that they made to bring about a future with no bombs and blood.
With busy lives, people tend to forget the blood-stained past as well as the deadly war with the ruthless LTTE and Velupillai Prabhakaran. Unfortunately, they have also forgotten how they suffered due to terrorism and also how the valiant soldiers of the armed forces fought and made sacrifices to end the 30-year war.
I am not an experienced writer but a soldier from a fighting regiment who was in the war front from 1983 to May 2009. My intention of writing this book was basically to document what we, the security forces, did; not what I, Kamal Gunaratne, did; and what a gigantic task it was for the security forces to liberate the country from the clutches of the LTTE to bring peace.
Q: Writing a book of 800 pages is no easy task. Being in the military, how did you find time to pen down your experiences?
A: Yes, it was a very difficult task. I spend all my extra time to complete this book. Most of the books on the war, except for a very few, have been written by those who were not involved in the war. Since I was writing my true experiences of the war, my motive was to give a fair idea on how we finished the war and what difficulties we faced from 1983 to 2009. Before starting my writing, I thought it was easy but when progressing page by page I found it was very difficult but I didn’t abandon my mission. I think a writer needs lots of concentration, patience and also endurance to complete a book, otherwise he will abandon it halfway.
Q: You have written the book in both, Sinhala and English languages. Why?
A: A person who can sustain in a war will be the winner. The Sri Lanka Army sustained in the last Eelam war to become the winner, whereas Prabhakaran couldn’t. Why? We sustained because we had the help and the blessings of the poor parents of the villages, who sent their sons to the Army to fight with the LTTE. While they were having funerals of the young soldiers from their villages and their sons were returning from battlefields as casualties, these parents kept on sending their sons to the Army.
Due to this the Army had the man power to fight till last minute of the final battle but Prabhakaran didn’t have similar support from the people. Therefore, I thought I should do justice to these parents, their relatives, these soldiers and also the fallen heroes by writing the book in the Sinhala language for them to understand how their sons fought in the Eelam war and also what they underwent to bring peace.
Why I translated the book into English was to counter those allegations against the security forces on committing war crimes and human rights violations during the final battle against the LTTE. Again, I wanted the elite community in Colombo and abroad to know the truth as most of them still believe in cooked-up stories to tarnish the image of the Sri Lankan security forces. I wanted them to know the reality of what happened during the war, how difficult it was and how humanely we welcomed the war-displaced civilians who fled the LTTE-controlled areas, where they were used as human shields by the LTTE.
Q: How do you recall the days when you were fighting in Eelam II and Eelam III?
A: It was sad to say that in those days, people were not bothered even if the LTTE had killed 50 soldiers. But the entire nation mourned if a cricketer had a run out for a few runs. This happened because the Army was losing continuously in the battlefronts. People didn’t have much faith in the fighting strength of our soldiers and thought the LTTE was more powerful than us. In all the operations, except for a few operations like Balawegaya, in which we liberated Elephant Pass and Thrividabalaya, in which we rescued Jaffna Fort, we ended up with disasters.
If you take the Jayasikuru operation, in which we advanced for more than two-and-a-half years, many soldiers were wounded and killed in action. Though we reached Mankulam, we couldn’t hold the position as the LTTE was heavily attacking us, so we ran up to Thandikulam within two-and-a-half days. Why? Because we were short of manpower to fight and hold the position. Thanks to one Col. Roshan Silva, we stationed at Omanthai.
We were a ‘running army’ those days. I am trying to say in my book how this running army became a victorious army in the Eelam IV war.
Q: What were the reasons for the Army to lose those battles?
A: I have explained those reasons in my book. The main reason was from 1983 to 2005, there was no clear political vision and will to defeat terrorism. Secondly, there was no clear national strategy to defeat the LTTE. Thirdly, there was no plans to increase the fighting strength of the Army and also no continuous flow of weapons and ammunition for the Army.
The best example was the well-planned Wadamarachchi Operation. It was stopped halfway mainly because there was no political will to proceed with the operation. Since there was no national strategy to fight terrorism, previous governments commenced peace talks amidst the LTTE attacking us. When peace talks collapsed, they wanted us to commence military operations while we were short of infantry soldiers. While the soldiers were getting killed and wounded, the authorities still wanted us to fight.
