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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2613

Direction Jaffna (1980) – Reminiscences: Where every prospect pleases and man is in his element

By Lalin Fernando

Jaffna circa 1980

[caption id="attachment_127" align="alignleft" width="206" caption="Lalin Fernando"]Lalin Fernando[/caption]

Jaffna always appeared to be a special place in Sri Lanka. Its people were sturdy, tall, hard working, chaste, thrifty and beyond all gave top priority to education and service in the government.Southerners used to visit Jaffna frequently and in great numbers especially to visit to Naga Deepa rivaling any foreign tourist competition. It was a land of palmyrahs, market gardens, farming, fishing and smuggling, its houses and inhabitants were hidden behind 6 foot fences of thatched palmyrah and the school children including the girls cycled to school blocking the roads almost completely.

Its farmers worked from early morning to noon (because of salinity problems in the water) and then from evening to night just like the school children who studied in school and at home into the night without any parental persuasion. It produced brilliant professionals especially doctors, engineers, surveyors and lawyers. Maybe because of the latter there was much litigation. There was fresh toddy to drink and bathing at Casuarina beach and Myliddy baths to entertain visitors. Sinhalese parents from Anuradhapura and Kandy sent their sons to Jaffna to study and pass exams. Saiva food was never tastier.

Skill at games and sports

It produced some super cricketers like my friend Major Bala (John) Francis who used to entertain the spectators at Sandhurst with his lusty batting (he would have given Jayasuriya a run) and in 1956 with Premachandran rocked the visiting South Australian school boy cricketers by taking 7 wickets for 31 runs at which stage the game was stopped to enable the Australians to catch the Colombo train and escape defeat. It had champion athletes like Major VG George(late Capt Mathew’s brother) who held the British Empire record in the schoolboys’ long jump (whose memorial service I attended in Jaffna College in 1980) and the famous Ethiriveerasingham who won the country’s first gold medal (for high jump) at the Asian games in the 1960s.

Caste

Jaffna gave leadership to the Tamils in every sphere but was also very caste conscious. When the army first moved there (1961) low caste women were not allowed to wear jackets with their saris, bathe at the wells of the high caste, sit in buses and were excluded from certain temples. Prabakaran exploited this.

In 1980 I looked forward to being in Jaffna for the 3rd time.

Officer Commanding Troops Jaffna 1980

I was appointed Officer Commanding Troops (OC Troops) Jaffna (which included the districts of Mullativu and Vavuniya) with effect from 01 Jan 1980. All Majors who were going to be promoted Lieutenant Colonel were called up by Commander of the Army Major General (later General) Denis Perera to be given the good news. Apparently I gave him a shock when I told him that one of my seniors Major Tissa Jayatunge (later Brigadier) also from Trinity College and ex Sandhurst like me, who was overlooked, should be promoted instead.

The next day General Perera sent for me together with my boss Engineer Group Commander Colonel (later General and Army Commander) Nalin Seneviratne) to tick me off as he explained that it was not up to me to tell the Commander of the Army who he should promote.

When asked for an explanation I first kept mum as Col Seneviratne had asked me to but was then told that I could speak. I explained to the Army Commander with some facts why the officer career planning (and promotion) system was flawed. Gen Perera mellowed his remarks after that but advised me to keep my opinions on such matters to myself. I did realize later that the man I was willing to stand down for did not deserve my support in the least.

Jaffna security situation

The previous year (1979) Brigadier Tissa Weeratunge (later Major General and Army Commander and called ‘Bull’ for varied reasons) had been sent not by the Army Commander but by the President and C in C, JR Jayawardene, ostensibly to wipe out terrorism "in all its forms" etc in Jaffna but in reality to undermine once again the authority of the Army Commander Gen Perera who was responsible nationally for every aspect of military operations.

Northern based terrorism had been spreading fast since 1977 and Tamil government servants especially those in the police like the redoubtable Inspector Bastianpillai were betrayed, captured and beheaded or worse. Weeratunge who was apparently some relation was given extra ordinary powers including direct access to the C in C over riding the Army Commander.

