Transcript- Vice Admiral Tisara Samarasinghe

Posted on September 8, 2010

08 September 2010


 Vice Admiral Tisara Samarasinghe, Commander of the Navy


Samarasinghe: Good evening once again and thank you for the opportunity given to me to explain the role the Sri Lanka Navy performed during the humanitarian operation and what manner we are helping the government mechanism in reconciliation and the process of consolidation. Let me at the outset mention that my direct involvement with the complete humanitarian operation of the government although I am the helm of the Navy today, when it started in 2006 I was the Director General of Operations then I should say at the critical year at sea of 2007 I was Commander of the Eastern Naval Command and then of course in 2008 and up to February 2009 I commanded the northern naval area and of course before I took over at the helm until July I was handling operations at Navy headquarters. 

The Navy had a very critical role to play in humanitarian operations in four specific areas. Sea control was not available with the Sri Lankan Navy in certain areas because the land control was not with the government forces, so it was a matter of sea denial and sea dominance in the northern and eastern waters. So that was our primary task to see that those waters are kept manageable and kept the terrorist sea arm under control so that it would not disturb the lifeline to the north. As you are aware, there was no road opened linking the south to the north so that the entire population north of the army controlled areas had to be supported by sea lines of communication for the civilians as well as the military except for certain degree of cargo and transportation was done by the Sri Lanka Air Force.  

Then, as you know, none of the weapons, equipment and technology, used by the terrorists, were made in Sri Lanka. So there was a gigantic network of foreign funding, foreign support, organizational support, purchasing capacity, loading to vessels and in disguise transported to our shores. So that was another major concern where the Sri Lanka Navy had to tackle with the international intelligence.

 Then of course the important aspect of protecting our harbours for commercial activity so that our country’s economy was not disturbed at all during this effort so that we could sustain this humanitarian operation to a great extent. Then came the livelihood of the civilian population as the Navy controls the coast line which was under the dominance of the army, we had to see that the population in the north and the east specially the fishing community had the opportunity of maintaining their livelihood. Our own fisherman from the north and east was prevented from fishing because certain areas were declared out of bounds for fishing. But inspite of that the government directed the Navy to permit these fishermen to venture out to sea on a controlled manner so that they at least have some degree of income so that they could survive. A lot of fishermen, particularly in the north, were prevented from their basic livelihood.

 In this context the Navy played a critical role. We reviewed the statistics, during the 3 years there were 300 cargo vessels which were organised and controlled by the government Commissioner General of Essential Services which was catering for the needs of the people of the north. 300 vessels were sent that means almost an average of 100 per year carrying fuel and food items. In addition to that as part of reconciliation, although the road was closed, the population had the opportunity to interact with the south. Over 200,000 population from the north and south interacted with each other by means of vessels arranged by the government and that was one of the main things, we kept the link going, we didn’t isolate the north from the south through the sea lines of communication. Inspite of the fact that the terrorist trying to terrorize the movements at sea we kept our south of Dondra international shipping lane which caters to more than 150 ships a day free of any activity, this is in spite of the terrorist trying to attack the Colombo and Galle harbours for whatever the purpose.

So these are the critical actions that the government ensured the Navy performed so that the life lines to the civilians remained in tact. I remember a particular incident when the North was without lights, the government under the leadership of course His Excellency, and handled by Mr. Basil Rajapakse, ensured that the Jaffna students would have lights before the OL 24 hour electricity. To keep that promise this little harbour in KKS had to transport 100 tons of generators from abroad by ship and that pier was almost not capable of taking that weight. But we took all measures to see that these massive generators were brought to KKS, off loaded under threats and sent to Chunnakam for the power generation.So this element of keeping the sea lines of communication open was critical, but this is in spite of the terrorist destroying as many as 13 or damaging civilian vessels trying to ply in that area or trying to bring cargo and equipment to the North.

