The Road to Elephant Pass (A New Year Meditation) - 11 April 2009
I had just left a military wedding in Kandy when the news came through of the regaining of Elephant Pass. It was the second such wedding I had attended in a month. The first was that of a former student, and I had welcomed the opportunity to meet others amongst my students, most of them for the first time since they had passed out from the Military Academy in Diyatalawa.
On that first occasion, in December, I had thought it a blessing that I have an extraordinarily good memory, for faces, and for details of personality, even if I could not remember all the names. And in fact the names too had rung a bell when we spoke, so I could picture the different Intakes and ask about those who had made an outstanding impression when they were still cadets.
The association had begun over a decade previously, when the Sri Lanka Military Academy had asked Sabaragamuwa University to initiate a degree course for its cadets. There was much opposition to this from very opposed viewpoints, some academics thinking that soldiers were not worthy of degrees, some military men thinking that academic qualifications would be counter-productive in the effort to produce effective officers. I believe I was able to hold some sort of balance in the discussion, and bring the concept to fruition, largely because I had been impressed, way back in 1980, at the type of course followed by a cousin at the Academy.
I had been disappointed then by the quality of undergraduates I had at Peradeniya, sensing a lack of initiative and independent thinking. I hasten to add that my students there soon proved themselves able to come up to expectations when compelled to read on their own and write and discuss, but it was good to see that at Diyatalawa the course involved initiative and individual presentations from the start.
Similarly, once we made it clear that Military Studies would comprise the main part of the course, and the University would not interfere in those areas except to suggest more thorough methods of evaluation, the SLMA staff showed that they had a comparatively enlightened grasp of what university education should consist of in the modern world. The soft skills that the university system in general only began to adopt later were welcomed, with basic courses for credit in a range of subjects such as English and Tamil and Information Studies and Computing and Mathematics and Critical Thinking and Current Affairs and Law and Management Studies and General Science and Political Philosophy. Some of these had been done before, but they readily agreed to increase the time available for them, and in the instance of Law actually expanded the syllabus themselves to include more Humanitarian Law.
Teaching the cadets was a pleasure. Though they fell asleep in class more often than students should, they were committed to their work and disciplined and did their homework, and took readily to group work and projects. Of course some were better than others, but it was also heartening to find that in general those who did well in their academic work were also good at military subjects. And perhaps this was understandable, because we were not producing specialists in any particular field, we were simply developing initiative and problem solving and decision making skills, with the ability to absorb and process only necessary knowledge for a demanding career in which specialization would follow later, in terms of both aptitudes and needs.
It took a couple of years for the course to begin, with the Ministry of Defence bureaucracy in those days being even slower than that of the Higher Education system. Brigadier Hettiarachchi, who initiated the idea, had been replaced by Brigadier Percy Fernando, who was able to finalize things only towards the very end of his tenure. He gave us a dinner to celebrate the inauguration of the course, just before he left. He was going to Elephant Pass.
I was teaching, at Sabaragamuwa, when news came of his death. That moment came back to me, nearly nine years later, when I heard that the area had been regained. We had known him only briefly, but the sense of loss was immense. He had been wonderful to work with, and I still remember the sense of civilized self-confidence he exuded.
Sorrow was made worse by the sense that the death had been unnecessary. It was not only that, as we heard, he had been offered air transport out but had chosen to make the long trek back with his men. It was also that it seemed retreat had been advocated earlier, but for reasons of prestige this had not taken place.
Of course that may have been rumour. I was told that the advice had been given by General Hettiarachchi, though he himself, discreet as always, said nothing about this when we met in Trincomalee during that time. But, when I got back to the Resthouse, I was told by the Keeper there that Gen Hettiarachchi was in Trincomalee on a punishment transfer for having not conformed to the official line on Elephant Pass. That was doubtless an exaggeration, but I suspect that there were some lapses at the top that contributed to the magnitude of the losses.
Be that as it may, for some days even Jaffna was in danger, until what we gathered was brilliant work by General Janaka Perera and General Sarath Fonseka saved the situation. I have no idea how the balance of responsibility lay between them but then, typically, both were transferred out and one felt nervous. And, over the next two years, as we worked with our first batch of cadets, and then a second and a third and a fourth, I felt the situation was deteriorating. We seemed to be simply reacting, without a clear strategy as to regaining lost ground or moving forward, and when the attack on Katunayake came it seemed to confirm that our defence strategy too did not amount to much.
So I, like many others, welcomed the Peace Accord. I voted for the United National Front, as it then called itself, in 2001 and, though I was surprised that Gamini Athukorale was not appointed Minister of Defence, I remember describing Tilak Marapana as a safe pair of hands.
