With a costly and divisive secessionist war on its southern doorstep that has endured for almost four weary decades, the Philippines needs all the help it can get in order to tackle the conflict that has spawned a home-bred terrorism outfit and turned Mindanao into one of the global hotspots in the war against terrorism.
As it happened, more than a little outside expertise was neatly on hand in Camp Aguinaldo in recent months through the imposing presence of Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe, a battle-hardened Sri Lankan military officer, who has been at the frontlines in his country’s own three-decade long war against the Tamil Tigers (its far more deadly version of the al-Qaeda affiliated Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao) who had been waging a brutal campaign for hearts, minds and territory in the north of the picturesque island that sits (somewhat ironically, considering the grief this charming country has been through in recent times) like a tear drop in the Indian Ocean.
General Hathurusinghe, who by all accounts cut a popular and gregarious figure during his time at Camp Aguinaldo, was in the country to attend a year-long course at the National Defense College of the Philippines, graduating with a master’s in National Security Administration (MNSA).
Geared toward preparing future defense and security leaders for command and other high positions in the armed forces, the intensive course requires its participants to undertake strategic research and special studies as the basis for the formation of policies to enhance national defense and the security programs of their respective countries.
The course was attended by several military officers from the Philippines and overseas, including India, Malaysia and Nigeria, and General Hathurusinghe’s erudite thesis entitled “Strategic military victory over Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam” bested the other 32 thesis presented in the class of 2009 and took the prestigious gold medal.
Emerging top of the class and winning the gilded prize was no easy task, since all the students were required to submit a 30,000 word thesis on a topic decided by the Faculty of the College. Each dessertation then had to undergo a rigorous defence with academics from various educational institutions including the University of the Philippines.
That General Hathurusinghe (who was assigned former Armed Forces of the Philippines Vice Chief of Staff Lt. General Rodolfo Garcia, as his thesis advisor) was able to generate such a commendable impression with his thesis should hardly come as any surprise.
As a soldier with his boots very much on the ground, he has led from the front in Jaffna which was at the epicentre of the long running conflict and saw some of the bloodiest battles, the strategic town being considered by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) as the de facto capital of the state it was trying to carve up. (Incidentally, the LTTE over there equates as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front over here).
Later, when the Tamil Tiger suicide cadres took the fight southwards and embarked on a murderous campaign in Colombo, General Hathurusinghe’s expertise in urban warfare was put to good stead when he was given the crucially important task of securing the country’s capital.
So, needless to say, the Sri Lankan General’s considerable know-how in proven tactics to fight terrorism was taken notice of by the powers that be in the seat of government at Malacañang Palace, and also at the command post in Camp Aguinaldo.
He was invited to conduct a briefing at the Department of National Defense for senior officials of the Philippine security forces, and give a first hand strategic account of how the Sri Lankan military forces were finally able to annihilate the Tamil Tigers who were ranked as one of the best marshalled terrorist outfits in the world.
General Hathurusinghe shared with his military counterparts in the Philippines that strong political will and unstinted support for prosecuting the war was essential. He also pointed out that equally important was an effective politico-military approach and sound military leadership.
Also present at the briefing session, and taking more than a keen interest at what General Hathurusinghe had to say, were top officials from the office of President Gloria Arroyo who are assigned to spearhead the peace process in Mindanao.
And the cordial meeting last week in Libya between victorious Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Philippine President Arroyo (who is determined to end the war in Mindanao before her term ends next year) would indicate that more such exchanges in the war against terrorism between the two countries are on the cards.
Lankan General graduates with flying colours from Philippines Defence College
Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe was awarded the prestigious Gold Medal – 2009 for his thesis “Strategic Military Victory over LTTE” during his master’s degree course at the National Defence College of the Philippines.
Major General Hathurusinghe who followed the Master in National Security Administration course at this Defence College recently, received his Gold Medal from Defence Undersecretary Antonio Santos during the graduation ceremony of the 44th Regular Course – Master in National Security Administration (MNSA) in Manila.
Geared toward preparing future defence and security leaders for command and other high positions in the Armed forces, the intensive course requires its participants to undertake strategic research and special studies as the basis for the formation of policies to enhance national defensce and the security programmes of their respective countries.
The course was attended by several military officers from the Philippines and overseas, including India, Malaysia and Nigeria and in addition to other military, government and private sector students. General Hathurusinghe’s thesis entitled, “Strategic military victory over Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam,” prevailed over 32 other thesis presented in the class of 2009.
Emerging top of the class and winning the gilded prize was no easy task, since all the students were required to submit a 30,000 word thesis on a topic decided by the Faculty of the College. Each dissertation then had to undergo a rigorous defence course with academics from various educational institutions including the University of the Philippines. That General Hathurusinghe, who was assigned former Philippines Armed Forces Vice Chief of Staff Lt. General Rodolfo Garcia, as his thesis advisor, was able to generate such a commendable impression, is commendable. The largely circulated English daily “Manila Times” in its September 02 issue prominently carried a news story about his graduation with flying colours under the heading, “Sri Lankan General gains top award at the National Defense College”.
