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SL Volunteer Air Force in counter-insurgency ops in 1971

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This article was written by the late Sqn. Ldr. J.T. Rex Fernando (S. L.A.F.Retd.), First Commanding Officer Sri Lanka Volunteer Air Force, four years ago.

The contribution made by the Sri Lanka Air Force throughout five and a half decades, to safeguarding the country’s airspace and thereby the territorial integrity, has been given wide coverage in the print and electronic media. Recounting its illustrious history, it can look back with pride and satisfaction at its enviable record of operational successes, its reputation and also its contribution towards the development of the country’s non-military fields.

While recounting the vital role it played in crushing the abortive armed insurrection of 1971, it is only appropriate to recall the supportive role of the Sri Lanka Volunteer Air Force.

Armed insurrection

The armed insurrection of April 1971, to overthrow the lawfully constituted United Front Government, demonstrated clearly the tragic unpreparedness of the Government’s security forces at the time to deal promptly with a major, bloody uprising as the one the insurgents launched. On the one hand, there were not enough arms and ammunition. On the other hand the strength of the security forces was far below that which was required to sustain a major operation. The Air Force in particular had to perform a number of tasks in the first difficult days of the campaign with the Regular Force and found the need to supplement the relatively small Regular Force.

On April 24 Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike said, “On the 5th of April we found that we had inadequate weapons, ammunition and aircraft to meet a sustained threat over a long period of time by the terrorist insurgents.” The Prime Minister made this point again in July when she told the parliament that, “The week immediately following the 5th of April was an extremely vital week and the armed forces and the police had to struggle against many odds during this period.” The Air Force had to expand and expand fast. Likewise, other sections of the security forces had to be put in a state of preparedness to deal with any future threat to the country’s security. The need of the hour, when the country was facing a considerable threat from terrorists, was to strengthen the Armed Forces and the Police. It was this pressing need that led to the formation of the Sri Lanka Volunteer Air Force.

Establishment

To Air Vice Marshal Paddy Mendis, the establishment of the volunteer Air Force was the realisation of a cherished dream. For over 20 years, since inauguration of the Volunteer Force had never been given serious consideration. With the pressing requirement to supplement the regular strength, the formation of the Volunteer Air Force was formally authorised by a proclamation by the President on 14 April, 1971.

Appointed the first Commanding Officer, I was directed by A.V.M. Mendis to proceed with the setting up of the infrastructure, recruitment, training and deployment as a matter of utmost priority. The task itself was challenging and unenviable. However, with the guidance of the Commander and the continuous support of the Air Force Board of Management and with the exemplary dedication and admirable commitment of my adjutant Flt. Lt Mani Seneviratne, the task was pursued and successfully accomplished.

Role

The role of the Volunteer Force was essentially to assist the Regular Force in its primary and internal security duties. With more volunteers employed on internal security duties the skilled regular tradesmen were able to concentrate on their specialist technical and other skilled duties.

Organisation

On the basis of their functional role the Volunteer Force was organised broadly into Ground Operational Squadrons, Work Services Squadrons and Air Operational Squadrons. Despite the relatively short period of training and the limited ‘on the job training’ Volunteer personnel contributed considerably to the Air Force tasks. Apart from internal security duties and general operational tasks Volunteer personnel were employed in almost every field of Air Force activity, on flying duties, airfield construction, mechanical transport operations and maintenance, engineering duties, logistics and catering duties and administrative, clerical, medical and other miscellaneous service duties. The Air Field Construction Regiment was organised to undertake major construction projects and maintenance commitments. The Volunteers working side by side with the regulars assimilated the service form and gained confidence. The ‘esprit de corps’, the cordiality and friendship that prevailed contributed greatly to the success it achieved.

Recruitment and training

Recruitment commenced almost immediately. After the promulgation, the first batch of Volunteer Officers and Airmen commenced their initial Ground Combat training at Diyatalawa on April 23, while the Volunteer pilots at the same time commenced flight training at the No. 1 Flying Training School, China Bay. The task of the Instructors was not an unenviable one. They had to train personnel recruited from various walks of life as combatants capable of operating their intricate flying machines and coping with various operational and non combatant duties within a short period. The full, authorised cadre was recruited and training completed by the end of May.

