Thursday, 6 June 2013

Thimpu Fiasco

* War on terror revisited : Part 143


by Shamindra Ferdinando

New Delhi airport June 3, 1985: President JRJ leaving India after three days of consultations. JRJ is flanked by Premier Rajiv Gandhi and President Zail Singh
Less than 24 hours after President JRJ’s brother left for New Delhi to work out modalities for a ceasefire, troops raided an LTTE hideout in the Mannar district, where they killed at least 18 terrorists and recovered a large quantity of arms and ammunition. Having visited troops involved in the operation, the then National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali declared that those killed had been involved in the May 14, 1985 raid on Anuradhapura. Minister Athulathmudali said that the killers of innocent Buddhist pilgrims had been punished.

Having rejected the then President J. R. Jayewardene’s request for joint naval patrols to stop gun running across the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi invited the Sri Lankan leader for talks in New Delhi in early June 1985.

The then Indian External Affairs Ministry Secretary, Romesh Bhandari played a key role in arranging the visit in the wake of External Affairs Minister Khursheed Alam Khan rejecting President JRJ’s appeal. Under heavy pressure from Tamil Nadu, Minister Khan told the Lok Sabha on April 29, 1985 that Sri Lanka’s proposal was not acceptable.

The appeal was made by the then National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali on behalf of President JRJ during a visit to New Delhi.

President JRJ waves at Indian leaders. National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, wife, Srimani and first lady Elena

Although an influential section of the government and the military top brass felt that India was bent on destabilising Sri Lanka, President JRJ had no option but to go ahead with his first visit to New Delhi since Rajiv Gandhi assumed power following his mother’s killing.

Minister Athulathmudali and his wife Srimani accompanied President JRJ and First Lady Elena Jayawardena.

LTTE storms A’pura

Although JRJ and Rajiv agreed to take meaningful measures to end violence, including a halt to illegitimate boat movements between northern Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, the Palk Straits remained the main supply route for terrorists fighting in the Jaffna peninsula. In spite of Gandhi’s assurances, the destabilisation project continued with terrorists stepping up attacks. In the run-up to JRJ’s June visit, the LTTE massacred nearly 150 men, women and children at Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura on May 14, 1985.

June 2, 1985 New Delhi: President JRJ with Indian Presdent Zail Singh

The unprecedented raid on Anuradhapura followed massacres of over 60 Sinhalese at Dollar and Kent farms in the Weli Oya region on Nov. 30, 1984. The Anuradhapura massacre was meant to provoke a backlash. The LTTE and its New Delhi-based masters believed a fresh wave of attacks on Tamil civilians could embarrass Sri Lanka ahead of efforts to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table.

The LTTE however, alleged that the Anuradhapura raid had been prompted by the army massacring civilians at Prabhakaran’s birthplace Valvettiturai on May 12, 1985. The army was accused of killing 70 civilians after having rounded them up and forced into them enter a library in that township.

Obviously, an influential section within the Indian government acted against the position taken by Premier Gandhi. Those opposed to a change in India’s policy towards the JRJ government worked overtime to undermine the peace efforts. The Tamil Nadu factor greatly influenced the Central Government which needed TN backing for its political survival. On the other hand, those who had been spearheading the destabilisation project in Sri Lanka didn’t want to ditch Tamil groups fighting in Jaffna on India’s behalf.

The RAW had direct dealings with the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) as well as terrorist groups. Gradually, the TULF lost its appeal as relations between RAW and terrorist groups rapidly grew, much to the discomfort of those trying to bring about an amicable settlement.

Having met Premier Gandhi on June 2 and 3, 1985, President JRJ didn’t mince his words when he told The Far Eastern Economic Review that he expected India to stop sponsoring terrorism. President JRJ declared that he would expect his ministers to support the latest peace initiative or face the consequences. JRJ emphasized that he wouldn’t hesitate to dismiss any minister opposed to the New Delhi initiative. The Far Eastern Economic Review quoted President JRJ as having said: "We told them (Indian PM and officials) that statements from terrorists made in India are meant to destabilise Sri Lanka. We even showed them films of terrorist training camps in Tamil Nadu. They said that they will look into it."

JRJ assured that his forces would comply with the peace initiative. At the conclusion of talks on June 3, President JRJ flew to Bangladesh with Premier Gandhi to visit an area devastated by a cyclone before returning to the country on the same day.

In a joint communiqué issued in New Delhi, the two leaders agreed that all forms of violence should stop and immediate steps should be taken to defuse the situation and create a climate for progress towards a political solution.

Addressing the UNP parliamentary group the following day, a confident President quoted President Zail Singh and Premier Gandhi as having told him that they wouldn’t support terrorist acts conducted against Sri Lanka from Indian territory. He was mistaken!

Enter JRJ’s brother

Due to the sensitive nature of high level consultations between India and Sri Lanka in the run-up to President JRJ’s visit to New Delhi, the beleaguered UNP leader feared to entrust senior ministers or officials with the responsibility of speaking on his behalf.

Although Minister Athulathmudali had made representations to Premier Gandhi in New Delhi a few months ago, he was not chosen for the new assignment.

