ERASING THE EELAM VICTORY Part 13 D
Posted on January 24th, 2020

KAMALIKA PIERIS

Revised 15.2.20

The Eelam war threw up many dedicated military leaders. The best known is the late General Denzil Kobbekaduwa followed by late Maj. Gen. Vijay Wimalaratne.

Kamal Gunaratne said of them ”I firstly pay tribute to the late General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, the most charismatic battle-field commander we had because he always understood the heartbeat of the soldier and put his life on the line to safeguard their interests before his own comfort at all times. The late Maj. Gen. Vijay Wimalaratne, my guru, who in my opinion was the most brilliant field commander we had because he knew the terrain we fought on, his adversary’s modus operandi, and above all knew and understood his men, always leading from the front. His creation, the Gajaba Regiment will always bear testimony to his great qualities of inspired leadership and dedicated service to the Corps, Army and Country.

I have selected just two other leaders, for this essay, the much admired Major General Chagie Gallage and the much remembered Col  Fazly Laphir. They are presented here, not only for their own  personal contribution but also as representatives of the fine work done by all who fought and won the Eelam war.

Biographical information on Chagie Gallage is not available in the public domain, except that he attended Ananda College. However, there is plenty of information about his work in the Sri Lanka army.

During most of his long and enduring military career, Chagie served either in an operational area or at a military training institute said, analysts.   He was in the forefront of the war against the LTTE. He played a decisive role in the final thrust against the LTTE terrorists in 2007-2009.

Chagie was the first choice of any senior military commander, to include in their team of field commanders for operations. Thus, Chagie was seen in almost all major combat operations in all fronts in the North and East from 1985 to 2009.  

Chagie as a young subaltern, in the mid-eighties, was a skillful and tactically sound combat fighter who operated along with his rifle company in many areas of the Jaffna Peninsula. His first independent command was to guard the Nagadeepa (Nainativu) island in 1986 with his platoon.

He played a key role in Operation Vadamarachchi and Operation Clean Sweep, the two military operations led by late Generals Kobbekaduwa and Wimalaratne to drive the terrorists out of the Jaffna peninsula in 1986.

 During Jaya Sikurui Chagie and the Sixth Gemunu Regiment were asked to take Puliyankulam. Chagie asked headquarters for a bulldozer, a backhoe and a few days time for rehearsals. This regiment had a reconnaissance platoon of well trained and highly motivated soldiers. They provided intelligence to Chagi who then did a mockup of the LTTE defense lay out, using the bulldozer and backhoe. Each soldier was made aware of his role and they took Puliyankulam straight away.

In Eelam war IV, Chagie’s leadership was instrumental in liberating the Southern part of the Eastern Province that included the LTTE stronghold Thoppigala. Chagie as a Brigadier commanded the Commando Brigade, which he moved into action against the LTTE in the Eastern Province in 2006.

 Then Chagie switched to the Wanni theatre with the beginning of operations in the Northern front in 2007. He raised the Task Force-1 there and launched it from Mannar front, along with Commando Brigade, (later upgraded as 58 Division). Chagie was away from battlefield for some time due to illness. He returned in 2009 to command the 59 Division in Mullaitivu. On completion of the campaign, Brigadier Chagie was promoted to Major General prematurely ahead of most of his peers, on merit.

Chagie is widely considered one of best strategists in the army. During an intense battle at Karadipokku in Kilinochchi, as Operation ‘Sathjaya’ was underway in 1996, the Army suffered heavy casualties and the battle was about to be lost. It is at this crucial moment that Chagie came in voluntarily without waiting for instructions from superiors, and led his elite Airmobile troops to fight gallantly and restored the situation.

Chagie was meticulous in his approach to an assignment.  He looked into the minute details of any assignment. That particularly is the reason for his success, said analysts. Also, Chagie is extremely innovative. He can devise things when the resources are scarce or unavailable.

Colonel Chagie was the Commandant of Army Training School in Maduru Oya in 2004.   He was instrumental in conceptualizing and forming the highly skilled ‘Special Infantry Operations Teams’ (SIOT) of the Army, together with Lt Col Ralph Nugera, realising a vision spelt out by the then Inspector of Infantry, Major General Sarath Fonseka. It was these SIO teams, which boosted the fighting capacity of the infantry and fought as vanguards of the advancing Army during Eelam War IV.

