*War on terror revisited : Part 113March 5, 2013, 12:00 pm
Armed forces personnel taking over the casket off the gun carriage at Independence Square followed by slain Minister Ranjan Wijeratne’s wife, Delande and son Rohan.
by Shamindra Ferdinando
Having taken the upper hand on the northern front within five months after the launch of eelam war II in the second week of June 1990, the LTTE offered to return to the negotiating table. The unexpected offer was made through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Dec. 30, 1990. President Ranasinghe Premadasa, much to the surprise of the armed forces, took the LTTE offer seriously and invited political parties and Tamil groups fighting alongside the armed forces against the LTTE to a powwow at the Presidential Secretariat.
The armed forces and police had to suspend offensive action for a period of 72 hours (Dec. 31, 1990 to Jan. 2, 1991). Later, it was extended to midnight Jan. 10, 1991. Although the armed forces chiefs realised the LTTE was seeking to resume negotiations from a position of strength, none dared to warn President Premadasa, who insisted that the government respond positively to the LTTE proposals. He pointed out that the LTTE had declared a unilateral ceasefire to facilitate the peace initiative, while the armed forces reported continuing LTTE attacks both in the north and the east.
The Elephant Pass base situated at the entrance to the Jaffna peninsula remained under siege. Having declared a unilateral ceasefire, the LTTE attacked the isolated Elephant Pass base. The army was compelled to call for air support.
The government also directed the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) to suspended operations. EPDP leader Douglas Devananda publicly warned the government against the danger of returning to the negotiating table, unless the LTTE was willing to surrender all its arms.
The LTTE demanded the withdrawal of the Navy from its Northern bases as a precondition for the resumption of talks. It insisted that the Navy should cease patrolling of northern waters immediately and proposed an immediate halt to military flights to the Palaly air base, as well as low flying over the Northern Province. The Air Force was also told it could only operate in the Eastern Province.
The LTTE proposals were meant to compel the government to quit the newly expanded Palaly-Kankesanthurai security zone. The base couldn’t have been sustained without regular Air Force supply flights as well as the Trincomalee-Kankesanthurai sea supply route. Having lost the Kandy-Jaffna overland Main Supply Route (MSR) at the onset of eelam war II, the armed forces deployed in the Northern Province depended heavily on Air Force flights and ships.
The LTTE was fully aware of the difficulties experienced by the armed forces in sustaining their presence in the Northern Province. It though the military would be compelled to accept its offer due to severe difficulties in maintaining air and sea supply routes.
The LTTE also demanded the formation of the Tamil National Army (TNA) for the protection of the community.
Armed forces oppose LTTE move
In the wake of the LTTE-ICRC move, the then State Minister for Defence, Ranjan Wijeratne, accompanied by Army Chief, Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe, visited major security forces bases in the temporarily-merged Northern and Eastern Province to inquire about the latest peace initiative. Having met officers and men deployed in operational areas, Minister Wijeratne and Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe made representations to President Premadasa against responding positively to the LTTE’s offer, unless Prabhakaran was ready to disarm. Minister Wijeratne handed over a report which dealt with continuing LTTE operations and the armed forces’ reaction to the fresh peace initiative to President Premadasa. Commanders of the Navy and the Air Force, too, attended the meeting.
Subsequently, the government declared that LTTE’s proposals weren’t acceptable and any future talks would be held only with LTTE leader Prabhakaran. President Premadasa resented the stand taken up by the armed forces, though he accepted the representations made by Minister Wijeratne and Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe. The President remained confident that an understanding with the LTTE was still possible, though many felt the crisis couldn’t be tackled by simply giving into Prabhakaran’s unreasonable demands.
During the Premadasa-Prabhakaran honeymoon (May 1989-June 1990), the government vacated Point Pedro and Valvettiturai to appease the LTTE. The President also did away with restrictions imposed on the transport of cement, iron and other prohibited items to areas under LTTE control, during that period.
The state-run media remained silent on the issue, though The Island revealed what was happening on the ground (Tigers violate ceasefire––The Island, President invites other political parties to discuss ‘Tiger’ offer––The Island, Forces suspend operations for 72 hours––The Island, Government totally rejects LTTE demands––The Island, Army wants ceasefire rejected–Island).
However, the LTTE influenced nearly a dozen political parties and Tamil groups, including the PLOTE and the TELO to urge President Premadasa to extend the ceasefire in a bid to facilitate resumption of talks. President Premadasa, too, fell for the idea, though Minister Wijeratne and the armed forces did not take kindly to it. Eight political parties met at the headquarters of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya (SLMP), to express their support for the LTTE proposal. The meeting was attended by senior representatives of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Front (EPRLF), the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF) and several other parties (Eleven political parties want government to extend ‘ceasefire’––The Island).
Both the armed forces and the LTTE accused each other of violating the ceasefire. The army alleged that the LTTE had violated the ceasfire on 25 occasions, while the LTTE International Secretariat blamed the army for 39 violations (Thirty-nine ceasefire violations by S.L. Army––The Island). A spate of confrontations claimed the lives of at least 12 LTTE cadres and one soldier during the 10-day ceasefire. The Navy destroyed four LTTE boats during the same period. Among the dead in operations conducted by the Navy was an Indian. The foreigner was in the company of an LTTE terrorist bringing in stocks of fuel from South India. The Navy intercepted their boat off Thondamannar (Two Tigers killed––The Island). The Indian High Commission remained mum, though the Navy acknowledged the death of an Indian working for the LTTE.