The initial training courses were so designed to mould the trainees into alert, efficient and well disciplined members of the Air Force; proficient in all basic aspects of ground combat and other general responsibilities; capable of working with confidence, side by side with their regular counterparts in a supporting role. All Volunteer trainees, within the short training period, were trained adequately in varied service aspects, among which were drill, weapons training, field-craft and tactics, map reading, jungle training and watermanship, Air Force Law, and afforded an adequate knowledge of the organisation of the Air Force, along with first aid and fire fighting. Special emphasis was placed on physical fitness and the standard of physical fitness gradually raised, training them to take on the role of combatants irrespective of their specialised trades. Subsequent to initial combat training, trainees were afforded ‘on the job training’ on their particular trade duties.

Among the officers, specialists recruited were General Duties Pilots who were required to supplement the meagre number of Regular Pilots who were continuously flying day and night on operational and Air Transportation commitments, since the outbreak of the terrorist offensive. The Volunteer Pilots were intended to provide some relief though it was not possible to immediately employ most of them on operational duties. While very few were experienced pilots, most of the selected pilots had previous experience in light trainee aircraft only. After a rapid training course on the basic Chipmunk, then converting to the Dove and Heron aircraft, they were able to be of assistance to the Regular Pilots.

Spontaneous response

With the formation of the Volunteer Air Force there was an encouraging and unprecedented response from persons of all walks of life to join the Force. Reputed professionals of various disciplines as well as highly skilled and semi killed persons were all driven by a sense of patriotism and yearning to contribute their skills to preserve sovereignty and national integrity. While a great number of professionals volunteered and served with distinction, it is appropriate to mention the names of some in appreciation and expression of gratitude for their service, and also to highlight the multiplicity of disciplines and professions that made up the Volunteer Air Force. Medical professionals, Senior Consultant Late Dr. T.H. Amarasinghe, Consultant Surgeon Dr. S. Maheshwaran, Dental Surgeon Dr. S. Rajapakse, experienced and reputed pilots Susantha Jayasekara and David Peiris, Consultant and Chartered Cost Accountants late Dayalan Tharmaratnam and S. Balakur, Registered Auditor R. Ramachandra and Chartered Management Consultant, Kuda Liyanage, Banker Nimal Gunatunge, Chartered Civil Engineers Mervyn Wijesinghe and Ben Navaratne, Chartered Architect Mano Kumarasingham, Attorney at Law and Human Resources Consultant Tilak Liyanage and Lucky Moonamale, Civil Servant Mervyn Koch, Management Specialist Mahes Goonathilake, Business entrepreneurs late Ed Nathanielz, late Bevis De Silva, Upali Gunesekera and late Harold Pilapiya, reputed entertainer Desmond De Silva and National Cricketers Brian Obeysekera, Tony Opatha and Nihal De Zoysa are a few noteworthy examples.

All these gentlemen with a great number of others served the force with distinction. Most of them did so despite personal inconvenience, disruption of their regular employment, business and domestic life since most of them were stationed in remote and uncongenial locations such as Ridiyagama, Weerawila, Weeraketiya and Hambantota.

Entry of women

The entry of women into the Volunteer Force can be considered a unique feature of the formulation of the Volunteer Force. Armed Services, an exclusive preserve of the men, opened its doors to the women. The four pioneering women on graduating on 4 October, 1972 were engaged in secretarial duties and duties associated with tourist flying.

Continued mobilisation

It must be accepted that when personnel initially enlisted in the Volunteer Force, they did not anticipate to be mobilised for prolonged periods of time. Especially those with permanent employment and holding responsible positions and those in the government sector encountered hardships as a result of continued mobilisation and deployment in remote areas. Some of them were gradually absorbed into the Regular Force, and some left after fulfilling an obligation on cessation of hostilities.

Contribution

In 1973 just two years after the formation of the Volunteer Force, the Commander of the Air Force AVMP. H. Mendis, with a sense of great satisfaction, referring to the Volunteer Force asserted, “As a result of hard work and dedication to duty of the highest order, the Volunteer Force has distinguished itself in combat, security, administrative, operational and constructional duties. Your units are based in many locations within the country and you have carried out your duties exceptionally well.”

Every Volunteer was conscious that he or she had a vital role to play in the defence of the country. The sense of dedication and devotion to duty inculcated by the Regular counterparts was indeed the most encouraging feature of the Volunteer Organisation.

These gentlemen who spontaneously responded to a call to serve the country in her hour of peril, maintained their enthusiasm and displayed remarkable dedication to duty. Their service was of help to the Air Force at a time the country was plunged into bloody chaos. It is only appropriate to recall their contribution and express our appreciation of their services.



