Merril Gunaratne, in The Island, 27 August 2017, with the title “Pioneers of the STF”
The Special Task Force (STF) is actually a police organisation, but in scope and structure is flavoured by military features. It is therefore a blend of both disciplines and as a product has been a blessing to the police since it’s inception in the mid 1980’s because of it’s proven record against terrorism and lawlessness. It is now the pride of the police. They owe a debt of deep gratitude to late Ravi Jayewardene for he was it’s founder and author.
Following the ethnic riots of 1983, the northern and eastern areas of the country were enveloped by terror. Terror gangs made a mockery of law enforcement by attacks on the police, both within and outside police stations. When the army filled the void left by the police, they too began to succumb to terrorist forays. Ravi Jayewardene, who was serving as Defence Advisor at the time, sat and sought to find answers to this conundrum. I did know his deep concerns because I had a role to play in intelligence and national security fields at that time. The scope of Ravi’s study convinced him that the security forces too had to conduct their operations like terrorists. Terrorists moved and acted in very small numbers, often used small weapons, moved like civilians to elude notice and took their enemy by total surprise. Unfortunately, until Ravi Jayewardene arrived on the scene, the police and the army at the time acted routinely, and conducted defensive and offensive operations in a conventional manner, adopting relatively large numbers for exercises.
Ravi desired to give birth to an organization which could “play the terrorists at their own game”. Unrelated to Ravi’s thinking, General T.I. Weeratunga had been told by late President Zia ul Haq in Pakistan that to combat small, well-knit terror groups, there “was a need to have something between the army and the police”. What he had meant was that the army moved conventionally, whilst the scope of the role of the police fell far short of the capability desired for the combat of terror. Therefore, Ravi and General Weeratunga thought alike in different circumstances. Ravi began to think of using the police service for his experiment, for he considered it ideal to give expression to his para military concept. This was how the Special Task Force (STF) of the police was born. Ravi did not rest merely at ushering the concept.
He went much further because he was blessed, being the son of President J. R. Jayewardene and could therefore use his office to bestow ample patronage to the fledgling organization. To inculcate the highest standards of professionalism, to inspire able officers to join the STF, to give them the best training so as to train recruits to throw caution to the wind in combat, he arranged a host of special privileges, promotions, pecuniary benefits, an attractive uniform, best weapons, foreign training, and spacious and well equipped training centers. Above all, he made the most important decision of bringing the STF directly under the orbit of the defence ministry so that it’s professionalism will not be diluted by politics. The STF benefitted from Ravi’s choice of SP Zernie Wijesuriya and ASP Lionel Karunasena as the first commandant and deputy commandant. They worked in harmony. Zernie Wijesuriya helped the fledgling organization in its teething days immensely with his experience and skills in the fields of intelligence and administration. They selected the tireless ASP Upali Sahabandu as the trainer.
Working as a team, they embarked on this ambitious project, enrolling the right types, and putting them through their paces. It did not take long for the STF to stamp their mark and drive terror amongst terrorists in the Batticaloa and Ampara areas. Ravi and his team wisely chose the eastern theatre for the STF to operate in, because terrorists worked predominantly in small groups there unlike in the north. I had a hand in overseeing the STF from the defence ministry at the time and knew how SP Lionel Karunasena led very small groups in search of terrorists in jungles on pedal cycles. The STF forte was daring, and the exploitation of the element of surprise by the deployment of small groups. Karunasena mobilized only 96 officers and men to scatter the base of Aruna, the Batticaloa leader of the LTTE, in Kokkadicholai in the mid 1980’s. Ravi Jayewardene was often in the war affected areas, spurring troops to greater heights.
No amount of superlatives can do justice to the feats of DIGs Lionel Karunasena and Upali Sahabandu. They were plucky, courageous, resilient, and contributing by example and precept, led the men from the front. DIG Lionel Karunasena and the STF became synonymous, for he spent so much time and effort with it and its officers. A strong, no nonsense disciplinarian, his care for the comforts of his men was exemplary, and he grieved genuinely, when his men lost their lives. He gave his officers the best, and got the best out of them. His personal conduct and integrity were unimpeachable, and the way he dedicated his skills, time, and energy to the STF was of a rare kind. He employed great moral courage to practice his convictions, so much so that until the arrival of President D.B. Wijetunga as the head of the country, his decisions for promotions, transfers and disciplinary action were NEVER ONCE questioned by the establishment.
