Army Commander sets out his scope of work | Sunday Observer

Army Commander sets out his scope of work

Sri Lanka Army, a perfect reflection of our society, poised to supplement the inadequate capacity whenever deemed essential in the best interests of the nation, marked a new milestone in its annals of history a few days ago with one more battle-hardened pioneering soldier, Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake, taking reins as the 22nd Commander of the Sri Lanka Army. Presentation of his letter of appointment and the simultaneous elevation of his rank to that of a Lieutenant General took place at the Presidential Secretariat during a brief ceremony, headed by President Maithripala Sirisena.

Respected as an officer par excellence, Nanediri Upendra Mahesh Magilion Weerathunga Senanayake, the fearless Special Forces (SF) warrior of our times, often with an endearing smile, is a symbol of gallantry, humility, humanity and selfless commitment, pursued in a spirit of self-belief in all of his workmates in the organization. This doyen of warfare, now a crusader of reconciliation and peace who has gone through many vicissitudes and challenges both in his military career and in his personal life was very vocal in his frank articulation.

Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake with a serene smile, but in a pensive mood discloses the bitter ordeal that prompted him and 13 of his Army fellow-officers, including 5 most senior Officers, to flee for life in the aftermath of the 2010 Presidential Election after their service, salaries, ranks, pensions and all other facilities, were denied overnight at the stroke of a pen. “All of us were abruptly discharged, saying ‘service no longer required’, without the courtesy to even summon a preliminary Court of Inquiry against us, as has been the practice in military regulations. The mere reason for this incredibly sad state of affairs happening for the first time in this reputed organization at the behest of those powerful political detractors in that bygone era, was that they (those victimized officers) were a bunch of ‘ Fonseka’s henchmen’, although the truth was otherwise”.

Victim of circumstances

“Yes, when our war was reaching a crucial phase, any Commander, for that matter has to work closely with a team of seasoned officers, perhaps even with ground-based other rankers, whom decision-makers and commanders, might decide essential for execution of the assigned task. We also had a sound working relationship with the then Commander for execution of our national responsibilities, thrust on us by virtue of our designated appointments. Was it a wrong move on my part to be faithful to my incumbent Commander?. I have also maintained similar working bonds, for example, with my immediate predecessor, General Chrisanthe De Silva, throughout after 2015. So, how could one be victimized for that? It was not in my wildest dream to do or back politics. I have never ever done politics, but in that predicament, I became a victim of the ‘circumstances’, certainly not a victim of ‘politics’ as those elements presumed me to be. Sadly, it was the same with other fellow victims, too. The highly volatile disposition that prevailed in that period of gloom, chased us, along with our family members into hiding in remote areas, in some instances, even into jungles to escape pursuing ‘ghost’ squads, ready to do anything, to please their political masters. Our fear-stricken families with accompanying children had to be referred afterwards for psychological counselling. In the worst scenario, I was advised to flee the country to escape death, although the then Commander and Military Secretary, made genuine efforts to defend us, explaining the status quo, but in vain, I must note with precision,” he lamented.

Curse turns a blessing

“Though life-threatening atrocities perpetrated on us, and were unbearable for my hiding family, they in effect worked as a ‘blessing in disguise’ since my stay in the US afterwards, provided me with ample opportunities, to broaden horizons of my knowledge, and witness indescribable sufferings of war victims and prevailing geological realities, for example, in conflict-torn countries, like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, etc as an officer, serving in the US led Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) until my return to Sri Lanka in 2015. My findings convinced me how humane and impressively concerned the Sri Lanka Army, were in its approach to our fleeing Tamil civilians and LTTE combatants surrendering. Despite adverse and malicious propaganda, highlighted largely by overseas LTTE sympathizers, our rehabilitation of 12,000 odd LTTE combatants was amazing, and would go into history as a unique humanitarian operation, although our overseas friends appear to have failed to recognize the full impact of its global attention, of course for reasons known only to them. Time has fled, and that integration is now entering into another generation as maturity, adulthood and parenthood reached those combatants, pushing them completely away from thoughts of armed struggles, violence, robbery, etc. So, we have a commitment to care for them without forcing them again into the same old habit,” the Commander explained in lighter vein.

Close rapport with Jaffna people

His short but the most productive tenure of office as the Jaffna Commander (January 2016 – March 2017), won a barrage of plaudits from every layer of the Jaffna populace and also from his peers. His ‘magic lamp’ as he himself admits is nothing, but the ‘simple practice of listening to everyone with patience’, of course with a broader heart and empathy, without you yourself being again an additional burden to his ‘problem’, but the practical ‘solution’ instead. This magnetic change in attitude and approach won the day for him wherever he served.

A case in point was how he managed to trace the whereabouts of peninsula-based retired Tamil speaking ex-servicemen and ex-Police personnel as high as 105 in number. Some of them appeared feeble in physique and live in isolation, but never dared to reveal their previous career identity to anyone, lest they be victimized or killed by megalomaniac gunmen. Our protagonist summoned them to his office, formed a friendship association, treated them to a fellow-lunch and distributed gifts among them as appreciative tokens of their service to the country. Lieutenant General Senanayake personally intervened and instructed each Army unit in respective areas to take care of those ex-servicemen dearly, and report directly back to him, if any assistance, was required by them. Likewise, award of military/Police honours in the event of death was also introduced as another appreciative gesture of friendship. One such ex-serviceman who expired in the peninsula had already been saluted on his final journey.

