Monday, 13 August 2012

Heading towards eelam war IV : A passage through a political minefield

War on terror revisited: Part 14


By Shamindra Ferdinando

Having won the Nov 17, 2005 presidential poll with a narrow margin, President Mahinda Rajapaksa felt that nothing could be as important as political stability. He knew that political uncertainty would stand in the way of tackling the LTTE. He wanted to accommodate the JVP, which had played a pivotal role in his presidential campaign.

On the instructions of the President, then Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera formally invited the JVP to join the new Sri Lankan leader’s first overseas visit in late December, 2005. The FM invited JVP leader, Somawansa Amarasinghe, its parliamentary group leader, Wimal Weerawansa and another senior member chosen by the party to join the President’s delegation. The proposed four-day visit to New Delhi was scheduled to begin on Dec 27, 2005. The JVP unceremoniously rejected the president’s invitation. The JVP said it couldn’t either accept cabinet portfolios from the UPFA or join the presidential delegation until the government revealed its position on the LTTE issue. The JVP leadership felt that Rajapaksa, too, would carry forward the Norwegian initiative, like his predecessor, President Kumaratunga. (JVP declines to join President’s delegation to India––The Island of Dec 18, 2005).

President Rajapaksa met the JVP leader on Dec 21, 2005 to discuss security and political situation. During the meeting, which was also attended by the then Foreign Minister, Samaraweera, Deputy Minister Dallas Alahapperuma, JVP General Secretary, Tilvin Silva, parliamentary group leader, Wimal Weerawansa and MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the President invited the JVPagain. (JVP determined to stay out of government––The Island 0f Dec 25, 2005).

JVP tightens screws

The JVP used the Temple Trees meeting to step up pressure on the President. The JVP told him to terminate Norwegian Special envoy Erik Solheim’s role in the peace process. The JVP insisted that there couldn’t be any space for a further Norwegian initiative.

The President turned down the JVP’s request, as he, too, was committed to a negotiated settlement.

The President and Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa strove to achieve political stability which they knew was a prerequisite for an efficient strategy to counter the LTTE. They relentlessly pursued it in the wake of the LTTE resuming claymore mine attacks on the military.

The LTTE triggered two claymore blasts on Dec 4, 2005, targeting a tractor carrying a group of soldiers at Kondavil on the Palaly-Jaffna, road killing six of them and wounding four. The Kondavil blast occurred a day before the change of command of the Sri Lankan Army, with Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka succeeding Lt. Gen. Shantha Kottegoda. (Claymore blasts claim six soldiers in Jaffna––The Island of Dec 5, 2005). The LTTE struck again two days later, killing eight soldiers. Except for Australia, no other government condemned the LTTE for those attacks, whereas the Norway-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) did not even hold the group responsible for the atrocities. (Army appreciates Australian condemnation of Tiger claymore blasts––The Island Dec 9, 2005).

C.A. Chandraprema explains the circumstances under which President Rajapaksa promoted Sarath Fonseka to the rank of Lt. Gen. and appointed him the Commander of the Army (Gota’s War: The Crushing of Tamil Tiger Terrorism in Sri Lanka [Chapter 48]. The Chapter titled ‘Gota Returns to Sri Lanka’ deals with the change of command, though the assertion that there was no war anywhere in sight at that time and the Defence Secretary simply wanted to give an old friend an opportunity to command the army before retiring, obviously is not accurate.

LTTE attacks Navy

While the President was preparing to visit New Delhi, the LTTE struck again on Dec 22, 2005, in the north. The LTTE targeted two navy dinghies off Pallimunai, Mannar, as it opened a new front.

The attackers approached the dinghies disguised as fishermen and killed three personnel and wounded another. As the navy struggled to cope with the Pallimunai incident, the LTTE struck again at Pesalai, Mannar, on the following day, killing 13 navy personnel and wounding three. The LTTE fired rocket propelled grenades at the targeted vehicle as claymore blasts ripped through it.

Instead of demanding an immediate end to attacks, the international community rewarded the LTTE again by sending a top diplomatic delegation to visit Kilinochchi on Dec 24, 2005. The SLAF flew the head of the EU delegation, Ambassador Julian Wilson, British High Commissioner, Stephen Evans, Japanese Ambassador Akio Suda and the Norwegian Deputy Ambassador, Oddvar Lugreid to Vavuniya. From there, the delegation moved overland to Kilinochchi. It was the first diplomatic visit to Kilinochchi by countries other than Norway, since the assassination of Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar on August 12, 2005. (DPL visit north upset military with strap-line ‘We have rewarded terrorism again’-The Island of Dec 25, 2005).

The US embassy declined to join the delegation, though the decision to visit had been taken at a meeting in Brussels on Dec 19, 2005. (Co-chair shuns confab with Tigers––The Island of Dec 26, 2005).

Much to the surprise of the international community and those who had portrayed President Rajapaksa as a hardliner, he continued to push for talks with the LTTE, even at an overseas venue. Regardless of severe criticism by the JVP, the JHU and other nationalists, President Rajapaksa tried to bring the LTTE back to the negotiating table. Instead of compelling the terrorists to cease operations, the Norwegians shielded them.

The LTTE blew up an Israeli-built Shaldag Class Fast Attack Craft (FAC) on Jan 7, 2006 close to Foul Point, Trincomalee harbour. Still the government persisted with its efforts to negotiate with the LTTE. Although the government had proposed that either Tokyo or Bangkok could be the venue for talks, the LTTE insisted on Oslo. Later, the government agreed to a venue outside Asia. It also proposed talks could be held at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). Unfortunately, the Norwegians and their international partners continued to mollycoddle the LTTE. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the civil society didn’t even bother to issue a joint statement, pushing the LTTE towards the negotiating table. They never interfered in the LTTE’s military affairs.

