Towards the end of August 8, 1992, whole of Colombo and even some quarters in New Delhi had an incurable headache and diarrhea of an unusual kind from the news that arrived from Aralithurai in Kayts island. The political, military and media circles were dumbfounded by this unprecedented tragedy. Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa (born July 27, 1940), Brigadier Vijaya Wimalaratne (born August 25, 1940), northern naval commander Mohan Jayamaha (aged 33) and seven of their senior military colleagues (including T.G.M. Ariyaratne, H.R. Stephen, U.N. Palipahana, Nalin Alwis, Lankatilleke and Wijepura) were dispatched by an LTTE-set landmine to the land of their Maker on a one-way visa, in the Land Cruiser jeep they chose to travel. Two days later, on August 10, 1992, when the funeral was held to these high ranking officials, there was rioting, and among the few governing party politicians who were assaulted by the assembled crowd was Dayan Jayatilleka, the then media-man of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Some reports even mentioned that Mr. Jayatilleka was stripped naked by the gang who manhandled him.
One should not ignore the fact that when this tragedy occurred, some who had luck on their side were counting their blessings! One was Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who had quit the Sri Lankan army previous year and living in the USA. Had he been still serving the Sri Lankan army, chances were that he might have joined the departed clique, as Brigadier Vijaya Wimalaratne was his mentor! This landmine tragedy receives only one paragraph treatment in Gota’s War (2012) book by C.A. Chandraprema, which I reviewed recently in this website. To quote Chandraprema, “It appeared that despite any instructions that may emanate from army headquarters, careless mistakes continued to be made. The worst and most unforgivable such mistake was made by none other than the most senior officers conducting the war – Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Brigadier Vijaya Wimalaratne. While on a pre-operational inspection on Kayts island in the Jaffna peninsula on 8 August 1992, in a clear breach of security instructions, Kobbekaduwa had got Brigadier Wimalaratne, and several other officers into one vehicle which ran over a landmine killing all except one soldier in the vehicle. Three other contemporaries of Gota in his Sinha Regiment days in 1975/76, died in that single blast – Colonels G.H. Ariyaratne, Neomal Palipana and H.R. Stephen.”
Another individual who counted his blessing was none other than Dayan Jayatilleka. Though he suffered physical assault at the hands of Sinhala rowdy elements in the Colombo cemetery, they did not kill him for his sycophancy to President Premadasa. Twenty years later, he had switched sides to the opposing party (Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was hounded by Premadasa in early 1990s). The same is true for the opportunistic Douglas Devananda, who in 1992 (not an MP yet) was a Tamil mercenary to President Premadasa, posted to Kayts island. Now, he holds a cabinet minister rank under President Rajapaksa.
The shock that an LTTE landmine had decapitated the Sinhalese military leadership of the Northern Province, who had bragged only a week before to theIndia Today magazine (July 31, 1992) that they were about to humiliate LTTE, was too much to absorb by the Sinhala media and politicians. There was an orgy of breast beating, finger pointing and blame shifting. For popular consumption, these military heroes had died either due to carelessness (as Chandraprema opined recently) or due to internal back-stabbing by President Premadasa who was envious of the popularity of Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa. Sinhalese military analysts and public found it difficult to gulp that they lost their heroes to the LTTE’s adept reconnaissance tactics. Thus, altogether there were three Commissions of Inquiry.
Now 20 years later, there have been memorial eulogies to Kobbekaduwa and his colleagues who died on August 8, 1992 in the Colombo media and in electronic websites. But, as one would expect, I was appalled by the partisan bleating, which does not inform much about how this tragedy occurred, in a neutral voice. Retaliatory attacks by the Sri Lankan army to the civilians in other Tamil regions to this tragedy in Kayts island has been hidden. At least, Manik de Silva makes a passing mention of this in his Far Eastern Economic Review report. Mervyn de Silva, in his eulogy to the Sri Lankan military officers repeated his pet peeve, that the Sri Lankan army-LTTE war was “not a Sinhala-Tamil war”. But, he had to mask the reality that the Sri Lankan army was ‘almost 99% Sinhalese’ and the LTTE was ‘100% Tamil’, which in fact proved that the Sri Lankan army-LTTE war was indeed a Sinhala-Tamil war.
