Sri Lanka Army reached a new milestone in its annals a few days ago when the battle-hardened soldier, Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake, took over the reins as the 22nd Commander of the Sri Lanka Army. Respected as an officer par excellence, Nanediri Upendra Mahesh Magilion Weerathunga Senanayake, the fearless Special Forces (SF) warrior, popularly known among his seniors and colleagues as ‘Mahesh’,is a symbol of humility and humanity. This doyen of warfare, is now a crusader of reconciliation and peace. He has experienced many vicissitudes and challenges both in his military career and also in personal life.
- I excelled at cadetting and athletics in school
- My father was the guiding light behind my success
- Landmark turning points in his career were the capturing of Mullaittivu and Elephant Pass
- The detractors victimized us stating we were Fonseka’s henchmen
“It so happened that our principal, the late Colonel G. W. Rajapakse who possessed an indomitable sense of judgement and foresight, segregated us into different student groups, based on skills and competence at Ananda College. He advised me to toe the military line in the future since I excelled at school cadetting and athletics. These disciplines helped the laying of the very basic foundation for a strict upbringing. Equally corresponding to that choice was my family background. Both my father and the grandfather were Police officers. I looked upon my grandfather with utmost respect as an icon in the family, because he, who had served the then Ceylon Police under British rulers, was a strict disciplinarian,”he recalled.
The new Army Commander reminiscing how his mentors groomed him both at home and in the college, added how his close associates, like Major General (retd) J.C Rambukpotha, Major General (retd) Jagath Dias and others inspired him to be a full-fledged military officer after completion of proper cadetship at Ananda College.
“I finally joined the Army. My father was the guiding light behind my success. He endlessly insisted that I follow the Long Course at the Sri Lanka Military Academy (SLMA), Diyatalawa, instead of the short one. His unfailing guidance and the support of other directing staff members enabled me to be the 1st in order of merits and the recipient of the most prestigious ‘Sword of Honour’ at the SLMA graduation,” he recalled.
He posted out as a 2nd Lieutenant initially in the then 1st Plant Engineer Regiment on 23 June 1983. This was mostly on the insistence of his most respected SLMA instructor, late General Janaka Perera, although he had preferred to join the then Rajarata Rifles Regiment (presently called the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment).
Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake always possessed the ‘fighting spirit’ as a youthful warrior. Moves were underway around the same time to raise the Army’s elite Special Forces (SF), absorbing all SLMA batch tops and the cream of budding officers.
However, our matured fighting spirits in the SF drew an invigorated fillip soon after Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka in late 2005 took over the command. Fonseka publicly declared that he wouldn’t leave the ‘terrorist war’ to his next successor
The three-month long most-feared dramatic siege on the Jaffna Fort and its subsequent rescue operation, in which the new Commander played a life-threatening role in the invincible ‘Suicide Express’ squad became proud memories in his career. Some of the landmark turning points in his career were the capturing of Mullaittivu, the Muhamalai battles, the battle of Elephant Pass and the capture of Kalawanchikuddy. He participated in almost all military operations up until May 2009.
BIRTH OF RADICAL STRATEGIES
“To achieve those military gains, admired role model, the late General Denzil Kobbekaduwa gave us the most deserving impetus. He was behind us at different stages of the fight against the LTTE terrorists. The late General’s command, humane qualities, down to earth attitudes, and more significantly the vision he possessed still remain strongly etched in our minds. However, our matured fighting spirits in the SF drew an invigorated fillip soon after Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka in late 2005 took over the command. Fonseka publicly declared that he wouldn’t leave the ‘terrorist war’ to his next successor.
“This tilt towards the new ‘radicalized’ mindset among troops with the birth of LRRP teams brought about a silent ‘revolution within the organization’. All dedicated officers, during day and night, began burning midnight oil in search of innovative strategies to overcome the foe,” he said. Threat levels in Jaffna and adjoining Muhamalai defences meanwhile were increasing dramatically. The troops were compelled to be on extra vigil during 2005-2007 as the troops were moving northward from the other end.
VICTIM OF CIRCUMSTANCES
Interestingly, Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake in a very pensive mood disclosed the bitter and terrible ordeal that prompted him and 13 of his fellow-Army officers-including 5 most senior Officers- to flee for life in the aftermath of the 2010 Presidential Election. This was after their service, salaries, ranks, housing, pensions and all other facilities, were abruptly denied of overnight at the stroke of a pen. “And all of us were instantly discharged, saying ‘service no longer required’, without having courtesy to even summon a preliminary Court of Inquiry against us, as has been the laid down practice in the military regulations. The mere reason for this incredibly sad state of affairs happened for the first time in this reputed organization at the behest of those powerful political detractors in that bygone era. The reason the detractors gave to victimize us was stating that we were Fonseka’s henchmen’, although the truth was otherwise,” he said.