Norway clinched a deal on Jan 25, 2006 to bring the GoSL and the LTTE back to the negotiating table, in Geneva. Despite heavy criticism by the JVP and JHU, the GoSL made available VIP choppers to LTTE theoretician, former Virakesari staffer, A. B. Stanislaus aka Anton Balasingham and his Australian born wife, Adele, now a permanent resident in the UK, during their Jan 2009 stay in Sri Lanka. (Bala, wife get chopper ride to BIA––The Island of Jan 29, 2006).

In the run-up to the GoSL-LTTE meet in Geneva, Prof. G.L. Peiris and Milinda Moragoda briefed those chosen by the President to represent the government. (G.L., Milinda share experiences with Mahinda’s peace team––The Island Feb 9, 2006). Despite a rapid LTTE build-up in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the government continued as if the situation were normal. The LTTE continued to smuggle in weapons from overseas supply routes under the very nose of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission. On Feb 11, 2006, the navy confronted an LTTE craft off Mannar. As two navy Fast Attack Craft approached the LTTE craft, those on board caused a massive explosion on board the vessel (LTTE boat explodes near navy vessels––The Island of Feb 12, 2000).

President Rajapaksa found himself on an extremely bad wicket. The LTTE continued to step up attacks on the military, hence causing uncertainty and instability on the political front. The President realised that the Having failed to persuade the JVP to throw their weight behind him, a reluctant President Rajapaksa sought an understanding with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to pursue the Norwegian initiative.

Unlike the failed Mano-Malik talks during the tail end of the presidency, the deliberations between the government and the UNP paved the way for an agreement in February 2006. The agreement, the first of its kind involving the SLFP and the UNP, lasted just four months.

A move made by former President Kumaratunga in her capacity as the SLFP leader on Feb 13, 2006 sent shock waves through the ruling coalition. The SLFP leader made several appointments without consulting SLFP General Secretary, Maithripala Sirisena. An angry Kumaratunga asserted that she could continue for some time as the party leader, though she was no longer the President. Matale District MP Janaka Bandara reacted to Kumaratunga’s move. He said she should quit the party leadership without further delay. Much to the consternation of the new leadership, Kumaratunga engineered several crossovers, with the help of some SLFP MPs loyal to her. President Rajapaksa and his predecessor also crossed swords over the slain Kadirgamar’s vacant National List slot. The President’s nominee, Dallas Alahapperuma secured the vacancy. (CBK underscores lead role in leadership tussle––The Island of Feb 16, 2006). An angry Kumaratunga on March 1, 2006 boycotted an SLFP rally at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium, where President Rajapaksa was to address a large group of candidates contesting the local government polls (SLFP Gen. Secy caught in leadership battle––The Island March 2, 2006 issue). Having caused chaos in the party, the SLFP leader left for Europe on March 4, 2006, as the SLFP headed for a mega leadership crisis.

CFA ‘amended’

Having met the LTTE in Geneva over two days in late Feb 2006, the UPFA proudly declared that a joint declaration made at the conclusion of the confab was an amendment to the four-year-old CFA. Addressing the media at the Government Information Department on Feb 26, 2006, the government delegates claimed that the joint declaration would be an addition to the original agreement. They interpreted the change as an amendment. But the LTTE continued to cause mayhem. Forced conscription continued unabated, with the LTTE accommodating hundreds of youth in training facilities. The SLMM failed to intervene, though the military repeatedly pushed for tangible counter measures on the part of the peace facilitator and peace co-chairs. The JVP leadership on March 8, 2006 made representations to President Rajapaksa as regards the deteriorating situation.

JVP leader Amarasinghe and parliamentary group leader Weerawansa insisted that there should be a comprehensive review of the tripartite relationship involving the Rajapaksa government, the LTTE and Norway in the wake of two-day meet in Geneva. While the JVP was exerting pressure on the President in early March 2006, the UNP leader was in Oslo for talks on the peace process. Amidst the deepening crisis, both on the political front as well as the peace process, then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka emphasised the need to strengthen the army. Addressing troops at Vanni Security Forces headquarters, he declared that the military should be prepared to face any eventuality, though they remained committed to the Oslo-led peace process. Lt. Gen. Fonseka highlighted the need to bolster the fighting capability in the face of the LTTE flexing its muscles. (Army Chief calls for strengthening army––The Island March 19, 2006).

Navy clash with LTTE

Then the Navy and Sea Tigers exchanged fire outside Trincomalee harbour as the LTTE build-up continued.  Incidents continued unabated, with the LTTE indicating that it wouldn’t cease operations. The LTTE asserted that Tamils angered by the military presence in the Northern and Eastern Provinces had mounted attacks. Once, LTTE political wing leader, S. P. Thamilselvan claimed that civilians had blown up a Navy Fast Attack Craft off Foul Point, Trincomalee in January 2006. Although the government reiterated its commitment for a negotiated settlement, the country was rapidly heading towards a conflagration.

Against the backdrop of a deepening security crisis, President Rajapaksa received a big boost when the UPFA swept the March 30, 2006 LG polls in spite of the JVP contesting on its own. The President who led the campaign in the absence of Kumaratunga, reiterated his call for the leadership. Anura Bandaranaike escaped the President’s wrath by joining the campaign about a week before the poll. Having won the LG polls, the President consolidated his power in the party at the expense of Kumaratunga as the country headed towards an inevitable all out war.