Mervyn de Silva passingly mentioned in his eulogy that “a contributing editor of this journal, Dayan Jayatilleka was brutally assaulted by a group of thugs at Kanatte, was a victim of these emerging forces in a society in the grip of a severe crisis.” However, he never identified Dayan Jayatilleka as his son. Though it was painful for a father to see his son physically attacked and write about it, it was evident for many that Dayan Jayatilleka’s political peccadillos in ‘running with the rabbits and hunting with the hounds’ behavior was a major reason for the hoodlums to attack him on August 10th 1992. For reasons of propriety, Mervyn de Silva did not identify who these culprits were. Did they belong to UNP’s traditional enemy, the SLFP? Or did they belong to the Lalith Athulathmudali group, who parted company with President Premadasa? Or did they belong to the JVP clique, with whom Dayan Jayatilleka had conjugal links in the island politics of the 1980s? One fact was certain; that LTTE was not the perpetrator of this attack on Dayan Jayatilleka at the Kanatte cemetery!
Sri Lankan army’s morale was so low in mid-1992, as Rita Sebastian reported toTamil Times (London), that in 1992, (1) they found it difficult to fill the needed vacancies in the recruitment slots; (2) they were willing to take back 4,000 army deserters! This explains why the landmine-caused deaths of Major General Kobbekaduwa and Brigadier Wimalaratne brought massive mourning among the Sinhalese. As Mervyn de Silva eulogized, both army officers “led from the front” and lost their lives for such bravery. In contrast to the deeds of these soldiers, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who quit (in euphemistic term, ‘retired from’) the Sri Lankan army in late 1991 had to be counted as one among the 4,000 army deserters of 1992. This fact has been hidden neatly by his biographer Chandraprema in Gota’s War.
The October 16th 1992 issue of Kalaththil (which in translation reads, ‘Battlefront’: the LTTE’s journal, printed for diaspora Tamils) carried four photos of leader Prabhakaran rewarding the LTTE cadres who were involved in the Aralithurai attack: (a)‘bravely and splendidly’ set the landmine, (b) gave cover to the cadres, (c) introduced the landmine and (d) identified the location of attack in the islet. Those who set the landmine were, Kaarvannan (Peter), Vinothan, Semmanathan (Kunalan), Vettrichezhian and Jeya. Those who provided cover were, Amuthan (Kabil), Kalaiarignan (Yesu), Alagan, Visu, Senkathir, Senkannan (Poovasan). The one who introduced that particular landmine was Pratheep. The one who identified the location of attack in the islet was Kannan. When this award ceremony took place was not reported.
I provide four archival materials in my collection below to place in the database on the LTTE, as how this landmine tragedy was reported in Asiaweek and the Far Eastern Economic Review weeklies and the eulogies of Mervyn de Silva (Lanka Guardian fortnightly) and Rita Sebastian (Tamil Times monthly).
Sri Lanka: A Disaster for the Army
[Anonymous; Asiaweek, Hongkong, Aug.21, 1992, p.31]
Maj-Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Brigadier Vijaya Wimalaratne had many brushes with death. Kobbekaduwa headed the Sri Lankan army’s Northern Command. Wimalaratne was commander of the security forces in Jaffna, the northern peninsula controlled by the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Once in 1987, after leading an assault that captured much of Jaffna from the Tigers, the two men rested near a Tamil house. As Wimalaratne called his friend and mentor over, a soldier rang the front door bell. The house exploded. In August 1990, they had successfully broken the Tigers’ three-week siege of Elephant Pass, the army’s greatest victory. This time Kobbekaduwa beckoned the brigadier. A Tiger mortar landed where Wimalaratne had stood. Last week, however, their luck ran out.
On August 8, the two men convened a morning meeting on the government-controlled northern islet of Kayts. Attending were the northern naval commander, Mohan Jayamaha, and several senior area commanders. The army was planning the final invasion of Jaffna. Kobbekaduwa wanted to examine whether civilians could escape to the islands once the shooting started.