Carte Blanche and repercussions

Weeratunge was also armed with an extra ordinary emergency regulation that gave a draconian carte blanche power to dispose of dead bodies without magisterial inquest. On hearing of this I went over to the Army Legal Branch and said it was a dangerous precedent. I was told very shortly by Colonel (later Maj Gen) Niriella that if I wanted to serve in the army to pipe down.

Two days later 2 dead bodies without heads were observed by a culvert in Jaffna. The heads were on the culvert. The Jaffna citizens were shocked and frightened. Many in Jaffna held that that was the turning point of an insurgency becoming a terrorist war and the turning of the Tamils from law abiding citizens to onlookers of crime and terrorism. Jaffna in January 1980 saw hardly any movement after dark and that was one point I wanted to address quickly to bring back normalcy. Fear ruled the roads and by ways. Weeratunge had 4 majors as his closest advisors. They were referred to as the gang of four.

Veni vedi vici

Most of the terrorists/insurgents and their leaders escaped to South India in that year, but Weeratunge grandiosely declared that he had defeated the insurgency and returned to Colombo, quite close to declaring ‘veni vedi vici’. I had known his professional and other limitations well from the time I served with him as one of the founder officers of the Gemunu Watch. He deliberately undermined the authority of the serving army commander with impunity, exploiting his ‘relationship’ to the President. When he became Army Commander he had the dubious distinction of allowing terrorism to spread. Shocking ill discipline prevailed amongst the troops in Jaffna which latter even C in C Jayawardene publicly admitted but without any remorse. The writing was on the wall for the next 30 years.

HQ Task Force (HQTF) One - Arrival

On first January 1980 I arrived in Jaffna expecting to get to the end of the Northern line railway station Kankasanthurai (KKS) to reach my destination at Pallaly but I was met at Jaffna station by 6 foot amiable Capt (late Lieutenant General and Chief of Staff of the army) Parami Kulatunge the OC Troops Grade 3 staff officer. We motored down to Pallay from there. Parame was from my regiment and also from Trinity College. He was cruelly assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber on 26 June 2006 at Pannipitiya on his way to AHQ.

Briefings

I received a very good briefing on all aspects of the command from my predecessor Lt Col ‘Tony’ Rajudeen who was ex Sandhurst and at who’s wedding around 20 years before I had been in an ‘All’ Sandhurst ‘sword’ party, the last time such ill advised elitism prevailed.

I then met Artillery officer, Sandhurst trained, British Staff College Camberley graduate and Thomian, Colonel (later Major General) Gratien Silva, the Task Force One Commander. He briefed me succinctly on what was expected of me. I was told that as a Lt Col I was very much on my own. I realized that from now that any incident here would have serious ramifications which could affect national integrity and there would be no one who could bail me out if I erred. My year in Jaffna was nevertheless my happiest command amongst superb officers, soldiers and citizens who were in so many ways an example to the country. I had good guidance from Col Silva whose late brother Vice Admiral Ananda later became Commander of the SL Navy.

Challenge and reward

For an Infantry Lieutenant Colonel there could be nothing more challenging and rewarding except Regimental command. This was very exciting too for a first senior command particularly as the North was the only trouble spot in SL. There was also the necessity for maintaining the peace and preventing hit and run acts turning into a full blown insurgency and winning the campaign for hearts and minds. These I held dear.

Staff Officers

Colonel Silva was very fortunate to have as his staff officers Majors Mangala Ratnayake, Harin Malwatte (Army rugby players) and Abdul Zaheer (SL Hockey player) who were amongst the best majors at that time .Mangala being Commando trained showed his capabilities when there was a cobra in front of my room and later when one was actually in my cupboard. He invited me top eat them too! I had known them all from Officer Cadet School Diyatalawa (now SL Military Academy) and also played rugby with them. Unfortunately for the army they all took early retirement when the IPKF came to SL thinking their job had been done. Towards the end of the year Sandhurst trained Maj Neil Dias too joined HQTF and pepped things up a bit.

I too was very fortunate in having GW Captains Kulatunge and Halangode as my staff officers in succession. I could not have had any better. The latter’s father was my Commanding Officer in the Gemunu Watch (GW).I also ‘borrowed’ Capt Malik Deen from TFHQ when able.

