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Foreword to forthcoming book by Gen. Gerry de Silva

I am honoured to have been asked by General Gerry 123de Silva to write a Foreword to this book. I am also very pleased that he undertook the task of setting down the brave exploits of our soldiers.

One of the biggest problems this country faces is its failure to remember. Successive governments keep reinventing the wheel, and often in the process make it less rounded than previously. A principal reason for this is the failure to maintain records, or to refer to them.

A decade and a half ago, when I became Academic Coordinator of the degree programme that had been started at the Sri Lanka Military Academy, I suggested that the cadets should pay greater attention to recent military history. I was told by the officers in charge then that this would not be possible, since much of it was about failure. Since those responsible were still in positions of command, they would not want what went wrong to be analyzed.

I found this immensely sad, and drew attention to the fact that Indian army personnel, following what can only be described as the debacle of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka, had produced a number of books which highlighted the lessons to be learnt from that operation. But that is why the Indian army was seen as comparatively professional, whereas ours in those days was still floundering.

All that changed in the decade that followed, and I believe the determination of some officers such as General Gamini Hettiarachchi to upgrade training, which also involved setting up the degree course, helped considerably. General Sarath Fonseka, who along with the Secretary of Defence contributed immensely to the victory, had initially been opposed to a degree course. He had this in common with many officers who thought we would create eggheads, whereas conversely my colleagues at the University thought we were lowering the value of the degree. But at my first meeting with him after I took over the Sri Lanka Peace Secretariat, in 2007, he assured me that he found the degree course officers well motivated. In fact they were in the thick of battle in the last few years of the conflict, and I am sadly aware of how many of them died. I was moved then to read, in this book, of how a couple of them laid down their lives, knowing the likely outcome of their brave effort to inspire or save their men. These were Captain Samaranayake of Intake 54, and Captain Punsiri of Intake 56, whose faces I still recall, not the most distinguished cadets academically, but always determined to learn.

And there was yet another, even younger officer, whom I do not recall since he was in Intake 62, about the last I was able to teach properly, since 63 was not a degree course, an anomaly that was soon corrected. This young man died just over a year after he was commissioned at Puthukudiyiruppu during the fierce fighting of March 2009.

But of course the bulk of those who won the Padma Weera Vibushana, the medal of gallantry and conspicuous bravery which is the subject of the second part of this book, were mainly ordinary soldiers. The commitment to their country and their fellows which motivated them is what Gerry de Silva celebrates, and I hope we do not allow their heroism to be traduced by those, in other countries but sadly in this too, who understand nothing about war, or pretend they do not, and attack the heroism of these men.

We are I should reiterate immeasurably more professional now, but there is still diffidence about records. I realized this when, soon after the Darusman report came out, I wrote several articles in rebuttal of its more outrageous allegations. To my surprise, the book, which was written from memory, was the only one to emerge. I was asked a few months later to help with the book the Ministry of Defence was bringing out but it did not answer the allegations. Though it was an admirable account of the war, that should have come out much earlier, whereas by the latter part of 2011 we needed solid defence, not description.

At that stage I asked the Secretary whether I could go up to the conflict areas to collect evidence to deal with the five major allegations in the report. He agreed and the Army Commander – an old friend, who had been Commandant at Diyatalawa, and then Special Forces Commander in Vavuniya where I visited regularly during the last stages of the war – appointed to liaise with me Colonel Chamil Munasinghe, who had maintained the files pertaining to operations at the time.

Chamil almost fell on my neck in relief. A thoughtful man, he had been worried about what would happen to the records he had maintained when he was transferred, which was bound to happen soon. He realized they would be buried, and soon forgotten – which had happened indeed to the Peace Secretariat archives. When the Secretariat was foolishly closed down, I wrote to the Secretary to the President to tell him to take care of the archive, but when the Darusman Report came out they were running round like headless chickens to find it. The files were finally discovered lying higgledy piggledy in a room in our former office, and my Director Administration was asked to put them in order. Unsurprisingly, when another crisis arose a few years later, the Foreign Ministry called me to find out where the material was.

One reason for difficulties in recording matters straightforwardly is the mess in which most files are. I found when I was Secretary to a Ministry that files have multiple copies of unnecessary documents, and often the salient ones are either buried deep or else missing. The sensible practice I was taught at the British Council, of weeding files periodically, has not entered the Sri Lankan psyche. We plan to include the maintenance of records now as an important module in the basic course we are preparing in the Tertiary and Vocational Education Sector for the new Office and Finance Management syllabuses we are formulating. It is vital that all those working in an office understand the importance of keeping records and of retrieving information from them swiftly.

Fortunately Chamil was able to identify what was important in the Vavuniya records, and furnished me with copies, which enabled me to place things in perspective – and in particular to record the thanks of the UN for the support our forces had supplied to Convoy XI, whereas in Darusman’s narrative it was suggested that we had fired on it relentlessly. But sadly there has been no effort since to record the difficulties of the operation and the remarkable success we had in not only destroying the LTTE in Sri Lanka, but also saving the lives of so many thousands of civilians.

That story is not Gerry’s business, for he is concerned here with the heroism of individuals. But after his initial stories of legendary generals of the past, he has short and simple narratives of recent achievements, and in the process he tells us much of the story of the final thrust against the LTTE. It is important that the country as a whole knows what happened, and in particular the exploits of the Divisions that won back, with much difficulty, the Wanni that had been the playground of the LTTE for so long. His graphic accounts of significant stages in the battle, beginning with the judicious use of Long Range Patrols (so shamefully betrayed in 2002 when a government anxious to placate the Tigers came into power), should be essential reading for all Sri Lankans, let alone those who may have to fight another war to save the country in the future.

I was particularly impressed by his succinct but informative accounts of the Task Forces, led by brilliant commanders, that toiled to take over the Wanni during the last couple of years. He pays due tribute to the impact of Karuna’s defection from the LTTE when he understood that Prabhakaran’s megalomania would decimate the Tamil people. He has graphic descriptions of the defence mechanisms adopted by Prabhakaran – though I should note that I would have welcomed more about how the Tigers, with the support of what seem to have been sympathetic NGOs, led by the shadowy Guy Rhodes, built up ditch and bund defences west of Kilinochchi, substantially delaying our advance there.

Though the bulk of the book is about the last years of the conflict, Gerry also gives us fascinating glimpses of the past, the exploits of the Hasalaka hero Corporal Kularatne in saving Elephant Pass in 1991, the brilliance of Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Vijaya Wimalaratne who died so tragically from a landmine explosion in 1992. They along with Gerry himself commanded the troops that led the Vadamaarachchi offensive that was so sadly stopped by Indian intervention, leading to more years of suffering and the deaths of Rajiv Gandhi and President Premadasa and Lakshman Kadirgamar and so many moderate Tamil politicians.

Though Gerry celebrates heroism on the field, he also understands the need to win hearts and minds and I was glad he devoted space to Denzil Kobbekaduwa’s dedication to this aspect of war. That too should be understood by the new generation who will I hope read this book, both soldiers and civilians.

The Island 29 May 2016 – http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=146009

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