Monday, 13 August 2012

HSZs, special ‘sea lane’ and Indian factor

War on terror revisited: Part 18


By Shamindra  Ferdinando

Defence Minister Tilak Marapone, MP, PrimMinister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Deputy Leader of the UNP Karu Jayasuriya and Minister S.B. Dissanayake about to release pigeons in Colombo to mark the first anniversary of the CFA on Feb 22, 2003, while the LTTE backed by the TNA called for a general shut down in the North and East.

In the wake of the GoSL obtaining the services of two retired senior Indian military personnel, Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar and Vice Admiral, P. J. Jacob, one-time Chief of Naval Staff to advise the SL military on two crucial issues, namely the Jaffna High Security Zones (HSZ) and a special sea route for the Sea Tigers, the government of India distanced itself from the project.

The then UNP-led UNF government contacted former Indian Army Chief-of-Staff shortly after then Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka emphasised on Dec. 28, 2002 that gradual phasing out of HSZs to facilitate resettlement of civilians shouldn’t be at the expense of military deployment in the Jaffna peninsula. Maj. Gen. Fonseka pointed out the catastrophic consequences of the removal of existing security mechanism in a report, which sent shock waves through the GoSL(Army on HSZs in Jaffna with; Govt. forces appreciate need to resettle civilians––The Island of Dec 29, 2002).

SF stands his ground

In spite of heavy criticism of the Maj. Gen’s stand on the HSZs, the Sinha Regiment veteran stood his ground unwaveringly. The Jaffna commander pushed for disarming of the LTTE as well as the de-commissioning of its long range weapons, particularly directed at the Jaffna peninsula. He insisted that the Norwegian-led five-nation Scandinavia truce monitoring mission should be in charge of de-commissioned of the LTTE arsenal.

At the behest of the LTTE, the TULF-led Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which in the run-up to Dec 5, 2001 general election recognised the LTTE as the sole representatives of the Tamil speaking people, called for the immediate transfer of the Jaffna Commander .

All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) President, Appathuray Vinayagamoorthy on Dec 30, 2002 wrote to then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in this regard. Vinayagamoorthy suggested that the government replace Maj. Gen. Fonseka with an officer who would toe the government line with regard to resettlement of civilians (TNA wants Jaffna commander out – The Island of Dec. 31, 2002). The ACTC leader made his move close on the heels of Hindu Affairs Minister, T. Maheswaran demanding the removal of the Jaffna Commander and Northern Area Naval Commander, Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera, to facilitate the peace process. Shortly after Maheswarn’s call, Rear Admiral Weerasekera was named Director General of Naval Operations, a headquarters appointment, though the navy insisted it was a routine transfer. Rear Admiral Nandana Thuduwewatte succeeded him. President Chandrika Kumaratunga received a briefing from army commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle and Maj. Gen. Fonseka as regards the security situation, with the focus on Jaffna, at President’s House (TNA wants Jaffna Commander out – The Island of Dec 31, 2002).

Lt. Gen. Fonseka publicly endorsed the Jaffna commander’s prerequisites for vacation of HSZs. The government obviously erred in assuming that the army top brass wouldn’t have a contrary view on the decision to review HSZs in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula. The assessment was based on the fact that the military never in public opposed political decisions as regards crucial security matters, regardless of their implications. The government felt that even giving up of some of the territorial gains would be necessary at some point of time to facilitate the peace process (Tough stand by forces on HSZs unprecedented––The Island of January 5, 2003).

Harim’s bombsehll

In spite of a section of the press asserting that President Kumaratunga wouldn’t accept the vacation of Jaffna HSZs without proper security guarantee, her spokesman, Harim Peiris dropped a bombshell in the immediate aftermath of the army setting pre-conditions for civilian resettlement; he declared that the President wouldn’t take a stand on the HSZ issue. Peiris, who had negotiated with the LTTE on the President’s behalf, strongly denied media reports that she was against dismantling of the HSZs (CBK dumb on HSZs––The Island of January 9, 2003).

In spite of the PA having talks with the JVP and other nationalist groups to decide on a common strategy against the UNP-Norway-LTTE project, the PA cooperated with various NGOs, amidst a simmering dispute over the Jaffna HSZ issue. Four PA MPs, Sarath Amunugama, Ferial Ashraff, John Seneviratne and Ven. Baddegama Samitha left for a ten-day tour of four European countries to study existing federal models. Two senior LTTE representatives, too, joined the joint parliamentary delegation, which received funding by German NGO, Peace Talk (PA in Govt-Tiger delegation––The Island of January 12, 2003).

The HSZ issue was definitely the first major obstacle faced by the UNP and the Norwegians, as they stepped up pressure on the military to give in to LTTE demands.