As you have seen, Fara III, what was that vessel, it was a civilian vessel just commandeered and destroyed. Unfortunately, they all had international maritime organization registrations and until today the international community who is responsible for this orderly fashion of merchant marine has not done anything about it and they were not worried. Secondly, when we the Navy ventured out almost 2000 miles away because we could not wait for this to happen, we went out to their warehouses, they all had international maritime organization numbers. A fleet of vessels of the terrorist sailing in the high seas from foreign countries, now to identify the vessel is not an easy task, every vessel that carried the Commissioner General of Essential Services which carried cargo from Colombo to the North, every bag of cement or rice was checked with the network of the army, navy, airforce and police in Colombo to see that these vessels were safe otherwise they would have been blasted by many criminal elements trying to load things with bombs. So that’s the degree of precaution that the government ensured in Colombo, these were loaded, escorted safely and reached KKS and very expeditiously unloaded, sometimes to prevent attacks and in spite of these being done they came under attack, so the Navy had to deploy to ensure that essential services go without hindrance because these vulnerable areas where we didn’t have the total control of the sea was vulnerable.

So this is something even today we have proposed to the United Nations that on board security teams is an answer for piracy. So these measures were adopted with the guidance and directives of the government to ensure that the civilians lifeline is kept open and for them to be assisted so similarly when we ventured out and destroyed the floating warehouses carrying very lethal cargo. 10 ships of over 1500 tons could have had anything of your imagination, when these things were also taken away but until today no international organization has gone into the details of registration of these vessels and looked for the people who have registered these vessels.

So with that context I would like to mention that during the last stages of the humanitarian operation,  whilst fighting the terrorist at sea, we lost our vessels, we have lost 7 fast attack crafts which each is worth over US$ 7 million built in foreign countries,  13 merchant vessels were destroyed carrying fuel and cargo to the north as recent as 22nd of November 2008 when I was at the pier at KKS harbour when the MV Nimalava which was carrying items to the north was hammered by semi-submersible suicide bombers, the crew abandoned, the ship was sinking but Sri Lanka Navy’s expert divers and damage control team saved the vessel, that was 22nd November 2008 then on 19th January 2009. 7M dollars worth FAC went down off Mullativu , this is when these people were trying to flee from the sea, there were large clusters of boats, to be precise 700 dingies during the month of  December to April fled the LTTE controlled areas when the army was moving towards the north and in that almost 14000 people took the chance to get on a boat, bribed various people, first one or two boats came then it became three or four, they bribed people took away the boats and came to safety to Pulumodai, Nilavali and Trincomalee and  some ventured outside. It was a difficult task for the Navy to identify the boats, of course we used high tech electronic optical device to identify but amongst them there were two occasions that we lost two of our vessels.

 They mingled with these people, they put us into difficulty, they thought that they would be indiscriminately firing but that never took place, that never took place. The tactical methods that were used, we went to the concept of small boats keeping the fast attack crafts away so that we could match these suicide bombers with small craft and a small boat could identify these fleeing civilian or the fisherman, they used the fishing fleet. I just want to emphasise the fact that the amount of tremendous precautions and the constraints that the Navy exercised. I will show you later in a slide if time permits how much difficulty we faced not only in the eastern coast but also in the north western coast and the Palk Strait. For a day without exaggeration on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays more than 500 in that area of the sea Indian trawlers venture into our waters, before the humanitarian victory it was our fisherman was not there  but they were coming amongst them were the terrorist boats, amongst them were the fuel supply boats because Nachikuda that area before it was captured by the army they were controlled by the terrorist so we had a tremendous task of trying to evade these boats and find the actual boats carrying terrorist.

 As recently as 26th of December, his Excellency handed over a house to the widow of the sailor of that boat off delft within 2 miles from the international boundary line was torn into thin air and there was this 14 crew which went missing except one so that was on 26th December 2007. These terrorist were mingling with the Indian trawler boats so in spite of that there were many occasions as the northern commander and the eastern commander I have been asking my men when the fleet of LTTE boats after taking the stuff from the bigger vessels were heading towards the coast we were giving chase, we were being encountered with suicide boats, they were evading, the logistics boats gets through. We could not get close because were in the range of their fire. There was no time for us to do aerial bombing because they went in to the fishing villages. So if they had missed our confrontation at sea then they had free passage and they put their cradles out and pulled the boats in because they used the fishing villages to prevent us from coming close and the Irish Mona in 1975 which was carrying civilians to the North was lured to come in to their waters at Mullativu. They took the boat, hijacked – took it to Mullativu and they lured us into their waters. Our boats they were escorting that we destroyed completely with precise firing because we went close in order to save the civilians.

