War on terror revisited : Part 118March 17, 2013, 7:32 pm
The Island photographer T.C. Perera captured a smiling State Minister for Defence, Ranjan Wijeratne, announcing the death of JVP leader, Rohana Wijeweera,on the afternoon of November 13, 1989.
by Shamindra Ferdinando
A jubilant State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne announced the arrest of JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera on Nov. 12, 1989 on an estate in Ulapone and his death the following day itself. Wijeweera was 47 years at the time of his demise. The announcement was made at a hastily arranged press conference at the Operational Headquarters of the Defence Ministry on the afternoon of Nov. 13, 1989.
National List MP Wijeratne, who also held the plantations portfolio and functioned as the UNP Chairman, was flanked by the then IGP Ernest Perera, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe, State Minister for Foreign Affairs John Amaratunga, Presidential Security Advisor and Defence Secretary General Cyril Ranatunga and former Defence Secretary General Sepala Attygalle. Except Amaratunga, others on the head table had been deeply involved in President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s peace initiative with the LTTE.
Minister Wijeratne claimed that troops guarding Wijeweera and JVP politburo member H. B. Herath had no option but to open fire in self defence when the latter suddenly pulled out a pistol and fired in the direction of the JVP leader. Minister Wijeratne declared that the incident had taken place at the military and propaganda headquarters of the JVP situated in the suburbs of Colombo in the early hours of Nov. 13, 1989. According to the minister, Wijeweera had been taken there after being flown in on the night of Nov. 12 to Colombo. The writer had the opportunity to cover the media briefing. Asked whether Minister Wijeratne considered the elimination of Wijeweera a victory for the government, the outspoken politician declared, "We got to do a job and we got to complete it."
Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe said that they had videoed Wijeweera on his own appealing to those fighting for the JVP’s cause to surrender to government forces immediately, before being taken to JVP headquarters (Rohana Wijeweera killed and cremated yesterday – The Island Nov 14, 1989).
During Nov. 1989, security forces, the police and government sponsored vigilantes caused heavy losses to the JVP. Among the dead was Udaya Jagath Shantha Deva Helakumara Seneviratne alias Attanayake. Popularly known as Shantha Bandara, the hardcore JVPer was killed several days before the capture of Wijeweera and his deputy Upatissa Gamanayake (In 2 weeks: 25 key JVP men killed or taken—The Island Nov. 26, 1989).
In spite of a debilitating setback, the JVP sustained operations, though by early Feb. 1990 the group was on the verge of collapse. It could no longer conduct operations due to complete breakdown in the command and control structure. The JVP was in total disarray. The government quite rightly asserted that existing security measures could be relaxed as the JVP no longer posed a formidable threat to either the government or the public. The political and military leaders felt that changes could be made to the security apparatus as early as the first week of March 1990. The annihilation of the JVP, ceasefire with the LTTE and India’s assurance that its army would be withdrawn as scheduled strengthened the hands of President Premadasa or at least he thought so.
Operation Combine disbanded
Having taken into consideration the ground situation in Feb. 1990, Minister Wijeratne on March 8, 1990 disbanded the Operation Combine headed by the then army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Cecil Waidyaratne. Gemunu Watch veteran Brig. Lakshman Algama functioned as Waidyaratne’s deputy. Minister Wijeratne announced the decision to disband the outfit, which spearheaded operations against the JVP. Wijeratne formed the unit on Aug. 4, 1989 in accordance with his overall plan to destroy the JVP. The conclusion of operations undertaken by Maj. Gen. Waidyaratne’s outfit meant that thousands of troops deployed in support of the police to quell the insurgency could be re-deployed. Similarly, the Air Force, the Navy as well as the elite Special Task Force (STF) could have re-deployed their personnel. Unfortunately, President Premadasa and his security advisors conveniently turned a blind eye to the urgent need for reappraisal of security forces deployment. No one dared to suggest to the President that isolated bases in the Northern and Eastern Provinces could now be reinforced to meet any eventuality.
Instead of reinforcing detachments, the Defence Ministry abandoned some positions to pave the way for the LTTE to further expand the area under its control. About a week after the disbanding of the Operation Combine, the army abandoned Karadiyanaru and Pullu Mallai.
LTTE representatives praised President Premadasa at the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in March 1990. They commended President Premadasa for bringing peace and restoring normalcy in the northern and eastern districts. The LTTE support undermined the then campaign by Opposition MPs, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Vasudeva Nanayakkara to highlight in Geneva atrocities committed by government forces in their battle against the JVP.
Due to failure on the part of the UNP administration, the army was spread thin on the ground when the LTTE resumed hostilities during the second week of June 1990. The situation at the isolated Mullaitivu detachment was a case in point. According to Colonel (retd) M.B.J. Mahipala, who had been in charge of the Mullaitivu detachment in his capacity as the Coordinating Officer of the district, there had been 63 personnel at the time he took over the base shortly before the resumption of hostilities. In spite of a heavy LTTE build-up, the army top brass had not cared to reinforce Mullaitivu. The Armoured Corps officer said that some of those under his command were volunteers. The then Lt. Colonel Mahipala had been transferred from Badulla to Mullaituvu at short notice due to his predecessor Lt. Colonel Shantha Dharmaratne of the Gemunu Watch deserting the post with the outbreak of hostilities in June 1990. In hindsight, some would have considered Dharmaratne’s decision sensible due to the ground situation at that time. Who would have volunteered to command a camp vulnerable to a devastating assault when the government of the day and the army top brass totally ignored the enemy threat and did not care to assign sufficient troops for the Mullaitivu base?
