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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 74

Major General Nirmal Dharmaratne

By U.P.kumara Jayalath

From the white epaulettes of an Officer Cadet of the Military Academy to the sword and baton insignia of a General Officer lies one of the toughest career journeys spanning over three decades. It is even tougher when it begins during a war that also goes on for decades. Yet some who embark on this journey is so gritty that they adorn even that most arduous path with exceptional achievements, contributions and sacrifices.

Ending such an illustrious career and service to the nation spanning 35 years, the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Sri Lanka Army, Major General Nirmal Dharmaratne WWV, RWP, RSP, ndu , psc retired from the service on 19th April 2020 - his 55th Birthday.

Gen Dharmaratne is a proud product of the prestigious Dharmaraja College Kandy. He excelled at school in sports, as well as in studies winning college colors for rugby, hockey, football and cadetting. He captained the college rugby team in 1984.

He joined the Sri Lanka Army on 18th January 1985. After successfully completing the 18-month officer cadet training course at the Sri Lanka Military Academy he was commissioned on 03rd June 1986 into the 1st Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment, which was then commanded by the iconic infantry commander late Major General (P) Wijaya Wimalarathne (then Lt. Col.). The Second in Command was the present President Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksha (then Major). The battalion was deployed in the Jaffna peninsula, at that time to counter LTTE terrorism that had grown to the scale of a conventional war. As a platoon commander he took part in many operations conducted in the peninsula including the famous ‘Operation Liberation’ which was also known as Wadamarachchi campaign. In 1988 the battalion moved to the Trincomalee District.

In 1988, as a lieutenant he joined the elite Special Forces Regiment which was founded by Major General Gamini Hettiarachchi. After successfully completing the grueling six-month SF basic training course he was absorbed into the SF Regiment and appointed a Group Commander, and with advancement of service and experience, was elevated to Squadron Commander (end1988-end1993). During this period, he took part in or independently led a number of operations behind the enemy lines, and rescue operations. He was wounded in action twice during this period. His fearless conduct in the face of enemy during this period was rewarded with two Desha Puthra medals. During this stint in SF he followed the following specialized courses in addition to the routine local training and overseas career courses.

• Special Services Commando Course, Pakistan, 1991.

• Basic Parachuting Course, Pakistan, 1991 where he became the first in the order of

• HALO Skydiving Course, Pakistan, 1991 where out of 210 students he won the coveted “Para Shield” awarded to the student who scores highest aggregate in overall tests.

Whilst in SF he was promoted Captain in January 1991. In 1993 he followed the Junior Command Course at College of Combat, Mhow, India. With promotion to the rank of Major in January 1994, he was appointed as the Chief Instructor of the Special Forces Training School in Maduruoya, where he was instrumental in designing, formulating and updating training curriculums and procedures.

In 1995-1996 he served as Brigade Major at 33 Brigade Diyathalawa and later at 523 Brigade, Jaffna on extra regimental employment. In 1996 he was recalled to the Gajaba Regiment to raise its 14th battalion. This battalion was entrusted with the task of defending the strategically sensitive Kilaly and Chavakachcheri areas. He raised and commanded the 14th battalion until 1999. There were several major thrusts against the Army by LTTE on those fronts during that period but they were successfully repulsed under his able command.

In 1999 he followed the Command and Staff course at the Army Command and Staff College at Batalanda. In this academically most challenging course for middle grade officers, he became second in the order of merit among the students from the three services, and received the degree ‘Master of Science in Defence Studies’ from the degree awarding institution ‘The University of Kelaniya’.

In January 2000 he was appointed Commanding Officer of the 3rd Battalion Gajaba Regiment, which was deployed in the tactically important Bascular Junction area in Elephant Pass. When the logistically strangled Elephant Pass military base fell to the LTTE, he led his battalion to assist in the withdrawal of the other troops in the area, and at the end to relocate itself in safer grounds with minimum casualties despite he himself suffering from near fatal dehydration.

In February 2001, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and appointed as the Commanding Officer of the Army Training School (ATS) Maduru Oya.

There, he was responsible for implementing training regimes and conducting battle field exercises to prepare battalions for the third Elam war. In 2003 he was appointed the Commanding Officer of the Officer Cadet Training Wing of the Kotalawala Defence Academy. He served in KDA from 2003 to 2005.

Towards the end of 2005, as it became evident that the ceasefire between the Government and the LTTE was not going to hold, the then Commander of the Army made drastic changes in the battlefront commands. Lt. Col. Dharmaratne was appointed Brigade Commander of the 215 Brigade which was deployed in Mannar. In 2006 he followed the Senior Command Course at the Army War College, Mhow, India and took part in Multinational Planning Augmentation Course in Thailand. Upon his return in the same year, he was asked to take command of the 553 Brigade, which was manning the Muhamale defenses, which was most critical for the security of the Jaffna peninsula. The Brigade under his leadership stood like an impregnable wall, repulsing the frequent LTTE attempts to penetrate.

