An Exclusive Interview with General Kamal Gunaratne (Retd) WWV RWP RSP USP ndc psc MPhil , Secretary, Ministry Of Defence
The thinking pattern of our people needs to change, General Kamal Gunaratne Secretary, Ministry of Defence said in an interview with Nilantha Ilangamuwa, Editor in Chief of Lanka Courier. General Kamal Gunaratne (Retd) is an iconic leadership figure in Sri Lanka who was elevated to the Four Star General Rank by H.E. the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa; the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
As a gallant military leader with a distinguished military career spanning over 35 years and having almost two years of service as a Government Official of Sri Lanka, General Gunaratne is currently holding Secretary appointments in both Ministry of Defence and State Ministry of National Security and Disaster Management.
Being a renowned Senior Military Officer, the role played by him as the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 53 Division during the final phase of the Humanitarian Operation has made its records in the contemporary war history of Sri Lanka. He has served as the Commander, Security Forces, (Wanni) and during the latter stages of his military career, he has held two Principal Staff Officer Appointments at Army Headquarters as the Adjutant General (AG) and Master General Ordinance (MGO).
General Gunaratne has also served in the diplomatic field as the Deputy Head of Mission in Brazil accredited to Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia & Suriname. He is an author who innovated the War Literature for the first time in Sri Lankan history and has published seven books to date, including the revolutionary war literary sensation in Sri Lanka; ‘Road to Nandikadal’. He is also an eminent lyrics writer who has written seven songs thus far. A past student of Dharmapala Vidyalaya, Pannipitiya and Ananda College, Colombo, General Gunaratne joined the Sri Lanka Army as an Officer Cadet in August, 1981.
Excerpts from the interview;
In your book you have spoken at length about the war and the root causes. Do you think we as nation have learned a lesson out of this conflict?
I think this Government, being a responsible one, has learned with past experience the root causes for this problem, how terrorism started, developed and the evolution of LTTE to become a sophisticated terrorist outfit with Naval and Air arms. It was a huge strength which other international terrorist organisations did not possess. We have done lots of studies on strategic, operational and tactical level of the instances where we have gone wrong. Because when something is taking root you need to nip it in the bud, because if you don’t, it is going to take roots and will make it extremely difficult to tackle it. The reason behind this war was the politically backed separatist ideology of LTTE led by Velupillai Prabhakaran who acted as the sole representative of Tamils who were eying for an autonomous land for them to rule. This can be described as a root cause, because since a long time, the Sinhalese and Tamils had been coexisting together, but it changed. One lesson we learnt is the need for a proper intelligence network. Even if you have the biggest standing army in the region, unless you have an experienced, educated and interconnected intelligence system which is integrated with every other intelligence agency, you are not going to be successful. After a period of time, we realised the need for a proper system. During the last phase of the Eelam War 4, led by the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the then Secretary of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa, we realised the need for this and an overhaul happened. Intelligence began to work together, they shared knowledge and experience.
Secondly we recognised the need for a sizeable force to counter the threat posed by the LTTE. The moment the terrorists started something, the intelligence agencies should be able to know it beforehand. A process then takes shape where information is collected, irrelevant information is skimmed and intelligence is disseminated.
Thirdly, when intelligence is provided, there should be skilled individuals to act upon the same. The Army has various Regiments. The Army should be very well organised to meet any situation predicted by the intelligence agencies. That is why whenever the attempts were taken to downsize the forces, particularly the Army, we objected. Because we should wait and see. At the end of the war we apprehended more than 6000, and another 6000 surrendered. They were taken into custody and put through a comprehensive rehabilitation process. This was handled by the Army, except for one incident of Gopi, not a single incident of terrorism has been committed by these individuals. Even today, the international Tamil Diaspora is trying hard to revive the organisation but our intelligence works harder.
As you pointed out there was a well-coordinated approach yet there seems to be an endless spate of allegations which keeps coming up. What is your response to those?
