Tuesday, 12 February 2013

President throws lifeline to sinking Tigers

In the wake of resolute IPKF action


Although the IPKF was in the process of de-inducting troops from Sri Lanka, those trained and armed by Indian instructors caused chaos. The Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF) was one of the worst offenders who ordered R.E. Anandarajah, Assistant Secretary of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) to vacate the party headquarters in Jaffna. ACTC leader Kumar Ponnambalam confirmed the ENDLF threats directed at Anandarajah, his wife and three grown up children. An angry Ponnambalam alleged that the ENDLF was engaged in terrorism. Ponnambalam claimed that in the absence of Indian High Commissioner Lakhan Lal Mehotra and those handling armed groups, he couldn’t settle the issue. (ENDLF orders vacation of Tamil Congress Hq-The Island January 4, 1990).

It later transpired that the IPKF, too, had demanded the ACTC to vacate its headquarters. Ponnambalam later made representations to the Indian High Commission in a bid to thwart the ENDLF plans (Kumar meets Indian diplomat on Hq. issue-The Island Jan 6, 1990). Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) brought members of several Tamil groups to form the ENDLF in 1987. The group comprised ex-members of the EPRLF, PLOTE and TELO and worked closely with the IPKF. In fact, Douglas Devananda, too, had been a member of the ENDLF before forming his own party. The ENDLF contested both the Nov. 19, 1988 Provincial Council polls as well as the parliamentary elections the following year.

 by Shamindra Ferdinando

The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) conducted its last major offensive action in March 1989 in the jungles of Nittikaikulam, north-east of Vavuniya inflicting heavy damage on the LTTE. It was the first large scale IPKF operation after the swearing in on Jan. 2, 1990 of JRJ’s successor, Ranasinghe Premadasa as the second executive president. The IPKF assault on a wide front east of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road was preceded by Operation Checkmate in the run-up to first Provincial Council election in the temporarily-merged North-East Province on Nov. 19, 1988.

During the March 1989 offensive, major battles took place south of Alampil with both the IPKF with the LTTE sustaining substantial losses. (During eelam war IV, the newly raised 59 Division fought its way to Mullaitivu after having captured Alampil. Mullaitivu was liberated in late Jan. 2009).

At the onset of the operation on March 2, 1989, Gurkhas clashed with the LTTE in close quarter combat. As the IPKF top brass realised that that the LTTE had been defending a major stronghold, it brought in additional forces into battle. By the third week of March 1989, the IPKF had deployed one whole infantry Division on the Alampil front with the Indian Air Force (IAF) launching a series of attacks on enemy concentrations. The IAF deployed Mi 25 helicopter gunships in support of ground forces. Mi 25s were used effectively to provide close air support in late Oct 1987 in the Jaffna peninsula.

At the onset of the IPKF operations on the night of Oct 10/11 1987, IAF would never have believed it would need such fire power to overcome the LTTE. Mi 25s carried a range of weapons, including 57 mm rockets. (At that time Sri Lanka hadn’t even felt the need to acquire dedicated helicopter gunships. Eventually, the SLAF obtained Mi-24s from Russia in 1996 during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s presidency. No 9 attack squadron comprising Mi-24s played a critical role during eelam war IV. The SLAF acquired major assets, including Kfirs and MiGs in 1996 and 2000, respectively).

The IPKF action on the shores of Nayaru lagoon, too, may have influenced the LTTE’s decision to accept President Premadasa’s invitation for direct talks. In accordance with their understanding, President Premadasa demanded the IPKF’s withdrawal by July 29, 1989 on the second anniversary of the signing of the Indo-Lanka accord.

Having forced the LTTE out of Jaffna following a series of battles during the period of Nov.-Oct. 1987, the IPKF conducted two major operations in the Nittikaikulam jungles in April and June 1988. The offensive launched in March 1989 was the third in the area, though it was the first since the bloody Dec. 1988 election, which brought Premadasa into power.