Jaffna Command area - Jaffna peninsular

All troops under OC Troops Jaffna and OC troops Mannar were under Task Force One. Jaffna Command included Vavuniya (170kms) and Mullativu (135kms) from Pallaly with detachments from all regiments including Artillery and Armoured Recconnaissance. The detachments were in Madagal, Thondamanaru, Vellvatiturai (VVT), Old Park (Kachcheri) Jaffna, Elephant Pass (EPS), Pooneryn, Mullativu and Vavuniya.

Vavuniya and Mullativu

Vavuniya was exclusively for a detachment of Armoured Reconnaissance (Recce) Regiment. It was excluded from the Peninsular as it was believed that the sight of armoured vehicles in Jaffna could be seen as a sign of provocative belligerence. It turned out to be so when they were sent there later by Weeratunge when he became army commander.

Mullativu

Mullativu detachment due to the paucity of regular troops was manned by SL National Guard volunteers. Army HQ believed it was a low priority base although in hind sight it seems cock eyed now. It had some time earlier had Recce Regiment troops. Its commander for some time was an Immigration staff officer who was free with the booze and was once ordered back to base from the peninsular just before he took off for an unauthorized visit to Nagadeepa. he Nanthi Kadal lagoon and the light house were prominent landmarks while proceeding through thick jungle. I had been here in 1952 when I accompanied my father on his monthly judicial circuit from his duties as District Judge Anuradhapura.

Hearts and Minds

More than military tactics, the behaviour and conduct of the troops to win the hearts and minds of the citizens mattered a great deal to convince them that the army was there to protect and not to hurt or harm. This was not an easy task when due to under representation of Tamils in it and language difficulties possibly made the army look, it is sad to say, alien.

One day an army ration vehicle was noticed in Jaffna town parked in a No Parking area. I sent my driver to ask the other driver to report to me. His explanation for so parking was that the notice was for ‘these people’. An entry was made (in green biro-my trademark, so that it could be immediately recognized as the OC Troops remarks and acted upon) in the vehicle work sheet. No more traffic problems occurred as the transport officer took heed.

On Wesak poya led by Rev Mahinda of the KKS temple we donated blood to the Jaffna hospital. The lady doctor in charge of the blood bank pulled me up for not sending a B+ donor when wanted and I had to gently remind her that our solders were posted only for 6 months and her list of donors was out dated. I prided myself that OC Troops Jaffna had not impressed the lady doctor as far as his status was concerned.

We made a contribution from the soldiers and officers to the Illaveli Girls’ Orphanage which had the little girl who gave the vote of thanks in English saying she never thought that the iron hearted (pronounced eyeron) military would also be so generous. In response while thanking the orphans for the super song and dance welcome routine, I said we had not seen so many pretty girls before. It had the little ones cheering wildly as the nuns tried hard not to smile.

One day I was on my way back from visiting EPS when a very small child broke loose from his grand mother and jumped onto the road near Iyakachchi. By braking hard, we missed the child by inches. Greatly relieved but angry with the grand mother for nearly making me commit homicide, I wanted to explain to her what a calamity we had just avoided. The language barrier prevented me from proceeding beyond ‘periyar karachal’ (big problem) when along came Sergeant Vadivel a huge mustached GW wrestler of no mean size on his way back to EPS. Quickly sizing up the situation from my short description he went into a long winded harangue that made the old lady weep. It would have gone on, had I not stopped him. I last met Vadivel at Wellawatte a few years ago. He had come from Jaffna on a holiday. I asked him to come for the GW Ex Servicemen’s Association AGMs in future.

Finally was the letter from Capt retired Chinniah (Chin) about a driver who had abused him on the Pooneryn ferry the previous year in front of silent witness Ordnance Capt CJ Kottachchi whose brother was my classmate at S Thomas’ College. The driver had not faced charges because of his ‘political’ connections to the then Minister of Fisheries and Capt Kottachchi’s ‘silence’. The driver was summarily stripped of his lance corporal rank despite Chinniah whose son was an army recruit at Diyatalawa asking me to forgive the driver.

