Major General Kamal Gunerathne, who retired from the army after 35 years of service authored a book titled “Road to Nandikkadal” where he has recorded his experiences in the Army, including details of the final hours of the defeat of the LTTE and killing of Prabhakaran. In this interview, Kamal Gunerathne discussed the incidents in detail.
Q Since your retirement after completing 35 years of service, are you now at ease?
Yes, it is true to a great extent. In the Army we had to remain vigilant for 24 hours a day. With the cessation of the war, we were under stress as there was nothing to do. I call it “becoming tired of doing nothing”
Q Did that motivate you to write this book on Nandikkadal?
I wrote this book that contains all that we did over the past four years; I felt that these events should be recorded for future generations. As a person who actively took part in this war, I believed that these events should be recorded.
Q As a commanding officer in the war front and waging a war of life and death with the LTTE, do you approve of this war?
We are soldiers. We became soldiers never to kill, but to save and protect the country. As children born to this country, it was our pride to fight against the traitors who attempted to ruin the country.
Q But international personalities made allegations that the war in Sri Lanka was fought in an undisciplined manner, for no rhyme or reason. The UN Secretary General compared this war with the massacre in Rwanda?
Earlier Ban Ki Moon was considered as a respected individual; however this is not the case now. When compared with the situation in Rwanda and Serbia, what happened in Sri Lanka was entirely different. We took about 6,000 LTTE members into custody at the end of the war. In addition another 6,000 were apprehended while hiding among the displaced people. 12,200 were directed to rehabilitation. If we had followed what happened in Rwanda and Serbia, no one would have been directed for rehabilitation. In Rwanda, everyone captured by the forces was killed. But here, 12,000 displaced are still alive. We considered them to have been led astray for some unknown reason. We waged a well-disciplined war which was also called a “Humanitarian Operation”.
Q At present there are attempts to charge our Army with war crimes. Were there any reports during the war that warranted such accusations?
They now charge that civilians were killed and women were abused. We are shocked by these allegations. We hail from respectable families and our soldiers always acted with restraint and were highly disciplined. I have a mother, a wife and a loving daughter. If I had allowed the personnel under me to commit crimes of this nature, I would never have been welcomed into my house. We fought a clean war.
Q Despite your statement, there had been instances where soldiers were convicted of such crimes and some were sentenced to death. Some soldiers of your intelligence unit are now suspects, and are facing legal action. What are your assessments about these false statements that are being investigated by the CID?
It is evident that attempts are being made to prove such allegations. I do not wish to talk about politics, and I am also not afraid to speak the truth as I do not expect any benefits from the government. Some engaged in various efforts to gain political mileage. It is with great difficulty that we established the intelligence unit. At first, their findings were incorrect, but we brought it to a very high position with the passage of time. Today this unit is losing its importance. A day will emerge when they will regret. This unit was one of the most efficient in the Army. If I were to quote an example, you can take KP’s incident. It proved how efficient our intelligence unit was. Everyone knew him as the procurator of arms for the LTTE. He was apprehended without his knowledge in Malaysia and brought to Sri Lanka. This was a very high-level operation and no one knew about it until the very end. Certain factions are now questioning the basis on which KP was arrested.
Q If these personnel are skilled and accurate, how come they are facing charges today?
I do not think events of this nature were reported in any part of the world. Operations by the intelligence unit are highly confidential and no country opens investigations into internal operations, even in the event of a government change. No officer of an intelligence unit is haulled up for investigations and imprisoned. There are CIA, Mossad, RAW, ISI and other intelligence units that are operating in the world. There were regime changes in these countries too, but they never revealed what the operations of their intelligence units were. This is not a good trend and I fear that in future they might not accept any direction, and show reluctance. Those imprisoned would begin to question their sentences.
Q What happens in the event where CID proves these charges?
They would attempt to prove allegations. Even now several Army soldiers are in prisons for over a year. But they have failed thus far to prove anything.
Q Were there any Sinhala Tigers?
Yes, there were many. I am ashamed to discuss their actions. They were interested in making money and had no love for their motherland.
Q Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga said that three fourths of the war was concluded by her, and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had only a quarter to finish. This implies you only had to deal with this quarter of the war?
I do not want to talk about what these so-called senior politicians say, but one thing I would like to stress is during her regime, when we had advanced during operation Jayasikuru, we had to retreat to the original position within two days. Likewise we started from Palaly and took control of Jaffna, seized Elephant Pass, Paranthan and approaching Kilinochchi and again had to retreat our forces within two days to Muhamalai during her time. Thereby we lost Elephant Pass which was under our total control as well as the Mullaitheevu camp where thousands of soldiers were stationed. I do not blame her solely for these drawbacks.
