Shamindra Ferdinando, in The Island, 21 July 2021, where the title is “How Premadasa paved the way for first Parama Weera Vibushanaya, posthumously”
One-time Army Commander Gen. Daya Ratnayake (2013-2015) recently joined a special event on Zoom in honour of those who made the supreme sacrifice at Kokavil, 31 years ago. Prof. Raj Somadeva and writer Charith Kiriella delivered special lectures on the occasion. Those who defended the isolated Kokavil base – Officer Commanding, Kokavil transmission complex, Saliya Aladeniya, an old Trinitian who was posthumously promoted Captain of 3 Battalion, Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (3 SLSR), and his men, perished in the battle. The LTTE didn’t hand over their bodies.
Aladeniya, the first recipient of the country’s highest gallantry award, Parama Weera Vibushanaya, sacrificed his young life, serving on underprepared and poorly equipped Army. Opportunistic politics of the day made matters worse.
Against the backdrop of renewed interest in Kokavil, in the wake of the recent commemorative event, and Derana ‘Big Focus’ featuring Gen. Ratnayaka , the writer felt the need to examine the then security-political environment. Let me stress that the June-July 1990 Kokavil battle was nothing but a debacle that caused a humiliating setback. Kokavil remained in the hands of the LTTE till 2009.
A comment on the recent print media reportage of Kokavil heroism by academic Michael Roberts, too, underscored the pivotal importance of a better understanding of the then situation. Author Roberts didn’t mince his words when pointing out the inadequacies in the coverage, though he appreciated the effort.
What went wrong at Kokavil? Why did the Army abandon the isolated detachment? Who created an environment conducive for the LTTE? And how did the Kokavil debacle/tragedy transformed the entire Vanni landscape overnight to the LTTE advantage?
Having won the Dec 19, 1988 presidential election, UNP strongman Ranasinghe Premadasa (RP polled 2,569,199/50.43%. Sirimavo Bandaranaike polled 2,289,860/44.95%). Premadasa then led the party to victory at the Feb 15, 1989 parliamentary election. The UNP secured 125 seats whereas the main Opposition SLFP managed 67. It would be pertinent to mention that the UNP earlier, by way of a fraudulent referendum, conducted on Dec 22, 1982, extended the life of Parliament by six years. It was the only referendum held in Sri Lanka so far. The referendum resulted in the UNP continuing till 1989, after having won the 1977 general election, with a 4/5 landslide.
As requested by President Premadasa, rather bluntly, India brought its high profile military mission, in the North and East to an end in March 1990. India had deployed troops, in July 1987, in terms of the Indo-Lanka Accord, forced on President JRJ.
But now in march 1990 they had to leave. The writer was among a small group of journalists taken to Trincomalee harbour to see the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) quit Sri Lanka, following a 32-month deployment here (The IPKF is off – The Island, March 25, 1990). At the time India completed the withdrawal, the LTTE had been engaged in negotiations with a gullible Premadasa for over a year. The LTTE exploited direct negotiations with President Premadasa, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. By the time the IPKF ended its mission here, the LTTE was ready to resume hostilities. However, the LTTE delayed the resumption of hostilities, till the second week of June, 1990.
The then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe hadn’t been prepared to fight the battle hardened LTTE. Having inflicted heavy losses on the IPKF, and gained valuable battlefield experience, the LTTE was ready to strike the Army. Having literally crushed the second JVP insurrection, by early 1990 by wiping out its entire leadership, barring Somawansa Amerasinghe, who managed to escape to India in the nick of time, before security forces could get at him, the Army, too, was cocky and probably didn’t anticipate a large scale LTTE offensive, in less than three months, after the IPKF pullout, because of the ostensible honeymoon with President Premadasa, who even gifted it arms and other wherewithal.
The Kokavil debacle should be quite rightly examined against the backdrop of Premadasa’s folly. Then State Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne, Army Chief Gen. Wanasinghe, the then advisor to the President, Gen. (retd.) Cyril Ranatunga, and IGP Ernest Perera, couldn’t absolve themselves of the catastrophe caused by political-military miscalculations. All of them were made to look like utter fools. Premadasa made some ludicrous attempts to persuade the LTTE to return to the negotiating table. The President’s utter failure to comprehend the LTTE strategy is still a mystery. The top brass remained silent. Obviously, no one had the courage to advice the President, whose Chief Negotiator Minister A.C.S. Hameed’s desperate last minute attempt to keep the talks with the LTTE going led to him nearly paying with his life. Premadasa’s idiocy was such that he had no qualms in sacrificing the lives of several hundred police officers and men who were ordered to surrender to terrorists in an attempt to mollify the LTTE.
LTTE seizes A9 north of Vavuniya
The attack on the Kokavil detachment took place in the wake of the massacre of police officers. Gen. Wanasinghe’s Army lacked the wherewithal to meet the threat. The Army could have made an attempt to neutralise the impending LTTE threat by reinforcing isolated detachments along the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road, north of Vavuniya. Unfortunately, the Army lacked the wherewithal to meet the LTTE threat in the Eastern theatre, Vanni and the Jaffna peninsula, simultaneously. Even if the Army had realised the rapidly growing danger, on multiple fronts, the top brass feared to warn Premadasa. Actually, Premadasa never believed in consensus on security matters. Premadasa simply threw caution to the winds.
