Sri Lanka’s recent war went from a stalemate to a decisive end game in just over 48 hours. Yet during the past decade, historians disagreed on how, where and why. New records, veteran memoirs and new books by eminent historians are clearing the fog. Emerging from the haze is the forgotten battle which changed Sri Lanka’s history. Details of its horrors, heroism, political intrigues, command debacles and leadership genius is becoming public knowledge. Yet the unexpected consequence of all this is spirit of reconciliation. Its spread is beyond the control of the island’s political players.
The battle in question is hard to define in conventional terms. There was disagreement as to whether it was a single battle at all. It could have remained a series of protracted chaotic small unit engagements. Fought over a vast area of flooded dense urban slums and waterlogged marshland. The Colombo garrison commander, colonel “Rambutan” Nadesan Van Parakramabahu’s bold initiative changed everything. Turning the siege of Colombo into the birth of South Asia’s most successful city state – the Peoples Republic of Dehiwala.
Veterans of the “battle” recall it as endless bouts of urban combat. Slogged out in polluted waist deep water. The flooding was caused by blowing up dykes controlling Colombo’s Dutch era outer canal network. It was one of colonel Nadesan’s many controversial orders. The Republic of Ceylon government had long fled Colombo. No one was left with the authority or the ability to stop him. The flooding of the sprawling, decayed low rise socialist housing complexes created a powerful defensive barrier. It bogged down the northern pincer of the encircling Kandiyan armoured force from entering Colombo. The southern pincer was already halted by the heroic second battle of Wallawatte bridge.
The attacking armoured units got stuck in Battaramulla’s maze of flooded streets. Kandiyan commanders had planned for an Akunu Yudaya (lightening war) offensive. It was the type of fighting that won them the entire southern lowlands of the island in less than a week. They lacked troops and logistics for a prolonged siege. Neither the elite Mathale Guard under Puviraja Pandaram nor Haththotowa Maha Disawe’s famed Segarasasekaran armoured corps were trained in close quarter urban combat.
As a result the northern perimeter of the siege became a porous no man’s land. The besiegers were on the defensive, unable to control movement in and out of the city. It was the Republic of Ceylon government’s incompetence that slowed the flow of supplies than the besiegers. Blockade runners and enterprising defenders soon established independent supply lines which secured the city’s survival.
Then colonel Nadesan escalated the sporadic gun battles across this flooded no mans’ land with a bold mobile artillery attack. It was followed by an armoured thrust through Battarmulla’s flooded Karl Marx and Lenin workers’ housing complexes. Many historians including Goliath White call it the most audacious use of the war’s iconic armoured trishaws (three wheelers). The armoured thrust was supported by infantry riding improvised rafts.
Most of this force were civilian ‘militia’ armed with machetes. Yet they routed better equipped feudal armies of the Kandiyan and Wanni aristocrats. The losses gave the King Sri Rajasinghe VIII the opening to intervene. The throne subjugated the humiliated aristocracy with a ruthless unprecedented consolidation of military and political power within the Kingdom of Sri Lanka.
The rest is history. The events that followed altered Sri Lanka’s political landscape. Burring the nameless attack that triggered it all. Now it has a name : the Battaramulla counter offensive.
Shared horrors of the battle is creating a common ground for former enemies. Resulting in ‘people to people’ contacts at unofficial memorial ceremonies. Over the past few years, these have had a surprising healing effect. Fostering a sense of mutual respect that is bridging the island’s two main cultures. One westernised by centuries of colonial rule. The other proud of its four hundred year successful resistance against colonial powers. Surveys show that Sri Lankans – from Yāḻppāṇam, Wanni, Rajarata, to Senkadagala – no longer view their former enemies as effete colonial servents. This new is reciprocated by the Ceylonese Dehiwalaites. Who once saw Sri Lankans as arrogant violent supermen.
Cynics point to tacit support by the Kingdom of Sri Lanka and the Peoples’ Republic of Dehiwala governments through their peace building efforts. Both are reaping economic benefits from unleashing the once stymied potential of the island. The only obstacle to further prosperity is the rump state of the Republic of Ceylon. The ruling Socialist Liberation Front government – barricaded in the ‘provisional capital’ of Kurunegala – refuses to compromise it’s failing central planing policies.
It is causing disparities in living standards and freedom of movement. The continued frustrations are dissolving differences between the libertarian Peoples Republic of Dehiwala and the Sri Lankan Monarchy. Both have strategic weapons with very different ideas of their use. Multi national geo political games have further complicate the situation. According to Sri Lanka’s foremost analyst Goliath White, this trend dooms the Republic of Ceylon.
TheKingdom of Sri Lanka andPeoples’ Republic of Dehiwala have economic and political incentives to preserve each other’s independence and remove the obstructionist Republic of Ceylon. How to do that without another war is at the moment, impossible to answer.
It is becoming a question everyone wants to avoid. Memories of the Battarmulla counter offensive have had a sobering effect on those who want to ask such questions.
I admit this is an amateurish try at alternative history. The Voices in My Head were insistent so here we are. If you want something infinitely better, check out Yudhanjaya Wijeratne‘s Commonwealth Empires universe. That’s how the pro’s do it.