History is Repeating, warns ex-top Navy Officer
Posted on March 15th, 2016


By liner:  Sri Lanka’s Separatist Armed Conflict was the result of two giants vying for regional power, but was prolonged due to our inefficiency and lack of commitment to take appropriate action, charge Hemachandra, a former Navy top ranker.
Sarath Hemachandra is a typical Sri Lankan expatriate living in Australia. His brain is with the host country, his heart is with the home country. What makes him extraordinary is his experience. It is with this experience he looks at the present Sri Lanka and is pronouncing that history is about to repeat.

He joined the Sri Lankan Navy in 1971. His batch mates included C.A.M Jayamaha, H.C.A.C Thisera and D.W.K. Sandagiri. Commodore Jayamaha was killed alongside Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Vice Admiral Thisera and Admiral Sandagiri ended their distinguished careers as Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy.

Hemachandra, after 15 years of service, had to abruptly set sail for a different adventure when he failed to secure a school for his young son and an unexpected visit from Gonawala Sunil that prevented him from seeking justice for the violation of his fundamental rights. That is how he ended up in Australia. Despite having to start his life afresh with a very young family on tow, he completed Master of Commerce (Business Systems) and Post Graduate Diploma in Business from Curtin University, Western Australia. In each program, he topped the batch. For 10 years, he worked as the Principal Systems Administrator at the Australian Government owned ASC Private Limited. One of his main responsibilities involved in collecting and transferring confidential data from submarines to the databases ashore. He, after cleverly dabbling in the real estate market, is also now a landed proprietor.

As a high ranking naval officer in the Sri Lanka Navy, he witnessed life in the North before and after terrorism took root. He recalls that though the Northern Tamils were caught in a time warp that made them vehemently reject the so-called low casts, especially the Estate Tamils, the people of the North and South, and the different ethnic communities living in the North had a harmonious relationship.

Those days exports were severely restricted,” he recalls. So, those people had a good demand for their dry fish, chillies and onion. During the offseason in the South, the Southern fishermen would go to the North and set up camps and do their fishing there and it didn’t create any friction. I remember, in many homes they had Sirima Bandaranaike’s photo and there were support to both SLFP and UNP.

When the UNP government came into power in ’77, they opened the economy and suddenly the people in the North could not compete with the cheap Indian imports. They had vast stocks of dry fish that was of very good quality and chillies that they could no longer sell because the same produce were imported from India at much cheaper prices. Exactly what the paddy framer is experiencing today, where he can’t get a reasonable price for his produce, the people in the North experienced.

This was good news to the TULF. Even after the Vaddukuddai Resolution in 1976 where they demanded for an independent state and suggested taking up arms, the Tamil people were not interested. They could only attract few youths, but on the whole, the Tamil community, especially the older people were not interested. But when the people couldn’t sell their produce, people began to lose faith in SLFP and UNP and naturally got attracted to the other group.”

Even though the political trend in the North was changing, according to Hemachandra, many of the people continued to cooperate with the Navy.

When we were at sea, people would come with a white flag and pass us tips on contraband and other information. We made so many detections using this information and earned a lot of reward money from these apprehensions as well. I was able to build my house also from this reward money.”

If the people were not keen on the Vaddukuddai Resolution and cooperated with the military, the interesting question that arises is the reason for taking 30 years to resolve the terrorism issue that gripped the entire country.

The reason is very simple,” says Hemachandra. We didn’t realize the real issues that were at hand or what we were dealing with and so made a lot of foolish decisions. This whole issue started at the height of the Cold War when Russia and America were at odds with each other. Both sides had ballistic nuclear submarines and as neither side knew where these submarines would be, it was a very tense situation for both parties. But Russia had a problem because during winter the North seas would freeze and they couldn’t move their submarines.

India sided with Russia and had a defense pact with them. India built a huge submarine base in Visakhapatnam Port – the major port of Andhra Pradesh and India’s second largest port by volume of cargo handled and allowed Russians to operate their nuclear submarines. Now Americans needed to know where these submarines were located. They also wanted to know the joint military information exchanged between Russia and India.

When JR Jayawardena comes to power in ’77, he allowed U.S. Seventh Fleet, which is headquartered in Yokosuka, Japan to use the Trincomalee Oil Tanks to refuel its ships. He also allowed Voice of America to operate from Puttalam.

In the meantime, CIA was working towards breaking Russia to pieces and also India. So, they were supporting Pakistan against India and most probably they are still behind those problems. This friendship that now exists between India and U.S. is only on the surface and it is only to counter China. They wanted someone in the South also to create problems for India and identified Prabakaran as the man for the job. They promised to help him create an independent Tamil land from South India and Northern Sri Lanka and develop the channel between so all the shipping can move.

RAW got to know and informed Indira Gandhi. She decided then to arm and train other terrorist groups like PLOTE and EPRLF to counter both LTTE and JR, who she thought was out of control. But how was RAW going to differentiate between LTTE and the other terrorist groups as they were all Sri Lankan Tamils from the North? So, LTTE easily infiltrated all the other terrorist groups’ training and planning exercises and that’s how they were always a step ahead of them and eventually could eliminate them all.

The Sri Lankan Government never realized that my poor country was caught between the power struggle of two giants – India and America. This is something even now, a lot of people are still unaware. In reality, the war with the terrorists should not have been with the Sri Lankan Army, but with the Navy.

The primary military task should have been for the Navy to prevent the entry of terrorists and their arms. Yet the records of ’84, ’85 and ’86 shows that our success rate has been less than 3%! To determine our success rate, all we have to do is find the difference between the number of enemy craft captured or destroyed from the number of enemy craft detected and multiply that by 100 to obtain the percentage.

