Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Lalin Fernando, in The Island, 21 March 2015, where the title is “General RWD (Daya) Ratnayake WWV RWP RSP USP”
Gen Daya Ratnayake WWV, RWP, RSP, USP Commander of the Army of Sri Lanka, retired in February 2015 after 36 years of distinguished service. He was promoted to four star rank on retirement. Unfortunately, as it happened shortly after the new government took power, his retirement may have been seen as a political act even though his promotion negates that idea. Unfortunately this is also a trend that is in keeping with the culture of a people that revels in rumour, however implausible, gossip, cultivating tale carriers (to local and foreign leaders) and taking revenge, however inappropriate. It started to affect the forces with the 1962 real failed coup.
There was a pause in this self-inflicted wounding from 1994 while the ‘conflict’ that raged resulted in over 21,000 deaths in the Army alone. Personal survival came first, so political rather than military objectives were prioritized. Meritocracy was restored in the Army in 2005.The results showed in the cataclysmic conclusion to the conflict at Nandikadal in 2009.The LTTE ceased to exist.
It hit for six the notion that too many political elements and even a few Army Commanders and old senior officers had. They had been brain washed by scheming foreigners and also took counsel of their own inadequacies. They shamelessly spread the myth that the LTTE was invincible. Cynical and selfish politicians preferred to have ‘reliable’ army commanders, as thousands of soldiers and civilians died even as the LTTE rampaged. Only one Commander was chosen (2006) because it was thought he was the right man to end the ‘conflict’. This he did.
In 2010, consequent to an ex-Army Commander contesting the incumbent President, the army itself became silently divided for a while.
However, the peace time army settled down to do some considerable, highly visible ‘nation building’ tasks. Certain politicians were very vocal in criticizing the scheme. Some of them had forgotten how they had in 1966 got Israeli help to plan a scheme, based on their kibbutz experience, for just such activities. Instead of using the very small (10,000) army, the post 1977 government had the National Armed Reserve (NAR) Act passed. Thousands were recruited for Mahaveli scheme work. The army helped train them in camps in many places in the South. The American experience of using the Army, especially the Engineers, after WW1 for ‘nation building’ was advertised. Apparently what was good for the American eagle then was not good for the SL lion in 2010. Even while the conflict was raging a lot of wise words were spoken about what should be done with excess troops after the ‘conflict’ (they were not to know it would take 20 more years) to prevent crime as in African nations .They need not have been concerned as the Army did not let loose the veterans to be jobless and homeless or criminals.
Leadership whether political or military is about winning the hearts and minds of people, based on truth and character. These are some of the basic differences between leaders of politicians and soldiers. The politician tries vigorously and flamboyantly to persuade the people and seek power with passing concern for truth. Officers of the forces, not being dependent on votes, give orders. They command men and have at all times to be truthful even when facing dire consequences. They have a duty to perform for their country even if it costs them their lives (or their jobs!). No other profession requires the sacrifice of one’s life. Political leaders talk vacuously about being ready to ‘die for the country’. While the politician works on the art of the possible, the military leader attempts to do the impossible – which takes longer – like 26 years! The biggest difference is that a politician is guided by the need to win votes while the military officer is guided by principles. One dies rich; the other even if it is sudden death, owns little wealth. Military officers read a lot and glean facts as it is needed to save lives. The other lot massage, manipulate and dress up facts to win votes.
The generations of officers that Gen Ratnayake and his colleagues came from were at the sharp end of battle from the first day they were commissioned. They endured humiliating defeat and savoured a few victories but never ever gave up on the belief that the LTTE could be defeated. They persevered for 26 years until victory was achieved. They had eye balled the IPKF that invaded SL and not blinked. They were part of the great national treasure of battle hardened officers and men that any country would have been proud of. It was them that made the vital difference in the end. Gen Ratnayake epitomized the best in them.
Gen Ratnayake is very sturdily built, about six foot tall and speaks straight. He was above average from his officer cadets days, throughout his service as an infantry platoon (30 men) company (120 men) battalion (750 men) commander and then Brigade (3,000) and Division (10,000) commander to end up as an outstanding Commander of the Army (200,000 men and women) in his 34th year of service.
As the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation immediately after the ‘conflict’ he did wonders with the 12,000 LTTE who either surrendered or were captured. The country and the rehabilitated Tamils have a lot to be grateful to him for his efforts. International agencies who were very critical of other Government efforts such as the way the nearly 300,000 displaced people’s camps were run, had only praise for his efforts. The entire programme was planned and delivered by him. Rehab was done in a most concerned, humane and understanding way. Someone had remembered before appointing him what he had done, and as well, in the East in 2006 when the Karuna faction came over to the Government lines (another crucial turning point in the conflict thanks to Gen Ratnayake).
Later as Chief of Staff and then Commander of the Army he managed the change of a crack war time army to a great peace time army using well honed methods. He had seen the change necessary even before the ‘conflict’ ended and with visionary zeal planned and put into practice all that was necessary. The Army today is better educated, trained, managed, disciplined, fitter, equipped and provided as never before. It also has splendid welfare, cultural and sports facilities.
