Feature Article

Army bars Gen. Janaka Perera for criticizing war

[TamilNet, Thursday, 24 April 2008, 18:56 GMT]
The Sri Lankan government this week ordered the Army to bar a celebrated former general from henceforth setting foot into its camps. The move comes after Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera criticized the Rajapaksa government’s conduct of the war against the Tamil Tigers. Saying that the government’s self-imposed deadlines “were not realistic”, Gen. Perera last month questioned the wisdom of waging protracted war against the LTTE and warned that battle fatigue would set in and sap the military’s will to fight.

Retd. Maj.Gen. Janaka Perera
(Retd.) Maj.Gen. Janaka Perera
This week Sri Lankan Army Headquarters issued a special circular to military camps and bases islandwide instructing them not to allow Gen. Perera and Colonel Jayavi Fernando, a former head of the Special Forces regiment, to enter their premises, the Daily Mirror reported.

The circular also instructed Army officers of other ranks not to have any links with the officers concerned, the paper said.

The two officers had made comments through the media “undermining the recent military victories while praising the LTTE’s ‘cowardly’ activities,” the circular was quoted as saying.

Gen. Perera is one of the Sri Lanka Army’s most celebrated officers, credited with blunting the LTTE’s sweeping drive into the Jaffna peninsula in 2000.

In an interview to The Sunday Leader newspaper on March 16 this year, he pointed out that though military offensives against LTTE-held Vanni began in July 2007, there had been little tangible progress.

He also questioned the veracity of the massive claims of LTTE casualties being made by the defence establishment.

Noting that even though the LTTE’s ‘hardcore’ units had not as yet been committed to the ongoing war, he said “the delay [in advancing] in the Wanni is because the Tigers are formidable there. They are very conversant in their warfare in the Wanni and they can put out a strong fight.”

Gen. Perera was appointed Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Australia despite having been in charge of the Jaffna peninsula when over seven hundred residents were ‘disappeared’ by the security forces in the wake of the LTTE’s overrunning of the Mullaitivu base complex in 1996.

Ironically, Gen. Perera has of late been warning that the Tamil people had to be won over by the Sri Lankan state if the war against the LTTE was to be won.

“We are fighting a terrorist insurgency. Their strength is the people from whom they draw their support, finances and cadres,” he said. “Winning the hearts and minds of the [Tamil] civilians is important.”

According to Amnesty International, the majority of the victims ‘disappeared’ in Jaffna in the 1996 period had been “tortured to death or deliberately killed in Sri Lankan military custody.”

The human rights group said it "had found reliable evidence suggesting that the bodies of as many as 600 people 'disappeared' in Jaffna may have been disposed of in lavatory pits, disuse wells and shallow graves in the area".

Below are extracts of Gen Perera’s interview with The Sunday Leader, published March 16, 2008.

Q: After the initial euphoria over the clearing of the east, there appears to be a lull and it seems that the clearing of the north is a slow process. What would you say is the primary reason for this situation?

A: There is a reason. The Eastern Province has not been the strength of the LTTE. During the UNP government, from April 22, 1992 to September 1993, we cleared the east. I can explain this in detail because I was the then Special Operations Commander as well as the Special Forces Brigade Commander.

We effectively cleared the east of the LTTE and their leaders like Karuna, Paduman and Pillayan all fled to the Wanni. So much so in October, we held elections in the whole of the Eastern Province without any problems and sans weapons. Only the armed forces and the police carried weapons. This was followed by the general election in 1994 and a presidential poll in November 1994.

If you take it in that context, the LTTE did not and does not enjoy the same strength as they have in the Wanni.

The delay in the Wanni is because the Tigers are formidable there. They have all their key regiments like Imran Pandyan, Charles Anthony and Akhila concentrated there. And over and above, they also have their volunteers — Illaya Padai, Makkal Padai and the home guards. They don’t have all that in the east. Therefore, they are very conversant in their warfare in the Wanni and they can put out a strong fight.

So it is taking time, and it will take much longer. According to what I have read in the newspapers, we commenced the Wanni operations in July 2007. We have finished nearly eight months, which is a long period. That shows that the going is not easy.

Also, if you think back, during Jaya Sikurui which we started in July 1997, it went on till 1999 until the whole thing petered out.