The steely hand behind demise of Tamil Tigers
The large posters signifying a tale of triumph against seemingly impossible odds can hardly be missed by anyone traveling the length and breadth of Sri Lanka, and that very much includes the battle scared north of the country which has equal reason to rejoice having been liberated from the evil grip of the bloodthirsty Tamil Tigers after three debilitating decades.
Telling in narrative and touching in effect, the posters depict a gleeful Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa giving his somewhat bashful looking younger brother Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa a spontaneous hug gushing with affection and gratitude.
Indeed, the Rajapaksa brothers Mahinda and Gotabaya have every reason to be proclaimed as the heroic poster boys of the momentous victory—an outcome no Sri Lankan at home or abroad (and even the circumspect international community) thought was ever possible—over one of the world’s most feared and brutally clinical terrorist outfits which devised and subsequently exported the barbarous knowledge of suicide vests and truck bombs to its comrades in death in theaters of secessionist war worldwide.
For whilst the President played political hardball and made anyone who was willing to listen realize that the country could never defeat an enemy it wasn’t prepared to fight, his Defense Secretary—with a seriousness of purpose unmatched by any previous incumbent in that key office—mapped out and unwaveringly directed the definitive final chapter of the long running saga.
Under the firm guidance of Defense Secretary Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan military did what the Tamil Tiger leadership least expected it to do—double its manpower and bring the fight direct to the enemy and inflict decisive psychological wounds. This was all-flanks engaged warfare based on common-sense and strategic insight. It was brilliant as it was simple, making many wonder why it hadn’t been instituted before.
But to cast light on that quandary one needs to rewind recent history. While May 2009 was when the last remnants of the Tamil Tiger fighters, including its megalomaniac leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, were wiped out and the country’s freedom from terrorism declared, one has to go back to a warm night in November 2005 when the path to attaining that freedom was laid.
Late on that day, when the votes in the presidential election were being tallied and then presidential candidate Rajapaksa realized that he was almost home and dry (and on the day of his 60th birthday at that) he asked his brother Gotabaya—then domiciled in the United States and had taken three-months leave from his job in an IT company to travel to his homeland to help with his brother’s campaign—whether he would consider staying put in Sri Lanka and taking up the post of Defense Secretary and helping him end the war. In what turned out to be the perfect birthday gift, Gotabaya agreed.
Sitting behind his desk which is flanked by a tank full of fish swimming lazily and providing the perfect antidote to the stress-laden demands of his office, the iron-willed but soft-spoken (though he is known to erupt in volcanic rage when encountering mismanagement and incompetence) Defense Secretary Rajapaksa—who rose to the rank of colonel in the Sri Lankan Army before retiring and emigrating to the USA—acknowledges that the chemistry that came about by his appointment was unprecedented, and had a crucial bearing on the final outcome.
He explains: “For the first time ever in the history of Sri Lanka we had the three commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force working with a Defense Secretary who had served alongside them in the battlefield during the early days of the conflict. And crucially, my brother was the President which meant I could cut out the bureaucratic red-tape and, more importantly, disregard the political interference that had previously crippled this office—and invariably the war effort—and go straight to the Commander-in Chief if and when the need arose.”
Needless to say, it was a gilt-edged connection that shaped the conclusive stages of the war—especially when seeking the wherewithal to substantially boost the firepower. But in the final analysis it was Defence Secretary Rajapaksa’s depth of vision and not his scale of influence that mattered.
“What I was able to do, with the help of the commanders, was to professionalize the three services and change the demoralizing culture where promotion was based more on political connections than merit. We instilled in our soldiers the importance of discipline and feelings of pride in wearing the uniform. We also made them understand that the cause they were fighting was a just one. In addition, we paid special attention to their welfare and that of their families. I believe all these aspects played a vital role in helping us gain the upper hand against the enemy,”says the man who narrowly survived an assassination attempt by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber who targeted his bullet proof vehicle killing several of his bodyguards.
When asked if he felt his work was now done, the Defense Secretary (whose all encompassing brief also includes public security and law and order) notes: “To a certain extent it has. But now we have to put in place a good intelligence network to ensure that the security of our country is never again compromised by internal fighting forces.
“And having been on a war footing for so long, we have to redefine the role of the Armed Forces now that peace has been restored. Also much of the police force will have to be re-trained and re-orientated to the requirements of law and order in a post-war community setting.
“Beyond that, we also have to ensure peace and order in our society by disarming the many factions and individuals who, by nature of the threats they faced from the Tamil Tigers, were allowed to carry arms. We need to impress upon them that the state can now offer them adequate protection.
“There are too many firearms in circulation, and if Sri Lanka is to enjoy the benefits of peace then it’s an issue that has to be addressed with a sense of urgency.”