The Army was under pressure in the northern theatre, with the Jaffna Fort under attack. Kokavil was almost forgotten as it came under intensified attack, following the massacre of nearly 600 policemen in the East. In the North, the Army found it difficult even to evacuate the wounded. The Jaffna Fort, too, was under siege.
Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa was placed in charge of the Northern region on July 11, 1991, exactly a month after the eruption of hostilities. Army Chief Wanasinghe never explained why Kobbekaduwa hadn’t been brought into the scene until it was too late. Did Gen. Wanasinghe fail to convince Premadasa of the urgent need to change the Northern Command? By the time Kobbekaduwa received command, the situation had deteriorated to such an extent, his appearance didn’t make any difference. Just two days after, Kobbekaduwa received the Northern Command, the LTTE overran Kokavil held by two platoons. It was the first major setback on the A9. The Kokavil debacle highlighted the absence of a strategy either to reinforce isolated detachments or evacuate them. The SLAF lacked required strike capability. The SLAF struggled to cope up with increasingly heavy commitment with just the Italian built Sia Marchettis (propeller driven light ground attack aircraft hardly sufficient even for counter-insurgency operations). Volunteers deployed at isolated Kokavil detachment never had a chance against strong LTTE units. Sinha volunteers turned down an earlier directive to abandon the base, leaving behind seriously wounded men. The LTTE executed those captured during the battle for Kokavil. Two men who crawled through the LTTE cordon managed to reach Mankulam detachment situated north of Kokavil.
Let me stress that those killed defending detachments along the A9 North of Vavuniya, had to be buried there as the Army lacked the wherewithal to take back the dead and the wounded overland. Isolated detachments could be supplied by air and within a month after resumption of hostilities, following the 14-month Premadasa-Prabhakaran honeymoon, the A9 aka Main Supply Route (MSR) north up to strategic Elephant Pass, was lost. The SLAF carried out risky missions to supply isolated bases and evacuate the wounded.
Four years after the combined security forces brought the war to a successful end, the then Brigadier Maithri Dias, recounted how the Army planned to evacuate Kilinochchi, even before the resumption of hostilities. Having vacated both Valvettithurai and Point Pedro detachments on the LTTE’s request, the President wouldn’t have minded the Army giving up more camps. The planned evacuation of the Kilinochchi detachment obviously is a case in point. What was really shocking was the Army seeking the assistance of a Catholic priest based in Kilinochchi, to evacuate the personnel along with arms, ammunition and equipment.
Who wanted Kilinochchi evacuated?
The then Capt. Maithri Dias, of the 6th Battalion of the Sinha Regiment (6SR), arrived in Kilinochchi several days before the LTTE resumed hostilities, on June 11, 1990, with the massacre of hundreds of policemen in the Eastern Province. Dias was responding to a directive from Lt. Colonel H. R. Stephen, the then Coordinating Officer, based in Kilinochchi (Lt. Col. Stephen was killed on the morning of Aug.8, 1992, at Araly point, Kayts. He was one of the officers killed along with war veterans, Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa, Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne. The dead included Rear Admiral Mohan Jayamaha, Lt Colonel G.H. Ariyarathne, Lt Colonel Y.N. Palipana, Commander Asanga Lankathilaka, Lt Colonel Nalin de Alwis, Lt Commander C.B. Wijepura and Private W J Wickremasinghe). Only one survived the blast.
Dias, the then General Officer Commanding 54 Division, got in touch with the writer immediately having read ‘Eelam War II: LTTE takes upper hand at the onset – The Island Feb 22, 2013).
Brigadier Dias recounted the situation in Kilinochchi, leading to the Army headquarters directive to vacate the town in the last week of July 1990. Dias said: “I was tasked to function as a staff officer in Kilinochchi under Lt. Colonel Stephen. The deployment therein comprised one platoon of 6 SR, another platoon of 3 SR (Volunteer) as well as support personnel (3 SR volunteers were based at Kokavil, south of Mankulam) There were altogether about 90 personnel at Kilinochchi. As the then government was having talks with the LTTE, we never expected any serious trouble. Along the A9 road, north of Vavuniya, we had several camps. North of Kilinochchi, troops were positioned at Elephant Pass, Jaffna Fort and Palaly. South of Kilinochchi, troops held Mankulam and Kokavil. Immediately after arriving in Kilinochchi, I was told by Lt. Col. Stephen to prepare to evacuate the troops. On the instructions of the Coordinating Officer, I met a Catholic priest in Kilinochchi to discuss transport arrangements for my men. Lt. Col. Stephen was away in Palaly. He was to go on leave following a conference in Palaly. Following the conference I received further instructions from Lt. Col. Stephen regarding the planned withdrawal. I was told to prepare a plan for an immediate withdrawal. As earlier discussed, I went out to meet the Catholic priest, who promised to help us move men and material from Kilinochchi to Elephant Pass. The sudden disappearance of the priest made me uneasy. The following day (June 11, 1990), the LTTE started attacking the police and the Army in the Eastern Province.”