As he continued to prove his mettle as a field commander, in 2007, he was appointed the commander of the elite Special Forces of which he had been a founding member.

It was the time the humanitarian operation that ultimately wiped out the LTTE was in progress and for the same reason the most critical and challenging period for the SF Brigade since its formation. As the war was raging, the SF Brigade under his leadership carried out many covert operations in the North and the East behind the enemy lines and also actions in support of other formations, which included attacks on LTTE strongholds, reconnaissance deep in the enemy territory for intelligence and to direct air and artillery fire, counter attacks and high risk rescue operations. The long range patrols (LRP) of the SF moved deep into the rear of the enemy and conducted many successful attacks, killing their commanders and destroying vital combat assets and facilities instilling mortal fear in the LTTE cadres, including the leader Prabhakaran, and thereby limiting their freedom of action and movement.

LRPs operated as deep as 50 kilometers in enemy held areas while the range of the other SF elements was around 10 kilometers bringing death and destruction to LTTE, in their own backyard. The celebrated British author Paul Moorcraft in his book on the Elam war titled ‘Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers- The Rare Victory of Sri Lanka’s Long War‘, states about the SF as follows.

“They trained originally with the Israelis, mainly in urban warfare, but soon the Sri Lankan SF became arguably the best jungle fighters in the world. They fought in eight-man teams, although sometimes two teams of eight would combine, especially in an emergency or for logistical purposes. For example, one surveillance team might overlap with a team establishing a forward-supply cache (usually of ammunition, water and medicine) and then join forces if they met hostile elements. The SF did not use helicopters for insertions, partly because of the jungle terrain and partly because of stealth. They would walk in and often penetrate up to forty to fifty kilometers behind the lines. The Air Force was used only five times in emergency cassavas, usually by Mi-24 choppers.”

During this stint in SF, in recognition of his exemplary and successful command of the Special Forces Brigade he was promoted to the ranks of Colonel and Brigadier in close succession.

He was also awarded the prestigious ‘Golden Eagle’ badge of the Special Forces in recognition of his service, excellent leadership and contribution to the advancement of the SF.

Among many, the most notable collective contribution of the Special Forces to the success of the humanitarian operation was the end January 2009 counterattack following a devastating all-out attack launched by LTTE in desperation following their mounting losses on all fronts.

This attack on the defenses of the 593 Brigade pushed that brigade about 5 kilometers south from the Puthukuduiruppu- Nandikadal front. The entire line of advance had been ruptured and destabilized and further exploitations by the LTTE was threatening to completely collapse the Army defences and reverse the successes gained through two years of hard fighting in the Wanni theatre. Upon hearing the setback, the Commander of the Army Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka ordered Brig. Dharmaratne to move with SF which at that time was operating elsewhere to Puthukudiuruppu front immediately and restore the situation with Maj. Gen Kamal Gunarathne.

Accordingly, he and two SF squadrons were heli-lifted to Puthukuduirippu. After three days of fierce fighting which was almost close quarter battle, the LTTE offensive was repulsed preventing further breaking in and enabling the troops to regroup and consolidate. Though the casualties were very heavy, it enabled the country to celebrate the Independence on a victorious note. In recognition of his leadership of the troops moving along with them in that raging intense battle he was awarded the Weera Wikrama Vibhushanaya the highest military decoration awarded to a living serviceman.

In March 2009 he was appointed the Defence Attache of the British High Commission in the United Kingdom. It was a crucial period for the High Commission as the focus of the world powers including the United Kingdom was on Sri Lanka with desperate mediation attempts to stop the humanitarian operation and bring about a truce as annihilation of LTTE seemed imminent. The period following the defeat of the LTTE including death of its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was as stressful particularly due to the agitations by the pro LTTE Diaspora and other pro LTTE elements. As the DA he had to handle several tough media interviews during this period.

When he returned to Sri Lanka in October 2010 having finished the stint in the United Kingdom, he assumed duties as the Director - Operations at the Army Headquarters. Later he was appointed Director Personnel Administration. He takes pride in some positive interventions he could make whilst in that position. As the DPA, he, through his own battlefield experience had observed that many deserving officers and soldiers had been overlooked for gallantry medals due to various procedural and selection issues. In that respect he intervened to ensure that many deserving members of not only the Army, but also the other two forces and the police received the medals they were eligible to, and deserved.

During this period, he attended United Nations Workshop on deployment of peacekeeping forces held in Indonesia, and Civil Military Coordination Summit held in Qatar and a Disaster Management Course in the United States. He also attended the US-South Asia Leader Engagement Programme conducted by the Harvard Kennedy School, USA in June 2012.