When the session was over, the officers decided to leave together in Wimalaratne’s Land Cruiser. The Brigadier took the wheel, Jayamaha the middle seat and Kobbekaduwa the outside seat. Three lieutenant-colonels, the general’s side, Maj. Nalin De Alwis, and two senior lieutenant naval commanders climbed in the back. Less than ten minutes later, moving along a secured and well-travelled road, the jeep hit a powerful Tiger pressure mine. The mine, buried months before, ripped the jeep to shreds, killing all but the general instantly. Kobbekaduwa was transported to Colombo’s base hospital, but died four hours later. Said a military spokesman in the capital: ‘It is the biggest setback suffered by the security forces in the history of the northeast conflict.’
In a flash, the Tigers had wiped out most of the military’s senior command in the north, and some of its most experienced combat officers. Kobbekaduwa, 52, was one of the army’s most popular officers and its chief strategist. He took over the northern command in December 1989. Unlike many other officers, the general believed that the war could be won without needlessly killing civilians. Even Tamil civilians trusted him. Said Sinhalese Buddhist high priest Syampaladaswarm Wimalananda: ‘He was a warrior who fought for the entire country and not for any individual race.’ Wimalaratne, 51, was the army’s leading combat officer. Trained in jungle warfare in Malaysia and urban guerilla tactics in Israel, he was cited for bravery seven times.
While the army reeled from the blow, Colombo plunged into grief. Shops closed and people hoisted white flags in mourning. More than 100,000 civilians and soldiers paid their respects to the general at his funeral on Monday. Anti-government feelings ran high. Angry that he had not been given a state funeral, mourners hurled stones at ministers.
The blow will breathe new life into the hard-pressed Tigers. Although they still control large parts of the north and east, the army has been steadily gaining ground. It had planned to take Jaffna this month. The week before he died, Kobbekaduwa had told Asiaweek: ‘Morale is at an all-time high. The men have never been more ready to fight.’ The army now says the invasion is ‘imminent’. Just how successful it will be without Kobbekaduwa and Wimalaratne remains to be seen.
Sri Lanka: Tigers’ Prey
[Manik de Silva; Far Eastern Economic Review, Hongkong, Aug.20, 1992, pp.10-11]
Sri Lanka and its armed forces took what was publicly described as a ‘devastating blow’ when a pressure mine exploded at Araly Point on Kayts Island off the Jaffna peninsula on 8 August, killing 10 army and navy officers.
The dead included Maj-Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa, commander of operations against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Brig. Vijaya Vimalaratne, the security forces commander in Jaffna.
Kobbekaduwa was due to assume the position of army chief-of-staff in January next year and was widely expected to be the next army commander. The general was known for his sensitivity to civilian concerns in directing military operations in the war-torn north.
Much of the cream of the officer corps of the security forces fighting the LTTE were lost in the single blast which ripped through the Landrover the officers were riding in. The victims had flown to Kayts from the nearby Karainagar naval base as part of a reconnaissance mission preceding a new military offensive against the Tigers.
There was no clear indication whether the Araly mine was an old one, as initially claimed by the military, or whether the LTTE had been able to infiltrate Kayts Island which had long been under army control. There had been regular vehicle movements along the track where the explosion occurred.
For President Ranasinghe Premadasa, the highest priority following the blast was to ensure the safety of minority Tamils living among the majority Sinhalese in Colombo and elsewhere in the southern and central parts of the country. On the day after the blast, 22 people were killed in a Tamil village in the eastern district of Batticaloa. The army has denied any involvement in the Batticaloa attack which remains unexplained.
While the government is anxious to avoid any backlash against the Tamils, it has also sought to stress that the war against the LTTE will continue as before. In a speech delivered one day after the catastrophe Premadasa once again ruled out separation as a solution to the insurgency problem. The loss of the 10 officers will certainly affect forces morale. But the government intends to keep up the pressure while continuing the slow search for a negotiated settlement.
The Araly blast has stirred memories of the bloody anti-Tamil rioting that occurred in July 1983 when the bodies of 13 soldiers killed by the LTTE were cremated in Colombo. The rioting blackened Sri Lanka’s image internationally, and caused enormous economic damage from which tourism is only now recovering.