 The Irish Mona is a clear case, so all these activities which I mentioned to your Excellencies is that we carried this cargo and personnel to the North were escorted by the Navy with tremendous commitment and tremendous use of resources to this inspite of trying to handle sea denial and sea control. The fisherman in the North in Madagal, you would have seen if you came at that time, because we would allow them to go in from one particular place because they were settled somewhere else. We used to have convoys of bicycles spanning over a kilometre, we brought them, we allowed them to go to sea, we got them back checked them and allowed them to do their livelihood and fishing marshalling points to support these fisherman, we checked their names, see what he takes out and whether he goes out and comes back to the same place, otherwise they go out pick from Indian trawlers stuff which is illegal or lethal items and come along with that.

Recently we had a situation; we had a detection the boat which went out with only two local fishermen brought back people who never went with them, to find that they were people from various other places of the country who had gone to India. You will recall the Palk Strait was the main concern of this situation coming to this proportion. In the late 70s earlier 80s the cross border communication between India and us which we could not positively stop developed into larger scale communication and got the support through the coast line and it developed to greater heights and finally to the level that they acquired and when that situation was not coming good for them they looked towards the far east and went with more money to other Diasporas.

So it is critically important that the Navy today control the Palk Strait with absolute security so that this situation will not happen again. For that purpose we have established fishing marshalling points and helping the fisherman in their day to day lives; supporting them so that they feel secure that they will not be culprits or that they will not  be exploited by any elements in the future so that their livelihood will be stopped.

Now a situation has developed very unusual to say but it is reality; now we have our fisherman going out to see all this time it was Indian fisherman used our waters for their purpose. Now the clash is starting because our fisherman are unable to fish because they are taking away our fish totally and there is no scope for our fisherman to fish and they are using illegal methods to do that and so the clashes have now started between our fisherman and the Indian fisherman. So this is a very important area that we need to be mindful in our reconciliation process and we are helping, we have fisherman from the North and East fisherman under the direction of the Secretary Defence.

I was tasked to go through every fisherman in the north and east, get their name, number, fishing society, their ID card, what they have, what they need for the future to the extent which size of net they need, which size of out board motors they need, which size of boats they need and we have identified that in a tabulated format for the north and east fisherman and in fact only on the last 6th we had a meeting with the Hon. Minister of Fisheries and Secretary Defence and with the support of the other state banks we are giving soft loans to see that these fisherman get off  and start their livelihood because they are very enthusiastic, they are very happy, their fish production has doubled and you would have seen in the papers countrywide the fish production has come so we are playing a major role. 

Now coming to the final stage of the army effort in during the month of April and May 2009. As you are aware on 31st January, the food convoys going via the ICRC and handled by the Army stopped and it was the task of the Navy, through the Commissioner General of Essential Services, to take items the no fire zone and previously when we tried to transport these items we had the immunity of the ICRC, we would not have been able to commit our resources so much to take these items and it may have been a tactic by the terrorist, we are committed to this task so they have less number of our crafts to commit to them for confrontation. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the immunity of the ICRC during that period and it was long before 1995 when I was commanding a gun boat we had a situation MV Kalyani, we had no problems and we were confident that the items would reach but after that we did not have that privilege and the comfort. But in this situation the ICRC came on board and provided with the ICRC immunity to take items. In fact people were not willing to risk this so we requisitioned through the SLPA first visit was a normal tug we had to convince the crew that this is a humanitarian national requirement and we managed to take them and they were not happy for us to be on board. I mean we were willing to take it. So thanks to ICRC we managed, they agreed and obviously ICRC agreed and the terrorist also agreed and we carried food and lot of medicine.

