Where Ratwatte and CBK Stood Strong: Coping with the Elephant Pass Debacle in April-May 2000

Michael Roberts, courtesy of Colombo Telegraph

 ANURUDDHA General Ratwatte in 1990s

  CBK 30 Dec 1999 BBC President Kumaratunga in BBC Interview at the end of 1999

Preamble:[1] When Generals Perera and Fonseka laid out contingency plans to evacuate the Jaffna Peninsula in April/May 2000 and appear to have been in panic, General Anuruddha Ratwatte, who was President Kumaratunga’s uncle and chief security advisor, stood sturdy and refused to countenance the planned evacuation of all troops from the Jaffna Peninsula.

Ratwatte had been among the chief architects of the disastrous military strategies in the period 1995-2000. But no one would dispute his fearlessness.[2] On this occasion in 2000 the bravado was backed with political sense: when President Chandrika Kumaratunga (CBK) caved in on the 18th May 2000 and accepted the request from the Overall Commander in Jaffna, General Janaka Perera, to sign the evacuation plans (via VVT and Point Pedro) drawn up with guidance from his immediate deputy, General Sarath Fonseka,[3] Ratwatte asserted that such a step would be the end of Sri Lanka.

3551970071_cd625b70f5 SLA RM 70s firing

The request was denied and Ratwatte flew to Jaffna with other military big-wigs – by plane to Hingurakgoda and thence by helicopter via a roundabout sea route[4] — to take overall command and hold fast. These critical details can be found in a ‘dissertation’ in Sinhala by Malith Jayatilaka[5] entitled Alimankada Parajayen Pasu Sri Lankava Saha Indiyava (2005) which has been brought to my attention by Retd. Major-General Lalin Fernando. This decision by Ratwatte and CBK, I stress, was enabled by the frantic work initiated by the central government in May to import MBRL weaponry in the form of the RM 70 multi-barrelled rockets. This essay is an elaboration of these different strands in the story in capsule form.

RM 70-defence.pk RM 70-defence.pk

The Loss of Elephant Pass & Threat to the SL Army in the Jaffna Peninsula

The LTTE’s throttling of the huge SL Army complex at the strategic Elephant Pass isthmus[6] was engineered and executed under the leadership of Col. Bhanu. It began with a successful assault on the satellite SL Army camps at Vettilaikerny and Kattaikadu on the east coast and Pullaveli to the north of Elephant Pass on 11th December 1999 (Jeyaraj 2000). One advantage which the LTTE possessed at this stage was their possession and use of small-scale MBRL artillery of the 107mm variety[7] – an advantage seconded by intelligent military strategies. The capture of Iyakachchi on the 18th April spelt doom for the army units in the main base: bereft of water supplies they abandoned the base and sought escape by several routes.[8] The LTTE marched in on the 22nd and  hoisted their flag on the 23rd April 2000.[9]

49c-balraj-with-fellow-fighters-on-a-main-battle-tank-seized-by-the-tigers-in-iththaavil Tiger Colonel Balraj-with-fellow-fighters-on-a-main-battle-tank-seized-by-the-tigers-in-iththaavi

A detailed albeit partially censored account of the events can be found in Iqbal Athas’ “Situation Report” in the Sunday Times of 30th April 2000 (Iqbal 2000a); but this report should be supplemented by descriptions in Tamil sources such as TamilNet. One TamilNet report referred smugly to the haul of weapons that fell into Tiger hands in the process:

“Three long-range 152 MM artillery pieces are the significant gain in the booty. Two 122MM artillery pieces and twelve 120MM heavy mortars, one 25MM canon, several 50 calibre guns, hundreds of rocket propelled grenades, thousands of automatic rifles and a vast quantity of ammunitions, including artillery and mortar shells, have been secured by the LTTE…. [and also] several armoured vehicles, tanks, military trucks, bulldozers and high-tech communication systems.[10]

Thereafter the LTTE seized the large Pallai Base on 28th April as one step in their advance in north-westerly directions to begin the squeeze on the rest of the Jaffna Peninsula, its prized Palaly Airport and harbour of Kankasanturai (KKS). By mid-May they were in control of terrain in Chavakachcheri, Ariyalai and Sarasalai. The western parts of the Peninsula in GSL hands were still held by some 35,000 to 40,000 SLA troops – “occupying forces” in Tamil thinking.

