A FAIRER VIEW OF THE GENERAL’S BOOK
Posted on March 26th, 2017

By Rohana R. Wasala

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s critical observation that retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne’s book containing his personal war memoirs Road to Nandikadal” (Vijitha Yapa Bookshop, Colombo, 2016) becomes a war crime dossier” was reported in an article published in the Sunday Island of March 19, 2017 (a reproduction of a news report from the prestigious ECONOMYNEXT website penned by its Political Correspondent appearing there on the same day). The FM unequivocally condemns it as a catalogue of atrocities committed by government forces since early 1980s”. It is difficult for a fair-minded non-political Sri Lankan to let such unnecessary excoriation of the general’s book go unchallenged. The purpose of this article is to offer a different view to that of the minister, for what it is worth.

To me as an unprejudiced reader of Major General Gunaratne’s book, it appears that the FM, for some reason, has misconstrued what the author means by candidly revealing a few instances of atrocious behavior by certain undisciplined soldiers in exceptional circumstances early in the thirty-year long conflict, when he was himself in his novitiate as an infantry officer, and for describing precisely the brutalizing nature of the long-drawn national crisis that visited so much suffering on all sections of the society, not sparing the combatants on both sides. The subtitle of the book is True story of defeating Tamil Tigers”. The truth that he reveals is not expected to be incriminatory towards the war heroes, who had to fight against a lawless group of anti-state desperadoes in exceptionally difficult conditions, while being subject to severe strictures imposed by the lawful security agencies of the government. In my humble opinion, the book will serve to dispel widely prevalent misconceptions about the role that the Sri Lankan security forces played in exterminating terrorism through admirable military professionalism. The book more centrally catalogues the infinitely more numerous and more brutal atrocities (massacres, burnings, and bombings)  targeting the innocent civilians of all three communities committed by the Tigers, whose depredations were usually concealed from the international community by their propagandists.

(It need hardly be said that I am taking issue with the FM’s criticisms of the general’s book, but not with the ECONOMYNEXT Political Correspondent, to whom I am thankful for this opportunity, which is a result of his writing that article of news.)

In a broader context, Major General Gunaratne doesn’t mince his words discussing what he considered were rare instances of thoughtless, sometimes inexplicable, misjudgment on the part of his seniors, which he never offered to question, though, but which he accepted then with a do or die sense of utter commitment to duty as a disciplined junior officer; he also hints at what he considered were lapses in the policy decisions adopted by the changing political leaderships of the country regarding the terrorist problem during the long period of conflict, but these personal reservations never affected his conduct as a loyal and obedient officer. General Gunaratne’s readiness to confess to incidents that could be misinterpreted by those disposed to attack him personally or to condemn the armed forces wholesale, demonstrates his uprightness as a military officer and as a patriotic Sri Lankan.

General Gunaratne’s book shows how the Sri Lanka army transformed itself from being a small, not so highly disciplined, rather defeatist organization to begin with, to being a large formidable war winning force under proper military and all important political leadership over the years of conflict.

If the book was what the FM says it is, then it would have been invariably criticized by many among the majority of patriotic, fair-minded ordinary Sri Lankans like me much earlier and much more promptly than by Mr Samaraweera. On the contrary, the book has been widely commended among them, as far as I know. Unusually long queues of eager book lovers were seen at the main outlet of the Vijitha Yapa Bookshop in Colombo, the book’s distributors. They reported record sales of the book, which was published simultaneously in Sinhala and English. The first edition of ‘Road to Nandikadal’ in August 2016 quickly sold out, and a second followed in September. If the book was so critical of the conduct of our war heroes during thirty years of civil conflict as to recommend itself as a source of evidential material against them as war criminals, then it would not be so popular among the highly literate and politically conscious and generally well informed local readership.

The book being allegedly ‘snapped up’ by anti-Sri Lanka activists abroad, is only to be expected, considering the stature of the writer and their own irrational, though understandable, hope of finding in its pages something to incriminate the armed forces. I for one would be only too happy if these anti-Sri Lanka activists did really ‘snap it up’ and read it with an open mind if they could manage it after having been subjected to so many years of false anti-Sri Lanka propaganda. For who could know better than the general who led the famous 53 Division whose troops dealt the coup de grace to armed terrorism at Nandikadal? The book tells the truth, which is that the security forces of Sri Lanka did not commit any war crimes in executing the mission they were tasked to accomplish: that of defeating armed terrorism. That is a major theme of the book. Would the general who was privileged by circumstances to be associated, at the highest and most decisive level, with a military victory that brought so much relief to a long suffering nation and earned their eternal gratitude, write a book to betray without reason the very establishment that he served with such dedication and honour?

