Monday, 3 June 2013

Black July 1983: A new perspective

*War on terror revisited : Part 141

An Israeli built Dvora Fast Attack Craft (FAC)-an early type acquired during the conflict. Sri Lanka acquired the first pair of 47 ton Dvora-class FAC from Israel in early 1984 and another four were purchased in 1986. An upgraded version - the 54 ton Super Dvora Mk I - was ordered from Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) in October 1986 and delivered from 1987-88, with a further four Super Dvora Mk II-class FAC delivered in 1995-96.Israel wouldn’t have thrown its weight behind Sri Lanka without the blessings from the then US administration.

by Shamindra Ferdinando

Had a routine mobile patrol from the Madagal army camp on the night of July 23, 1983 proved successful in repulsing an LTTE attack, the then low intensity Eelam conflict wouldn’t have taken a catastrophic turn. Unfortunately all 15 men of the First battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (1 SLLI) walked in to an ambush at Tinnaveli, Jaffna. Patrol commander Second Lieutenant Vass Gunawardardene and 12 men died within few minutes of the fierce attack in which the terrorists used guns and grenades.

The patrol consisted of an ordinary Jeep and a Tata Benz half truck. At that time, the military top brass hadn’t even thought of acquiring Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs). The patrol commander carried a Sub Machine Gun (SMG) and others were armed with self-loading rifles. Except the drivers of the vehicles, others carried a grenade each. Although the LTTE had triggered four landmines targeting the jeep, all men including those in the half truck died in gun and grenade attacks.

The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) hadn’t experienced such an attack before.

The I SLLI deployed in the Jaffna peninsula at that time went on the rampage. The then Army chief, Lieutenant General T. I. Weeratunga (‘Bull’ Weeratunga) ordered the I SLLI out of the Jaffna peninsula and replaced the then Lieutenant Colonel Upali Dharmaratne, Commanding Officer of the 1 SLLI, with the newly promoted Lieutenant Colonel A. M. U. Seneviratne, who was then second-in-command at the Combat Training School (CTS) at Kondavattuwan, Ampara. The then Colonel, Gerry H. De Silva was the Commandant. (Seneviratne retired during the tenure of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga over a dispute with the then de facto Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte over battlefield strategy after having served the SLA as Chief of Staff with the rank of Major General).

The ill-fated patrol was called Four Four Bravo. The then Security Forces Commander, Brigadier Lyle Balthazar directed Four Four Bravo, of the C Company of the 1 SLLI to be back at Madagal by midnight July 23, 1983. The patrol was to cover Gurunagar, Jaffna, Naga Vihara, Nallur, Kopay, Urumpirai, Kondavil, Kokuvil, Jaffna and Madagal.

Gurunagar had been the main base in the peninsula at that time. Brig. Balthazar, who had succeeded Weeratunga as Security Forces Commander in the wake of the former being appointed Commander of the Army on Oct 14, 1981, was based at Gurunagar, the nerve centre of security forces operations in the peninsula. Incidentally, terrorists claimed the life of the first soldier on the day Weeratunga took over command from Lieutenant General Dennis Perera.

Brig. Balthazar’s plan was to launch a special patrol Four Four Charlie immediately after Four Four Bravo returned to Madagal. Four Four Charlie was to leave Gurunagar at midnight on July 23, 1983 to take a high profile LTTE target identified as Sellakili/Chellakili in the Kondavil area. The person, the Four Four Charlie had been tasked to eliminate, sprang the Tinnaveli ambush on a directive from LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran himself. A dejected Balthazar had to send Four Four Charlie to look for survivors of Four Four Bravo after having alerted detachments at Palaly, Madagal, Thondamanar and Velvettiturai.

India, LTTE escalate conflict

The LTTE and a section of the media, both here and abroad, propagated that Prabhakaran had ordered the attack on the night of July 23, 1983 to avenge the death of his close associate Charles Lucas Anthony alias Seelan. Shot and wounded by troops during a confrontation at Meesalai in the Chavakachcheri area on the evening of July 15, 1983, Charles Anthony had tried to escape with the help of another senior cadre. The operation had been conducted by troops from Gurunagar, where Brig. Balthazar was based. Charles Anthony, unable to move quickly due to injuries suffered during the confrontation, ordered the person accompanying him to put a bullet through his head. Although Seelan, who hailed from Trincomalee, was one of Prabhakaran’s closet friends, he couldn’t have developed tactics to wipe out an army patrol within a week after having lost Seelan. Unfortunately, successive governments and the military brass at that time never bothered to examine the sudden intensification of LTTE operations. They, too, attributed the Tinnaveli attack to the LTTE taking revenge in the wake of Seelan’s death.

It would never have been possible for the LTTE to mount that particular attack without having specific training. Obviously, the much touted argument that India was left with no alternative but to intervene after the massacre of Tamil civilians in the aftermath of the Tinnaveli ambush is not tenable. Although there had been a spate of skirmishes between the SLA and Tamil groups in the peninsula before the Tinnaveli ambush since the killing of a soldier on Oct 14th, 1981 on Stanley Road, never had there been a well coordinated ambush. Interestingly, Seelan was credited with the Stanley road killing.

