Hafeel Farisz in Daily Mirror, 4 March 2015, where the title is: “The Army was never politicized.”
General Daya Rathnayake, the former Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, is the most decorated military officer in the history of the security forces, speaks to the Daily mirror on a wide range of topics in a candid, no holds barred interview.
Q — As the former Commander of the Army whose career within the military spanned three decades, what does it feel like to have finally hung your boots? I feel very happy and content. To have joined the army as an officer cadet 36 years ago and to have risen up the ranks to the position of Army Commander is an achievement in itself. The experience and exposure I gained during the years as a soldier and an officer only make me proud. When you leave the Army, there is of course a sense of nostalgia that takes over, it is only natural that you feel that, and I’m sure that I will get over that. Today, I am a very proud man who has realized self- actualization.
Q – Can you run us through some of your most memorable times in the Army? The Army is a huge organization which entails many aspects. It is a reflection of the country and it is not only confined to fighting. You have the military arm, logistics, instructions element, operational, command, administrative, sports appointments etc. During these 36 years, I think I am the only person who has served all of these facets that encompass the military. This is a unique achievement. You spoke about the gallantry medals, and I have been awarded nine of them and am the highest decorated officer not only within the Army, but in all other military services. I am also the only officer who was awarded gallantry medals from all the executive presidents who served the country, except the new President. There are very crucial moments in which I spearheaded the Army. When Jaffna was about to fall and during the capturing of Jaffna, I was able to play a very crucial role.
Q –This was in which year? 1995, and the end of 1999 was another vital period. During the Jayasikuru operation there was a very crucial battle and I was able to change the course of the country as an officer. There are many instances in which I played a pivotal role. On January 9, 2015, when there was a change of government, where I was able to ensure that democracy prevailed in the country.
Q — You fast-tracked my next question, but before I get to it, can you explain to us your role during the last phases of the war? The last Humanitarian Operation commenced in the East under my command, and the master plan for the operation was mine. I suggested and presented the master plan to liberate the East to the then military hierarchy and Security Council. Thereafter I oversaw its implementation resulting in the liberation of the East. Its success was phenomenal and to date there has not been a single allegation by any arm of civil society or an international body against the Eastern operation.
Q — You previously spoke of the election night, and it is a question that many of us want answers to. What exactly happened during that night? In order to answer that question, one must understand the pre-election situation. There was some sort of apprehension among many quarters of the opposition and others due to the fear that the military was going to get involved in the disruption of the election, especially in the North and East. Another major apprehension was that even if the then government would lose, they would not give up power. Those were two of the biggest issues that surrounded the election. During this time, we, as the Army, clearly maintained and publicly denounced such apprehension and said it was unfounded that the Army would, in no way, get involved in the democratic process of the country. When the election was over on the evening of January 8, everyone realized that there was no basis for this apprehension with the highest number of voter turnout in any election. Over 80% of our citizens voted, and it was a unique election due to the peaceful nature of the election in all parts of the country, for which, much of the credit should go to the military. During the early hours of the January 9th morning; when it was apparent that the previous President was losing, many quarters believed that the military would get involved and prevent this from happening. I received many calls from people who actually believed this would happen. I, together with the commanders of the other forces, the IGP and the and Chief of Defence Staff were summoned to Temple Trees.
Q — What time was this? This was at around 2.00 am. It was actually a good thing that we went there. We saw many people, who were emotionally charged, their feelings running high. But we are the people who have been trained to take decisions and to handle such emotional situations; all our five senses were working very well at the time…
Q — Were you summoned by the President? Who called you? No. It wasn’t the President; it was the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) who summoned us. So I suggested the procedure to the President’s Secretary to issue a statement, or make some intimation to the people that he would hand over power by bowing down to the wish of the people. During the brief discussion, I also suggested that there should be a discussion with the then Opposition leader which was accepted and he was invited to Temple Trees in order to discuss the transition of power.