The best way to check the validity or otherwise of the minister’s accusations is for the interested people to read the whole book with attention. For anyone desirous of learning the truth, this will be a rewarding experience. The English version, which I have read, is 741 pages; the Sinhala version must be of equivalent length.

The FM was reported as saying:

Setting fire to homes of Tamil civilians, killing innocent civilians and plundering valuables of homes under the guise of cordon-and-search operations have been listed by Gunaratne in minute detail. The minister said the language used by Gunaratne also indicated that he derived pleasure by seeing the death and destruction around him and in his own words he had admitted that as an officer he did nothing to discipline soldiers under his command.”

This is a garbled version of what the general has written. The minister’s interpretation amounts to a complete distortion of certain unfortunate, but isolated incidents recounted in Chapter 4 entitled End of Rajarata Rifles” (pp. 29-35). It is a case of indiscipline among some troops who had been put on election duty in Jaffna during the 1982 referendum, and who had come under attack by a group of terrorists, claiming the life of one soldier. The referendum poll was conducted across the country on December 22, 1982. Gunaratne had been appointed to the post of 2nd lieutenant attached to Rajarata Rifles on December 04, the same year, just a few days previously, after his basic training as an Officer Cadet. He was then barely 21 years of age. (Information given in the foregoing three sentences is being supplied here by me; it’s not from  General Gunaratne’s text.) Mr Samaraweera falsely claims that General Gunaratne writes that government forces” set fire to houses. The undisciplined soldiers who went on the rampage in Jaffna burning houses on that occasion did not represent government forces”. Concerning the same incident, Samaraweera said:

Gunaratne’s original unit, the Rajarata Rifles, was disbanded but Gunaratne himself escapes punishment according to his book and the unit emerges as the “mighty Gajaba Regiment.”

This is also a distortion of the factual situation. As an ambitious 21 year old junior officer, fresh from training, and appointed a mere 18 days before, Gunaratne could not have misbehaved like that. So, to claim that Gunaratne escapes punishment” for something he was not held responsible for is nothing short of ridiculous. It is necessary to read the whole of Chapter 04 of Road to Nandikadal” to understand the true circumstances that led to the disbanding of Rajarata Rifles and its re-emergence as the Gajaba Regiment.

On page 55 (first paragraph), General Gunaratne denounces the misconduct of some rotten elements within the ranks, who used this opportunity to rob houses”. It was deeply regrettable and brought disrepute to the army, but the culprits were swiftly brought to book and punished. During the search operations we were more concerned about such incidents than catching terrorist suspects”. Would the description (an officer who) did nothing to discipline soldiers under his command” (= FM’s words as quoted in the aforesaid article), apply to 2nd lieutenant Gunaratne?

It will be obvious to anyone who reads the book that the then 21 year old 2nd lieutenant Gunaratne did not order soldiers under his command to kill civilians, or to plunder valuables from homes. Actually only one Tamil civilian died according to General Gunaratne’s account (p.33). He did not derive any sadistic pleasure (as Mr Samaraweera claims) from watching ‘death and destruction around him’. While not taking part in the mayhem himself, he was forced by circumstances to initially look on in dismay. But he does not exonerate himself from having felt a tinge of guilty excitement. No doubt, as his subsequent behavior proves, he quickly outgrew any trace of a juvenile tendency towards shadenfreude  that he might have had in common with most other normal but immature young people involved in the same combative or competitive situation.

Dwelling on the same theme, Mr Samaraweera is reported as claiming that Gunaratne felt happy when Tamil political leaders died at the hands of Tigers. Minister Samaraweera bases his conjectural claim on the following passage from General Gunaratne’s book (page 80):

“Whilst there may be some who were saddened by these killings, I must confess  that as a young patriotic officer who had witnessed too much of hatred and mayhem caused by their ideology, I was happy. Though I may have been wrong to feel such happiness, it is the unvarnished truth,”

The ‘killings’ in the above extract refers to killings by the LTTE. In the months of August and September of 1985, the LTTE assassinated a number of highly respected Tamil politicians with long experience, including K. Thurairatnam, MP for Point Pedro, K. Dharmalingam, MP for Manipay, and others, who happened to have been among the pioneer Ealamists. Why Prabhakaran had them murdered in cold blood was not known.