All these allegations popped up after 19 May 2009 when we ended the war. If you study the allegations that have been leveled against the then President, Defence Secretary, the Army Commander and even myself, anyone in their right mind will realise that there is no credibility to these allegations. If you study the HRC report, it’s obvious that it is a result of fabricated facts instigated by pro-LTTE organisations. Just because they want to pin us to the wall, they come out with allegations, but by doing so, they lose their credibility. Even the other member states realise that it’s fabricated. The best example is that not a single incident of terrorism has been reported since the end of the war, no exchange of fire, no flying ambulances. In those days, there were so many casualties reported from attacks daily, people in the North and East hid their children in fear of the LTTE. Have a look at the developed road network in the Northern Province. Every home was given the electricity supply but no one speaks of it.
When donor agencies came to meet me back when I was the Wanni commander, they always mentioned about malnutrition, so I challenged them and told them that if they ever found a malnourished child, I will resign and go home. That was the level, the Government maintained.
When there is a war, casualties are inevitable. Obvious casualties for combatants and there may be civilians if we do not take precautions. But we being a responsible and respectable Government Force, we always declared civilian casualties as zero tolerance.
The Government is attempting to counter these wrong assumptions, which they are coming to question us with preconceived notions fed to them by segments of the society with vested interests of the Tamil Diaspora. Sri Lankan Diplomatic Missions in foreign countries should take this message across the world.
Do we have a strategy on a diplomatic level to address this?
Some Diplomatic Missions have taken the initiative to restore the confidence on Sri Lanka. Everyone should take this mission seriously including the media as all of us have a role to play in this process.
When it comes to this kind of national issues, we have seen disunity among the society, even among politicians, how do we then convince the general public to come together?
The only solution rests with leaders, even opposition politicians, they have to act responsibly. Because with wrong utterances, the damage will be high. There are tricks and gimmicks of politicians who play for the gallery. Now consider what the northern politicians say, they never speak of development but of the shortcomings. They want to keep their people in poverty. They don’t want children in those areas to become educated. That should not happen, we should reserve love for children irrespective of their ethnicity, cast or creed.
If you take the southern politician, any move to keep the people safe and happy by ensuring National Security, they always criticise, they are trying to find something wrong. In the European countries, if the previous Government had done something good, the next Government continues it but it’s not the same in South Asian countries.
You speak at length about patriotism and you’ve written about it too. How does that fit in to this context?
As 5th Executive President and present Prime Minister Hon. Mahinda Rajapaksa believes; his first priority is the ‘country’, the second is also the ‘country’ and the third priority is also the ‘country’. That is a great example for patriotism where nothing else takes precedence. You are gifted to be born here, you get free education from Grade 1, you get free healthcare at any time, and you get everything. How many countries in this world offer this? This much of social security is given to you and your loved ones. This is a beautiful country and the hospitality of our people is known the world over. Our motherland was protected by our ancestors who sacrificed their lives for freedom. More than 29000 soldiers were killed and more than 3000 were reported Missing In Action (MIA) during the recent conflict. Patriotism means the love towards the motherland and its future generations.
You complete 1 year and 5 months in your capacity, please take me through some of your achievements so far?
One of the biggest challenges, which our President wanted to undertake, was to crush the underworld and drug menace. When I took over the Defence Ministry, the Police and TRC were under me. I had control over prisons, we started a long journey, an uphill task but we were successful in the amount of drugs we seized. We had to take more measures to control the underworld kingpins and that is why I came out with the idea of a ‘Maximum Security Prison’ which is now in Boosa where the most notorious criminals are kept. That kind of control has been established. We identified the drug dealers’ chain of command and their proxies.
On June 02, 2020 I was appointed as the Chairman for the Presidential Task Forces (PTF) on Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province. Therefore, propelling the work on PTF to manage the Archaeological Heritage in the Eastern Province, I have steered the restoration of Deegawapiya Stupa whilst initiating swift measures.
Among the other Archaeological Heritage sites in the region, the restoration work on both Muhudu Maha Viharaya and dilapidated Neelagiri Stupa, Lahugala are also in the pipeline. Meanwhile, the Sandahiru Stupa construction in Anuradhapura is also advancing in a rapid phase and it will be open for devotees soon.
Apart from above, cabinet approval was obtained recently for the lifetime salary and allowances payment for dependents of the war heroes as a tribute to their gallant services rendered to the motherland.
What are the challenges you faced?
