War on terror revisited : Part 129April 23, 2013, 7:47 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
One-time National Security Minister, MP Lalith Athulathmudali and MP Gamini Dissanayake joined forces in a bid to oust their bete noire, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, in early August 1991 as the government was struggling on the war front. Having had discussions with the then SLFP leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the duo, with the consent of the then Speaker M. H. Mohamed, planned to impeach President Premadasa. One of the main reasons for the impeachment was the President’s unilateral decision to arm and finance the LTTE during talks with it (May 1989-June 1990).
The move to impeach President Premadasa was made in the wake of the LTTE gaining the upper hand in the then temporarily merged North-Eastern Province in accordance with the Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA) in July 1987. Due to politico-military miscalculations as well as negligence on the part of the then UNP administration, the LTTE quickly made substantial gains on the ground with the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) struggling to defend the strategic Elephant Pass base. By August 1991, the SLA had lost the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to the Jaffna peninsula, giving the LTTE undisputed control over the Vanni mainland; it had only isolated coastal bases at Silavaturai, Talladi and Mullaitivu. In the absence of overland supply routes, the above mentioned bases had to be regularly supplied by air and sea. In the Jaffna peninsula, security forces’ presence had been restricted to the Palaly-Kanesanthurai sector, in the wake of the SLA giving up the Jaffna Fort in late Sept. 1990.
The unexpected split in the 125 member UNP parliamentary group further weakened President Premadasa’s position. In spite of President Premadasa taking both overt and covert measures to neutralise the threat posed by the rebel faction led by Athulathmudali and Dissanayake, the pair remained confident that the UNP leader could be brought to his knees. Addressing the media at Athulathmudali’s Flower Terrace residence, Colombo 7 on the morning of Sept. 1, 1991, the rebel group declared that it had the unstinted support of 47 members. Athulathmudali said that at the behest of President Premadasa, the Ministerial Security Division (MSD) had recalled bodyguards provided to him on August 30, 1991, though his life was in danger due to him being the one-time National Security Minister. Athulathmudali alleged that key members of the rebel group had come under surveillance by state intelligence services. Two bodyguards were reassigned for his protection following his complaints to the then Defence Secretary, General Cyril Ranatunga and IGP Ernest Perera. They wouldn’t have dared re-deploy police bodyguards without President Premadasa’s consent. Emphasizing that theirs was not in any way against the UNP, the rebels declared that they only wanted to change the ‘model of the ship and its captain’. Dissanayake said: "We are moving quietly, democratically and constitutionally to achieve what we have set out to do, namely the restoration of parliamentary democracy and the creation of an executive directly answerable to parliament" (Lalith Gamini confident 47 UNP Mps with them––The Island Sept 1, 1991).
President Premadasa torpedoed the impeachment motion with the support of the Speaker, who switched his allegiance to him, having realised the rebels couldn’t sustain their campaign. Evens Cooray, who had been President Premadasa’s media spokesman for many years has, in his memoirs, revealed how veteran politician Mohamed decamped at the eleventh hour much to the consternation of Athulathmudali and Dissanayake. According to Cooray, the President had obtained a signed document from Speaker Mohamed which dealt with the impeachment motion and was to be delivered in parliament the morning of Oct. 8, 1991. The document rejected the impeachment petition on the basis that it didn’t have the required number of signatures. Cooray unwittingly exposed sordid operations undertaken by the then UNP leadership to undermine the rebel campaign.
When Athulathmudali was assassinated on the night of April 23, 1993 in Kirulapone, the Premadasa camp was blamed for the crime. Addressing a UNP public rally also at Kirulapone, less than 24 hours before his assassination on May Day 1993, President Premadasa declared that Athulathmudali had been expelled from the party due to a difference of opinion. The killing of Athulathmudali was in fact an attack on democracy, the President said calling upon his rivals to desist from character assassination.
Balasingham on Lalith
The then ASP, Nimal Lewke of the elite Special Task Force (STF), was in charge of a commando squad tasked with protecting LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham, his Australian born wife, Adele and other members of the negotiating team during their stay in Colombo (May 1989- June 1990). Lewke discussed his assignment with the writer (An attempt on Balasingham’s life at Hilton Colombo-The Island Feb 8, 2013).
In a subsequent interview with the writer, retired senior DIG Lewke recalled Balasingham’s animosity towards Athulathmudali because 12 LTTE personnel including self-styled Lieutenant Colonel Kumarappa and Lieutenant Colonel Pulendran had died on Oct. 5, 1987 at the Palaly air base. They swallowed cyanide and committed suicide after being arrested by the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) off the Jaffna peninsula and were in the process of being transferred from Palaly to Colombo for interrogation. The incident occurred within nine weeks of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) arriving in Sri Lanka. Among the dead were Abdullah, Karan, Ragu, Palani Miresh, Thavakumar, Anbalagan, Anandakumar, Reginald and Nalan. (92 installment of revealed the circumstances under which the then Lt. Commander T. J. L. Sinniah and Leading Seaman Premathilake had captured Pulendran and Kumarappa along with over a dozen other cadres about 35 to 40 nautical miles north-east of Point Pedro).
