Tribute to a gallant war hero
At the end of a vicious war it is not unusual for disputes to emerge
among the victors on the military and the political ingredients that
contributed to their final success and, even more specifically, on who
deserves credit for the victory.
Such disputes have been much in evident in Sri Lanka since the
military defeat of the LTTE about 14 months ago. Moreover, it is
invariably the leaders of the
Azlam Fazly Laphir
successful operations against the enemy – especially, the coup de
grace - that are accorded recognition as heroes of the war. Past
failures and setbacks tend to be forgotten in the post-war euphoria.
Perhaps the most “forgettable” among the episodes of failure in the
course of the ‘Eelam Wars’ were the debacles at Mullaitivu (July 1996)
and Elephant Pass (April 2000) at which the losses suffered by Sri Lanka
included many thousands of men in arms and large hauls of battle-field
hardware. This article intends to spotlight a true hero of one of these
episodes – a man who laid down his life in a partially successful
attempt to save the lives of several hundreds of his comrades-in-arms
under circumstances of almost total despair.
The occasion for this tribute is the 14th death anniversary of that
hero, Colonel Azlam Fazly Laphir. He was posthumously awarded Parama
Weera Vibhushana Medal – the highest military honour in Sri Lana for
Led by morale
He is the senior most officer of the Sri Lanka Army to be so honoured,
and one of the very few commanding officers to die while leading his men
in the battlefield.
Born in Matale in 1958, he completed his school education at St
Anthony’s College, Kandy. In accordance with the wishes of his father,
Dr Laphir, who wanted his son to become an engineer, on completion of
his schooling, young Fazly secured a scholarship to proceed on his
higher studies in Lybiya. However, his lure was in an entirely different
direction which was to join the Sri Lanka Army – at that time, a
relatively small but a glamorous outfit.
From the very outset, his Army career was featured by dedication,
skill and exceptional overall competence. He was one of the pioneering
officers in the first Gajaba Regiment.
When Lt Col. Vijaya Wimalaratne inaugurated the ‘Special Forces
Squadrons’ scheme to counter the intensifying threat posed by the LTTE
guerilla war tactics, Fazly was appointed the officer-in-charge of the
first such unit which had several skirmishes with the fledgling militant
groups in the North among which the most successful was the operation in
Ambuweli in 1983.
He was a founder member of the “Thirty-Five Gang”/Combat Tracker
Team’ formed in 1985. He was a member of the ‘Rapid Deployment Force”
formed in the 1980s. As a pioneer member of the First Regiment of the
Special Forces. Fazly’s involvement extended to all its aspects
including even the design of the cap, badge and the insignia.
His reputation for physical courage earned him from his colleagues
the affectionate nickname of “suicide express”. One of the memorable
demonstrations of his willingness to risk his life against almost
insurmountable odds is found in the annals of the rescue mission he took
part in across the Jaffna lagoon to reach the troops besieged in Jaffna
Over time, he acquired a mastery of the ‘military geography’ of
Jaffna peninsula. This, according to well informed sources, turned out
to be invaluable in the re-establishment of Government control over that
region in 1995. Meanwhile, he was also involved in strengthening the
Army Camp at Mullaitivu which was mainly intended to control the LTTE
smuggling operations along the North-East coast.
His fateful day came when the Sri Lanka Army camp at Mullaitivu was
surrounded by the terrorists on July 18, 1996. Mullaitivu was of
strategic significance to the Tigers because of its central location
along the North-Eastern seaboard. Although a massive Army garrison had
been placed in its command area of 8.5 km, the camp was vulnerable to
enemy attack, being relatively isolated – the nearest main Army camps
being at Welioya 35 km to its south and Elephant Pass 55 km to its north
across hostile forested terrain.
The Tiger forces surrounded the camp and started their attack at 1.30
am. An operation code-named Thrivida Pahara launched by the Army to
defend Mullaitivu was severely handicapped by the fact that no
reinforcement could be dispatched to Mullaitivu either by land or by the
sea because of the impenetrable blockage by a larger number of Tiger
battalions armed with heavy artillery and a large Sea Tiger Force.
It was in this situation of total despair that Lt Col Fazly Laphir
volunteered to lead a “do-or-die” air-borne rescue mission manned by 275
combatants of the ‘Special Forces’ under his command.
Fazly was stationed at that time at the Maduru Oya Camp. From there
he and his men were conveyed by helicopter via Trincomalee to Alampil)
five kms south to the Mullaitivu base) around 4.30 pm on the same day.
As expected, they encountered stiff resistance from the guerrilla
Earlier reinforcement operations by the Sri Lanka Air Force and the
Navy had been thwarted, the resulting damage included damage to two
helicopters and the gun-boat ‘SLN Ranaviru’ which was blown up with its
entire crew of 36.
Some of the most fierce fighting of the entire ‘Eelam War’ were
witnessed over the next few hours. Since helicopter landing on open
beaches was excessively risky, Fazly and his troops had to descend to
the ground along ropes amidst heavy firing. Both in the hazardous task
of descending and re-grouping as well as in the deadly close-encounter
combat against several thousands of well armed Tigers, Fazly is reported
to have displayed such extraordinary leadership skills that his men
persisted with their task, achieving a fairly degree of success and
causing heavy losses to the LTTE forces.
They advanced amidst fierce mortar fire but lost communication with
the rear. Fazly at their vanguard was fatally wounded by a shrapnel that
pierced his brain in the morning of July 19.
Though receiving no medical care, he went on fighting until, later
that morning, he succumbed to his injuries. His body was evacuated three
This appreciation, focused as it is on Col Fazly Laphir, does not
imply that in the annals of the Eelam Wars his heroism was unique. There
were others, probably of all ranks, who, in times of impending peril,
acted with the same courage and commitment that Fazly showed at the
battle of Mullaitivu.
We moan the fact that many among them were not destined to enjoy with
us the fruits of victory.
The least we must therefore do is to accord to them an everlasting
place in our collective memory, and, where appropriate, help the loved
ones they have left behind.