Thursday, August 23, 2007

warrior critical of former decisions on war front

Janaka Perera tells all-- success and sabotage

Major General Janaka Perera was the hero of Jaffna, as Overall Forces Commander of the North. He would have been the Army Commander had the Kumaratunga government not forced him into retirement, and sent him as Ambassador to Australia.
Perera is now leading marches in memory of soldiers who died in the Thoppigala capture of 1993. In this interview he talks of his Jaffna campaign, the political ambitions that are attributed to him, the true story and the strategy and politics of the successful military campaign in Jaffna.

Following are excerpts from the interview.

Ln: Once a powerful military commander, how does it feel to be a retired serviceman?

JP: I feel wonderful. I enjoy life to the fullest. Until I went to Australia I didn’t have time for my children. I was always in the battlefield. But after I went to Australia my children came to know about this man called Janaka Perera. I came to know and appreciate my wife and children. I felt sad when I was retired suddenly. I was not made the Army commander for unknown reasons. I was denied something in life. But, there is a saying in English’ if God closes one door he opens another door.’ The God above must have felt that this man had done such a sincere job, let’s give him a break for him to get to know his family.

Ln: You were unexpectedly retired while successfully serving as the Jaffna Commander. How do you recall this incident?

JP: In 2000, starting from the President all the government leaders, political and otherwise, and the service leaders, said Jaffna cannot be saved. I became the voice of the soldiers, sailors and airmen and the policemen saying that Jaffna will be won; I will send the unceasing waves back and preserve the country as one unit for future generations. At that time I was number two. General Weerasuriya was the Army commander but he was eventually retiring. So I gave an assurance to President Chandrika Kumaratunga that if she gives me the post of Army commander, within two years, I will make this insurgency and the LTTE history. But instead of my being given the opportunity to make the LTTE history and bring in peace to the country, I became history. I felt sad because I served 35 years in this army. When I asked the President why she is not making me the Army Commander (especially since I have brought on so much of success during her tenure) she said no one disputes my ability, my sincerity, dedication and bravery. She said, ‘you are one singular man who is genuine and trying to do an honest job. Then I asked her if I have all these ingredients why it’s not possible to make me the Army Commander because my aim is to defeat terrorism and bring in peace and stability to the country. Then, Chandrananda Silva, Secretary Defence said ‘no, no that’s all right whatever the qualification you have, we are happy with the man we have (General Balagalle)., I don’t know what qualification he has above me! I personally think I have more qualifications in proven ability. I was sidelined because General Anurudha Ratwatte didn’t like me. That’s a fact. I can’t understand why they are scared of me. I’m a nice man with a nice smile. I am good hearted. So why would anyone be scared of me? The LTTE is scared of me. That I know and they hate me even today. Internationally they carry out campaigns against me in their websites and in their demonstrations Janaka Perera goes with an honorable mention. I can understand the LTTE fear, but I can’t understand why anyone else can be scared of me. However, although I was sad I was sent to Australia as high commissioner that gave me another opportunity to be with my family.

Ln: Although former President Chandrika Kumaratunga stopped you from realising your aim to become the Army Commander, she was one of your closest friends at one time.

JP: Wijeya was my friend. So was Chandrika. Following Wijeya Kumaratunga’s death, before Chandrika Kumaratunga got into active politics she said ‘Janaka all my people are asking me to come into politics. I saw my father die and I have seen my husband die. If I die my children will become orphans. You are the only man I trust. If you say it is safe, I will get into politics.’ So when it was safe, I told her so and that it how she returned. But the funniest thing is, the moment she came into power all these people who were against her were the people who became closest to her. I was one of the first persons who was rejected by her. So that is history.

Ln: Do you think your sudden retirement was politically motivated?

