Sunday, 10 February 2013

The IPKF is off

War on terror revisited : Part 104

Former Indian Army Chief General VK Singh at the IPKF memorial in Sri Lanka
IPKF personnel seated in INS Magar, last troop ship to leave Trincomalee

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The LTTE pushed President Ranasinghe Premadasa hard on the political front. On behalf of the LTTE, its theoretician Anton Balasingham demanded the immediate abolition of the 6th Amendment to the Constitution as well as the dissolution of the EPRLF (Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front )-led administration in the temporarily merged North-East Province. He insisted that the dissolution of the NE council was an important prerequisite for the LTTE’s entry into the political mainstream and the outfit felt that its demands should be met before the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) pulled out of Sri Lanka.

The LTTE refused to recognise the EPRLF administration elected at the Dec. 19, 1988 PC election conducted under the auspices of the IPKF. The ENDLF (Eelam National Democratic National Front), too, was part of the NE administration. The LTTE also wanted to neutralise the ENDLF, which India created in the post-July 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA). The ENDLF comprised splinter groups of various Indian sponsored Tamil militias operating alongside the IPKF.

The LTTE insisted that the ongoing peace initiative couldn’t move forward unless President Premadasa acted swiftly and decisively to met its proposals. President Premadasa, however, remained reluctant to give in to the LTTE’s political demands, though he was ready to compromise on security issues.

President Premadasa, who was the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, obviously had no qualms about making far reaching concessions at the expense of the military at the onset of direct talks in Colombo (May 1989-June 1990). One-time Army Commander Lt. Gen. Gerry De Silva told this writer recently that the vacation of army bases at Valvettiturai and Point Pedro to facilitate the peace process had been a very bad mistake. The President probably felt that the LTTE would be satisfied with such concessions, though he couldn’t meet its political demands.

Retired career diplomat Dr. John Gooneratne, too, in response to a query by the writer, explained the circumstances under which the LTTE had taken advantage of direct negotiations with President Premadasa to enhance its military capability. Gooneratne alleged that the LTTE had cleverly exploited its understanding with President Premadasa to get rid some of vital military positions in the Jaffna sector. The government’s chief negotiator, Minister Hameed, had been essentially supportive of the President’s strategy, the veteran diplomat asserted. Their thinking was alike. They had been of the opinion that political concessions couldn’t be made at that particular stage of the negotiations, though the LTTE could be allowed to enhance its power. They articulated the position that the LTTE had no option but to strengthen its position due to the growing threat posed by the TNA (Tamil National Army), formed by the IPKF to prop up the EPRLF/ENDLF administration. They only realised their folly when the LTTE finally trained its guns on the Sri Lankan military in June 1990, having destroyed the militia under the EPRLF’s command.

The EPRLF, too, demanded the abolition of the 6th Amendment to the Constitution. Chief Minister of the NE Province Varatharaja Perumal declared that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution introduced in the wake of the July 29, 1987 ILA would be meaningless as long as the 6th Amendment remained in force. President Premadasa’s predecessor, J. R. Jayewardene, introduced the controversial piece of legislature. The 6th Amendment ensured the unitary status.

In accordance with the Provincial Council Act of 1987, the government couldn’t dissolve a Provincial Council without a valid reason. President Premadasa pointed out to the LTTE his inability to do away with Perumal’s administration. The only other option was for Perumal to recommend the dissolution to President Premadasa. The UNP leader asserted both LTTE proposals were beyond his power. Bringing in necessary constitutional changes to do away with the 6th Amendment well-nigh impossible as President Premadasa didn’t have a two-thirds majority in parliament.

The LTTE insisted that political negotiations at its earnest could begin once fresh Provincial Council elections were held in the merged North-East province. The LTTE was of the view that the dissolution of Perumal’s council was an urgent necessity, whereas President Premadasa maintained that he couldn’t step in unless the Chief Minister gave him an opportunity. Quite unexpectedly on the morning of March 1, 1990, Perumal gave President Premadasa an opportunity to dissolve the council.

Perumal declares eelam

Much to the consternation of President Premadasa, Perumal declared an independent state of eelam in the temporarily merged province. The Chief Minister said that the provincial administration would now function as the National State Assembly of the Free and Sovereign Democratic Republic of Eelam. Speaking to the writer from Trincomalee, the Chief Minister said that he was prepared to reconsider his decision if President Premadasa accepted the EPRLF’s 19-point plan to restore normalcy and political freedom in predominately Tamil speaking region. While vowing to campaign for international support for the EPRLF cause, the Chief Minister faulted India for not helping Sri Lankan Tamils to achieve their aspirations (Perumal declares independent State of Eelam-The Island March 2, 1990).

The unexpected declaration in Trincomalee was made in the wake of speculation of Perumal dissolving the council on his own. Perumal vowed to resist any attempt on the part of President Premadasa to remove him. Perumal knew the Sri Lankan army wouldn’t move against him as long as the IPKF remained in Sri Lanka.

