Sunday, 28 October 2012

A shocking change of Jaffna Command

War on terror revisited:Part 62


By Shamindra Ferdinando

Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka
Amidst fighting in the North, a group of US service personnel arrived in Sri Lanka in late July 2000 for joint exercises with Sri Lankan troops. The month long training programme got underway on July 31 at SLN and SLAF training facilities outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces. It was the third and the last exercise for 2000. The elite 53 Division comprising Special Forces, Commandos and Air Mobile troops had an opportunity to train with US personnel. The programme was in line with the Extended Relations Programme (ERP) under which the US provided advanced training to forces of friendly countries. The US accommodated Sri Lanka in the Pacific Command’s ERP in 1995 during President Kumaratunga’s time. Sri Lankan forces greatly benefited from the US programme, whereas the world solitary super power had an opportunity to learn from some of those involved in actual combat with terrorists. Sri Lanka also received 100 trucks used by the US Army in South Korea. The deployment of left hand driven trucks enhanced the mobility of the military.

After debacles at Elephant Pass, Chavakachcheri and Pallai in April-May 2000, the army took up positions along the general area of Colombuthurai, Puttur, Sarasalai and Chavakachcheri in Thennamaratchchy west and Ponnar, Muhamalai and Nagarkovil in Thennamaratchchy east. It faced strong LTTE forces across its forward defence lines. Although the troops advanced into areas dominated by the LTTE, they didn’t have sufficient numbers to engage in major operations.

Maj. Gen Janaka Perera on the northern front

As always, the SLA felt that it could depend on deserters to fill vacancies, particularly in fighting battalions. Following the debilitating setbacks since the launch of Operation Jayasikuru (May 13, 1997 to Dec 1, 1998), thousands of soldiers deserted, while some battalions ceased to exist due to heavy loss of life and injuries caused to officers and men. In June, July 2000, the SLA, with the support of the police, rounded up thousands of deserters and took them to various training centres. Adjutant General K. A. M.G. Kularatne said that raids conducted during June, July, 2000 had resulted in the arrest of about 5,000 deserters for re-deployment. He added that the operation would continue until the SLA met its target. The SLA went to the extent of having private security firms investigated for employing army deserters. Maximum pressure was brought to bear on security firms to hand over deserters or face the consequences (Deserters in training centres before re-deployment––The Island July 19, 2000).

Overall Operations Commander (OOC) and Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera appeared on national television on several occasions to urge deserters to re-join their own fighting formations. The war veteran said that the SLA depended on them to bring the war on terrorism to a successful conclusion.

With the situation in Jaffna stabilising to some extent, SLA Commander, Lt. Gen. Sri Lal Weerasooriya went ahead with a weeklong official visit to Islamabad, where he met Pakistan military ruler General Pervez Musharraf. Having fought a series of battles in the northern theatre, the LTTE, too, appeared to have been tired, but remained strong on the Jaffna front. It was able to deploy all available forces on the Jaffna front as the SLA remained on the defensive in the Vanni, where the LTTE offensive in the first week of Nov. 1999 forced the SLA out of almost all areas the troops had regained during operations conducted since May 13, 1997. The SLA felt fairly confident that Jaffna forces could resist a fresh LTTE advance.

Change of command in Jaffna

In the last week of July, 2000, SLA headquarters recalled OOC Maj. Gen. Perera to Colombo after President Chandrika Kumaratunga scrapped the post of OOC created in the aftermath of the Elephant Pass debacle. The OOC was responsible for all combined security forces operations in the northern theatre, excluding Weli Oya. Security Forces Commander Jaffna Maj Gen Sarath Fonseka, too, was moved out of Jaffna. Many an eyebrow was raised over the unexpected move (Janaka Perera, Sarath Fonseka moved out––The Island July 26, 2000). While Maj. Gen. Perera returned to Colombo as the Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Fonseka received appointment as Security Forces Commander, Vanni. The Sinha Regiment veteran succeeded Maj. Gen. Neil Dias.

Dias, who was the Deputy Chief of Staff at that time, functioned as Vanni Security Forces Commander in the wake of Maj. Gen. Wasantha Perera losing his command over the Nov 1999 Vanni debacle. He reverted to his substantive post.

President Kumaratunga acted on the advice of her advisors, who pushed for an immediate change in the Jaffna command, due to the OOC and SF Commander Jaffna being on a collision course over operational matters as well as war strategy. Whatever the reasons, their transfer affected the morale of troops deployed in the peninsula. Their transfer couldn’t have come at a worse time for the SLA, facing the uphill task of regaining lost territory in the peninsula.

