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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 80

Lalin's Column : Late Lieutenant Colonel V Ramanathan SL Artillery (1931-2018)

By Major General (Retd.) Lalin Fernando

Lt Col Vallipuram Ramanathan, late SL Artillery, died in Australia on 4th August 2018 aged 87. He was in the first intake of officer cadets from Ceylon to be trained at the Royal Military Academy (RMA) Sandhurst in 1951.

He was commissioned from there to the Ceylon Artillery. He was later major and second in command of the 4th Artillery Regiment; he unfortunately did not get to command it. He was however promoted Lieutenant Colonel at Volunteer Force Branch AHQ. He retired from the Army in 1977 just as SL was beginning its descent into notoriety via President JRJ’s ‘just society’ and the 1983 riots that were to come.

Rama was born in Point Pedro in the village of Thumpalai on 26 June 1931. He spent the WW2 years not at Glendale Bandarawella as did some of his Royal College class mates as the school was taken over by the British to station their troops. The British did the same to S Thomas College Mt Lavinia and prominent Colombo schools.

His lived in Borella where his father was an apothecary. He had an elder brother Nagaratnam and sister Nageswary. He married Seetha and celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in 2018 in Australia. He was also a cousin of KT Rajasingham, editor Asian Tribune.

In 1951 there were 10 vacancies for RMA Sandhurst. When he told his cadet master Cantley he had without his or any other recommendation applied to go to Sandhurst, the latter laughed. He did not know that Col Rama’s strongest trait was determination and he would have the last but quiet laugh.

Rama came 11th. As luck would have it one of the chosen 10, a boy from Jaffna, was seen to be overage on the final date for applications, so Rama went instead. Denis Perera who as General later became Army Commander was in the same intake. Col Rama was very proud of being a Sandhurst graduate.

Rama’s class mate and very good friend Engineer DLO Mendis remembers that the Tamil boys in his class were referred to as the ‘Tamil Congress’ (which was also the only Tamil political party then). DLO from Moratuwa was also happily in the same group! They used to meet opposite Lion House to eat thosai regularly. Others in the group were Rasalingam (later national badminton champion) and Major A Armithalingam (public schools 400 yards champion later Sandhurst and Australian Staff College who served in the CLI and was second in command of the Sinha Regiment in the late 1960s. His buddy on keeping the peace patrols during the emergency after a Buddhist priest was shot dead at Kollupitiya in 1968 was Sandhurst and S Thomas boxing coloursman Lt (later Major General) ‘Kalu’ Wijeratne

The fresh faced subaltern Rama on his return from Sandhurst went up with his Royal 43 group to Kandy to witness the motor sports road race, held for the first time round the lake Kandy (about 1952).When the group walked across the road to get to a better view point, they were called, not very kindly, to order by a police constable. Lt Rama did not pull rank but with the others obeyed the policeman in the best traditions of a Sandhurst trained officer and gentleman. His friends noticed and remembered even 66 years later.

Lt Rama was one of the officers who were invited to lay the foundation for the new army cantonment buildings at Panagoda, Homagama in the 1950s. He also organized the 2 mile sea swim which has been held annually since then.

Lt Rama’s troop in Mannar had a contretemps with some villagers in the late 1950s. Rama and his men suffered injuries and were visited in hospital by the Army Commander Brigadier Read. His evidence at the enquiry that followed saved everyone.

Lt Rama, it was said, took part in Operation Ganja (Opium) the objective of which was to provide protection to the police to destroy opium plantations in the Hambegamuwa jungles in Wellawaya. This became a Human Rights cause célèbre. Among other things the gunners snipped off one side of the village headman’s walrus mustache when it became known he was playing a double game. I recall Capt Eustace Fonseka, (later Brigadier) who was there, telling me that the headman had craftily urged him to ‘go and fox the b….s sir’. Eustace understood. In 2017 SL government opened a 100 acre cannabis plantation at Ingiriya to export the expected 25 tons for medicinal purposes to the USA. If only Col Rama knew!

Former Artillery Captain Mohan Moothathamby (St John’s College Jaffna, now in Canada and famous for singing Sinhala songs at gatherings there even as he was as an officer cadet in 1968) remembers Col Rama “as second in command of the Regiment of Artillery when Parry (Liyanage- late Brigadier)” and he joined in 1969. He writes “it was indeed sad news… He was our role model… his attire, demeanour... He called a spade a spade. His rebukes always followed with a wink and a smile in his eyes that meant ’what I have to do I just have to do it’. There was no animosity in it and he never harped on it afterwards. “He taught cross country riding on 7.5 BSA army motor bikes ... we did not have trail bikes then. He chose Lal (later General and Commander of the Army Srilal Weerasuriya) Bashur (Captain Musafer who captained Army rugby, now domiciled in Australia) and me to be trained …not many other young officers were keen on dare devilry. He organized the 2 mile sea swim. He took us in his jeep to act as … judges. There were no life jackets then”.