Q — Was there a discussion about a possibility of retaining power? A coup of some sort…….? No. There was nothing like that. It’s all fabricated. Of course there were people who were shouting out on emotion asking to impose curfew. Both the IGP and I said there was no such need. I received updates every minute from all over the country about the situation through my intelligence services and operational arms which I kept feeding to the other commanders too. It was clear that there was absolute calm prevailing in the country and there was no need at all to impose curfew. I made it very clear that there was no need to declare emergency in the stand point of the security of the country, but I said that, if they wanted to, they should take legal advice and act accordingly.
Q — So there was no talk of retaining power? There was absolutely no talk of retaining power; even if there was, we wouldn’t have let that happen. This is the absolute story that took place.
Q — One thing that fuelled this allegation was the fact that Gen. Fonseka had gone on record speaking about troop formation that night in Colombo. He said that it was troops from the Gajaba regiment that were brought in, and obviously a link was drawn between Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his loyalists in the regiment, which was his former regiment. What was the troop formation about? And why were these troops brought to Colombo? That was according to the normal process of a democratic government. This is not the first time that the Army has been brought in to assist the Police and this time too it was the same thing that happened. It was planned by the CDS upon request by the Police. Around 48 hours prior to the election the troops started taking over positions which the Police were guarding, because the Police had to withdraw officers to send on election duty. This was no secret; it was discussed and the master plan was formulated at the office of the CDS. It was thereafter communicated in writing to all other heads of security forces, well before the Election Day. According to the plan, the commanders were appointed to take over positions and the CDS overlooked the entire operation. The Army appointed General Sumedha Perera as its representative and similarly all other forces appointed officers to head the operations. Special commanders were appointed in Colombo and other areas. There was nothing unusual about this process. However, when the military sends out directions for this kind of operation, it is classified as ‘Secret’- as is the normal practice and that is all that happened. It was planned, implemented and properly managed
Q — So General, as the person who was heading the Army at the time can you say that there was no influence from the previous Secretary of Defence in bringing and stationing these troops in order to retain power? No, not to my knowledge. It was a normal process. The Defence Secretary, if at all would have given instructions to the CDS, and these were discussed during the Security Council meetings in the run up to the election. During these discussions the process to be followed, pre-election, during the election and post-election were discussed and it was after these that you come to a decision as to what needs to be done. The deployment was based on these discussions. The intelligence arms gave their views and projections, and based on that the operation was planned. It was the CDS and his staff that projected the plan and that is how it came about. And about the Gajaba regiment, these instructions came from the CDS to us. It was not only the Gajaba regiment but other battalions too. There were Gajaba battalions within them as well.
Q — So there was nothing suspicious about this? Nothing suspicious at all, it was all within the normal procedure during an election of this magnitude.
Q — General, I’m asking this question because it is something that has been within public discourse over the years. There was a feeling that the then Defence Secretary who was very powerful at the time had unfettered access to the armed forces. Was the Army politicized as a result of this? There was absolutely nothing like that. These are all fabricated stories made by people who have vested interests, made by people who have been rejected by the Army, and it is these people who are trying to politicize the Army. By criticizing the professional decisions of the Army they are trying to politicize the military. This is what is happening; it is not the other way around. These people don’t understand what is happening, and it is they who try to politicize the military. So no. It is not so. The Gajaba regiment is a good regiment and played a pivotal role within the Army and comprises good officers. I belong to the light infantry and there were light infantry battalions, there were Sinha regiment Battalions and Vijayaba regiment battalions during that night. People just listen to somebody coming in the media and making statements, and then come to conclusions based on them. This is the sorry state of affairs. You can talk to the people and see if there was a special regiment that was brought in during this time. Just because some say these things, it doesn’t mean that they are true. Our military spokesman informed the public about everything, about the names and numbers of the battalions. People must understand the reality without making assumptions based on what people say.
