Is he sane? Or, could he be suffering from PTSD Syndrome? SHELL SHOCK TO PALALY SYNDROME : SOME REFLECTIONS
Posted on January 24th, 2010

By Gamini Gunwardane Rtd. Snr. DIG

I am indebted to Dr. Ruwan Jayatunge for his two part article in “ƒ”¹…”The Island’ of 2nd and 4th Jan. with the above heading i.e. on PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It helped me to understand the behaviour of some of my men in Jaffna in 1984/85 which baffled me all this time, without being able to find an explanation as to the cause of such behaviour.

 Before I state the behavioral problems that baffled me, I must give a brief background description of the circumstances in which these incidents occurred.

 I assumed duties as Co-ordinating Superintendent to the then Jaffna Co-ordinating Officer (Late) Brig. Nalin Seneviratne, (later Lt. Gen & Army Commander), on 1st Aug. 1984. That was in fact the day that the Terrorists formally declared “ƒ”¹…”war’ on the SL  Government. Of course, I had arrived in Jaffna a few days earlier to familiarize myself with the setup. I took up residence in the Jaffna Fort where the Jaffna Police H.Q. was.

 The Terrorists did not expect their “ƒ”¹…”war’ to last very long. They expected the government forces to cave in, in a short time. Their strategy was simple. They mined all the approaches to the Police stations and Camps. They mounted units to monitor movements of troops and police squads from the Camps and Police stations, to give early warnings of the approaching army, police units. They also setup units to attack air craft that brought food and provisions to the Camps. Before long, they blasted the railway and the train service at Murugandy. That was the end of rail transport of people and fuel. Their plan was to besiege the security establishments and slowly starve us into submission over time, without food, water and other provisions including arms & ammunition.

A few days after 1st Aug. ASP Siri Jayasundera who was on a patrol with an Army unit on the VVT “”…” Pt. Pedro road was killed in a crude claymore charge (probably their first one and first senior police officer to die).

Two days later, P.H.M.A. Herath SSP Vavuniya who spoke to me on the phone around 10 a.m. was blasted seated on his office chair at about 4 p.m.. His pieces had to be collected from the roof top of the office. Chunnakam Police station was attacked in the night shortly afterwards.

On 1st September, the Ist  STF unit got caught in a landmine on their way to Point Pedro police station from Jaffna, where 4 police constables died. On 26th Nov. Chavakachcheri Police station which was attacked for the 3rd time, was blasted at 1.15 p.m. by a lorry packed with explosives that drove through the front gate, killing all men there except S.I. Subramaniam. The IG., Mr. Rudra Rajasingham wanted me to close down immediately all the police stations in the Peninsula which were vulnerable. He told me that he would hold me personally responsible if any more police station was attacked. The tension and panic was so much! So, all police stations other than Point Pedro which was backed by the Army and VVT Police station remained open, other than the Jaffna HQ Police Station. However, many Tamil Police officers who traveled from home to work were killed intermittently.

Somewhere in September or October, all Sinhalese people in the Dollar and Kent farms in Vavuniya jungles were slaughtered in the night, with knives and swords. Kotakedeniya SSP at VVN, was asked by Police H.Q. to undertake the daunting task of leading a combined Army Police team to visit the scene, investigate and retrieve the bodies and any survivors. We followed with awe, on the Police Radio Net, Mr. K’s journey on his dangerous mission, through the heart of the jungle. We did not know at what point his convoy would run into an ambush. He reported on the radio, the gruesome scenes he witnessed. There were no survivors. No witnesses. He was asked to bury the dead bodies.

Police had no military training or combat equipment. Men who were engaged in peaceful police work in the South were transferred against their wishes for a six month tour of duty to the North and the East, to defend the police stations there. All were scared stiff and did not know what moment one would be killed. In these circumstances I realized that role of the police was to “just hang on, without capitulation”. “Just survive at any cost!” And hold your men. The situation was that desperate. So, we hurriedly organized crash training courses of mental toughening and defensive fighting etc.

 Going over these memories may be a good exercise now, to remind these conditions to those who are already trying to trivialize the subsequent victories, for various reasons.

 When Chunnakam Police station was attacked by the terrorists one night in the second week of August, I visited that station at about 1 a.m. with a combined Army-Police convoy. We found that the Police officers and men led by SI Sudeshanathan and another SI whose name I cannot recall now had done extremely well to repulse the attack. They were quite confident in holding the station. But when I visited this station two days later, I found that this other SI behaving in a queer fashion, bordering on unruly behaviour. The others were embarrassed. He was demanding an immediate recognition of their good  performance and supply of sophisticated weapons etc. Not being aware of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at that time, I thought the SI was behaving in a reprehensible manner in this crisis situation when he should set an example to his men building on his gallant performance. I was also suspecting whether he was now getting the jitters reflecting over his new experience.

