Saturday, 11 May 2013

An LTTE-CWC move to ensnare President Premadasa

*War on terror revisited : Part 130


CWC leader S. Thondaman in conversation with the then Indian High Commissioner Shiv Shanker Menon at the fifth Gamini Dissanayale memorial oration in Oct. 1999 at the Galle Face Hotel. Dissnayake was assassinated on the night of Oct 23, 1994 in the run-up to the presidential election.

by Shamindra Ferdinando

Close on the heels of a debilitating split in the UNP caused by a campaign by party heavyweights, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake to oust Ranasinghe Premadasa’s in August 1991, the LTTE made an unexpected move in Jaffna.

Having closely studied the ground situation in Sri Lanka and India, the LTTE called a press conference on the morning of August 22, 1991, at Kondavil, Jaffna to declare its readiness to return to the negotiating table. Former British High Commission employee, Anton Balasingham, met a select group of local and international journalists to make the announcement, amidst sporadic clashes in the Jaffna peninsula and other parts of the then temporarily merged North-East Province.

It was a calculated move to exploit the political crisis caused by the UNP’s internal tussle. The LTTE was making the peace offer since the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at Sriperumbudur near Chennai on the evening of May 21, 1991. The blast also claimed the lives of 14 other persons. In accordance with its overall strategy, the LTTE had the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) leader S. Thondaman to support its latest initiative. The LTTE wouldn’t have made the August 22 announcement without having first consulted Minister Thondaman.

In spite of being a constituent of successive UNP administrations, the CWC had no option but to appease the LTTE or face the consequences. The LTTE insisted that the CWC abide by its diktats. Thondaman held the tourism and rural development portfolio in the Premadasa administration.

Addressing the media at LTTE headquarters in Kondavil, Balasingham declared that the LTTE was ready to meet Minister Thondaman in Jaffna. Among those invited to cover the media briefing were representatives of Voice of America (VOA), and other international news agencies.

Thondaman responds to Balasingham

In the wake of the Balasingham’s announcement, Minister Thondaman revealed that he had sent a representative to Jaffna to meet the LTTE leadership before the Kondavil media briefing. The veteran politician stressed the urgent need to reach an understanding with the LTTE as Tamil speaking people living not only in the Northern and Eastern districts but those in the upcountry region were experiencing untold hardships due to security operations. Minister Thondaman insisted that he was ready to do whatever possible to end the suffering of the Tamil speaking people. He expressed confidence that a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), could pave the way for a lasting solution to the national issue. Addressing the regular weekly Cabinet briefing, the then Cabinet spokesman, Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that now the ball was in the LTTE’s court (Thondaman ready to be negotiator––The Island Aug.1991).

Some of those who had opposed the impeachment move felt that it would be advantageous to President Premadasa to accept the LTTE offer. They believed a fresh round of negotiations with the LTTE could give time and space to the administration to overcome the unprecedented political challenge. However, others felt that the LTTE’s offer shouldn’t be accepted before neutralising the impeachment threat. They asserted that it would be a grave mistake on the part of the government to suspend military operations after having suffered a series of heavy battlefield defeats. The armed forces top brass, too, felt that fresh negotiations could be a ruse. They pointed out that a fresh round of talks could jeopardise the government’s relationship with the TELO, the PLOTE and the EPDP supporting the armed forces campaign against the LTTE. They said that it wouldn’t be reasonable to abandon those who had been fighting alongside the armed forces to appease the LTTE. The LTTE reiterated that it should be recognised as the sole representative of Tamil speaking people and therefore the government should severe its links with the TELO, the PLOTE and the EPDP (Political crisis first then LTTE ‘feelers’-The Island Sept.1991).