Q — But General, as the person in command of the Army for over a year and as the second in Command during the preceding period, can you say that Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn’t have direct influence on the Army? Why not? He was the Defence Secretary and he always had direct influence, not only with the Army but Air Force, Navy and Police too. He has done yeoman service to this country as far as security is concerned. Training, equipping, capacity building, professionalizing the Army were all done under his watch.
Q — No, I’m talking about the politicization of the Army. Did he appoint people that were ‘yes men’ to him? No, that never happened. The Army was becoming very professional day by day, and for the last 4 to 5 years, I was at the headquarters and he rendered a yeoman service. Before the commencement of war, the Army had only 10,000 people and following the conclusion of the war we had over 200,000 personnel. There were many problems that we were faced with, the recruitment of officers didn’t happen properly and we recruited people as and when the need arose. We had to systematize the entire process where we developed a system called ‘administrative inspection’. For about two to three years we carried this out and put the entire system into some sort of order. We were reorganizing, restructuring and re-training the Army, etc very professionally. All these changes, including structural changes were done in consultation with and under the instructions of the Defence Secretary. It is based on these consultations and discussions with the Secretary of Defence, that we came to conclusions and implemented these. His involvement was there throughout the best interest of the country.
Q — So there was no politicization isn’t it? That is the question I want to ask you. There was no politicization at all. It was all done professionally.
Q — General, one other allegation that has come against you is that during the election, you and the Chief of Defence Staff played a crucial role in galvanizing support within the Army for the former regime. Did you support the former regime and did you ask your troops to support the former regime? (laughs) This is another fabricated joke. People were saying that we have been going around the country and asking the troops to support one particular party. This is nothing but absolute fabrication, and I feel sorry for those who believe these stories. I have no problem with the people who are making these allegations because you can’t expect more from them. Traditionally, the Commanders address the troops during the beginning and end of the year, and during the Army day. And this has been the practice. But during the time of the conflict, these things did not happen. When I became the Commander, I restarted these practices, I visited the field regularly, spoke to the troops regularly and this has been going on, and for the first time since the end of the conflict, I visited the regiments and formations. So during the months of December and January, and even well before that, this has been happening regularly. Yes, I did, I went to 7 or 8 places and took a cross section of the troops and addressed them as is the norm. This practice was carried on. These speeches are recorded in both audio and video form and you can see what I have spoken. They are very professional military briefings. Not many people who are making these allegations can go in front of soldiers and talk. They don’t have that capacity, but I do. Then there was another allegation which said that I distributed leaflets. There was a practice where at the end of the month, the soldiers get a pay slip and if there was a message they wanted to communicate to the soldiers they do it on the reverse of the pay slips. This was not done properly and I did not agree with it. Instead, we designed a leaflet that we sent with the pay packet or pay slip. This happened for over a year and at the end of the year, we summarized the achievements of the Army on those leaflets. That’s all that happened, but people who look at things from a political angle must have seen this as political, but it is not so. There were no politics at all. You can see these things and read them, they are available. You must look at them and then see if there was anything political in it.
Q — Do you reject those allegations? I reject them completely. These are very good practices for other organizations in the country to follow. And not only that, we also publish books and I must tell you about that as well. We published a book called ‘Samma Sankappa’ which means ‘towards a better society’ and in this we have included everything that the Army has done for the upliftment of Temples in the country. The concept of the book was based on the inculcating of good values in individuals, family, society and then country. I suggest that everybody reads this book and soldiers were very receptive, and this happened well before the election. But during the election this was highlighted and those who highlighted and made allegations based on this book have not read this. They must read it and use it for their benefit. I challenge you to see whether there are any politics in these books.
Q — There was a recent appointment of new officers to the Army. Were you aware of this list? Are you referring to the last appointments?
Q — Yes, the recent appointments… Actually one evening I got a list of ten names that said they were re-instating ten officers and then there was another list of seven names giving specific appointments to those officers. This came from the Presidential Secretariat and was sent to the Defence Secretary who sent it to me directly and I was instructed to implement it with immediate effect, so I did it, and this must be the list you are referring to.
