Looking at the Sri Lankan army, it is basically a reflection of our entire society. We have a fair number of Muslims, and now a fair number of Tamils. But, by nature, the Tamils and Muslims do not tend to be involved in the military, due to their way of life. The majority of the Sri Lankan Army is Sinhalese. That is normal. It is in the interest of people from different political parties to point out such thing but the military is a reflection of society and all our communities today – Sinhalese, Muslim or Tamil – all respect the army equally and they all look towards the military for assistance.
by Nilantha Ilangamuwa and Lauren Glenmere
( February 28, 2015, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Following his recent retirement as commander of the Sri Lanka Army, General (Retd.) Daya Ratnayake, in the following interview with Sri Lanka Guardian stated, “I did not apply for an extension. That is not what happened. The decision was made by the government and I respect the decision. I leave as a very, very happy person who has been able to give my best service to the nation when it was required most.” General Ratnayake departed last week, after a long career in the army. He joined the Sri Lanka Guardian for an exclusive interview on Monday the 23rd February.
SL Guardian: So first of all we would like to hear your brief assessment of your tenure as the commander of the army of this country.
DR: I guess I am very happy, and I am leaving as a very, very happy person. Individually, and as a commander, I was able to do a very good job and in overcoming the challenges we went through. I did a lot in that respect. This mainly consisted of overcoming challenges, adapting individually and restructuring the army, reorganising it and developing a proper training system for future and present day needs. It was also necessary to equip them with modern equipment and required knowledge. Developing the infrastructure was a serious challenge, originally a smaller army has become much bigger over the years, so things like that remain challenges and we developed a master plan, which we presented to the previous government showing the needs of the army and how the development of national security can go hand in hand. They allocated a lot of money for us to meet those demands. So I am a happy man, that I could achieve all that, and that is why I leave as a happy man and the new commander for the next ten to fifteen years will have plans to work with and a good base to start from.
SL Guardian: You have had a key role on the fight against the LTTE which finally concluded in 2009. Tell us about your understanding about the origins, development and the elimination of the Tamil Tigers?
DR: Of course it is a very long story, but in short I should say that I joined the army in 1980, during the peacetime, and then over the years the problems started with that. We developed, and finally when I left two days ago there are now around 200,000 people in the army. So this evolution of the military it is not only in strength but also in all aspects. We have developed over these 30 years and we managed to eradicate terrorism. We got support from many countries, we went to them and started learning, but day by day it was going from bad to worse so around 2006 we developed a new concept. That concept worked well and we branched out our operations and that was implemented and developed and strategised and finally we eliminated terrorism in 2009. So that is how it happened and we eliminated the threat. In the post conflict scenario I received the opportunity to become the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation, where I managed to develop a plan for rehabilitation, which is now recognised around the world as one of the more successful rehabilitation programmes. I produced a new concept called six plus one, which many universities around the world have come to study. Today the success is that more than 14000 Tamil Tiger carders have been rehabilitated and reintegrated, and for the last five years they have refrained from even minor anti-social activities. So that is the success. We did other things that I can tell you about, there are many other things, but initially we were committing mistakes as an army facing an insurgency and terrorism, which over the years developed into a very costly experience. We learned the hard way and finally managed to develop a competent force.
SL Guardian: What are the differences between the LTTE and the JVP which was also an internal armed struggle within the country?
DR: In relation to LTTE the JVP was actually very small. You can’t match them, the LTTE was very well structured, trained, fit, and with a plan and support. They developed sustainable support networks. They had many things and everything in place. But JVP they were mostly very primitive in that respect – they couldn’t stand against the military. In just a few months they succumbed to the pressure of the military as they were not that organised. Politically, they had power but militarily they were not organised.
SL Guardian: When you joined the army in 1980 there were 12,000 members but it has now grown to 200,000. Many people, including some Sinhalese political and social organisations, such as the Bodu Bala Sena, describe the Sri Lankan Army as the Sinhalese Army. But there are many Muslim and Tamil people involved. Why are they reluctant to identify this aspect of the institution?
DR: Looking at the Sri Lankan army, it is basically a reflection of our entire society. We have a fair number of Muslims, and now a fair number of Tamils. But, by nature, the Tamils and Muslims do not tend to be involved in the military, due to their way of life. The majority of the Sri Lankan Army is Sinhalese. That is normal. It is in the interest of people from different political parties to point out such thing but the military is a reflection of society and all our communities today – Sinhalese, Muslim or Tamil – all respect the army equally and they all look towards the military for assistance. So we have very high level of respect and regard from all the communities.