Having moved the war veterans out of Jaffna, Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya appointed Maj. Gen. Anton Wijendra as Security Forces Commander, Jaffna. Wijendra functioned as the second-in-command of 52 Division involved in Operation Riviresa (Oct 1995-May 1996). Maj. Gen. Wijendra was also involved in Balavegaya I and Balavegaya II to relieve the Elephant Pass base and subsequently established overland route between Elephant Pass and Vettilaikerni (July/Aug 19991). In 1997, he served as the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of 55 Division deployed for Jayasikuru (May 1997 to Dec 1998), though he wasn’t in command during the entire operation. Immediately after the change of command, the SLA launched a limited operation targeting strong enemy forces operating in Sarasalai South. The SLA faced stiff resistance. The unexpected transfer of both Maj. Gen. Perera and Maj. Gen. Fonseka caused concern among a section of the forces deployed in the peninsula (Troops advance into LTTE held Sarasalai south––The Island July 7, 2000). The LTTE lost six cadres in action during the SLA push. Troops couldn’t move more than 500 meters (Six terrorists killed in Sarasalai battle––The Island July 28, 2000). In the immediate aftermath of the change of command in Jaffna, the SLA concentrated on Sarasalai, where regular confrontations caused minor losses on both sides (LTTE loses more cadres at Sarasalai-Army––the Island July 29, 2000).

The government also directed the SLN to scrap the post of Senior Naval Officer, Commanding Northern Naval Operations, a special post created on March 27, 2000 to deal with the Jaffna crisis. That particular position was established as the government and the SLN top brass felt the situation in the North couldn’t be handled without taking extraordinary measures. Rear Admiral H. R. Amaraweera functioned as the Senior Naval Officer in charge of the North. Commodore Sarath Weerasekera, too, was sent to Kankesanthurai. Both were recalled to Colombo. At the height of the battle, Commodore Weerasekera functioned as the Commander, Northern Naval Area. Rear Admiral Amaraweera received appointment as Director Naval Administration, whereas Commodore Weerasekera took over the Naval Welfare branch. Rear Admiral Wasantha Karanngoda succeeded Commodore Weerasekera (Top Navy officers in North transferred to Colombo: Post created to deal with Jaffna crisis scrapped––The Island Aug 2, 2000). The change of SLN command in the North took place two weeks after Majors General Perera and Fonseka had been moved out of Jaffna.

Civilians stranded

The government was under heavy pressure to facilitate civilian movement to and from the Jaffna peninsula. The government made a desperate bid to get the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) to arrange for a passenger ship to operate between Trincomalee and Jaffna. The ICRC emphasised that it couldn’t get involved as long as the LTTE didn’t give guarantee that it wouldn’t target the ship flying the ICRC flag. Tamil civilians launched protests, demonstrations and hunger strikes against the government’s failure to provide sea transport. The protests were held at the behest of the LTTE. They ignored the LTTE blockade on Jaffna. The LTTE shot down a civilian aircraft over Iranativu Island on Sept 29, 1998 and another on March 31, 2000 over Thalawa, Anuradhapura, compelling the government to suspend services. It would be pertinent to mention here that among the dead due to the Sept. 29, 1998 attack were 48 Tamil men, women and children. The diplomatic community, the TULF as well as civil society remained silent. In spite of the threat posed by the Sea Tigers, the government deployed newly acquired ‘City of Trinco’ on June 9, 2000 to move civilians between Trincomalee and Jaffna. Within several weeks, the vessel managed to move 3,000 civilians from Trincomalee to Jaffna (Over 3,000 civilians sent by ship from Trino to Jaffna––The Island July 27, 2000). The international community didn’t pressure the LTTE to provide a security guarantee to the ICRC. Although the SLN provided escorts to ‘City of Trinco’, the LTTE could have carried out a successful attack. Had that happened, President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government would have found itself in a difficult situation.