Fittingly, a microcosm of the peaceful Sri Lanka that Defense Secretary Rajapaksa helped pave can now be seen on a daily basis just across the road from his Defense Ministry office where sits one of Colombo’s most important landmarks, the Galle Face Green.
An expansive stretch of green that looks seductively over the Indian Ocean, it has since it was built in 1865 been the place of choice for the capital’s residents from near and far to gather and relax late into the evening. Because of security concerns it has been closed to the public for several years and depicted an empty forlorn picture that was symptomatic of the depressive state of affairs in the country.
But now it is open and buzzing again, with kites manned by young boys soaring and playfully flirting with each other in the evening breeze. While on terra firma bowling arms are exercised and batting stokes executed as makeshift cricket matches are in progress. And all around is a merry scene of families picnicking and lovers promenading.
It’s a joyful tableau neatly encapsulating a remarkable turnaround in Sri Lanka’s fortunes, and something that for sure catches the eye of Defense Secretary Rajapaksa as he drives home from his office each day.
For that, and a lot more besides Sri Lankans owe him an immense debt of gratitude. And President Rajapaksa would do well to ensure his brother Gotabaya stays around for a while yet to help build on the dividends of peace.
A priestly wolf in Tamil Tigers’ clothing
As the post-war era dawns in Sri Lanka it appears that the first casualty of the newly secured peace is the truth. For while the Tamil Tigers’ terrorist outfit may have been dispatched to the bowels of hell and the pages of infamy, its surrogates—conveniently camouflaged in the designer colors of the human rights lobby—are still hell-bent on carrying on the fight in the media, using a cornucopia of lies as artillery.
One such operative is right on the southern doorstep of the Philippines in the form of a Catholic priest, namely Sri Lankan Father JJ Bernard who is based in Mindanao as a Christian missionary.
But it’s patently clear that his avowed mission is less to do with implanting Christian virtues and more to do with propagating the litany of fabrications that for so long have been the staple of the Tamil diaspora that misguidedly chose (and are still choosing) to spread the Tamil Tigers’ dogma of hate and division—despite finding themselves now cast aside on the wrong side of history.
Somewhat pompously, the Pikit, North Cotabato based Father Bernard is calling on the Philippine government to “revise its foreign policies and condemn the war crimes of the government of Sri Lanka in bilateral and multilateral forum.”
Using the Church pulpit as his own political forum, he has penned a rambling “open letter” to the government of the Philippines which is laden with the weary rhetoric and hyperbolic accusations that were spewed about even in the days when the late unlamented leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) Vellupillai Prabakharan was unleashing child soldiers and suicide bombers to murder and maim countless innocent men and women who stood in the way of his demoniacal dictates and ambitions.
Breathing brimstone and fire, Father Bernard growls: “Instead of condemning the horrendous, callous and heinous acts of the brutal and the ruthless government of Sri Lanka, the one and only Catholic country in Asia gives credit to the government of Sri Lanka for the military victory over the Tamil Tigers.”
The priest seemingly in Tigers’ clothing goes on: “The whole world and the international community know about the total collapse of the rule of law and high rate of impunity in Sri Lanka.”
But being out there in the hinterland of Mindanao, Father Bernard could be forgiven for being out of touch with reality. For when the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), on behalf of the “whole world and the international community” (to quote Father Bernard), called for a vote on a special session to debate the very issues that he and others from the dwindling band of Tamil Tigers’ apologists have been trumpeting on the global stage, UNHRC member countries representing over four billion citizens of the world voted down the motion.
Father Bernard’s ire was raised over Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro congratulating Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama on the military annihilation of the LTTE when they met at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
Bellows the enraged Tamil priest: “Congratulating the genocidal Sri Lankan government reflects obviously the Government of the Republic of the Philippines’ own governance, policies, international and internal politics, independency of judiciary, and the genuine stand of the GRP toward its own people.”
With all due respect to Father Bernard, we don’t think the Philippines needs lessons on diplomacy and good governance from an obvious supporter of a defeated terrorist outfit that was a ruthless killing machine and serial human rights violator.
Besides, there is some consensus in the Philippines itself that given the same unwavering political will and firm purpose that was displayed by the government of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the long enduring and costly secessionist war in the Southern Philippines could also be finally resolved.
Father Bernard claims: “Racial discrimination is rampant and unleashed on the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka. More than 300,000 Tamil people were made homeless and refugees in the last few months. All those who are internally displaced are kept in the detainment and internment camps without proper food, medicine, shelter, access to information and communication.”
If that, indeed, is the case we then have some unsolicited advice for the vitriolic priest: Scrap the tired clichés and give substance to the courage of your convictions—not to mention your calling—by going back to your homeland and serving the cause of your people.
Surely, Father Bernard would be more useful over there actually trying to do something about the problems he highlights so passionately, rather than down here rabble-rousing about it.