What is wrong with making such a ‘confession’? Mr Samaraweera has ignored the following sentence that comes just before the above passage on page 80 of ‘Road to Nandikadal’: However, it was somehow poetic justice; to be killed by the same hand they helped nurture hatred, extremism and terrorism”. Both parties – the security forces personnel who are mostly Sinhalese Buddhists – and the Tiger rebels – who are mostly Hindus – are believers in ‘poetic justice’ (i.e., retributive justice, more mundanely expressed in the 1970s song by Sammy Davis jr: ‘Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time!’); they believe in the ‘natural law of karma’ taught in their respective religions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Punishment for wrong doing comes from nature, not from any divine agency; neither should punishment be exacted by human hands. Taking revenge is alien to the common cultural values that  the Sinhalese and the Tamils traditionally subscribe to. I am quite sure that our Tamil compatriots who read the book will appreciate the fact the  Major General gives instances of how humanity prevailed over military advantage or ethnic interest in his book: for example he writes about how our soldiers suffered heavy casualties trying to save the lives of Tamil civilians held as human shields by the LTTE, without the use of heavy weapons while the rebels attacking the military from amongst the civilians observed no such restraint (p. 684)  and about how an old Tamil civilian helped an injured soldier to escape to safety (p. 248). Gunaratne writes about the case of his slapping a Tamil youngster for riding a motorbike without wearing a helmet to say that he learned a lesson from the incident: that it impressed on him that not all Tamil youngsters were terrorists (I can’t remember on which page this occurs).

Major General Gunaratne does not leave out distasteful pieces of information about the conduct of the troops and officers that he was aware of. This enhances the authenticity of his narrative. Of course, he discretely preserves the anonymity of individuals involved in or suspected of less than ideal behavior (and this has nothing criminal about it).

A more serious case of collapsed discipline among some soldiers than the one outlined above that occurred in Jaffna during the 1982 referendum election was what happened in Jaffna during Operation Riviresa (October 17-December 1995). Gunaratne writes (p. 364) about the lawless behavior of some ‘ignorant’ soldiers who played havoc robbing valuables, damaging property, and destroying books in a deserted Jaffna vacated of its civilian population. The LTTE had ordered the Tamil civilians out the city at the beginning of Operation Riviresa. It is not that the senior officers including Gunaratne looked on passively while these things were going on. They made arrests through the Military Police wherever untoward things happened. But they failed to completely stop the outrages due to the prevailing circumstances.

Rohan Gunaratna, professor of Security Studies at Nanyang Technological University, and head of the International centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore is also a Former Senior Fellow at the Combating Terrorism Centre at the US Military Academy at West Point. He writes the Foreword to Major General Kamal Gunaratne’s book. The following paragraph is Professor Rohan Gunaratna’s foreword:

LTTE front, cover and sympathetic organization operating as diaspora organizations” launched a sustained campaign to justify the group’s operations and to sully the reputation of the security forces. After LTTE’s defeat, the group’s propagandists also attempted to tarnish Sri Lanka’s victory by hoodwinking human rights organizations and certain Western governments driven by geopolitics. During the conflict, the LTTE platforms in the West disseminated propaganda, raised funds and procured supplies. Today, these entities work with the LTTE political agent, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), and are actively involved in lobbying the UN in Geneva and New York. (p. vi)

Why do they want to sully the reputation of the security forces”? General Gunaratne gives the answer in his Author’s Note:

The dark shadows of terrorism which engulfed our nation and terrorized our citizens have been vanquished. We created an environment in which our citizens could live in peace and harmony today” (p. iv).

(RRW/March 22, 2017)

2 Responses to “A FAIRER VIEW OF THE GENERAL’S BOOK”

  1. helaya Says:

    Awamangala is an Idiot. He must be stupid to say these things. It is shame that he himself called a patriotic Sri Lankan. What a moron. I am reading this book and I am halfway through. This guy work to the order’s of Tamil Di Asspora. It is shame that this guy representing our country.

  2. Ratanapala Says:

    The poofter Avamangala should have asked his friends – the Economic Tamil Migrants also called Diaspora Tamils to get their LTTE remnants to publish a similar book on their experiences of the 30 year Racist Tamil War. Can they ever be candid like the Major General? It can never happen. Did Adele Balasingham ever mentioned about the atrocities committed by the LTTE in a similar fashion in her book- Will to Freedom?

    It is a shame we have this Sinhala hater as our Foreign Minister. I often wonder about the Sinhala voters who sent this aberration of a human being and others of his ilk to the Sri Lanka Parliament!

    What more can honest Sri Lankans expect from a Sinhala Buddhist hating Christian Prime Minister and a Luck by Chance spineless guttersnipe who masquerade as President?

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