“Yes, when our war was reaching a crucial phase, any Commander, for that matter whoever he was, has to work closely with a team of seasoned officers, perhaps at times even with ground-based other rankers directly, whom the decision-makers and commanders, might decide essential for execution of the assigned task. We also had a sound working relationship with the then Commander for execution of our national responsibilities. Was it a wrong move on my part to be faithful to my incumbent Commander?” he queried.
“I also maintained similar working bonds, for example with my immediate predecessor, General Crisanthe De Silva. So, how could one be victimized for that ? It was not in my wildest dreams to do or back politics,” he said. **Senanayake said that he became ‘a victim of circumstances’ and certainly not a ‘victim of politics’. “The highly volatile disposition that prevailed at that period of gloom, chased us, along with our family members into hiding. Our fear-stricken families, accompanying their children, had to be referred afterwards for psychological counselling. In the worst scenario, I was advised to flee the country to escape death,” he lamented.
CURSE TURNS INTO BLESSING
“Though life-threatening atrocities perpetrated on us, they in effect worked a ‘disguised blessing’ to me since my overseas stay in the US afterwards provided me with ample opportunities to further broaden horizons of my knowledge.My findings doubtlessly convinced me how humane and impressively concerned the Sri Lanka Army, were in its approach to dealing with fleeing Tamil civilians and LTTE combatants surrendering. Despite adverse and malicious propaganda, highlighted largely by overseas LTTE sympathizers, our rehabilitation of 12,000 odd LTTE combatants in this regard, was amazing. Those who sweated to make it an unparalleled mechanism, deserve my sincere praise,” he said.
CLOSE RAPPORT WITH JAFFNA PEOPLE
His short but the most productive tenure of office as the Jaffna Commander (January 2016 – March 2017), needless to record, won a barrage of plaudits from every layer of Jaffna populace. He relates this achievement to the ‘simple practice of listening to everyone with patience’.
Yes, when our war was reaching a crucial phase, any Commander, for that matter whoever he was, has to work closely with a team of seasoned officers, perhaps at times even with ground-based other rankers directly, whom the decision-makers and commanders, might decide essential for execution of the assigned task
A case in point was how he managed to trace the whereabouts of peninsula-based retired Tamil speaking ex-servicemen and ex-Police personnel as high as 105 in number. Some of them appeared feeble in physique and live in isolation, but never dared to reveal their previous career identity to anyone under any circumstances, lest they would be victimized or killed by megalomaniac gunmen. Our protagonist taking a bold step summoned them to his office, formed a friendship association, treated them to a fellow-lunch and distributed gifts among them as appreciative tokens of their service to the country.
DE-FUSION OF JAFFNA TENSION
“You see, a disappointed student should be allowed to articulate his concerns freely as much as he wishes. I sympathized with their radicalized spirit, youthful emotions, anti-Police outbursts, the cause and the objective of protesting en masse. Like us in the South, they disrupted normalcy in the town. In turn, I explained to them their inalienable right for dissent and articulation through their non-violent protests in a democracy. I fully endorsed their ‘radical’ behaviour, and expressed my sympathy over the accidental deaths, but warned them against outbreak of any cycle of violence or damage to state property in a very appealing manner. They bowed down and the tension was defused,” he said.
Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake said, “I am glad to state here that no attempt whatsoever had been made to-date, to politically interfere with the Army or its administration after President Maithripala Sirisena and the Prime Minister Ranil Wickrememsinghe were voted into power in 2015, which itself is a healthy development and a must”.
CONCERN FOR IDPs
A monumental tribute to this officer cum gentleman is the miraculously completed housing project in Nallinakkapuram, adjacent to the perimeters of the Palaly Security Force cantonment in Jaffna. Within a record period of 2 ½ months, Security Forces under his command put up those 100 new houses and vested them in the IDPs, adding another feather to his unmatched skills.
Setting out his new vision for the Army as the 22nd Commander of the Army, Lieutenant General Senanayake didn’t want to mince his words. Instead he spoke out his mind. “I will continue to be a ‘good listener’’. Centralized control and de-centralized execution is the need of the hour. Secondly, that ‘mission command’ encompasses everything. We must remember that the globe is faced with lots of complexities.
Lieutenant General Senanayake, decorated with the Rana Wickrama Padakkama (RWP) medal for his individual and associated acts of bravery, is a father of two daughters, Iranka Ranasi, a doctor by profession, Suwanka Helasi, an aeronautical engineer, and a son, Siyath. He is happily married to Mrs Chandrika Senanayake.
(The writer is the Sri Lanka
Army Media Advisor)