Chagie trained these special teams in special battle drill that eventually enabled the troops to successfully cross LTTE obstacles. One such obstacle was highly fortified LTTE fortifications built on ‘Ditch cum Bund’, commonly known as ‘DCB’ (a line of bunkers coupled with about 10 foot wide water obstacle in front of them). These obstacles severely hindered the movement of the advancing Army.

Chagie has always been popular among his comrades in the Army, among his batch mates, among old Anandians, among the motor-racing community of Sri Lanka, among his relatives and friends, said his admirers. He is one of the few officers of the Army who always commanded respect not only from his subordinates but also from his superiors and peers.  Chagie not only earned gallantry medals multiple times for his bravery in battle, but he also worked hard to get gallantry medals for his juniors too.

Major general Chagi Gallage was also very outspoken. He spoke out, angrily, when Mangala Samaraweera visited Jaffna in 2016 to launch a website for ethnic reconciliation. He was immediately transferred to a post which did not have command of troops.

A week after retirement, Gallage delivered his farewell speech at Saliyapura, Anuradhapura, on the eve of the 35th anniversary of the Gajaba Regiment, 2018. Gajaba Regiment is synonymous with Chagie Gallage, said analysts. Chagie’s contribution to the Gajaba Regiment has been outstanding. ”

Gallage began his farewell speech by referring to the gigantic role played by the Gajaba Regiment and the Army as a whole in the Eelam wars, reported Shamindra Ferdinando. He recalled the spearheading role played by the late Maj. Gen. Wijaya Wimalaratne in the shaping of the celebrated Gajaba Regiment in the ‘80s. Gallage declared Wimalaratne as the greatest infantryman in the Army. Gallage then   thanked Maj Gen Shavendra Silva, Colonel of the Gajaba regiment and the Adjutant General of the Army who had organized his farewell. He then went on to thank officers and men of the Gajaba Regiment.

Chagie thereafter said,  I have witnessed, the determined Commanders of this dignified force transform what was described as “Exhausted and a Losing Army” into a ‘Wining and a Victorious Army’.  To achieve this, Commanders at different levels worked together, to develop the overwhelming capability of our Army. An army, which especially during the final phase of the conflict, demonstrated such versatility and braveness all round.

Gallage named those who made that task possible. “Men like (Late) Maj Gen Vijaya Wimalaratne, (Late) Gen Denzil Kobbekaduwa, (Late) Maj Gen Janaka Perera, Col (rtd) Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Maj Gen Sathis Jayasundara, (Late) Maj Gen Gamini Gunasekara, Col (rtd) Nimal Ratnayake, Maj Gen (rtd) G.V. Chandrasiri, Maj Gen (rtd) Gamini Hettiarachchi, Brig (rtd) Nimal Jayasuriya, Lt Gen (rtd) Jagath Jayasuriya,  Gen (rtd) Seewali Wanigasekara, Lt Gen (rtd) Mendaka Samarasinghe, Maj Gen (rtd) Jagath Ramubukpotha, Lt Gen (rtd) Jagath Dias, Brig (rtd) Hiran Halangoda, Col (rtd) Jayavi Fernando, Maj Gen (rtd) Srinath Rajapakse, Brig (rtd) Bahar Morsath, Maj Gen (rtd) Lalith Daulagala, Brig (rtd) Roshan Silva, Late Col Shantha Wijesinghe, Maj Gen (rtd) Kamal Gunaratne, Maj Gen (rtd) Amal Karunasekara and Gen (rtd) Udaya Perera (who was my deputy Snr Subaltern) Maj Gen (rtd) Jagath Alwis  (who inspired me to join the Army) And last, but not the least, Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka (who led our forces as the Commander of the Army.

Gallege   then thanked Maj Gen Ralph Nugera, Maj Gen Aruna Wanniarachchi, Maj Gen Athula Kodippily and Col Mahendra Fernando and their magnificent ladies. They were my esteemed assets, as my deputies, facilitators and shadows, at times referees, in challenging tenures in combat and otherwise.

My highest regards also, said Chagie, to Special Task Force led by DIG (rtd) Chandrasiri Ranawana and DIG Ruwaiz Lathiff for their unstinted support and assistance beyond the call of duty. Chagie also thanked ‘our comrades in sister services Air Force and Navy for risking their lives, [to help us win the war.]’

