Army deserters and gun culture

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By 2017-04-21

by Elmo Gooneratne

During World War II, people in Colombo were living in fear as the Japanese were getting ready to bomb Ceylon. In the night black papers covered the lamp shades and people talked in whispers. A curfew was clamped after 6 p.m. and people were not allowed to go out of their houses. When this happened I was an eight-year-old boy living at Albion Road, Dematagoda. When the Japanese were about to bomb the island people started leaving Colombo to neighbouring villages such as Gampaha. Advances were given to landlords and houses were built in a couple of days and rented out. After giving a three to six month advance my family and other families connected to us all started settling down in Gampaha.

Schools came up in no time. There were popular schools such as Ananda College, St. Benedict's College and St. Joseph's College in Gampaha. I attended Holy Cross College, Gamapha, a girls' school which became a mixed school later. There were sisters teaching both boys and girls.

When Ananda College was established I was admitted to it. Thereafter the Gampaha branch of St. Benedict's College, was also established. Waidyaratne family came to live in Gampaha. It was headed by a well-known Ayurvedic Physician and businessman.

Cecil Waidyaratne attended St. Benedict's College. We came to know each other and played cricket at the Gampaha Urban Council Grounds. When we were admitted to Colombo schools we used to travel by train.

I attended Ananda College and Cecil went to St. Benedict's College. Hamilton Wanasinghe too travelled by train to Ananda College.

Though we attended different schools in Colombo, we developed a strong friendship. Soon Cecil became Ceylon's fastest bowler, which helped him to join the Army. We used to watch Hamilton's brilliant shooting when he too joined the Army.

Classmates

I came to know both Cecil and Hamilton as good friends.

Later on my classmates Vijay Athukorala, Asoka Jayawardena, Gratien Silva and several others joined the Army. Although I was keen on becoming a lawyer, I ended up as a journalist on the Guardian and Jatiya editorials.

Subsequently, I joined Lake House and the Times Group of newspapers. When I assumed duties in the Department of Information I was assigned to work with the Joint Operations Command (JOC) as a consultant.

In the first month of my appointment to the JOC

I was treated with utter callousness. I was told not attend any meeting of the JOC as they considered all JOC meetings were strictly confidential. They always said I was an outsider.

However, I didn't give up attending the JOC. One day when I was seated outside a hand pressed my shoulder. "Why are you waiting outside? You have to be inside."

That was Hamilton. Cecil also followed. He called the Brigadier in charge of the meetings and asked him why he treated me as an outsider. He said they were security meetings and I was kept out. However, Hamilton insisted that I should be allowed to attend the meetings.

JOC

He had been appointed by the President and the Defence Minister to the JOC. I had been appointed as a Consultant to the Joint Operations Command. I was there when the JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera was brought in. As I knew Wijeweera well I was requested to talk to him. I knew everything what happened thereafter. Hamilton and Cecil were some of my contemporaries.

As a Lake House journalist I spoke to Cecil about the Army deserters. This happened way back in 1992. As usual he was reluctant to talk about it. However, later he told me that deserters were a very dangerous group to society. Cecil ended up as the Lieutenant General and he commanded the JOC which led to the capture of Rohana Wijeweera putting an end to the JVP insurrection.

Hamilton Wanasinghe was also a village lad from the Gampaha District. Later he was promoted as the Army Commander.

The first deserter I met was an Army officer. We became friendly and he told me that he could not go back to the Army. He said, "I went on leave to get married to my girlfriend who was a nurse. The army decided to extend my leave for a week. However, some Army officers came to take me back. My parents and relations advised me not to go back. In the meantime, I went into hiding and started doing odd jobs.

In hiding

"Didn't anybody advise you to go back?" I asked him. Most people wanted me to stay back. So I stayed back most of the time in hiding. When I met him he was a taxi driver changing his place of residence with his wife and child.

He studied at a leading Buddhist college. "Everybody advised me to hide and not to go back to the Army. Finally, I was taken back to the Army Headquarters.

I suffered for five years in the Army detention camp. After coming out of the detention camp he told me that he was going to live in a foreign country with his family.

There were other Army deserters who were good at using weapons. They usually join the underworld. There are brokers who contact such Army deserters and offer jobs. They are asked to rob banks, petrol sheds, post offices and shops.

Most of the Army deserters are engaged in unlawful activities and they have become a headache to law enforcement authorities.

Contract killings are most carried out by Army deserters. Despite Police vigilance, they are in possession of dangerous weapons.

Gun culture has invaded the country but nobody seems to be bothered. When all of us left Colombo and settled down in Gampaha, we were under the impression that the Japanese were trying to invade the country. My father who was a postal employee had a friend who was selected to panel which recruited young people to be sent to the Middle East to kill Germans.

Middle East

Brampy Singho the coconut plucker in the village wanted to go to the Middle East. At the interview he was asked a few questions.

However, the interviewer thought that Brampy Singho was a German. He said. "Oh! you have Germans in your country." Brampy Singho too had smiled back and said, "Yes, yes we have." When he came back from the interview my father asked him, "Did you kill Italians?" Brampy Singho said, "Are you mad? No body from Ceylon did anything other than peeling potatoes in the kitchen."

But there were some who were more enterprising. They had brought gramophones with records and stuffed the place with weapons. That is the beginning of the gun culture in Ceylon. Jayasundera, Dharmadasa and Don Charles started killing and robbing. Except for Don Charles others were killed by the Police. Don Charles was an English speaking Army man. He was a smart man who was cultivating vegetables in Welimada. He had appeared for his own defence for robbing banks. He was discharged and stopped robbing and became a vegetable planter.

Jayasundera who stole cars and dismantled them within a few hours sold them. However, he was killed. He lived on the top of a hill with his mistress when a Police party led by F. de Seram shot him dead.

Seasoned killers

Dharmadasa was killed on the top of a hill by B.C. Wijemanne. Kara was hanged. Guns came to be used freely after the World War II. Today almost all Army deserters are armed. Lieutenant General Cecil Waidyaratne told me that there were 35,000 Army deserters. Most of them have developed to be seasoned killers.

Here Waidyaratne was clear in saying that Army deserters always turn criminals. They have to be dealt with before they go into action. According to him, today there are more than 70,000 Army deserters roaming in the country.

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