In parentheses so to speak, we should take note of the information provided by the Dutchman Benjamin Bavinck who was at Maruthanarmadam in government territory. He recorded his readings of the conflicting threads of thinking among some Jaffna Tamils in his diary:[11]

2 April 2000: “What do the people think? I feel that most of them would rather not have them come back. But the reasons for this dislike are rather mundane: the lack of electricity, telephone, bus transport, etcetera because on the other hand one can hear people comment that it would be good if they could once again live with self-respect without being subjected to the Sinhala army. Personally I think that under the Tigers too, people would not enjoy much self-respect, but most of the people don’t see it that way. And so we have reached a point which we one year ago couldn’t have imagined. The Tigers may be coming back!” 2 April 2000:

A re-shuffling of the SL Army had been precipitated by the crisis. Major-General Sarath Fonseka had been placed in command of these forces at some point with the title “Security Forces Commander.” Major-General Janaka Perera was then appointed “Overall Operations Commander” and sent to Jaffna Peninsula on the 22/23rd April.[12]

As normal in military strategy, Perera and Fonseka drew up contingency plans for a tactical withdrawal. Buses were marshalled and sent to the rear areas of the front line on the eastern front within the Peninsula. The SL Navy was asked to place a ship at KKS which could serve as SLA command-operational room if push came to shove.[13] The situation was dire.

The situation was so perilous that the government of Sri Lanka (GSL) made overtures to India for assistance in a potential evacuation – involving around 40,000 personnel. The Indian government, says one note in Wikipedia, “refused to provide ships.”[14] As DBS Jeyaraj noted at that moment in May: “a ‘Dunkirk-like’ evacuation” may become necessary and the possibility of securing India’s assistance for this purpose is being explored” (2000).

In a strategic move on the 8th May the LTTE offered a temporary ceasefire so as to facilitate that prospect. They held this offer out as “gesture of goodwill” that would prevent further bloodshed and “create a congenial environment” for the SLA “to withdraw from the unfavourable theatre of war with dignity and honour.” (TamilNet, 8 May 2000).[15] Gaining control of the beloved Jaffna town and the peninsular heartland was prize enough.

The Government of Sri Lanka rejected the LTTE’s offer. CBK went on television with a fighting speech directed towards uplifting troop and peoples’ morale. She asserted that her government had “no intention of abandoning Jaffna to Tamil Tiger rebels” (BBC News, 2000).[16] Watching anxiously from Maruthanarmadam in the heart of the Peninsula, Bavinck applauded this stance:

The government immediately rejected this humiliating offer. Chandrika declared that the government shall not tolerate that the population of Jaffna would come under the control of the Tigers again; the army shall fight till the last man. It was also good that Chandrika made it clear that the government would never support Sinhala chauvinist extremism (diary extract, 8th May 2000).

However, a series of crisis meetings in Colombo followed in mid-May with Major-General Janaka Perera flying in at some point to provide a briefing and President Kumaratunga chairing the National Security Council. In an interview with India’s Star Television on 12th May the President noted that evacuation of troops was a last resort and affirmed: “We cannot withdraw troops. Why should we withdraw the troops because we are asked by the LTTE?” (Situation Report, Sunday Times, 14 May 2000).

However, as Malith Jayatilaka has revealed, a few days later she was ready to throw in the towel because her two senior commanders in the battle theatre indicated that an evacuation was necessary and the contingency plans should be implemented. This was where Ratwatte stepped in undaunted — aware perhaps of the imminent fruition of other emergency steps.

anuruddha 22 General Ratwatte

Responding with Barrels of Fire: Retrieving a Lost Cause

Unbeknown to most, the central administration in Colombo had already swung into action to save the day.[17] Securing a formidable array of MBRL weapons (specifically the Czech-built RM70) was seen as the solution. Pakistan and Czechoslovakia were viewed as the principal sources, but the logistics operation also called for the hire of huge transport planes and considerable coordination between the SLAF, SLA and SLN at Katunayake, Colombo, KKS and Palaly – in circumstances where civilian ships to KKS had been suspended on occasions because of Sea Tiger threats, where an AN26 plane with 40 military personnel had been shot down by surface to air missile at Anuradhapura on 31st March 2000 and where Palaly was under occasional artillery fire from the LTTE.

While Brigadier Sanath Karunaratne was despatched to the Czech Republic,[18] Sri Lanka’s amicable relations with Pakistan from way back served as the platform for remarkably rapid aid from that quarter. I suggest here that Pakistan had not forgotten Sri Lanka’s support in 1971 during the brief Indo-Pakistan War sparked by the Bangladesh Liberation war: Pakistan planes had been allowed to land in Sri Lanka when ferrying troops and/or goods to and from Bangladesh. The SL government of the time was headed by Mrs Bandaranaike, mother of CBK.