He concluded his speech by thanking those engaged in the task of making a Healthy Army (Consultant Dr) Maj Gen Sanjeewa Munasinghe, (Consultant Dr) Brig Maurine Wijegunawardene, (Consultant Dr) Brig Nimalka Ariyaratne and (Consultant Dr) Col Roshan Monaragala.

 Col. Fazly Laphir (d.1996) was the Commanding Officer of the First Special Forces Regiment Colonel Laphir was one of the founding members of the  Sri Lanka Army Special Forces Regiment. He  played a key role in developing it into a formidable unit which specialized in  range of specialized operations. He played a crucial role in the growth of the SF from the very beginning.

When  Major Gamini Hettiarachhi was struggling to start the Special Forces regiment there were very few senior officers who supported him, said Kamal Gunaratne . His requests for  additional troops, weapons and equipment for operations  were met with lukewarm response from HQ,. But Fazly Laphir always gave him the strength and courage to continue. The two of them  considered the development  of the SF as their prime responsibility, over and above their personal lives, he said.

He was a very creative, committed and dedicated officer. He had a knack for details. Before he joined the SF he has served as an intelligence officer in Jaffna and was one of the best SF officers powered with his language skills and intelligence.

Col. Lafir was  close to us. He was keen in receiving results at every mission. He always insisted on and motivated us to destroy the LTTE. He wanted us to use what we learnt effectively in destroying the LTTE”,  they said.

As a true SF officer he went out looking for information and opportunities to start an operation and many he did on his own initiative,”  said one speaker, explaining about the luck Col. Lafir always had. It was known in the Special Forces that where ever he went he and his troops were able to destroy and cause damage to the enemy.”

Once Colonel Lafir disguised himself as a mudalali and we were his golayas (supporters) and went in search of LTTE cadres that were operating in Vavuniya and the suburbs. At times we went in lorries with cadjans or husks pretending as traders,” his subordinates recalled.

During the last stages of   the abortive 1990 Jaffna fort campaign meals were cooked at Mandativu and transported across Jaffna lagoon to the soldiers in the Fort. The task of transporting  was given to Fazly Laphir then  a major in the SF unit. The soldiers stood neck deep in water, forming a line across the lagoon and passed the food along. They had no cover at all , unlike on land. They were  sitting ducks for  LTTE . There were casualties but the food arrived. 

Colonel Fazly Lafir is one of the rare characters who is lovingly remembered not only by his family but also by all his colleagues, soldiers and even by new recruits who have never worked with him. To the entire SF Col. Lafir is the symbol of true leadership, dedication and courage. He was striking leader who gave priority to his soldiers welfare at all times. Men were willing to follow Colonel Laphir even at the risk of their lives, said his subordinates. 

In July 1996,  Mullaitivu Army Camp was attacked by LTTE . Rescue operation was launched to relieve the besieged base .Col. Lafir, who was the Commanding Officer of 1 SF, took the challenge without hesitation. He and his team were heli-dropped under heavy fire. Personally leading the attack under heavy fire, showing brilliance and courage.. Lafir was wounded by severe gunshot injuries, yet continued to lead his men until he was killed by shrapnel from a nearby explosion. His men recovered his body and transported it back in a SLAF helicopter that had landed the second batch of commandos.

His courageous act on that day to save the lives of 1500 comrades, he was awarded the Parama Weera Vibhushanaya”, the highest award for valour in Sri Lanka and posthumously promoted to the rank of Colonel.  The new auditorium at Diyatalawa Military Academy was named after Colonel Fazly Laphir  in 2014.

Major General Kamal Gunaratne, writing in his book Road to Nandikadal” had this to say about Fazly. He dedicated his life to the Army and he derived great satisfaction from the pursuit of and the elimination of terrorism. He was the Commanding Officer of the first regiment of the Special Forces (1SF) at the time he was called to serve in the rescue mission of Mullaitivu and undertook the task with passion, despite the lack of preparedness. He was the epitome of professionalism and courage, lending inspirational leadership to his beloved troops and ultimately sacrificed his life in an endeavour to rescue his comrades from the jaws of death”.We lost one of the greatest sons of Motherland that day.

The second Annual Lecture of the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) delivered by Brigadier HP Ranasinghe in 2019   was on Fazly Laphir. It was  titled Epic of a War Hero Colonel AF Laphir PWV RWP RSP”.