SL Guardian: Regarding the last phase of the war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army, there were allegations of abuses and crimes against humanity on both sides. What is your take on this?
DR: These accusations are from individuals only and no one has come forward to prove them. We are one of the most disciplined armies. These people around the world, who are making allegations, can come and study and see how professional we are and how we are examples for people around the world to understand and take lessons from our experience.
We had an enormous amount of power and still we, at the cost of our own soldiers, created operations to rescue the people and thus sacrificed a large number of the lives of our soldiers in order to do that. We have done extremely well in that respect and we never abused our power. These victims are working in their own interests.
SL Guardian: But the same allegations arose against the LTTE?
DR: There were allegations against the LTTE because they had been doing that. They were both committing many inhuman activities at that moment in time and throughout their history. They were terrorists and that is why we were trying to rescue people from them. The LTTE were a ruthless, terrorist organisation and were fabricating allegations against the Sri Lankan army. It was not us making allegations against the LTTE.
SL Guardian: Soon after you assumed the office of the Commander of the Army, there was an incident reported that army soldiers targeted peaceful protestors and gunned down a couple of civilians in Weliweriya, Colombo suburb. It was widely criticised. What exactly happened there and why did the government deploy the army to crack down on the protests in the area?
DR: It was not a peaceful protest. It was not as you described. It was a very well organised protest by certain armed groups. Moreover, it was not our own soldiers that were deployed but the police and they couldn’t do anything, and then the special police couldn’t do anything, so they called the army and then the army went in where they were assaulted by the people. The soldiers then opened fire and in the process three people, unfortunately succumbed to their injuries. The 30 odd soldiers involved were taken into custody, including a number of officers, and sent through a legal process. We went through the normal democratic practice. Soldiers were not taking the law into their own hands but we found that some officers did not carry out their functions properly. These officers have been taken out of command. We are following the legal process of the ministerial inquiry taking place and supporting that.
SL Guardian: The incident was investigated by the military team and later in the military court for due diligence. The court produced a report but the report was not released into the public domain. Any reasons behind that, General?
DR: No military inquiries around the world are released to the public. That is the practice of a military. Nowhere in the world does it happen. The final findings of the inquiry will be released. However we are still in the process of doing that.
SL Guardian: There have been discussions about Sri Lanka’s credibility, freedom of courts and the consideration of professional merit in appointments. How did you recognise these issues during your tenure?
Especially after the war, we had many, many issues. So we had to do restructure to get the system into order after 2009. We created a master plan for administrative things and I went around the entire army, which took two years. We started with the regiments which were involved in administration of the army. Then we went to the formations who involved in operations and then dealt with other issues such as training. We did a comprehensive study for two years and developed a master plan to restructure the army, retrain the army and re-equip the army with training and knowledge. Now we are in the monitoring stage. Many armies around the world have become a burden or nuisance for a nation, with soldiers carrying out antisocial activities. But the Sri Lankan army today is the most organised and disciplined organisation in the country. Soldiers are the most respected people in society in all communities throughout the country today. That is due to our discipline. People are very happy to be in the army. I once challenged the media, if you can find anybody in the army who is not happy, any soldier, bring him to me because I want to find out why. Everyone is happy in the army. So I am very happy to say that soldiers are looked after very well.
SL Guardian: Meanwhile a number of officers were sent on compulsory retirement in 2010. What is your take on this?
DR: Fourteen officers took compulsory retirement based on their political involvement while the election was going on. They got involved in politics and while serving in the military you cannot get involved in politics.
DR: The government thinks that they were politically victimised. So they are reinstated. In a democracy basically these kind of things will happen.
SL Guardian: Many newspapers and other media outlets in Sri Lanka have suggested that you were engaged in political campaigns during the last presidential election as well. What is your response to these allegations?
DR: We as soldiers have never got involved in politics, in order to protect democracy in this country. The army is the organisation who has fought most to maintain democracy. In 1962 there was a coup attempt and we got involved and prevented that from happening. In 1971 there was an insurgency and soldiers again managed to protect this country. In 1988/89 there was a huge insurgency against democracy and the country was protected. From the late 1970s to 2009/10 there was the Northern insurgency. The army has given so much in order to protect democracy in this country. We are not politically motivated. We have 100% loyalty to the government.
SL Guardian: There was a book written and printed by the Sri Lankan army during the last presidential campaign. It was widely criticised as political engagement on behalf of the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. How do you respond to this?
