One Saturday morning I was in the salubrious hills of Diyatalawa. I was seated with a certain degree of anticipation. A red military police jeep was approaching our tent. Following it was an elegant black vehicle proudly displaying the five stars that signify the top office of a Field Marshall. Moments later I could make out the familiar figure of one of the nation’s gallant sons, Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka, smartly walking to the saluting dais. It was the passing out parade of a new batch of officer cadets at the Sri Lanka Military Academy.
We all desire success and career development. Joining the Army, Navy or Air Force has been on the minds of many of us at some stage in our school life. Many would have written such an essay at English grammar class. Yet, the reality of becoming an Army officer is indeed a daunting challenge. It requires confidence, character, intelligence and endurance. It is a lifestyle. It is probably one of the few jobs in the world that would put you directly in the path of death, in the defence of a nation. Thankfully, for many decades parents have willingly enlisted their sons and daughters to continue this fine tradition of upholding the true spirit of altruism.
Enlisted cadets get their first taste of military life as they enter the massive training grounds of the Sri Lanka Military Academy (SLMA). I walk around accompanied by Major Nalin Marasinghe and Major Rohan Silva. During the period of training at the academy the cadets are attached to four companies, each under the command of a Major. These companies are named after four prominent battles from our nation’s heritage. They are Vijithapura, Gannoruwa, Randeniwala and Balana.
The battle of Vijithapura is steeped in history. According to the Mahawamsa the armies of King Elara were well entrenched in four fortresses, along with 24 other armed detachments. These forts were located at Mahiyangana, Thitthambha, Vijithapura and Mahela Nagara. They were under siege for four months. The troops of King Dutugemunu had prepared for a head on assault on the fortification of Vijithapura.
The king’s war elephant was used to ram down the massive door. The Chola garrison was defeated by the gallant commander Nandimitra.This battle was fought within the parameters of the Kshatriya Laws of War, which prevailed in that era.
Gannoruwa is a village in the district of Kandy. In 1636 Portuguese forces launched their attack from the fort of Attapitiya. They were intent to capture Kandy. King Rajasinghe 11 was able to muster an offensive battalion of 15,000 troops. Before the encounter a spell of rain rendered useless the firearms of the foreign army, somewhat restricting their effectiveness. The native battalion surrounded the troops of General Diego de Mello, and unleashed a counter attack that left behind only 33 Portuguese prisoners. General de Mello and his Captain Damio were both killed. This is one of the most successful battles in the history of Ceylon.
In close proximity to Wellawaya lies the village of Randeniwela. By 1628 the defiant Portuguese had captured Batticaloa. They consolidated their defences with forts at Malwana, Menikkadawara, Ruwanwella, Alawwa and Kuruwita. The coastal forts were at Jaffna, Mannar, Colombo, Galle, Kalutara and Batticaloa. The Kandyan Army took up positions at Badulla. They defeated the Portuguese under the command of King Senarath. The pass at Balana (Yatinuwara) was of strategic significance. It was the key to Kandy and hence, a vital defence. From here you can see the Batalegala Rock and the majestic peaks of Alagalla Range. Enemy forces advanced and met with stiff resistance many times.
Recruits are transformed mentally and physically. They begin their day around 4.30 am and must get ready for PT by 5.45 am. This lasts an hour. Breakfast is served at 6.45 am and then they prepare for drill practice. The physical endurance of each cadet is gradually built up by 45 PT instructors.
I spoke to Sgt. Meyankumbura, one of the PTIs. During the first term a cadet must perform a 5 mile run in 1.30 hours from Beragala in full uniform carrying his .303 rifle and 3.5Kg pack. The second term demands a nine-mile run in two hours and the final run after two years of solid training is a distance of 24 Km beginning from the Kalupahana Bridge.
This challenge must be completed in three hours carrying a 10 Kg pack. The cadets are also subject to a Battle Obstacle Course (BOC) and Battle Confidence Course (BCC). Here they are taught how to carry an injured comrade and make a 200 meter dash to safety. Another key element in teaching them vital survival skills is the Wanabambara- Jungle training exercise.
Apart from this, cadets are taught field craft, military tactics and the use of firearms. They must also learn a range of academic topics. One of the new competencies introduced in the recent past is horse riding. There is a fully fledged Equestrian section with 32 horses at Diyatalawa, with Veterinary officers. The academy consists of a Head Quarters under the prudent command of Major General Rajaguru. The academy adjutant is Major Basnayake.
The other sections that work to ensure and maintain the topmost standards are the Officer Cadet Wing, Military Training Wing, Academic Wing and Administrative Wing.
Diyatalawa has been a garrison town for decades. The British first set their eyes on these serene hills. They established a camp here for 5,000 Boer prisoners of war. Then the British Navy set up a sanatorium here for their sailors. Later, a training depot began moulding the men of the Ceylon Defence Force.
Thereafter, in 1950 the Army Training Depot began to train other ranks and officers were sent overseas for training. During 1968 Major J.E.D. Perera (subsequently promoted General) was entrusted to set up an officer training school. The new syllabus was a reflection of the course at Sandhurst Military Academy, England.
On 10 January 1981 the SL Military Academy was raised under the motto “Serve to Lead”, to train cadets of the Regular and Volunteer force. On successfully completing two years of training the cadets are commissioned at a spectacular passing out parade.
The parade commander and deputy on horseback are a lovely sight. One cadet will receive the coveted sword of honour. At the end of the parade the new officers steadily march out through the famous Makara Thorana (arch) signifying their entry into active service. Later on, the parents of the new officers take part in the “piping” ceremony, where the officers’ stars are pinned on to their shoulder epaulets.
The moulding of a civilian into an Army officer is best captured in the words of American General Norman Schwarzkopf, “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character’.