Kobbekaduwa’s funeral in Colombo, which attracted a crowd estimated at over 100,000, passed off without serious violence but there was stone throwing, hooting and jeering and a steel picket fence at the cemetery was toppled. Riot police who were brought in had to use teargas shells and fire in the air to quell the mob.
When Heroes Die: Pressure Mines and Mounting Pressures
[Mervyn de Silva; Lanka Guardian, Colombo, Aug.15, 1992, pp.3-4]
[Note by Sachi: dots, wherever they appear, are as in the original.]
Yes, thirteen Sinhala soldiers died in an LTTE landmine explosion in the North. True, they were cremated at Kanatte cemetery too, with all the formal military ceremonies. All hell broke loose that night and the next day or two. The victims? Tamils on the street or in their homes.The target?Tamil property…shops, and homes, particularly in the Pettah bazaar, and in Tamil enclaves like Wellawatte.
But there was a huge difference between ‘Black July’ as this journal named an event that made world news to tarnish Sri Lanka’s image. But this funeral, at the same cemetery last Monday, August 10 was no ‘Black July’.
The Indian and international press called the July ’83 anti-Tamil violence ‘a pogrom’ and state-sponsored’ or ‘state-aided’. The mildest charge was that the regime had shut its eyes, if it had not in fact winked at the merciless attacks on a helpless community.
Ten casualties in an LTTE landmine explosion – that is the only real common factor. The violence that was unleashed at Kanatte last Monday had more complex causes although it was on a much smaller scale and lasted only a few hours before the riot police and tear gas brought the situation under control.
There was here more grief and shock than explosive rage. The victims included not merely some of the most respected professionals in the services – army and navy – but also the most warmly regarded, such as the irreplaceable General DenzilKobbekaduwe; the toughest ‘pro’ of Eelam War 1 and 2, Brigadier Vijaya Wimalaratne, and Commodore Mohan Jayamaha, one of the Sri Lanka navy’s finest officers.
The 15 year UNP regime, the ‘long parliament’ under President J.R., followed by the 4 year regime of President Premadasa has contributed to the rising and increasingly visible frustration of anti-UNP forces, dissipating their energies through internal friction for want of clearly perceived goals and a coherent rival program, to place before the people. All that the anti-UNP parties and groups can therefore do is to seize ‘targets of opportunity’, this or that issue, this or that occasion or a turn of events.
Beneath all this is seething economic discontent, the direct and predictable outcome of the IMF-World Bank ‘structural adjustment’ strategy. Ever-rising prices a necessary by product, steadily marginalizes the wage earner and the salaried middle class the public servant especially, they simply cannot keep pace with inflation.
The burden they are forced to bear, it is clear even to the least educated, has much to do with the war, and its rapidly rising costs…now over 21 billion rupees. So the average Sinhala voter prays for not just a clear victory over the separatist Tamil Tigers but a quick success. Unfortunately, the nature of the war is such that the sort of decisive victory that can be won in more conventional conflicts cannot be achieved in this type of armed confrontation even if one has the high-tech that was proudly exhibited in the Gulf War. The guerrilla fights according to his rules. It is when the Tigers took on the army in a conventional battle – the siege on the Elephant Pass garrison – that Sri Lanka armed forces showed their mettle. The major operations launched since then were also commanded by General Kobbekaduwe, a graduate of Sandhurst, Camberly, and the prestigious Royal College of Defence Studies.
Like other upper echelon commanders of the S.L.A., General Kobbekaduwe understood both the political character of the conflict, as well as its international implications. It is not for nothing that the international Red Cross, UNHCR and other organisations have representatives both in Colombo and in the war-ravaged north. Though not directly attached to any embassies, these ‘observers’ intervene in various ways in the ongoing war. And their reports influence the opinion of the major donors, who in turn, carry a great deal of clout with the World Bank, certainly before the IBRD convenes the annual Aid Sri Lanka consortium meeting in Paris.
