Sunday, 22 September 2013

First NE polls:Indian army engineers EPRLF victory



Good times in Jaffna before the LTTE declared war on the IPKP in early Oct 1987: (From L-R): Vaithilingam Sornalingam alias Shankar spearheaded the project to establish the ‘Air Tigers’ (subsequently promoted to the rank of ‘Colonel’ by Prabhakaran, he was killed by the SLA at an early stage of eelam war IV), Thillaiyampalam Sivanesan alias ‘Colonel’ Soosai commanded the ‘Sea Tigers’. He was killed during the final phase of eelam war IV), Velupillai Prabhakaran and ‘Colonel’ Swarnam, veteran fighter (killed during the final phase of the conflict) and an unidentified senior IPKF officer. The SLA identified the person standing behind the IPKF officer as Gadafi, one-time bodyguard of Prabhakaran (this picture was among hundreds of pictures found by the army during the Vanni battles).

By Shamindra Ferdinando

In the wake of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) securing the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) at Saturday’s first ever Northern PC polls, it would be pertinent to examine the circumstances under which the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) took control of the North-East Provincial Council (NEPC) at an election conducted by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF).

Since the liberation of the Eastern Province in mid 2007, the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) was elected twice (2008 and 2012), though the NPC poll was delayed until the government achieved substantial progress in the post-war recovery project.

The military brought the war to an end on the morning of May 19, 2009, when troops shot dead LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon.

In June 1987, the then Indian government forced Sri Lanka to call off the largest ever combined security forces offensive codenamed ‘Operation Liberation’ aimed at regaining Jaffna to pave the way for the Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA) on July 29, 1987. The offensive was launched after the collapse of the Thimpu initiative in August 1985. The Indian bid failed primarily due to the LTTE’s inflexible attitude, leaving President JRJ with no other option than an all out offensive directed against the LTTE.

The ILA was meant to confine the Sri Lankan military to barracks and devolve powers to the provinces after having merged the Eastern Province with the Northern Province as one administrative unit. There was also provision for a referendum to be held by December 31, 1988 in the Eastern Province comprising Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara districts to decide whether the merger should be permanent. But the then Sri Lankan President JRJ had the power in accordance with the ILA to postpone the referendum at his discretion.

In spite of strong objections by the then main Opposition, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by former Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, President JRJ on November 14, 1987 ensured the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution as well as the Provincial Councils Act No 42 to create the PCs. The President’s move caused instability, with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) stepping up second uprising. A section of the UNP too, opposed President JRJ though he issued proclamations on September 2 and 8, 1988 enabling the Northern and Eastern provinces to be one administrative unit administered by one elected council.

President JRJ insisted that the merger was meant to be a temporary measure and those living in the Eastern Province had the power to exercise their franchise at a referendum on or before Dec 31, 1988 to decide whether it should be a permanent merger.

India felt that the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) would be comfortably able to secure the NEPC at the forthcoming elections. The Indian move went awry due to unforeseen circumstances which changed the political history of Sri Lanka and India. Successive governments refrained from calling for a referendum in the Eastern Province until the JVP, the then political ally of President Mahinda Rajapaksa moved the Supreme Court against the merger. Having examined three separate petitions filed by the JVP seeking a separate Provincial Council for the Eastern Province, the Supreme Court on October 16, 2006 ruled that the proclamations issued by President Jayewardene were null and void and had no legal effect. The NE Province was formally de-merged into the Northern and Eastern provinces on January 1, 2007.

Interestingly, even before President JRJ issued proclamations merging the Eastern Province with the Northern Province, the government conducted PC polls in other regions during the period of April 28, 1988 and June 9, 1988. Having established PCs in the Southern, Western, North Central, Sabaragamuwa, Uva, North Western and Central Provinces, President JRJ set the stage for the first election for the temporarily merged NEPC.

