Posted on June 14th, 2016


The public wanted to know why the government took so long to defeat the LTTE.  Why had they not won the war when the LTTE was much weaker? If the LTTE had been defeated earlier, then many lives could have been saved. The armed forces knew the strategies needed to defeat them. They wanted an eastern strategy. The east was the real centre of Eelam and the war must be fought there, they said. ‘LTTE would have collapsed long ago if the north- eastern waters had been patrolled.’  LTTE ‘successes’ were due to our ‘failures’ and those failures were due to government blunders. The war would not have lasted three decades if the government had taken the war seriously.

The Tamil separatist war was anticipated by N.Q. Dias, when he was Permanent Secretary for Defence and External affairs in the SLFP government of 1960-1965. Neville Jayaweera recalls that ‘NQ’ was the most powerful public servant of the time. He was feared and respected even by cabinet ministers. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike listened to him.  In 1963, NQ had told Jayaweera, then GA, Jaffna that within the next twenty years the Tamil protest would develop into an armed rebellion and the government must prepare for that now.   N.Q. Dias had been in Jaffna as AGA in the 1940s.

NQ wanted to set up a chain of military camps to encircle the Northern Province. They were to be set up at Arippu, Maricchikatti, Pallai and Thalvapadu in the Mannar District, Pooneryn, Karainagar, Palaly, Point Pedro and Elephant Pass in the Jaffna District, Mullaitivu in the Vavuniya District and Trincomalee in the East. He said that there were already two military camps of platoon strength in Pallai in Mannar and in Palaly in Jaffna and a rudimentary naval presence in Karainagar, but that he wanted to upgrade them.

To avoid an outcry from the Tamils, he intended to say that these camps were for controlling illicit immigration from India to Sri Lanka and smuggling from Sri Lanka to India.    Work started immediately and within a year, the infrastructure for setting up the military camps was nearly complete. When Jayaweera left Jaffna in 1966 all of the camps were up and running.  This network of military camps helped to mount counter strikes against the LTTE later.

NQ also set up a Task Force for Anti Illicit Immigration (TAFFI) under the command of Lt. Col. Sepala Attygalle,  to encircle the North militarily and wanted to know whether the Gal Oya Board could turn out boats to use for ‘anti smuggling’ work. He raised new infantry regiments, starting with the Sinha Regiment. He wished to get rid of the ‘unpatriotic persons’ in the military top command  and planned to strengthen Sri Lanka’s relations with Beijing to neutralize India’s influence in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs.

Jayaweera notes that N.Q’s vision of Tamil uprising, and gun running from Tamilnadu began to unravel exactly as he had foreseen. ‘He was a political prophet as well as a military strategist. His grand design for strangling a future Tamil revolt by girdling the north with a chain of military encirclement was as audacious as it was brilliant.’ Jayaweera says NQ Dias was an outstanding strategist.  It was NQ’s duty to plan well ahead for the suppression of any anticipated armed rebellion and he fulfilled that obligation as no one else had done before him. Sri Lanka is much in his debt,  said Jayaweera. ‘NQ’s vision of a future armed Tamil uprising and of India’s intervention on the side of the rebel cause has not been properly chronicled.’

If these military camps had been nurtured and developed in the 1970s, the armed forces would have been better prepared for the Eelam wars. They would have studied the northern landscape from the military angle, prepared military maps and got ready for a future separatist war. Instead, when the Eelam wars began, the LTTE had the advantage. They knew the landscape of the north intimately; the soldiers did not know it at all. Vadamarachchi was selected in 1987 using data obtained at great risk by the intelligence units.   In 1990, a seaborne rescue mission was launched to save an army detachment at Mullaitivu. The forces first had a mock landing north of Mullativu as they had never done this before.

The  war dragged on for so long because our Presidents did not give a clear order to the armed forces to go ahead and win.   President Wijetunge, alone, said LTTE were merely terrorists and ordered the armed forces to clear the east of the LTTE within two months. The other three Presidents wanted to avoid war.  They wished to negotiate a deal with the LTTE at any cost.

Because of this, the authorities neglected the military. Recruitment and training were stopped whenever there was a lull in the war. The government refused to provide the multiple rocket launchers   and Bushmaster cannon the army and navy urgently needed. But they bought a hovercraft at a staggering cost of Rs 250 million. It was never used for war. The government   wanted to know why the army needed need a large stock of ammunition when there were only 2000 LTTE fighters. Troops died because substandard arms and equipment were purchased.