Another failure was that leadership at various levels was given not on battlefield achievements and fighting capabilities, but for seniority in the Army. Irrespective of your capabilities, if you were a senior, you would be appointed a Division Commander. Those who were really had the capabilities of commanding the soldiers were not given the right place, so we lost battles.
Wrong deployments of troops, especially the Commandos and Special Forces (SF) in battles which could be easily handled by the infantry battalions, was also another failure. It will take one-and-a-half years to train a Commando and a SF soldier. The entire 2-Commando Regiment, with 90 Commandos, was wiped out at the fortified village in Mankulam during the Jayasikuru Operation. This battle could have easily carried out by the infantry troops. The wrong deployment happened due to poor military leadership.
Q: Do you challenge the decisions of the former Army Commanders?
A: No, I don’t. I have a great respect for all of them who commanded the SLA. They had committed themselves a lot to the Army but when it comes to taking the correct decision they may have not taken the very accurate decision which should have been taken at that moment.
Q: What was the behaviour of the LTTE during peace time?
A: We are proud soldiers, who have lots of pride within us. When the proud soldiers were humiliated frequently, it was difficult for them to tolerate. But they did their duties very patiently during peace time as the LTTE humiliated our soldiers a lot.
All the previous presidents of all the governments commenced peace talks with a positive mind, without knowing the motive of the LTTE. When the LTTE agreed to have peace talks, the governments were ready to offer them certain solutions. Being an outfit which was never satisfied with what it got, the LTTE always asked for more. While they were discussing the devolution of power with the Government, they continuously broke the Ceasefire Agreements by attacking the soldiers and humiliating them.
I have explained in my book how the LTTE humiliated the soldiers. The LTTE organised protests using villagers and came in front of the camps and verbally abused the soldiers in filth. But the soldiers with fully-loaded weapons had patience to tolerate them. They showed their professionalism and discipline, which the world couldn’t understand.
We thought enough was enough and decided to have a respectable war rather than a humiliating peace. Then the Army had started preparing itself. We had training and research and identified our weaknesses. We rectified the weaknesses and improved our strengths. Since the LTTE mostly attacked us during the night, the soldiers were scared of darkness. As infantrymen, darkness is our best friend as we are not visible to the enemies. We inculcated this in the minds of our soldiers and trained them in night fighting. Finally, they became good night fighters.
After making the SLA stronger, we were waiting for a day for the Government gave us the final nod to commence Eelam War IV. We knew that the LTTE was also getting prepared to attack us.
Q: What was your perception about Prabhakaran and the LTTE when you were fighting in a ‘running army’?
A: Although it was the bitter truth, when I say it was a running Army, I know many senior officers who were serving in the Army will get offended. Since we actually ran to Thandikulam within two-and-a-half days, I wanted to call it the ‘running army’. I apologise for using the incorrect or wrong word to give a clear idea about how we fought in the past. Former Army Commander Lt. Gen. Cecil Widyaratne retired saying that he did not want to command a losing army. He tried his best to revamp and uplift the status of the SLA but he failed.
However, people didn’t think that the SLA would be victorious until the last Eelam war. A senior minister of a previous government told me during peace time: “You can’t win the war with the LTTE.” When I said that we could, he said: “Colonel, your people have been fighting with the LTTE for so long and couldn’t win a battle so that is why we have to go for peace talks.” I have mentioned this in my book. People of this country, the governments and even our own soldiers thought that the LTTE was a superior fighting force. But in 2009, we reduced the LTTE to just an ideology. I even don’t think that the LTTE will make a comeback with the same magnitude as Prabhakaran, who was an equally committed, dedicated, disciplined and ruthless terrorist leader, is no more.
He may have been uneducated but he maintained strict discipline among himself and also within the outfit. He is the man who showed the art of suicide bombing. Before Al Qaeda’s first suicide bomber, Prabhakaran had over 200 suicide bombers in the LTTE. Most of the suicide cadres were females and were ready to sacrifice their lives at the command of their leader. There is no evidence to show that he abused those female cadres in the LTTE.
