Thursday, 28 February 2013

Exodus of Muslims and a war-time ‘relationship’

* War on terror revisited : Part 111


By Shamindra Ferdinando

A group of Muslims protesting against an alleged attempt by interested parties to revive separatist sentiments in spite of eradication of the LTTE in May 2009.

Tamil speaking Muslims living in the Northern and Eastern districts incurred the wrath of the LTTE as well as other Tamil groups for being steadfastly supportive of successive governments.

Although a few Muslims had joined the LTTE, the vast majority, regardless of political differences, remained with mainstream political parties. The SLMC entered the political scene in 1981. Having gradually enhanced its power in the Eastern Province, the SLMC, during the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), had an opportunity to further consolidate its hold. With the rise of the SLMC in the Eastern Province as well as some predominantly Northern parts, the UNP slowly lost influence in those parts of the country.

Having had a political relationship with the TULF during the late 1970s, Mohammed Hussain Mohammed Ashraff and his associates formed the SLMC in late 1981. In Nov. 1986, the party was granted political recognition. Three years later, Ashraff entered Parliament.

Massacre of Muslims

The LTTE massacred 150 Muslims at Kattankudy mosques on the night of Aug. 3, 1990. Groups of LTTE cadres stormed mosques and shot those praying there. The attackers were disguised as Muslims. The second major LTTE operation targeting the Muslim community took place on Aug. 11, 1990. The attackers killed 104 men, women and children.

In the post-IPKF period, the SLMC took over the leadership of the community. The Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA) of July 29, 1987, paved the way for the amalgamation of the Eastern Province comprising the administrative districts of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara with the Northern Province. Ashraff spearheaded efforts to carve out a separate administrative unit for the Muslims in the temporarily merged province. The SLMC also wanted to bring predominately Muslim areas in the Northern Province under the purview of the proposed administrative unit.

The LTTE reacted angrily to the SLMC’s call for an exclusive administrative unit. Having considered the political and security situation, the LTTE ordered Muslims to leave the Northern Province or face the consequences. The unprecedented LTTE order was given in the third week of Oct. 1990. The LTTE declared that Muslims should leave Mannar Island and the mainland by Oct. 31, 1990. Failure to comply with the LTTE directive meant attacks similar to that at Kattankudy and Eravur.

Norwegian experience

The Colombo-based western diplomatic missions and the NGO community remained mum. Ironically, the expulsion of the Muslims during eealam war II figured prominently in the immediate aftermath of a massacre in Norway on July 22, 2011.

Thirty-three-year-old Anders Behring Breivik, who massacred 77 men, women and children is on record as having said that he was inspired by the LTTE action against Sri Lanka’s Muslim community.

Breivik, in his 1,518 page manifesto, which was released 90 minutes before he carried out the massacre, said he had felt that Europe should follow the LTTE example of expelling the Muslims from the North of Sri Lanka. He had interpreted the expulsion of Muslims in October/November 1990, by the LTTE at gun point, as a move by the government of Sri Lanka to drive out the Muslim community! Citing the LTTE as a model to follow, Breivik justified the killings as part of a ‘war’ between the West and Islamists.

The killer’s manifesto also referred to the Anuradhapura massacre in 1985 and the slaughter of Muslims at the Kattankudy Mosque, in August 1990.

Mankulam debacle

The government lacked the military power to thwart the LTTE operation to force Muslims to vacate the Northern Province. The army was under heavy pressure in the Jaffna peninsula as well as in the Vanni. Its top brass was of the view that the army didn’t have sufficient strength to protect its bases, let alone deploy personnel in support of a particular community. The LTTE moved against the Muslim community after having taken the upper hand at the onset of eealam war II. The LTTE bid was to drive out Muslims from the Northern Province to districts outside the Eastern Province. Thousands of families sought refuge in areas outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The vast majority of them were attracted to the Puttalam District.

With the LTTE offensive in full swing, the country was in turmoil. The army was yet to take tangible measures to neutralise the terrorist threat.

In the second week of July, 1990, the LTTE overran the Kokavil camp. Two weeks later, the army withdrew from Kilinochchi leaving Mankulam vulnerable to an LTTE onslaught. By August, the army had just two camps in the Vanni, one at Mankulam and the other at Mullaitivu. Mankulam was under siege since the LTTE resumed hostilities on June 11, 1990. They could only be supplied by air in the absence of overland supply routes. Although the army had positioned troops at Elephant Pass, they, too, were under siege. Elephant Pass, too, received supplies by air. The government didn’t dare even to consider a military operation to thwart the LTTE plan, though President Ranasinghe Premadasa repeatedly assured the SLMC that he would intervene. The government did nothing to alleviate the suffering of the Muslims. The Muslim community urged the government to destroy the LTTE to facilitate their return to their homes and refused to go back until the army crushed the LTTE in the North.