India remained deeply involved in Sri Lanka with its agents engaged in both overt and covert activities. A chance detection of an Indian fishing trawler east of Kachchativu on Nov. 11, 1990 revealed the presence of a group of Indian Navy/Coast Guard personnel. The interception was made in the wake of a spate of detections of Indian trawlers carrying fuel and other supplies to the LTTE. The navy was surprised to find seven armed Indian personnel on board the trawler. Having consulted the Defence Ministry, the navy released the Indian trawler. Sri Lanka never conducted a thorough investigation into the incident.
LTTE arms detected in Malaysia
In the run-up to the LTTE offer of peace, the Malaysian Customs apprehended three boat loads of arms, ammunition and equipment in the straits of Malacca off Penang Island. The detection was made in late Dec. 1990. The Malaysian Embassy in Colombo confirmed the detection. According to the embassy, the boats had been heading towards a ship anchored in international waters off Penang Island when the Customs swung into action. Malaysia detained the boats, along with 33 LTTE operatives. In spite several attempts, The Island couldn’t establish the identity of those detained by the Malaysian Customs. (Malaysian Customs seize three boatloads of arms for Tigers––The Island). However, the embassy declined to comment further, though The Island contacted the mission on several occasions. Malaysia remained a major centre for LTTE operations throughout the campaign until the arrest of Kumaran Pathmanathan a.k.a. ‘KP’ in Aug 2009, during a raid on a Malaysian hotel and subsequent deportation. Malaysia quietly released those arrested along with the consignment of armaments, though nothing was said about the weapons. The Malaysian Embassy declined to comment on the outcome of the investigation into the detection. The LTTE maintained a vast procurement network, until the Sri Lankan Navy, with intelligence provided by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) and the US, hunted down eight LTTE floating warehouses on the high seas (Sept. 2006-Oct 2007).
Brig. Wimalaratne returns to Jaffna
Gajaba veteran Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne took over Jaffna command in Jan. 1991. Prior to his new appointment, Brig. Wimalaratne had held the post of Director of Operations at army headquarters. He succeeded Brig. Jaliya Nanmuni (Brig Wimalaratne Jaffna Commander-The Island). At the time of change of the Jaffna command, the army had deployed six infantry battalions in the Jaffna peninsula.
Brig. Wimalaratne’s appointment took place after the army had made a strong case against a fresh round of talks, unless the LTTE agreed to de-commission its arsenal. The then Northern Commander Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa, on the morning of Jan. 8, 1991 flew in to Tantirimale, where he briefed the Mahanayakes of the Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters, Ven. Palipane Chandananda and Rambukwelle Sobitha Theras as regards the LTTE proposal for a fresh round of talks and the government’s response. Among those present at the occasion were the then Vanni Commander, Brig. Sathis Jayasundera and the then Diyawadana Nilame, Niranjan Wijeratne. The Mahanayakes and the Northern top brass distributed dry rations, clothes and food packets among war affected Sinhala families living in the area. Immediately after the Tantirimale meeting, Minister Wijeratne announced the resumption of offensive action.
Although the army launched limited operations in the Northern Province, it couldn’t engage in a sustained campaign due to a shortage of manpower. The government of the day was reluctant to boost the army’s strength. Although the military top brass felt the immediate need for a sharp increase in the overall strength of the armed forces to undertake offensive action, liberate areas and hold them, the political leadership took a different view. The government bluntly asked the army to manage with available men and material!
Overtures to Prabhakaran
The LTTE assassinated State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne on the morning of March 2, 1991. Wijeratne held the plantations industries portfolio, apart from being the General Secretary of the ruling UNP.
The tough talking Wijeratne was on his way from his residence at Thimbirigasyaya to the Defence Ministry when a remote-controlled bomb in a parked car was detonated during the morning rush hour on Havelock road. The blast destroyed a bus, eight cars and about a dozen motorcycles.
Among those killed were five bodyguards –all from the elite Special Task Force (STF). The blast also claimed the lives of 25 civilians. President Premadasa cut short a visit to Kandy to return to Colombo. Much to the dismay of the armed forces, President Premadasa appointed Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga as the State Minister for Defence. The vacant post of UNP General Secretary was filled by B. Sirisena Cooray.
Minister Wijeratne had incurred the wrath of the LTTE for opposing an attempt to re-open negotiations with President Premadasa’s government with the help of the ICRC. Many believed the government would have had no qualms about accepting the LTTE’s latest offer if not for Minister Wijeratne throwing his weight behind the army. Five days after Wijeratne’s assassination, Premier Wijetunga, in his capacity as the State Minister for Defence, declared that the doors were still open for negotiations and those willing to re-join the political mainstream were free do so. The announcement was made on March 7, 1991. The UNP leadership pushed for resumption of talks with the LTTE. This was primarily due to the UNP’s assertion that the LTTE couldn’t be defeated militarily. Having called for resumption of talks in the wake of Minister Wijeratne’s assassination, Wijetunga made a U-turn and pushed for the annihilation of the LTTE when he assumed presidency in the wake of Premadasa’s assassination on May Day, 1993.