 I have the list if you want, the number of voyages after starting from the 2nd of April or the 1st of February as to how many items and Mr. Basil Rajapakse and the Commissioner General of Essential Services we were constantly and we carried back with the ICRC immunity a lot of patients, a lot of civilians who were in the hospital amongst them there were terrorist supporters, terrorist themselves we land them on the beach of Trincomalee, field hospitals were opened in Pulmodai, India came in and helped us, then the army took over from us and they were sent to Padaviya camps and we really did the tough task of identifying them and bringing them into normal life with the army moving. Here there were occasions when such vessels were, Captain Musafer a former naval officer, when they were unloading the artillery fire fell on the vessels. They, purposefully I would say, firing at us at the vessel which was being unloaded. So we had to weigh anchor. Move out, our crafts were kept aside, first when we tried to escort it the ICRC said your Navy ships are too close so we agreed on an area so that we would not be close more than that and we stayed away then they started doing it because finally with a lot of restrictions and a lot of resistance finally they allowed these items to be unloaded. Now the important thing here is that we even sent the fuel for these boats to transport these items via the ICRCF. So they had enough boats mustered, enough boat drivers under these conditions to do the transferring of tons of flour, rice and medicine.

 So the humanitarian effort of the government and the Navy had a key role like my colleague the Army Commander said they coordinated all these with the INGOs and the movement at sea we had a constant communication with the Commissioner General of Essential Services, there was no time limit for that 24 hours they were in touch with Mr. Divaratne everybody was on the job trying to see that these essentials reach the people and I must pay tribute to the Jaffna GA during these operations. Mr. Ganesh was playing a major role and he supported in getting the Point Pedro unloading open when the stevedores were not willing to come, we must people from the Island because Karainagar is a navy base in the North for a long period and that camp always held fort and the people of Karainagar we got from the Island stevedores and we trained them to unload when people were not there to do that so through the SLPA and through the Essential Services that mechanism was kept in fact and moving in spite of there was no road connectivity and in that way the fisherman in the North were kept engaged throughout the schools were functioning and the Jet Liner vessel which carried 3050 large number of troops were also used to carry students, civilians, some people who were surrendering, some boats came under fire they reached us, they surrendered to carry them and as they landed with my Commander at that time, my predecessor instructions and the governments instructions were carried those civilians without checking anything and they were very happy that we used our own naval crafts which is not normally done unless the whole the whole crew are not there but even in our fast attack craft which normally we don’t take civilians not even our own other service personnel to get on board but still when it came to the requirement the government said use it and we carried them to safety who were injured.

 So in that context the Navy’s effort in maintaining, because it has an international dimension, the ships were being sunk, we were rescuing surviving foreigners, foreign ships were destroyed and as you know, Fara III one before in 1998 Princess Clash which the crew was evacuated and they were handed over by the ICRC to the Indian High Commission through the process of negotiation. I had the privilege with the former secretary foreign affairs and the present secretary foreign affairs to go to the airport while they were leaving to question them to get to know what happened, how they were captured, the Princess Clash in 1998. So this effort of the government to keep the humanitarian operation in tact while maintaining the requirements of the population was tremendous and would never be parallel because we fed the enemy legally by the government. So it is that aspect which I think finally paid dividends and the people now that there is a reconciliation process Sri Lanka Navy absorbed re-settlers to the north almost 10,000 to the Islands, 10,000 to the north western command and another 5000 to the north central command alongside the army and the army process of rehabilitation; they are building houses for them at our own expenses, the people are donating their own money, we learnt from the army, the way they were building houses for the re-settlers, no money is taken from others, our own soldiers and sailors go out to help them and keep them moving.

 It is critically important that we should not be complacent on this situation because the Navy has a major role to play. The army has done the job on land and to see that this will not happen again. So we need to be strong at sea in the coast line and further away and during the humanitarian final stages we had four layers of our craft deployed for over three months that was to prevent them from escaping as there was lot of speculation, lot of suspicion that they have already fled so we in the small boat concept helped us, then the fact attack crafts, the gun boats and the larger vessels which was leased to us from India some of the vessels so that we put those barriers to see that we supported this cause and mainly the international logistic network was curbed, I mean that is well known to everybody and the role the Navy played which had a direct link to this humanitarian operation.