There were mistakes on our part too. She was the President whereas we were in the battlefield.
But according to her statement that 75% of the war was ended during her time, is more of a joke.
Q What was vital to the success of the SL tri-forces during the fourth Eelam war?
The greatest strength was the leadership which itself was two fold; the political leadership and the leadership of the forces. Both these leaderships had a vision and identified their mission. I mention three names in this instance; they are Former President Mahinda Rajapakse, former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse and our former Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka.
Q Why mention only these three names?
Who else gave leadership to the war? The former President always told us that he would take care of the world opinion, and that our responsibility was to end the war and let our nation live in peace and harmony.
Gotabhaya Rajapkse was instrumental in motivating the forces and increasing the cadres. Rules were simplified to recruitment procedures, and also equipped the forces with all their requirements -- from a pin to Aircraft. It was Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and the Defence Secretary who realized the required changes. When it came to matter of appointing Brigade Commanders in leading the war, it had been the custom to follow the seniority list and appointments made accordingly. Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka changed this rule and appointed those with skills, capability and experience as Brigade Commanders. I believe this was the factor that effectively contributed towards
winning this war.
Q Is it true that the then Army Commander gave leadership to the regiment which he represented?
Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka is from the Sinha Regiment. Most of the commanders who gave leadership in the war belonged to the Gajaba Regiment.
Q What led to the failure of the LTTE?
The foremost reason behind LTTE’s failure was their over assessment of themselves and their under assessment of the capabilities of our forces. When waging a war, we should never underestimate the enemy. In my book I have also mentioned about the success of the LTTE. As I observed from the beginning until the end they achieved much success. This was mainly because of Prabhakaran’s leadership. Though he was an enemy, Prabhakaran was an efficient leader. I do not wish to glorify him. He was the most treacherous terrorist ever known.
Q What if we speak about Prabhakaran as only a leader of the war?
His main characteristic as I see was his capability in attracting people to his fold. He introduced the suicide killers. He was dedicated to the organization. Prabhakaran received so much of funds with that he could have easily gone to a foreign country and operated the war from there. But he remained in underground bunkers. His followers had so much faith in him because of this.
Q Were there any lessons from his leadership qualities from which our Army could learn?
Prabhakaran depended on small groups that infiltrated into areas under government control. They remained there, gathered information and transmitted them to the leaders.
Attacks followed before we could be ready. What we did was taking large contingents, with no fear or isolation. Eventually we suffered serious losses of armoury and personnel. We observed this strategy and changed our approach by sending smaller groups and continuing attacks. The LTTE realizing this position, switched back to the formal attacks. Some of the weapons that were with them were never used as they lacked knowledge on handling them. We found unused Torpedoes and Aircraft Destroying Missiles which had been left abandoned.
If they had used those, the damage would have been extensive. Nevertheless they had already inflicted maximum damage.
Q Could you elaborate about the ‘maximum damage’?
During the Eelam war 4 which continued for two years and ten months, nearly 5,900 deaths of officers and soldiers were recorded. A further 29,000 were injured and several others remain confined to their beds; paralysed. Those who were injured at their prime age of 20, today are compelled to live for another 50 - 60 years suffering in silence.
Q Was there any suspicion that Prabhakaran had fled Sri Lanka by sea or another way?
Yes. During the war we never heard the voice of Prabhakaran, and over the radio messages they exchanged his voice never came out. We used to listen to those messages but never heard him. There was no way to ascertain whether he was dead or alive.
Q Did Prabhakaran make any appearance during the war?
Yes he did. When Thamilchelvan was killed he came out and made a public appearance on the ‘Maha Veer’ day. However, such appearances were seldom.
Q Were the final days of the war staged without knowing whether Prabharakaran was dead or alive?
No one knew if he was alive. At the war front with me were Major Generals Jagath Dias, Shavendra Silva, Prasanna Silva, Nandana Udawatte and Chagi Gallage. None of us was aware of Prabhakaran’s whereabouts until the morning of May 19, 2009.
Q How sure were you that it was Prabhakaran who was killed despite all the rumours?
We were not kids to be fooled with such stories. We confirmed Parabhakaran’s death only after we were convinced ourselves.
Q What did you feel when Prabhakaran’s body was brought to you?
When the final battle was underway, my soldiers were about 200 metres away on the North bank of the Nandikkadal lagoon. The battle was set in the mangroves of the lagoon. My boys informed me of a location which they said they were unable to penetrate. I ordered them to separate into two groups of eight each and proceed attacking and circumvent them. It was a success. The fighters informed that it was all over and that they had found the body of Prabhakaran. Brigade Commander Lt. Col. Lalantha Gamage was beside me at the time. He was deployed to the scene and I asked him to inform me to corroborate with accounts of the scene. Once he arrived at the scene he confirmed that the body of Prabhakaran was found and that he was certain of it. However I ordered them to bring the body to me before I could confirm to Colombo that Prabhakaran had been killed.
