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.

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.

Appendix

“OPENING GAMBIT”

By General Gerry de Silva

On the pretext of discussing Military Strategy, the Army Commander, Lieut. General Cecil Waidyaratne entailed the wrath of Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Vijaya Wimalaratne by drastically reducing their respective Tactical Areas of Responsibility [TAOR].   Denzil and Vijaya were predictably shocked, furious, frustrated, and pushed to the limits of mental endurance. To them and to those present it was insulting and degrading. Those present included the Service Commanders, Air Marshal Terrence Goonewardena and Vice Admiral Clancy Fernando and a cross section of senior field commanders of the Army and officers of the Navy and Air Force.

At the end of the discussion of Day 1, I walked into the office of the Army Commander to express my opinion on the subject as I was mentally disturbed too.   Denzil, Vijaya and I had been together on most combat operations taken on by the Army, and built up a firm comradeship that was a high point in our military careers.   The urgency was necessitated by the fact that we would be finalizing combat plans and confirming decisions taken on the following morning.   I made it known to the Commander that I vehemently disagreed with the decision taken and treatment meted out to Denzil and Viyaya.   I reminded him that they were the best field commanders he could ever hope to have and would not be able to do without if he hoped to implement the combat strategies that were being planned.   I convinced him to give further thought to the decisions he would take the following morning especially the one he made in regard to Denzil and Vijaya.

On leaving the Commanders office I saw Vijaya in the adjoining office of the Military Secretary waiting to meet the Army Commander.   I had never seen Vijaya in the mood he was.   His eyes were blood red and swelling in tears of anger.   When I spoke to him he pulled out his resignation letter from his pocket, which he was planning to hand over to Waidyaratne.   I spoke to Vijaya at length and informed him that I had convinced the Commander to reconsider his decision and impressed upon Vijaya not to be hasty.  He promised me that he would wait until I had seen the Commander the following morning and discussed the matter with him once more.

On reaching my residence I was informed by my Wife that Denzil had called and would be calling once more shortly after.   Denzil was furious and stated that he did not want to serve in the Army one day more under Cecil’s command. He too had prepared a letter of resignation and had requested for an interview with the Commander the next morning.   I advised Denzil to give his decision to resign, more thought and informed Denzil that had met the Commander on this matter and he had promised to reconsider the measures he intended  taking.  I pleaded with Denzil to wait at least until I had seen the Commander the following morning and in any case, to reconsider the decision he proposed to take as the Army he loved so much would be in crisis if he and Vijaya resigned at this juncture.   He called me on three more occasions that evening.   Ample evidence of the trauma he was experiencing.    By the time I walked into Cecil’s office the next morning Denzil had been there earlier and thrown his resignation letter in Cecil’s face and stormed out.   Cecil finally agreed to drop the matter and subsequently summoned Denzil and Vijaya to his office and informed them that he had retracted from his previous decision.

We met once more and the discussion on military strategy to be pursued continued until late evening. Cecil invited all those who had attended the conference to Cocktails at his Chalet in the Officers Mess. Tensions and Tempers had subsided by then,.   Denzil then made a startling revelation. He had visited a clairvoyant in Kataragama who had predicted that he would be killed on or before 31st July, and that he would be visiting Kataragama the next morning to pay off a vow. He was killed eight days later on 8th August 1992 in a land mine explosion together with Vijaya Wimalaratne, Commodore Mohan Jayamaha and seven others at Araly Point in the Jaffna Peninsula, whilst on a reconnaissance mission to plan the capture of Jaffna.

Daily News 8 August 2011

Island 8 August 2011

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