JP: I don’t know. But I know a lot of people tried their best to stop me from being the Army Commander. I lost in my goal of becoming the Army Commander. But the country and the people lost too. If anyone stopped me from achieving that post they didn’t do it in the best interests of the country. I am not saying I am an exceptional person but the soldiers, sailors, airmen and policemen rallied around me and we proved the results. If you are sincere and genuine in the heart, gods will bless you with victory. God will not grant victory to a cruel person with malicious thinking. In all battles under my leadership we became victorious with minimum casualties. Welioya battle was a major victory, where the LTTE lost 503 but we lost only two. At that victory we didn’t have commandos, Special Forces or airborne troops. That excellent victory was achieved by Jatika Arakshaka Balamuluwa, engineering troops and normal troops. Following the Welioya victory I went to Jaffna. It was the operation before Riviresa called the ‘thunder strike’. That was the greatest victory we achieved in Jaffna. During this battle the LTTE lost 311 men while we lost only 19, so I think those soldiers worked with faith in me. I get the blessings and the safety of the Triple Gem and the gods because of my dedication and sincerity.

Ln: Are you saying that the forces and the country do not have faith in the present Commander?

JP: I talked about my command. But different people have different types of command. My style of command which has been successful is to get the willing participation of everyone right down to the private soldier. After every operation I talk to my troops. During such meetings even the private soldier has a right to comment. I think that came about with my long-time links with the Commandos and the Special Forces. My style of planning includes involvement of the battalion commander and brigade commanders in the planning stage. But which plan is to be implemented is a decision taken by me and is only revealed at the last moment. Likewise different types of people have different styles. So it’s not for me to comment on somebody else’s type. It is not for me to say whether people have faith in the present commander. That should be asked from the soldiers who are serving.

Ln: What did you do in Australia?

JP: Even in Australia I didn’t sit on my back. I worked hard during my tenure. We formed the Australia - Sri Lanka Parliamentary Friendship Group and it went up to 42 members, second only to the Israeli lobbying group. Meanwhile, I was able to get 75 cricket kits for the rural outstation schools, which were distributed by the Australian High Commission here. Then we also got Youth Ambassadors to serve in Sri Lanka in rural areas, improving standards of the English. During the Tsunami we got a lot of funds from Australia. Though I was in Australia, I was serving the country in a humanitarian way and I have achieved a lot. Even when I was in Indonesia, for the first time we were able to break the LTTE network of arms smuggling and arrest their ships and arrest people.

Ln: Could you tell us about the motive behind last Saturday’s programme organised by you in remembrance of soldiers who died during the 1993 Thoppigala victory?

JP: I did it for all the soldiers, sailors, airmen and policemen who died from the day this war started. The first person to sacrifice his life was private Hewawasam in Jaffna before all others. My idea is to bestow honour to the families of those brave soldiers who fought for this country. We should remember that not only the soldier who dies is victorious. Unfortunately, today in this country whenever there is a victory, everyone claims or wants to share the victory. They even go to the length of high-jacking the victory. But when there is a defeat even the people who participated do not want to know about it. The important thing is people who die during these battles are our sons The reason why I organised this program is because not only have I been a soldier in the battlefront, fighting in all major operations, because I am a person who has suffered the pain of loss. I went to the houses of our great leaders like General Kobbekaduwa and, General Wimalarathne. I also went to the poorest and most innocent soldier’s house. They all ask the same question ‘why did this happen to our son or husband?’, so the pain is equal whether you are at the top or at the bottom; I saw it, I felt it and I live with it. When I was in the army I decided to serve these families and I started a programe called Ranawiru Mavupiya Upahara Uthsawaya. I organised six such programs. After I went to Australia the whole thing got disrupted. Now that I have returned I have started it again. To show them that as long as I live my heart belongs to them. When we were at a crucial stage of the Jaffna battle I wanted to send some of the commandos in the inner defence of the headquarters of Palali to the front. We were short of special operational teams so I contacted the STF commandant at that time DIG Nimal Gunatilake, and asked him to send me 100 STF personnel for the protection of headquarters. He said I am the only one who says that Jaffna will be safe and will be preserved. The President, no minister or senior government officials or service commanders say that we will win Jaffna. Therefore, it was difficult for him to order 100 STF people. So when the DIG spoke to the STF troops guess what happened? 900 volunteered to go to Jaffna and to battle, to support General Janaka Perera. This was when the President of the country and everyone else said it’s a no go, it’s a death trap. Those soldiers were prepared to go to that death trap because I said it can be won; they were people who had families but they were prepared to take that chance. These incidents should be specifically mentioned because I think this is heroism. They are heroes, they have the dedication, they have the ability, and they have the commitment. So we can’t let them down. At any stage victories are there. We must appreciate the present day victories of Mavilaru, Sampur, Vakarai and Thoppigala, but in the midst of these great victories if anyone says there were no victories in the East and the East was not stabilised, I think then we are doing a great injustice to soldiers, sailors, airmen and policemen who fought and sacrificed in 1992 and 1993.
We told their families your husband, your son your father, they were all heroes, they have sacrificed their lives to chase the LTTE from the East and to bring peace and stability to the country. And today we are saying, no they are not heroes. What a shameful thing and what a painful thing this is for their families.