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Opinion

Recent political violence and its consequences

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A house of an SLPP politician on fire after a mob attack

By Dr Laksiri Fernando

The government was directly involved in instigating political violence against peaceful protestors on 9 May, consequences of which had to be reaped within hours even those who are not directly involved in such action from the government side. Given the economic crisis and foreign exchange difficulties the country is facing at present, the consequences of these violent events that would badly affect the image of the country and the people. Sri Lanka has emerged as a violent country among foreign observers and critiques.

There were instances in the past that some ministers were involved particularly in attacks on ethnic minorities (1983). There was election violence where almost all parties were involved. The country is also notorious for a longstanding separatist movement with political violence as the main mode of operation. In 1971, there was a youth insurrection which reemerged in the late 1980s in a more sectarian manner. In April 2019, Sri Lanka became a target of Islamic State, with both local and international roots.

Reasons for Increasing Violence

During the initial years of independence, Sri Lanka was a peaceful country. Even the independence movement was characteristically peaceful without going into extremes. Except some incidents, related to worker’s strikes, the country was by and large peaceful and appreciated by many observers and commentators overseas. The situation dramatically changed in late 1960s giving rise to a strong leftwing organisation, the JVP. Even if the old-left parties were advocating ‘class struggle,’ no organisation had any military wing or anything like that.

Then, what went wrong since the 1970s? ‘Frustration-aggression’ theory could be one explanation. This is also the case in recent events beginning with farmers’ protests opposing the fertiliser ban. There were more broader reasons than ‘frustration’ or ‘relative deprivation.’ When it came to long queues and shortages in cooking gas, petrol, kerosene, diesel, medicine, and other basic amenties, the ‘relative deprivation’ turned into a ‘absolute deprivation.’ Most devastating was power cuts. All these happened within a context of high inflation where the value of people’s salaries and income became absolutely depreciated.

There were broader social reasons. Population explosion with young people becoming large both in numbers and as a proportion, widespread graduate and educated unemployment, dysfunctional education, the gap between rural and urban areas widening both in economic and social terms are some of them. Constitutional instability with amendments like 18A, 19A, 20A, back and forth, also contributed immensely for the youth to join militant political organisations and trade/student unions.

Can any of the reasons, however, justify political violence that became unleashed in the country in the recent past or before? Perhaps it is a common dilemma in many countries that human beings have a propensity to violence, ranging from mild verbal aggression to physical violence and vicious murder and everything in between. Aggression patterns, however, vary from country to country, age to age, and male to female. It is a fact that women are less violent than their male counterparts.

From PM’s Office

It was a Monday. Background was for the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign, given the increasing protests and because of obvious failures. With the organization of MP Johnston Fernando and others, hundreds of people were rallied around the PMs official residence, the Temple Trees. Soon the PM asked the people to come in and addressed them in an aggressive manner.

The PM asked whether he should resign, and the crowed shouted ‘No.’ They were shouting, ‘Whose power, Mahinda’s power.’ ‘That means I don’t need to resign,’ he replied. He has further said “You know in politics I have always been on the side of the country. On the side of the people … I am willing to make any sacrifice for the people’s benefit.”

Johnston Fernando, the government’s whip, was more aggressive and violent. “Let’s start the fight. If the President can’t handle the situation, he should hand over power to us. We will clear Galle Face.” The crowd cheered. Another person who was closely involved was Namal Rajapaksa, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s eldest son.

Some of the people who were prominently involved in organising the meeting were Johnston Fernando, Sanath Nishantha, Milan Jayathilake, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Sanjeeva Edirimanna, Saman Lal Fernando, Mahinda Kahandagama, Dan Priyasad, and their supporters. Western Province DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon was clearly involved as an accomplice.

The objectives of the gathering were extremely clear. It is difficult to believe that Mahinda Rajapaksa was unaware. During the apparent lack of interference of the police at Galle Face, his intervention was very clear on the side of the attackers.

SLPP goons wreaking havoc on the Galle Face protest site

Attacks and Counter Attacks

There were two sites that were particularly attacked. While there are different names, the most popular being ‘Gota-Go-Gama’ and ‘Mina-Go-Gama.’ Apart from around 200 people who were brutally attacked, their platforms, tents, placards, and flags were destroyed. Some people were thrown into the Beira-lake. Whatever the extremes of their slogans and demands, the above protest sites were prominent as peaceful protests.

It is strange to see, however, within hours of the above incidents, over 40 houses of the government supporters, including MPs, were attacked, and burnt down destroying some of the personal valuables. Ten people were killed in the incidents. Below is one incident that Al Jazeera reported.

