Living with Tigers
SPECIAL REPORT : Part 149
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Memoirs of retired Commodore Ajith Boyagoda cannot be compared with those of his colleagues.
A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka, authored by Boyagoda and Sunila Galappatti, dealt with the former’s eight-years, in captivity, of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (1994-2002) and his subsequent humiliating experience in the Navy.
Mrs Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had been Prime Minister at the time of Boyagoda’s capture. The LTTE released Boyagoda during Ranil Wickremesinghe tenure as the Premier.
Having recently reviewed retired Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne’s Rana Maga Osse Nanthikadal and war-time Navy Chief Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda’s "Adishtanaya", Boyagoda’s memoirs seem strikingly different.
Those who had bought a copy, expecting Boyagoda to denounce the LTTE, would have been surely disappointed. Had anyone believed Boyagoda would censure the LTTE, as the organization no longer existed, A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka proved them all wrong. The writer, obviously, never had a Sinhala readership in his mind and went on to recollect his experience in LTTE captivity. Obviously, a Sinhala version of Boyagoda’s memoirs will certainly not appeal to the vast majority of the Sinhalese. However, Boyagoda should be commended for having the courage to express his views, regardless of the consequences.
Having joined the Navy, in the wake of the first abortive JVP insurgency, in 1971, the young cadet wouldn’t have contemplated facing an enemy as ruthless as the LTTE. Boyogoda had been 20 years old when he joined the Navy, in 1974. Those joining the armed forces, in the 70s, from middle class families, expected a glamorous life. The ordinary youth hadn’t been welcomed as cadets. That was the undeniable truth. Boyagoda, from Kandy, had been in the 4th intake, with all 12 cadets being Sinhala Buddhists. "Most of the other cadets were from schools in Colombo. Then there was myself from Kandy and two others, from Kegalle and Kalutara. We were 12 in total. At the time we thought it a superb coincidence that we were all Sinhala Buddhists. We had that majority feeling." Is Boyagoda being sarcastic?
Karannagoda had been in the second intake.
At the onset of his account, The author briefly discussed life as a cadet, the 1977 and 1983 riots, and Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka, in the wake of the 1983 violence, directed at them, and overseas deployment. Boyagoda essentially condoned Tamils seeking refuge overseas.
Unfortunately, there hadn’t been, at least a reference to Indian intervention, by way of giving the required expertise to the LTTE to wipe out of an army patrol, in July 1983, in Jaffna. The slaughter of 13 soldiers sparked the riots. The then foolish JRJ government turned a blind eye to what was happening and even facilitated the massacre of innocents. In hindsight, JRJ played into the hands of Indian policymakers. One-time Indian Foreign Secretary, J.N. Dixit, in his memoirs ‘Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun Roy to Yashwant Sinha’, launched in 2004, explained the Indian intervention here. Had Admiral Karannagoda, Maj. Gen. Gunaratne and Commodore perused Dixit memoirs, they would have had a clear perspective of the events here.
Obviously, Boyagoda had a soft spot for his captors who spared his life though they could have executed him. An irate Boyagoda, while alleging that the Navy hadn’t been interested in knowing what he thought of the enemy, described his period in captivity as living with the LTTE. "People talk about the LTTE all the time; I lived with them for eight years and no one - not even my own naval command - ever wanted to hear my account of what they were like." Boyagoda added: "In knowing mine is not the only story. I have heard screams coming from underground cells."
Post 1983 period
Boyagoda dealt with his first posting in Nainativu island, off Jaffna, soon after the July 1983 riots, his marriage to Chandani, whom he met at an annual Navy Day Dance, life on Nainativu island, difficulties experienced by Tamils in the hands of the armed forces due to their community waging war, and gradual change in the ground situation in the Northern Province leading to armed forces being confined to their barracks. The retired officer discussed constitutional changes in the 70s, onset of violence on the Northern Province, India forcing the so-called Indo-Lanka Accord on the then President JRJ, deployment of the Indian Army, Sri Lankan military re-deployed in the South, to quell the second JVP insurgency, operations undertaken by the then DIG Premadasa Udugampola in the South and Kandy, providing security to the then Opposition Leader Appapillai Amirthalingam, destruction of Jaffna library, India quitting Sri Lanka, in March 1990, assassination of the then Congress I leader, Rajiv Gandhi, in May, 1991, assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, on May Day, 1993.
Water denied to MR home
Boyagoda recollected an incident involving his posting to Tangalle Navy base in the 80s during Ranasinghe Premadasa’s presidency. It reflected the political situation then and now. Those who had been in power had been basically harassed by their political opponents. In the wake of the UNP stopping water supply to the then SLFP MP Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Beliatta residence, Mrs Shiranthi Rajapaksa had met Boyagoda to secure a bowser of water from the Navy. As Mrs Rajapaksa had been running a nursery at her home, she required water. The water cut had been imposed immediately after MP Rajapaksa launched the Pada Yatra-protest walk, from the South to Colombo, to highlight dictatorial UNP rule. Boyagoda, regardless of consequences, had provided water, without seeking approval from Colombo.
