Monday, 13 August 2012

Batticaloa revolt : CBK’s Oslo call

War on terror revisited:  9



article_imageBy Shamindra Ferdinando

Then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa looks through an army bunker during a visit to Sampath Nuwara in the  Weli Oya region in late August 2004. Pic by Lalith Weliwitigoda

President Chandrika Kumaratunga threw a fresh lifeline to the Tigers in November, 2003. She who survived an LTTE suicide attack in the run-up to the December 1999 Presidential polls made her move, much to the chagrin of nationalist elements, particularly the JVP, which despised the CFA brokered by the Norwegians. But the President felt that Norway should lead the process, under her supervision.

An LTTE operative gained access to the Akkaraipattu Magistrate’s Court on the morning of August 24th, 2004. The armed cadre tasked to kill a Karuna loyalist waited patiently until the prison authorities produced his intended target before the Magistrate.

Due to a serious lapse on the part of those responsible for security at the court premises, the LTTE operative had simply walked into the building without being checked. Did anyone facilitate his entry into the court house?

The gunman shot dead P. Jayakumar at point blank range. A jail guard and a court clerk sustained minor injuries. The police arrested the victim, along with another LTTE dissident, Saravanamuthu Shanthakumar at a road block at Akkaraipattu on May 19th, 2004. They were in possession of a pistol, one hand grenade and fifteen rounds of ammunition.

Shanthakumar was killed on July 15, 2004 at the Batticaloa prison along with ‘Satchi Master’, a senior Karuna loyalist, who was also being held there. Investigations revealed that the LTTE had smuggled in a micro pistol concealed a ‘lunch packet’. After carrying out the killings, the young assassin got in touch with the LTTE over his mobile phone. Having killed two of his colleagues, the youth demanded access to the local press. Prison authorities obliged him by rushing a local correspondent of a private television station to the prison.

In the wake of the slayings at the Batticaloa prison, a deeply worried government sent then Peace Secretariat chief, Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala to Batticaloa, where he discussed the situation with military and police top brass.

The LTTE struck in the Akkaraipattu court premises as then Japanese Ambassador, Akio Suda was meeting Brigadier Vajira Wijegoonewardene, the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the Army’s 23 Division, headquartered at Welikanda and then Batticaloa Brigade Commander, Colonel Laksiri Amaratunga, at the latter’s office. The Japanese envoy and Japanese Defence Advisor were on a fact-finding mission. The visit was part of regular consultations with the GoSL in line with Japan’s role as a member of the Co-Chairs of the peace process. The previous government had recognised the Japanese role in the economical revival, while Norway was responsible for political consultations.

The 23 Division covered Batticaloa, Valaichenai and Punani. The Division received reinforcements to meet new responsibilities in the region.

Japanese query

The Japanese, too, wanted to know whether the army was using Karuna to undermine the LTTE. While the Japanese were visiting Batticaloa, then Defence Secretary, Cyril Herath was meeting Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) chief, Maj. Gen. (retd. Trond Furuhovde to explore ways and means of tackling the situation. The former IGP wasn’t in a position to take remedial action, though he realised the peace facilitator Norway and the LTTE wouldn’t interfere in the ongoing LTTE strategy. Western powers, Japan and India strongly felt that the GoSL wouldn’t quit the CFA, whatever the provocations. The LTTE too, obviously shared the international community’s assessment that the government wouldn’t want to resume fighting. In fact, there had been tacit understanding among the Norwegians, SLMM, GoSL and the UNP that the LTTE should be allowed to deal with Karuna’s revolt and create an environment conducive for the continuation of the peace process.

Having met Cyril Herath at the Defence Ministry, Furuhovde flew to Kilinochchi for consultations with the LTTE leadership. The SLMM pushed for direct talks between the group’s Batticaloa leadership and the military in a bid to stop continuing killings. Besides the Batticaloa crisis which attracted media attention and caused much concern to the international community, there were other issues. During the meeting between Furuhovde and LTTE Political Wing leader, S. P. Thamilselvan assisted by Sea Tiger commander ‘Colonel" Soosai, the SLMM chief raised four major issues. On behalf of the GoSL, the SLMM chief discussed setting up of new LTTE positions close to the Trincomalee navy base, dispute over forward defence lines at Nagarkovil on the Vadamaratchchy east coast and detention of government personnel straying into LTTE-held areas.