Instead, President JRJ placed his brother, H. W. Jayewardena, QC in charge of the government delegation for the first formal tripartite negotiations involving India, Sri Lanka and representatives of Tamil speaking people of Sri Lankan origin living in Sri Lanka and overseas. The capital of Bhutan, Thimpu was agreed upon as a neutral venue for talks scheduled to begin in early July 1985. Thimpu was India’s choice. Although Sri Lanka resented having being compelled to meet the TULF and terrorists away from the country, the government had no option but to go along with the Indian plan.

Prior to the Thimpu talks, QC Jayewardene visited New Delhi, where he had talks with Prime Minister Gandhi and Indian Attorney General K. Parasaran. The President’s younger brother was accompanied by Legal Draftsman Nalin Abeysekera.

A foolish move

In view of the Thimpu talks, the government suspended military operations in the northern and eastern districts. The suspension of operations came into effect during the then Colonel Gerry De Silva’s tenure as the Northern Commander from May to November 1985. At India’s behest, the government suspended operations on June 18, 1985 to facilitate the Thimpu talks scheduled to begin in early July, 1985. The ceasefire imposed severe restrictions on the police and the military, whereas Tamil groups could operate freely. Terrorists stepped up their presence in the peninsula in the wake of the first formal ceasefire. India turned a blind eye to a rapid terrorist build-up in the Jaffna peninsula. India failed to realise that the LTTE build-up threatened not only Sri Lankan forces but also members of other groups sponsored by India. The LTTE was allowed to exploit the situation to the hilt. Under the very nose of Indian authorities, the LTTE transferred both men and material from Tamil Nadu to the Jaffna peninsula. The LTTE built up fortifications close to isolated military bases and mined roads. Before the LTTE resumed hostilities, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran wanted to eliminate rival groups. He resented rival Tamil groups having direct links with Indian Intelligence. The stage was set for the massacre of Tamil youth in the Jaffna peninsula.

Addressing the media at ‘Rakshana Mandiraya’ in Colombo, Minister Athulathmudali declared that major terrorist groups including the LTTE, had agreed to abide by the Indian initiated peace effort. In spite of serious misgivings, Minister Athulathmudali claimed that a ceasefire would come into operation with immediate effect (Five big terrorist groups for cession of violence––Lalith - The Island June 19, 1985).

On June 26, 1985, nine days after the declaration of ceasefire, terrorists shot dead T. Anandarajah, the much respected principal of St. John’s College, Jaffna, outside his school. Anandarajah was accused of having organised cricket matches between his students and the army.

One-time Joint Operations Commander, General Cyril Ranatunga has explained the LTTE operation in the wake of the June ceasefire in a piece titled Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: the Role of the Military (Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons-an International Alert publication edited by Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe in February 1998).

The ceasefire was intended to confine troops, especially those deployed in the Jaffna peninsula, to their barracks, instead of taking tangible measures to cease violence ahead of the Thimpu talks. Terrorists mounted a series of attacks during this period. The police went on the rampage in Vavuniya during the second week of August 1985, after a roadside bomb blast claimed the lives of five personnel. The police were accused of killing nine civilians.

Much to the embarrassment of India, Tamil groups declared that the Thimpu talks wouldn’t meet their aspirations. They ordered protests in Jaffna and Vavuniya ahead of the first round of talks. In fact, they participated in the talks due to Indian pressure, though India portrayed the Thimpu confab as a success. Although the TULF participated in the deliberations, it couldn’t say anything contrary to the position taken by the armed Tamil groups.

Thimpu talks collapse

The terrorists declared that the continuation of the negotiating process would entirely depend on President JRJ accepting four prerequisites which they called invariable terms for any meaningful solution. They demanded the recognition of the four demands before the Thimpu talks could proceed. Declaring the four conditions as basic non-negotiable principles, they called for:

(A) the recognition of Tamils of Sri Lankan origin as a distinct nation with the inalienable right to self determination;

(B) the recognition of Northern and Eastern Provinces as a Tamil homeland;

(C) recognition of the right of self determination of the Tamil nation and lastly

(D), the granting of citizenship to all Tamil residents in Sri Lanka. The TULF, too, supported the demands put forwarded by the armed groups.

It was widely believed that India had been fully aware of the four demands. The set of conditions was meant to ensure a quick collapse of the Thimpu talks.

President JRJ declined to the give in to Indian initiative hence two rounds of talks in July and August failed to break the deadlock.

The terrorists wouldn’t have scuttled the Thimpu initiative unless they had been convinced that India would continue to sponsor them whatever the outcome at the negotiating table. Even during the abortive Thimpu deliberations, terrorists continued to receive military training in India. The TELO, the LTTE, the PLOTE, the EPRLF and TULF took part in the Thimpu deliberations.

Convinced of their growing military capability, thanks to India, the terrorists felt that they could overwhelm government forces in the Jaffna peninsula. Having torpedoed the Thimpu talks, TULF representatives as well as those members of various terrorist groups returned to India. Those Indians running the Sri Lankan project believed they could still control the growing terrorist movement. Although the TULF remained faithful to its Indian handlers, the Gandhi administration increasingly found it difficult to control the LTTE. At the conclusion of the Thimpu talks, the LTTE declared in no uncertain terms that it should have special status in recognition of its military capability. Prabhakaran was moving towards calling his outfit as the sole representative of Tamil speaking people. Although other Tamil groups sensed a hardening of the LTTE’s position, they never expected a project to annihilate them.