BY REAR ADMIRAL DR. SHEMAL FERNANDO PHD
The ‘Flame of Freedom’ glows bright in Sri Lanka today because of the spirit of May 19, 2009. Let us renew the commitment for which so many of our Sri Lankans laid down their lives for our country.
The brave and gallant Security Forces of Sri Lanka have always defended the motherland with relentless dedication. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen have laid down their precious lives on numerous battlefields so that Sri Lanka may live and thrive in freedom.
The whole nation is proud of the exploits of the “War Heroes.” As Sri Lankans, let us on the occasion of the 12th anniversary of war victory, take a pledge that we will all do our duty to the best of our ability, wherever we may be serving, so that the country can move towards its goal of progress and prosperity amidst all challenges.
It is befitting to salute 23,962 War Heroes of the Sri Lanka Army, 1160 War Heroes of the Sri Lanka Navy, 443 War Heroes of the Sri Lanka Air Force, together with 2598 of the Sri Lanka Police and 456 of the Civil Security Department, 28,619 War Heroes who had made the “Supreme Sacrifice” during the 26-year battle on our soil.
Besides, at the end of the humanitarian operations, there were 29,551 “Wounded-in-Action” that included 2,556 permanently disabled War Heroes.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at National War Heroes Day
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, certainly the guiding force that drove the valiant troops to achieve their final goal 12 years ago, speaking at the ‘National War Heroes Day’ held at the War Heroes Monument on May 18, 2020 reiterated that he will take every measure to protect the dignity of the heroic armed forces.
The President added that Sri Lanka possesses a form of administration that was an oasis for all religions and nationalities. Throughout its history, people in this country including Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay and Burgher have had equal rights.
The motive of the extremists was to divide us. If they were successful in their attempt, our history could have taken a different course. Sri Lanka could have become a country where communities hate each other, engage in continuous battles for borders, fear of war is a common norm of life and another hapless and divided country.”
As a gallant officer, the President who engaged in active service for 20 years, and later as Secretary of Defence for 10 years said that he was well aware of the sacrifices made by the war heroes and their families.
The honour of liberating the country from this catastrophe should be given to all our heroic troops who fought for the peace in our country for a long time. We remember with immense gratitude, all the war heroes … who fought for this victory for more than three decades and laid their lives for the country.”
The President credited Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa for giving leadership for the battle in his capacity as the Commander-in-Chief 11 years ago on May 19, 2009, to usher in peace to the country which was engulfed in terror.
With the end of terrorism, an environment where people could live without fear or anxiety and enjoy their human rights freely was created. The atmosphere where people can travel freely without any restrictions to any place of the country was restored.
He concluded, “Our war heroes and their families made immense sacrifices. War is not a bed of roses. Especially, the war heroes had to face numerous bitter experiences and difficulties when battling one of the most ruthless terrorist organisations in the world which did not respect law. During those 30 years, helpless civilians got killed everywhere in the country. A large number of lives and properties were lost due to suicide attacks, bombing in buses, trains and buildings carried out by the terrorists.”
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Victory Address in 2009
The victory address delivered by Mahinda Rajapaksa on May 19, 2009 was hailed by all Sri Lankans. He said, “Today, this session of Parliament opens in a country where the writ of this august legislature spreads equally throughout the 65, 332 sq. km of territory of Sri Lanka. This will give you great cause for satisfaction. The entire population of the country can enjoy that satisfaction.”
He said, “There was no school of war in the world that could face up to the savage military strategies used by the terrorists of the LTTE. The world had not seen military sciences able to face a combination of land mines, claymore mines, small suicide vessels, light aircraft that can evade radar, and suicide killer jackets…Our security forces were able to defeat the most ruthless terrorists in the world due to their strict discipline, commitment, and creative use of military strategy.”
He said, “Remember this country was saved by the blood, eyes, limbs, flesh and lives of our young people. Thousands of our youth faced shells on their heads, land mines at their feet, bullets in their hearts and sacrificed their lives to protect this land… We should pay tribute to the children of the motherland who protected it with such sacrifice, by ensuring peace, development and good governance in this country.”
He said, “There are thousands of heroic men and women who sacrificed their lives buried in our motherland. We remember all of them with respect. We show them our gratitude. On this special occasion, the parents, wife and children of Lt. Colonel Lalith Jayasinghe, brave officer of the Long-Range Reconnaissance Unit who fought fearlessly and sacrificed his life are present here.
The immense gratitude of our nation goes out to all parents who brought forth the heroic men and women who sacrificed their lives, and to their wives who gave them strength to serve the motherland.”
