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Successes, failures and potential - 60 years after independence

As Sri Lankans we have faced and heard of many victories and debacles in the past. And we continue to hear of the victories of our brave soldiers. How are we performing and where are we heading? These are the views of the present Army Commander and a prominent former Army Commander given to 'Face 2 Face'.

Sixty years after independency how do you see the development of the Armed Forces, particularly the Army?

Present Army Commander
Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka

Former Army Commander
Gen.Hamilton Wanasinghe (Rtd.)

Present Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka: The Army is 59 years. Till mid '80s the Army never expanded. A fair amount of expansion took place in General Wanasinghe's time. Problem was that we expanded the Army in relation to the expansion of the LTTE. We were trying just to constrain the LTTE and only were able to manage the LTTE threat. Because of these reasons we had to totally abandon certain areas. The difference is that now we are in full strength in the Eastern Province. And in Jaffna we have 37,000 Army personnel. At the time I took over, two years ago, there were only 29,000. The whole Army is now ten times stronger. Because of our strength, it is we who decide where to go and fight. The LTTE reacts. In the past we only reacted and the LTTE decided. We can move forward not even thinking of what the LTTE can do.

Former Army Commander Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe (Rtd.): I see a tremendous development. We can see a vast expansion at present. I witnessed the Army as a young cadet in 1948 at the Independence Day parade. It was more of a ceremonial army. Things have changed now. And we started to see significant changes mainly in the 1980s. In early '50s the Army was quite small with few regiments. The Ceylon Light Infantry, the Artillery regiment that had anti-aircraft weapons and two companies of Engineers along with few other small elements. The Artillery regiment was the largest at that time. Today the youngsters in the Army know what they are doing. They are engaged in an Army totally different to the one I joined. They are more actively involved in defending the nation. I have my own losses in the Army which I would not forget. I know what the nearest and the dearest of a soldier are going through because they are actively involved in defending their motherland.

Aren't we still struggling to free ourselves from an internal terrorism, even with an Army of such strength?

Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka: The issue is that the LTTE can use their cadres any where as they do not have a commitment to protect Tamil people. So their cadres can be shifted from place to place. Even with a massive number, the Army had to deploy 95% of the soldiers for our duty to defend our people as well as to protect areas we liberate. So for the offensives we had only a limited number. To eliminate terrorism we have to go on offensives. If the Army is not commanded properly or deployed effectively you cannot win a war. This needs practical thinking. Anybody who is just following the book or heading for strategies not understanding the tactics of the enemy cannot win a war. I think we are doing quite well at the moment, without those failures.

Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe (Rtd.): Well, the US Army could not get hold of the leader of Al Qaeda, Bin Laden, even with their super powers. Terrorism is not easy to defeat. And this is not something that emerged due to a military situation. There were political setbacks when the military wanted to take steps to eliminate terrorism. And the Sri Lankan Army did not have this mush of strength those days though we had several achievements. It is no easy task to wipe out terrorism. The Army had limited resources, limited training facilities and less experience. Now everything has advanced and the capability of the Army to wash away terrorism is more.

How do you see the situation of the Army since the day you entered as a cadet until you becoming the Commander of the Army?

Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka: When I joined the Army 37 years ago there was only one Major General commanding the Army, a Brigadier and five Colonels. Growing up on from an eighteen year old to a fifty five year old, one learns more and gets more educated. You gain lot of additional experiences and eventually you are given more responsibilities. I feel that is the actual difference. Some may think the difference is in the badges we wear on our shoulders. But in my point of view that should not be the actual change. It is made through education, qualifications and experience and the service towards the country.

Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe (Rtd.): We have advanced by leaps and bounds. Those days the Army had limited training facilities. Now we are equipped with an academy of our own. Our men know what they are doing. They have become experts in the field even an average soldier. The Army is well looked after as I can see. Even a need of a lowest ranker is considered and met on time. It boosts up the morale of the men. There are more responsibilities on the Army at present than in those days I entered. And the personnel are capable of handling it with their training, experience and facilities. When there are logistic problems frustration can build up among the soldiers. But what I feel is that it is not happening now.

What is your assessment of the enemy?

Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka: I never had any respect for the LTTE. Commitment alone cannot lead to victory. The cadres should be well trained. The LTTE is not extraordinarily strong. We have proven it. In a short period of time we defeated the LTTE in the East. We eliminated almost all of them except for few hundreds who ran away for their lives and ended up in the North. And in the North the LTTE lost a large number, about 5000, in the past one and a half years. Now they are left with only 40% of their strength and capabilities. They have lost 100% of their political status. Lost 100% of their popular base and support. Even the majority of the Tamil Diaspora are not supporting them, it is becoming evident. If we have the right people at the right place the LTTE would never engage in confrontations. In instances where we took the right decision the LTTE was defeated. All round the LTTE have come to a weak stage. They themselves must be wondering what their final destiny is going to be.

Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe (Rtd.): Difficult to say. Yet with what I gather, I feel they are weakened. At the time I was in the service the LTTE was much stronger, and in addition the Army did not have enough resources.

It seems that the strength of the LTTE is unpredictable. They were weakened several times in the past yet they emerged in a big way. How do you see this?

Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka: Every time when they were weak they came in for peace talks. They use that time to recover. They lick their wounds and recover. So, after every ceasefire period they came back with much larger strength and capabilities. The LTTE recorded several victories sometimes because of our faults and sometimes because of the administrators who took decisions to Ceasefire at the wrong time.

Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe (Rtd.): Well, every time they were getting badly beaten, they came for peace negotiations. And during the time of negotiations they would recover their losses, go for new recruitment and they have a compulsory recruitment system in their areas. Every time they were weakened militarily they came for peace talks.

The LTTE is engaged in fighting in a different strategy - Fighting In Built Up Areas (FIBUA). In addition the Sri Lanka Armed Forces have to engage in conventional fighting and overcome guerilla tactics. Isn't this a challenge?

Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka: We are ready to face any challenge. The LTTE must be wondering what strategy they should take next because we see no other strategy except for what they have used so far. We feel that at the moment the LTTE has gone out of balance. FIBUA, we have used only in very few occasions. The LTTE were engaged in basically hit and run tactics. Guerilla tactics succeeded against the conventional methods the Army used, because, such could be used in different locations at the same time. The Army, at times, was confined to some areas while carrying on conventional tactics. Now we are using a mixture of all these strategies. We are ready to adopt a relevant strategy according to the requirement. When we need to go for conventional methods, of course we are ready. We have the man power and the equipment required for conventional methods. We have the capability to go for guerilla tactics when necessary. Basically we are not using conventional tactics at the moment though we have such weapon systems.

Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe (Rtd.): I do not call it FIBUA. We do not have such situations. The LTTE want to bring back the 1983 situation. They are trying their best to create such a situation. Any parent will not tolerate the killing of innocent children. World opinion on LTTE should change. Who ever does it, killing innocent civilians to achieve their narrow minded targets is unacceptable. Even in the history, at the time I was in service, the Army tried their best to avoid innocent civilians being targeted. We emphasised these to politicians when required. The target should be flushing out terrorism.

The Sri Lankan Army succeeded in liberating the total Eastern Theatre and stabilising security in many parts of the country. Yet, the LTTE presence was felt in Down South very recently. How do you see this?

Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka: Attacking civilians is something any one can do easily. Even an underworld thug can do that. For the LTTE to do what they are doing in Yala in Down South, they only need about thirty cadres. But they cannot achieve any military targets or assassinations of VIPs. It is easy to target civilians because it is not possible to provide security to each and every individual in this world. When the East was liberated many Tigers, including leaders, fled to the North and some escaped to the South. These who fled to the South were hiding in the Kanjikudichchiaru jungles and there is a vast jungle area spreading towards the southern parts bordering by several Sinhala villages of the up country and the eastern side by several Tamil and Muslim villages. These Tiger cadres get friendly with some villagers doing 'Ganja' growing in the jungles. LTTE get the information about movements of troops.The LTTE is desperate and that is evident through such actions. They are targeting civilians because they cannot do better than that. If they can be more civilised they will target more strategic points. They are unable to do that. We have deployed about 1000 Army personnel in that area. Yet we are capable of running the operations in the Wanni without any hindrance.

Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe (Rtd.): Eradicating terrorism is the responsibility of the whole nation. And it is not only the Army. People's support in controlling terror situations in the past has assisted the Armed forces enormously. The same should be happening now. The Army is strong enough to act against terrorism. Yet they need the support of the public as well. It is everyone's duty. What happened in Dambulla on 2nd February? The bus bomb blast could have been averted if people were more vigilant. The LTTE is a terrorist organisation. They are ruthless in their actions and their attacks can occur anywhere.

Your predecessors insisted on a political solution to the crisis. The international Community also insists the Government on this aspect. How do you see this?

Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka: The political Solution is for the innocent Tamil people. The military solutions is for the terrorists. We are not hunting the Tamil people but we are hunting terrorists. As long as terrorism is present in an area it will not be possible to bring about a political solution. The LTTE have a different strategy. If you want to listen to the grievances of the people, if the democratic systems are to be established, we have to get rid of the terrorists. They should realise by now that they will never achieve what they intend to gain through terrorism.

Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe (Rtd.): We should go for a political solution. Power should be devolved to the Tamil populace not to the LTTE. They will not change their cause. They are aiming for a separate state. If we satisfy the needs of the minorities of this country and look in to their grievances, definitely they will not support the LTTE or any other terrorist organisation. We should only go for terrorists and not for innocent civilians. This is what I emphasised to my troops before we headed for our operations. We must take the innocent people out of the clutches of the LTTE.

How do you see the operations being carried out in Wanni? Are you hopeful of a solid victory, similar to what we saw in the Eastern sector?

Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka: At the time we were fighting in the East we were carrying on in the North and particularly the Wanni area. That was in August last year. Nobody knew that there was an infantry division engaged in combating terrorists in Wanni from March last year. The LTTE had their bases, leaders and much more strength in the East yet we defeated them. They were stronger than now. They had more ammunition and man power. Even with those advantages they lost. If they could not face us when they had 100% strength can they win when they have only half the strength they had? The LTTE is running short of time and running short of opportunities.

Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe (Rtd.): I am confident that there will be victory. But when and how, it is up to the people who steer the operation to decide. The Army seems to be achieving the given targets very well. We should go for the terrorists.


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