 After 25 years, thanks to the Dr. Jayatunge’s article I realize that this SI must have been suffering from PTSD. He was probably, “psychologically wounded” in Dr. Jayatunge’s words. “PTSD denotes an intense prolonged and sometimes delayed reaction to an extremely stressful event.” This must have been such a case.

 There was a similar situation at VVT  a few weeks later. The terrorists mounted an attack on the police station one night. Police did well to repulse the attack with out suffering any casualties. When I visited this station the next morning, many men were quite agitated despite faring well at battle. They were very upset that the attackers abused them in filth and in disparaging language. They said it was very demoralizing. For the first time they had tasted what they were giving the public! Here too, the agitated police officers demanded more sophisticated weapons and ammo other equipment and additional strength overnight, and wanted to be relieved, which was out of the question at that time. Now I know that they too may have been suffering from PTSD Syndrome.

        In the landmine blasting of the STF party on 1st Sept. on their way to Point Pedro referred to earlier, the heavy truck in which the troop traveled was thrown higher than the electricity post near by, by the blast. When they came down, 4 constables were dead. Several were injured. (To my recollection, this was the 1st successful landmine blast by the terrorists.) The survivors fought a pitched battle and drove away the terrorists who ambushed them. The SI who led the unit in this gallant fight, had the presence of mind to recover his Service pistol and the bag containing the salaries of the men from among the debris in the sand. This SI lasted through the subsequent thorough interrogations done to reconstruct the incident, but a few days later he began to become unruly in his conduct. As his behaviour later deteriorated further, I learnt that subsequently he was sent out of the STF and was on long medical leave. While on leave too, he clashed with a doctor on the streets of Kandy. A few years later he was killed in his home by the JVP in the “ƒ”¹…”88/89 Insurgency. All this time, I had a dim view of this person, as I was ignorant of PTSD at that time. Perhaps, he never recovered from his psychological injury, though up till then considered to be a tough STF man. If this was known to us at that time, we could have helped him to rehabilitate himself psychologically. Hence this must be a clear case of what Dr. Jayatunge describes as “mismanagement of combat trauma.” 

 In hindsight, probably the American soldier who went berserk in Mylai, Vietnam killing so many villagers too may have suffered form PTSD. Similarly, the soldiers all over the world who engage themselves in indescribable acts of cruelty too may be suffering from some psychological condition which we conventionally condemn and dismiss as just “ƒ”¹…”sadism’.

 Dr. Jayatunge has dealt with the case of Rajasinghe I of Seethawake in the 16th Century.        

Very probably, the king suffered from the “ƒ”¹…”burn out’ of his exploits. Otherwise, one could not account for some of his conduct especially in the latter stages of his life. I started to think on the same lines, of his contemporary warrior, Veediye Bandara, the most daring and ruthless fighter under all three kings of Kotte, Seethawaka and Kandy, who was said to have been feared by the Portuguese. He is reported to have killed his wife, the Kotte king’s daughter, by drowning her in the Diyawanna. He fell out with all three kings at different times and fought the Portuguese on his own with his own army, from Kotte to Dondra. He then fled to Jaffna with the hope of getting the assistance of the regional ruler of Jaffna. At some point when in the company of the Ruler’s soldiers he suddenly felt suspicious that someone was trying to kill him. He stood in front of banyan tree drew his sword and challenged the people who were negotiating with him. With his fighting skills and undaunted bravery, he fought alone with the whole group killing many of the when finally, a desperate soldier climbed the banyan tree from behind, jumped on his neck killing him. It would appear that most of the things that he did despite his bravery and daring, were irrational. It could only be explained with PSTD.

 Then again, something that was always worrying me was the case of our last King, Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe who turned out to be a tyrant and lost his kingdom to the British marking the end of our independence. I was trying to figure out as to how this king became a tyrant. He was supposed to have been a tall and handsome man who loved beauty, music and enjoyed his liquor which his confidantes and the British later exploited.

What beat me was how a man who could entertained in his thought, the concept of the beauty of the city of Kandy that we see it today, could have turned out to be such a tyrant cruel enough to order the gruesome killing of the Ehalepola Kumarihamy and her children and how he could witness from the Patthirippuwa, the barbaric act being carried out. The story is that, one day he summoned his Architect, Devendra Moolachari and told him that he wanted a city designed like Alakamanda where he would feel as if he was Kubera, the Yama, the king of splendour. The Moolachari after some time brought before him a design model made out pieces banana trunk which showed the Kings palace, the proposed  Dalada maligawa,  Pattirippuwa (octagon), the lake surrounded with the Walakulu bemma (the wall representing the clouds), the plan to convert the paddy field in front to a lake which he called Kiri muhuda. The Moolachari converted the dream of the king thus, into reality on the ground. And this is the most beautiful part of the city of Kandy that the whole world admires today. One could discern in the contemporary book of verse, Ehelepola Hatana the effort the king made to make this design a reality by driving his officials and subjects hard. He had even wanted to make the streets beautiful. But there was much resistance from the people because the king was unpopular. The book itself is a reflection of the resentment toward the king. He had even wanted to build a new palace for himself on the Palace Square, but two royal astrologers whom he consulted independently, advised against it. Now the question is, how a man who was obsessed with such a high aesthetic sense could turn out to be a senseless tyrant within a short time?