Exit of Tigers

Close on the heels of the army’s pre-conditions for civilian resettlement in Jaffna, the LTTE quit the 18-member Sub Committee on De-escalation and Normalisation. The LTTE also refused to meet the army on January 14, 2003 to discuss the HSZ issue under the auspices of the Norwegians. In a bid to influence the army, the government brought in Maj. Gen. Nambiar. Those spearheading the peace process felt that the Indian could compel the army to change its tough position on the HSZs. But Maj. Gen. Fonseka steadfastly refused to compromise his position, which thwarted a catastrophe.

A naïve UNP leadership went to the extent of formulating a plan which envisaged a joint government-LTTE committee reviewing HSZs in Jaffna. The plan had to be dropped following protests. This was followed by the setting up of a Sub Committee headed by Defence Secretary Austin Fernnado and Ampara Batticaloa Commander, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan aka Karuna. That, too, died a natural death, following the army refusing to give up HSZs without adequate security guarantees. The decision to use Nambiar to get over the contentious issue was made during tripartite talks in Thailand, where they agreed on an Action Plan for an Accelerated Resettlement Programme for the Jaffna District.

Eye brows raised over Nambiar’s appointment

Many an eyebrow was raised over the appointment of Nambiar, with a section of the Opposition asserting that the country’s security couldn’t itself be decided by an outsider whatever his background. India quickly distanced from the project with the Indian High Commission in Colombo declaring that Nambiar’s appointment had nothing to do with India (India has nothing to do with Nambiar appointment with strap line HSZ review fuels fresh controversy––The Island of January 19, 2003).

Under the sponsorship of the Norwegians, the government and the LTTE agreed for a series of meetings beginning Jan. 2003 to discuss ways and means of strengthening the CFA (Defence Secretary to meet Tigers on truce violations––The Island of January 20, 2003). The first meeting took place at the Divisional Secretariat in Vaunativu, Batticaloa on Jan. 30, 2003 (Many contentious issues on agenda; Austin Fernando-Karuna pow wow tomorrow––The Island Jan. 29, 2003).

Amidst the crisis over HSZs, the UNP made a fresh attempt to win over the LTTE. On the instructions of UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, UNP Chairman, Malik Samarawickrema met LTTE Political Wing leader, S. P. Thamilselvam in Kilinochchi during the first week of February 2003. The meeting was the first of its kind since the signing of the CFA in February 2002 (Govt. expands political links with the LTTE––The Island of Feb 9, 2003). The UNP strategist used the opportunity to emphasise the pivotal importance of adhering to the CFA as it would be beneficial to one and all. Unfortunately, the LTTE believed its objectives could be achieved through military means. For the LTTE, the CFA meant a temporary respite, which enabled it to build-up fighting cadres for the next confrontation. The outfit wanted to bring in as many ship loads of arms, ammunition and equipment as possible though the navy remained on a heightened state of alert.

First anniversary of CFA

The first anniversary of the CFA was celebrated with the LTTE flexing its muscles. While the UNP-led UNF leaders gathered at Independence Square on Feb 22, 2003 to celebrate the event, the LTTE brought life in Batticaloa to a standstill. Alleging that the government had failed to implement the CFA, the LTTE ordered people to remain indoors in all Northern and Eastern districts, though their action wasn’t successful in Trincomalee and Vavuniya. The TNA backed the LTTE to the hilt. (Ceremonies in South, hartal in N&E to mark first anniversary of truce––The IslandFeb. 23, 2003). . No one wanted to appreciate measures taken by PM Wickremesinghe even at the expense of his political career to promote the CFA. Had there been civil society support for the government, the LTTE would have been compelled to review its strategy.

Govt. releases 1,000

Tiger suspects

In the wake of the LTTE and the TNA accusing the UNP of failing to implement the CFA, the government revealed that over 1,000 terrorist suspects had been released since the CFA came into operation in February 2002, and not a single arrest was made under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), though the LTTE carried out a spate of killings (Over 1,000 terrorist suspects released since MoU no arrests under PTA––The Island of March 7, 2003).

The suspects released from prisons re-joined the LTTE. Among them were many intelligence wing cadres, who resumed operations after a short break. But, the Jaffna HSZ issue remained with the government trying to settle it with the help of Nambiar. Meanwhile, the navy confronted ‘MV Koimer’ belonging to the LTTE, which we discussed in our July 11 issue. The confrontation off Mullaitivu on March 10, 2003 resulted in the destruction of the ship. The government, in consultation with the Norwegians, sought the expertise of Vice Admiral Jacob to explore ways and means of avoiding similar incidents in the future. The government had no option but to seek an external opinion after Navy Chief Vice Admiral Sandagiri strongly objected to the LTTE-SLMM initiative to create a special sea lane for the Sea Tigers. The navy’s position undermined the very existence of the CFA, with some government members accusing the navy of playing politics at the behest of President Kumaratunga and Lakshman Kadirgamar.