After several rounds of talks, the LTTE assured the ICRC in late July 2000 that ‘City of Trinco’ operated by a private company wouldn’t be targeted. It was a tripartite agreement which involved the government, the LTTE and the ICRC and came into effect in early July (ICRC escort to ‘City of Trinco’––The Island Aug 2, 2000). The LTTE warned of dire consequences if the vessel was used by the military to move troops to the Jaffna peninsula or evacuate the wounded from the north. However, the LTTE refused to extend the agreement to cover ships deployed to carry food supplies to over 500,000 civilians living in the peninsula and the Jaffna islands. The LTTE insisted that all ships except ‘City of Trinco’ would be considered as legitimate military targets. The government was in a dilemma. On the one hand the LTTE instigated protests demanding that the government provide essential goods to Jaffna civilians and on the other hand, it threatened to attack ships carrying supplies for civilians. Due to the closure of the Jaffna-Kandy A9 road, supplies needed by the military and civilians had to be moved from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai.

Parliamentary polls

The government feared a major LTTE attack ahead of the parliamentary polls in 2000. Intelligence services were of the opinion that the LTTE would make a second attempt on the life of President Kumaratunga, hence public meetings should be avoided. The LTTE targeted President Kumaratunga on the night of Dec. 18, 1999, two days ahead of the presidential poll. On the morning of June 7, 2000, an LTTE suicide cadre killed about 20 people, including Minister C. V. Gooneratne and his wife. The government also warned the SLA of LTTE attacks ahead of polls. The LTTE’s success in Nov. 1999 on the Vanni front prompted the PA to allege a conspiracy involving a section of the SLA and the UNP of causing a debacle to undermine President Kumaratunga’s presidential bid (President to avoid election propaganda rallies––The Island July 23, 2000). Intelligence services urged President Kumaratunga and prominent ministers to avoid public rallies, particularly protests. But, the PA ignored such warnings. On the instructions of President Kumaratunga, the party launched a series of demonstrations in support of proposed constitution reforms. The first demonstration drew A. H. M. Fowzie, Mangala Samaraweera, S.B. Dissanayake, John Seneviratne and Alavi Moulana (Politicos ignore security warnings, lead demos––The Island Aug. 3, 2000). The military believed that the LTTE could launch suicide attacks both in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, as well as South.

An LTTE suicide cadre detonated the explosives-packed jacket he was wearing when he was about to be checked by troops in Jaffna on Aug 3, 2000. Troops recovered a cyanide capsule and a hand grenade. The blast took place as Maj. Gen. Wijendra took over Jaffna Command officially (Suicide bomber blasts himself at checkpoint––The Island Aug 5, 2000). On July 17, 2000, troops, during an operation at Pulitherithtapuliyankulam, south of the Vavuniya-Mannar road, killed a senior LTTE cadre. Subsequently, he was identified as Thamil Amman of the Intelligence Wing holding the rank of ‘Lieutenant Colonel’. Troops recovered the body along with a pistol, hand grenade and a jacket packed with explosives when they searched the safe house used by the LTTE operative believed to be spying on a senior SLA officer holding the rank of Major General at that time (LTTE loses Vavuniya Intelligence chief––The Island July 27, 2000).

Mahanayakes praise Janaka Perera

In the first week of August 2000, Ven. Rambukwella Vipassi Mahanayaka Thera of the Malwatte Chapter declared his opposition to President Kumaratunga’s devolution plans. The Ven. Thera told Maj. Gen. Perera that there was absolutely no need for constitutional reforms if the government could properly conduct the war against the LTTE. Maj. Gen. Perera was there to pay homage to the sacred tooth relic on his return from Jaffna. The Mahanayake and the then Diyawadana Nilame Niranjan Wijeratne declared that the country was indebted to him for saving Jaffna during the April-May crisis (No need for constitutional reforms if war is properly conducted, Mahanayake tells Maj. Gen. Perera––The Island Aug 6, 2000). The Island report angered a section of the PA. Some alleged that the Army Chief of Staff was playing politics. He was accused of trying to exploit his sudden transfer to his advantage. The PA believed that SLA top brass shouldn’t in anyway get involved with those opposing proposed constitutional reforms. The meeting between Maj. Gen. Perera and the Mahanayake took place a few days before the PA suspended a debate on the proposed draft Constitution in the wake of protests. Interestingly, the TULF, too, rejected the proposed draft Constitution, accusing President Kumaratunga of diluting it at the behest of the UNP. President Kumaratunga faced trouble at two fronts. Her plan to introduce Constitutional reforms was facing strong opposition, whereas the LTTE continued its build-up in the North. On the night Aug 11, 2000, President Kumaratunga declared in an exclusive interview with Rupavahini that she would enact a new Constitution regardless of various obstacles. She lambasted the LTTE, the UNP and Sinhala racists for blocking her peace efforts.