Sri Lanka Army

Defenders of the Nation

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History Repeating Itself?

I AM no historian. Only an ordinary reader with a penchant for history. Like millions of other Sri Lankans I was avidly following the humanitarian mission launched by the armed forces to rescue the innocent Tamil people from the clutches of the bestial L.T.T.E and clear the north from this evil.

Military experts attribute this magnificent victory to many factors like, astute leadership both political and military, singleness of purpose, excellent morale and dedication of the soldiers, perfect coordination of the tasks between the three forces, technical superiority over the enemy etc.

But among all these factors military strategists single out one strategy that the armed forces adopted which has contributed substantially to this victory. That is the encirclement of the enemy by many divisions (53, 55, 58, 59 divisions, 8th Special force commando regiments etc) which marched to the north through diverse routes destroying and capturing enemy bastions reducing the enemy numbers and finally converging and going for the final kill.

Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, the eminent Sri Lankan analyst of global terrorism has this to say on this matter in an interview given by him to the Nation news paper on March 24th. "Traditional army commanders in the past have always fought one battle at a time. But in this case General Sarath Fonseka would fight them in the East, in Mannar, in Killinochchi and in Mulaithivu. Because the army had the strength in numbers because of recruitment it was possible to engage the L.T.T.E on multiple fronts" Earlier battles by the security forces like Jaya Sikuru, Indrakeela were lost mainly because the attacks were launched in the form of one single battle.

Sri Lankan history reveals one such war of liberation where the success of that campaign depended primarily on this tactics of encircling the enemy by advancing on multiple fronts. That was the campaign launched by King Vijayabahu the great (1037-1110AD), torid the country of Cola invaders who were occupying the Northern parts of the country.

Incidentally the occupation of the Northern areas by Colas (including the capital Anuradhapura and Pollonaruwa) were the longest in ancient history by a foreign power. They ruled this northern provinces from (993 AD - 1070 AD) for seventy seven years. In fact Colas were the first Colonial powers as far as Sri Lanka is concerned.

Cola empire was at the zenith of its power during this time under powerful rulers like, Raja Raja, Rajendra and Rajadiraja. The Cola empire subdued Keralas, Pandyans, Chelukyas and ruled over the entire South India and involved Sri Lanka by defeating Mahinda V, took him prisoner and ruled over a major part of Sri Lanka through a succession of viceroys. Sri Lanka was considered a province of the Cola empire and was re-named Mummudi-Cola Mandapam (Echoes of Eelam?). In fact many analogies can be drawn between this period and the period we passed through until the L.T.T.E was finally laid to rest. Similar to the L.T.T.E Colas were occupying a large part of the country. Overall authority over the sea gave the Cola’s the ability to replenish, strengthen and sustain their rule, through the supplies that came from South India.

Resistance to this alien power was initiated in the South. "The island as a whole, particularly its southern half never accepted Cola rue and kept up a sullen opposition" (History of Ceylon Vol1, part ii, Chapter 11). But the Cola invaders saw to it that no southern chieftain was allowed to organize resistance to them. The moment a Southern chieftain attempted to establish himself he was singled out and annihilated. The very same tactic the L.T.T.E adopted in assassinating the leaders of the South. "Ten years of internal disorganisation and disunity in Rohana followed and Colas took full advantage of it, for they defeated and put to death three of the five princes who assumed rulership of Ceylon (ibid)"

The strategy of the Colas was quite similar to what L.T.T.E adopted for the last three decades. They destabilized the South by assassinating the Sinhala rulers of the South and destroying the material and human base of the South by launching punitive expeditions intermittently. It was a dangerous and critical period of our country. The very existence of the country as an integral entity was at stake. In fact the very survival of the Sinhala race was in jeopardy.

It was King Vijayabahu who came to the rescue of the nation. Originally he was known as prince Kitti and he was of royal lineage. The task before him was absolutely daunting. Dislodging an enemy well entrenched and supported by the abundant resources of an empire. Before fighting the foreign enemy he had to establish firmly in the South and win the allegiance of his compatriots in the South. This was no easy task because he had to confront and defeat a number of rival claimants from the South on the one hand and face the threat of Colas on the other. Colas from the North made several attempts to take his life. But he managed to ward them off by retreating to Jungle hide-outs. When he was confident that the South was firmly behind him he launched his long awaited campaign to liberate the country from foreign yoke.

This is how the History of Ceylon compiled by the Peradeniya University describes the camping in vivid terms: "He (King Vijayabahu) was now on the threshold of manhood and though of royal lineage he had known neither the Palace nor the Court. His life has been once of tribulation and trial, as a child he was a refugee with his parents in the mountain region, moving secretly from one hiding place to another, and often subsisting upon jungle herbs and roots. In early youth he had acquired experience of Guerrilla warfare and of pitched battle, and by his personal qualities of leadership and courage he had earned the devotion of the chiefs and followers who supported him. This was a fitting background for the formidable task which lay ahead of him of liberating his country by a long determined struggle against an enemy far more powerful than himself in arms and resources".

He was in no position to embark on this stupendous task, immediately after he brought the South under his control. He had to organize his own people for a long drawn out war with the enemies. On the other hand he had to resuscitate the economy of the south which was in a perilous state after decades of anarchy and warfare. He had to train and equip his army with the greatest care, with the meagre resources he possessed.

He led many campaigns against the Colas, but time and again his forces were defeated and annihilated. In fact in one of these campaigns he managed to capture the capital city Pollonaruwa from the enemy. But that victory was short-lived. The enemy forces were able to drive him away after reinforcements arrived from South India.

It took another fifteen long years for Vijayabahu to finally rout the enemy and liberate the entire country. For the final assault he adopted a different strategy. By then he has learnt the bitter lesson of launching campaigns without meticulous planning. This time he desisted from advancing against the enemy in a single column. Instead he adopted the strategy of advancing in several columns and there by dissipating the strength of the enemy and preventing him from obtaining assistance from abroad.

The History of Ceylon Vo l1, bookII describes these successful campaigns thus, "His operational plan provided for the delivery of a two prolonged converging attack. One column (the Western one) advanced through Dakkina desa (the area between Maha Oya and Kala Oya) with Anuradhapura and Mahatitta (Mantota) as its objectives, while the other column (the eastern one) moved up the east coast road swinging northwards of capture Pollonnaruwa". The book gives a detailed description of the enemy camps overpowered by the two columns on their way to victory.

It is mainly through this shrewd war plan that King Vijayabahu the great subjugated an enemy more powerful than him; thereby saved the country from disintegration and preserved the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. It is no wonder King Vijayabahu the great is regarded as the greatest monarch of Sri Lanka by such eminent scholars like Professor Senarath Paranawithana and Professor Nilakanta Shastri of India.

To me these two land mark events in the annals of our country defeating of Colas by Vijayabahu the great and the destruction of L.T.T.E by the political and military leadership of the present day seems to be a clear instance of history repeating itself. (Courtesy: The Island)