“President’s leadership, maturity main reasons for victory”

It is with such pride and jubilation that the country celebrated the defeat of the LTTE, over the past few weeks. The political leadership was commended, and the valiant soldiers who were instrumental in crushing the Tigers were honoured, with the heartfelt gratitude of the people. Yet, the war against the Tigers is not a recent phenomenon; many soldiers sacrificed their life, limb and youth for this cause that dragged on for nearly three decades. One such individual is Col. Prasanna Wickramasuriya. Joining the military in the early 80s, he was among the first batch of officers just out of the military academy to face the outbreak of the Eelam War I. Being one of the most decorated soldiers in the military, he played an active role in the pivotal Vadamarachchi Operation, the outcome of which would have changed the course of the war, had the political leadership at the time been more visionary. Col. Wickramasuriya now serves as Chairman, Airport and Aviation Services (Sri Lanka) Ltd. A little known fact is that he is responsible for the capture of the largest haul of explosives in Colombo. The Nation met with this soldier, whose only regret is that he was not able to be there in the battle ground when the military delivered the final blow to the Tigers

By Vindya Amaranayake

Following are excerpts:
Q: When did you join the military and what was the regiment you served under?
When I joined the military I was just 18 years old. I am an old Nalandian and straight after school, I joined the military and became a member of Rajarata Rifles. Our headquarters was the Saliyapura Camp in Anuradhapura. It was one of the fighting units. Myself, and the present head of Presidential Security Division, Brig. Jagath Alwis were in that same regiment. I still remember the day we went to Anuradhapura fresh out of the Diyatalawa Training Academy. I joined the Army in 1981 and underwent Cadet training at Diyathalawa. It was after 18 months training there that we opted to join the Rajarata Rifles.

By the time we passed out from the Academy it was 1983. It was the time the LTTE ambushed 13 soldiers in Thinaveli, Jaffna. So, we were the very first batch of officers, just out of the academy to command platoons following the operations that took place after the Thirunelveli ambush. That was the time, when the transition period took place. After that there was a certain issue at Kandaramadam and due to that Rajarata Rifles Regiment was disbanded. Then we were sent to Diyatalawa once again. After that my other colleagues joined various other units, but Jagath Alwis and I were sent to the next hillock. At that time, the Commander of the Army was Gen. Tissa Weeratunga. He wanted Col. Waidyaratne to train us.

Finally the disbanded Rajarata Rifles and Vijayaba Regiments were amalgamated to form the Gajaba Regiment. We were the pioneer members of that Regiment. I’m very pleased today that most of the Gajaba Regiment officers have done extremely well in the battle. They have freed the country from terrorism. All the officers and men in that Regiment have excelled in their task, along with the officers and men in other regiments. I’m very proud of all of them, as a pioneer member of the Gajaba Regiment.

Q: What made you want to opt for a career in the military back then?
I come from down south, from a village called Weeraketiya. I have always wanted to join the military and fight for the country. That sort of thing is in our blood I suppose. By that time, my uncle Gotabhaya Rajapaksa – now Secretary Defence – was also in the military. Gen. Tissa Weeratunga was also related to me. I had a passion to join the military. I would also like to mention my bother-in-law Col. Fazly Lafir whose contribution to the military was immense and incomparable. In 1996 he sacrificed his life trying to save the lives of thousands of soldiers trapped in Mullaitivu. For that he was awarded the Parama Weera Vibhushana accolade.

Q: You are one of the most decorated soldiers in the military. What were those decorations, and what were they for?
I have received the ‘Weera Wickrama Vibhushana,’ ‘Rana Wickrama Medal,’ and the ‘Rana Shura Medal.’ They were awarded for bravery. In addition to that, I was wounded twice in battle. I was awarded the Purple Heart (Deshaputhra Sammanaya) for that, and Weera Wickrama Vibhushana was awarded to me twice on two different occasions.

It was then, Col. Vijaya Wimalaratne who headed the newly formed Gajaba Regiment. He is the father of that Regiment. He was like our Guru. Amalgamating the two Regiments was a difficult task. There were officers and men from both Vijayaba and Rajarata Rifles Regiments. What he did was an amazing task. Gen. Wimalaratne was also an extremely patriotic man. It was the transition period from ceremonial Army to combat Army. He was one of the foremost members who oversaw that transition. He was the master at counter-revolutionary warfare. I think it is worthwhile for me to mention him at this point in time. We were given a lot of jungle training. A lot of fighting in built up areas, and also the motivational training was conducted. We all very actively took part in those. Out of all the officers, he identified the present Secretary Defence as the second-in-command of that regiment.

