Sunday, 3 March 2013

Eelam War II:LTTE in command

War on terror revisited : Part 112

State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne points to some weapons recovered by the army during operations in Trincomalee after the outbreak of hostilities in the second week of June 1990. Brig. Lakshman Wijeratne is also in the picture

by Shamindra Ferdinando

Hot on the heels of the Mankulam debacle in the third week of Nov. 1990, the then State Minister for Defence, Ranjan Wijeratne pushed for the deployment of additional PLOTE (People’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) cadres in the Northern Province, with the focus on the Vavuniya District.

The government, struggling on the northern front, quickly turned towards the terrorist groups sponsored by India to meet the LTTE challenge. It made its move soon after the LTTE had resumed hostilities in the second week of June 1990. By late Nov. 1990, the LTTE had overrun army detachments at Kokavil (second week of July 1990) and Mankulam (third week of Nov. 1990), while the army abandoned its Kilinochchi base in the last week of Nov. 1990, thereby giving the LTTE unimpeded access across the Kandy-Jaffna road north of Vavuniya.

Mullaitivu was under siege, though a seaborne force had reinforced the camp in Aug. 1990.

The government and PLOTE representatives met on Nov. 28, 1990 in Colombo to discuss ways and means of meeting the growing LTTE threat. The government offered to provide additional weapons to the PLOTE and asked it to play a leading role in the Vanni. The political and military leaders at that time believed that the PLOTE could cause some serious damage to the LTTE (More PLOTE units for Wanni to fight LTTE––The Island Dec 5, 1990).

In accordance with an understanding with the Sri Lankan government, the PLOTE brought in some of those who had sought refuge in India before the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) completed its pull-out on March 24, 1990. The PLOTE received India’s blessings for its plan, though a section of the government felt New Delhi could undermine the project. The PLOTE also made representations to the then Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s government’s regarding those who had been held in Male for trying to overthrow his government in the first week of Nov. 1988. President Premadasa’s government, too, backed the PLOTE bid to bring back cadres languishing in India and Male. Sri Lanka made representations to Male on behalf of the PLOTE.

The PLOTE was the strongest militant group sponsored by India, though it could never challenge the LTTE’s superiority. Now, the Sri Lankan government was manipulating the PLOTE, the TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation) and the EPDP (Eelam People’s Democratic Party). The government also commanded those who had quit the PLOTE, the TELO, the EPDP and the EPRLF (Eelam People’s Revolutionary Front). Tamil groups set up forward operational bases in the northern and eastern districts, with the PLOTE concentrating on Vavuniya. They gradually expanded their area of operations.

Douglas Devananda (currently a minister) and N. G. Manikkadasan were in charge of operations undertaken by the EPDP and the PLOTE, respectively. They were among those who had escaped from the Batticaloa Prison on the night of Sept. 22, 1983.

The writer had the opportunity to visit PLOTE units deployed in Vavuniya as well as Batticaloa during eelam war II. Manikkadasan recalled the joint action the government and the LTTE had directed against the PLOTE during the Premadasa-Prabhakaran honeymoon (May 1989-June 1990). At that time, S. Shanmuganathan alias Vasanthan was in charge of PLOTE operations in Vavuniya. The PLOTE also sought to expand its base in Trincomalee, though the government didn’t encourage the bid. In fact, the UNP didn’t want any of the Tamil groups to enhance their presence in Trincomalee. It would be pertinent to mention Manikkadasan’s comments on the assassination of PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran as the ‘war on terror revisited’ series earlier dealt with the killing. He alleged that Maheswaran had been killed at the behest of a foreign power which he refused to name.

Maheswaran’s body was found close to the Maldivian High Commission in Colombo, on the night of July 16, 1989, in the wake of the Sri Lankan government and the militant groups, including the PLOTE opposed to the LTTE reaching an understanding to fight the LTTE. Manikkadasan emphasised that the LTTE hadn’t been involved in the assassination! A person who had deserted the PLOTE in early 1990 was believed to have assassinated Maheswaran, according to Manikkadasan. (Manikkadasan, Senior Vice President of the PLOTE and its military commander (41), PLOTE Vavuniya district leader Ilango and another senior leader Vino were killed in a claymore mine blast in a PLOTE camp at Rambaikkulam, Vavuniya on Sept. 2, 1999). Siddarthan believed the claymore mine had been placed on the ceiling and detonated with a remote control device. The LTTE triggered the blast as Manikkadasan was about to leave the camp after a meeting. Siddarthan was of the opinion that the bomb couldn’t have been planted without inside help.)

President visits Jaffna

President Premadasa, accompanied by security forces top brass, flew to Palaly air base on the morning of Nov. 24, 1990. It was the President’s first visit to the Jaffna peninsula since the outbreak of hostilities in the second week of June 1990 and a spate of battlefield debacles, the last being the overrunning of the base at Mankulam. The President addressed the troops and the members of the PLOTE, TELO and the EPDP deployed on the northern front. Among those present was Douglas Devananda. An irate Premadasa demanded the annihilation of the LTTE and the restoration of government’s writ. Before leaving Jaffna, he laid a wreath at a memorial for the Unknown Soldier. However, the highlight of the President’s visit was a tour of the area captured by troops of Operation Jayashakthi conducted during the third week of Oct. 1990. The President was also taken on a tour of some of the Jaffna islands (In the midst of fierce fighting, President visits Jaffna––The Island Nov. 25, 1990).

