In this exclusive interview Chief of Defence Staff and Commander of the Army, General Shavendra Silva talks candidly about his life, the
army and his work as the head of the Presidential Task Force at the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak
(NOCPCO). An astute professional, a courageous official, a general with an illustrious career but most of all, an individual who puts the
needs of 21.8 million people first before his own, speaks up. Below are excerpts from the interview with Nilantha Ilangamuwa, Editor
in Chief of Lanka Courier:
Q. General, let me start this interview by quoting a sentence from the farewell speech of late Major General Muttukumaru, and he said ‘when army was formed, we set out to achieve standards of conduct and professional efficiency in keeping with the prestige of an independent state.’ The army is one of the pioneering state organ, which has overcome numerous challenges, while keeping its standards of conduct in protecting the prestige of our nation. Can you give us a brief overview of this historical pathway?
A. The prestige of a nation is a direct measure on how far it can preserve its values and pursue interest, amidst influences by other state and non-state actors in the global arena. The power or the ability to pursue and preserve the interests of any country stems from four instruments namely diplomatic, information, economy and military. Out of this ‘military’ plays a vital role since all other factors are undermined if the security of the country is at a doubt. In other sense a military is required to protect and preserve the conducive environment for exercising the diplomacy, economy and information powers by a country. While some countries use the military as a tool to save the country from internal and external threats, other may use it for power projection and impose their geopolitical will to take the interests away from the homeland. We have ample experiences from the world on how Armies have achieved the desired goals professionally and other means. Therefore, the standards of the conduct of the Army lies on how reliable that Army is in delivering the necessary effect and achieving objectives set by the democratic government and how professional the Army is in achieving it.
Sri Lanka Army is not an exemption to this phenomenon; in our history we have learnt that some of our Kings have sent expeditionary forces abroad and have used the land forces to repulse the invasions and assure the territorial integrity, however, there is no evidence that our army have degraded the decorum. The land force or the Army is the key military power we have in safeguarding Sri Lanka’s national interest against multifaceted adversaries. Therefore, conduct of the military is a direct reflection of the government will. From the inception, Sri Lanka Army has been the most credible force of the government in mitigating various challenges against the state, for its professional, reliable and systematic approach to situations. From the independence in 1948 Sri Lanka was challenged by two major insurgency situations firstly JVP insurgency in 1971 and 1987 and secondly so called ethnically fuelled LTTE terrorism. In these cases, the Army was the principal mean of exercising legitimate force by the government. These operations were conducted successfully in different terrains, levels and constraints proving its credibility as a professional force.
At the end of 1990’s LTTE appeared more-bloodier, well-organized and having its firm ties with internationally rooted Diaspora. LTTE not limiting its target to military bases, began to target socio, economic, and religious hubs with the aim of paralyzing the government, sometimes in the form of suicide attacks, converting itself gradually from insurgency to semiconventional force which possesses an Air wing and a powerful Naval wing. Consequently, the Sri Lanka Army started fighting a semi-conventional war with LTTE Terrorists. The Army stood firm and reorganized its forces to outmanoeuvre the LTTE without resorting to war of attrition or unethical tactics as used by the LTTE. This is another example of the standard maintained by a legitimate Army. Final stage of the war was largely humanitarian in nature, since the LTTE used human shield as the final resort. This opened a new dimension to the Sri Lankan Army involvement. Issues concerning the physical safety of civilians was the prime concern. Sri Lanka Army operated with tight hands, where the use of heavy weapons, machineguns or sometimes even the small arms were strictly controlled to prevent human suffering. The active approach of the relief system to this humanitarian crisis highlights Sri Lanka Army’s status as a critical and persistent success of the operations spearheaded on humanitarian considerations. This was a real test on Sri Lanka Army’s professionalism, standards and conduct.
The daring military operation to rescue the trapped civilians is considered as one of the biggest humanitarian operations in the world. At the latter stage of the operation, LTTE kept civilians under captivity as last resort. LTTE began killing innocent civilians when they tried to flee from LTTE captivity to the Army held areas during which lot of civilians lost their lives and many people were wounded. Some individuals and groups try to frame these inhumane activities of LTTE Terrorist as government forces actions, which is absolutely not true.
Sri Lanka Army happened to utilize limited weapons, highly precise munitions and highly skilled and trained soldiers to deal with this situation. The course of action demanded from Sri Lanka Army to handle humanitarian aids, treating sick and wounded as the initial action followed by demining, rehabilitation, aiding the resettlement and uplifting the socio economic standards of the people of North and East. Despite each occasion demanded different capabilities, the Army has professionally responded preserving its identity, quality and decorum.
As you witness today, the relevance, credibility and the standard of the Army in safeguarding the country’s prestige, was again proved by the involvement of Army in containing the recent COVID 19 outbreak where we happened to work with many stakeholders, agencies and authorities. Therefore, as General Muthukumaru, the first Commander of the Army highlighted the Army has been an essential element of Sri Lanka’s existence as a sovereign state and the Army has kept its standard and high quality as a professional force to date.
Q. Can you take us back to your school days and to what led you to join the Army and inspired you thereafter?
A. I started my primary schooling from St Joseph’s College Anuradhapura. Later when my father was transferred to Matale for work, I happened to change my School to Vijaya College, Matale where I studied at grade 4 and 5. For grade 6, I joined St Thomas’ College, Matale which I consider the first turning point of my life. On the first day, my mother, who was a teacher, wanted me to join the College Band. But on that day I did not even have a musical instrument. Only on the second day I managed to carry a flute.
