Friday, 1 February 2013

An unparalleled folly

War on terror revisited : Part 100


The army never examined the circumstances under which the senior officers cooperated with the UNP leadership to hand over weapons, though they knew the danger in the President’s move. The LTTE, too, remained silent on the issue. At the behest of President Premadasa, the Treasury released funds to the LTTE and also facilitated senior LTTE personnel leaving the country for medical treatment and to be with their loved ones. One-time Jaffna Commander Kitu was among those who received the government support to go overseas. When he arrived at Heathrow airport, Sri Lankan High Commission officials were present to welcome him.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

In the wake of President Ranasinghe Premadasa throwing his weight behind LTTE attempts to destabilise the IPKF-backed EPRLF administration in the temporarily merged North-East province, Tamil groups loyal to India hit back.

The IPKF turned a blind eye as armed gangs went on the rampage in Samanthurai in the Digamadulla electorate, causing heavy damage to property belonging to Muslims. Trouble started on May 17, 1989 after a group of armed Tamil persons who had arrived in a Pajero to the Samanthurai village council threatened several Muslims. The Sri Lankan military and the police couldn’t intervene as the IPKF was in charge of security in the province in accordance with the Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA). Muslim civilians,too, retaliated against Tamil speaking civilians in the area causing substantial damage. Over 100 houses were destroyed in clashes, with Muslims suffering heavy damages.

The EPRLF-led gangs led attacks in Samanthurai. The incident wasn’t the first since the EPRLF won the first election for the N-E Provincial Council conducted on Nov 19, 1988, with the help of the IPKF.

Although the LTTE wasn’t involved in the Samanthurai chaos, the group quickly realised clashes between the provincial administration and Muslims could help its own strategy to undermine President Premadasa’s administration. President Premadasa was in a dilemma. Having won the presidential election just 5 months before, President Premadasa found himself in an unenviable situation. Although he was the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces he couldn’t move troops or police to neutralise marauding armed gangs, which operated with impunity. Although both the SLMC as well as the powerful Muslim group of Muslim politicians in the UNP had demanded urgent action on the part of the President, he couldn’t deploy troops (Ashraff wants Lankan troops for Samanthurai with strap line Sequel to burning Muslim, Tamil houses-The Island May 19, 1989)

The then Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader A.H.M. Azwer, MP, called on President Ranasinghe Premadasa for the immediate deployment of Sri Lankan troops, whereas the Muslims called for the elite Special Task Force (STF).

The then Premadasa loyalist UNP MP Azwer was at the forefront of the pressure group, which pushed for the deployment of Sri Lankan forces in Samanthurai and other areas vulnerable to attacks. The then trade minister, A. R. M. Mansoor and SLMC leader Ashraff were among those who visited Samanthurai amidst the violence. The Samanathurai incidents took place in the wake of violence directed at Muslims at Kinniya and Kalmunai.

In spite of the SLMC being in the main opposition at the North-East Provincial Council, it couldn’t intervene. Having realised that President Premadasa, too, was helpless, MP Ashraff urged the IPKF to provide security to Muslims. The IPKF ignored his plea (Ashraff wants security for Muslims-The Island May 18, 1989).

The IPKF deployed strong forces to ensure that local troops wouldn’t move out even if they received orders from Colombo.

In fact, the EPRLF-led gangs wouldn’t have dared to go on the rampage without the IPKF’s blessings. In the guise of training a so-called Citizen’s Volunteer Force (CVF) for deployment in the Northern and Eastern districts, the IPKF worked overtime to train Tamil youth at their camps. President Premadasa’s unilateral declaration on April 13, 1989 that the IPKF should leave Sri Lanka before July 29, 1989 prompted the IPKF to intensify its destabilisation programme.

The CVF operated alongside the IPKF regardless of President Premadasa’s call for the IPKF’s departure. In the last week of May 1989, Indian troops operating in Kodikamam in the Jaffna peninsula shot dead a senior LTTE cadre, whom the LTTE described as a political wing cadre. The Kodikamam killing was preceded by the IPKF gunning down an LTTE tax collector in the Vavuniya district. The IPKF simply refused to suspend military operations pending its withdrawal as demanded by President Premadasa. The beleaguered president was of the opinion that the IPKF should be confined to barracks, until India worked out a plan for de-induction of troops.

None of his ministers or senior officials dared to discourage the president from teaming up with the LTTE to challenge the IPKF. If not for the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi calling for parliamentary elections in Nov. 1989, President Premadasa would have had to face an unprecedented crisis. The IPKF intensified operations against the LTTE, regardless of mounting civilian casualties. In the first week of June, 1989, Indian troops battled the LTTE in the Jaffna peninsula with the support of helicopter gunships. The LTTE appealed for President Premadasa’s intervention, though it knew the UNP leader was powerless. The LTTE move highlighted President Premadasa’s dilemma. The IPKF indicated that it wouldn’t abide by the presidential directive as long as the LTTE wasn’t ready to surrender its arms (20 Tamil terrorists, two IPKF men, many civilians killed-The Island June 8, 1989). The IPKF stepped up offensive action ahead of the second round of talks (June 16 to July 2, 1989) between President Premadasa and the LTTE, which took place at the Army Sports Club pavilion. The first round of talks took place from May 4 to 30, 1989 at the Colombo Hilton and Galadari Hotel.

