The eternal frontier of departed warriors

Life is a beautiful gift. It is a gift we cherish when we lose those who were near and dear to us. Death is viewed in many ways. To some it comes under difficult, violent and sudden circumstances.

To the gallant sons of Sri Lanka who boldly defended this nation, death in the hostile battlefields was the final test of courage and devotion to duty. The men and women of the Special Task Force – Sri Lanka Police (STF), together with our families remember and honour those men who proudly wore the Green Beret, and laid down their lives at the altar of freedom, honour and integrity. The scent of a thousand roses cannot separate their memory from the STF fraternity.

There is a monument built within the Training Academy of the Special Task Force in Katukurunda. This monument is unique because it is built with the M-16 guns, helmets and equipment of police commandos who fought fiercely to protect this nation for all Sri Lankans.

These men upheld the sacredness of democracy and the right of liberty for all of us. How can anyone attempt to value a human life? These men were the sons, husbands, fathers and brothers of families who still silently mourn their demise. This monument is an enduring reminder to all aspiring recruits of the STF, about the altruism and gallantry required of them when they become part of the STF family. As an officer once told me, the Special Task Force flag flies not because of the wind, but because of the breath of our departed comrades.

The first death in the STF claimed the life of Inspector Weeratunga in 1984, when he was fatally wounded in a landmine blast. Chief Inspector Ashok Kumara and Inspector Renuka Karunaratne were killed in explosions along the Pottuvil road in the Eastern Province. Inspector Bathiya Sandanayake lost his life when he was accompanying an IPKF convoy that was attacked on the Batticaloa–Trincomalee road.

Among the senior officers are the late DIG Upali Sahabandu, DIG Upul Senieviratne and SP Sarath Mahinda. DIG Upali Sahabandu was killed when his vehicle was caught in a suicide explosion. Even in the last seconds of his life, he was able to shield his police driver from the impact of the blast, thereby saving the constable’s life. ASP Sarath Mahinda (VIP Security Division) was killed in the explosion on May Day that targeted President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Another STF hero is Inspector K.U. Fernando. An STF operation was underway at Kokkadicholai (Eastern Province). For the first time the STF was using four SLAF helicopters to descend onto a LTTE target. In order to support the airborne police commandos, another team was heading to the location by road using Unibuffel armoured vehicles. Young Inspector K.U. Fernando was in the lead vehicle, rushing to assist the heli-borne team when the vehicle was blown up by a landmine, killing him instantly.

Formation of the STF

As most would recall, the 1980s was a period of volatile tension for this once tranquil island. Sri Lanka was about to witness the bloom of organized subversive threats from the North and the South. By 1983, some of the police stations in the Northern Province were under attack by small arms fire.

The Sri Lanka Police has a heritage of almost 150 years, but this violent armed escalation was a challenge to the Police Department. Policemen in the Northern Province needed the support and firepower of a professionally trained unit from within the police. The late Ravi Jayawardene was a visionary who realized this need. He is the pragmatic founding father of the STF, venerated to this day. This initial batch received intense training in counter-terrorism operations. The STF was deployed to the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Soon the STF gained the trust and appreciation of the Batticaloa region. For the first time, policemen would use Sterling submachine guns, M-16 assault rifles and Browning pistols. The gabardine (khaki) uniform was replaced with jungle camouflage uniforms and the Green Beret, which is the trademark attire of the Special Task Force. This uniform would become a visual symbol of trust and safety for the Sinhalese, Tamils, Burghers and Muslims. Since day one the STF has operated with discipline, teamwork and professionalism.

Rising with honour

Over the past three decades, the men and women of the STF have steadily grown into a fully fledged police counter-terrorism force, having successfully progressed into specialized units. Their prowess in VIP security has been globally endorsed, and they were consulted to share their insight at the Beijing Olympics. The VIP Security Division has had the distinction of guarding many foreign heads of state and prime ministers including His Holiness Pope John Paul 11. The STF played a key role in the security of the Commonwealth Heads meeting (CHOGM) held at the BMICH.

Another vital team that performed a great service to this country was the STF Bomb Disposal Team. These officers were the pioneers of explosive ordnance disposal working within the public domain. This team has since expanded as the Counter Terrorism Bomb Disposal Unit (CTBD) using world-class bomb detection technology, alongside trained sniffer dogs and their handlers.

The CTBD specialises in conducting perimeter search operations. For the past 30 years, the Special Task Force has been the primary service branch that dedicatedly searched and protected the Parliament of Sri Lanka.

The global security landscape remains inundated with threats. The FPU (Formed Police Unit) of the STF has trained to take part in United Nations Peace Keeping missions.

The FPU specialises in Public Order Management, dealing with the control of violent crowds. Another significant unit within the Special Task Force is the dynamic SWAT team. Trained and modeled on the American SWAT concept, these police commandos are experts in assaulting terrorist hideouts and anti-hijack missions. The STF has qualified parachute jumpers and snipers.

The STF trained its first CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear and Explosive) response teams and set the benchmark for others to follow. Going a step further, the STF has prudently established a modern high-tech CBR monitoring station with 24-hour surveillance at an undisclosed location. There is much the STF has done apart from their counter-terrorism role. Women have been absorbed into the permanent STF cadre. Some women officers have qualified to wear the air-borne badge.

Since its inception this professional force has been headed by the following Commandants – SP Bodhi Liyanage, DIG Dharmasiri Weerakoon, SSP Zerney Wijesuriya (promoted DIG), DIG Lionel Karunasena, DIG Nimal Gunatilleke, DIG Nimal Lewke, DIG K.M.L. Sarathchandra, DIG R.W.M.C. Ranawana, DIG J.K.R.A. Perera, Senior DIG M.R. Latiff and DIG M.W.G.L. Gunathilake. The incumbent Special Task Force Commandant is Attorney-at-Law DIG Waruna Jayasundara.

We remember those who have gone before us. They gave their today, for our tomorrow. I am reminded of a quote by Walter Scot: “Death – the last sleep? No, it’s the final awakening.” We cherish the peace which was obtained with sacrifice. Sri Lankans can count on the Special Task Force, which remains primed and ready to serve our nation.

– Daily News Sri Lanka

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