 So that is basically the facts and figures what I have and what we have lost and what we have destroyed of their fleet which you’ll would have seen in many forums and if you have time I just want to show you how the Palk Straits are vulnerable to our national security and what was making us our task most difficult. I want to wind up with the suicide craft at sea. It is unbelievable, it is the psychology of an officer who goes out to sea in suicide craft infected waters amongst a large number of fisherman. If he is spraying is weapon indiscriminately he will be killing a lot of innocents but if he goes and try to do an exact job he would be put into thin air otherwise just forget about him and stay somewhere and come back. That is cowardice. So psychology of suicide boats facing us together, also the psychology of the suicide bomber who is coming at times he does not get the target. He misses it, he has to come back again, whether he comes back with the same vengeance or he will not come again. So these aspects are things we had to confront and it is those gallant courageous heroes who have finally made the supreme sacrifice for the peace that we are enjoying today, it was a tough task in handling suicide bombing,


 I will show you one suicide craft hitting not one of our craft but a merchant vessel which was carrying food for the civilians in the North and if you permit Sir, I will show it. I will quickly  go through, these are the type, where these came from, you see the stealth type suicide craft, hear is the horn, even the dinghies, of course I didn’t bring that are fitted with false bottoms. A bigger version of this what hit when I was at the pier, the Nimalava, about 3 times this. These are horns and they move at 30 knots, this is Liverpool, goes to thin air, no trace.  This is an Indian trawlers we had during the ceasefire monitors going with jus and we suspected this Indian trawlers, we boarded the SLMM member on board and we found a large cache of ammunition and arms, this is a 30MM weapon. You can have a look.  This man jumped overboard, we rescued him and how this craft goes to thin are and then they had no choice other than to blow themselves up without being captured. Now the boat has caught fire, they set fire to that. This is exactly and Indian trawler.

 As my colleague the Army Commander said when people were coming out of this thing they had suicide bombers. The kind like what the army captured semi submersible, fortunately they were not using these to the full extent, had the situation gone on for a while these could have been a serious threat.

 This is a type of submarine they were trying to build.  This is a proper naval torpedo not a recent one but they had bought this, where did it come from so fortunately they were not able to use this.

This top four points we had no control they were outside our shores but since after that the army securing a landing point we managed to achieve this. This is the fishing marshalling points that we established, army and navy, we established new ones so we have knowledge so that they would not be exploited to the extent that this will get out of hand.     

This is the Jetliner move that we did with the army and Air-Force, all committed for the entire day carrying 300 men.

This is the kind of situation under artillery threat we had to unload these people, 3000 unloaded, 3000 boarded, 14,000 tons of army and navy cargo by this move.

 This is the same vessel we used for humanitarian operation during the height of the problem to evacuate the sick and aged people to commute between the North and South. This is not exaggeration; these are the types of trawlers that you so got blasted.

 It is in this dense activity that our patrol boats had to perform and the constraints and the challenging demand of our people who went out to sea and we have come out very clean and victorious without unprecedented complaints or anything not only here, these people come here up to this area because they put them here so that when there is a confrontation we concentrate on them and they get their logistics into the shores so those were the tactics they used as we had to escort the other vessels.

 This is a radar picture of Delft Island. This is when we have Indian trawlers getting into our waters from the eastern coast. This is the exclusive economic zone of Sri Lanka of Andaman Island. This is anybody’s terrain anybody can fish in this area, our fisherman can fish here but it is  our fisherman who go for 20 to 21 days and stray in Indian waters. I just want to give that picture also to you.

 This is the level of details we went to look in to the needs of the northern fisherman in our reconciliation and helping the government on the instructions of the Secretary of defence. This is details of a fisherman where all details are obtained. We have categorized the OBMs they requires, thepams, vallams, one day, multi day, canoes all that, the size of the net etc. All these are tabulated and are being studied by the government for the purpose of helping the northern fisherman.

 On the beach we had hospitals put up right on the beach as they reached medical attention was critical. ICRC played an important role. These are Indian doctors who set up a camp in Pulumodai.