Defence Secretary, Fernando said that the LTTE had sought a sea lane on the high seas 200 nautical miles off the north-east land subsequent to incidents involving the Navy, though he rejected it as it infringed on the country’s sovereignty, the CFA and international law. According to Fernando, the proposal had been only known to him, Peace Secretariat chief Ambassador B. A. B. Goonetilleke and SLMM chief Maj. Gen. Triggve Tellefsen (Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons).

The government and the Norwegians, struggling to overcome the Jaffna HSZ issue, suddenly realised that a second attack on an LTTE ship by the navy could prompt the LTTE to quit the CFA. Strangely, they didn’t pressure the LTTE not to traverse Sri Lankan waters as it could jeopardise the CFA. Instead, they brought in a retired Indian Vice Admiral to negotiate a deal. The Navy didn’t take the government initiative seriously. Jacob held a series of talks with PM Wickrmesinghe.

Army, Navy oppose  appeasement

The Navy top brass and the SLMM chief tried to assess the situation while the Indian High Commission said that India wasn’t responsible in any way for the GoSL decision to obtain the services of Nambiar and Jacob (Indian security chiefs not representatives of India: HC––The Island of May 11, 203). The Indian statement couldn’t have come at a worse time for the GoSL and the Norwegians, whereas it strengthened the hands of those who felt that the LTTE couldn’t be allowed to take advantage of the situation. Lt. Gen. Balagalle and Vice Admiral Sandagiri asserted that it would be suicidal to make further concessions without the LTTE giving up violence. Although the SLAF didn’t adopt an overtly hostile approach, the army and the navy strongly opposed the GoSL-Norwegian initiatives to appease the LTTE. President Kumaratunga, too, received the retired Indians at President’s House as the government pressed for agreements on Jaffna HSZs as well as a special sea lane for the LTTE. (President, Nambiar pow wow on HSZs––The Island of May 16, 2003). The UNP went out of its way to appease the LTTE, though the latter was violating the CFA. The GoSL made arrangements for senior LTTE cadres to receive medical treatment in Colombo or go abroad. In the middle of simmering disputes over Jaffna HSZs and the sinking of ‘MV Koimer’, the government arranged for 38-year-old Kandaiya Balasekaran suffering from a serious heart ailment and two others, Gnasunderam and Shivakanthan to leave for Singapore (More Tigers leave for medical treatment abroad––The Island of May 18, 2003). Bakasekaran was one of the top LTTE frontline commanders known as ‘Balraj’ responsible for some of most devastating attacks on the military. He was credited with spearheading an amphibious force, which played a crucial role, during the battle for the strategic Elephant Pass base in early 2000.

Neither the LTTE nor its supporters had any sense of responsibility. In the wake of the deepening crisis over Jaffna HSZ and an agreement on a special sea lane, the LTTE made another demand with the backing of the TNA.  It called for the immediate creation of an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. This was  several months before the de-merger of the Eastern Province from the North on a Supreme Court directive). At the behest of the LTTE, the TNA made representations to the US Embassy in Colombo. The TNA assured the US that the LTTE would participate at the two-day Tokyo Donor Conference on June 9 and 10, 2003 if the GoSL agreed to the proposal. The TNA declared that the proposed interim administration should be outside the country’s Constitution. US Ambassador Ashley Wills refrained from commenting on the LTTE/TNA proposals (TNA wants US to pressure SL on Interim Administration––The Island of May 24, 2003 issue). The PA strongly opposed the move, with PA spokesman, Dr. Sarath Amunugama alleging that the Norwegians had allowed the LTTE to keep on making new demands as part of its strategy. (PA opposes latest Tiger stand–– The Island of May 21, 2003).

The PA gradually stepped up pressure on the UNP, with President Kumaratunga refusing to issue a statement in support of the Tokyo Donor Conference, which was scheduled to begin on June 9, 2003. She also cancelled a scheduled meeting with Japanese peace envoy Yasushi Akashi in protest against what she called a deepening Japanese role in the peace process. She also turned down PM Wickremesinghe’s call for a meeting between them before the June 3 meeting. The LTTE, too, boycotted the Tokyo meeting making the whole process meaningless. (CBK snubs Japan: refuses statement backing confab––The Island of June 8, 2003).

While the GoSL and the international community were busy discussing ways and means of post-CFA economic recovery, the LTTE made another attempt to replenish its arsenal.