I ordered that all camp sign boards had to be in Tamil as given in army and government regulations. This had been an unhealthy omission before. There were on going Tamil language classes being held regularly at Pallaly too.

Our test was to come when one of the Gemunu Watch Rapid Deployment Force soldiers (Upul) based at Old Park having cut out from the camp shot and killed another off duty person, the Jaffna court’s popular police sergeant, in a drinking den.Upul slipped back into the camp. Upul’s platoon commander Captain (post humously promoted Lt Col was killed in a battalion operation against the LTTE at VVT in 1987) Srimal Mendis who was proud of his men was shocked and horrified. I had the soldier produced. I knew him as a gutsy recruit, athlete and budding rugby player from my days as OC Recruit Training at the Army Training Centre. He told me how it happened. It was an unpremeditated act under the influence of liquor. I handed him over to SP (later DIG) Nizam who I had known from our days in Mannar to be remanded and produced in court. He was charged with murder.

I went unarmed as I normally did accompanied by Capt Malik Deen(who pleaded with me to carry a weapon) to the police sergeant’s house, saluted the dead body, condoled with his parents and attended the funeral. This was a stunning blow to our efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people of Jaffna. The soldier later died violently in his home town of Galle while on bail during the JVP insurrection of 1988-9.

Fitness for role and admin inspections

It was a tradition and necessity to visit all detachments to get a feel of the command as well as getting to know the officers and men before planning on how the situation should be met. I set about it ASP knowing how inadequate we were especially in troops strengths and quality, weapons, communications, mobility and even clothing. Our maps were pre 2WW. Having completed the visits I made my plans. Some of them were already hatching when I was informed of my posting.

AHQ made my task easier by asking all commands to produce operational plans for their areas for both conventional war and Counter Insurgency Operations (COIN Ops). I made India the conventional enemy which had been almost a taboo subject before as far as the army was concerned and wanted a battalion at EPS. I was amused later when the OC troops in Galle, 329 kms away, asked for my plan to formulate his. He later became army commander!

I asked the detachment commanders to formulate their COIN Ops plans and decided to test them in their preparedness for operations during my visits to ensure they were fit for their roles. Earlier visits had been purely admin ones which made the detachment commanders experts in paper wars. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) were issued for both types of war for the first time.

Late Major Nizam Jaimon had his ‘exercised’ fighting patrol on its way back struggling to carry the patrol’s heaviest man nominated as ‘injured’ some considerable distance in the Vavuniya jungles. Major Angammana had to re locate his wife from EPS detachment when it was discovered that his cordon and search ‘exercised’ troops were avoiding the search of one room and the reason why was found.

Capt Niranjan Ranasinghe (now Maj Gen) it would appear organized a Recce Regiment exercise ending short of EPS to ensure that from 5pm to midnight OC Troops Jaffna joined in to dig out a 10 ton Saladin armoured car which has got stuck in the soft sand.

He told me that when he as Military Assistant used to fly over the area with Gen Waidyaratne the Army Commander in the early 1990s, he could see the indentations yet. I used to be accompanied by Captain Malik Deen who died tragically a few years later in Vavuniya when he mishandled an unfamiliar type of grenade that the police had found. Malik Deen was the liaison officer for the Pakistan army hockey team and was greatly embarrassed when after the match, in order that they could offer Magreb prayers, the very pious Pakistanis asked him in which direction Mecca was.

Capt (late Maj Gen who was killed by a suicide bomber in Jaffna) Ananda Hamangoda organized a moon light dinner for the Pallaly HQ staff on the dry bed of the EPS lagoon. The SSP in Vavuniya was Percy Wijesuriya who was ASP in Moneragala during the 1971 insurgency when my company was there. The GA was the brother of Major Rohana Jayawardene. The GA was not a tee' totaller which made him argue garrulously with the new Recce troops detachment commander Capt Shaman Kulatunge who ordered him out of the mess and informed me the next day of his impetuosity.