Govt. blamed

The SLMM privately articulated the view that there wouldn’t have been any trouble if the government had reined in the military, thereby preventing an influential section within the armed forces from exploiting the situation. The international community asserted the onus was on the government to ensure that the military didn’t resort to strategies, which could undermine the CFA. What they really meant was that the LTTE should be given free rein to deal with the renegade faction. The international community believed that the LTTE could quickly neutralise the dissident group but for the military.

The military felt that as it should have a plan to face any eventuality, a relationship with the Karuna faction would be advantageous, though it wouldn’t be to the liking of the political establishment.

The military issued statements openly supportive of the LTTE. At a meeting between the army and the LTTE at the Vavunativu AGA’s office, Brigadier Wijegoonewardene bluntly told ‘Colonel’ Tambirajah Ramesh that he, too, should act like a ‘Batticaloa man.’ The meeting arranged by Furohovde had been the first direct contact between the army and the LTTE since Karuna fled Batticaloa with the help of UNP National List MP, Ali Zaheer Moulana. Karuna made his move about three days after he ordered his units on April 9, 2004 to return to civilian life. Brigadier Wijegoonewardene was accompanied by Colonel Amaratunga. To the credit of the Brigadier, he didn’t mince his words when he praised Karuna’s conduct since the March 2004 revolt while urging Ramesh not to resume the LTTE’s old tactics. The Division Commander insisted that there mustn’t be a resumption of kidnappings, forced conscription, illegal taxation and extortion under any circumstances. He also rejected an LTTE call for allowing its members to carry weapons. In an exclusive front-page lead story captioned ‘Army rejects Tiger request to carry arms in govt. areas’with a strap-line ‘…wants Ramesh to act like B’caloa man’ ,The Island, in its April 16, 2004 issue, dealt with the Vavunativu meeting.

However, the LTTE didn’t take the Vavunativu meeting seriously. The Kilinochchi leadership went ahead with its campaign to destroy the dissident group. Karuna loyalists hit back, while the military took advantage of the situation. The killings at the Batticaloa prison and the Akkaraipattu Magistrate court took place in July and August, 2004, respectively.

Kept press silent

The state-controlled media avoided reporting on violence in Batticaloa. The government acted as if talks with the LTTE could be resumed at anytime with the help of the Norwegians. The LTTE continued to move in fresh units from the Vanni to Batticaloa throughout this period to strengthen its cadre in the Eastern Province. The gradual build-up of LTTE northern units led to confrontations between the army and the LTTE in the Batticaloa District, with the northern units making large scale ground movements. The LTTE on April 20, 2004 challenged an isolated army post at Vakaneri, situated about three kms south of the main supply route to Batticaloa. Brigadier Wijegoonewardene told The Island that troops had been asked to vacate the post by an LTTE group of about 20 personnel, claiming that the area was under their control. The army called in the SLMM to prove that the post had been there even before the signing of the CFA in February 2002. (Army-LTTE stand-off over Vakaneri post – The Island April 22, 2004).

Perhaps, one of the most important issues, which have not been closely examined was the circumstances under which President Kumaratunga invited the Norwegians to resume its initiative in Sri Lanka. In fact, the Norwegians haven’t studied the issue in spite of it being crucial to any post-war examination of their role in Sri Lanka.

President Kumaratunga called for the resumption of the Norwegian initiative on April 22, 2004, amidst the Batticaloa trouble. She appealed to the Norwegian Prime Minister, Kjell Bondevick to help her kick-start the stalled peace process. Norway promptly accepted Kumaratunga’s invitation.

Norway suspended its efforts on November 14, 2003, at the end of a five-day visit to Colombo by Norway’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Vidar Helgessen and Special Advisor, Erik Solheim. Announcing the pull out, Helgessen said: "Until political clarity is established, we do not have space for further efforts to assist the two parties. Talks can resume, if there is clarity about who is holding political authority and responsibility on behalf of the Sri Lankan government to ensure the continuation of the CFA."

Obviously, Norway was reacting to President Kumaratunga at the behest of her advisors, particularly the JVP, taking over three key ministerial portfolios, including defence, in November, 2003. She dissolved parliament in February, 2004, paving the way for General Elections on April 2, 2004.

Although the JVP opposed the President’s move, it was powerless to act. The President was determined to go ahead with the Norwegian initiative, regardless of the LTTE continuing to flout the CFA. Among those who strongly opposed the initiative were Wimal Weerawansa and Arjuna Ranatunga. They joined the Patriotic National Movement (PNM) in opposing the setting up of an LTTE-run Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) as a prerequisite for the resumption of talks. The UPFA was sharply divided over the issue. The National Joint Committee, too, threw its weight behind the campaign against the ISGA.

