Sinhala Brigadier Who Won the Hearts and Minds of Tamil People
By D BS Jeyaraj
Lieutenant General Denzil Lakshman Kobbekaduwa and other commander on field during Operation Liberation
Many soldiers and militants have died in Sri Lanka’s military conflict. But the death of Larry Wijeratne created an aching void
He was very much a soldier but a good one who realised that the essence of soldiering was not in harassing helpless civilians but in protecting them
Wijeratne had succeeded, unlike no other Army Commander before him. He had convinced the Tamil people that it was in their interest to inform them about LTTE activity. He had rationally influenced them into choosing to continue a peaceful life or allow Tiger activity
Today November 11th is observed in many parts of the World including Sri Lanka as Remembrance Day or War Memorial Day.
It is also called Poppy Day due to the tradition of wearing a poppy flower. Remembrance Day has its origins in the end of World War One. Although World War I concluded officially on 28 June 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, hostilities on the ground had ended “At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” of 1918 with the signing of the armistice.
Hence November 11 is observed as Remembrance Day on which soldiers who fought and died for their country are commemorated.
It is against this backdrop that this column remembers a fallen Sri Lankan soldier in this article.
Brigadier L.A.R. ‘Larry’ Wijeratne the then commander of the Vadamaratchchi Division in the Jaffna peninsula was killed on 14 May 1998 in an explosion triggered by a suicide bomber assassin of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Larry Wijeratne who was posthumously promoted as Major–General personified the hackneyed phrase ‘An officer and a gentleman”.
The fair, handsome Sinhala officer mistaken very often for a burgher was killed in Point Pedro on the last day of his tenure in Jaffna.
The erstwhile commander of the Vadamaratchchi Divisional Zone was returning to base after a farewell ceremony. Fate in the form of a suicide bomber decreed that it was not a case of Larry bidding au revoir to Jaffna but adieu to the world.
Larry Wijeratne was born in 1950 in Nugawela near Kandy. He had his secondary education at Nugawela Central College where he became a Queen’s Scout. He joined the Army as an officer cadet and was commissioned as a second Lieutnenant.
He served in many parts of the Island in different capacities as a soldier earning many decorations and medals during the war years. Larry Wijeratne was appointed Commanding Officer of the 52-4 Brigade in the Vadamaratchchi sector in May 1996.
This was after the Sri Lankan armed forces had re-established control of the Jaffna peninsula after three phases of “Operation Riviresa”.
The LTTE had withdrawn in bulk to the Northern mainland known as the Vanni. However, small groups of Tigers maintained a clandestine presence in Jaffna. Their presence was strengthened at times by LTTE reinforcements from the Vanni. While the LTTE engaged in positional warfare in the Vanni, the Tigers in Jaffna launched guerrilla operations and at times conducted terrorist attacks. The armed forces responded by targeting civilians with brute force.
After taking over in Vadamaratchchi Wijeratne adopted a very enlightened approach to administering the region.
He sought to capture the hearts and influence the minds of the Vadamaratchchi people. It was not brute force and the naked exercise of military power that he employed to manage the area.
This endeared him to the people very much. Different teams of journalists discovered during their guided tours of Jaffna that Wijeratne had well and truly established a rapport with the people.
After serving for two years Larry Wijeratne was transferred to the Kotelawela Defence Academy in Ratmalana. When hearing of his transfer there was a genuine outpouring of sadness in the Vadamaratchchi Zone.
The citizens’ committees organized a series of farewells to culminated with a grand function at Nelliaddi on Thursday. May 14.
Larry Wijeratne was returning after the farewell to the 524 Brigade headquarters at Point Pedro.
He was departing to Colombo by plane from Palaly on the same day. People who knew that he was bidding farewell were waving to him and he was waving back. Wijeratne was visibly touched at the sentimental regard being manifested openly by the people.
The jeep that Larry was travelling in slowed down slightly at a speed breaker on the road near the Point Pedro bus stand.
The male suicide bomber who had seemingly loitered in the vicinity for a while, sprang towards Wijeratne’s vehicle and then came the explosion.
It was about 3.30 p.m. Bleeding profusely Larry was taken to the base hospital at Manthikai where he succumbed to his injuries.
Shocked and Saddened
Hard as it may be to believe the people of Vadamaratchchi were truly shocked and saddened by Larry Wijeratne’s demise. One of the things remembered by a grateful Vadamaratohi public was the conspicuous lack of disappearances in the area under Larry Wijeratne.
Only 13 occurred in Vadamaratchchi whereas the rest of Jaffna particularly Thenmaratchchi recorded 648 in 1996. Even the few disappearances that took place in Vadamaratchchi according to the people had nothing to do with Wijeratne.
Also, there were very few accusations of rape against soldiers in the Vadamaratchchi. On the contrary, there were many Army-Civilian romances in the region.
This was because of the cordial climate built up chiefly through the efforts of Wijeratne.
Essence of Soldiering
Praising Wijeratne does not mean that the military officer was some namby-pamby bleeding-heart liberal who sacrificed security interests for the sake of building up a good relationship with the people.
He was very much a soldier but a good one who realised that the essence of soldiering was not in harassing helpless civilians but in protecting them.
Larry did not have any chauvinist hang-ups and treated his position of authority with a great sense of responsibility instead of exercising macho power.
By doing this he was very successful in his duties too. Not only was Wijeratne popular but also efficient. By building up healthy relations with the people instead of intimidating them through force he created a climate where the people were quite relaxed with him. He became easily accessible to the people and always kept his doors open to civilians collectively and individually.