The then Indian High Commission spokesperson, Primrose Sharma used to furnish details of the ongoing IPKF operations on a daily basis to the Colombo based media. The LTTE, too, provided regular updates, whereas the Sri Lankan army released unofficial situation reports as regards IPKF operations. Sri Lankan forces had access to battlefield reports as the IPKF operated from SL bases and the two armies were in close contact.

March 24, 1990: Indian High Commissioner Lakhan Lal Mehotra addressing the last batch of Indian officers and men of the IPKF onboard INS Magar at the Trincomalee harbour. State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne looks on. India completed the IPKF pullout on the morning of March 24, 1990, over seven months after the July 29, 1989 deadline given by President Premadasa (Pic Saranapala Pamunuwa)
The Sri Lankan military and Tamil political parties alleged that the IPKF action had caused deaths among civilians and destroyed many houses (Homes destroyed with strap line IPKF operations in Mullaitivu – The Island March 12, 1989). The worst affected was Kumulamunai, a major LTTE stronghold (The 59 Division captured Kumulamunai in Dec 2008). The LTTE launched some devastating attacks with one major incident claiming the lives of 25 IPKF personnel at Kumulamunai (25 IPKF and six terrorists killed in ambush-The Island March 25, 1989).

President Premadasa resented the IPKF action. According to President Premadasa’s international relations advisor, Bradman Weerakoon (1989-1993), the UNP leader was of the view that the Indian Army was here to stay (Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka:Efforts, Failures and Lessons-edited by Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe). Weerakoon said: "President Premadasa was absolutely convinced that the IPKF was here to stay forever or at least until the accord, particularly in as far as it applied to the devolution of power and the establishment of the EPRLF as the dominant power in the North-East Province, was a reality."

At the time Premadasa assumed the presidency, the IPKF had four infantry divisions deployed in Sri Lanka, plus para-military units. In the wake of President Premadasa-Prabhakaran entering into direct negotiations in early May 1989, the IPKF formed a militia, the Tamil National Army (TNA) to prop up the EPRLF-led administration in the North-East Province. President Premadasa had felt that he had no option but to help the LTTE to survive and then use it to cause maximum damage to the IPKF.

EPRLF flexes its muscles

The IPKF and the EPRLF openly challenged the government’s authority on many occasions. While the IPKF was fighting the LTTE in the jungles of Nittikaikulam in March 1989, the EPRLF abducted six police commandos, including Chief Inspector Tissa Ratnayake attached to STF base in Tirukkovil. The abductions took place when the commandos were on their way to back from Sagama, where the STF had another base. The EPRLF declared that the commandos wouldn’t be released until the government set free four EPRLF cadres arrested by the army. The army had taken the gang of armed EPRLF cadres into its custody at Digawapiya. The EPRLF declined to negotiate until the return of its leader and Chief Minister of the North-East Provincial Council, Varatharaja Perumal from India (Gen. Ranatunga awaits return of Chief Minister with strap line Talks on abducted commandos-The Island March 14, 1989). Obviously, the EPRLF wouldn’t have dared to move against the STF without the IPKF’s blessings. The government had to seek the IPKF’s intervention to secure the release of the commandos.

In late March 1989, the IPKF detained a group of policemen at Rotawewa off Horowpothana in the Anuradhapura District. The IPKF was operating outside the temporarily-merged Northern and Eastern Province. The IPKF swooped down on the police party, which was engaged in investigation into the alleged involvement of EPRLF cadres in a massacre of Sinhalese at Dutuwewa on Feb 11, 1989. Among the 34 victims were 22 children (Sri Lankan policemen quizzed by Indian army-The Island March 31, 1989).