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF-www.pakistanarmy.infoFortuitously, General Srilal Weerasooriya, the SLA Commander of the moment in year 2000, was “a close friend and a course-mate of Pakistan’s military administrator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.”[19] During his tenure Weerasooriya had consolidated connections with the Pakistan military officers by shipping cargo loads of Sri Lankan pineapples as gifts for their officer mess. One could say that the bonds were strengthened by the delicious sweetness of the island pine.[20] 

As fortuitously, Rear Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda was on an advanced training course at the Pakistan Defence Academy.[21] He assisted the Sri Lankan High Commissioner, Alfred K. David, and the Defence Attache, Group Captain Jayanath Kumarasiri, in their dealings with the Pakistan establishment.[22] In his recollections Karannagoda was unstinting in his praise for the efforts put in by Alfie David[23] and Kumarasiri and for the rapidity of Pakistani action.

Consignments of RM 70s and their munitions were on their way to Sri Lanka within a day or two – astonishing quick. It seems that one plane landed at Palaly, but the bulk had to be disembarked at Katunayake airport. From there heavy escorts girded the transfer unto ships in Colombo harbour from where the “Lanka Muditha” shipped the MBRL to the Jaffna Peninsula.

Lanka-Muditha-629818Lanka Muditha

Pakistani technicians flew to Palaly to train the personnel from SL Artillery who took on the task of deploying the guns. It is a logical surmise that the training exercises did not propel the projectiles into the Palk Strait. In other words, Pakistani soldiers fired MBRLs at the Tiger forces in the frontlines and beyond during the initial stages of their deployment. This seems to have been towards the end of May – circa 29th May to go by the censored “Situation Reports” in the Sunday Times.

The turn-around is marked if one studies the pro-Tiger reportage in such outlets as TamilNet immediately before the fruition of these efforts. Several news items news item indicated that Palaly airport and KKS harbour were now within reach of the captured 120m howitzers in LTTE possession; while the Tiger command used loudspeakers on the 19th May to appeal to SLA soldiers to surrender in order to “avoid a bloodbath.”[24]

It is widely said that these heavy-duty MBRL’s were the turning point in the battles in the Jaffna Peninsula in mid-2000, halting the LTTE’s advance and bringing about a stalemate in the war situation. A contemporary news item supports this verdict: “Buoying [the] morale [of the SL troops], besides the repeated persuasion by their senior officers, was the arrival of new weaponry, more importantly the lethal Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRL). If artillery and mortar shells rained earlier, only one at a time, things were now different in the battlefield.”[25] The studious silence on these developments in TamilNet also speaks loud and clear.

RM 70 multiple rocket launchers-en.wikipedia.org RM 70 multiple rocket launchers- Pic from en.wikipedia.org

One can reasonably conjecture that the Tiger high command comprehended this outcome in dismay and anger. The talaivar Pirapaharan was not a man to forget: vengeance was his guiding philosophy.

Some six years later the Tigers struck. On 6th August 2006, they initiated a claymore attack on a car carrying Bashir Ali Mohammed, the Pakistani ambassador, as it drove down Green Path in Colombo. The mine was concealed in an auto-rickshaw, but the strike was awry and decimated the security vehicle (killing its 4 personnel, plus 3 bystanders) rather than the ambassador. The failure does not eliminate its payback intent.

While that ambush could be deemed a weapon in the impending Eelam War IV,[26] logical reasoning would contend that such assassinations would not have deterred a nation such as Pakistan from aiding Sri Lanka’s war effort then in 2006, but rather had a contrary effect — giving added incentive for support. In brief, I surmise that vengeance was the motive behind the LTTE killing effort – vengeance for Pakistan’s role in a decisive defensive effort marshalled at remarkable speed by General Anuruddha Ratwatte and a number of GSL agencies  in May 2000.


                          SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bavinck, Benjamin 2014 Of Tamils and Tigers. A Journey Through Sri Lanka’s War Years, Part II> 1995-2004, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications.