Although a previous article dealt with Operation Jayashakthi, it would be pertinent to explain the action on the Jaffna front aimed at expanding the area under security forces control at Palaly and link the air base with the Kankesanthurai harbour. Jayashakthi troops brought the KKS cement factory too, under their control. Having expanded the area under military control, Palaly and Mylady were accommodated within the High Security Zone (HSZ). Operation Jayashakhi gave depth to Palaly defences, hence making it possible for the SLAF to fly in the President and service commanders safely.

STF-TELO relationship

The then State Minister for Defence, Ranjan Wijetatne felt that the TELO could conduct operations alongside the elite Special Task Force (STF). The Premadasa-Wijeratne duo were of the opinion that those trained by India could now fight for Sri Lanka. They failed to realise that rival groups couldn’t match the fighting capabilities of the LTTE, whose ranks swelled, whereas other groups felt the gradual waning of public support. Having had a working arrangement with the government, the TELO made representations to India to secure the release of about 400 cadres detained in South India. TELO General Secretary G. Karunakaran and political advisor Sri Kantha made representations to the then Deputy Indian High Commissioner, N Rath. They wanted all their cadres held in India deported as soon as possible. Among the detained were several senior TELO cadres, including its leader, Selvam Adaikalanathan (Now a member of the Tamil National Alliance (MP), and one of the strongest critics of the Sri Lankan military). Adaikalanathan took over the leadership, after the LTTE assassinated TELO leader Sri Sabaratnam in early 1986.

Excellent cooperation

The military gradually developed an excellent relationship with Tamil groups, with the government going out of its way to look after the mercenaries fighting in the northern and eastern districts. The TELO and the PLOTE played an important role, particularly in the Batticaloa District. The then TELO leader Sri Sabaratnam highlighted an incident in late Oct. 1990 to explain the close working relationship between his men and the military. When the LTTE blew up a military vehicle carrying soldiers and TELO cadres are Ollikulam, killing two soldiers and causing injuries to several other personnel, including Ravichandran Kandasamy, a local TELO leader, the SLAF airlifted the wounded to Colombo. Although Ravichandran succumbed to his injuries at a government hospital in Colombo, the readiness on the part of the government to provide equal medical treatment to the wounded, earned the respect of those risking their lives.

The EPRLF and the ENDLF, too, cooperated with the government, though they didn’t join the fight against the LTTE. But some of their members worked closely with the military. Of the five groups, the EPRLF and the ENDLF stayed overtly loyal to India, which continued to sponsor the armed groups.

India remained in touch with Tamil groups. In fact, it had contacts at the highest levels those organisations. The then Indian Foreign Minister Vidya Charan Shukla (Nov. 21, 1990-Feb 20, 1991) and Foreign Secretary Muchkund Dubey met senior representatives of armed groups at India House in Colombo. India obviously didn’t want to cut off Tamil groups and it was widely believed that Indian intelligence remained in touch with a section of the LTTE. The Indian delegation met senior representatives of the PLOTE, the TELO, the ACTC, the TULF, the EROS, the EPRLF and the ENDLF, separately. Those fighting the LTTE alongside the Sri Lankan military urged the Indian foreign ministry delegation to release their cadres detained in India. They also pushed for tougher action against the LTTE still operating in India. Other groups and political parties called for a greater Indian role in Sri Lanka.

Trinco commander killed

The LTTE blasted a military vehicle (Toyota SLA 5342) at Panmedawachchiya (on the Anuradhapura-Trincomalee Road) in Morawewa, on the afternoon of Dec. 18, 1990, killing eight personnel. Among the dead were Brig. Lucky Wijeratne (22 Brigade Commander deployed in Trincomalee) and his close friend, Superintendent of Police, Richard Wijesekera. The ill-fated vehicle was the third in a convoy of nine vehicles speeding towards Morawewa. In the second vehicle was Colonel Saliya Kulatunga (who passed away in Nov. 2007 after retirement. The Gajaba Regiment veteran retired with the rank of Maj. General). Army headquarters dispatched Brig. Tilak Paranagama to take over the 22 Brigade.

Brig. Wijeratne, promoted to the rank of Maj. General posthumously, had played a pivotal role in the government’s counter terrorism offensive in the Trincomalee District. He had succeeded Brig. Sri Lal Weerasooriya (Later Commander of the Army), shortly after the outbreak of hostilities in June 1990. Wijeratne was with the Sri Lanka Light Infantry, while Weerasooriya, who was in the senior batch served the artillery. Wijeratne and Colonel Kulatunga spearheaded efforts to restore normalcy in Trincomalee. Retired Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya recalled the circumstances under which Brig. Wijeratne and several other officers, including Brig. Janaka Perera, had been sent to Trincomalee to meet the LTTE challenge.

The government directed Rupavahini not announce the deaths of Wijeratne and Wijesekera in an LTTE attack on the day of the incident or the following day. But, adequate coverage was given to a UNP politician paying their last respects to Wijeratne and Wijesekera.