The rehabilitation of disabled soldiers, the real heroes of war, and the facilities given to them are unmatched even by many western countries like UK. It gives them and their relatives’ immense happiness. Visitors are pleasantly surprised.
The Army’s contribution to UN Peace keeping reached new heights when the SL Medical Corps deployed a well-equipped Field Hospital with highly skilled staff in South Sudan in 2014. It, like the armed SL UN battle groups deployed from the Americas to Africa to the Middle East, have performed impressively and exceptionally well despite an early blemish but before his time.
Biography and Career: Gen Ratnayake studied at Maliyadeva College and was the first officer from a non Colombo or Kandy school to be made Commander of the Army,. President Maithripala Sirisena from Polonaruwa is the first elected head of Sri Lanka who was not from Colombo. If a coincidence in the rural background of the two leaders, one military, and the other political is observed, it is one that the vast majority of SL citizens can be doubly proud. The sad irony is in the sudden retirement of Gen Ratnayake ordered by his Commander in Chief both of whom share the same culture, good manners and customs of the majority of the people of all SL communities. (Note: President Wijetunge, from Udarata (Kandy) was not elected but being Prime Minister assumed the post when a LTTE suicide bomber murdered President Premadasa).
Gen Ratnayake showed his inherent leadership qualities at an early age in school as reported in the media. He was a Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) in the cadet corps and also head prefect. When some thugs had come to his school to intimidate his school principal he assured that worthy he could handle the situation. He first asked the Principal to leave from the main gate in open view of the thugs. He then took on the thugs who fled, threatening him with dire consequences if he ever came to the town. Throwing the gauntlet down him he did so with some friends that very evening. The thugs were given another salutary lesson in close quarter social conduct! They never dared him again.
Gen Ratnayake from the 135 year old SL Light Infantry (SLLI) was the most decorated living officer in the Army. In addition to having won the RWP medal four times (for acts of bravery under fire) and the RSP medal four times (for distinguished conduct under fire), he had been awarded the Weera Wickrama Vibushana (WWV) which is awarded for individual acts of gallantry under fire in the face of the enemy. It is the second highest military decoration for bravery. (The British equivalent is the Military Cross).
If the WWV had been awarded to him while serving his soldiers taking many casualties and reforming them to regain the initiative that would closely identify the character and leadership qualities of the General.
There were and will be senior commanders who will be in front always, others sometimes and a few never. Gen Ratnayake won his WWV that was recommended twice, for acts of bravery under fire when his Brigade at Iyakachchi (Jaffna) was nearly swamped by the LTTE on 23 December 1999. Three infantry battalions were deployed to protect the vital water source for all the other camps including Elephant Pass, Killinochchi and Paranthan. The massive sustained attack killed 23 soldiers and left many wounded in the forward positions held by 9 Gajaba regiment (9GR) which was separated and isolated from 6 Sinha Regiment (6SR). 9GR took most of the casualties. First Gemunu Watch (1GW) was the depth battalion.
It should be remembered that when Elephant Pass finally fell to the LTTE in 2001, it was Iyakachchi that was first attacked and lost, making the Elephant Pass position untenable and forcing a costly withdrawal that demoralized the nation.
On the first occasion in 1999 Gen Ratnayake was airlifted from Vavuniya to take personal command as the fighting raged. It went on for many days. He positioned his tactical HQ in the centre. Assessing the deteriorating situation rapidly, he launched a counter attack he himself led with the handful of HQ men with him. This restored the situation. He was able to inspire the forward battalions to link up and destroy the attackers. All the dead and wounded were recovered.
‘Here was intuitive ability to understand something quickly. This, coupled with his character, nature and personality meant that if he could not persuade others to act, he would do it himself. He took command of the situation locally and with the resources immediately – just a few men around him, deliberately set out to regenerate the lost momentum’. (‘H Jones VC’ by Gen John Wilsey).
‘The first and greatest imperative of command is to be present in person. Those who impose risk must be seen to share it, and expect that their orders will be obeyed … when a crisis presents itself, his place is at the front where he can see for himself, make direct and immediate judgments, watch them taking effect and reconsider his options as events change under his hand’ (John Keegan).
The first RWP he won was the first to be awarded in SL. Five RWPs were awarded by President Jayewardene in 1986 for the first time. Other than his, the others were posthumous awards. He was re-awarded the RWP three more times.
When he was at Ariyalai in Jaffna (1985) the night fighting patrol he was commanding as a captain, was ambushed by the LTTE. Taken by surprise the patrol lost two men killed and three wounded seriously. Rallying his badly shaken men he mounted a counter attack immediately at close quarters. The LTTE retreated leaving 17 bodies. Reinforcements arrived over two hours later.