My first bandmaster was Mr Bandara Athauda (a professional musician now); his charisma and conduct inspired me to perform in the band and appreciate music. In grade 8, the college band was selected the Cadet Band of National Cadet Corps and I was the first Cadet Band Sergeant Major. In addition to the Cadet Band, I was a member of the school cadet platoon since grade 6 and became a Cadet Sergeant in grade 8. I also played for the school Cricket Team. When I was playing for under 12 Team my brother was Captain for under 14 school team keeping wickets. When my brother left school, I was selected as the wicket keeper of the first XI team as I was performing better than the wicket keeper of the under 16-school team. I managed to play for the first XI cricket team while playing for under 15-cricket team. In grade 8, I was made prefect at my school as I was playing for school first XI cricket team, performing as the school bandleader and a Cadet Sergeant. Grade 8 was one of the turning points in my life where I was able to represent the school in several fields as the first Sergeant Major of the School Cadet Band, Captain of under 15-school cricket team while playing for the first XI cricket team, Sergeant of the school cadet platoon and a school prefect. By the time, I finished grade 10, I was appointed Head Prefect of the school in addition to the responsibilities of Captain of School first XI Cricket Team and School Band Leader.
As a young student, I had to lead the school students, some of them who were elder to me and senior in school. This gave me an edge and competence to continue as a leader. During my career as a military leader, my performances contributed to being selected for commanding formations and to lead soldiers over many other officers who were senior and elder to me. I was the youngest officer ever as a Commanding Officer of an infantry battalion in the Sri Lanka Army to lead the soldiers in Operation Riviresa and I was the youngest officer to become a Major General in the Sri Lanka Army. I have continued with the same spirit as in my school days to give my best to the country.
With profound gratitude and honor, I have to admit the success that I have achieved and the position I am at today is because of the attributes I was endowed by my School. I pay my humble respect to my first Principal Mr. A.J Wijesinhe, my Cadet Masters Colonel Welegedara and Colonel Berni Thennakoon for teaching me how to stand tall. Even today when I have to stand in attention, I adhere to the instructions given to me by them years ago. I thank my masters and all other teachers of St Thomas’s College Matale, for recognizing me as a potential leader, entrusting me to bear responsibilities greater than my age and bestowing the best leadership attributes on me. To mention what inspired me to join the Army and thereafter; first, I had an inspiration to join the Sri Lanka Cricket Team in my school days. When I grew older, I was selected to Sri Lanka Under 19 School Cricket Team. When I came to NCC for Under 19 School Cricket Team practices, I saw how the outstation cricketers were alienated in the Colombo cricket forum and I realized it was a impossible for an outstation cricketer to be a player in the National Cricket Team, however my dream would not fade away.
Meanwhile, I watched an Officer from Sri Lanka Air Force, Susil Fernando who was playing in Sri Lankan Cricket Team. This was a herald of hope for me to join the services and so I worked towards my dream. Secondly my elder brother had already joined Sri Lanka Air Force, which inspired me to join the services. I think these are the motives for me. When I applied to be an Officer, I got the opportunity to choose between the Army and Air Force where I took the chose the Army. As I mentioned earlier, I had a dream to continue with Cricket in the service; however, this motivation was overshadowed by the need to become a career infantryman. Firstly in the Sri Lanka Military Academy, I met (late) Major Genral Janaka Perera. His charisma, conduct and lectures left indelible inspiration on me. Secondly I was fortunate to be the first officer to be posted to the prestigious Gajaba Regiment which bestowed me the pride of an infantryman. Lastly when I marched to my Commanding Officer as a young Second Lieutenant for the first time, my Commanding Officer happened to be the Great General Vijaya Wimalarathna who is a fame battlehardened legend in the Army.
I still remember the instructions and advices given to me by General Vijaya Wimalarathna on the very first day and the very first few hours of my career as an officer. The words he told inspired me and remains in my mind and it paved the way for me to be who I am today. I tried my best to practice his valuable insights even today. His guidance even led me to be an instructor at Sri Lanka Military Academy. I respect the great leadership of my Officer Commanding, Colonel Y N Palipana (who was killed with other higher-ranking Officers in August 1992).
From whom I learnt the lessons of conducting myself as an officer, infantryman and gentleman with highest military decorum. Fifth, during the war, particularly during the last stages of the war, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka recognised me as a potential Division Commander and appointed me as the General Officer Commanding of 58 Division as well as the Commander of Commando Brigade. Trusting me to bear these responsibilities amidst many other Officers senior to me inspired me to lead the 58 Division and the Commando Brigade as the most successful field formations in the humanitarian operation.
Finally, but most importantly, the leader who inspired me since the day one of my officering as a Second Lieutenant in the Gajaba Regiment is none other than His Excellency the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Having served with him since the first day of my officering, I still see the same human and gentleman in him even many years later. He understood every junior officer under him and was an exemplary leader to his subordinates and followers. His foresight has always been instrumental in decision making and I personally learnt a lot of lessons from him to succeed my career as a leader. He is a proven visionary leader and a decision maker who wisely analyzes the situations methodically to bring out best possible responses.
I remember His Excellency the President as the Second in Command of my Battalion, once saved my life when I was critically injured during the Operation Wadamarachchi at Achchuweli, where he himself attended by lifting me onto a helicopter under the heavy thrust and rains of offensive fire by LTTE. From there, during many stages of my life as my Commanding Officer where I was the Adjutant, Secretary Defence and His Excellency the President of the country, has been a mentor, savior and leader of my life where his recognition of me to the position where I am today is a great inspiration and motivation for me to serve this country with utmost dedication and spirit
Q. How do you respond to those who criticize you?
A. The criticism is an inevitable phenomenon in any profession, work, service, or any person. Whatever …