In 1984 we obtained three crane ships – Carina (Wickrema), Fransisca (Abheetha) and Dilisha (Edithara). Though these were priced at U.S. $ 5.9, after negotiations we paid U.S. $ 6.4! Someone obviously pocketed half a million U.S. dollars and the British national who was in charge of handing over the ships to us personally indicated to me that it was someone very high in the ministry. Though I reported this, no action or investigation took place.

Each ship was equipped with three cranes, each capable of lifting 40 tons. Somebody got a bright idea to carry boats in these ships and lower these to the seas when enemy craft was detected. Nobody checked the feasibility of this idea and didn’t even realize that these were to move cargo and not boats! In the seas, ships roll and these ships had an inbuilt mechanism to stop the cranes when the ship has tilted more than five degrees. Then the boat that gets caught midair tosses with the ship’s movement and crash against the hull and gets damaged.

The Navy was not a big force and around 50% of our personnel had to be used for the service of these ships. The ship’s speed was also not factored. We were moving at around five or six knots when enemy craft was moving at 20, 30 and sometimes even 40 knots. We were such a joke to LTTE that they’d come close to our ships and moon us! Also, these huge ships were lit up like a wedding hall and they detected us from far. So, they were able to quickly change their course and easily evade us.

We live in a time that has the technology to locate and destroy missiles moving parallel to the sea within seconds. But we were unable to destroy small dingy boats that were moving at speeds of 30 to 40 miles per hour!

Instead of investing on these big ships, had we invested in Dvora-class fast patrol boats or got the technology to build that kind of boats in the Colombo Dockyard, we could have sorted this terrorist issue a long time ago. Had we started to build our own fast patrol boats we could have had a fleet of about 60-80 within a few years and could have increased our efficiency to 50% and could have destroyed 75% of the weapons that were smuggled from India to Jaffna. LTTE then could have never become so strong.”

Besides these ill-advised investments, our poor planning to cordon off the terrorists and their activities also contributed to our failure, attests Hemachandra.

From Mannar to Point Pedro to Champion-Paththu we’d deploy about 12 to 14 ships to detect enemy movements. It was like using 12 to 14 police patrol cars to catch dogs jumping across the road between the Colombo and Galle stretch!

Above all these reasons, our main reason for our prolonged failure to arrest the fast growing terrorism issue was our unwillingness to quickly adapt corrective measures. The top Navy brass took it as a personal affront when the actual outcome of their decisions were informed to them.

In countries like America, officers are instantly dismissed if they fail in their duty. Once a small German plane veered into the Russian airspace and the Air Force officers were sent to Siberia. In Sri Lanka, when our Navy failed to prevent tons of weapons been smuggled into the country, and our high ranking officers watched in silence as the LTTE strengthened, they upon retiring from service becomes ambassadors.”

At the end of the day, Hemachandra insists the people in the North never wanted this war. It was brought on by mighty powers with vested interests. However, it was our lack of commitment to address the issues squarely, to take appropriate action and our reluctance to hold the culpable accountable that must take the responsibility for the prolonged terrorism. Once again, Hemachandra warns, the same powers are at play and our leaders are yet again failing to address the real issues at hand.

One Response to “History is Repeating, warns ex-top Navy Officer”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    It was Lalith, Gamini and Premadasa that came up with that daft idea of mother ship and satellites. All of them had a finger in the pie. Star Wars was very popular at that time and may have influenced their thinking. Ratwatte decided to import Dvora boats and got Israeli assistance to build it in Colombo in 2000. Ratwatte is a heavily under-appreciated military strategist may be because of many idiotic debacles that happened during his time that overshadowed good deeds. He was also instrumental in developing and deploying LLRP/DPU and designed Karuna defection in 2000 (LTTE realized it only in 2004 which forced Karuna to leave it). Buying Kfir jets and Mi-24s was another brilliant decision made during his time.

    Although Cold War politics was one reason for the war, Tamil racism was the main reason. Tamil racism was there in Sri Lankan politics since 1922. When the Vadukoddai Resolution was passed by almost all elected Tamil politicians in 1976 and when Tamil people voted for it overwhelmingly in 1977, there was no Cold War issue about Sri Lanka which was very firmly non-aligned. However, after 1977 when Lanka veered to USA did India help Tamil terrorism.

    Actually, the war saved Sri Lanka from divisive Cold War politics! If not for the war, Indians backed by Russians and Americans backed by Sri Lanka would have militarised and divided the island for their own requirements. The violent war discouraged them and reduced Sri Lanka’s strategic importance (which is good and bad).

    Today the Americans riding on Indians are trying to use Sri Lanka as a dispensable military colony because there is no war. They are free to put camp in any part of the country and there is zero risk of bomb attacks, disruptions, a ready Sri Lankan army (which can be hostile) and public anger.

    Sadly, our options were bad – an internal proxy war with a terrorist group or a larger war involving superpowers. Last time (1976 to 2009) it was the former. This time it will be the latter, which is many times more devastating. As Sri Lanka has already become another Cold War Pakistan (USA used Pakistan to contain the Soviet Union), the rival camp will harm Sri Lanka ultimately turning it into another ungovernable Pakistan.

    Today Sri Lanka is China’s worst enemy. It is foolish to think Sri Lanka will get away with this. Toda it is in China’s interests too to divide Sri Lanka. Then at least one part will be pro-Chinese. Otherwise, the entire island nation is anti-China and pro-US today. This is exactly what happened to Sudan. Although China supported Sudan fight off its terrorists, Sudan turned pro-US. That helped USA split Sudan (as it always planned) along religious lines (North Sudan Muslim and South Sudan Christian). China supported it as division would give China a better deal than lose the entirety of it.

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