In mid-2012 he was selected on merit, to follow the ‘NDU’ course at the National Defense University in the United States. Upon successful completion of the course, in October 2013 he was conferred the Master’s degree in ‘National Security and Resource Strategy’. Upon Returning to the island, he was appointed the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 12 Division headquartered in Hambantota, where he served until September 2015. Thereafter, he was posted as the GOC of the 55 Division headquartered at Kadaikadu, Jaffna. In February 2016 he was promoted to the rank of Major General.

In March 2017, he was appointed the ‘Director General- General Staff’ of the Office of the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS). Later he was appointed Chief of Staff of the Joint Staff at the Office of the CDS. In September 2019, he was appointed the Commandant of the Volunteer Force. On 22nd November 2019, he was appointed the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army.

Gen Dharmaratne is an excellent parachute jumper. He was a member of the skydiving team, which performed the first skydiving public show jumps in Sri Lanka in 1992. In 2017 he became the Chairman of the Army Skydiving committee. Making best use of this position for Sri Lanka, he obtained overseas special training opportunities for our service personnel. Subsequently he and his skydiving team acquired the following special parachuting skills in the UK and the UAE.

* Accuracy flying
* Wing suit flying
* Canopy Relative Work (CRW)
* B.A.S.E. jumping
* Scoop landing

They displayed their newly acquired skills at the Independence Day celebrations in 2017 and 2018. In 2017 he had the honor of skydiving with the National Flag at the Independence Day celebrations. Under him, the skydiving in Sri Lanka developed in manifolds. He negotiated with the British Army on behalf of Sri Lanka for opportunities for our skydivers to participate in their skydiving competitions. Consequently, our skydivers won several gold medals at the British Armed Forces parachute competitions. General Dharmaratne is the most senior and oldest skydiver in Sri Lanka. He completed his 200th jump in January this year in Australia, skydiving from a height of 15,000 feet.

In addition to many military qualifications, his academic achievements include three diplomas from Sri Lanka and India (Human Resource Management), and USA.

He has been awarded the following medals in addition to the Weera Wikrama Vibushanaya

* Rana Wikrama Padakkama
* Rana Soora Padakkama
* North and East Operations medal
* Desha Puthra Sammaanaya
* Wadamarachchi Campaign medal
* Riviresa Operation medal
* Poorna Bhumi medal.

During his service he published following academic papers and articles

* Operations behind the enemy lines.
* Islamic Fundamentalism- A threat to world peace.
* Drawing parallels between Red Indians and Veddas
* How elite forces throttled the LTTE.
* Benefits of sports in education.
* Specific legal provisions on sharing of intelligence regionally and coordination among all stakeholders locally are the key to prevent sabotage of radioactive materials.
* Ethical journalism.

Whenever he was holding non-combat administrative posts, and during ceasefires, he took part in sports. He played rugby for the Gajaba Regiment, Kotalawala Defence Academy and Puffins Rugby Club, Colombo and took part in athletics. He also represented the Gajaba Regiment and KDA in volleyball, basketball and cricket. Recently he took to golf and in no time won the Inter Regiment championship.

General Dharmaratne is a skilled public speaker. He delivered speeches at many local and international forums. United Nations Conference on ‘Security of Radioactive Material’ held in Vienna in 2018 and 2011 National Defence Seminar held in Colombo are among them. He had the honor of delivering the monumental
farewell speeches for the war heroes Majors General Kamal Gunarathne and Kumudu Perera, Events be they formal, or semi formal, or informal social events his speeches are informative, energizing and entertaining.

He is also a wonderful social dancer. He and his wife have won dancing competitions at many social events often winning air tickets to overseas destinations. He, with his accomplished lady on the dance floor is truly a sight to see.

Gen. Dharmaratne is an unassuming, mild mannered, soft spoken person. He always remains neutral in controversial issues and politics. According to those who are close to him, nothing other than gross injustice and unfair criticism of the military seem to anger him. He strongly believes in recognizing hard and dedicated work at all levels. His intervention as DPA to have the deserving yet overlooked officers and men awarded appropriate gallantry medals manifests this quality. Another is, an article titled “Tribute to a Comrade in Arms” he wrote about the unsung silent hero Major General Chagi Gallage upon the latter’s retirement.

Although he was the most senior serving Major General under 55 years of age since November 2019,
he was destined not to hold the prestigious position of Chief of Staff of the Army. Nor was he, even after reaching that age. Yet he ends his illustrious military career leaving his footprints in the history of the Army as an iconic role model especially for the future commanders of the fighting elements of the Army.

Take a bow General…You owe no debt to your motherland.!!

Stay Safe, Stay at Home, Stay Informed, But Don't Forget to Wash Your Hands.

- Asian Tribune -

Major General Nirmal Dharmaratne
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