Lewke said an emotional Balasingham had held Athulathmudali responsible for the deaths of senior LTTE personnel, while in the custody of the Sri Lankan military in Palaly. Balasingham had been particularly upset about the death of Prabhakaran’s brother-in-law, Kumarappa, whom he described as a marine engineer working in the US prior to joining the LTTE. Balasingham had been the attesting witness for Kumarappa when he got married to Prabhakaran’s sister about a month before his arrest by the SLN. Retired Commodore Travis Sinniah, now with the US mission in Colombo, recollected how Kumarappa had shown him his wedding ring soon after his arrest, while identifying himself as Prabhakaran’s brother-in-law (Chance detection at sea derails IPKF strategy––The Island Jan 11, 2013). However, according to Lewke, Kumarappawa was related to Prabhakaran through his wife, Madivini.
Lewke said that during his assignment he had had an opportunity to discuss a range of issues with Balasingham, which provided insights into LTTE’s thinking in the run-up to peace talks. Balasingham argued that Athulathmudali’s decision to bring those arrested by the navy to Colombo had caused the collapse of the ILA, with the IPKF launching a major military operation on the night of Oct. 10/11, 1987 to bring Jaffna under its control. Balasingham asserted that the LTTE would never have been compelled to take on the IPKF if not for Athulathmudali’s move. Lewke quoted Balasingham as having said that the LTTE would never forgive and forget Athulathmudali’s responsibility for what had befallen senior LTTE cadres. Balasingham revealed how he had made a desperate bid to get in touch with the then President JRJ, at the behest of Prabhakaran, to thwart Athulathmudali’s plan.
Lalith rejects Lewke’s
Lewke alerted the then STF Commandant, Superintendent of Police Lionel Karunasena to a possible threat to Athulathmudali’s life. SP Karunasena promptly brought it to the notice of the defence higher-ups including former President JRJ’s son, Ravi.
Lewke revealed he had personally alerted Minister Athulathmudali to a possible threat when the latter arrived at Colombo Hilton for a wedding reception. Lewke said: "Balasingham and some of his associates, too, were present at the Colombo Hilton when Minister Athulamudali walked in. Negotiations at the Colombo Hilton were at an early state. Subsequently, the venue was shifted to the Galadari Meridien. I came downstairs and accidentally walked into Minister Athulathmudali. I took the opportunity to brief the minister on Balasingham’s comments, as I felt it was my responsibility. Having listened to me carefully, he dismissed Balasingham, Yogi and the rest of the LTTE representatives as political types. I was quite embarrassed when the minister declared that he had access to LTTE military leaders. He was probably referring to Mahattaya, subsequently executed by the organisation for being an Indian agent."
Although Lewke couldn’t recollect the exact date of his chance meeting with Minister Athulathmudali at Colombo Hilton, the former Commandant of the STF was certain that it had taken place during the first round of talks in May, 1989 (May 4-30, 1989). The first round of talks had been held at Colombo Hilton and the Galadari Meridien, before the second round of talks were moved to the SLA sports club pavilion (June 16 to July 2, 1989).
The then presidential advisor Bradman Weerakoon in 1996 declared that President Premadasa had kept Athulathmudali and Dissanayake out of negotiations as he didn’t trust them. Although they had been deeply involved in the negotiations before the finalisation of the ILA, President Premadasa didn’t want to take a chance, particularly because of the sensitive nature of negotiations as well as handing over of weapons to the LTTE (Negotiating peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons-an International Alert publication edited by Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe).
"An assassination caused instability, political chaos and uncertainty. Minister Athulathmudali’s assassination caused just that. In fact, the assassinations of Minister Athulathmudali and President Ranasinghe Premadasa, a week later, caused irreparable damage to the UNP, Lewke said, adding that the suicide attack on the night of Oct 23, 1994 at Thotalanga, which claimed the life of UNP presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake could be considered the biggest blow experienced by the UNP during the conflict. It changed the destiny of the UNP."
Lewke felt that the LTTE assassinated President Premadasa a week after having eliminated Athulathmudali to cause a political turmoil. Although Athulathmudali had his own political outfit, his assassination coupled with President Premadasa’s had dealt a devastating blow to the UNP, Lewke said.
Investigations revealed that the assassin had fired three shots at Athulathmudali in quick succession. According to Lewke, of the three shots fired from a Browning pistol, the first hit a bottle of water on the table beside Minister Athulathmudali, and the remaining two pierced the minister. Had there been personnel trained in close protection deployed to guard Athulathmudali, his life could have been saved, Lewke said. The police veteran pointed out that as only one of the two shots had been declared fatal, the minister would have had a better chance of surviving if required protection had been available. Unfortunately, those in power never realised the LTTE’s strategy of exploiting a particular political situation/crisis to its advantage.
Lewke emphasised that there couldn’t be any substitute for professionalism. He recalled how an STF Commando Sergeant Kobbekaduwa saved the life of the then SLMP leader Ossie Abeygunasekera when an assassin fired at him from a moving bus during the JVP inspired insurgency. Abeygunasekera was at a public meeting at Kadawatha. Although the gunman claimed the life of one-time JVP top gun Deva Bandara, the commando saved Abeygunasekera’s life at the risk of his own. Lewke revealed that the STF Commandant had declined to promote Kobbekaduwa to the next rank though he saved the life of one of President Premadasa’s closest political allies. SP Karunasena was of the opinion that the Sergeant had just done what was expected of him.