Monday, 13 August 2012

The JVP factor : On the political front

War on terror revisited: Part 10



By Shamindra Ferdinando

In the wake of the signing of a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in February 2002 between the LTTE and the the UNF government, the JVP launched a massive political campaign to turn the situation to its advantage.

The CFA paved the way for a two-pronged offensive aimed at the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) administration and the SLFP-led People‘s Alliance. At the helm of the JVP operation was Wimal Weerawansa, the then leader of the JVP parliamentary group. The JVP alleged that the setting up of an LTTE-led interim administration, consequent to the CFA, would lead to the deployment of foreign troops in the then temporarily merged Northern and Eastern Province. Weerawansa declared that the division of the country would soon be a reality.

Weerawansa recalled the circumstances, under which India had deployed its troops under the Indo-Lanka Accord of July 29, 1987. The CFA brokered by Norway, too, could lead to the deployment of foreign troops, Weerawansa warned. The JVPer hinted at the possibility of even UN intervention.

The JVP launched protests in 40 towns on August 6, 2003 mobilise support for its campaign against the Norwegian initiative. The following day, the JVP commenced a ten-day campaign in 19 districts, including Ampara and Trincomalee to highlight the danger of Wickremesinghe’s action. On August 12, the JVP called a major protest in Colombo.

Cyprus-type situation Feared

The JVP warned that the country faced a Cyprus-type situation. IT received the overwhelming backing of the Sinhalese, thereby compelling a reluctant SLFP to review its position on the CFA. The SLFP had adopted dilatory tactics to avoid an all out campaign against the CFA. Its main grouse at that time was the failure on the part of the UNP to keep President Chandrika Kumaratunga informed of the peace process.

Although the SLFP opposed the CFA, it refrained from joining the JVP led protests. In a way, the JVP’s protest campaign in August 2004 had been primarily directed at the SLFP to review its position. The JVP desperately needed the SLFP to throw its weight behind the campaign. The JVP felt that an influential section of the SLFP opposed a combined SLFP-JVP operation. In spite of mounting JVP pressure on the SLFP, the main opposition party continued to take evasive action.

Had the LTTE adhered to the CFA, the JVP strategy would have collapsed as people wouldn’t have taken the JVP’s warning of dangers of the Norwegian project seriously. Instead, the LTTE created an explosive situation, which the JVP exploited fully. The JVP thrived on LTTE strategy. Targeting the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) consequent to the raid on an army ‘safe house’ at Millennium City, Aturugiriya on January 2, 2002, forced conscription of children, attempts to smuggle in fresh stocks of arms, ammunition and equipment and the push for the establishment of an LTTE-dominated north-east provisional administration, justified the JVP campaign.

The TNA-led Pongu Thamil rallies in the Northern and Eastern Provinces as well as in other parts of the country couldn’t have come at a better time for the JVP. The UNP played into hands of the JVP by allowing some of its members to join Pongu Thamil rallies. Those spearheading the peace process felt that curbing media coverage of what was going on the ground could help protect the CFA. They wanted to avoid a resumption of large scale hostilities even at the expense of vital national security interests. They were prepared to turn a blind to target killings, expansion of clandestine Voice of Tigers (VoT) radio broadcasts (in fact, this wouldn’t have been possible without explicit UNP and Norwegian support), and suppressing all other Tamil groups for the sake of the CFA.

Hope springs eternal

Strangely, the government and the Norwegians remained confident even after the LTTE quit the negotiating table in April 2003. The JVP took advantage of the LTTE move to intensify its campaign. It maximized the situation to pressure President Kumaratunga to terminate the CFA. By late August 2003, the JVP demanded that the SLFP agree to a common front or face the consequences. President Kumaratunga didn’t give in to JVP pressure. To her credit, she made every possible effort to sustain the Oslo-led peace process, though she resented UNP moves to sideline her. But the JVP kept on attacking the SLFP leadership over the latter’s procrastination.

SLFP-JVP alliance conceived

Against the backdrop of a simmering dispute, President Kumaratunga met a JVP delegation led by its General Secretary, Tilvin Silva at the President’s House on August 27th, 2003 to reach an agreement on a common alliance. At the onset of the meeting, Silva urged the President to do away with the Norwegian initiative. The JVP emphasized that the President couldn’t remain silent in the face of the LTTE strengthening its position. The President rejected the JVP proposal. But both parties agreed to continue talks on a common alliance.