Q — Is this a good practice? No it isn’t. The officers except the Chief of the Army and done by the Army Commander. Of course when it comes to senior appointments, before the announcement of these appointments, the Board sits and these appointments are discussed with the Defence Secretary. This has been the practice in the Army, Navy and the Air force. The Army Commander then publishes the list after such discussion and that’s how it happens, that is the common practice adopted in the services. But this was away from that practice, because it directly came from the Presidential Secretariat.
Q — Given the circumstances, what is your view on the future of the Army? No, the Army is a professional organization and is the binding force of the country which possess extremely good officers, we must ensure that it stays so. We must not allow disgruntled elements to interfere with the workings of the Army and that is the responsibility of all the educated people of this country. Many people want to interfere with the workings and disorganize the Army and we must not let that happen. The Military is a very professional outfit today and it must improve further. After a protracted conflict, usually the military becomes a burden to a nation but even after 30 years of war it is not so in Sri Lanka. Everybody to this day has the highest respect for military officers, and they have the highest confidence in the military and we must improve this further, and not allow anybody to disrupt this.
Q — There was a report to the effect that there was a plan to assassinate the President during the Independence day parade, were you aware of this and do you have anything to say about it? There were intelligence reports to that effect and we took all necessary precautions that must be taken to avoid such a thing from happening. Usually such precautions are anyway taken, no soldier is given guns with live ammunition during these parades and utmost care is taken irrespective of any reports. Because of the reports however, we took extra care and ensured that all security checks were in place prior to the ceremony.
Q — You were the head of the rehabilitation process which was commended worldwide. How did you change from a man who was leading a war to this? Yes, the transforming of some of the most dangerous people to the most disciplined people in society was my job. We went around the world to find a system for this but we could not. Then we sat down and read different systems that were used by other organizations and I realized that there was a vacuum in it. In order to fill this, we developed a concept called 6 plus 1. We consulted may people and developed a process, implemented and managed it well. We have reintegrated over 14,000 ex- combatants into society. The success in this process is that none of those who were reintegrated resorted to violence, resorted to extremism or anti-social activities. This is the success of the process, and nowhere in the world have they seen success of this kind.
Q — As the Commander of the Army, can you briefly tell us some areas that you overlooked and initiated? There were many things. The Army evolved to become the biggest organization in the country. The evolution of the Army took place during the conflict and after the end of it, I was appointed as the Chief of Staff. My duty was to manage the Army and to look into the administration, logistics, capacity building, training, and welfare. As I told you earlier, I developed a master plan after doing comprehensive research on Armies around the world in a post-conflict situation, which was implemented within about 2 to 3 years. We introduced a lot of changes to restructure the Army into a proper outfit that was equipped to take on future challenges. We also addressed training programmes, over the years there was a lot of emphasis on skill development which was required when fighting a war. But after the war, we focused on enhancing knowledge of officers of the Army; a segment which was neglected during the war. We developed capacity in these areas, and have introduced a lot of new things in the area of capacity development of officers. We have also revolutionized the welfare system in the Army. In the field of sports, we possess a lot of talent and once they are identified we put them into a proper system. We have looked into all these aspects. We conducted a research and developed a master plan, which entails national security and development. We presented this to the government, because development and security must always go hand in hand, one doesn’t work without involving another. The government was very happy and allocated funds for these activities. And these are very good achievements. Going beyond that we also looked at how we could help the nation. We introduced leadership and positive thinking programmes for University students and I developed its plan. There are so many other programmes that were introduced, and I am very happy that during the very short span of a year-and-a-half under my command, we introduced many good practices and professionalized the Army which is today accepted by the entire soldier-officer community of the Army and I am very happy that I was of service to the nation, because from my childhood I wanted to be an Army officer and I achieved that and reached the highest level. Today I am leaving after having achieved the highest rank that an officer can receive having done everything I could in service to the nation and it makes me very happy.