Siege on Karainagar in 1991
The author discussed his transfer from the East to Karainagar in late 1991 at the height of the LTTE offensive, during eelam war II. The LTTE resumed hostilities, in June, 1990, in the wake of India withdrawing her Army, in March, 1990. Having quickly overrun isolated army detachments, along the Kandy-Jaffna road, north of Vavuniya, the LTTE stepped up pressure on Karainagar. Boyagoda dealt with the Army clearing the Karainagar area and indiscriminate destruction of Tamil speaking people’s property, widespread looting of houses and an attempt to separate women from men and general harassment of the population. Boyagoda strongly condemned the Army, alleging that those troops sent in to save the Navy, under siege at Karainagar, simply destroyed everything on sight belonging to Tamil civilians. Condemning the actions of what he described as a Sinhala Army marching through Tamil villages, Boyagoda asserted those youth, affected by atrocities, wouldn’t have hesitated to join the LTTE. Boyagoda briefly examined the failure of those who had been in charge of ground forces to stop destruction of property and large scale looting. The Navy had been unable to intervene on behalf of the civilian population, with the Army leadership on the ground (Karainagar) justifying soldiers’ right to loot. Looting had been justified on the basis troops needed cash in case they received serious injury in combat. The officers had asserted such conduct was normal in war and conflict. Kamal Gunaratne, in his memoirs, acknowledged severe shortcomings on their part in those days. Gunaratne admitted that their conduct had been inimical to ordinary civilians and regretted their failure to rein in troops. Boyagoda had been in a collision course with the Army in the wake of clearing operations in Karainagar.
The military shouldn’t be ashamed to publicly apologise for the misconduct of troops, during the war. In fact, the previous government should have made a public apology, explaining the circumstances under which atrocities took place. Such a course of action would have certainly put pressure on Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Velupillai Prabhakaran’s wartime ally. The TNA – LTTE partnership remained strong until the very end when the Army brought the LTTE down to its knees, in May, 2009, nearly seven years after Boyagoda secured his release.
The Army paid a huge price to eradicate the LTTE though Boyagoda didn’t pay much attention to it. Over 5,000 officers and men died in eelam war IV (Aug 2006-March 2009) with thousands maimed.
Living with Tigers
Had he been allowed to retire, in 1994, after having served the Navy for 20 years, Boyagoda wouldn’t have been in command of Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) Sagarawardene when Sea Tigers blew it up off Mannar, in late Sept, 1994.
Boyagoda had been on his final voyage on Sagarawardene, one of the two 40 meter long Colombo Dockyard built OPVs in service at that time. Monitoring LTTE communications, on land, had been one of the primary tasks for the vessel, capable of operating on its own, for longer periods out at sea.
The author detailed the ill-fated final mission with focus on the battle between Sagarawardene and a flotilla of Sea Tigers craft, an unsuccessful SLAF attempt to interdict Sea Tiger craft withdrawing towards land following the attack and him being rescued by the enemy along with Leading Supply Assistant Vijitha. The only Commanding Officer of a ship ever to be captured by Sea Tigers discussed severe difficulties experienced by the Navy for want of suitable craft to achieve primary naval objectives.
Once taken ashore, Boyagoda had been visited by Sea Tiger commander Thillaiyampalam Sivanesan alias Soosai. Boyagoda recollected meeting Soosai with awe. Let me reproduce verbatim Boyagoda’s comment on Soosai. "He (Soosai) came and shook hands with me. I said, in English, ‘I have heard you so many times over the net, I’m glad to meet you.’ I don’t remember his reaction-at most he nodded his head."
The author never explained why he was glad to meet the man who had ordered destruction of his vessel. Soosai, and those around him, would have been certainly surprised by Boyagoda’s remark. How could a senior officer be happy to meet the man who had ordered his vessel sunk causing the death of the majority of his crew? Sagarawardene had been the largest vessel available to the Navy at that time.
The author, quite rightly found fault with a section of the media for alluding that he had clandestine link with the LTTE. Boyagoda also castigated the then Navy leadership for blaming him for negligence thereby paving the way for the destruction of a precious asset.
Boyagoda had been warned by his superiors to be cautious as the then newly elected Premier Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was having talks with the LTTE. Having defeated the UNP at the August 1994 parliamentary polls, Mrs Kumaratunga was busy negotiating with the LTTE, in the run-up to the Nov 1994 presidential polls. The then Deputy Area Commander had personally warned Boyagoda to be wary as talks were talking place.
In the following month, the LTTE assassinated UNP presidential candidate, Gamini Dissanayake, along with over 50 persons. The dead included several UNP politicians, including the then General Secretary of the party Dr. Gamini Wijesekera.
Rapport with captors
Boyagoda discussed living in various LTTE camps in the Northern Province, facing, whom he described, as inexperienced interrogators, meeting Army and Police personnel in captivity, access to International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC), receiving gifts from family and much publicized hunger strike leading to high level tripartite deliberations to end their fast and secure their release. Their fast obviously had the tacit support of the LTTE. The LTTE exploited and managed the event to secure maximum possible coverage. Such events had been part of the LTTE’s well planned strategy meant to intensify pressure on the government and to secure positive media coverage. Boyagoda dealt with the highly publicized visits undertaken by families of those who had been held captive during the conflict. There had been some disagreements with the LTTE and its captives. Boyagoda’s memoirs would certainly help readers to understand the mindset of the LTTE to a certain extent.