The speaker said, the occasion for this tribute is the 14th death anniversary of that hero, Colonel Azlam Fazly Laphir, He was posthumously awarded ‘Parama Weera Vibhushana Medal’ – the highest military honour in Sri Lanka for battle-field gallantry. He, it should be noted, is the senior most officer of the Sri Lanka army to be so honoured, and one of the very few commanding officers to die while leading his men in the battle-field.

From the very outset, his army career was featured by dedication, skill and exceptional overall competence. He was one of the pioneering officers in the first Gajaba Regiment. When Lt. Col. Vijaya Wimalaratne inaugurated the ‘Special forces squadrons’ scheme to counter the intensifying threat posed by the guerrilla war tactics of the LTTE, Fazly was appointed the officer in charge of the first such unit which had several skirmishes with the fledgling militant groups in the north among which the most successful was the operation in Ambuweli in 1983.

He was a founder member of the ‘Thirty-Five Gang’/’Combat Tracker Team’ formed in 1985. He was a member of the “Rapid Deployment Force” formed in the nineteen eighties. As a pioneer member of the First Regiment of the ‘Special Forces’, Fazly’s involvement extended to all its aspects including even the design of the cap, badge and the insignia. His reputation for physical courage earned him from his colleagues the affectionate nickname of “suicide express”.

 One of the memorable demonstrations of his willingness to risk his life against almost insurmountable odds is found in the annals of the rescue mission he took part in across the Jaffna lagoon to reach the troops besieged in Jaffna Fort.

 Over time, he acquired a mastery of the ‘military geography’ of Jaffna peninsula. This, according to well informed sources, turned out to be invaluable in the re-establishment of government control over that region in 1995. Meanwhile, he was also involved in strengthening the army camp at Mullaitivu which was mainly intended to control the LTTE smuggling operations along the north-east coast.

His fateful day came when the Sri Lanka army camp at Mullaitivu was surrounded by the terrorists on 18 July 1996. Mullaitivu was of strategic significance to the Tigers because of its central location along the north-eastern seaboard. Although a massive SL army garrison had been placed in its command area of 8.5 kms, the camp was vulnerable to enemy attack, being relatively isolated – the nearest main SL army camps being at Weli oya 35 kms to its south and Elephant Pass 55 kms to its north across hostile forested terrain. The Tiger forces surrounded the camp and started their attack at 1.30 a.m. An operation code-named “Thrivida Pahara” launched by the SL Army to defend Mullaitivu was severely handicapped by the fact that no reinforcements could be dispatched to Mullaitivu either by land or by the sea because of the impenetrable blockade by a larger number of Tiger battalions armed with heavy artillery and a large Sea Tiger force. It was in this situation of total despair that Lt.Col. Fazly Laphir volunteered to lead a “do-or-die” air-borne rescue mission manned by 275 combatants of the “Special Forces” under his command.

Fazly was stationed at that time at the Maduru Oya camp. From there he and his men were conveyed by helicopter via Trincomalee to Alampil (5kms south to the Mullaitivu base) around 4.30 p.m. on the same day. As expected, they encountered stiff resistance from the guerrilla forces. Earlier reinforcement operations by the Sri Lanka Air Force and the Navy had been thwarted, the resulting damage included damage to two helicopters and the gun-boat ‘SLN Ranaviru’ which was blown up with its entire crew of thirty-six.

 Some of the most fierce fighting of the entire ‘Eelam War’ were witnessed over the next few hours. Since helicopter landing on open beaches was excessively risky, Fazly and his troops had to descend to the ground along ropes amidst heavy firing. Both in the hazardous task of descending and re-grouping as well as in the deadly close-encounter combat against several thousands of well armed Tigers, Fazly is reported to have displayed such extraordinary leadership skills that his men persisted with their task, achieving a fairly degree of success and causing heavy losses to the LTTE forces. They advanced amidst fierce mortar fire but lost communication with the rear.

Fazly at their vanguard was fatally wounded by a shrapnel that pierced his brain in the morning of 19 July. Though receiving no medical care, he went on fighting until, later that morning, he succumbed to his injuries. His body was evacuated three days later.

This appreciation, focused as it is on Col. Fazly Laphir, does not imply that in the annals of the Eelam Wars his heroism was unique. There were others, probably of all ranks, who, in times of impending peril, acted with the same courage and commitment that Fazly showed at the battle of Mullaitivu. We moan the fact that many among them were not destined to enjoy with us the fruits of victory. The least we must therefore do is to accord to them an everlasting place in our collective memory, and, where appropriate, help the loved ones they have left behind. (Continued)

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