Earlier in the day, the only UNP member, M. Z. Mashoor of the newly declared Tamil state walked out of a meeting in Trincomalee chaired by Perumal against the unilateral declaration of independence. Seven SLMC representatives boycotted the meeting. Perumal invited the LTTE to throw its weight behind the EPRLF as both groups stood for eelam.

Defence Secretary Gen. Cyril Ranatunga declined to comment on what he called Perumal’s political move while the Director Information said that the government wouldn’t comment on the situation in Trincomalee (Perumal declares independent State of Eelam-The Island March 2, 1990).

Responding to a query by the writer, Perumal declared that Sri Lankan forces would be asked to vacate the northern and eastern districts. The EPRLF strongman said that the presence of Sri Lankan forces would violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Tamil Eelam (Lankan army will be asked to leave––The Island March 2, 1990).

Perumal made this move close on the heels of a high level EPRLF delegation led by Transport and Highways Minister Abu Yusuf handing over the 19-point EPRLF’s peace proposals to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi. It was a last ditch attempt to reach an understanding with the LTTE before the IPKF completed the pull out. The EPRLF realised that its militia was no match for the LTTE and nothing could be as important as an agreement with Prabhakaran before the IPKF left.

In fact, LTTE Deputy Leader Mahattaya was in the neighbouring Batticaloa District when Perumal declared independence after having had a special round of discussions with Minister Hameed at an LTTE base at Kallady. Anton Balasingham and Yogiratnam Yogi, too, were in Batticaloa in the first week of March.

Amidst turmoil in Trincomalee, Foreign Minister Ranjan Wijeratne made an important announcement in Parliament. Wijeratne declared that the government had requested India to withdraw security given to the Chief Minister Perumal by the IPKF and evacuate him to India.

By the end of first week of March, the IPKF remained in the Jaffna peninsula and Trincomalee and its suburbs, As the IPKF abandoned its positions, the LTTE swiftly moved in to fill the vacuum. Sri Lankan armed forces were still confined to their barracks. Unfortunately, those who could have advised President Premadasa against the LTTE machination remained mum.

The Citizens’ Volunteer Force (CVF) and the Tamil National Army (TNA), trained and armed by the IPKF, simply vanished leaving behind their weapons. The IPKF project to use the CVF and the TNA to safeguard the EPRLF was in tatters. President Premadasa and his top advisors still failed to realise the danger of the emerging situation. The LTTE quickly consolidated its positions in the Vanni. By the end of third week of March, 1990, the LTTE was in a commanding position in the Vanni. Prabhakaran was ready to move in as soon as the IPKF vacated Jaffna and Trincomalee. The IPKF pullout was scheduled to be completed on the morning of March 24, 1990, with the withdrawal of the last contingent of jawans in the port city of Trincomalee.

LTTE takes control

The IPKF pulled out all its troops from the Jaffna peninsula on March 20, 1990. Even before the last Indian troop ship left Kankenanthurai, Mahattaya opened a new LTTE office at Kondavil a little distance away from the Jaffna town. Army Commander Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe was at Kankesanthurai to see the last jawans leave. Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe supervised the transfer of weapons to the LTTE at the behest of President Premadasa. Among those present at the Kondavil LTTE office were Balasingham and Yogi.

The writer had an opportunity to go on board INS Magar along with staff photographer Saranapala Pamunuwa on the morning of March 24, 1990. The LTTE moved in to Trincomalee in force as the last batch of over 2000 IPKF personnel boarded INS Magar while Indian frigates flanked the troop carrier. The IPKF believed that the LTTE could launch a suicide attack on the troop carrier just to humiliate India.

A Sri Lanka military band played Auld Lang Syne as INS Magar while senior Sri Lankan military officers looked happy at the long procession of jawans going on board the troop ship. Addressing the crowd, IPKF commander, Lt General A S Kalkat declared: "We came as a proud force and are leaving as a proud force." It was just a politically correct statement.

State Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne, who played a critical role in arming the LTTE during the Premadasa-Prabhakaran honeymoon, joined Indian High Commissioner Lal Mehrotra in praising the IPKF for what they called a job well done. The Indian envoy declared: "History will record your achievements and memories of those who had laid down their lives to preserve the unity and territorial integrity of a friendly neighbour will last in our hearts forever". Mehrotra was addressing IPKF personnel on board INS Magar. Mahrotra went on to thank the Sri Lankan forces for the support extended to the IPKF during its 32-month deployment in Sri Lanka. A smiling Wijeratne invited the departing IPKF personnel to visit Sri Lanka again.

Among the senior officers present in Trincomalee to see the last Indian troop ship leave were the Principal Staff Officer (PSO) of the Joint Operations Command Brig. Tilak Paranagama and Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne (The IPKF is off-The Island March 25, 1990). Brig. Wimalaratne was one of the few officers who realised the LTTE couldn’t be trusted and it was only a matter of time before Prabhakaran renewed hostilities.

During its deployment here, the IPKF lost as many as 1,155 troops while 2,984 were wounded, according to official figures, though the actual losses may have been much higher.

Brig. Sivaji Patel, the one-time Officer Commanding a Brigade deployed in Trincomalee town was the last to leave Trincomalee, thus ending the Indian army presence in Sri Lanka.