On September 4, 2003, Weerawana and Silva strongly criticized the President for offering to settle the ethnic issue on the basis of devolution of power. The JVP went on the offensive 24 hours ahead of a scheduled meeting with the President at the President’s House to discuss a common front against the CFA. Weerawansa alleged that the President had failed to exercise her executive powers for the best interests of the country. The JVP firebrand said that Premier Wickremesinghe wouldn’t have reacted even if the LTTE had set up a camp at Temple Trees. Accusing both the President and the Premier of neglecting national security for political expediency, Weerawansa hinted that the JVP could take over command of the anti-CFA protests. Although the SLFP feared the prospect of the anti-CFA campaign being the exclusive property of the JVP, President Kumaratunga still didn’t want to terminate the Norwegian bid, which had the backing of the US, EU and Japan (Co Chairs to the peace process and India as well as all countries with the presence of a sizeable Sri Lanka Diaspora).

The JVP repeatedly cited the LTTE build-up, targeting the navy base at Trincomalee as a legitimate security concern, which should be handled expeditiously. The UNP ignored the JVP’s concerns. The President did nothing except for criticizing the LTTE for flexing its muscles in the East.

Then the navy publicly corroborated the JVP’s allegations as regards an LTTE build-up in Trincomalee. An irate UNP leadership accused the navy, particularly Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri and the navy’s Eastern Commander, Rear Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda of conspiring to derail the peace process. What the President, the Prime Minister and the peace facilitator didn’t realize was that the navy had given legitimacy to the JVP protest as regards the LTTE build-up in Trincomalee. Vice Admiral Sandagiri’s decision to go public with the actual ground situation in Trincomalee prompted the UNP to accuse him of jeopardising the peace process, a charge strongly denied by the navy chief. The navy move triggered a major dispute between the PA and the UNP with the latter threatening to withdraw special security provided to one-time Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, who briefed a select group of media personnel and New Delhi on the navy’s findings.

But still President Kumaratunga refused to give in to JVP pressure. Talks between the SLFP and the JVP on a common front collapsed on September 5, 2003. The JVP declared suspension of talks following a series of meetings over the past seven months as a temporary setback, while warning the government not to expect them give up anti-CFA protests. Weerawansa called President Kumaratunga’s proposal that devolution should be the cornerstone of their solution the main stumbling block.

Govt.-LTTE meet in Geneva

The UNP moved swiftly to exploit the situation. Close on the heels of the JVP suffering a setback, government and LTTE representatives met in Geneva in the second week of September, 2003 as the JVP and the SLFP blamed each other for the collapse of talks. Although the JVP had always maintained that primary obstacles to an agreement had been the President’s devolution proposals and refusal to terminate the CFA, JVP frontliner, Lal Kantha, MP, revealed talks on sharing of portfolios in a future SLFP-JVP coalition government.

Addressing a section of the JVP’s private sector trade union representatives at the New Town Hall, Colombo on Sept 20, 2003, Lal Kantha revealed their push for several key cabinet portfolios, including agriculture, Education, Cultural Affairs and Fisheries. The following day, the Anuradhapura District MP told The Island that the JVP wouldn’t provide unconditional support to the SLFP under any circumstances. The JVPer revealed that that it wanted the media portfolio and the post of the Deputy Defence Minister (JVP acknowledges it wanted key ministries in SLFP-JVP government–– The Island of Sept 22, 2003

What Lal Kantha didn’t say was that the JVP wanted President Kumaratunga to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections. After The Island revelation of the JVP demanding cabinet portfolios as a prerequisite for a deal with the SLFP as regards a common front against the CFA, the JVP politburo declared it would drop pre-conditions except for the SLFP renouncing devolution as means of settling the national issue. The JVP and the SLFP issued a joint statement on the night of Sept 23, 2003 reiterating their commitment to oppose what they called ‘Ali-Koti haula’ in Parliament. They blamed the UNP and a section of the media for trying to sabotage an SLFP-JVP alliance.