Boyagoda narrated an LTTE attempt to recruit him to its feared intelligence service. The offer had been made three years after Boyagoda’s capture by a person, the author identified as Sangeethan. The LTTE had offered to release Boyagoda along with several other prisoners if he agreed to provide shelter to LTTE intelligence wing cadres sent on secret missions to the South. Boyagoda had politely spurned the offer though he feared the LTTE reaction. Interestingly, the late ‘Lt. Col.’ Thamilini, in her memoirs, discussed the difficulties experienced by those who had been positioned in the South to undertake various missions, on behalf of the LTTE. Boyagoda dealt with several LTTE personnel, including Sangeethan, who had been in charge of the captives. Sangeethan had tormented captives by imposing a range of restrictions in the wake of a soldier detonating a hand grenade killing himself and wounding several LTTE cadres. The LTTE stepped up security and toughened restrictions in spite of protests by captives. Boyagoda also recalled the death of soldier Hemapala, due to natural causes, while in captivity and his body being handed over to ICRC at Kilinochchi following an LTTE gun salute. Hemapala had been the only soldier who had been with Boyagoda to die in LTTE captivity.
Boyagoda had been in LTTE captivity when an attempt was made on the life of the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, in late Dec 1999, just ahead of the presidential polls. Boyogada lamented the failure of several attempts, over the years, to arrange their release with the ICRC’s involvement. There had been a detailed account of their daily struggle to cope with the situation. There had been repeated setbacks though families of those who were held by the LTTE continued their efforts to secure the release of their loved ones. In fact, there hadn’t been any detailed accounts of police or army captives, either in Sinhala or English, though there were many prisoners. But there hadn’t been a ranking officer in their custody.
Exchange of Boyagoda for Kennedy
Having lived with the LTTE for eight years, Boyagoda had been so sorry to leave his guards, particularly Newton, who had been in charge of them for some time. Boyagoda; "It was a heart-breaking departure, if you can believe that. We had been living with all of these cadres for so long that there was a kind of brotherly understanding between us. We were taking leave of a family we would probably never see again."
Boyagoda had been glad to meet the man in person (Soosai) who ordered the destruction of the then largest ship belonging to the Navy and eight years later he felt sorry to leave his captors. But perhaps, Boyagoda most shocking statement had been he envisaged a united federal state at the time an agreement was reached for his release. There had been altogether seven captives, including Boyagoda, whose release was subject to freedom to Kennedy, a hardcore LTTE cadre. The government released 13 LTTE cadres, including two women. The prisoner exchange took place on Sept 28, 2002.
The writer had been among those journalists, taken by the Army to Omanthai, to cover the exchange of prisoners of the conflict. The LTTE turned the event to a major propaganda project. The then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, had to sit between two terrorist leaders in uniforms wearing siderams. Among the terrorists was ‘Colonel’ Theepan.’ Those who spoken on behalf of the government expressed confidence of lasting settlement whereas the LTTE blamed the previous CBK administration for long delay in their release (LTTE releases last batch of captives, with strapline Blames PA govt for long captive period-The Island, Sept 29, 2002 edition).
The released LTTE cadres, included Kennedy (Jesumy Fernando), who led a successful commando raid, on Palaly airbase, in early August 1994. The LTTE squad destroyed a Bell 212 chopper before SLAF personnel killed several raiders and captured Kennedy. Prabhakaran made several attempts to secure Kennedy’s release, over the years, and finally succeeded in Sept 2002 (Held to ransom, The Island, Oct 2, 2002).
Back in the Navy
Boyagoda bitterly complained about the way the Navy treated him on his return to the service. His fresh appointment as ‘additional to headquarters’, an obvious move to deprive Boyagoda of holding a responsible position, infuriated him. The Navy top brass, including the then Commander Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri and Boyagoda’s colleagues, for some reason, had refrained from inquiring about the time he was held in captivity. Perhaps, they wrongly believed Boyagoda had switched his allegiance to the LTTE. Boyagoda had been dismayed by the Naval Intelligence, Directorate of Military Intelligence as well as the National Intelligence deciding against questioning him. Instead, Navy headquarters had directed him to a psychiatrist who disapproved of the Navy directing him (Boyagoda) to him.
Boyagoda recollected how various people, including some of his colleagues, propagated lies, much to the discomfort of him and his family. Boyagoda had been bitter about him being accused of leading the LTTE attack, on Mullaitivu base, in the mid 1996, as well as various other unsubstantiated accusations. In his memoirs, Boyagoda recounted him being held at Periyamadu, west of Vavuniya at the time the devastating LTTE assault on Mullaitivu. Over 1,200 army personnel perished in fighting.
Boyagoda dealt with his brief stay with the Navy on his return and re-visiting the North where he had an opportunity to meet Newton. A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka is a must read for those interested in knowing the decades long conflict. A Sinhala version is required to take Boyagoda’s message to those who may not agree with the successful conclusion of the conflict, through military means.