In spite of the limited military operations by the army in the Jaffna peninsula, the LTTE continued to consolidate its positions in that area. In the aftermath of the vacation of the Jaffna Fort and Mandaitivu Island on Sept. 26, 1990, the military presence was restricted to the Palaly and Kankesanthurai sectors. The army launched operation ‘Jayashakthi’ (Oct. 17-22) to expand the area under its control. On the night of Nov. 3, 1990, the LTTE hit back killing 12 soldiers and wounding 19 at Mawaddapuram, a village secured by troops engaged in operation ‘Jayashakthi’.

The army abandoned the Mankulam camp in the last week of November 1990. Troops withdrew in the immediate aftermath of a suicide attack where an explosives packed vehicle was used.

Although the army launched a heli-borne operation on July 15, 1990 to reinforce the Mankulam camp, the LTTE brought in additional forces to overwhelm the defenders four months later. A disappointed army chief, Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe ultimately had no option but to abandon Mankulam, thereby losing the entire Vavuniya-Elephant Pass road stretch to the LTTE. The LTTE was in command of the entire Vanni region except for the military presence in Vavuniya, Mannar and Mullaitivu. The majority of those who fled Mankulam, including its commanding officer, the then Major Daulagala managed to reach the army’s forward defence lines north of Vavuniya. Daulagala is still serving in the army in the capacity of a Maj. General.

SLAF plays commendable role

The SLAF played an admirable role in support of the beleaguered army camps at Kokavil, Kilinochchi and Mankulam. The SLAF lacked the required firepower to conduct sustained offensive and defensive actions. Although it felt the need for additional firepower, President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s government wasn’t in a mood for acquisition of new aircraft and dedicated helicopter gunships. Air Vice Marshal MJT De S Gunawardana, who succeeded Air Vice Marshal Walter Fernando in Feb. 1990, faced a daunting task. Italian-built Siai Marchettis, light attack/trainer aircraft, were wholly inadequate to meet the growing commitments. The SLAF took delivery of Siai Marchetti 260 TP and Siai Marchetti 260 W in 1985 and 1990, respectively. Siai Marchettis operated in pairs and had to carry out several sorties targeting a particular target. The SLAF never had the required firepower to meet its commitments during eealam war II. Siai Marchettis remained its main attack aircraft until the acquisition of Chinese built F7s in 1991. It was the first supersonic aircraft deployed against the LTTE. The SLAF also took delivery of FT 7, a two seater supersonic jet trainer.

The fall of Mankulam highlighted the absence of a cohesive counter strategy to neutralise the LTTE threat. In spite of the camp being under siege since the second week of June 1990, the army pathetically failed to either reinforce Mankulam or at least evacuate those trapped.

A strange relationship

Following the LTTE’s declaration of war in the second week of June 1990, a desperate government sought an understanding with Tamil groups opposed to the LTTE. The then State Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne played a pivotal role in reaching the agreement with Tamil groups, namely the PLOTE, the EPDP, the ENDLF, the TELO and the EPRLF. Some of them offered to deploy personnel in support of the army. It was nothing but a strange relationship. During peace talks between President Premadasa and Prabhakaran (May 1989 to June 1990), the LTTE hunted them. The Sri Lankan military looked the other way as the LTTE killed hundreds of rival cadres serving in the Civil Volunteer Force (CVF) and the Tamil National Army (TNA), created by the IPKF. On the invitation of Minister Wijeratne, Tamil groups moved into Colombo. They set up base with the knowledge of intelligence services. The government allowed them to carry weapons in Colombo. Interestingly, India backed the controversial arrangement. The Sri Lankan government was taking over the running of Indian trained terrorist groups. They now received arms, ammunition and vehicles courtesy the government. They were allowed to engage in various nefarious activities to raise funds. Extortion was virtually ‘legalised.’ Decision makers didn’t realise their folly. Instead of increasing the army’s strength, the government deployed those trained by India in support of the military. It was a costly operation.

EPDP leader Douglas Devananda explained the circumstances under which Tamil groups had reached an understanding with the government during an exclusive interview with the writer in early Nov. 1990 at his base situated at No. 22, Siripa Lane, Thimbirigasyaya. The meeting was his first with the Colombo based media since he received government approval to conduct anti-LTTE operations in Colombo. The EPDP as well as other groups hired by the government were authorised to detain suspects. Devananda wore a white sarong and a short sleeved T-shirt. The bearded Palestine trained Devananda placed a British pistol on his small table cluttered with newspapers and magazines, before he went on to explain his role in the fight against the LTTE.

Those arrested during operations were brought to Devananda’s base, questioned and handed over to security authorities. Devananda explained the arrest of one Ravindran, an LTTE operative masquerading as a member of the EPRLF. The EPDP questioned the suspect for 48 hours before the police moved in. It was not an isolated incident. Minister Wijeratne approved EPDP operations. The police were ordered to turn a blind eye to what was going on.