Q: The Army Commander has declared that some 3,000 Tigers will be killed by August and that the war would end before his term ends. He has pledged not to pass the war to the next generation. So far, over 2,000 Tigers have been killed according to government statistics. Does this mean the government can end the war by May 2008 as predicted?

A: According to the Ministry of Defence, from November 18, 2005 to February 18, 2008, some 7,152 Tigers have been killed. The same source states that during the period of January 1 to February 18, some 1,609 Tigers have been killed. According to the MCNS, the figure is 1,663. There is a huge disparity between the figures. If statistics are reliable, then the war should be over very soon.

As for statistics, sometimes there are contradictions just like the above figures. When we were in the battlefield, we have seen ministers and senior public officials giving bloated figures. I sincerely hope that’s not happening today.

As I said, some reports claim that nearly 7,000 LTTE cadres have been killed so far. If this is so, it should be easy. After all, there should only be some 1,000 LTTE cadres left.

But according to my understanding, the hardcore LTTE brigades are still not committed. If that is correct, it is going to be time consuming. I pray and hope as an ex general and a person with national feeling, that the commanders, the security forces and the government will be able to achieve the goal and finish the war by May just as predicted.

If it drags on it is disadvantageous to all of us; more to the soldier.

Q: Do you see a lack of strategy on the part of the government, as it now claims to require another one and a half years to end the war? How would deadline alterations impact on the average solider at the warfront?

A: As a man who had been in the frontline during the most difficult period of the war, I can say this with authority. My experience tells me when the war drags on, two things happen.

At the moment, there are two fires burning is Sri Lanka. One is the war fire and the other is the fire ignited by hunger. If you put every effort at a very high rate to the war fire, the pangs of hunger are going to escalate. What happens then is, the war fire becomes unsustainable. These things need to be balanced.

What happens if the war drags on in such a backdrop? There will be multiple problems. We have been in the battlefield from July 2007 to February 2008. If it drags on and spreads over a year, the soldier suffers both mental fatigue and physical exhaustion. Both these factors combined with his home problems are going to impact on him. If he continues to remain in the battlefront, it is difficult to get the quality of a focused soldier from a fatigued and pressurised man.

This is also why the war cannot be confined to the Wanni. It is very much here; there are bombs going off in Colombo. Incidents occur in the south. It has spread and the longer it takes, I am worried that it might turn out to be a grave concern to us.

According to what I have read and heard, the Army Commander sounded supremely confident that the war would end by April-May. I hope this deadline is met for everyone’s benefit, mostly the soldier who suffers the most.

But now if anyone were to say another one and a half years is required to finish the war, all those factors I earlier spelt out such as mental fatigue, physical exhaustion and economic burdens are going to get worse.

Q: In your opinion, how best are military deadlines set? In your time, was it the commanders and military strategists who did it or the political leadership? How does it work and where do both combine?

A: When Iraq was invaded with all the allies’ joint firepower, air power and naval power, I do not recollect them setting a deadline. They simply said they would conclude operations as early as possible. No deadline was given. It was the same when they went to Afghanistan despite all the resources they possessed.

Deadlines are basically impractical. For example, when President Premadasa wanted the Eastern Province stabilised, senior military commanders including presidential advisors claimed it could be done in two months. I was the only one who disagreed and said we could give it a good try for two years. It actually took us from April 1992 to September 1993. We had enough time to consolidate our position, take it easy, minimise our casualties and maximise those of the enemy.

Like that, we should be concerned today about the possibility of the war being dragged on. Our casualty rate would also increase.

I read in the newspapers that Leader of the House, Nimal Siripala de Silva had told parliament that in the month of February alone, the services suffered 104 deaths and 822 suffered injuries. That is for one month. We have been at this war since July 2007. Then what’s the casualty rate since July 2007 to date? That is a real concern.

Please remember, our strength and out asset is the soldier, sailor, airman and policeman and not our weapons. If we also suffer heavy casualties, taking into consideration what the Minister has officially stated, then that is going to be another problem particularly when the war gets extended. In my opinion, these deadlines are not realistic.

Come September, the northeast monsoon will set in. Then, added to the physical and mental exhaustion, the weather will also conspire to keep the troops down. That means, the sick rates will go up with malaria and fever attacks. It is going to be a nightmare if the war drags on.

