An emotional Ex-Army Chief Hamilton Wanasinghe reminisces on the eve of his 80th birthday
Hailed as one of the greatest soldiers the country has produced, the 11th Army Commander of Sri Lanka General Hamilton Wanasinghe recalls an old story. A story that hasn’t been told many times, a story that strikes a chord in today’s context and a story that can be preserved. If not for the present generation for the future ones, it is indeed a story that has many strands. A military man right throughout, he tells the Daily Mirror how the Army functioned during ‘his time’.
“There was never political interference at the time. But once a man called me and wanted something to be done in the Army. I told him I am the Commander of the Army- not you, and put the phone down” he recalls heartily.
Later we learnt that it was a powerful member of the then cabinet that had dared to interfere with what was considered solely ‘the Army’s business’.
On the brink of turning 80 on August 18, General Wanasinghe who was appointed Commander of the Army, on August 16, 1988. recalls a quarter century later, how he stood tall as a military man withstanding pressure, leading the transformation of what was until then largely a ceremonial Force..
“No one pressured me to transfer people from operation areas. My family was there fighting just like every other soldier, so no one could point a finger at me” he tells us.
Two of his nephews and his son-in-law were killed in action, all of whom were recognised as gallant soldiers, who fought the enemy tooth and nail.
“Panduka (His older brother’s son) was killed in Pooneryn, and we got the call. I was the Chief of Joint Operations at the time, and the families were wailing. The war was going on intensely in the area but despite that the family wanted Panduka’s body” he recalls.
We learnt that the Chief of Joint Operations- a man, who was at the helm of the Forrces declined the offer to transport the body of his nephew despite many a plea from his kith and kin.
“I asked them if they could send all the bodies, 16 soldiers were killed at the time. And the Commanding Officer told me that they couldn’t and they could transport only Panduka’s body. I told them to bury all the bodies in Pooneryn” A tear eyed General recalls.
Such was his resolve for equality and non- interference of influence that his distraught family were only given a photograph of Panduka with gunshot injuries as proof of his death.
“That was the way it had to be. If his body was to be brought back, then I wanted all sixteen of them to be brought back. There shouldn’t have been preferential treatment because he was my nephew and my family understood this” he says.
His son Colonel Sanjay Wanasinghe is considered to be among the few officers in the world to have had the privilege of being commissioned by his own father.
“He wanted to join the Army and I told him to apply. Suddenly one day the Brigadier in Charge of recruitment called me and asked me why I hadn’t informed him of Sanjay’s application. I told him that there was no need to inform anyone. If he was good enough he would be selected if not he would not” he says, sentiments many in the present day could not relate to, principles which are most certainly confined to an era ‘by-gone’.
His son led the Army’s Sniper unit which is hailed as being one of the most important factors that led to the forces ultimate victory over the LTTE.
Incidentally , it was under General Wanasinghe leadership that both- the Army’s Sniper unit and the Special Forces unit were established.
“ My wife was naturally worried like any mother would be, as much as i was the commander I was his father too. So we were scared for his life, the LTTE knew he was my son and he served in operational areas and this caued alot of anxiety” he recollected a parents torment.
Appointed Joint Operations Commander and later as Secretary of Defence General Wanasinghe had ‘been through it all’. Rising up the ranks of the Army gradually, he ascended to the peak with many a battle.
“It was not easy for me. There were always obstacles and I had to fight my way to the top. I have no regrets, I’m a very happy man, who did what I had to do to the best of my ability” he asserts.
“I got a call suddenly. One day President D.B. Wijetunga called me and asked me if I was free to meet him the next evening. I said I was free and went to meet him. And he told me to take over as Secretary Defence the next day. And that was it,” the General says again with a tinge of emotion, and nostaligia.
“I had my time, I did the best I could do for this country and left when it was the right time” he says.
A man of many facets, General Wanasinghe was at the helm of the Army during one of the most crucial moments of in the history of Sri Lanka.