Ln: There are allegations that you organised this programme with a political motive.

JP: When I was in the army I organised similar programmes in six districts. If I can do that in uniform and the work is accepted as a genuine effort, why can’t I do it now? I’m a citizen of this country who has fought in every major battle risking my life and the future of my family, and also suffered the pain of loss, so why don’t I have the right?

Ln: Tell us about your return.

JP: I have come back to my country after six or seven years. I have returned to my roots. This is my home .I could have lived in Australia but after serving this country for 35 years as a soldier and six years as a diplomat I think I have a bigger commitment to my country and my people. So I have returned.

Ln: What do you think about the recent Thoppigala victory?

JP: As a citizen and as a soldier I am very proud of every military victory. But, we have been there at Thoppigala before. The first battalion that occupied Thoppigala did so in 1991. Four Gajabha regiments under Major Roshan Silva. The second battalion that occupied Thoppigala was the seven Sinha regiment under Lt. Colonel Udeni Kandaragama and then it was reduced to strengthen under Major Channa Karunarathne.
I changed the demography instead of holding Thoppigala. I shifted the camps one to North Napathawilluwa and the main camp to Tharavikulam because those were water sources. During the dry season the water in Thoppigala dries up and every time you go to a water source you’ll get ambushed but if you occupied the water source the LTTE has to come to you in the Napatha Willuwa Tharavikulam and south of Taravikullam towards Unnichchi area. We had Kokadicholai, Aithamalai, Thickkodai and one other camp which I can’t remember now. Towards the north we had Kayankerny, Marnkerny, Kadjuwatta anichchankerny, Vakarai, Kadiraweli, Werugal and eventually we occupied Angodawilluwa also. All those camps were there.
My question is this. In October 1993, the government had elections and 81 percent of the population voted. If LTTE had control of these areas do you think they would have allowed 81 percent of the people to vote? So how did 81 percent voted. It’s because the LTTE was reduced from a 2000 strength to less than 20. Karuna and all the others who survived, fled to Wanni. This is the truth.

Ln: Following the recapture of the East, the LTTE is yet to come up with any major attacks. Isn’t it a success from the Sri Lankan military point of view?

JP: Yes. It is successful. As a soldier I am happy about it. It’s the soldier that matters and they give their lives to achieve such success. So every victory even if it is a road skirmish in which the LTTE is destroyed, it makes me happy. And every success is very good. That’s why I said we have to honour the victory in Mavilaru, Vakarai and Thoppigala.We have been able to read he LTTE in the East. Now the most important thing is to convert that into developing peace. That is the success! We have the military achievement but eventual success is how we convert that to an enduring, stable and peaceful situation. So I am praying and hoping that we will be able to achieve that.

Ln: What do you think about the UNP allegations about the controversial MIG deals?

JP: I have no comments. I don’t know anything about these deals. If you ask me about operations I will be able to comment. But when it comes to deals, I am not in a position to answer. Even in the army I didn’t do deals... so I don’t know these deals.

Ln: Is it true that you will be appointed the Maharagama UNP organiser?

JP: Well, I am totally confused, because people from Anuradhapura asked whether I would like to contest from there. Another delegation from Kurunegala wants me to contest from there. Delegations from Ambalangoda and Panadura queried whether I would like to contest from their constituencies. So everyone is asking why you don’t contest from where they are. So you form

your opinion, I don’t know.

Ln: Will you get into active politics?