It is easy for people to say that we can continue to fight. But I have been in the field and I know what it is like to be on the field — you are stuck, you are wet, and you are muddied— you are simply miserable. Besides these, you are physically and mentally exhausted.

So the LTTE’s strategy is to drag it on and play for time. Delays work in their favour.

Q: Now that you mentioned causes and effects, it seems relevant to refer to the government’s approach to the ethnic question. The government now proposes the ‘13th Amendment plus one’ as the solution to the conflict. As a battle hardened officer, do you think this was a good enough solution 20 years ago and sufficient today to solve the conflict?

A: According to what I have read, the President says that the 13th Amendment is to be the first step. As Tamil leaders have claimed, what was offered 20 years ago is thoroughly insufficient now.

The most important thing to bear in mind is that we are fighting a terrorist insurgency. Their strength is the people from whom they draw their support, finances and cadres. If the people feel that they have dignity, respect and acceptance, then we can look forward to achieving our goal of ending this war. But as long as the terrorists continue to draw from the people in terms of financial, moral and fighting support, it is going to be difficult.

Whether it is the 13th Amendment to start with or not, not only should it be done, it should also appear to be done the correct way. If they feel that we are doing this with a hidden agenda, we won’t achieve what we desire.

Q: In your opinion, does Sri Lanka require friendly international assistance at this moment to end the conflict and encourage the LTTE to return to talks or should the military offensives be concluded before the political phase begins? Also, is this purely an internal issue or has the international community got a role to play, in your opinion?

A: As I said at the beginning, as a man who has fought against separatism and terrorism and also curbed attempts to violently overthrow legitimately elected governments in the south, I strongly believe in marginalising terrorist elements in our society.

But, as I mentioned earlier, their strength comes from the people. If people feel that we are genuine in tying to address their problems and would give them a fair opportunity, then we can go a long way in solving the problem.

As far as the international community goes, I have strong views to express. Where does the LTTE funding, propaganda and arms support come from? It comes from the Western world, from Europe, Canada, US and UK. The way I see it, it is essential for us to obtain their support to minimise the fund raising and the purchase of arms.

If we don’t have genuine and wholehearted support of the international community, then fighting LTTE terrorism is going to be a long drawn out exercise and a difficult one.

The LTTE is not active in China, Pakistan and presently in India. So we have to have the support of these countries whether we like it or not. Without international support, we can’t fight because today we live in a global world. Decades ago, we had restricted borders, then they became porous borders and today it is a world without borders. In this borderless world, we need their technical assistance, moral support and commitment to stop the LTTE from raising funds, propaganda and winning sympathy of the international community.

Q: Do you have any figures on the army desertions? How serious a threat is this to the continuity of military offensives or is it not at a threat level?

A: I would not know the statistics. But I worry if the war drags on, desertions will increase. That’s natural. In 1999 also, desertions increased when battles became long drawn out affairs. We must remember to wage sustainable wars.

Just put yourself into the soldier’s position. You don’t see a tangible goal being achieved making things really tough. Then you lose concentration and the will to fight.

Q: The security forces continue offensives and appear to suffer high casualties. What kind of capturing of territory should be possible for the losses so suffered?

A: Firstly, the longer we stay on in battle, the less advantageous it would be for us. The strategy needs to minimise our casualties and to maximise those of the enemy. If casualties are high, as we read in the government figures, it is a disadvantage in the first place.

Next, there are two concepts about ‘captures.’ One is to capture territory and the other is to win the civilians over. I believe in the latter. What is the advantage in taking over barren land if we have no public support? Territory gains value when people are there with you.

Q: The commander in charge of the east when Thoppigala was captured has now gone before court alleging harassment by the Army Commander. While not going into the merits of the case, does this not reflect serious dissension within the army?

A: If any officer or soldier has a grievance, the service regulations applicable to soldiers and officers respectively together with the Amy Act categorically state that such aggrieved party enjoys a chain of appeal ending with the President who is also the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.

People will go to court when they feel that their right of appeal is denied. I am told that there had been some other cases as well. It is not a good thing.

If officers resort to the avenue of court, that means they have lost confidence in the chain of appeal. In my view, it is a very serious thing that does not augur well. After all, the commander of any service is considered the father figure of the family of the uniformed staff. It is this bond that we do everything to protect.


Chronology:


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