Capt Moothathamby also left for Canada sadly as a direct consequence of the 1977 riots. His father, a government servant was assaulted in his office at the very moment Mohan was to set off on a cordon and search operation organized in the Kirallapone canal area. It was a heart rending sight to see Mohan’s dignified and resigned reaction. He was permitted to go to help his father.

The first time I served with Col Rama was in 1972 when I was posted to AHQ Volunteer Force(VF) Branch where he was the senior Staff Officer (Grade One).He virtually ran the branch for the Commandant who was a civilian ‘Volunteer’. Col Rama knew the VF regulations inside out.

In the strange way the Army worked I was almost immediately sent back to Diyatalawa to run a Volunteer Probationary Officers’ course at the Army Training Centre (ATC).

On my return I saw former VF Commandant Col Rockwood, (CDF vintage) confront Col Rama and question him as to why his son Mohan had not been awarded the prize for the best probationary officer on that course. Although I was present Col Rama did not, as some would, send for me to face an agitated Col Rockwood. Instead Col Rama very calmly but firmly told him that it was a decision taken by the chief instructor of the course (me-seated in the next room) and approved by the Commandant of the ATC (then Colonel Denis Perera, later Army Commander) and added that as far as he was concerned it was just water under the bridge. Rockwood then asked to see the relevant mark sheets. Col Rama made it very clear that he was not entitled to see them. Rockwood left in a huff.

Mohan Rockwood later joined the regular force, became a brigadier and died early of a heart attack. The winner was Rohan Jayathileke 2(V) SLLI who later became Deputy Solicitor General but sadly died very early too.

Sadly Col Rama retired prematurely in January 1977 from the army he had served diligently and loyally and had joined with great expectations of a challenging career. He joined Walter Hardnut and then the Confifi hotels group where he made an excellent name for himself both in the business and among his staff who in turn performed beyond the management’s expectations due to Col Rama’s leadership.

In the aftermath of the 1983 race riots during which he and his family took refuge and were taken good care of by Maj Gen Gratian Silva (also Artillery and Sandhurst) in his house, he left with his family for Canada, disconsolate. From there he migrated to Australia where he did very well in the Bureau of Statistics.

Col Rama was very proud of his children. He used to tell me they never caught a cold because they swam (at the SSC) early morning, every day.

A while after the 1983 riots when I was working in the Central Bank, he requested me to escort him to his bank to deposit the money he received after selling his house and property at Kirillapone. It was all extremely sad. I knew he would and did leave SL soon thereafter, forever. The concept of a national army and more so a nation, was strangled in 1983.

Many years later (1990s) when I was travelling with my family to Galle we dropped in at the Confifi hotel for tea.

In conversation with the staff I remarked that we used to come there often whenever we went South during the time Col Ramanathan was in charge. I was pleasantly surprised to know that Col Rama had come over for a short holiday, was staying there and would be back by about 5 pm. We finished our visit early and got back just in time to greet Col Rama and his wife. It was his turn to be surprised. It was a short but enjoyable reunion.

Last year, an old Trinitian Sinniah Jayaratnam informed me from Australia that Col Rama was afflicted by motor neuron disease. I phoned Col Rama immediately. He was driving at the time. With the same calm and decorum he faced life, especially in 1983, he told me that he had not much longer to live and was resigned to his fate.

Early this year he emailed me to help him as the SL Pension Department had delayed payment. I contacted both the SL Pensions Department and our High Commissioner in Australia .They were very helpful especially when they were told about his illness and that I had served with him in the army.

Col Ramanathan was the last of the senior Artillery officers of that time I had the pleasure and privilege to serve and associate with from Colonel Lyn Wickramasuriya, Lt Cols HT Gunesekera, Eardly McHeyser and MA Jeevasoma, Brigadier Justus Rodrigo, Major Generals Jayantha Jayaratne, Duleep Wickramanayake and Gratian Silva. They called themselves the ‘Gunner tribe’. They set the highest standards of professional conduct and behavior and were an example to the army. They had affection for all. They are all gone now.

The gunners call themselves the ‘9 mile snipers’ and occasionally the ‘drop shorts’. Their cap badge has ‘Ubique’ on it. It not only means they are ‘everywhere’ but also that they are wherever a battle is, to serve and support the forces. It is said they have only 2 likes, targets and other gunners. Not being either of them I am happy to know they consider infantrymen second only to them.

Col Ramanathan leaves behind his wife Seetha and 2 sons Raghavan and Arjunan and daughters Manju and Saradha and their spouses, children and grand children. The words of Captain Mohan Moothathamby come to mind to remember a good and sincere friend and an exemplary officer; “I thank God for giving him a full life and truly his life will speak volumes and his memory will live forever at least among the Gunner tribe for sure”. He will not be forgotten.

- Asian Tribune -

Lalin's Column : Late Lieutenant Colonel V Ramanathan SL Artillery (1931-2018)
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