The EPRLF made a strong move to evict Sinhala villagers from some parts of the Eastern Province. The EPRLF and other Tamil groups sponsored by the IPKF targeted both Sinhalese and Tamil speaking Muslims living in the Eastern Province. Although the LTTE was engaged in direct negotiations with President Premadasa, it terrorised Muslims in the Eastern Province. In spite of differences among various Tamil armed groups, including the LTTE, they took a common stand against the Muslims. Unfortunately, President Premadasa and his colleagues didn’t realise the strategy adopted by terrorist groups. They intended to weaken the presence of the Muslim community in the Eastern Province ahead of the proposed referendum in the Eastern Province. The Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA) signed on July 29, 1987 required President JRJ to devolve powers to the provinces and merge the Eastern Province with the Northern Province to make one administrative unit. The ILA envisaged a referendum before Dec. 31, 1988 in the Eastern Province to decide whether the merger should be permanent. However, President JRJ had the power to put off the referendum in accordance with the ILA.

Prabhakaran gains recognition

At the behest of President Premadasa, the then Elections Commissioner Chandrananda de Silva on Dec. 19, 1989, recognised the LTTE as a registered political party. The polls chief obviously didn’t have any other option then to grant an armed terrorist group political recognition. Had he refused, de Silva would have had to face the consequences. The LTTE handed over its application to de Silva on Dec. 4, 1989 following President Premadasa’s intervention (LTTE recognised as a political party-The Island Dec 20, 1989).

LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham, on the morning of Jan. 20, 1989 called the media to Galadari to announce the LTTE being recognised as a political party. The LTTE registered its political wing under the name of the People’s Front of Liberation Tigers (PFLT). Having declared himself as the advisor to the PFLT, Balasingham spelt out the newly formed political outfit’s objectives. The writer had the opportunity to cover the media briefing held under the watchful eyes of police commandos in civvies, while armed LTTE cadres stood next to Balasingham and Yogiratnam Yogi, a member of the LTTE negotiating team. Responding to a query by the foreign media, Balasingham revealed having had talks with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi a week before receiving political recognition (LTTE turned PFLT spells out aims and objectives-The Island Dec 21, 1989).

Balasingham reiterated the LTTE’s call for the immediate dissolution of the N&E Provincial Council and fresh elections. Commenting on LTTE operations directed at the TNA in the Eastern Province with the focus on Batticaloa, Balasingham declared offensive action had been taken with the knowledge of the government as well as the security forces and police. The government remained mum, while senior army officers privately admitted that they had received strict instructions from Army headquarters not to intervene. The LTTE was given an opportunity to hunt down TNA cadres. The LTTE swiftly moved after issuing an ultimatum to the TNA to surrender or face the consequences.

Balasingham vowed that the LTTE would take care of the TNA. The LTTE opposed the deployment of Sri Lankan forces to disarm the TNA.

Veteran ground commander Gopalswamy Mahendraraja alias Mahattaya was named the leader of the PFLT. Less than two weeks after the PFLT had received political recognition, the IPKF gunned down two LTTE/PFLT cadres, including one holding the rank of ‘Captain’. The IPKF killed them at Chavakachcheri (Two military wing leaders of PFLT shot dead––The Island January 6, 1990). The LTTE lambasted India for targeting PFLT members, while the Indian High Commission insisted that the IPKF was acting in self defence. The Indian HC alleged that the LTTE provoked the confrontation at Chavakachcheri.

In the first week of Jan. 1990, the LTTE, with the tactical support of the Sri Lankan army mounted a devastating attack on a major PLOTE base at Periyakunchikulam in the Mannar District. The LTTE killed over 50 PLOTE cadres before removing a large consignment of weapons supplied by the IPKF. The LTTE killed over 200 rivals in the Mannar and Vavuniya districts as violence swept the country in the wake of IPKF stepping up the withdrawal of troops.

Close on the heels of the formation of the PFLT the EPRLF- led Tamil National Council (TNC) made an attempt to reach an agreement with the LTTE. The TNC offered ten seats in the N&E Provincial Council to the LTTE. The LTTE turned down the offer insisting that it wouldn’t agree to anything other than fresh elections in the temporarily-merged province.

 LTTE political wing leader Gopalswamy Mahendraraja alias Mahattaya with Prabhakaran in the Jaffna peninsula. Pic is believed to have been taken after the recognition of the People’s Front of Liberation Tigers (PFLT) as a political party on Dec 19, 1989.