General Nalin Seneviratne VSV 1931-2009
"Nothing except a battle won can be half as melancholy as a battle
lost" (Duke of Wellington 1769-1852)
General Nalin Seneviratne VSV the 10th Commander of the Sri Lanka
Army died on August 12, 2009 aged 78 years. He joins in Valhalla those
who were in the thin red line of defenders of the nation who predeceased
him. History will record that he was the first Army Commander who
defeated the LTTE in 1987, resisting attempts by the faint hearted to
abort the epic Vadamarachchi battle in its first hour. The war was
finally won when the LTTE was wiped out in May 2009.
General Nalin Seneviratne
He will be remembered for his almost boyish enthusiasm in whatever he
did, his approachability that made subordinates believe he was human and
available at all times. He had great moral strength to lead in times of
exceptional stress and misfortune as in Jaffna in the mid 1980s and the
courage of his convictions to stand up for his subordinates. He had
sincerity and charm to mean what he says and deal with compassionate
cases and community issues. He however lacked somewhat in showmanship
which some excelled in, although he made sure of success of the army he
led in war which was what mattered.
While there may have been a lacuna in his tactical knowledge being an
engineer, he made up for it by getting to know, even though late, what
was needed to be done. Good judgment and decision making followed
easily. He would give his subordinates a reasonable 'free run' but no
one doubted that he knew when to seize the reins himself. Being a leader
by example he was a superb communicator and encouraged, even provoked
his subordinates to give him ideas and even advice as he was sure of his
own ability to ensure success. His subordinates knew he really cared for
them and their ambitions and rallied round him. He involved himself
wholly with everything in the army and everybody in it. There were no
cliques and favourites. Hopefully he was not the last of the Mohicans.
The 6 foot General was educated at Royal College, Colombo. He joined
the then Ceylon Army and was commissioned into the First Field Engineer
Regiment Ceylon Engineers from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst on
July 30, 1953. He followed the Royal Engineer Young Officers course at
the School of Military Engineering Chatham UK before returning. Much
later in the 1960s, he followed the Engineering Officers' Construction,
Planning and Operation Course at the US Army Engineering School, Fort
Belvoir USA, the first Sri Lanka Army officer to be trained there.
Much later in the 1980s, he followed the National Defence College
course in Delhi before he took command of the Army. When he did so, he
also became the second engineer officer to command the Army following
General Denis Perera, a very hard act to follow, as standards had been
set that did not exist before. He made sure they were kept.
Much of his service was within the folds of the Field Engineers
including his period of command of the Regiment which while honing his
expertise as an engineer inhibited his knowledge of many officers in the
army, something he needed to work on when he became Army Commander. He
did so by visiting regiments all over the country including when they
were on field training. He served as staff officer to the Commander Task
Force Illicit Immigration (TAFII) and was based in Mannar in the 1960s.
He was the first Commander of the Engineer Group (1977-1980) and then
the Support Group (1982-4). He took a stint in a civilian government job
in the UK offered him by Minister Lalith Athulathmudali. He was also
Commander of 54 Force HQ in Jaffna. He commanded the Sri Lanka Army from
1985 to 1988 having taken over from Lt Gen Tissa Weeratunge.
The zenith of his tenure as Army Commander was the victorious 1987
Vadamarachchi battle in which the LTTE were decisively beaten. The nadir
was the forced induction of the IPKF into Sri Lanka in 1987 which he
with the other two Service Commanders vehemently opposed.
He had tremendous moral courage which was tested to the hilt when he
was hemmed in the Jaffna fort in 1984, yet he made sure while the
soldiers morale was high that it was not at the expense of the people of
Jaffna and that they were not unfairly affected by continuing military
There was little if any co-lateral damage. The late Maj Gen George
Thevanayagam who was a Sinha Regiment officer and was himself from
Jaffna summed it up when he said that the people of Jaffna would not
harm Gen Seneviratne even if he was to walk its streets in the dark.
This was echoed by many Jaffna civilians too.
Gen. Seneviratne intuitively grasped the essence of a problem posed
and revealed in finding a solution which those affected at the end
possibly believed was their own. He also had a rollicking sense of
humour and could add stinging wit to it when called for. It made many
careful not to ask or expect anything that took their personal fancy.
He was a natural leader of people as he led by example. He never
asked anyone to do anything he himself had not done or was unable to do.
He was upright and straightforward. The standards of conduct, behaviour
and integrity set by him and General Perera are the ones that the Army
still tries to emulate.
Like all Engineer officers most of them over 6 foot tall Gen
Seneviratne was also good at games. He played rugby for the Engineer
regiment and the Army.
The Engineers tradition of carrying out national development projects
in many parts of the island continued under then Col Seneviratne
especially in the Mahaveli H2 area using heavy earth moving machinery of
the Plant Squadron. He was very proud of their achievements.
After leaving the Army he was a very effective and efficient Governor
North East Provinces. He also did much to improve the welfare of his
staff by finding and constructing suitable living quarters and generally
improving their living standards.
Yet he spent little on improving his own residence which latter is
the first thing some others gave priority to on appointment.
Gen Nalin Seneviratne who was not in good health at the end, leaves
behind his wife Mala and their only child Dushyanthi married to Khavan
Perera and their two daughters.
All ranks of the army who served in his time and his numerous friends
and relatives will miss him very much.
He will be remembered by all for a long time to come and his
contribution to the Sri Lanka Army and his regiment will be well
recorded in history.