Ven. Elle Gunawansa’s role

The SLFP-JVP alliance wouldn’t have been a reality if not for Ven. Elle Gunawansa, who worked tirelessly to form the Patriotic National Movement (PNM), to bring all anti-CFA elements under one umbrella. Under pressure on multiple fronts, the SLFP signaled its readiness to initiate a fresh round of talks with the JVP.

Instead of cooperating with the Norwegians and the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) to restore normalcy in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the LTTE worked overtime to cause further problems. The group embarrassed those in the international community trying to keep the peace process on track. A day after the launch of a much publicized UNICEF initiative to demobilize child soldiers, the LTTE abducted at least eight students in the Valaichenai electorate. Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan was in charge of terrorist operations in the Ampara and Baticaloa districts. He couldn’t have been unaware of the abductions taking place in the East.

The entire Eastern Province was in turmoil. The SLFP and JVP tried to manipulate each other, while the military was waging a different kind war. An LTTE hit and run campaign had caused a major headache for the military top brass, with Batticaloa in crisis in the wake of the LTTE turning on intelligence operatives and informants. Karuna was still in control of Batticaloa cadres.

The JVP gradually took control of the anti-CFA protests, with the Sihala Urumaya too, making a strong bid to make its presence felt. Amidst faltering SLFP-JVP efforts to reach an agreement on a campaign, the JHU declared plans to launch a protest at the site of Manirasakulam (Kurangupaachan) LTTE transit camp on Oct. 14, 2003. The JHU was of the opinion that the LTTE shouldn’t be allowed to continue its presence there after the SLMM faulted the LTTE for setting up the facility after the finalization of the CFA. On behalf of the government, Defence Secretary, Austin Fernando wrote to SLMM Chief, Maj. Gen (redt) Tryggve Tellefsen regarding the Sihala Urumaya’s protest, as it could lead to violence (Def. Secy wants SLMM to tackle possible crisis––The Island of Oct 13, 2003).

The JVP fully exploited the spat between the President and the government over the conduct of the SLMM head, Tryggve Tellefsen. The President, on Oct 23, 2003, requested Norwegian Prime Minister, Kjell Bondevik to immediately replace Tellefsen in the wake of the navy accusing him of jeopardizing an operation to track down an LTTE ship carrying arms on Oct 16, 2003. The President also directed the armed forces chiefs not to cooperate with the SLMM, thereby forcing the government to discuss the issue with the military. Defence Secretary Fernando assured that the armed forces would abide by the CFA and cooperate with the SLMM. (Govt. confident forces will abide by ceasefire agreement –– The Island of Oct 27, 2003)

The Norwegian was accused of alerting the LTTE thereby giving the vessel an opportunity to flee. Had the navy succeeded in targeting the ship, it would have been the third arms ship to be destroyed, since the signing of the CFA in Feb 2002.

At a hastily arranged briefing on Oct. 26, 2003, the JVP welcomed the president’s move. Addressing the media at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, Weerawansa said that removing Tellefsen wasn’t enough. The MP called for the expulsion of the entire monitoring mission and also an immediate end to the Norwegian peace initiative. He stressed that relations between Sri Lanka and Norway should be restricted to bilateral diplomatic relations alone.

President Kumaratunga appointed army chief Lt. Gen. Balagalle as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). The first serving officer to hold the post of CDS, Balagalle, immediately after assuming additional office on Oct 27, 2003, declared the need to beef up the armed forces and the police to meet any eventuality. Addressing officers and men at the army headquarters, Lt. Gen. Balagalle urged them to do their duty in the best interests of the country. The CBK-Balagalle move irked the UNP, though it couldn’t do anything about it. Lt. Gen. Balagalle had been critical of the UNP over the exposure of a DMI project in the run-up to Dec 2001 General Elections and the subsequent raid on a safe house on January 2, 2002. Navy Chief, Vice Admiral Sandagiri, too, had been hostile to the UNP over differences of opinion over the CFA. They basically adopted a common stand on security issues, much to the discomfort of the government. President Kumaratunga exploited their hostility towards the UNP, though she wasn’t ready to do away with the Norwegian initiative. The President obviously wasn’t ready to go the whole hog.

(Next installment will further discuss JVP strategy leading to the suspension of parliament in early November, 2003).