“Earlier in the day, legislator Amarakeerthi Athukorala from the ruling party shot two people – killing a 27-year-old man – after being surrounded by a mob in Nittambuwa, about 40 km (25 miles) from Colombo, police said. CCTV footage showed the MP and his security officer fleeing into a nearby building. They were later found dead.”i

Of course, there are contradictory and different interpretations of the incidents. However, it is difficult to deny the involvement of some form of political activists. Who are they? Geetha Kumarasinghe narrated her ordeal in the following manner in Parliament.

“When they were attacking my home, I was trembling in fear and was hiding in a corner of a room. What wrong have I done? I have never hurt anyone. I have sacrificed everything to engage in politics and serve my people. I slogged and slaved in cinema and won many awards through sheer dedication and hard work. They destroyed all my trophies and awards. Why? Why did these young people do this to me? I can never get my awards and trophies back. You all have mothers, I am also a mother, why did you do this to me?” she sobbed.

Who Indulged in Violence?

One side is very clear. Mahinda Rajapaksa, Johnstone Fernando, and Namal Rajapaksa were clearly on one side. But who were on the other side?

The JVP General Secretary, Tilvin Silva, recently admitted or claimed that “Our party has been there right from the beginning. We have our youth, cultural, student and women wings, at the Galle Face.” Of course, there were other groups and more independent ones. Silva’s attitude towards politics and other parties also became clear when he referred to heckling of the Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa, when he visited the Galle Face protest site. Silva said the following.

“Everybody should be careful. People hate to see politicians travelling in luxury cars with security contingents. People detested the politicians’ attitude of trying to stay above them. The Opposition Leader went there in his luxury vehicles with his security guards and henchmen. So, he had to face the wrath of the people.”

Anura Kumara Dissanayake, in Parliament, denied any involvement of the JVP in house attacks and counter violence. He may be true to his conscience. There is a possibility that within the JVP itself that there are two wings operating. Tilvin Silva’s words remind us of the JVPs aggressive and violent past.

Dilemma of Violence

Violence appears to continue. There was a recent incident of people or groups attacking and burning a house of an owner of a fuel station. Undoubtedly there are extreme grievances on the part of the people due to fuel shortages and high prices of consumer items, including essential medicine. However, none of these reasons could justify political violence unleashed by the government or the opposition politicians.

There may be deep seated reasons why people in the country are extremely violent. Some of the reasons may go to the educational system and the way students are taught in schools and universities. Some reasons may be rooted in the family institution or even religion. Political culture in the country does appear to be extremely distorted or lopsided and change of which should come from all sectors of the political society. What might be important in the meanwhile are:

Deplore strongly political violence of all forms.

Request the new national government to ameliorate people’s economic grievances.

Punish those who have involved or instigated violence without discrimination.

Establish rule of law and impartiality of the public and security services.

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Opinion

21A and Ranil

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It is no secret that Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe is adept at “buying time” when confronted with any important issue. He appoints committees for that purpose. Unlike most politicians, he treads very cautiously until the time is conducive for an apparent solution.

Hence one should not be surprised if the draft 21A Amendment receives the same response at the first meeting of the new Cabinet scheduled for T24 May. Already the foremost item vis-a-vis stripping the President of executive authority has been put on the shelf. And taking into consideration that among those to be discussed is the provision for dual citizenship, one could see that the need for a committee to study deeper into it is a foregone conclusion.

Sri Lanka has a reputation of putting off for tomorrow what should be done today.

WILLIAM OPP

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Opinion

No business as usual for interim government

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By Jehan Perera

The government’s intention to appoint a full complement of Ministers and State Ministers, and the jostling for positions amongst them, seems to suggest an attitude of business as usual.  This is quite astonishing as it was just two weeks ago that no government member felt safe from the wrath of mobs that formed themselves very swiftly and, apparently, spontaneously, to attack their homes and properties.  Last week they overrode the Opposition’s demand for time to debate the motion of censure against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for having led the country to disaster.  They also scuttled efforts to nominate a female legislator to the post of Deputy Speaker, disregarding the request of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, which could have sown the seeds for consensual governance. They gave priority to their own personal concerns of getting compensation from the State for their losses.

It is unsurprising, in this context, that anger against the government continues to boil within the country.  There are roadblocks and demonstrations by the members of the public in places where petrol is either not being provided or has been pumped to private vehicles by officials and politicians.  The lines for petrol and diesel, and for cooking gas, are longer than ever before, despite announcements that ships have begun unloading these fuels.  The lines stretch for over a kilometer in the case of petrol and diesel meant for vehicles. Videos circulate on social media providing vivid images of the frustration of those who have waited in line for hours and hours only to find out that stocks have run out before they could get access to the fuel.