On one hand the South was experiencing the JVP insurrection, while the government was battling the LTTE forces in the North. The Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) were also stationed within the island during the time and General Wanasinghe had an Army of men fighting to preserve the peace.
“The war could have been concluded militarily but lasting peace and the solution to the core problems of the Tamil people must be found through political discussion and compromise,” he said. This is a stance he maintained throughout his career as an Army Officer, who gradually rose to the ranks of being Commander of the Army.
Despite the achievements and accolades, General Wanasinghe, contrary to what might be expected of a military man tells us that he despised war. “Why should we kill each other? I despise it and it should not have happened” he says, asserting that it was “ political bungling” that resulted in the catastrophe that ensued.
“It was political bungling and nothing else, every community lived in this country happily and that’s the way it should be”, he says, stating that the recent rise in communal tensions concerns him.
“ I worry sometimes, the systems are falling apart and we must stop this if we are to realise all the potential within this country” he says.
Having a very lucid memory he is able to recount the details of the 1962 coup attempt; a tale he is happy to recall.
“Colonel F.C De Saram was one of my senior officers. We had no knowledge of this coup until the arrests were made. That night we were to send patrols on ‘exercise’, but it was called off for some reason. Thank God they were called off. I had no idea about the underlying plans, but was in charge of sending out the patrols” he tells us.
Later he was summoned by his seniors in order to explain the attempted ‘patrol deployment’.
“ There was some talk of a coup before that night but I didn’t think much of it, so I told the officers that I was not planning a coup- I don’t know why I said it, it must have been because there was some talk of it” he recalls.
Later he proudly tells us, how Justice Sansoni congratulated him when he stepped down from the witness box after giving evidence in the infamous coup trial.
“ I told the truth, one officer called me and told me to tell the court that it was only planned as an exercise- which I found might have not been the case, and I told him I can’t” he says. Later Felix Dias Bandaranaike is reported to have told the then Colonel Wanasinghe that “ I don’t want the small fish, I want the big ones” in reference to the coup leaders.One wonders if the coup had been successful, whether the country would have veered to the depths and pitfalls it has fallen into, however this astute military man believes that the coup would have been disastrous and is relieved it did not take place. “No it would have been bloodshed if it was successful. The Army was not prepared at the time and I don’t think something of that sort should ever happen” he says with an air of certainty.
When pressed, the grand old man says that the biggest fault in the country lay in the politicisation of all facets of governance. “ That is the biggest problem of this country, everything is politicised now. We have to do something to ensure that it doesn’t continue,” he says
At a time when the involvement of the military in areas of civilian administration is being questioned, as in the Weliweriya incident, the Daily Mirror asked him what he thought of the involvement of the Army. He answers with a grace that only a dignified military man of yore would.
“The Army needs to be called only at the last stages of an incident and even for that an All-Island-Justice of Peace must sign granting approval for the calling of the Army. I don’t think that happened in this instance. The soldiers have also forgotten drills, there are specific drills, when these situations come about but I don’t think any of this was done” he laments.
Today at 80, the General counts as his greatest loss, the loss of his wife. “We were married for fifty years and it was a happy marriage. We loved each other and I miss her very much”, while recalling with glee specifics of courting his wife. “I was eyeing the older sister of Ira who was her twin. But one day when riding a paddle boat I asked the older sister to join me and she refused. But the younger one got in, and that’s where it all started” he recalls with teary eyes.
His love story is not one without hiccups and obstacles General Wanasinghe says.“Those days the people had a lot of things to worry them, dowry and what not. So I wrote to my father. I told him that I’m in charge of soldiers on whose lives I take decisions on and asked him how can I not take a decision about my life?” logic that his father could not counter. The duo had five children, two sons and three girls.
A conversation with a man of this stature could have gone on for hours, but being confined by space and time one has to conclude with querying him on the core values that guided him, .
“Honesty, that is the most important thing. You have to be honest and you must work hard and give everything the best you could,” underlying principles which haveas stood the test of time among all great men.