It did not take me very long to realize that I was totally wrong. Working at Diyatalawa helped to enlighten me, for I gathered there how serious the betrayal at Athurugiriya had been. But even without that, it seemed clear to me, the government, having taken the Tigers by the tail, had no idea how to let go. The number of Tamils who were being killed by the LTTE mounted, with no remedial action, and when the appalling incident of the ship bearing arms occurred – when President Kumaratunga held firm against the opposition of it seemed both Prime Minister and Defence Minister until the weapons were discovered and the Tigers aboard destroyed themselves and the ship – it was clear that the government was woefully incompetent.
That at least is the charitable explanation. At the same time, though I still think there was no actual treachery involved, there also seems to have been some villainy. Certainly the feeling amongst the officers I moved with was that weapons procurement was not for the benefit of the forces and, if anything more were needed to justify the appointment of Col. Rajapaksa as Defence Secretary, it is the universal conviction amongst all servicemen that he has nothing but the professional interests of the forces at heart. The horrific stories about arms deals, which go back to President Jayawardene’s time, may not all be true, but it is a triumph that they are scarcely heard now, and not credited at all amongst those who need the arms. During 2002 and 2003 the story was very different, and the bitterness at what was seen as betrayal was palpable.
There was however a silver lining in all this in that, when my first batch was commissioned and went to the field, they were not in any danger. And until 2006, with the exception of four officers killed in December 2004, there were no casualties from the SLMA. Then however they started coming thick and fast, from April 2006 on, when the LTTE tried to murder the Army Commander and made it clear that they were determined to go back to war – as if indeed that were not clear enough from the assaults they had launched, largely targeting the Navy as it happened, from December 2005 onward, leading the Scandinavian Monitoring Mission to question, with full attribution of blame to the LTTE, whether there were indeed a Ceasefire Agreement still in place.
From 2006 onward I had heard of individual casualties, but the full extent of the sacrifices my students had made only hit me when, a few days before the wedding in Kandy I received a copy of the 2007 edition of the ‘Torch’, the journal of the SLMA. For some reason I had not received the 2006 edition, so it was a Roll of Honour for two years that confronted me. And it was then that I began to feel that a wonderful memory could also be a curse, for relentlessly I could see the faces of the boys I had taught, who were now no longer with us, I could remember something special about many of them – as with Rajakaruna, one of the first to die, in May 2006, who had kept asking difficult questions, and whom I thought initially would be problematic, but who soon settled down and was taken into the Special Forces.
The first Intake I had worked with, 51, had made the greatest impression, for I had spent the most time with them, working with small groups in the first term when they were our only responsibility. Yet I do not think that is the only reason that I still think of them as the best we have had, and their record in battle, leadership in crucial engagements, gives some rationale to what otherwise might have seemed prejudiced predilection.
The first wedding was that of a Fernando, and he had told me that the other Fernando had died, a quieter character whose face in concentration I could still recall. Five days after him had died Saman Kumara, whose father had died during the course. He was a large boy, clumsy and not especially bright, but that dignified but obviously overwhelming grief when he came back to us after the funeral had stuck with me. Then there were Gunawardena and Anuranga, who died on the same day in October, along with four others from later intakes. Neither had been especially interested in academic work, but I remembered that Anuranga, having produced a preposterous project on the First World War, came back a few months later with an impressive analysis and did extremely well in the viva to secure his degree.
The army obviously matured them, as I found when I talked to the boys of the SLMA at the two weddings. They were, as the Principal of Trinity College put it in describing the initiatives his post Advanced Level students could undertake, fine young men, and the combination of assurance and modesty was heartening. This was most obvious with regard to their use of English, a language most of them had hardly known when they came to the Academy. Some of them had still been weak when they left, but the foundation we had provided and the continuing attention to learning had clearly stood them in good stead.
One of the reasons for the comparatively poor English in most Intakes was that we had very few cadets from Colombo schools. Awareness of this had in fact intensified my feeling over the years that the privileged amongst us were totally out of touch with the needs of this country. But obviously there were exceptions, and I had been impressed over the years with the few individuals from what might be termed prestigious schools, who had gone against the trend and enlisted.
But such commitment also had its drawbacks. Both the boys from Wesley whom I remembered were dead. One of them, Ratnayake, had gone to Sandhurst and done remarkably well, and then worked hard when he got back so that he could catch up on the subjects he had missed. He had got his degree then, but in 2008 he had died, soon after going into the field. So too had Alagiyawanna, a more senior officer, who had not been impressive academically, but had won prizes for being the most fit and the best shot.
It was his case that made me understand the total commitment of the Army Commander, and why he has been able to inspire his men to such achievements. The boy had gone missing in Vavuniya and, when I mentioned the case to the Commander, I found that he was fully aware of the incident. That level of concentrated appreciation of developments at all levels would naturally prompt reciprocal devotion – and it provided some consolation to me, to think that the sacrifice had not been in vain.