Apart from that, Sri Lankan service chiefs, the Army, Navy and Air Force, had understood clearly that the state’s objective was in fact to demonstrate that the LTTE had no ‘military option’ i.e. there was no military victory that the LTTE can possibly claim. Once that message was delivered loud and clear, then the path to a negotiated peace, a political settlement within the Sri Lankan constitution, was open.
As the Sunday Times stated editorially: ‘If the war-torn, battle-hardened nation still has any tears left it must shed them now.Specially at the feet of Denzil Kobbekaduwe, a soldier of the people, who sought not only to win battles but also the hearts and minds of the people of those ravaged areas.’
In short, this was NOT a Sinhala-Tamil war. It was a war against a group of guerrillas, one of the most ferocious in the world, who had launched a war to establish a separate state because that was the only way to remedy many, long-standing grievances against the Sri Lankan state in their view. Why such felt grievances were allowed to fester is of course a question that must be posed to the Sri Lankan political establishment, i.e. the major Sinhalese parties which failed to resolve them through democratic means.
Denzil Kobbekaduwe was not only an officer and gentleman, he was that rare soldier who led from the front. i.e. when the order to march was given, the first to move was the man who gave the order, Denzil. And by his side was Brigadier Wimalaratne, the toughest officer in the field.
If Sri Lanka is an island, Jaffna is a peninsula, and the Palk Straits is what separates our country from Tamilnadu. It is from Kayts Island, cleared of hardcore Tigers, that the Army with the help of the Navy, was planning to advance. This was a ‘combined operation’ in which the Air Force had a key role to play too. But the Navy was all important. In charge was a first class officer, Commodore Mohan Jayamaha, trained at Indian and Australian naval colleges. The tributes that came from the Tamil parties may well be remembered at the most significant. The PLOT spokesman said that General Kobbekaduwe had ‘stood above race, religion and political differences. He worked towards bringing the Tamil community back to the political mainstream.’
This issue of the LG had gone to press when the funeral of Major General (now Lt. General) Denzil Kobbekaduwe was held at Kanatte. Well over half the LG had already been printed when Brigadier (posthumously Major General) Vijaya Wimalaratne received the last honours from his fellow soldiers. This journal has interviewed them both – one, the most universally respected; the other, regarded by friend and foe as the army’s toughest professional.
The ugly scenes at Kanatte, no matter what the provocation, was no way to honour these men who had made the supreme sacrifice. What happened on Tuesday and Wednesday requires more time for inquiry and reflection. As a first impression, we would suggest that it was more organised than spontaneous and yet it could not have occurred except in a society under tremendous pressure; the pressure of a bitter, wasteful ten year war, the emotional pressure of group identity and allegiance, the mounting burden of living costs, the frustration of oppositional movements, divided, dispirited and desperate, and the resurgence of youth adventurism and extremism, armed only for the moment with ultra-nationalist ideology. But that ideological outlook is also shared by younger elements is some of the recognized parties; and these parties, too long in the cold, seize any occasion or issue, as a target of opportunity.
A contributing editor of this journal, Dayan Jayatilleka, who was brutally assaulted by a group of thugs, at Kanatte, was a victim of these emerging forces in a society in the grip of a severe crisis.
NB: If a ‘Day of National Mourning’, the agitational protesters’ stated grievance and rallying cry, was not announced in deference to an explicit request from the families of the dead heroes, as claimed by official sources, why was not that fact broadcast to the people?
Top Officers killed as Army takes a Heavy Blow
[Rita Sebastian; Tamil Times, London, Aug.15, 1992, p. 4]
For an already demoralized army having suffered over 150 dead in the last month alone, losing its two top rankers in the northern battlefront is a devastating blow. Both officers, Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Brigadier Vijeya Wimalaratne, key figures in the war drama that was being enacted daily on the northern front, died along with eight others, seven of them officers, in a Tiger pressure mine explosion in Kayts island, off the northern Jaffna mainland on August 8.
To the army and the country, the loss seems irreparable. Both men epitomised, for those in and outside the army, a courage and a selfless dedication to duty. The late General Kobbekaduwa was that kind of rare soldier who saw beyond gaining military victories in the field. He anguished over the tremendous hardships that the people in the northeast were being put to. An anguish that led to, wherever possible, a relaxation of the often repressive strictures that became the lot of the civilian population caught between the warring sides.