Beginning of the end – Gaining Full Control of the East “Probably the most notable operational success Gen Ratnayake had was in the East under the Security Force Commander East. He was 23 Division Commander with responsibility for Batticaloa, Welikanda and Ampara. Together with 22 Division based in Trincomalee during the phony and reviled ‘Cease Fire Agreement’ (CFA). They had to face the problem of Mavilaru in December 2005 when the LTTE cut off the water to the villages and farms downstream of the anicut. After initial negotiations it became clear that there was no alternative to military action. Limited operations were launched. The sluice gates were opened and water released. This was the beginning of the end of the conflict. Thereafter Sampur was retaken by the Special Forces and 8GW as was Muttur. The threat to Trincomalee harbor from LTTE artillery ceased for ever.
Kathiraveli was then cleared before the major battle at Vakarai that took nearly a year, ensued. It resulted in the biggest defeat of the LTTE up to then. Two intact 152mm medium artillery guns were captured together with pieces of 2×122 mm guns and hundreds of AK 47 assault rifles. He was able to rescue 41,000 Tamil civilians, unharmed. They had been used as human shields by the LTTE, a practice they ignominiously and criminally exploited in the Wanni.
Persistent rumours that the Vakarai hospital had been hit by artillery or aircraft fire were proved false. The plan for this battle that included zero civilian casualties amidst fierce fighting originated from the then Brigadier Ratnayake. It impressed the National Security Council and became the template for the final battles in the Wanni. Gen Ratnayake had to correct Director Operations Army HQ bluntly when he was sent a letter attributing his plan to another source. Own troops killed were 46 while 718 LTTE were killed.
In the stabilization operations that followed the Civilian Defence Force (CDF) earlier called ‘gam battas, (village lads) were reorganized to what they are now. Their later commanders Maj Gen Mallawarachchi and Rear Admiral Weerasekera acknowledged his efforts at transforming the CDF cadres into confident and skilled professionals. The head of ICRC acknowledged and was grateful for the insight into a first class rehabilitation programme for the Karuna faction of the LTTE that was planned and executed by Gen Ratnayake. They remain forever grateful to him for his role in accepting and rehabilitating them and of course saving their lives. This includes their two well-known leaders. He also conducted intelligence and civil affairs training for two months before the battles started. There were no allegations of misconduct in the battles his men fought later.
Thoppigala (Baron’s Cap) was then taken by the Special Forces under then Col. (later Major General) Prassana de Silva using small group concepts honed in the East. This was a feature, an LTTE stronghold, that the IPKF had not been able to take from the LTTE in over three years of fighting.
Canards & Rumours 2015: There was a report of an interview Gen Ratnayake had with the Daily Mirror on 3 March 2015.The so called imaginary coup was also taken up. Neither the new President nor Prime Minister commented on the allegation as they are well Ratnayake denied that armour and artillery were deployed as rumoured. He had emphatically dismissed an appeal for a post election curfew saying there were no disturbances anywhere to justify it. It would appear that it was the force of his personality that helped most, to calm down agitated and disoriented supporters and ‘onlookers’ at Temple Trees on 8/9 January 2015. His action thankfully led to an uneventful closure to the rule of the past President.
The interview must also have set the other implausible ‘coup’ stories to rest. The ridiculous tale of a threat of a mass suicide attack by some unnamed Generals (the first time in the world that any ‘Generals’ had decided try their luck as suicide cadres and that also after the war ended without any such drama) were known only to an anonymous ‘General’ who craftily recommended all those involved who he was willing to name be sacked! He never surfaced. There was also hallucination of a fanatic ‘Sadat’ type attack on the President at the parade on Independence Day. Nearing the end of the conflict there had been mention of Stalingrad, Dunkirk, and Dien Bien Phu etc to exhibit superficial knowledge to an unsophisticated public. They provided cheap thrills to excitement starved Colombo.
The General gave an unexpected and emphatic ‘why not’ answer when asked whether the Defence Secretary had direct influence over the forces and the police. “Yes” he said “in helping with training, equipment, capacity building, professionalism of the Army” but no ‘yes’ men’ were appointed by him.
The striking if not stunning point in that statement was Gen Ratnayake’s insistence that the Defence Secretary, the bête noire of some in the present Government and the Colombo elite, did not give out any illegal orders and also that he never interfered with the way, he as Commander, ran the army. It never occurred to the General that had he let down the former Secretary even falsely, he may have been rewarded by the new lot in power. His integrity and sense of loyalty was an eye opener in a country where fickleness has become a survival if not a Royal skill. It was completely alien to this outstanding commander from the rural heartland of SL.
He also made it abundantly clear that the 80% voter turnout in the North and East dispelled entirely any accusation of the army interfering in voting. The origins of this story could however be traced to just such perpetrators in certain earlier elections in those parts of SL.
This story is not meant to finish here, hopefully, as the contribution of Gen Ratnayake to the forces and the country should be better recognized by the powers that be. That is their duty to one who did his utmost for the country, army and his soldiers, without flinching and with immense and pardonable pride.