The family of Lieutenant (later Lt Col who was killed in action in the 1990s) Chitra Punchihewa came to Pallaly for a holiday and found it difficult to get suitable accommodation. Thankfully we were able to help them.

25th Anniversary SLN Karainagar

The CO of SLNS Karainagar was my friend from Sandhurst days, Commander (later Rear Admiral and SLN Chief of Staff)) Frank Wickramaratne commissioned from BRNC Dartmouth and a US Naval War College graduate. We used to meet almost every Sunday. SLNS Karainagar celebrated its 25th anniversary that year with a grand evening of music and a dinner/dance in their ward room. Everyone noticed the SSP Jaffna arriving both late and in plain clothes although mess dress had been specified in the invitation which his DIG ‘Bull Mahendran deciphered correctly. In his cups he was full of sorrow that he could not join the armed forces. He made up for it by being adventurous on the dance floor and found himself being escorted out of the base by an armed sailor. The main gate sentry had been told to shoot at his vehicle if the SSP attempted to come back! Such were the alarums then.

Kachchativu

Annually there was a church festival on the uninhabited miniscule island of Kachchativu famed for its tiger prawns. Traders from South India and Jaffna go there ostensibly as devotees to barter trade for the few days before the festival proper which is attended to only by a handful. SL provides a magistrate and police during the festival and maintains basic health services. Flt Lt Sajith Jayasekera flew DIG Brute Mahendran and me over Kachchativu. There were many small boats at anchor there. It so impressed the DIG that he went into raptures saying it was like WW2 D Day!

The next day I went in a navy patrol boat to the island and saw at first hand what a performance this was. It was a government sponsored smuggling carnival despite the army being on the island and the navy surrounding it. There was also the looming presence of the SLN’s flag ship under Commander (later Admiral) Clancy Fernando who was assassinated by a suicide motor cyclist bomber on the Galle Face Center road in the 1990s. The navy was highly suspicious of the army delegation even more than I was and arrested one or two when they were on their way back with smuggled items. I wrote a scathing repot on this sham and it was stopped there after much to the chagrin of scheming and budding ‘smugglers’ on both sides.

SLAF Pallaly

The SLAF provided the army with flight facilities which we took advantage of to attend conferences in Colombo and for indulgence flights for family members. I used it occasionally to fly to Vavuniya for inspections too. The pilots such as Flt Lts Sajith Jayasekera and Ana Jayasinghe were highly skilled. Many later joined Sri Lankan and other airlines as well as became the nucleus that fought the on coming war. The ground crews were also superb and there was a sergeant from KKS who was a brilliant mechanic. One of the pilots who made a name for himself was Flt Lt Vadivel from Batticaloa who died in an air crash during a storm off Negombo in the late 1990s.

We used the tarmac for fitness running as doing so outside the camp was not recommended. When my family came during the holidays we bicycled along it as my daughters who had ‘accidents’ on it when hitting a rut will recall.

Other visits

The only visits I welcomed were those made by the Army Commander and the Inspector General Field Forces Brig Henry Athukorale (later Maj Gen). The Chief of Staff Weeratunge least concerned as always that this was an operational area and probably basking over his ‘victory’ over the terrorists, used to inform Capt Parame Kulatunge to arrange 4 wheeled vehicles for him and his civilian friends to go duck shooting. Parame obliged without my permission or knowledge as he was fond of the Brigadier’s daughter. I got to know of these nuisance visits only when the arrangements got screwed up.

Weeratunge a hard drinker used to come with a businessman who owned one or 2 airplanes including a sea plane. We were all suspicious of this man. I think he also had a lucrative army contract for food. His sea plane was destroyed by the ‘terras’ around 1986 when it made an unscheduled landing on the beach near KKS.

Army Commander’s inspections were mainly admin oriented and his very efficient Military Assistant Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul trained, Wellington Staff College graduate Major (retired as a Lt Col taking early retirement on professional grounds) Jayantha de Silva. I had known him from Pakistan days in 1964 when I was there on a Regimental Signals course. I think he was the most brilliant officer we had. He used to hand over the inspection report with needed corrective action given in detail in the evening after dinner so that when the party left the next morning we were already processing corrective action on the Commanders comments and observations.