He also said, “We have among us today a large number of heroic men who suffer many disabilities. Lance Corporal Bandara, a heroic soldier who was injured twice in the northern humanitarian operation and returned to active duty, and later lost both his legs at Puthukudiruppu is also a participant at this historic occasion. I extend by gratitude to him, symbolic of the gratitude and honour extended to all disabled and heroic men and women.”
President Mahinda Rajapaksa also extended the honour and gratitude of the nation to the Defence Secretary (now President), Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Donald Perera, the Commander of the Army, General Sarath Fonseka (now a Field Marshal), the Commander of the Navy, Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda (now an Admiral of the Fleet), the Commander of the Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetileke (now a Marshal of the Air Force) as well as the Inspector General of Police, Jayantha Wickremeratne, and the Director General of the Civil Defence Force, Rear Admiral Dr. Sarath Weerasekera (now the Minister of Public Security) who worked tirelessly to give this great victory to the motherland.
He concluded, “I value my motherland first, second and third. This should be so to you and to the entire nation. It is only our beloved motherland that we should all cherish and value.”
At the beginning of 2006, the focus of terrorism turned to civilian targets, with commuter bus and train bombings carried out by the LTTE in most parts of the country. In the light of this violence, the co-chairs of the Tokyo Donor conference called on both parties to return to the negotiating table. The US State Department officials warned the Tigers, stating that a return to hostilities would mean that the Tigers would face a “more capable and more determined” Sri Lankan military.
New talks were held in Geneva, Switzerland, on February 22 and 23. During the weeks after the talks there was a significant decrease in violence.
However, the LTTE resumed attacks against the military in April and called for a postponement of the Geneva talks until April 24–25, and the government initially agreed. However, the climate shifted drastically when the Tigers cancelled the meeting. On April 20, 2006 the LTTE officially pulled out of peace talks indefinitely.
Violence continued and international condemnation against the LTTE skyrocketed following the attempted assassination of Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka, by a female LTTE Black Tiger suicide bomber at Army Headquarters. This attack, along with the assassination of Lakshman Kadiragamar a year earlier and an unsuccessful attack against a Naval vessel carrying 710 unarmed security force personnel on leave, marked a turning point. The EU decided to proscribe the LTTE as a terrorist organisation on May 19, 2006.
New talks were scheduled in Norway, between June 8–9. Delegations from both sides arrived in Oslo, but the talks were cancelled. Further violence followed, including the Kebithigollewa massacre in which the LTTE attacked a bus, killing at least 64 Sinhalese civilians. Then, Major General Parami Kulatunga was assassinated on June 26 by an LTTE suicide bomber.
Triumphant march from Mavil Aru to Mullaitivu
A new crisis leading to the first large-scale fighting since signing of the cease-fire occurred when the LTTE closed the sluice gates of the Mavil Aru reservoir on July 21, 2006. Its relevance is for geo-strategic reasons: within the Mavil Aru area, Sinhala, Muslim and Tamil populations live side by side. It is also the entrance to Koddiyar Bay, the inlet for Trincomalee port and Naval base.
As fierce fighting was ongoing in the vicinity of Mavil Aru, violence spread to Trincomalee, where the LTTE launched an attack on August 2, 2006 on a crucial Sri Lanka Navy base, and on the coastal town of Muttur, resulting in displacing 25,000 residents. The military retaliated, and re-established full control over the town by August 5, killing over 150 LTTE fighters in heavy clashes.
In the north of the country, some of the bloodiest fighting took place after the LTTE launched massive attacks on Sri Lanka Army defence lines on the Jaffna peninsula on August 11. The LTTE used a force of 400–500 fighters and is estimated to have lost over 200 fighters, while 90 Sri Lankan soldiers and sailors were also killed.
Since the resumption of violence, concerns were mounting among the military establishment that the strategically crucial Sri Lanka Navy base in Trincomalee was under severe threat from LTTE gun positions located in and around Sampur. Artillery fire from LTTE bases in the area could potentially cripple the Naval base, bringing it to a complete standstill and cutting the only military supply chain to Jaffna.
On August 28, the military launched an assault to capture Sampur, Kaddaiparichchan and Thoppur areas. After steady progress, security forces recaptured Sampur on September 4.
It marked the first significant territorial change of hands since the signing of the cease-fire agreement in 2002. The Sri Lankan military estimated that 33 of its personnel were killed in the offensive, along with over 200 LTTE fighters.