He was a loving family man. The SLA recovered over 10,000 photographs of Prabhakaran, his family and LTTE functions but we never found a picture of Prabhakaran with a glass of alcohol. He was a disciplined leader and he maintained a law deadlier than Sharia law. If you steal, you lose your hand under Sharia law, but under Prabhakaran’s law you lose your life. Although he was a Hindu, he never believed in God. Once he said that God was there for the powerful countries. He was a different kind of a man and he had some good characteristics for someone to learn.
He was a firm decision maker. Whether the decision was right or wrong, he didn’t care and once a decision was taken, then it was implemented. Killing Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi was among the most unwise decisions he had ever made. By killing Gandhi, he knew that India in its entirety and the world would come against him but still he wanted to take revenge from India for deploying the IPKF in Sri Lanka to crush the LTTE. So he killed him because he was ruthless. He had lots of patience and he was not hurry in his missions and waited for the right moment to strike.
Q: You said that the SLA was transformed to a winning army from 2005 to 2009. What were the reasons for this shift?
A: I can list them out as lessons learnt. Both the then Government and the SLA Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka had a clear vision to defeat terrorism. Being a war veteran he was committed to end LTTE terrorism and he promised he would not hand over the war to his successor. He delivered as he promised. But he couldn’t have destroyed the LTTE without the full support of the then Government, which gave the green light to strengthen the SLA’s fighting capacity by having several recruitment drives, so the number of soldiers in the Army was increased from 120,000 to 230,000.
Former President Rajapaksa said: “You finish the war and we will not interfere.” The Government gave us everything that was required to fight, from bullets to missiles, to defeat the LTTE.
During this period, most of the battlefield leaders were selected by the then Commander, who had identified the capable people to lead military operations. He didn’t care about seniority. The moment I was promoted as a Brigadier, I was appointed as a Division Commander while there were many seniors above me. The Commander got the blessings of the former Secretary Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa and they teamed up to take all those vital decisions. Well-planned deployment of Commandos and SF had also resulted in successful military operations to destroy LTTE bases.
Q: What were the failures of the LTTE to become losers?
A: The main reason was that they didn’t fight with the same Army, which they fought before 2005. In the last battle they had to fight with an Army which was more professional and had a different attitude. Commanders at all levels were well-experienced. As I said before, we identified our weaknesses and rectified them. We identified the plus points of the LTTE and we learnt from them. Those days we wanted to fight like a conventional force but in the Eelam IV, the Special Forces and the Commandos had shaped the battle field by deploying their small teams. This was what the LTTE did those days and they put lots of fear into our rear. This time we put lots of fear into their rear. The tactics were different. We tried our best to get away from the conventional way while Prabhakaran wanted to get away from his guerrilla warfare.
That was the biggest failure of the LTTE. Then they kept their own people as human shields. This is one of the failures of the LTTE as it lost the people’s support. One of the biggest mistakes that Prabhakaran made was make the LTTE a conventional force after turning the outfit into a highly-professional fighting force.
From reconnaissance cadres and explosive experts to suicide cadres and its artillery teams, including artillery observers, all were highly-capable cadres, but the outfit lost its capabilities as Prabhakaran wanted to make the outfit a conventional army, which had a high recruitment drive with limited training for recruits. The other reason was the SLA was powerful in attacking from multiple fronts. Therefore, the LTTE with shrinking manpower couldn’t sustain the fight.
Q: But S. Thamilini, the LTTE’s Political Wing Leader, cited in her book that war fatigue and the LTTE’s senior commanders getting old were among reasons for the LTTE’s defeat in the final battle. Your comments?
A: I have not read her book yet, but I don’t agree with these reasons for the fall of the LTTE. Whether Prabhakaran was young or old, he was the same ruthless man and his leadership until the last minute of the battle was excellent. The other leaders like Banu, Ratnam Master and Soosai also had an excellent command. Due to Soosai’s command during the last few days, nobody wanted to turn back. Their commandos performed well under the command of these leaders.
The LTTE had also suffered as it lost the leadership of Balraj, who died of a heart attack. He was one of the best commanders of the LTTE. Then the LTTE lost Karuna Amman, who was also one of the best fighting commanders. The next best commander was Theepan, who fought till the fall of Puthukkudiyiruppu. The top leadership was strong and fought till the last few hours of the final battle.