BBC 1999 “Sri Lankan president partially blinded,” 30 December 1999, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi /south_asia/583029.stm

Jayatilaka, Malith 2005 Alimankada Parājayen Pasu Sri Lankava Saha Indiyāva, Colombo, Vijesuriya Grantha Kendraya, ISBN: 95565222989789556522297

Jeyaraj, DBS 2000 “The Taking of Elephant Pass,” Frontline, 17/10, 13 May 2000,


Jeyaraj, DBS 2015 “How the LTTE Captured Elephant Pass Army Camp 15 Years ago Through an ‘Encircle and Enfeeble’ war Strategy,” 27 April 2015, http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/40786

Iqbal Athas 2000a “Rise of LTTE and Fall of Elephant Pass,” 3 April 2000, http://www.sundaytimes.lk/000430/sitrep.html

Ferdinando, Shamindra 2012 “Multiple Rocket Launchers enter Battle,” 23 October 2012, http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=64414

Roberts, Michael 2011 “The Tamil Death Toll in early 2009: Challenging Rohan Gunaratna,” 1 December 2011, https://thuppahis.com/2011/12/01/the-tamil-death-toll-in-early-2009-challenging-rohan-gunaratna/

Roberts, Michael 2012d “Blackmail during the Endgame in Eelam War IV,” 12 April 2012, http://thuppahis.com/2012/04/12/blackmail-during-the-endgame-in-eelam-war-iv/

Roberts, Michael 2013 “BBC-Blind: Misreading the Tamil Tiger Strategy of International Blackmail, 2008-13,” 8 December 2013,https://thuppahis.com/2013/12/08/bbc-blind-misreading-the-tamil-tiger-strategy-of-international-blackmail-2008-13/#more-11221

Roberts, Michael 2014 “Generating Calamity, 2008-2014: An Overview of Tamil Nationalist Operations and Their Marvels,” 10 April 2014, http://groundviews.org/2014/04/10/generating-calamity-2008-2014-an-overview-of-tamil-nationalist-operations-and-their-marvels/

Roberts, Michael 2014 Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.

Roberts, Michael 2014 Tamil Person and State. Essays, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.

Roberts, Michael 2016 “David Miliband’s Imperious Intervention in Lanka left in Tatters,” 5 July 2016, https://thuppahis.com/2016/07/05/david-milibands-imperious-intervention-in-lanka-left-in-tatters/

Tamil Guardian 2006 Pakistan, Sri Lanka strengthen military, economic ties with Rajapakse visit,” 5 April 2006, http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=596



[1] The literature on the Eelam wars has been bedevilled by studies (including UN documents) prepared by gross amateurs with no experience of battle theatres. I too have this shortcoming, but sought to reduce its disadvantages ever since I challenged Rohan Gunaratna’s estimate of the Tamil death toll in late 2011 (Roberts 2011). Continuing engagements with battle-theatre accounts have enabled improvements in my coverage, without obviating the weakness. Some of these internet articles are now included within my two-volume Tamil Person and State (2014). These efforts have also spawned new contacts with key figures in the politico-military firmament during those tumultuous years. This allows me to provide accounts of key events in the military and political history of the 1990s to 2009. This essay is one such effort.

[2] I suggest here that the combination of fearlessness and idiotic military thinking under his aegis spelt disaster for Sri Lanka in the mid-1990s. That is, I suggest that a bold and foolish general is more dangerous for his troops than a foolish general who is a coward.

[3] Jayatilaka’s researches indicate that the HQ staff at Palaly had signed the evacuation orders several days before and that General Perera asked the President permission to fly to Colombo to brief the National Security Council on this issue. That is when General Ratwatte intervened. If valid, these facts are remarkable: imagine the Soviet Commander at Stalingrad seeking orders to visit Moscow during the height of the battle.

[4] An interview with Air Marshall Oliver Ranasinghe (July 2016) indicated that the heli-flights from Hingurakgoda usually headed east over the sea and then looped northwards and round to land at Palaly from the north.

[5] The fly cover indicates that Malith Jayatilaka was educated at SrI Sumangala College in Panadura, received his B.A. at Sri Jayawardenapura University and his M.A. from Delhi University.

[6] The Elephant Pass isthmus is known as “Aanai Iravu” in Tamil.

[7] The fact that the LTTE had acquired this form of artillery had been reported by Iqbal Athas in the Sunday Times as early as 3 October 1999. So Commander in Chief Srilal Weerasooriya’s tentative allusion to the impact of such weaponry after the fall of Elephant Pass appears to be an admission of elephantine buffoonery (Iqbal Athas 2000a).

