Gerald Peiris in Kandy to Michael Roberts in Adelaide, 20/21 May 2019
Here are my observations on two of your comments (reproduced below in brown) on Long’s article**
- So, Gotabaya was not the single decisive hand in shaping the outcome of Eelam War IV. But in support of some lines in the Stephen Long essay, I shall dwell on several of his special contributions within a separate essay. Moreover, the recent Easter Sunday attacks and subsequent tensions in Sri Lanka encourage me to endorse Stephen Long’s caustic account of the glaring shortcomings in the intelligence operations of the Yahapaalana government. That, ofcourse, is a conclusion that is widely shared.
- However, the Sri Lanka Army began to transform its infantry divisions from around 2001 with the development of the SIOT concept which encouraged operational planning from the frontline-upwards and sharpened soldier skills. General Sarath Fonseka is one to whom this course of development can be attributed, but I speculate that there were others involved.
- 1. I do not see Long saying (or even implying) that “Gota was the single decisive handin shaping the outcome of Eelam War IV”. That apart, and more significantly, a study of the SLG-LTTE confrontations since about the end of the 20th C would indicate (among other things, of course) that Gota taking over a position which enabled him to be the person directing the overall military efforts to inflict the final and decisive defeat of the LTTE was, indeed, the factor that appeared in the Eelam IV equation which was non-existent prior to Fonseka being bombed in his own HQ in mid-April 2008 and thus being incapacitated over the next 6 months. Most, if not all, highest ranking officers of Sri Lanka’s security forces of that time will acknowledge that Gota’s contribution to the planning and implementation of the Vanni offensive was of decisive importance in what was eventually achieved on 19 May 2009.
- 2. Note also that although Fonseka was appointed to the post of ‘Commander of the Army’ in December 2005 (i.e. soon after MR became president), he was elevated to the rank of ‘Chief of the Defence Staff’ only in June 2009 (i.e. about a month after the battle-field defeat of the LTTE). This substantiates the contention that GOTA was performing that crucially important role although, but as a civilian, he delegated most of the functions relating to the Vanni offensive (but not the functions of the security forces elsewhere in the island) to the most senior officer among of the ‘General’ staff of the army.
- 3.If someone has written that a major transformation of the infantry divisions began in 2001 (or thereabout), and that Sarath Fonseka “is the one to whom this course of development can be attributed”, that writer is in error. First of all, Fonseka was still the commanding officer of a ARMY in the ‘Northern Zone’ in 2001 and, while serving in that post, he had severe disputes with both Ranil and Chandrika. Nor did he have a say on the functions of the Navy, Air force, and the STF. It was Mahinda’s electoral victory in 2005 and his bringing in Gota to the vitally significant post of Defence Secy that paved the way for the overall coordination of the final offensive.
Moreover what should not be forgotten is that in the history of warfare there is often a legitimate tendency to bestow upon a single individual the preeminent honour of achieving the final outcome, The illustrations of this that come to mind most readily are George Washington being credited with directing the American ‘War of Independence’, Abe Lincoln being honoured as the one who won the war against the Confederacy, and others like Mao Tsetung and Ho Chi Minh being considered the leaders in the defeat of the US-backed forces in their respective domains, although these victories were the outcome of the confluence of many other factors in which others performed crucially significant roles.
When I first read Long’s piece about 4 or 5 days ago, I felt that here at last is a journalist from the West who has understood the essence of Sri Lanka’s vicissitudes of the past two decades without being unduly influenced by the remnants of the LTTE outside SL and the desperate attempts of the main NATO powers to prevent China becoming the foremost global power in the Indian Ocean.
Best regards, Gerry
RESPONSE from MICHAEL ROBERTS, 27 May 2019
Stephen Long is quite categorical. At the beginning of his article he presents this assertion: “[with] the precision of a skilled strategist, Gotabhaya decisively defeated the LTTE.”