But of course it was not in vain. These boys knew what they were doing, and were proud of what the army had now achieved, what their commanders had planned, what they themselves had wrought. I had no business indeed to think of them still as boys, but I suppose that is the difference between a distinguished educationist like the Trinity Principal, and someone like me who dabbled in a lot of things and became sentimental about all of them. It was the vulnerability that continued to haunt me, the bright eyed enthusiasm to learn, the admiration for authority along with the awareness that it could only take them thus far, the toughening that made them realize how much they had in the end to depend on themselves.
The officer from Intake 54 who had been at both weddings told me at the second that they had that very morning heard that yet another of the Intake had died, in the taking of Pallai. And then, just before the wedding ended, when I was asking about the officers I had met at the previous wedding, he told me that the bestman had died in the battles for Kilinochchi.
He was called Imbulawala, and I remembered him for an intensely concentrated gaze that made me think he was absorbing everything that was said. This was not the case at all, and I think he did not come very high in the order of merit. But he had joined the Commandos, and though he still looked very young – this was Intake 58 – he had spoken a month previously with confident ease about his current posting. My impression was that he had said Vavuniya, it did not occur to me that he would soon be going back to the most intense of fronts, and I suppose that to him it was not a matter of any great concern.
It was his face I saw when I heard that Elephant Pass had been taken and the A9 would soon be opened. And it was Percy Fernando I remembered when I saw the pictures of the Commanders of the Jaffna and Vavuniya Commands, both of them Commandants of the SLMA with whom I had worked, meeting at Elephant Pass to seal the stupendous achievement. It was under one of them I believe that the custom began of ending the Roll of Honour in the ‘Torch’ with the lines –
When you go home, tell them of us and say We gave our today for your tomorrow
All this was in January, when the forces were moving fast. But then, in February, after the first large influx of civilians managed to escape, the LTTE put down the shutters more conclusively, and made even more vicious use of those they had entrapped so successfully over the previous several months. And we reacted as they knew we would, by suspending the use of heavy weaponry, by exercising even greater caution than before about the civilians, our civilians, who had been in thrall to terrorism for so long.
They knew this would happen, we knew they knew, which is why we had been asking the world for so many months to request categorically that they let our people go. The answer was a deafening silence, broken occasionally by equivocation and mealy mouthed appeals to both sides to cease fire, and hysteria when the LTTE (or Amnesty International or the BBC) made claims that were later shown to be palpably false. And meanwhile our soldiers were dying in larger numbers than before, and I was losing more of my cadets.
In Geneva, dealing with lies and half-truths, I was told of the death of Priyaweera, from Intake 51, whom I remembered fondly as once having actually expressed astonishment at the amount I knew. I was tempted to respond as my Dean at Oxford had done in a similar situation, by telling him that he would have far less occasion to feel astonished if he marveled at what I did not know. But I realized in time that such irony was unfair on a simple but extraordinarily honest and decent soul.
Such unnecessary suffering. And my anger was not so much with the LTTE, because its leadership had clearly toppled over the edge into madness, and to get angry with them would have been like getting angry with a cornered beast. Hearing of their suicide bomb amongst those seeking refuge, seeing in the camps the evidence of their firing on those trying to escape, reading in one of the few foreign newspapers that understood what terrorism meant the story of a family being hunted down as they ran away at night, I could only marvel, not at their brutality, but at the brutality of those who still found excuses for them.
But what do they care? They need votes, and the diaspora that supports the LTTE is well organized, and makes no bones about saying that people might lose their seats if the voters they control change their minds. Others want influence, and believe that destabilized countries will increase their own standing in the world. And others still cannot get over the belief that they know what is best for the world, that they can judge when they should suspend rules because their lives are in danger, but unsophisticated third world countries need guidance and control.
It is not their boys who are dying. It is not their civilians who are prevented from leaving the terror zone. So they will go on making excuses for terror, while we, who live with it, but still temper our approach to spare the innocent insofar as is possible, lose so many lives unnecessarily.
As Sri Lankans, we have to regret the lives of civilians who have suffered so much. We should also regret those who were forced to fight by the Tigers and, though the forces have no alternative to taking them on, when confronted by them in battle, we must remember how no one tried to stop the conscription, how the international agencies functioning in the Vanni over several years simply let this happen. They to my mind are more guilty than the poor Tamil youngsters who found no protection from those who should and could have done better, but who compromised shamefully and allowed these youngsters to be dragooned to their deaths.
But I make no apologies for feeling saddest of all about the boys I knew, whom I will never see again. I have heard international apologists for the Tigers claiming there is some sort of difference between civilian victims of terrorism (some claiming that the Tigers do not deal in such, ignoring the recent massacres in the South, easily enough because their preferred media outlets never mention these), and military forces that terror destroys. That is a facile distinction. It may be valid as to deaths in battle, but the forces destroyed in the spate of bombs soon after this government took office were taken unawares, the largest massacre being of troops in transit for leave.
And now they are dying because they are fighting with one hand tied behind their backs, precisely because the Tigers are using human shields, and because our forces are decent enough to respect those civilians. The world may forget, but we must never.
Senior Professor of Languages