Q: You served under such giants like Gen. Kobbekaduwa and Gen. Vijaya Wimalaratne. What was it like serving with men of such calibre?
It was really great. It was a similar condition like that which exists between the present Secretary Defence and the Army Commander. The LTTE identified this fact. Gen Wimalaratne was a typical solder – battle hardened and highly committed. We were 200% motivated under their command. We would not have minded crossing a mine field at that young age. He gave that amount of motivation to the men in all ranks. He had a talent to do so. That was one of the foundations for the victory we have gained today.

They were deployed to Jaffna and Yal Devi was running at that time. We used to get onto the train from Anuradhapura, I still remember that. One of the Officers Commanding was Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Then he was in the ranks of Major. The other OC was Maj. Palipana, who died along with Gen. Kobbekaduwa. Then there was Gamini Gunasekara. We are under those three. My company was housed at Duraiappah Stadium. One company went to Elephant Pass and another went to Point Pedro and Velvatithurai. The Pallali Base was not expanded like it is today. Then we had another detachment at Jaffna Fort. During that time I was chosen to be the Special Operations Platoon Commander. Then I became a Platoon Commander. It was again a transition period, because prior to that they were doing a lot of smuggling operations. They were doing a lot of training in those days. There were a lot of lamppost killings taking place to frighten the general public. We were carrying out a lot of limited operations during that time. I took part in most of these operations.

After sometime, I remember Brigadier Shavendra Silva coming into my company. I was a senior subaltern and he joined as Second Lieutenant. So I’m very proud today of their achievements. Even Kamal Gunarathne and Jagath Dias were with us. Once again, the credit should go to people like Gen. Wimalaratne and Secretary Defence Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and also the present Army Commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka.

Q: You took part in the Vadamarachchi Operation. It is known as one of the most successful operations during the early Eelam Wars. What were your experiences in that operation?
I was one of the senior platoon commanders during the Vadamarachchi Operation. It was during that time the brigade concept first came into our Army. There were two Brigades and Brig. Wimalaratne was commanding one and Col. Kobbekaduwa was commanding the other. There was a total of around 8,000 troops. I still remember when the entire two brigades were lined up on the Pallali Airport tarmac prior to the operation. That was in 1987. There again I remember Shavendra was with us. There was another officer called Shantha Wijeratne with us. He died during the operation. It was a tough operation. The LTTE had just returned from training. They were trying to terrorise the people there. I still remember how we broke out from Pallali and went to Thondamanaru. They wanted to delay our progress towards Vadamarachchi area. So, they blew up the Thondamanaru Bridge. On the first day itself there were a lot of casualties due to minefields. That was the time they were laying a lot of anti-personnel mines. A lot of our soldiers suffered due to mines. On the fourth day we were getting close to Velvatithurai. When we were about to attack the Canada Bunker in the Velvatithurai Town itself, I was shot in the chest. Everyone was trying to evacuate me and I remember telling them not to worry about me but to move forwards. By that time we had overrun that bunker. My battalion was commanded by the present Secretary Defence who was trying to communicate with Col. Wimalaratne. I faintly remember them trying to call in a helicopter. I think I’m living today because of Col. Rajapaksa and Gen. Wimalaratne. I never thought that helicopter would come that close to the battle. Then I was brought to Pallali and surgery was performed on me. When I was shot, I was taken about 150 metres back by my colleague Lt. Shantha Wijesinghe. He was the one who carried me back towards the chopper. The sad part was when I was in the military hospital the next day, I learnt that he was shot and fatally wounded later succumbed to his injuries. That was a very touching moment for me. He was the person who defended the Kokilai camp as a Second Lieutenant against the LTTE’s first attack.

Q: Is it true that Prabhakaran was almost captured during that operation? What went wrong?
By that time, the military had gone past Velvatithurai, towards Point Pedro. Then, Prabhakaran and 10 other leaders were cornered. That was the time the Indian Peace Keeping Force came and landed in Pallali. They started dropping reinforcements to them, and so we were forced to conclude the operation and come back to Colombo.
If we had a good relation with our neighbouring countries and had better political understanding, such a situation could have been reversed. That is the difference I see between Presidents J.R. Jayewardene and Mahinda Rajapaksa. I suppose President Jayewardene did not have many options back then. I think our foreign policy was not good enough at that time.