Also, Larry travelled extensively, met with people from all walks of life and helped them out as far as possible. He minimised cordon and search operations, reduced checkpoints and restricted excessive patrolling.
Wijeratne also entertained many Tamil special interest groups and helped build many civilian structures instead of imposing exclusive military rule.
Whenever the LTTE struck in Vadamaratchchi, Wijeratne would rush to the spot immediately. His overwhelming presence prevented troops from indulging in reprisals against civilians.
Whenever complaints were received about alleged soldier misbehaviour, he immediately inquired into them and meted out punishment as necessary.
As time went on the soldiers themselves became well-behaved and better disciplined. Knowing that ‘lokka’ will get to know became a deterrent for potential mischief makers.
Brigadier L.A.R. ‘Larry’ Wijeratne
However, the conduct of Wijeratne was not solely altruistic. It was of great utilitarian value. Wijeratne built up the most efficient information-gathering set up in the peninsula.
People trusted him and appreciated him for treating them with respect. They wanted nothing but peace and prosperity. The presence of Tigers meant that the situation would be affected. So after a while people started passing information about the Tigers to him.
Just as a journalist assembles a variety of information sources, the links Wijeratne built with multiple Tamil civilians helped him greatly.
He also followed a unique approach after an anti- LTTE operation. When it was discovered that the LTTE was staying in a house and the forces conducted an attack, there was no retaliation against the neighbours.
But the house of the civilians used by the Tigers was blown up. Wijeratne would summon the neighbourhood for a meeting where he would explain the situation and say that he has no choice other than to blast the house of those giving refuge to the Tigers.
When he first summoned a meeting of this type people refused to come. So, Wijeratne forcibly rounded up people and started the meeting. After a while people started voluntarily attending these meetings. Wijeratne’s genius lay in getting people to collectively endorse the punishment imposed instead of alienating the entire community by meting out collective punishment to the locality.
Gradually people began resenting Tiger intrusion into what was considered their peaceful neighbourhood and began passing more information about the LTTE.
Once a landmine on the road killed some soldiers. Wijeratne went to the spot and prevented retaliatory activity. Then he visited the surrounding homes conversing freely with all and did not display any tension. Larry started playing and conversing with some children too. This paid dividends when a child innocently told him that her mother and aunty staying in the house knew the Tiger uncles who came last night and put the landmine. The adults were arrested immediately.Wijeratne struck gold when the soldiers under his command seized a house at Alvai in a surprise operation This was the military headquarters of the LTTE in the peninsula and had been functional for some time. It was an elaborate underground bunker complex where the entrance was through a cupboard door. It had been constructed in 1995 before the LTTE vacated Vadamaratchchi.
When the soldiers of the SLA broke in they killed seven Tigers including Arjuna the Commander of all LTTE forces in the peninsula. He had been staying on and off for 14 months there and even Tiger intelligence Chief
Pottu Amman had visited him there.
Convinced Tamil People
Wijeratne had succeeded, unlike no other Army Commander before him. He had convinced the Tamil people that it was in their interest to inform them about LTTE activity. He had rationally influenced them into choosing to continue a peaceful life or allow Tiger activity.
Instead of using brutal terror like others to make the people choose, Wijeratne had appealed to sanity, reason and the enlightened self-interest of the people themselves. His popularity, accessibility, sense of fair play and genuine concern for the ordinary civilian made him very successful indeed.
Once when local authority elections were announced the joke in Vadamaratchchi was that if Wijeratne contested he would win.
This state of affairs led to a situation where so much information about tiger activity reached the army. This enabled the forces to conduct a series of successful operations against the LTTE in the region. Finally, the LTTE called it quits and pulled out. They realised that maintaining a permanent presence in those areas of South-West Vadamaratchchi coming under Wijeratne’s purview was a high-risk affair and changed tactics. Thereafter all incursions were from those in Vadamaratchchi East or Thenmaratchchi and not the Vadamaratchchi South West AGA division controlled by Wijeratne. Wijeratne had achieved the seemingly impossible. He had peacefully pacified a region through a hearts and minds approach.
Self-respect and Dignity
Larry Wijeratne proved wrong the theory that only a hard approach to Tamils would prove successful. He demonstrated that Tamils were humans too and yearned for self-respect and dignity. Like Theodor Roosevelt, Wijeratne believed in “carrying a big stick but speaking softly”.
His track record is an object lesson for all Commanding Officers in how to pacify and control an area.
The LTTE hated Wijeratne. The Tigers disliked military commanders enjoying rapport with the people more than those officers treating people harshly.
This was because they feared officers more popular with the people than those who were alienated from them. The remarkable success of Larry Wijeratne in Vadamaratchchi the nursery of Tamil militancy indicated why the LTTE hated and feared him. That is why they had to kill him. His popularity and its resultant success that affected them was too much to tolerate. \Instead of allowing him to depart peacefully to Colombo, they chose to kill him on his last day in Jaffna. That too after his farewell. The greatest tribute paid by the LTTE to Wijeratne was their apparent inability to harm him or counter him during his period of duty.
The LTTE had to wait until the last day to strike. Many soldiers and militants have died in Sri Lanka’s military conflict. But the death of Larry Wijeratne created an aching void. He was a true soldier courageous and compassionate, intelligent and efficient. Above all, he was a successful soldier who combatted the Tigers without alienating civilians.
The legacy of Larry Wijewratne was the successful establishment of relations with the Tamil people based on dignified treatment and effective countering of the LTTE with minimum inconvenience to the population. It remains a positive legacy.