Q: Rights activists and international humanitarian agencies claim human rights violations by the military during the final phase of the last battle. How do you respond to these allegations?
A: Being a Division Commander who was there in the final phase of the last battle, I strongly refute these allegations. No human rights abuses and no war crimes were committed by the SLA during the final battle. It was a war between the Army and the terrorists. During a war situation, definitely there could be casualties. We took all possible precautions to minimise civilian casualties following humanitarian law. That was why we named our military operation the ‘humanitarian operation’.
We fully respected the meaning of this military operation and never fired at populated areas. The down links of the UAV were connected to the operational rooms of all the divisions to identify LTTE hideouts and avoid attacking where civilians were living. On some occasions even when we were attacked by the LTTE, we were restricted from retaliating as we found that the terrorists were mingling with civilians. The Government had strictly instructed us to maintain zero casualty rates.
Q: Finally, LTTE leader Prabhakaran had his final 45-minute battle with your soldiers. Were you confident of capturing him?
A: I was very confident that the SLA would capture him soon. I knew it when I saw the influx of displaced people fleeing to our side seeking protection. When we looked at the map, we saw the LTTE-held areas were shrinking rapidly. Then when we came to know that the LTTE cadres were fleeing mingling with civilians to our side abandoning the outfit, we knew that the outfit was in disarray and we wouldn’t have to fight for long as Prabhakaran’s days were numbered. On the evening of 18 May 2009, the war was virtually came to an end but Lt. Gen. Fonseka and I had the same big question in our minds. Where was Prabhakaran?
I called the Commander to say that we had captured every inch of the north but he said without capturing Prabhakaran, the war would be never ended. While everyone was eagerly waiting to see Prabhakaran, the troops of the fourth Vijayaba Infantry battalion killed him after a 45-minute-long confrontation at the Nandikadal Lagoon.
Q: Some say that he was brought to Colombo and killed. Your comments?
A: This is a rumour and will remain as a rumour. The truth is he was killed during the confrontation. Nobody knew Prabhakaran was there till 19 May morning. It was the last confrontation we had with the LTTE.
As a soldier, the most unforgettable moment in my life was having the man who had played with our lives for nearly three decades lying in front of me and my men was cheering saying, “Sir, we killed Prabhakaran.” While I am being proud I must say that the war ended due to immense dedication of all the division commanders and soldiers. It was a collective effort.
Q: It was reported that Prabhakaran’s younger son was also killed by the forces?
A: I strongly deny this allegation and the Sri Lanka Army never captured him. It’s a wrong allegation.
Q: You are now retired from the SLA after spending your entire youth fighting the LTTE to bring peace to the country. What do you have to say now?
A: Yes, I hung up my uniform which I wore for more than three decades and I went home on 5 September as a proud soldier of the victorious Sri Lanka Army. I never wanted to retire as a defeated soldier, so I have made my dream a reality. I will be having a simple life with my family.
Not only me but all my colleagues, who commanded the war, have sacrificed their entire youth in jungles fighting the LTTE. With lots of dedication, commitment and sacrifices, we achieved peace. I think it is the responsibility of the political leadership of this country to maintain an everlasting peace. We talk about reconciliation but listen to those who ask for land powers, devolution of powers, police and judicial powers and demand the removal of the Director of the Kilinochchi Hospital as he is a Sinhalese and to appoint a Tamil official. Just because we sang the National Anthem in Tamil, reconciliation doesn’t take place. The Government should be alarmed by the latest developments, which disturb peace, taking place in the north. The political leadership needs to take them as eye-openers and look at from a wider angle.
Q: Do you mean to say that the LTTE could stage a comeback?
A: If the situations are not handled properly, the LTTE can make a comeback as over 12,400 ex-combatants are living in society. Though they have undergone a comprehensive rehabilitation program, that doesn’t mean that they are 100% transformed into civilians. The new leadership will not be effective as Prabhakaran’s leadership but if a situation is created, the LTTE will make a comeback because the LTTE ideology is still alive. I don’t think that the Tamil political leaders will be satisfied with judicial, land and police powers as the agenda of the Tamil National Alliance is Eelam and nothing else.