Dias retired in 2016 after serving as the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of 53 Division after having been promoted to the rank of Maj. Gen in 2014.
It was evident that the then government had decided to abandon Kilinochchi, even before the outbreak of hostilities in the second week of June 1990. At that time Maj. Gen. Jaliya Nanmunai had served as Security Forces Commander, Jaffna.
Saving Kilinochchi troops
In spite of the much deteriorated situation at Kokavil, troops at Mankulam couldn’t intervene. The entire Army had been under tremendous pressure as the LTTE advanced on bases in the Vanni theatre. Brig. Dias recalled the crises the Army faced: “We heard heavy gunfire from the direction of Kokavil, where troops were fighting a desperate battle. The Kokavil debacle had a devastating impact on the Army. A section of troops based, at Kilinochchi, declared their intention to vacate the camp, regardless of the consequences. Having calmed them, I took measures to further strengthen the defences until a large force could intervene to facilitate our withdrawal, northwards. Pushing towards Kokavil seemed unrealistic and suicidal.”
However, those deployed at Kilinochchi had been extremely lucky as the Jaffna Command managed to muster sufficient troops to reach the beleaguered base in the last week of July. The 6th Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (6 GR) and the 5th Battalion of the Gemunu Watch (5 GW) advanced from Elephant Pass to Kilinochchi to save those trapped at the Kilinochchi camp.
During the rescue mission, troops at Kilinochchi had almost lost communications with those coming to their rescue. Brig. Dias said: “We ran out of fuel needed to maintain communications. Luckily, the two Land Cruisers, which we removed from the Kilinochchi police station at the onset of trouble, had fuel in their tanks and it was adequate to meet our immediate requirement.”
Interestingly, Brig. Dias is the first GOC of the re-established 54 Division. Army headquarters restored the Division on Sept 10, 2010. The LTTE literally wiped out the 54 Division headquartered at Elephant Pass in late April 2000. Heavy losses suffered by the Division compelled Army headquarters to disband the formation. It was the worst battlefield defeat experienced by the Army during the entire conflict.
In September, 1990, the Army vacated isolated bases at Jaffna Fort and Mandaitivu. In the third week of Nov, the LTTE overran the Mankulam detachment on the A9. Premadasa’s security advisor, retired Gen. Cyril Ranatunga remained mum. Ranatunga played it safe. Just within four weeks after the eruption of Eelam War II, on June 11, 1990, the Army lost Kokavil and Kilinochchi. Mankulam was abandoned in the third week of Nov, 1990, thereby giving the LTTE unhindered access across Kandy-Jaffna A9, between Vavuniya and Elephant Pass.
The Army abandoned Mankulam under heavy fire just weeks after carrying out a heli-borne mission to consolidate the base. In the absence of an overall contingency plan, the Army responded to LTTE operations over a wide area.
Premadasa lacked even basic interest in security matters thereby allowing unpardonable deterioration of the security situation. Perhaps, the threat the President faced within the UNP, with a powerful section more or less discarded by him, working with the SLFP to impeach him, unsettled Premadasa. Premadasa remained immobilised in the wake of the LTTE directive in late Oct/Nov 1990 for the Northern Province Muslims to vacate the region. The government actually did nothing to avert the unprecedented crisis. The courageous efforts made by troops, under Captain Aladeniya’s command, underscored the Army’s failure. Even though the Army discussed the possibility of mounting a heli-borne mission to break the siege on Kokavil detachment in June it never materialised. Troops called in to carry out that mission were eventually deployed for the rescue of those who had been trapped at Mankulam. But, the Army subsequently withdrew a section of the troops, including commandos sent to Mankulam. Overnight, Mankulam became vulnerable and eventually the LTTE overran it in Nov 1990. Within eight months after the IPKF withdrawal, Premadasa lost the entire Vanni region with troops confined to few coastal areas. In the Jaffna peninsula, the Army had been confined to Palaly, Kankesanthurai and Elephant Pass where troops received supplies from air and sea. The Navy struggled to move supplies required by the Army to the North from the eastern port city of Trincomalee whereas the SLAF, too, operated flights to Palaly under difficult circumstances. However, in the absence of missile threat, during the Eelam War II, facilitated supply missions to the North. But, overall supplying troops based in the Jaffna peninsula had been a tremendous challenge faced by the military.
Strategic Elephant Pass base was almost overrun in mid-1991. If not for the successful sea borne assault by troops of Operation Balavegaya led by Gen Denzil Kobekaduwa and Brig. Wimalaratne, Elephant Pass too would have been overrun.
Premadasa caused an unprecedented catastrophe by pursuing an utterly foolish political agenda at the expense of national security. His failure as well as that of Gen. Wanasinghe to prepare for any eventuality following the IPKF withdrawal allowed the LTTE to take the upper hand in the Vanni region. By the time the LTTE assassinated Premadasa on May Day 1993, the LTTE achieved superiority in the North with all bases under pressure and the situation was rapidly deteriorating. The LTTE gradually pressed the Army in the North with Palaly under siege at the time of 1994 parliamentary elections followed by presidential polls in Nov 1994.
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