 His Ministers, down from his chief Adigar, Pilimathalawwe were conspiring against him,  to oust him. There were the chieftains who carried tales to him against each other, driven by mutual jealousy, each aspiring to usurp the throne. He became suspicious of all of them and trusted only his Nayakkar relatives which compounded the hatred of the Kandyan aristocracy towards him. This led to his killing some of his best generals like Lewke Methindu on mere suspicion of their loyalty. This made the situation even worse, driving his next Chief Adigar, Ehalepola, to the British. On the other hand, there were the British who were engineering conspiracy after conspiracy against him, waiting for the right opportunity to pounce on him to grab his Kingdom. He lived in constant fear, tormented by suspicion of everyone around him. A truly unenviable position for any one to be in. He had become addicted to liquor, probably as an escape route. In describing Seethawaka Rajasinghe’s plight, Dr. Jayatunge writes: “”¦showed outbursts of anger, irritability, deep mistrust, alienation, emotional numbing and various other PTSD related symptoms.” He also mentions: “Emotional anesthesia or emotional numbing is a distinctive feature of PTSD.” Elsewhere he says “ It (PTSD) can change he mark up of a person making him more dysfunctional.” I think these descriptions fit the behaviour of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe and offer a plausible explanation to the major contradictions in his character.

 My thoughts meandered towards the operation of Karma theory in such circumstances. For, according to Buddhist analysis of Karma, presence of Chetana, intention, is the key factor for moral responsibility. If for instance, the Mylai soldier was affected by PTSD  he was probably not in his senses to realize the implications of his action. Though he acted with volition in a limited sense, he probably did not intend to do what he did, if was of sane mind. He was probably in a kind of diseased mind. Hence, there could not be any moral responsibility for his action. Then, does it become an Ahosi Kamma? Perhaps, this might need a larger discussion by more knowledgeable people.

 Dr. Jayatunge says: “Rehabitation programmes include education, vocational training, income generating projects, loans, housing that is tailored to the needs of the survivors and post disaster situation.” While not challenging these remedial measures, a  commonsense  approach tells me that engaging such victims in art, music, dancing, writing down their experiences, describing the incidents and living in areas of scenic beauty may also be helpful cathartic exercises in helping to relieve their trauma. My wife had some degree of success with the seriously injured and traumatized police officers kept at the Police Hospital, by adopting such methods, during those gloomy days.

 I then come to my final point which may become controversial and even political. My intention in raising this issue is by no means political but purely academic. Though its political overtones may not be avoidable, I feel that it must be raised in the national interest. My question is this. Going by the forgoing material and what was discussed in the two part article of Dr. Jayatunge, could it be possible that the Presidential candidate (Rtd.) Gen. Fonseka is suffering from PTSD?

 The question arose in my mind for the following reasons: Gen. Fonseka is reputed to be a ruthless soldier on the battle field and also a ruthless leader of whom his subordinates were physically scared, especially whilst in action. Despite his overall success there were also some major setbacks during this grueling campaign like the Muhamalai operations where many officers and men and also valuable military hardware were lost. It is my personal experience that such situations are extremely stressful and takes a lot out of you. It would be much more on an officer like the commander himself. Gen. Fonseka is a very proud soldier who did not countenance failure by his men. He himself had a close call with death when he became the victim of a woman suicide bomber within his own Hq. which is by itself a humiliating experience besides the physical and psychological trauma.

 All this would have placed him on a sharp edge all around the clock during this entire campaign during the last 3 ½ years. One could imagine its physical and psychological strain. Added to that, he was being vilified by the UNP in Parliament saying that he was not fit even to lead the Salvation Army. One MP ent to the extent of saying that any fool could fight if he was given the necessary weapons. Humiliating and stressful indeed, for a proud man.

 Then there is his somewhat queer behaviour after the conclusion of the war. He very unfairly claimed the entire war victory was due to his single effort. He was claiming that  he needed to be honoured more. Then his behaviour towards his two main “ƒ”¹…”benefactors’  the President and the Defence Secretary who installed him in the position of Army Commander and backed him up covering him even in his failures, pampered him as no officer had ever been, in  different ways, who took  a lot of flak on his behalf while he was through this difficult operation. The way he suddenly turned against them despite their further efforts to appease him, is almost unbelievable. Then, his utterances against them, particularly against Secretary Defence, one could not expect of a person of sound judgment. Also his public outbursts against his adversaries would certainly be embarrassing to his backers. All this behaviour could be summed up as irrational.

 Even his episode with the Sunday Leader and its aftermath makes me raise the same question. Is he sane? Or, could he be suffering from PTSD Syndrome?

 Then comes the crunch question. Sorry for having to raise this. It comes up logically.

 Will we be safe in his hands, if he would win?

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