Having heard evidence, a four-member military tribunal headed by the then Brig. Siri Peiris sentenced the Lt. Colonel for six months rigorous imprisonment. The tribunal ordered the termination of his commission and dismissal from the army without pension. He was the first senior officer sentenced to serve a term in prison for failing to carry out orders (Lt. Colonel sentenced to six months RI-The Island March 13, 1991).
At the onset of the conflict, the army deployment at Kilinochchi comprised 93 personnel, whereas Mankulam and Kokavil detachments, situated south of Kilinochchi along the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road, too, were not given sufficient troops. There had been 60 soldiers at Kokavil at the time the LTTE overran it in July 1990. Although Mankulam base comprised about 200 personnel, it, too, couldn’t be held. Of them about 60 perished during the siege and the withdrawal during late Nov. 1990. In fact, the government had planned to withdraw troops from Kilinochchi even before the outbreak of hostilities during the second week of June 1990. Perhaps the vacation of Kilinochchi, too, had been in accordance with the secret understanding between President Premadasa and the LTTE. Although the army had managed to repulse a series of attacks on Kilinochchi during the last two weeks of June 1990, the government vacated the base, though ground forces managed to break the siege on the strategic town in late June 1990.
During the latter part of 1989, President Premadasa ordered the army to give up Point Pedro and Valvettiturai to facilitate the peace process.
Total strength at the Jaffna Fort was 60 personnel.
In the entire eastern province, the army deployment comprised three under strength infantry battalions plus an additional contingent of about 120 personnel deployed in the Batticaloa District at the onset of eelam war II.
The conclusion of counter insurgency operations in the South in Feb/March 1990 gave the army some flexibility to strengthen isolated detachments in the northern and eastern districts. In hindsight, President Premadasa’s irresponsible attitude towards national security and the failure on the part of the military top brass to take tangible measures against the LTTE build-up may have encouraged Prabhakaran to envisage a swift and decisive battlefield victory. Those who had been near and dear to President Premadasa had conveniently blamed the UNP leader for giving a free hand to the LTTE.
One-time Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. A. M.U. Seneviratne asserted that security forces had had to pay an extremely heavy price for their failure to be prepared to face any eventuality. Obviously, the thinking of those in charge of security forces had been influenced by President Premadasa’s handling of the so-called peace process. When State Defence Minister directed the then Brigadier Seneviratne in June 1990 to lead troops on one flank to save troops under siege at Kiran and Kallady, he was in command of three Brigades deployed in the districts of Galle, Matara and Hambantota. Seneviratne was Security Forces Commander South when he was given the daunting task of launching a rescue mission.
Minister Wijeratne’s intervention
Minister Wijeratne constantly interfered with the deployment of troops much to the discomfort of those who were averse to political interference. Minister Wijeratne ordered the the First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (1GW) to move from Moneragala to Ampara as he felt the formation had failed in anti-insurgency operations directed against the JVP. Minister Wijeratne was of the notion that the IGW was useless because it didn’t carry out political directives. Fortunately, army headquarters shifted 1GW from Ampara to neighbouring Batticaloa District a few weeks before the outbreak of eelam war II. But I GW fared extremely well under the able leadership of the then Lt. Colonel Hiran N. Halangode during the June 1990 battles for supremacy in Batticaloa. Although 1GW troops abandoned Wellawadi, they held both Kiran and Kalawanchikudy until reinforcements reached them. Had the government deployed adequate troops in the northern and eastern districts, the army wouldn’t have found itself in an extremely difficult situation at the beginning of eelam war II.
President Premadasa as well as his advisors never acknowledged shortcomings in their strategy. He felt that a fresh agreement could be worked out with the LTTE, though Minister Wijeratne strongly opposed such a notion.
The LTTE assassinated Minister Wijeratne on the morning of March 2, 1991 on his way to the Defence Ministry. ‘War on terror revisited’ series dealt with Wijeratne’s assassination and his successor Dingiri Banda Wijetunga offering a fresh opportunity for the LTTE to return to the negotiating table. The shocking move was made just five days after Minister Wijeratne’s assassination. The LTTE ignored the offer. The LTTE was in an extremely strong position and realized it could make further headway on the battlefront.
SLN, SLAF to the rescue
The LTTE struck in Silavaturai killing four soldiers and wounding eight immediately after Wijetunga in his capacity as State Minister for Defence had toured the Mannar and Vavuniya regions on March 16, 1991. The victims were members of the Sixth Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (6 GR) returning to their base at Silavathurai on the northwestern coast. The same battalion lost 50 personnel, including two officers during confrontations at the nearby Kondachchi village. On the night of March 19, the LTTE launched simultaneous attacks on army detachments at Silavaturai and Kokkupadayan manned by the 6 GR. The battalion suffered heavy losses and had to be reinforced by the Gemunu Watch, Sri Lanka Light Infantry and Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment. The LTTE was confident of seizing both bases. International wire services quoted Paris based LTTE leader Lawrence Thilagar as having said that the LTTE had captured Kokkupadayan detachment and Silavaturai was about to fall. However, the army managed to save the detachments after four days of fierce confrontation. The Argentine built light aircraft launched from the Anuradhapura air base played a vital role in the defence of isolated Kokkupadayan and Silavaturai bases. Having suffered over 200 dead and many wounded, the LTTE called off the offensive, leaving behind about 125 bodies scattered on the battlefield.
The army could never have held Kokkupadayan and Silavaturai without the support of the navy and the air force. Despite severe constrains, the navy and air force provided the naval gunfire support and air support respectively, evacuated the wounded, inducted fresh troops, arms, ammunition and military equipment. The army felt somehow comfortable having bases on the coast as the navy could have intervened to induct reinforcements or evacuate troops. Those who vacated Wellawadi and Kalmunai couldn’t have been evacuated if the navy failed in daring rescue missions.