Controlling the underworld kingpins, the amount of money they have amassed. Because when a lot of money is offered, there are many within the society who are willing to do anything for it. Our main focus of attention was drawn to users; most of them are youth who went astray. Just because they were arrested with a packet of drugs, their life is destroyed when they are put behind bars for several months, the prison system here is unforgiving because it is notorious. So when a user is arrested we want him or her to be produced before a magistrate and then sent to rehabilitation.
Today is 21st April, we are aware of what happened in the country two years ago. There are so many conflicting reports of what happened. How do you see it?
If you are a leader in whichever the capacity, you have to behave like one. There are two types of leaders. People who are moulded with leadership qualities and then there are others who are hereditary. Regardless of where you fall into one you have to behave, talk, and think like a leader. Just because you get some wrong information, if you are a leader you must not amplify it. The leaders today should look at their roles seriously, they should think of the people, who elected them there. When they begin to think that way, they act more responsibly.
This whole episode; I consider it as a negligence of duty due to ignorance. After serving in the Army for 35 years and four days I was out in the corporate sector and came back as the Secretary Defence. The moment I receive a single piece of information, I can smell something. I am an infantry soldier, I see, I hear, I smell and I feel. I see the danger hundreds of kilometers away; I don’t wait until the danger comes to hug me. In the military we have something called preemption; we have something called shaping the battlefield. I am not talking of battlefields with columns of tanks or artillery. But in any battlefield you have to shape the battle in a way that the enemy will play into your hands. As Commander of the Army, Navy or Air Force, it is the same for the Secretary Defence or even the Minister. There were 97 warnings had come on this attack but not even one had been taken seriously. Someone sent a letter; another person has passed it on and then washed their hands. If there is even a slightest danger to the National Security you have to be careful. Every life in this country is lying in your hands.
What are your challenges in strengthening National Security in a post Easter Attack scenario?
There are two main challenges, the first being the extremism and the other is separatism. If you look at separatism, on 19 May 2009 we eradicated the LTTE terrorism with great sacrifices and people returned to their normalcy. But things changed, after a period of time, people started abusing the privilege, they started to sling mud at us and have conveniently forgotten the sacrifices made by the forces. We maintained the same standard with regard to intelligence but with the relaxed attitude of then Government Officials at top posts responsible for National Security, the extremists got the upper hand. We finished terrorism but not separatism because there are still Tamil leaders with various motives and interested parties of Tamil Diaspora trying to get the machinery going again. When it came to extremism it was a result of negligence. We are dealing with extremism and we have taken many measures including last week’s decision where we proscribed 11 extremist organisations. It is not a discrimination against an ethnicity or religion, anyone who spread extremism will need to be dealt with. I remember when my Regiment took down Prabhakaran I was interviewed by foreign journalists and I told them that I salute those gallant soldiers who relentlessly pursued the nation’s enemy to the desired end. The desired end is a formulation of the aspiration of the entire population.
Do you think it’s time to reengineer how we think of National Security?
The thinking pattern of our people needs to change. They need to be more patriotic. Some have no patriotism; they have received free education, free health but curse the nation. By cursing the motherland they become a curse unto themselves.
Can you tell me about the importance of regional cooperation for National Security?
When you look at the regional countries and extra-regional powers maintaining relations with our country, owing to the unique geographical location of Sri Lanka, we have a considerably exclusive role to play. We are required to continue on our non-aligned policy towards every country in order to promote cooperation among nations. When it comes to intelligence sharing we have a good network with other countries and I believe that the same kind of understanding is there in every aspect.
We live in a data driven society, and the traditional tools are not enough. How do you look at emerging trends?
With the technological advances, we have to look at it and see if we are on the correct or wrong path. If you take social media, it’s a result of technologically advanced systems and we have to touch our hearts and see if we are using it for the betterment or to stir anger and hatred. Unfortunately it is mostly used for the latter. I don’t think we are on the correct path. Every citizen has the responsibility to act in a way that does not hurt others.
Lastly, your advice to the younger generation?
To put the country first. Every child regardless of the society, cast, gender that they are born into, have a responsibility and ability to love this country and help to take it forward. The younger generations coming of age must express a remarkable optimism on their own, towards making our country’s future bright. From the early ages they have a responsibility to make Sri Lanka a strong country, something that they care personally, and they must believe that the success comes from hard work and harmony amongst all.*
[ Last update: 28 May 2021 ]