The three-wheel taxi, that took me to the Aragalaya protest site, opposite the Presidential Secretariat, charged me nearly three times the regular fare that prevailed before the economy collapsed.  He justified his high rate on the basis that he had spent the whole of the previous day trying to fill his vehicle tank with petrol.  The Aragalaya site, on Saturday evening, was not as busy as it had been the previous week and nowhere near as crowded as it was two weeks ago.  But the spirit of the Aragalaya lives in the hearts and minds of people everywhere. The physical presence of protestors may be only a fraction of the turnouts that made the government want to put an end to it, through thuggery, a fortnight ago. Even those who are protestors have to live their daily lives and earn their daily bread.  But special occasions will bring them back in large numbers.

ABOLISH KINGSHIP

Galle Face is the site of the passion and commitment of a younger generation of Sri Lankans to the eradication of corruption and mis-governance foisted on them by the old. The young people know they are being monitored by state CCTV systems and are vulnerable to being picked up on a later date to be done away with, as happened in the past.  Hundreds are currently being arrested for the attacks that took place against the homes and properties of government members on May 9.  But only a few of those government members, who streamed out of the Prime Minister’s residence, with iron rods and other improvised weapons, after being instigated by the Prime Minister’s men, are being arrested.

Those who are powerful because they are in the government are glibly denying what is plain to be seen on social media.  This is a continuation of past practices which gives impunity to the powerful, whatever they do, which needs to end.  At the Aragalaya site, on Saturday, l listened to speakers who described the hardships of the economic crisis, of the mother whose gas cylinder exploded, due to inappropriate mixing of gases by the government, and of the parents who saw their infant die because they could not get petrol for their vehicle to take their child to the hospital in time.  These were educated young people who spoke and there were many who listened to them to become message-bearers to the larger population that was not present at the site.  They were all brave or had lost their sense of fear. I was also given a private lecture by a regular visitor to the Aragalaya site.  He explained to me why the diminished numbers that day did not mean that support for the cause was diminishing.  He had a vision for what the Aragalaya should achieve, which he summarized in four short points.

 First, he said, an all-party interim government needed to be appointed for a temporary period to provide the cohesion needed for political stability that would give the government the credibility to raise the necessary economic resources from abroad. Second was the need to repeal the 20th Amendment and to replace it with the 21st Amendment that would reduce the power of the presidency.  Third was to conduct general elections in a new system that would depart from the present 100 percent proportional representation to one in which first-past-the-post constituency system would account for at least 70 percent of the seats to make the parliamentarians accountable to their electorates. Fourth was to abolish the presidency that catered to the traditional ethos of relying on the saviour king rather than on the empowerment of people exemplified by the Aragalaya youth.

ARAGALAYA

PROMISE

Prior to the appointment of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, when the power of the Aragalaya protest caused the entire Cabinet to step down, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged to set up an all-party interim government for a temporary period.  This has now taken on a distorted form in the wooing and horse-trading of members of other political parties, without the consent of their party leaderships.  Both the SJP, which is the largest opposition party, and the SLFP, which is the government’s largest coalition partner, have suffered defections to the new government.  This display of power play is not a positive sign of stability which is necessary if the government is to deal with the difficult economic issues the country confronts. It is not possible to justify how those who resigned from office due to a failure of government can be part of a new Cabinet, as if the failure had nothing to do with them.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has made a comparison of the predicament he is currently facing in the government by comparing his situation to the famous play by Bertolt Brecht, the Caucasian Chalk Circle.  The Prime Minister has brought credibility to the government through his ability to deal with the international community and his understanding of the macro economic situation of the country in relation to the world.  The 21st Amendment to the Constitution that will be brought to Parliament this week, if passed, will strengthen the Prime Minister’s powers still more. Unless circumstances, and the balance of political forces, within Parliament, permit him to chart a new course of governance that is consensual and transparent, the present government will also fail.

Much is at stake. Unless the economy improves fast the possibility of violence that can suddenly erupt, as it did on May 9, cannot be ruled out.  As Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour, India has been extremely generous now with its latest gift of Rs 2 billion worth of essential commodities, gifted by the Tamil Nadu state.  The challenge will be to persuade the more distant, but wealthier Western countries, Japan and China, to be equally generous.  The stability of the government that is brought about by the willing participation of the opposition political parties will be extremely important in demonstrating to the world, and to the Sri Lankan people, that the government, led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, really intend to chart a new path.  The holding of elections, within six months, and a new leadership, can be an example to other countries with similar broken down systems and government leaders who step aside as statesmen for the new generations to take over.

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