The LTTE struck back in October. First, they killed nearly 130 soldiers in a fierce battle at Muhamalai. Just days later, a suspected LTTE suicide bomber struck a Naval convoy in Habarana, in the centre of the country, killing about 100 sailors who were returning home on leave. It was the deadliest suicide attack in the history of the conflict.
Two days later, the LTTE Sea Tiger forces launched an attack against SLNS Dakshina, a Naval base in the southern port city of Galle.
It was the farthest south any major LTTE attack had taken place, and involved 15 LTTE fighters who arrived in five suicide boats. However, both parties agreed to attend peace talks in Geneva on October 28–29. The peace talks broke down once again over the reopening of the A9 highway.
Humanitarian operations in the Eastern Province
In December 2006, the GOSL announced their plans to drive the LTTE out of the Eastern Province. The Army began an offensive on December 8, 2006, in the Batticoloa district with the objective of taking Vakarai, the principal stronghold of the LTTE in the east and captured on January 19, 2007.
Troops began a new operation in February to clear the last remaining LTTE fighters from the Eastern Province and captured the key LTTE base in Kokkadicholai on March 28, and the strategic A5 highway on April 12, bringing the entire highway under government control for the first time in 15 years.
This meant the LTTE’s presence in the east was reduced to Thoppigala and after a three-month battle, the army captured the Thoppigala peak on July 11, ending the LTTE’s military capability in the Eastern Province.
Humanitarian operations in the Northern Province
Sporadic fighting in the North had been going on, but the intensity increased after September 2007. During clashes in the Forward Defence Lines (FDL), separating their forces, both sides exchanged heavy artillery fire. By December 2007, the LTTE defences at Uyilankulama, Parappakandal and Thampanai were lost to advancing troops of the Army.
The military of Sri Lanka claimed that Velupillai Prabhakaran, was seriously injured during air strikes carried out on a bunker complex in Jayanthinagar on November 26, 2007. The GOSL abandoned the ceasefire agreement on January 2, 2008. On April 23, the SLA advanced rapidly, capturing the town of Adampan on May 9, Mannar ‘Rice Bowl’ which consists of the island’s most fertile paddy fields on June 30, Vidattaltivu on July 16, and Iluppaikkadavai on July 20.
On August 2, Vellankulam town, the LTTE’s last stronghold in Mannar District, fell to the advancing SLA troops, completing the eight-month effort to recapture the district.
The Army followed this up by taking control of Mallavi on September 2. From Mannar, the Army had entered Kilinochchi District, the last stronghold of the LTTE. The LTTE killed retired Major General Janaka Perera along with 26 other victims in a suicide blast on October 6.
On October 17, the SLA troops cut off the Mannar-Pooneryn A32 highway north of Nachchikuda, the remaining Sea Tiger stronghold. They began their assault on October 28 and captured the following day. After that the Army Task Force 1 continued their advance towards Pooneryn and captured Kiranchchi, Palavi, Veravil, Valaipadu and Devil’s Point on November 13.
On November 15, troops of the Army Task Force 1 entered the Tiger stronghold of Pooneryn. Simultaneously, the newly created Army Task Force 3 captured Mankulam and the surrounding area on November 17. SLA troops captured Paranthan on January 1, 2009. This exposed the LTTE’s main fortification at Kilinochchi, which the terrorists had used for over a decade as their de facto administrative capital. With Kilinochchi captured on January 2, the entire Jaffna peninsula was under the SLA by January 14. On January 25, SLA troops captured Mullaitivu. The last Sea Tiger base in Chalai was next to fall on February 5.
On February 20, two LTTE planes on a suicide mission carried out a kamikase style air attack on Colombo, killing two and wounding 45, but both planes were shot down. The Battle of Aanandapuram, which was considered as the “defining moment” of the 26-year war, was fought on April 5. SLA soldiers numbering 50,000 from five divisions participated in the battle encircling the LTTE cadres inside a small littoral strip of territory located between the Paranthan-Mullaitivu A35 highway, Nanthikadal and Chalai Lagoons on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other.
Fighting in the ‘No-Fire Zone’
SLA troops were able to push the Tamil Tigers into the no-fire zone set up for civilians. The LTTE then built a 3-km long bund in the no-fire zone, trapping over 30,000 civilians, but the SLA was able to destroy it. On April 21, Sri Lankan troops launched an assault, targeting Vellupillai Prabhakaran. At the same time, a mass Tamil exodus from the ‘no-fire zone’ was underway.
On May 16, 2009, Sri Lankan troops broke through LTTE defences and captured the last section of coastline held by Tamil Tiger rebels.
(The author is a retired Naval officer who served in the Sri Lanka Navy 1979 through 2018)