Officers were promoted, on seniority not competence. They were not vetted, there was no security classification  and sensitive information was easily obtained.  ‘Our battle plans were known to the media before operations began’.  The Eelam war was not over, but in 2004, Sri Lanka sent troops to the UN peace keeping forces in Haiti. The service commanders had no say in the matter. Earlier, the government set up a Defence Review Committee (2002) which was asked   to examine the size of the security forces and see whether such a large army was necessary. Observers are now asking did the authorities want the LTTE to win?

Politics took precedence over war. The heads of the three forces were selected on loyalty to the government. Commanders who stood up to the government were dismissed and replaced by persons with less experience. In-fighting between senior officers of the army was encouraged. The media said that superior officers opposed strategies planned by subordinates  and that    subordinate officers wanted to kill their superiors. There was political interference in the military campaigns.  But when things went wrong the army was blamed.  The government said that the army had allowed LTTE to win the Oya Alaigal” operation.  The army furiously denied the allegation.

Officers capable of defeating the LTTE such as Janaka Perera and Sarath Fonseka were brought in, moved out and brought in again. Janaka Perera angrily complained that he had never been allowed to command the army though he had the knowledge and expertise needed to defeat the LTTE. Officers who opposed the LTTE were removed. Vajira Wijegoonawardene, then Overall Operation commander called for firm military action against the LTTE. He was transferred. Eastern Naval Commander, Rear admiral Sarath Weerasekera was moved out of Trincomalee when he objected to the LTTE flexing its muscles.  Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda reported that LTTE had positioned guns pointing towards the Trincomalee navy base. Instead of taking action the government attacked me. State television ran a programme defamatory of me and I decided to take legal action.”

President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s period of office (1994-2005) is notable for a series of battlefield defeats. LTTE took Mullativu (1996) Kilinochchi (1998), Elephant Pass (2000) and nearly took Jaffna peninsula. At Elephant Pass, the most important military base in the north, with access to the Jaffna peninsula, the army withdrew leaving behind massive stock of arms, ammunition and equipment including artillery pieces.  In Kilinochchi, 500 soldiers were   killed, 3,000 wounded and 500 missing.  LTTE burnt alive the 1300  Sri Lankan soldiers at Mullaitivu and removed the entire arsenal including artillery pieces, mortars, and machine guns. Those who survived the Mullaitivu attack  had revealed the pathetic state of Mullaitivu defenses at the time.  Experts  say the  Mullaitivu debacle could have been avoided. The government wanted to regain Mullaitivu, but the military opposed this and refused to deploy any more men.  They were against maintaining isolated bases.

The government engaged in a series of highly publicized, knee jerk military operations which kept the focus on Jaffna, and off the Eastern province. These seriously weakened the army and helped LTTE further entrench itself.  These operations were given names that screamed success even before the operations had started,   ‘Thrivida pahara’,    ‘Sath jaya, ‘Jayasikurui, ‘Edibala,   ‘Rivi bala’ and ‘Ranagosa’. They suffered from a shortage of weapons and the lack of holding strength at crucial moments. They all failed. ‘Thrivida pahara,’   was called off within hours, leaving a group of soldiers stranded on the beach. They were eventually killed by the Tigers.   ‘Ranagosa’ spread three divisions thinly on the ground. LTTE crushed them. Jayasikurui seemed a lunatic venture even to the public. It was trying to regain the highly exposed Jaffna-Kandy road, with the LTTE lined up on both sides of the route,  using just two fighting divisions. These two divisions were soundly defeated by the LTTE.

These ill planned military operations resulted in a huge number of deaths. Operation Riviresa (1995) took Jaffna, but with a loss of 600 men.    The government did not care. The lives of the armed forces and police didn’t matter.  Security issues and long term implications were not important.  Governments simply wanted to show territorial gains. When the campaigns failed, the government imposed censorship .The press could not report on the bloody fighting and the number of lives lost.   The statement issue by LTTE when they took Elephant Pass was completely censored.



  1. Dilrook Says:

    Thank you for the information on NQ Dias, undoubtedly the best military strategist this country had. What he said in 1960s is more applicable today. Meddling in national defence using religious (mainly Buddhist) teachings was another cause of disaster. The two were always kept separate during ancient times. On a few rare instances, military convenience overstepped into Buddhism practice and not the other way round. This is a very sensitive area but must be contained.

    This is why proactive action cannot be taken. The enemy knows very well that proactive action will be disadvantageous for them. So the enemy will always try to blame on those proactive actions and call them “provocations” to justify their violence. The ignorant and religious sections of the public then question why provoke them needlessly!

    While it makes sense not to provoke a non-existent problem, a genuine problem in the making must be proactively handled. Deciding when the go for confrontation (than allowing the enemy the first-mover-advantage) is crucial in warfare.

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