Soon after the LTTE resumed hostilities during the second week of June 1990, the government reached an understanding with rival Tamil groups. At the behest of the then State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne, the armed forces equipped and deployed them for operations in the Northern and Eastern districts as well as in Colombo and its suburbs. The intelligence services strongly opposed any move to reach an understanding with the LTTE at the expense of their agreement with rival Tamil groups. They alleged the LTTE was trying to take the government for another ride with the support of a constituent party. Although security authorities knew the CWC was dealing directly with the LTTE leadership and pursuing an agenda inimical to the state, they couldn’t do anything. Successive UNP leaderships felt that they couldn’t jeopardise the electoral arrangement with the CWC regardless of security concerns. The CWC leader wielded immense power due to his contacts with the LTTE as well as the Indian political leadership. The LTTE, too, used the CWC to make representations to the Indian leadership, particularly in the wake of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. India took tangible measures against the LTTE, particularly those representing the group abroad. India made representations to the UK against the continuing LTTE presence there. Following Indian representations, the UK Home Office directed Sathasivam Krishnakumar alias Kittu, the former LTTE commander in Jaffna, to leave the country. India took up the position that the LTTE’s presence in the UK couldn’t be tolerated due to its involvement in cross border terrorism. India categorised the Gandhi assassination as an act of cross border terrorism, ironically having recruited, trained, armed and deployed several thousands of terrorists against its southern neighbour. At that time, Kittu had been attached to the LTTE London Secretariat which played a role similar to that of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) in the post-war era. The UK also restricted the activities of the London Secretariat, following India’s intervention (Kittu slips out of Britain: arrives in Paris––The Island August 29, 1991).

In fact, President Premadasa facilitated Kittu’s departure for the UK at an early stage of his honeymoon with Prabhakaran (May 1989 to June 1990) to receive medical treatment. President Premadasa went to the extent of making way for Kittu to use a Sri Lankan High Commission vehicle! He was obsessed with the safety of LTTE leaders. When Prabhakaran requested the President through Balasingham to help facilitate Kittu’s journey to London, the President ordered the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) to airlift the terrorist. Landing choppers in areas dominated by the LTTE had been a risky task due to the presence of Indian forces. In spite of the danger, the SLAF had no option but to land in the Vanni east to pick up Kittu and transfer him to the Bandaranaike International Airport. Immediately after Kittu’s arrival, he received a passport, courtesy President Premadasa. As the LTTE had an excellent relationship with the British High Commission in Colombo through UK passport holder Balasingham, obtaining a visa for Kittu hadn’t been an issue. Balasingham’s second marriage to Australian born Adele made things easier for the LTTE. The possibility of Adele being an agent for Western Intelligence could never be ruled out. As the wife of Balasingham, Adele had access to LTTE negotiations with various governments, including India and Norway, hence she was in a position to keep Western Intelligence agencies informed of LTTE plans.

Cooray leads counter attack

In an obvious bid to confuse the electorate, the Premadasa camp launched a massive poster campaign targeting the UNP rebel group. The then powerful General Secretary of the UNP, Bulathsinhalage Sirisena Cooray, played a pivotal role in the campaign in defence of President Premadasa. Minister Cooray took over the position within hours after the LTTE assassinated the then State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne on the morning of March 2, 1991. While Minister Thondaman made contact with the LTTE in a bid to pave the way for a fresh round of talks, the Premadasa’s camp put up posters in Colombo and its suburbs alleging the rebel project was nothing but an LTTE conspiracy. The Lalith-Gamini move was portrayed as an LTTE strategy, though people didn’t take such allegations seriously.

Minister Thondaman, in an exclusive interview with the writer in his office in Colombo, discussed his efforts to bring the LTTE back to the negotiating table and also to win India’s support for a fresh peace bid. Thondaman revealed making an offer to the LTTE through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), before leaving for New Delhi, where he had an opportunity to consult Indian leaders, including the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. Thondaman’s visit took place during the second and third weeks of September 1991. During talks with PM Rao, Minister Thondaman, on behalf of the LTTE, took up the entire gamut of issues, including the assassination of Gandhi. Thondaman acknowledged that since the Gandhi assassination, India had stepped up pressure on Sri Lanka’s community and taken tough measures to streamline the movement of refugees. Asked whether he had made representations in New Delhi on behalf of President Premadasa, Minister Thondaman stressed he had undertaken the mission to New Delhi as the CWC leader. (Thondaman offers fresh peace package to Prabhakaran––The Island Aug.1991).

During the LTTE-CWC initiative, a group of Indian investigators were in Colombo to probe the LTTE’s involvement in the Gandhi assassination. The visiting investigators were told that the LTTE had carried out the assassination. Having realised that it couldn’t distance itself from the high profile killing, the LTTE launched a campaign to justify the heinous deed on the basis of atrocities committed by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) against the Tamil community, particularly women. The IPKF was accused of mass scale rape.