General Gerry de Silva begins his fascinating recently published memoir with what he terms an ‘Opening Gambit’. It relates an episode that took place 19 years ago, pitting the then army commander General Cecil Waidyaratna against Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Vijaya Wimalaratne. The latter two were getting ready to resign, in protest at what they saw as undue restrictions on their areas of responsibility, but after Gerry de Silva’s intervention, the matter was patched up, and both went on with their work as before.
Eighteen years ago then, on August 8th, both were up in the North together, and were killed in a landmine explosion. I believe Gerry de Silva’s narrative is worth reproducing in full, on this the 19th anniversary of their death, and I attach it as an appendix to this article.
That sad story is worth remembering though, not only for sentimental reasons, but because it sheds light on what seems to have been two different tendencies in the forces, as represented most obviously by General Waidyaratne and General Kobbekaduwa. The former was tough and took no account of the winning of hearts and minds, whereas General Kobbekaduwa, doughty fighter as he was, emphasized the need to ensure that ‘the root causes of the conflict must be given due emphasis and a satisfactory political solution found that would address the aspirations of the minorities to be able to live in peace, harmony, with justice and dignity’.
My first and lasting memory of General Kobbekaduwa is of the work he was doing in Trincomalee in the late eighties to make life better for civilians. I was administering a British Council project on school furniture at the time, and in visiting a small Tamil school, I found soldiers digging latrines. The headmaster said that General Kobbekaduwa had visited, asked what was needed, and taken prompt action to fulfil it.
Similar sensitivity was apparent with regard to Sinhala and Muslim schools as well, and I remember the Principal of the small Sinhala school in town telling me how he had not really bothered about maintaining his school well until the General had dropped in, seen the shortcomings, and asked him where his children went to school. In Wellawatte, he had replied, whereupon General Kobbekaduwa had gently suggested that, had his children been in the school at Trincomalee, he would have made sure it was all in order. The lesson had gone home, and the school when I visited it was incredibly neat and tidy, with teachers at work in all classes.
Such an approach is I think well grounded in the army now, as I noticed with General Kamal Guneratne’s sympathetic approach to releasing civilians from Manik Farm when others were advocating more and more security checks, with the energy with which General Hathurusinghe’s men built houses for vulnerable groups of the displaced and cleaned kovils in Kilinochchi, with General Mark’s close liaison with civil society in Jaffna, when I visited the North quite often soon after the conclusion of hostilities in 2009.
Given the present army commander’s excellent relations with the civil authorities in Vavuniya when he was commander of the Security Forces there throughout the war, and the praises they still sing of his sensitivity, I have no doubt that the philosophy remains the same. However a couple of recent incidents suggests that ensuring this approach is uniformly maintained requires constant care and vigilance, with swift remedial action in case of breaches.
We have to remember after all that there also existed a very different approach in the army, as represented most obviously in the past by General Waidyaratne, That approach may have also had its merits, in dealing with an intransigent LTTE, though I believe determination in battle was also displayed by those who more clearly understood the need for sympathy and support when battles were over. Unfortunately the hardliners tended to belittle the capacity of the more thoughtful, though the extraordinary military skills of the latter, such as Generals de Silva and Kobbekaduwa and Hettiarachchi (to confine myself only to those no longer in active service), were I believe greater in practice than those of say Generals Waidyaratne and Algama.
But what might be termed the hard approach still exists and unfortunately, in the confusion engendered by Sarath Fonseka’s efforts to sell himself as the preferred candidate of the more critical elements of the international community, the determination of the President to control that approach has been less easy to pursue. Soon after hostilities concluded, as Fonseka’s resignation letter made clear, the Presdident dealt firmly with efforts at militarization (ie, the attempt to expand the army to a massive size) and efforts to delay resettlement of the displaced (on the security considerations that Fonseka highlighted). But the lack of principle with which politicians who should have known better jumped on the Fonseka bandwagon engendered a lack of trust on all sides, which has sometimes led to less sensitivity and sympathy than is needed.
The answer however is more sympathy and sensitivity, much more of the Kobbekaduwa approach to winning hearts and minds, rather than the alternative approach of hanging and flogging them. The idea that the TNA cannot be trusted simply because of its temporary aberration in thinking Fonseka the answer to all its problems is as ridiculous as the idea that you have to make sure potential Fonseka supporters are kept happy by not dealing firmly with behavior that might have been associated with Fonseka before he became an apostle of sweetness and light. The commitment to civilian safety and welfare that triumphed over the harsher approach with the conclusion of hostilities in 2009 needs to be strengthened, with imaginative initiatives in unfamiliar fields such as education and employment to take things further. The superb records of two successive Commissioners General of Rehabilitation, both distinguished fighters and administrators in the field, both of whose careers were stymied by Sarath Fonseka, is the example that should be followed. That is how we can best honour General Kobbekaduwa, the best army commander we never had, an inspiration to civilians as well as to his colleagues in the army.