It is this claim that I questioned as an “overblown” verdict. I do not believe that complex historical processes and outcomes can ever be attributed to one factor. In this instance I chose to restrict my reasons for the challenge to one illustration of a major factor behind Sri Lanka’s triumph. This was the introduction of the SIOT principle in the training and organisation of the infantry troops from 2001/02 onwards.
As far as I can see, these units were not distinct commando squads per se. They were specially trained battalions within any regiment and thus within any brigade. Clearly, it would have taken time for this process to be diffused through the SL Army. But over time I gather that the capacity of the various Army regiments was radically improved by this process. Retd Brigadier Halangode was quite categorical in informing me that the “SIOT was the brainchild of Gen. Sarath Fonseka;”[a] and in doing so he sent me the Memorandum on this topic by Brigadier Ralph Nugera[b] — which I presented in Thuppahi as a companion piece to my first essay on Long’s work (but which Gerald Peiris seems to have overlooked).
Obviously, the impact and spread effects of this sharpening of unit skills were compounded when Gotabaya Rajapaksa found the monies and proceeded with an astute propaganda drive to expand the size of the Army (see my 2nd article on Long). Peiris also claims that he was the central figure in shaping the military strategy in Eelam War IV.
The practice of weekly meetings of key commanders would certainly have been an ingredient in this process and a contribution to success.[c] But it would be neat if Peiris could serve up some detailed references on this point attributed to any of the major players.[d]
Elsewhere I have indicated that after the LTTE forces in the Eastern Province were driven out, the central command placed that arena in the capable hands of Ex-Admiral Sarath Weerasekera and used STF and other forces to keep control in that vast area.[e] This released several SL Army units for the main battlefronts. It is quite likely that this step was initiated by Gotabaya, but it could have been a plan devised at a top-level strategy meeting.
Again, where the dim-witted commanders during Eelam War III, viz. Generals Ratwatte and Daluwatte, had attempted to gain control of the northern Vanni by advancing along one channel, namely the A9, the strategy followed from late 2007 and early 2008 was directed towards the dilution of the LTTE’s fighting strength through kills rather than the occupation of territorial space. The ‘work’ of snipers[f] and deep penetration units was part of this strategy. As to which ‘mind’ in the GSL brain’s trust pressed this strategic course, I do not have a clue. It will be difficult terrain to research. Military personnel do not take kindly to breach of trust and arrogant claims or lies. This sort of information is normally kept inhouse.
Stephen Long: “Vengeance! How Personal Vendettas BLINDED Sri Lanka’s Security Bulwarks,” 19 May 2019, https://thuppahis.com/2019/05/19/vengeance-how-personal-vendettas-blinded-sri-lankas-security-bulwarks/
Michael Roberts “Winning the War: Evaluating the Impact of Api Wenuwen Api,” 1 September 2014, https://thuppahis.com/2014/09/01/winning-the-war-evaluating-the-impact-of-api-wenuwen-ap/. :
Michael Roberts “Stephen Long’s “Revenge Politics” Questionings,” 20 May 2019, https://thuppahis.com/2019/05/20/stephen-longs-revenge-politics-questionings/#more-35708
Michael Roberts: “Stephen Long’s “Revenge Politics”: Endorsements,” 24 May 2019, https://thuppahis.com/2019/05/24/stephen-longs-revenge-politics-endorsements/
De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei “Good education. Sri Lankan military learns insurgency lessons,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, December 2009, pp. 2-7.
SIOT: “SIOT or Special Action Infantry Teams: Their Origins and Critical Role in Eelam War IV,” 21 May 2019, https://thuppahis.com/2019/05/21/siot-or-special-action-infantry-teams-their-origins-and-critical-role-in-eelam-war-iv/
END NOTES for Roberts
[a] Email in mid-May from Retd Brigadier Halangode (whom I have met and chatted with in Wellawatte in mid-2017(?). His note runs thus: “The SIOT was a brainchild of Gen.Sarath Fonseka. A brief write up is given about SIOT by Brig. Ralph Nugera and methods of training.” Also see De Silva-Ranasinghe 2009.
