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Lieutenant General Denzil Kobbekaduwa 1940-1992

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.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2011
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