Q: Other than Vadamarachchi what were the other operations you took part in, while you were in the military?
I took part in most of the operations during Eelam Wars One, Two and Three. I was in all the major operations, including Jayasikuru. There I was a battalion commander and I was wounded there during that time. I think that was in August 1, 1997. I was at Omanthai. Our axis was along the A9 Road when the LTTE attacked the Omanthai camp. I had to defend as my battalion was there. The LTTE came on a do-or-die mission. About 300 LTTE cardres surrounded my camp. There I had a troop of artillery and troop of armour. The terrorists couldn’t overrun our camp. We were able to kill at least 112 terrorists.

Q: You are responsible for the capture of the biggest explosive haul brought to Colombo by the Tigers. Can you explain how it happened?
It was in 1994. It was the time I got my only break to the Kotelawala Defence Academy. I was an Adjutant there. On that day I was coming back to Colombo from Ratmalana around 5 in the afternoon, to pick my wife before going home. Her office was somewhere close to the Central Bank. By the time my vehicle passed Dehiwela Junction, the road was congested with traffic. Suddenly I saw a vehicle trying to overtake mine from my left hand side. I could see the vehicle in the side mirror.

I was in uniform with my buddy and the driver. At that time, I was not carrying any arms on my person. I noticed that the driver of that vehicle saw me. I think my uniform alarmed him a little. Then the vehicle was trying to overtake mine from the right hand side. He was trying to somehow overtake my vehicle and even scraped my vehicle on the side in the process. I felt something was not right. It was the time I have just returned to Colombo after a long tenure in Jaffna, I was suspicious of the movements of the vehicle. I’m a person who is always a little alert. Anyhow, because of the traffic, the suspicious vehicle could not go far. So I overtook that vehicle and parked across the road to block the progress of the suspicious vehicle. I got off my van and realised the suspicious vehicle was a fully tinted double cab. I wanted the driver and the person seated on the passenger seat to get down from the vehicle. I also noticed there were two girls seated at the back of the cab. I led the two men towards the side of the road and started asking them a few questions. During that time we were very conversant about the geographical area in Jaffna. We have been virtually living in those areas. So, every by-lane, cross road was very familiar. Then he showed me his ID and I saw that he was from Iruppalai. I was very familiar with that area. Then I wanted find out when they crossed the Thandikulam road block. Whenever someone crossed that roadblock a pass was issued. They told me they crossed it six months ago and gave me a cover story. But after searching the driver I found a pass, which said that they in fact crossed the road block two weeks ago. Then I found a cyanide capsule in his pocket. By then I have realised that he was a hardcore LTTEer. Then I called military intelligence for their assistance. Meanwhile, I had sent a procurement vehicle which stopped at the scene upon seeing me, to the place the suspects claimed they had been staying. Then, after the discovery of the capsule, a person claiming to be the uncle of the suspects and a Sinhalese man who had rented out his house to them reached the party on the road. Then they all were detained and questioned. Then we found out that they had left a parcel under a bed at the place they were staying. There we discovered a massive amount of RDX explosives hidden there. It is the most lethal type of explosives and that haul was the biggest found in Colombo. They were on a final recce mission. There was a false bottom in the cab and a switch. They were planning to stack the explosives there and ram that vehicle into the Air Force Headquarters, which was at Thummulla back then.

We also found out from the two girls, the following day a man named ‘Param’ was supposed to meet them at a certain place. He was the Colombo coordinator for the LTTE. We sent a party there and apprehended the person. Through him, we learnt about suicide missions targetting several important people in Colombo.

Q: In your opinion, what are the reasons why the war against the Tigers was successful this time?
I think the number one reason is President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political leadership and his maturity. He had been studying this problem for a long period of time. He had been in the political system for the past 30 years. He had seen the mistakes made by the other leaders. More than anything else, it was his maturity in looking at any problem that made this possible. First of all he was trying to organise the foreign policy. He understood that we had to have the support of our big brother India, and other countries as well. Had an eventuality occurred, he knew how to handle that.

The number two reason was he was educating the people. Our biggest problem was recruitment. That he handled very well. He appointed the right person as the Secretary Defence, a person who had undergone this mill for a long time. He was the best suited person to hold that position. It is the same with the commanders of the three forces. He appointed the right people at the right time.

I must express my undying gratitude for all the officers and men who sacrificed their today for our tomorrow and, starting from the President’s leadership, the commitment of the three service commanders and the IGP, all the ranking officers and soldiers. Then there are thousands of others who sacrificed their limbs to make sure the LTTE is defeated.
I must also make a special mention of Former Director Operations, Maj. Gen Udaya Perera and head of PSD Jagath Alwis who served the country along with me.