Sunday, 17 February 2013

The TNA factor

War on terror revisited : Part 107

Sooleeimedu, Madras 1986: Ossie Abeygunasekera, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Vijaya Kumaratunga, K. Pathmanaba and Ketheesh Logeswaran. Abeygunasekera was killed in an LTTE suicide attack directed at UNP presidential election candidate Gamini Dissanayake in Oct 1994, Chandrika K survived an LTTE suicide attack on Dec 1999, Vijaya was assassinated in Feb 1989 allegedly by the JVP. Pathmanaba and Kethees were killed in June 1990 and Aug 2006, respectively.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Had the militia formed by India and the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) in late 1989 was able to establish itself in the then temporarily-merged North East Province, Sri Lanka would have been plunged into a new war.

Their original plan was to recruit as many as 30,000 men for the militia called the Tamil National Army (TNA). The TNA was placed under the command of the then Chief Minister of the North East Provincial Council Varatharaja Perumal, who intended to declare an independent state of Tamil Eelam once his militia was ready to meet any eventuality.

What India and the EPRLF obviously didn’t envisage was the change of administration in New Delhi in 1989. Had Gandhi retained power at the Nov. 1989 parliamentary polls, Sri Lanka’s destiny would definitely have been different. In the run-up to the polls, the IPKF trained thousands of men at its bases in accordance with an overall security plan to take on the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE. Gandhi was to maintain the TNA at the Indian taxpayers’ expense. The Indian government, obviously on the basis of assertions by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), believed that the TNA could be the IPKF’s proxy.

In hindsight, the Indian bid to establish a militia could be considered one of the most irrational and short-sighted decisions taken by the then Rajiv Gandhi government. In fact, the formation of a militia was even worse than setting up training facilities for Tamil groups operating in South India.

A growing threat posed by the TNA forced Sri Lankan security forces and the LTTE to cooperate for a short period. They worked closely until the LTTE finished off the TNA in a series of lightning operations in the Vanni and the Eastern Province.

Although government forces and the LTTE refrained from launching joint operations, they directed attacks against the TNA. The TNA was meant to protect the EPRLF-led administration in the temporarily-merged North East Province after the IPKF pullout.

The NE Provincial administration came to being in Nov. 1988, following elections conducted under the auspices of the IPKF.

In early Oct. 1989, President Premadasa urged India to stop training and arming Tamil youth. The then presidential security advisor Gen. Cyril Ranatunga confirmed the government taking up the issue with New Delhi. Gen. Ranatunga alleged that the IPKF was continuing the TNA project in spite of Sri Lanka’s protest (Military training of Tamil youth: Sri Lanka protests––The Island Oct 2, 1989 and Training of Tamil youth goes despite protest to India––The Island Oct 11, 1989).

The TNA caused damage to five SLAF choppers during confrontations in the Ampara district and Chettikulam in the Vavuniya district in late 1989. The TNA hit four SLAF gunships deployed in defence of four police stations in the Ampara district in Nov 1989.

Acting on the instructions of the IPKF, the TNA made a bold move to drive the police out of some parts of the Ampara district as the IPKF gradually pulled out from the area. TNA cadres peppered SLAF choppers deployed in support of the police with automatic fire, causing substantial damages. A few weeks before the Ampara battle, TNA cadres in the presence of the IPKF fired at an SLAF chopper coming down to land at a helipad at Chettikulam. Automatic fire hit the door of the chopper as well as its fuselage. At that time, the SLAF estimated the damages caused to SLAF choppers due to TNA/IPKF action at $ 250,000.

The TNA comprised members of Tamil groups sponsored by India. Some of its senior cadres had been among those trained in India before the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA) on the morning of July 29, 1987.

Ketheesh speaks out

Amidst confrontations between the IPKF backed EPRLF and the LTTE, some EPRLF frontliners moved to Colombo, where they remained in constant touch with the Indian High Commission. Ketheeswaran Loganathan was one of the key EPRLF strategists spearheading a campaign to justify the Indian/EPRLF action. The EPRLF Central Committee member known as ‘Ketheesh’ was considered a close associate of the then EPRLF leader K. Pathmanaba as well as a friend of India.

On the morning of Sept 14, 1989, Ketheesh and the then EPRLF MP Suresh Premachandran (now a Jaffna District MP representing the Tamil National Alliance), called a media briefing at the Taj Samudra to explain the EPRLF’s position. The writer was among a group of journalists representing local and Colombo based Indian journalists invited by the EPRLF. Both Ketheesh and Premachandran requested the media not to reveal that the briefing took place at the Taj Samudra, due to the presence of LTTE operatives in Colombo.

Ketheesh did not mince his words when he declared the EPRLF’s readiness to take on President Premadasa in case the government pushed for a military solution for the national problem. Ketheesh emphasised the EPRLF’s resolve to face any eventuality, even in the absence of the IPKF.

Much to the surprise of those covering the media briefing, Ketheesh declared that the EPRLF was in the process of forming a Tamil militia to fill the vacuum created by the IPKF pullout. The EPRLF wouldn’t allow the Sri Lankan government to take over security in the temporarily merged province, Ketheesh declared.

Commenting on the LTTE demand that the EPRLF should be dissolved before Oct 1, 1989, Ketheesh said that the group wouldn’t succumb to Prabhakaran’s pressure. The EPRLF called the media briefing in the wake of the LTTE killing seven EPRLF cadres at Kokkadicholai in the Batticaloa district.