JP: In 2000 and 2001 both the UNP and the SLFP invited me to get into politics. There had been two elections but I have not got involved. At the moment my priority is to serve my soldiers and their families. I am hoping to organise similar programmes. But, we need funds. I have spoken to various non governmental orgaisations to help. I want to help war widows to be engaged in self employment. I am also concerned about the soldiers, sailors, airmen and policemen who have served and left in 12 years. They may not have lost a limb but that does not mean their service of 12 years is of no value. I want to do something for them as well. Without talking about crime caused by deserters and retired soldiers, we are trying to find a way to help sustain themselves. I’m sure they prefer that, than joining crime. All this is very time consuming and I think it’s better to do a little now to make it a success.Ln: What are your memories from the Jaffna battle?

JP:When Jaffna was starting to throttle, General Balagalle and General Chula Senerathne were in Jaffna in charge of all the operations. I told General Weerasuriya the Army Commander to let me go, because they couldn’t do it. Then he said, ‘no General Ratwatta will never hear of it, he will throw me out. But I went again I went and talked to him he said the same thing, he said General Ratawatte will never agree to it. On the 20th of April he came after the Security Council meeting and said Elephant Pass is gone. He said he has given the order to withdraw from there. He also said that Jaffna was a matter of days. But he said that I have been appointed the Overall Commander to take over Jaffna. Then I said if you are saying Elephant Pass is gone, Jaffna is a matter of days, are you asking me whether I’m prepared to commit suicide?

But I said I will go but I need two days to prepare the mind-set of my wife and my children to the eventuality that I will not come back. Then he said two days was too much that I will be given a day to finish everything. Then he asked who I need as my deputy. I said I couldn’t care less. I’m the one who is doing it. You nominate anyone you want. Then he said he is giving me General Sarath Fonseka. He was briefed and said that I have been appointed Overall Commander of Jaffna and I need a day to finish my religious observances. General Fonseka was instructed to fly on the day he was briefed. The moment I agreed to go to Jaffna, they aired it over the radio and TV continuously. ‘General Janaka Perera appointed Overall Commander Jaffna’ etc., My telephone was ringing continuously. Everyone told me not to go. They said Jaffna cannot be saved. It’s too late. They said what the government was trying to do is send you there and say ‘look we sent Janaka Perera he screwed it up and Jaffna fell’. The fact that these people have screwed it up right along will be forgotten.
But, I said if I don’t go, 32,000 families will lose their lives and five times of that number of people will become destitute. I have to go and I am going with sincerity and genuineness with the sole purpose of saving these 32,000 lives and five times that number of families and preserving the country for future generations.
We were short of ammunition. There were days I cancelled ration flights and troops flights mainly to get ammunition. We had no food we had rice we had dhal, we had pol sambol and dry fish. The first question by the president was what we could do? She said she had already made a request through the Foreign Minister for the evacuation of these people to India and to be sent back to Sri Lanka.
The Air Force Commander, Jayalath Weerakkody said we should not start the battle from the Wanni. Then the President asked for my opinion and I strongly said that withdrawal was not a good option. I said it will be an absolute disaster — the moment you start withdrawing, LTTE will start shelling. I said our only choice is to fight and win. I said ‘Madam, all I am requesting is to make available ammunition and multi-barrel rockets. The only service commander who was with us from the April 20 until the multi-barrels came was General Lal Weerasuriya. But after the multi-barrels came and when we were turning the tide and LTTE was on the backfoot everyone came there-- the minister, service
commanders-- they all came. Everyone wanted to be part of that impending victory and lay claim to it. But if at that crucial moment the soldiers, sailors, airmen and policemen didn’t fight as a team we would have been gone. So it was a participatory battle of the army, navy, air force police the STF and the people. Eventually we won. In the process there were people who wanted to flee -- who wanted to abandon 32000 troops. I don’t want to mention the names at this stage but they wanted the dora be kept aside. One person said ‘we cant hold, we have to have dora ready’(door to escape). I asked why we need a dora, and at that point he asked for the command element to go to Colombo.
So I asked what about these 32000 soldiers, sailors aimen and policemen -- what will happen to them? This officer said, ‘no we are leaders we have to live to fight another battle and that’s the sacrifice we have to make.’ I said, ‘please listen I can’t do that, I gave the assurance to our troops personally when visiting their camps, that I will be with them ‘till the last.
If you want a dora I will give you a dora, but let me tell you one thing if you flee this battle even the dog on the street would not follow you. So my advise was, ‘you wait I will turn it around’ and that is what happened.