Q Why did you not confirm his death immediately?
If I had informed the Defence Secretary immediately, he would in turn inform the President and the whole country would have been aware. If the body found was not of Prabhakaran’s the matter would have been a serious one and I would have been compelled to shoot myself or dive into Nandikkadal. When the body was brought before me, I felt as if it was my moment of victory. Lying before me was the body of a ruthless killer who showed no mercy towards thousands of innocent people. From that moment onwards his killings would come to an end. Thereafter I informed the Army Commander, who responded saying that he would send Karuna Amman and Daya Master to identify the body. I replied it wa s not necessary to send them to the scene as I was fully convinced that it was in fact the corpse of Prabhakaran. In reply to the gossip mongers, I wish to say that there was no truth in the rumours claiming Prabhakaran was brought to Colombo, ordered to kneel before the President and after being slapped was again taken back to Nandikkadal where he was killed. These are all fabricated stories.
Q Doubts were cast over the wounds on his head. How was this inflicted?
We never used artillery or armoured cars. What we used were RPGs and other light weapons and the wound might have been caused by them.
Q Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka had once declared that Prabhakaran was better than Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa...
Former President Rajapaksa was the one who gave a strong political leadership to the war and Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka was my Commander. Both of them were leaders far above. I was only a person who was at the battlefront, and therefore, I do not wish to comment on their disputes. We would be happy as long as the leaders work together peacefully. Issues confronting them are not of my concern.
Q Certain personalities were in the limelight following the war on account of their bravery. Were you scared of the media?
I never wanted publicity. I had a certain assignment and it was my duty to fulfil it. We had faith that we would succeed in our endeavour. One incident that was highlighted by media caused me heartache. I was in charge of the Muhamalai battlefront and it was a vulnerable post. When I was the head of this front, Theepan was the leader of the LTTE. Karuna Amman was the most acclaimed fighter of the organization and Theepan was the second in command. After about two months of continual fighting, my boys killed Theepan. When the body was left with the soldiers of my brigade, the media claimed that Theepan was killed by another group. Several of my soldiers lost their lives and many others were injured in this battle.
Q There was a saying in the Army, that if you go forward there was Johnny and if you retreat there was Fonny. What does this saying mean?
There are so many occasions where you enjoy cracking a joke even at the battlefront. Boniface Perera, the present commanding officer in the Wanni was in my batch. He was known among his batch mates as Bonnie. During this time the Tigers laid land mines known as ‘Johnny’. Bonnie was leading an attack one day, and there were many casualties, he had to proceed on orders from above. A heckler using this situation made up a story that Bonnie couldn’t advance due to the presence of ‘Johnny’ land mines and also couldn’t retreat as Fonny was behind. This created a light humour. Later even Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka had commented saying that when we were engaged in battle risking our lives, his commandments from the rear turned a joke for some.
Q The war had ended and Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka is not the same person who was once your commander, what is your view of the situation?
I will always respect my commander. I did not like a idea of an Army Officer taking into politics. When Sarath Fonseka retired he called to thank me and at that moment I requested him not to enter politics as I didn’t think it was suitable for an idol of his kind, revered as God. He replied saying that he did not engage in politics wearing a uniform. He believed that if people wished him to be representative of civilians he might consider their request. However I urged him to reconsider his decision.
Q Now that you have retired, what do you think of the controversy that is surrounding Gotabhaya Rajapakse?
I feel extremely sorry. Not because he was the Defence Secretary but because I served under him when I joined the Army and as a Second Lieutenant. I learned many things from him, be it matters relating to discipline or his manner of speech and, especially, his skill in decision-making. He is a person of rare qualities. If anything happens to him, I would empathise with his situation.
Q During the last stages of your service they say that you were subject to indiscrimination by higher ups in the Army?
I had no high hopes. Any officer has a desire to go up in his field of duty and sit in the big chair. Your hard work alone cannot take you there, you should also have a little bit of luck.
Q If the present commander did not receive an extension you would have had an opportunity to occupy that seat?
I was on top of the hit list of the LTTE and now. I top the list of war criminals. We who fought for our country and won a war are now down-graded in the Army seniority lists. I have been a Major General for over eight years. Those who became Major Generals after me had been elevated in the seniority list, which was a grave injustice. Those who were below me have been promoted and as the result, I missed the opportunity of becoming the Army Commander.