Ketheesh and Premachandran pointed out the absurdity of President Premadasa accommodating the LTTE at the All Party Conference (APC) close on the heels of Prabhakaran issuing death threats against EPRLF members of the North East Provincial Council. They opposed the IPKF leaving Sri Lanka before the full implementation of the Indo Lanka Accord.

The EPRLF duo defended indiscriminate IPKF action at Valvettiturai on Aug 2, 1989 causing the deaths of over 70 men, women and children, following the killing of six jawans. They pointed out that the LTTE mounted the attack just to provoke the IPKF. The LTTE’s strategy was simple, they alleged, adding that Prabhakaran wanted to highlight atrocities committed by the IPKF at the expense of Tamil speaking people.

They accused the Sri Lankan army of accommodating LTTE cadres in bases in the north-central province, while acknowledging the EPRLF engaged in forced conscription of youth to strengthen its militia (EPRLF will fight if government attempts to impose a ‘military solution’––The Island Sept 15, 1989).

The LTTE wiped out a section of the top EPRLF leadership on June 19, 1990, a week after the resumption of hostilities between President Premadasa’s forces and the LTTE. An LTTE hit squad stormed an apartment at Zachria colony in Kodambakkam, Chennai, when the EPRLF leadership was having a discussion. Thirteen top EPRLF leaders, including its soft-spoken secretary-general K. Padmanabha, Finance Minister in the North Eastern Provincial Council P. Kirubakaran, and Member of Parliament Yogasankari, were killed. The hit squad reached Sri Lanka within 24 hours. Obviously the Indian Coast Guard and the Sri Lankan Navy didn’t interfere with the hit squad’s movement across the Palk Straits.

The LTTE operation directed at the EPRLF embarrassed India and its intelligence services. It was the single largest LTTE operation conducted across the Palk Straits. Did some disgruntled elements within the EPRLF alert the LTTE hit squad? The EPRLF never recovered from the setback suffered due to negligence on the part of those Indians responsible for protecting the EPRLF leadership taking refuge in Chennai. Killing the EPRLF leadership would have been child’s play for Prabhakaran’s assassins, who went to the extent of blowing up one-time Premier Rajiv Gandhi at Sriperumbudur near Chennai on the night of May 21, 1991. At least 14 others were also killed.

Ketheesh was assassinated by the LTTE on the night of Aug 12, 2006, at his unguarded residence at Vandervert Place, Dehiwela. At the time of the assassination, Ketheesh was Deputy Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating Peace Process (SCOPP). It would be pertinent to mention here that Ketheesh and Varatharaja Perumal represented the EPRLF at the famous Thimpu talks in 1985. Ketheesh succumbed to his injuries while being rushed to the Colombo South hospital at Kalubowila.

Interestingly, Ketheesh was not targeted for his role in the EPRLF. Instead, he incurred the wrath of the LTTE for joining the SCOPP to back President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s peace initiative. Ketheesh joined the SCOPP in April 2006 on the invitation of the government.

EPRLF strategy goes awry

In the wake Keteesh’s media briefing at the Taj Samudra, which was the much preferred safe haven for those sponsored by India at that time, the EPRLF launched its second round of forced conscription (EPRLF’s second round of forced conscription begins––The Island Sept 20, 1989). The EPRLF probably felt that the formation of a Tamil militia would compel President Premadasa to be amenable to its far reaching proposals to the All Party Conference convened to discuss ways and means of resolving the national issue. Instead, the EPRLF strategy prompted President Premadasa to reach an understanding with the LTTE to finish off the EPRLF. It was a great miscalculation on the part of India and the EPRLF to intensify pressure on President Premadasa by way of a heavily armed militia.

While having direct talks with the LTTE, President Premadasa also made an attempt to involve the LTTE with other political parties through the All Party Conference (APC), which first met on Aug 12, 1989 at the BMICH. Some 26 political parties attended the APC, though the SLFP took part only in the first two rounds.

The APC process reached a high gear in early September with President Premadasa meeting with the main Opposition-five party alliance led by Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike on Sept 8, 1989. Although they agreed in principle that all elements outside the political mainstream should be brought in to the democratic process, they couldn’t agree as to how to proceed. Although the LTTE participated as an observer, the JVP ignored the President’s invitation. (LTTE to participate in APC –The Island Sept 10, 1989).

President Premadasa seemed to have had faith in the APC process, though his colleagues were sceptical. In a bid to facilitate the negotiating process, President Premadasa went to the extent of getting the UNP Working Committee to recommend the dissolution of parliament. The decision was made on Oct 1, 1989.The UNP Working Committee also recommended the formation of a caretaker government. Surprisingly, the Opposition didn’t pursue the UNP offer (Five party alliance undecided on UNO offer––The Island Oct 5, 1989).

The APC identified 20 main issues for further discussions. According to President Premadas’ international affairs advisor Bradman Weerakoon, the UNP leader considered the LTTE’s presence at the APC for a short period as a signal achievement in his effort to get the LTTE to participate in mainstream politics. Weerakoon pointed out that the LTTE’s ally, the EROS, led by Balakumar, too, had been a constituent member of the APC (Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons edited by Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe). Weerakoon revealed how President Premadasa compelled the LTTE to register the People’s Front of Liberation Tigers (PFLT) as a political party, significantly, without the tag Tamil Eelam.