[8] It is alleged that the SL Army lost 240 personnel while 357 were injured; and that the LTTE dead amounted to 150 (Ferdinando 2013). A variety of figures were presented in different sources in mid-2000. Note the figures given by Dep-Defence Minister Ratwatte for Elephant Pass and Pallai together: 337 soldiers KIA and 346 MIA = 683; 21 officers KIA and 03 MIA = 24  (https://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=5018). Among the Army dead was Brigadier Percy Fernando. An incidental outgrowth from this debacle was the tale of a few soldiers who slipped into the Vanni jungles and made it back to GSL territory in the southern front. Their experience seeded the SIOT concept of 8-man teams with penetration capacities that became the foundation for SL Army operations from 2006 (personal communication from a Commando).

[9] See Jeyaraj 2000 and Ferdinando 2012. Jeyaraj’s account of the LTTE ceremony has this significant note: “Groups of hand-picked civilians and some Tiger cadres in uniform walked along the Elephant Pass causeway on the isthmus that links the Wanni area with the peninsula. One group walked northwards from the mainland to the peninsula, and another went southwards from the peninsula to the mainland. The significance of this “walk” was that for the first time in living memory there were no barriers or men in khaki to stop the people crossing to and from the peninsula. For the Tamil civilians, a symbol of oppression had been eradicated.”

[10] “Tigers list captured weapons,” https://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=4970

[11] See Bavinck, Of Tamils and Tigers, Vol 2, 2014: 207.

[12] See Island, 22 April 2000. Tamilnet reported that GSL had even begun to call up ex-servicemen to bolster the security forces — https://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=4987.

[13] Information garnered during a dinner with senior Navy officers at the Colombo Club hosted by Nimal Jayawardena. My cautious acceptance of this information in my initial draft has been substantiated by the data in Jayathilleke’s Alimankada (2005).

[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janaka_Perera

[15] Seehttps://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=5014 and Ferdinando 2012.

[16] Also see https://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=5016 and this note elsewhere: “In a televised address to the nation, President Chandrika Kumaratunga stated that her Government ‘has unequivocally decided to protractedly and relentlessly pursue with the military operations’….” (Jeyaraj 2000).

[17] Note that GSL ran into a brick wall in their approaches to India and thereafter explored Israeli options as well (see news item from “diplomatic editor, Sunday Times, 7 May 2000)

[18] I have no information thus far on the outcome of this visit. Nor do I know from where the huge transport planes to deliver the weaponry was hired. They could have been Pakistani of course.

[19] http://www.upi.com/Archives/2000/08/18/Battle-hardened-general-to-lead-Sri-Lanka-army/4523966571200/ and information conveyed by Dr. Jagath P. Senaratne.

[20] A tale conveyed by Rear Admiral Karannagoda in convivial group circumstances at dinner at the Colombo Club.

[21] From August !999 to June 2000 (personal communication on phone, 16 July 2016).

[22] Karannagoda joined Kumarasiri in the urgent visit paid to the Pakistan military authorities.

[23] Alfie David is a Christian Tamil educated at Wesley College. A good mate in my Peradeniya days and an activist in the Student Christian Movement for several decades. We have, alas, lost touch.

[24] https://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=5048.

[25] Situation Report, Sunday Times, 4 June 2000. Retd Major-General Lalin Fernando tells me that the SLA discovered later that the LTTE were running out of ammunition for their mobile MBRLs – but this was not known in May-June 2009.

[26] Mahinda Rajapaksa had paid a three-day visit to Pakistani in early April 2006 and shored up political alliance and potential military acquisitions (Tamil Guardian, 6 April 2006), so it is arguable that the LTTE was trying to discourage this support by killing their ambassador. Mindless thinking if that was the motive.


Filed under accountability, citizen journalism, foreign policy, governance, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, law of armed conflict, life stories, LTTE, military expenditure, military strategy, modernity & modernization, patriotism, politIcal discourse, power politics, prabhakaran, security, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil Tiger fighters, war reportage, world affairs

11 responses to “Where Ratwatte and CBK Stood Strong: Coping with the Elephant Pass Debacle in April-May 2000

  1. One regime is no different to the other. They are all in for what they can get out of it. Not for the people.

  2. Eddie Wijesuriya

    On Sun, Jul 24, 2016 at 5:06 PM, Thuppahis Blog wrote:

    > thuppahi posted: “Michael Roberts, courtesy of Colombo Telegraph General > Ratwatte in 1990s President Kumaratunga in BBC Interview at the end of > 1999 Preamble:[1] When Generals Perera and Fonseka laid out contingency > plans to evacuate the Jaffna Peninsula in ” >

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