A students’ protest of the Jaffna University during his office there, was another incident, worth recording, after the accidental Police fire recently killed two undergraduates in October 2016. As tension in the protest was reaching explosive proportions, the then Jaffna Commander, Lieutenant General Senanayake, made a bee-line to the location and miraculously pacified agitating students in an unbelievable manner, pleading with them to remain non-violent, an episode related to his comrades by another senior officer present at the location.

De-fusion of Jaffna tension

“You see, a disappointed student should be allowed to articulate his concerns freely as much as he wished. I sympathized with their radicalized spirit, youthful emotions, anti-Police outbursts, the cause and the objective of protesting en masse. Like us in the South, they disrupted normalcy in the town. In turn, I explained to them their inalienable right for dissent and articulation through their non-violent protests in a democracy. I fully endorsed their ‘radical’ behaviour, and expressed my sympathy over the accidental deaths, but warned them against outbreak of any cycle of violence or damage to state property in a very appealing manner. They bowed down and the tension was defused. It was incredibly resolved without using a single tear gas canon, largely due to the understanding we have cultivated in Jaffna through the Civil-Military Co-operation (CIMIC) agency, now effectively interacting with the common masses,” he said.

This broad platform of thriving understanding in Jaffna as the Commander himself remarked, should continue uninterrupted. The Navy and Air Force, cooperating on the same lines of thinking are also doing a fantastic role for this transformation towards ‘engagement’ and interaction, away from violence in the peninsula. The government’s efforts towards ethnic harmony are in fact now gaining ground, realized and their economic plight therefore should come under proper focus as the President himself had stated during his recent visit to the peninsula, he added.

Stressing the need to keep the Army off from all political manipulations and interference if it were to run ahead as a dignified service provider to the country, Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake, asserts; “I am glad to state here that no attempt whatsoever had been made to-date, to politically interfere with the Army or its administration after President Maithripala Sirisena and the Prime Minister were voted into power in 2015, which itself is a healthy development and a ‘must’, the Commander emphasized.

“The most impressive proof was that the Army under the command of my predecessor, General De Silva, did not in any slightest degree, get involved in the August 2015 General Elections, which itself was very encouraging. I always have the highest regard for all my mentors in the Army as well as pioneers who brought the Army to great heights,” commented the new Commander touching on the so-called ‘politicization’ of the Army.

Stood out as a monumental tribute to this officer cum gentleman is the miraculously completed housing project in Nallinakkapuram, adjacent to the perimeters of the Palaly Security Force cantonment in Jaffna. Within a record period of 2 ½ months, Security Forces under his command put up those 100 new houses and vested them in the IDPs, adding another feather to his unmatched skills. He had this to say.

“Release of civilians’ lands would continue wherever possible in Jaffna as well as the closure of Jaffna IDP centres as early as possible after finding suitable alternative houses and locations. It was my other prioritized concern, and I believe my successor the incumbent Jaffna Commander, a very hard-working Officer and a kind-hearted person, would definitely pursue those projects. In the past couple of months with close coordination of my predecessor, Ministry of Defence and other Ministries, we were able to release a considerable portion of land, belonging to Jaffna people. We, in fact are maintaining a broad welfare network for the benefit of many ex-combatants, widows, students, disabled persons and kids in the peninsula by way of distribution of milk powder packets, nutrients for pregnant women, scholarships, school accessories, and so on with the patronage receiving from private donors,” reminds Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake.

New vision

Setting out his new vision for the Army as the 22nd Commander of the Army, Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake did not want to mince his words, instead spoke out his mind. “I will continue to be a ‘good listener’’ all the time and flexible. Centralized control and de-centralized execution is the need of the hour. Secondly, that ‘mission command’ encompasses everything: you know what you are supposed to do within your mandate and perimeter in specific domains without letting anyone to point a finger at you. We must remember the globe is faced with lots of complexities. Next, is going to be the ‘Corporals’ War’ in a ‘capacity-based’ Army which could come up with voluntary solutions to suit fast changing communicative and technological innovations. Modernization of the organization is therefore mandatory,” he elaborated.


Lieutenant General Senanayake is a contended officer who has a vision. “In fact, this new appointment is a challenge bestowed upon me with confidence, and I will try to do maximum for the best of the organization. For that I need the best support of all ranks in the Army,” he concluded.

Lieutenant General Senanayake, decorated with the Rana Wickrama Padakkama (RWP) medal for his individual and associated acts of bravery, performed voluntarily in the face of the enemy and several other medals, is a father of two daughters, Iranka Ranasi, a doctor by profession, Suwanka Helasi, an aeronautical engineer and son, Siyath. He is happily married to Chandrika Senanayake.

The writer is Sri Lanka 
Army Media Advisor