It was not guns and bullets that he saw finally winning the war, but a people won over from the side of militancy. He ran into trouble with the political leadership at the initial stages of Eelam War 2, for advocating a political solution to the crisis. What now is the question that everybody is asking. Will the military re-think its future operations in the north. If answer was needed it came quick on the heels of the killing. Defence Secretary Cyril Ranatunge said in a special communiqué that the military would ‘redouble its efforts to achieve its objective’. And that objective no doubt is to militarily marginalize the Tigers, get a political process off the ground, and return the northeast to peace and normalcy.
In the last several weeks the Tigers have shown increasing signs of wanting to exploit the vulnerability of the thinly stretched logistical lines of the Sri Lankan security forces. They attacked two comparatively isolated army camps causing substantial losses. In the first instance they overran the listlessly guarded Kattupotha army camp killing, according to official figures, 46 soldiers and making away in the bargain with a considerable haul of ammunition and weapons. In the second attack 15 soldiers from the Pirappamaduwa army camp were killed outside the army’s forward defence lines, coinciding with a simultaneous attack on the camp itself which the soldiers were said to have successfully repulsed.
This new trend in the offensive however is beginning to cause some anxiety. The security forces in isolated camps tend to be jittery and several soldiers, specially newer and raw recruits have been susceptible to an attack of nerves.
These reports of poor or sagging morale must be read in conjunction with another unwelcome development. There have been reports of a falling off, of applications to join the army. An opposition politician, speaking during the debate for the extension of the Emergency in parliament, revealed that there were only 360 applications to fill 1,000 vacancies in the Sri Lanka army. For a similar number of vacancies in the voluntary force, the MP alleged, that there were only 900 applications. This contrasts with the earlier enthusiastic, even exuberant response to calls to join the army.
Not long ago the newspapers published photographs of youth, specially from the impoverished south, queuing up to join the army and ‘clobber’ the Tigers. That mood engendered in part by a sort of war psychosis seems to have passed. The current mood seems to be sullen, the unmistakable signs of a war fatigue. But military sources dismiss such speculation. And going by reports, the next phase of operations to wrest Jaffna from Tiger control was to have begun in the second week of August. A battle strategy that is likely to be now put on hold until the two men who led operations in the north, the late General Kobbekaduwa and Brigadier V. Wimalaratne are replaced.
Sri Lanka Freedom Party MP, Kingsley Wickremaratne told parliament recently that the government had so far spent rupees 120 billion on a ‘senseless and costly war in the northeast’. But tragically it is a war that neither the ruling party nor the main opposition SLFP is making any attempt to bring to an end by addressing the main problem. Somewhat in desperation the army has taken an unprecedented step and declared its willingness to take back 4,000 deserters. Such a step is unparalleled in the annals of most armies.
But the government seems to find that desperate situations require desperate remedies. But it has provoked the question whether the army can depend on some fickle deserters to fight the war with any success against the Tigers who are highly motivated and ruthless in their pursuit.
However there seems to be some thin consolation for the army that the Tigers are also facing a problem of low morale. There have been persistent reports recently of disgruntled ranks and perhaps even bloody factional infighting. But neither side on the verge of exhaustion seems to be capable of putting an end to the fratricidal madness. As a humanitarian aid worker commented: ‘Unless sanity breaks out peace will be a distant dream.’When the Parliamentary Select Committee deliberations wind up, Ceylon Workers Congress President, S. Thondaman will once again take on the role of mediator and journey north to dialogue with the Tigers. Whether he will succeed, where others failed to bring the Tigers back to the negotiating table is yet to be seen.
The Kayts incident which the Tigers have claimed responsibility for, and for which the military has its own theory of an old pressure mine having been activated by the weight of the 10 men in one vehicle, brings home more forcefully than ever the continuing war can only inflict more casualties. Whether the mine was old or newly laid, the end result was the same. At least now, out of the nation’s collective grief must emerge some positive thinking if we are to end the carnage.