The UNP reacted angrily to the unexpected move, (Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena ridicules CBK’s Oslo call – The Island April 25, 2004), while the SLMC threw its weight behind the President (SLMC will join latest peace bid-SLMC General Secretary, Hassen Ali – The Island, April 28, 2004).

In a bid to facilitate the process and to win the LTTE’s confidence, the government indicated that Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar would be left out of its negotiating team. Kadirgamar, who worked tirelessly to convince the US and UK of the need to proscribe the LTTE during the PA administration, was considered an impediment to the fresh initiative to revive the peace process, though many felt that the omission of a person of Kadirgamar’s stature was a blunder.

It would be important to keep in mind that the LTTE quit the negotiating table in April 2003, following six rounds of talks at overseas venues, during Wickremesinghe’s tenure as Prime Minister.

Violence recurs in Batticaloa

In the wake of the Kumaratunga-Norway initiative, unidentified gunmen struck in Batticaloa again. They killed three LTTE sentries deployed on the Vavunativu-Aayithimalai road at about 11.30 p.m. on the night of April 24, 2004 and proceeded towards Mullaamunai, where four more personnel were killed at stores run by the LTTE financial division. The LTTE claimed those killed at Mullaamunai were disabled personnel. The LTTE alleged that the army had used criminal elements to carry out the attack. The LTTE asserted that the attackers had moved in to their territory through an army entry point at Vavunativu, a charge vehemently denied by the military (Army pooh-poohs LTTE claims – The Island, April 28, 2004).

As tension ran high in Batticaloa, Brigadier Wijegoonewardene offered to restrict night movements across areas under government and LTTE control. Although the LTTE skipped a meeting arranged by the SLMM to discuss the situation, the military proposed to close all entry points at 10 p.m and re-open them at 5 a.m.(Army offers to restrict night movements – The Island, April 29, 2004).

Although the LTTE hadn’t publicly discussed its own investigations into the Batticaloa revolt, it was no secret that some important Karuna loyalists, who had surrendered to the LTTE after Karuna beat a hasty retreat following the Good Friday battle on the banks of the Verugal River, were secretly moved to the Vanni. The killing of five Prabhakaran loyalists, including ‘Colonel’ Neelan, the deputy head of the group’s Batticaloa District intelligence wing, infuriated the Kilinochchi leadership. Their bodies were found in a camp abandoned by Karuna loyalists in the wake of Prabhakaran ordering an amphibious assault on the renegade group.

Unidentified gunmen killed another LTTE cadre riding a motor cycle at Pendukalchenai, Batticaloa, on May 2, 2004. Gunmen killed two more LTTE cadres at Thannamunai about nine km northwest of Batticaloa on the Batticaloa-Habarana road on May 6, 2004. Unlike previous attacks on the LTTE, the Thannamunai killings took place in an army controlled area. It was the first attack on the LTTE in a government-held area. The undeclared war entered a new phase with the brazen attack carried out close to an army check-point. The Thannamunai attack was preceded by the killing of a 49-year-old person at Kaluvankerni, Batticaloa. The victim of the execution style slaying was identified as a staunch Karuna loyalist.

An unidentified person lobbed a hand grenade at a security post manned by police commandos near the Batticaloa bus stand on May 7. The blast wounded a police commando holding the rank of an Inspector, who was having a bath.

Ironically, both parties maintained an uneasy relationship with the help of the SLMM. A case in point was the army facilitating LTTE movements between the East and Vanni through the Omanthai entry and exit point. The navy too, facilitated the transfer of LTTE cadres from the Mullaitivu coast to the East, under the supervision of the SLMM.

The army accompanied a group of 50 LTTE cadres from Vanni to the East on May 8, 2004, via the Omanthai entry/exit point.

Two days later, the LTTE killed Lance Corporal Wasantha Colombage of military intelligence. Colombage was shot through his head as the private bus he was travelling in, entered Batticaloa town. Although the LTTE killed over a dozen Tamil and Muslim personnel working with the army since the signing of the CFA, Colombage was the first Sinhalese soldier killed in the line of duty.

The LTTE stepped up pressure by killing another intelligence operative on May 19, 2004. Reserve Police Constable Dissanayake (32658) was standing outside the Batticaloa hospital when he was shot through the head. The UPFA still strove to get the LTTE back to the negotiating table. The JVP was the only political party which initiated a campaign on its own to pressure the government to retaliate.