[b] It so happened that Brig Nugera’s daughter and wife had consulted me with reference to one of the daughter’s career prospects, so I was able to interview Brig Nugera at one point in 2017. My focus then was on the last phase of the war and I need to carve out the time to listen to my recording.
[c]As we know, the Yahapaalanaya Government’s failure to retain a clear chain of command leading up to an apex in the security set-up together with competent specialists in appropriate spots, opened the door for gross security failures in 2019.
[d] This is an unlikely prospect because participants in a collective enterprise of such importance do not wish to thump their own chests or release state secrets. Since Gotabaya is still on the political scene it is unlikely that we will get much inside information here. The best source would be Gotabaya himself.
[e] I picked up this point at some point in the past. I must now locate the article where I sourced the information. Memory fades. Also see De Silva-Ranasinghe 2009.
[f] Both the SL Army and he LTTE utilized snipers extensively at the war front. One of the shooting specialists who trained GSL personnel was Sarath de Zoysa – who was a soccer-playing colleague with me at St Aloysius before he moved to S. Thomas, mount and its rugger team and thence to a planting career. Several of my military contacts have been via his good f offices.
** Gerald Peiris sent his email MEMO to Roberts about a day after his first essay was in the public realm and was unaware that a second article focusing on the the plus points in Long’s article was in the Roberts pipeline. But there are still issues in his reading of Long and the shaping of critical factors supporting the GSL victory that can be debated.
A MEMO from Siri Hewa in Sydney[i]
Dear Professor Peiris,
Thanks for the contribution but you miss the elephant in the room scenario. Since 60’s coup, the SL political establishment is wary of the armed forces power and this was obvious from Kumaratunga’s time as a president since she deliberately starved the defence forces of weapon procurements.
The success of inn Eelam War IV was due to good political leadership and in having a brilliant army commander (Sarath Fonseka) and the policy of giving young commanders responsibility to run their own units with right resources, while also and giving the required manpower.
The biggest contribution from Gota was the creating of a joint command and creating support for LRRP and also intelligence and logistic sharing and having a single war winning formula that came from the army commander. BTW creating a joint command was a major task since there were so many competing scenarios from 3 forces that was created to fight conventional warfare from the British.
For the first time in SL’s history, we also saw an asymmetric warfare division with advanced surveillance capabilities. Current warfare needs to meet asymmetric warfare coming from heavily funded terror groups funded from overseas. Israel contributed lots to our defence capabilities [over the years].
Having a defence sec, related to the president created a very successful scenario that SL was gifted at that time.
My global experiences with academics, indicate they always get stuck in piecemeal scenarios rather than looking into 360 scenarios. Also we Sri Lankans are notorious for having our heroes pushed into the dustbin or dustbins of history.
MR’s biggest mistake was having war winning army commander with shrapnel still inside his body put in jail. No real Buddhist will do that and it says so much about MR.
I have a great respect for Gotha and hope he goes for the presidency and win the presidency. He is a great manager and understands what need to be done. At present we need a strong and a good leader for the country since we have dishonest and incompetent Ranil and an extremely weak President who does not understand his responsibilities.
Our country is blessed with many talented people who are all over the world Gotha tapped into that [resource] and used it for our country’s wellbeing. All the overseas experts worked for free for the country.
[i] Siri Hewa is a computer and media specialist who lives in Sydney. He went to Sri Lanka on Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s invitation to set up the intel and communications network, but I do not recall the details on this point. I have not met Siri; but have chatted on the phone. He was instrumental in challenging the fake video work made up by Channel Four and told me THEN that his challenges would be covered up immediately by further deft video manipulations (and so it came to pass). See https://www.linkedin.com/in/hewawitharana/?originalSubdomain=au for some details on this professional man.