 Finally, let me wind up, I don’t know whether this letter has been forwarded by any other person Secretary would have sent. We worked very closely with the ICRC and they know exactly, this Mr. Paul when I was in charge of operations in 2009, we were very clear of our attitude and the mission, that is filtered from the top of the country when as it is a said it is a humanitarian operation, zero casualties, help people and it was demonstrated that soldiering is a noble profession so I wind up by saying that and which was said by none other than the head of the ICRC.


Q & A

 Paliahakkara: Thank you very much Commander knowing your commitment to humanitarian principles personally. This to ask you, during the last part of the operation I think you described the role you played, the Navy together with the CBS  to maintain the only life line to those 300,000 people held hostage by the LTTE and we would like to for the Commission’s record get those details, I think you had a slide on that about the supplies and also on your return journey you took the wounded and amongst would have been LTTE cadres, those details and also my question to you, specially the Navy  under the ceasefire and  since our mandate also includes lessons learnt part, we would like your thoughts on  that. The Navy was actually excluded, I wouldn’t say excluded but the naval surveillance was excluded from the ceasefire agreement and the seas was basically free for the LTTE, having suffered that handicap and the Navy going to the rescue assistance to the people trapped b y the LTTE at that point it was a dilemma. When you supply food you know very well a part of that goes to the fighting cadres so in effect you had to feed and fight both. How was that handled basically that is one and we would like to have the date from you or the CDS?

 Samarasinghe:  I will certainly provide you with the data. I have the details, when the land route was stopped they had to fall back on the sea route to Pudumathalan so I have the statistics but before that the people were evacuated by the ICRC preventing at times taking the normal civilians, the same craft had to be utilised so we did less number of turns for the civilians and provided the craft. I will certainly provide the tonnage even the most descriptive items of medicine that was taken to Pudumathalan through ICRC. Most the items went through the land route, from the sea route it came to Jaffna and from Jaffna it was given to Jaffna GA which area was under the total control of the government so from that any item going to the terrorist would have been by sea route because there was no land route for them to go because the army was very strong in Muhamalai, they could not cross the line, so it is either through Nachikuda or across Kilali or from Weditalthivu or VTK some people were taking, it was a matter of smuggling these items, these fuel which we brought with so much hardship to north could have been smuggled by these methods mingling with fishing trawlers , so that would have been a possibility but what came to the northern peninsular did not get into the wrong hands to that extent because it came to our own GA and that area was totally under his control and he had a very good network and we had a very close rapport and with SM Commander Jaffna and North had a very good relationship with Mr. Ganesh and the port functioned because of that coordination.

 Further clips shown. 

 This is civilians trying to get away from the LTTE and you can see some of the LTTE terrorist firing at them on the ground and stopping them so you can see the bullets hitting the ground there and this tractor is trying to demarcate and area and show that they cannot go beyond that.  This is something very good for the international community to see because it shows how the LTTE was willingly trying to stop the civilians from coming out and this does not show any indication of the civilians liking to stay with the LTTE either.  Eventually they brake out and just go away. These are all the LTTE terrorist at the border. This is Pudumathalan, the final place. So they finally brake out and just run out and the LTTE looses control there. I hope you saw them firing.

 This is a clip of the civilians escaping the no fire zone and coming to the cleared area of the army. You can see them running away, this is the initial brake.  You can clearly see that they are running away from the LTTE.

 You can realise the task we had to feed this people and the massive influx of refugees or came out of that place at once.

These are civilians being carried into air force helicopters. The army loading them into the helicopters after giving them initial treatment. These are the people who were airlifted from those forward areas.


 So these are some of the clips that you saw and one thing that I forget to tell you was about the LTTE aircraft and this is one of the few terrorist groups that operated with a few aircraft as well apart from the ships they had .There was a lot of physiological impact in populated centres where they starting bombing, but of course there bombing was small but we managed to shoot them down at the end .

 C.R. de Silva:  I was wondering whether the field commanders have anything to say because they were the people who were in the spot and probably whether they have anything to say which would be very helpful to us.
















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