He had to say good bye to the organization he nursed and nourished in early 90s’ because of disagreement on the matter of promotions with President Wijetunga. He was not the type to allow alien influences to retard the effectiveness of the STF. As much as Ravi Jayewardene was the father of the STF, it advanced as an organization of repute, one that drove terror into terror groups and became the envy of many, under the exceptional and unique leadership of Lionel Karunasena. Perhaps the best tribute the LTTE paid the STF in his time was to avoid confronting them. He was one of the most outstanding leaders I had the privilege to work with in my time in the police. I recall the words penned by me at the time of his untimely death, comparing him with his colleagues, “He was the moon amongst the stars”.
Upali Sahabandu served as deputy commandant to DIG Lionel Karunasena. He was a thorough professional, and had the knack of viewing even relatively minor issues with total detachment and objectivity. Keenie Meenie Services (KMS), the foreign experts, established the training schools and inculcated the highest of standards, but legend has it that the STF had greater class and quality when Upali Sahabandu was left in full control after their departure. Like Lionel Karunasena, Upali Sahabandu too devoted his entire time and energies to the STF, to the point of even neglecting responsibilities to his family. His standards of propriety, integrity and honour were also beyond reproach. Upali NEVER backed out of a challenge entailing risks, epitomized by the assistance he gave me in 1994 to secure the release of 12 Australian nationals who had been kept as hostages by workers at ‘Ansell Lanka’, a glove manufacturing enterprise at Biyagama, Kelaniya. When I took the decision to break the deadlock through the STF, Upali after reconnaissance, confidently assured me that the hostages could be rescued through an assault. His confidence enabled me to employ boldness in negotiations with the ring leaders who knew what options were up my sleeve, and therefore released the hostages.
It was most tragic that the promising careers of Lionel Karunasena and Upali Sahabandu were aborted prematurely, the first through an untimely death, and second, by terrorist violence. Both lived and died for the STF. All that they left for their families were a legacy of virtues, ethics and principles, not material wealth. Sahabandu was predominantly a trainer. Karunasena’s skills were focused on planning and executing exercises with panache. Therefore they complemented each other admirably. I feel extremely nostalgic thinking about them because I always had them by my side whenever coordination for policing of major events such as the Pope’s visit, national elections and communal disturbances in Beruwela had to be undertaken. They were towers of strength at such times. Perhaps sad but true, the police may never see their likes again. Ravi Jayewardene, Zernie Wijesuriya, Lionel Karunasena and Upali Sahabandu working as a team, selected some outstanding officers for senior slots; among them were N.K. Illangakoon who later became IGP, M.R. Latiff, Ravi Seneviratne, late Tissa Ratnayake, Nimal Leuke, and Rohan Abeywardene.
How do we compare the STF of today with it in it’s halcyon days? I had a ringside view of its emergence and growth, for as an official in the ministry of defence, I had an overseeing responsibility for it. The greatest advantage the STF then enjoyed was that it was totally untouched by politics, a benefit resulting from Ravi Jayewardene ensuring that it was accountable in all respects to the ministry of defence. In subsequent times, it has had its fluctuations, perhaps one of the reasons being that it reverted to the police. But then the police were the parents, and the STF had to be rightfully restored to them. Otherwise it would have suffered as a nondescript organisation. I remember how I proposed at a police conference in 1985 under IGP Cyril Herath that the STF by expansion of numbers should be decentralized, and have companies and platoons with DIGs in their ranges, so that they would be at hand to contend with terrorism and threats to peace, law and order outside Colombo. Unfortunately Ernest Perera, who was then Senior DIG (Personnel), turned it down saying that para military men should revert to normal policing after terrorism was subdued. I thought this was a somewhat jaundiced view. With time my proposal has been vindicated, for the STF today is a great asset to the police in distant areas, assisting them in numerous ways though there is a need to guard against their employment for mere mundane responsibilities.
A word about the present Commandant may be appropriate. When I was the overseeing hand in the ministry of defence in the 1980’s, Latiff was a sub inspector in the STF. I then saw his skills and predicted a good future for him. Over the years, he has blossomed into one of the finest officers, comparable with the likes of DIGs Lionel Karunasena and Upali Sahabandu. Experienced in combat, dedicated, daring, knowledgeable, practising the highest standards of propriety and versatile in all police spheres, the STF should proceed from strength to strength under his wing. Above all, in a service which constantly fails to perpetuate memories of their greats, SDIG Latiff has moved in the right direction by the arrangement of an impressive and touching ceremony to honour the pioneers and the departed of the STF.
The STF has arranged a ceremony on September 1, 2017 at its training school in Katukurunda, Kalutara to honour its founder, late Ravi Jayawardene, the late DIG Upali Sahabandu who died in combat, and other war heroes who had sacrificed their lives for the country. The day marks the 33rd year of the War Heroes Commemoration ceremony, an annual event. This article is dedicated to their memory.