Even four years after the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009, the government is yet to examine the launch of terrorism in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) headed by former Attorney General C. R. de Silva never inquired into this aspect as his commission was not mandated to do so. One-time LTTE procurer of armaments for the LTTE, Kumaran Pathmanathan alias ‘KP’, now in protective custody of the government should be able to shed light on the military training project. If it could be proved that a clandestine Indian intervention in Sri Lanka had been there in the run-up to the Tinnaveli ambush, the lie could be given to the much publicsied claim that New Delhi stepped in because of the Black July massacre.

Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna Amman, now a minister in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government, too, had received military training in India. Karuna had been among the third batch of LTTE recruits.

Dixit on US, Pakistan and Israel

One-time Indian High Commissioner in Colombo J. N. Dixit, in Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun to Yashwant Sinha, has asserted that Indian involvement in Sri Lanka was unavoidable, not only due to Sri Lanka’s oppressive and discriminating policies against the Tamils, but also because the then President JRJ administration’s emerging relationship with the US, Pakistan and Israel. Dixit, who subsequently functioned as India’s Foreign Secretary, alleged that President JRJ had established substantive defence and intelligence contacts with the US, Pakistan and Israel, much to the consternation of the then Premier Indira Gandhi. Dixit has alleged that the US and Pakistan exploited President JRJ’s hostility towards Prime Minister Gandhi to create what the veteran diplomat calls a ‘politico-strategic pressure point’ targeting India. Dixit emphasized that India’s motives as well as actions vis-à-vis Sri Lanka should be looked at in the larger perspective of the global and regional strategic environment during the 1980-1984 period. Dixit has also blamed China for its continuing anti-India stratagem.

Interestingly, Dixit opined that Prime Minister Gandhi could be faulted for two foreign policy decisions, namely backing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Tamil armed groups. Dixit said: "Whatever the criticism about these decisions, it cannot be denied that she took them on the basis of her assessment about India’s national interests. Her logic was that she couldn’t alienate the former Soviet Union, when India was so dependent on that country for defence and technology. Similarly, she couldn’t afford the emergence of Tamil separatism in India by refusing to support the aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils. These aspirations were legitimate in the context of nearly 50 years of Sinhalese discrimination against Sri Lankan Tamils."

Arms deals galore

President JRJ had no choice but to seek arms, ammunition and equipment from various countries to meet the emerging military challenge posed by Indian trained Tamil terrorist groups. The LTTE had been one of a half a dozen groups trained, armed and deployed in the 1980s before the launch of Operation Liberation in late May 1987 to destabilise Sri Lanka. In 1989, India formed the Tamil National Army (TNA) to prop up the then North-Eastern Provincial administration of Indian stooge Varatharaja Perumal. Although the US hadn’t provided any armaments to Sri Lanka, two of its closest allies, Israel and Pakistan as well as China, which strongly opposed the Indian-backed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, made a range of weapons available. Pakistan, China and Israel also provided military training. Sri Lanka also obtained some of her requirements from Italy, and South Africa at the onset of major hostilities. The US also turned a blind eye to Sri Lanka hiring mercenaries, particularly from the Channel Island based Keenie Meenie Security Limited (KMS). Mercenaries performed a range of tasks, including flying helicopters of US origin due to a severe dearth of pilots at the onset of the conflict. Israel also helped build the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) to the present level. Sri Lanka took delivery of a pair of Fast Attack Craft (FAC) from Israel in 1984. With the gradual build-up of the FAC fleet over the years, the SLN turned FAC squadrons into its main strike force. In spite of objections raised by India and overseas LTTE activists to the sale of armaments to President JRJ’s government, Sri Lanka somehow met the requirements of the armed forces. Unfortunately, there were instances where the JRJ administration turned a blind eye to offers made by reputed arms dealers. A case in point was Sri Lanka ignoring a Brazilian offer to sell Tucano ground attack aircraft in 1985. Asia Week in its May 17, 1987 edition quoted Lawrence Th Sim Zecha, Director of the international marketing division of Brazil’s Bandeirante Holdings Limited as having said: "We were selling Tucano at $ 1.3 mn with a credit package of 20 per cent down an eight-year installment basis at only seven per cent. These were the best terms being offered for any aircraft of its class. Yet, the government was not even interested in looking at our specifications."

The Brazilians made their unsuccessful offer through Colombo agencies. Recent inquiries made by the writer revealed that the Tucano deal had been thwarted by a senior aide to a VVIP for obvious reasons. His family had been the local agent for another company promoting a different aircraft. A senior military officer was privy to the offer made by Brazil explained the circumstances under which the Tucano had been rejected. The official told the writer: "We really felt bad. At a time when many countries were turning down our requests for weapons, Brazil offered a good product at reasonable terms and those at the helm at the political level missed a good opportunity. We were told in no uncertain terms to accept what was offered or just forget about it."