DR: We have published books for many years and that was not one isolated book. We have been publishing books and leaflets. These leaflets are about what the military is doing, to inform soldiers and their families. Previously, at the end of the month on the back of a pay sheet we printed the information. When I assumed command I developed a monthly leaflet instead. At the end of the month we do a summary of all that the military has down for the betterment of the soldiers. It is completely a military thing, our system of informing our soldiers, and we have published a number of books relating to this.
We also published Samma Sankappa which means the right intention for a better society. In that book we write that in order to develop a disciplined society first you must discipline yourself, then your family, then the immediate society, then the larger society, then the village, then the city, then the country. These are the steps that are explained in that book and how to do that. We developed this into a plan of sending soldiers out into the villages. Critics are suggesting that the the army is therefore “doing politics”. There is no politics, this book is even suitable to use as a textbook in schools. I am surprised at this criticism and allegations from these disgruntled elements. I feel sorry for those who believe these allegations, without looking at the proper facts.
SL Guardian: Meanwhile there were reports that a coup was planned in Temple Trees, hours before the planned departure of Mr Rajapaksa. Reports said that you were also summoned to the head office for your opinion. Tell us what exactly happened that night?
DR: Sri Lankan society would not accept and have never experienced such a coup. We are seen around the world as a very professional army, an army that defeated terrorism in the 21st century. So we have respect right around the world for that with people coming to learn from us how to do such things. This army has sacrificed so much in the best interests of this country, to maintain this country as a democracy, and I can tell you even on the election day there were allegations that the military was going to get involved, especially in the North and the Eastern areas. Do you know what happened? 81% of people voted, not a single incident, everyone praised the army. Some said that the party in power would not hand over power, and will use the military to maintain their position. They were making allegations. Then in the early hours of the 9th January, when the results were coming out, the council officers were called in to the Temple retreat and we saw transition of power taking place. The transition was very smooth. There were no attempts of a coup. These are all fabricated stories by some interested parties. This is how it happened.
SL Guardian: The Foreign Minister, Mr. Mangala Smaraweera, lodged a complaint before the Criminal Investigation Department regarding this incident. Do you have any comment on this?
DR: When you have doubts in the minds of the people, it is very good to clarify. So the Foreign Minister made complaints and got the Criminal Investigation Department to do an inquiry. That is the beauty of a democracy. I am happy that it happened else there may be doubts in the minds of people. As a soldier I am happy because we want to see that our democracy is protected. Everything is happening in a democratic manner and I am happy. That is why we supported the government in their investigations.
SL Guardian: In your farewell speech last Sunday (22nd Feb) you pointed to the army as the major defender of the nation, and that it is has now reached international standards by successfully transforming itself from a warfare to peacetime army. Tell us more about your statement.
DR: We were fighting at a very high intensity and like a conventional army. We reached the final eradication of terrorism in 2009, thereafter have had a number of elections, which are the hallmark of democracy. A transition of power took place just recently. So as soldiers we sacrificed much to achieve this. We have seen the development of elections, from those of the 1980s with people threatened and shot at, and so on. From there to achieve this much: being a democratic country with 81% people voting, it is a very good indicator of the interest of the people in maintaining democracy and how the army has supported this.
SL Guardian: Local media reported that you were applied for an extension but the government did not wish to approve it. Do you see any reason behind this?
DR: I did not apply for an extension. That is not what happened. The decision was made by the government and I respect the decision. I leave as a very, very happy person who has been able to give my best service to the nation when it was required most. I am a person who has achieved self-fulfilment and self-actualisation.
SL Guardian: In conclusion General, what is your message to the international community and to the new government of Sri Lanka, as well as to the people in general?
DR: Sri Lanka has gone through very tough times and yet we have maintained a democracy. Despite all the problems from 1931 to today, we have regularly held elections whatever the difficult times we have gone through. We have been fighting for 30 years and we have eradicated terrorism and brought all our communities together. Now is a good opportunity for us to have final reconciliation and achieve sustainable peace. Therefore, we would like other countries around the world to give maximum support, to help us to keep this country united. That is good for this country, that is good for the region, that is good for the entire world. I openly say, to those people who are criticising us, and making allegations against us, they must come and see the way things are happening in this country and how we brought peace to this country, how we overcame our challenges. These are good examples for the entire world to learn from. We have got to work together. We are willing to give our experience and knowledge for the betterment of mankind in the world. If all our communities come together and work together in the best interest of the country then we will overcome our difficulties and have sustainable peace.