EPRLF challenges SLA

The EPRLF called for a protest against the Sri Lankan Army on June 6, 1989. The EPRLF declared that Sri Lankan forces weren’t required in the northern and eastern districts as it was capable of providing security with the support of the IPKF. The EPRLF ordered all shops closed in Trincomalee town as the IPKF blocked Sri Lankan bases in the area. The government remained silent. It was the first protest organised by the EPRLF administration against the army. (PC hartal disrupts civilian life in Trinco-The Island June 8, 1989) and (Anti-Sri Lanka army demo in Trinco-The Island June 6, 1989).

The IPKF declared that talks between President Premadasa and the LTTE wouldn’t change its strategy.

In neighbouring Batticaloa, the EPRLF ordered a major public campaign demanding the IPKF’s continued stay. Protesters urged Sri Lankan forces to leave, northern and eastern provinces leaving the EPRLF administration to look after their interests. Their protests coincided with the second round of Premadasa-LTTE talks in Colombo. On the afternoon of June 13, 1989, the SLAF airlifted nine LTTE personnel, including Yogiratnam Yogi to Colombo. They joined LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham and his wife, Adele, who arrived from Australia two days before. As in the previous occasion, some members of the LTTE delegation, which included a Muslim representative, carried weapons.

Subsequently, Prabhakaran sent his deputy Gopalsamy Mahendrarajah a.k.a Mahattaya for the third round (Nov 1989), who had spearheaded many battles against the IPKF to Colombo. Interestingly, Mahataya led the LTTE delegation, which included Anton Balasingham and Yogiratnam Yogi. The third round was held at the President’s private residence, Sucharitha.

Gen. Cyril R blames Premadasa

The writer couldn’t recollect at least one instance members of President Premadasa’s cabinet or senior members of the armed forces and public officials being critical of the president’s strategy. None dared to challenge the President who publicly declared his faith in the LTTE. JRJ loyalist Gen. Cyril Ranatunga, in his capacity as the Security Advisor to President Premadasa as well as the Ministry of State for Defence during 1989-1990 period was one of the few officials intimately aware of the President’s dealings with the LTTE. President Premadasa had faith in his chief negotiator, A.C.S. Hameed, the then Higher Education Minister and Chairman of the UNP. Premadasa’s trust in political veteran Hameed contributed to the disastrous decision to direct the police deployed in the Ampara and Batticaloa districts to surrender to the LTTE at the onset of ealam war IV in June 1990, an issue, which would be dealt separately.

Having served President Premadasa faithfully during that turbulent time, Gen. Ranatunga in a piece titled Negotiating peace in Sri Lanka: The role of the military (published by International Alert of London, UK in Feb 1998 under the auspices of Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe) faulted President Premadasa for his ill-fated strategy.

Gen. Ranatunga alleged that in spite of him being the presidential security advisor, he wasn’t consulted when the army was directed to vacate what he described as a vital military base at Valvettiturai. Gen. Ranatunga blamed the President for overtly being generous to the LTTE in a bid to win Prabhakaran’s confidence. According to former Gen. Officer Commanding (JOC) of the Joint Operations Command (JOC), the decision to vacate the strategic base at Valvettiturai was taken by the President in consultation with the then Foreign Minister and the IGP. Ranatunga asserted that the Commander-in-Chief was clueless about the importance of military establishments and made decisions severely detrimental to security interests. He was of the opinion that the LTTE cleverly exploited the President’s weakness to its advantage. The LTTE always articulated that the presence of the military wasn’t conducive for national reconciliation. The LTTE pushed the President for a gradual decrease in military presence.

Gen. Ranatunga didn’t refer to the vacation of the army base at Point Pedro situated close to Valvettiturai. Interestingly, Ranatunga didn’t make any reference to the role played by the then Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe.

As soon as the army vacated Point Pedro and Valvettiturai, the LTTE moved in. The IPKF turned a blind eye to what was going on. Perhaps the IPKF/EPRLF administration, too, liked the gradual decrease of the Sri Lankan military presence in the Northern Province as it was compatible with their strategy. The President played into the hands of those seeking to diminish government power in the northern region. The then Brigadier Y. Balaratnarajah functioned as Security Forces Commander, Jaffna from Feb 1989 to Dec 1989. He was succeeded by Brig. Jaliya Nanmuni.

Unfortunately, the SLFP led Opposition failed to highlight the President’s folly both in and outside parliament. Opposition lawmakers largely remained silent, though they knew what was going on, on the ground.

Ranatunga confirmed the transfer of arms, ammunition and equipment to the LTTE during the 14-month ceasefire (May 1989 to June 1990) and lifting of restrictions on a range of items, including cement to enable Prabhakaran to fortify their bases. The Gen. didn’t elaborate.

However, most of the weapons transfers took place in the sensitive Weli Oya region located close to Mullaitivu jungles. On the instructions received from Army headquarters, senior officers stationed at Weli Oya had handed over weapons, though many soldiers resented the government-LTTE collaboration. Years later, the issue came up when Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte toured Weli Oya during peace initiative launched by the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga (Jan 1995-April 1995). Minister Ratwatte was accompanied by service chiefs and a group of journalists, including Prabath Sahabandu, the present editor of The Island. Minister Ratwatte and service chiefs were visiting troops to brief them of the ongoing peace process. Having flown to Palaly in one aircraft, the defence top brass were moved to a single chopper for a meeting with troops based at Weli Oya, where a battle hardened soldier queried the Minister whether the army would have to hand over weapons to the LTTE like in 1989-1990 period.