KKS Railway Station incident

The railways went on strike in the latter part of the year and all trains were escorted by troops. One day I received a garbled message that an incident had occurred at the KKS railway station. Having got there I realized that one soldier from the Gemunu Watch had assaulted another soldier of the train escort. When the station master who happened to be the only Sinhalese station master in the peninsular had also been assaulted, he tried to phone me. The soldier was arrested by the police. I went to the station and apologized to the very small made station master who had been frightened to death almost. There was a fear that army - police relations could be affected and tensions would rise.

Major(later Maj Gen and Chief of Staff) Neil Dias Grade 2 staff officer at Task Force HQs came to me and insisted that I should get the soldier released. I told him that the soldier had committed a criminal offence and that it was beyond our jurisdiction. He told me how when his Gunners (Artillery men) shot and killed a civilian who apparently tried to grab a weapon from a gunner in the train at Killinochchi, the gunners prevented the police from arresting the soldier. I told him that was wrong but he would not agree.

I then told Maj Dias to join me to go the police station to meet the soldier concerned who I knew too well. At the police station the soldier came up to me and smiled ingratiatingly and reminded me that he served with my elder brother Eshin, a major and the officer commanding former Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranayke’s Guard detachment. I told him I knew exactly who he was, being from my regiment and reminded him of another felony when he had tried to get into the married quarters of another soldier in Diyatalawa and had been caught (but apparently not punished). His mouth opened and closed as he realized that his sure card had been trumped. Major Dias too did comment after that.

Meanwhile Army HQ in their wisdom without notice to TFHQ sent the recently ranker promoted 51 year old Lt Col Commanding the Gemunu Watch (GW), to ostensibly defuse ‘tension’ amongst the GW troops in EPS. Instead he virtually worked up the troops. When he came to Pallaly I questioned him on his remarks to the men and advised him it was best if he left Jaffna immediately. These were the harbingers of the 30 year curse that followed.

In the shadows - CID/NIB

The CID /NIB officers like SPs Patikirikorale, (Patti), Zernie Wijesuriya (brother of Percy the SP Vavuniya) and Jurampathy worked hard to get at the leadership of the LTTE, most of who had fled to Madras. They were super professionals and thorough gentlemen. The CID had collected an enormous amount of material on the ‘Terras’ the previous year, working in the shadows. Patti used to ask me to come with him to search hiding places of ‘terras’ on the A35 road to Mullativu. It was exciting but we were not successful.

Men of religion

I came into contact with 2 good religious men one was Rev Mahinda of the KKS temple and the other the late Rev Stanislaus, a controversial Catholic priest who gave me the back ground to many an intrigue in the fabric of Jaffna society especially the RC church. Rev Mahinda told me of how he felt neglected by the KKS urban council with regard to essential services despite constant appeals and decided the best way out was to pray for the councilors. The next day the UC chairman himself came over and asked to be forgiven for being remiss by not visiting him. He then produced a personal cheque for Rs. 10,000 for the roof of the preaching hall. Rev Mahinda tried to return the unexpended balance of Rs. 3500 which was refused by the chairman who asked Rev Mahinda to use it for any other purpose. During the height of the ‘troubles’, the KKS temple was never even touched by the ‘terras’.

Yal Devi

This was the magnificent train we all used to travel to and from Jaffna. It used to be packed and when late to get into Colombo I recall the Northerners giving 3 cheers or was it hoots for the Minister of Transport, Mr. Mohamed. But it connected the south with the north in many ways. It must now be resurrected before the end of 2010 to reap the benefit of the end of the conflict.

Envoi

Before I left Jaffna for my next posting to Ampara, I spoke to the officers and soldiers and separately to the senior non commissioned officers in the presence of my successor Major GH de Silva also from the Gemunu Watch. I told them that to defeat the ‘terras’ the difference will not be in methods of fighting but in conduct and behaviour. In 1981 the police in retaliation for the killing of 2 policemen by the terras, burned down the priceless Jaffna Public Library even while cabinet Ministers were in Jaffna for the District council elections.

- Asian Tribune -

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