Unexpected development

India wanted the TULF to contest the NEPC polls. In fact, India guaranteed the TULF of a polls victory. Contrary to President JRJ’s opinion, India insisted that Sri Lankan security forces and the police couldn’t get involved in security in the province in accordance with the ILA. Automatically, the IPKF took charge of the operation. The Colombo based diplomatic community and civil society turned a blind eye to what was going on the NE Province. The TULF decided against contesting the polls as it didn’t want to earn the wrath of the LTTE. In spite of being expelled from the Jaffna peninsula by the IPKF, the LTTE remained strong in the Vanni. The LTTE also conducted hit and run attacks on the IPKF and its allies in the Jaffna peninsula as well as in the Eastern Province. The TULF opposed elections at any level before the IPKF and the LTTE suspended hostilities. The TULF also strongly opposed India’s decision to arm groups opposed to the LTTE on the pretext of forming a Citizens Volunteer Force (CVF). In fact, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), too, strongly opposed the formation of another armed group, as it threatened the interests of the community, particularly in the Eastern Province. But India was adamant.

Another contentious issue was having separate elections in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, though the elected members would form a single administrative unit. The TULF urged India to take tangible measures to restore normalcy before going ahead with the polls, though members expressed their reluctance to contest due to LTTE threats. The LTTE warned the TULF to boycott the polls or face the consequences. The TULF refused to contest, though India assured the leadership of protection. The TULF quite rightly realized that LTTE leader Velupllai Prabhakaran would never allow the NEPC to function as long as India didn’t come to an understanding with him. Irate Indian officials threatened the TULF with punitive action unless it went along with their strategy. Still the TULF refused.

A bloody war erupted in the wake of the IPKF launching a massive operation on the night of October 10/11, 1987 in response to a spate of LTTE attacks on its troops. Although India subsequently made attempts to reconcile with the LTTE, Prabhakaran refused to collaborate, hence upsetting the entire Indian strategy.

India turns to EPRLF

India had no option but to turn towards EPRLF leader, K. Pathmanaba, who swiftly accepted the opportunity to contest the NEPC with the backing of the IPKF. The EPRLF leadership realized that the political project couldn’t go wrong due to the direct involvement of the IPKF, which worked closely with the group. The Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS) and the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) declined to contest. The IPKF threw its weight behind the EPRLF, which promised the electorate peace, democracy and unity. In spite of the EPRLF being an armed group, the then Elections Commissioner Chandrananda de Silva recognized it as a political party at the behest of the government. The LTTE vowed to annihilate the EPRLF, regardless of IPKF security at its disposal.

At the behest of India, Madras based TULF leader A. Amirthalingam issued a statement urging the Tamil speaking people to exercise their franchise to consolidate gains made by the community through the ILA. The failure on the part of India to convince the TULF to participate in the electoral process made the first NEPC polls a futile exercise. The election was eventually held on November 19, 1988 under the supervision of the IPKF. Although the LTTE launched a series of attacks in the Eastern Province, it couldn’t sabotage the election process.

The JVP too, warned those exercising their franchise with death. The JVP directed its threats particularly at the Sinhalese living in Trincomalee and Ampara districts. However, unlike the LTTE, the JVP didn’t have the wherewithal to carry out its threats.

India exploited the ground situation as well as the provision that separate elections would be held in the Northern and the Eastern Provinces to facilitate a comfortable victory for the EPRLF. President JRJ watched helplessly while the then Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, J. N. Dixit arranged a no contest pact in the Northern Province to the benefit of Padmanaba’s group. In the Eastern Province, too, the IPKF worked overtime to ensure the EPRLF’s victory. The EPRLF secured 41 out of 71 seats in the NEPC. On October 10, 1988, India installed Varatharaja Perumal as the Chief Minister of the NEPC.

Lt. Gen. Kalkat speaks out

Addressing the media in Trincomalee on November 19, the IPKF chief, Lt. General A.S. Kalkat alleged that the LTTE planned to cause a bloodbath in the temporarily merged province. The Reuters quoted Lt. Gen. Kalkat as having said: "But many voters defied a boycott call by Tamil terrorists and Sinhala extremists and went to the polls. The LTTE had vowed not to let the democratic process go through. They had promised a bloodbath."

Due to LTTE threats directed at the polling staff, India had to request President JRJ to send public servants from Colombo to man polling booths in the Eastern Province. The Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) and the Indian Air Force (IAF) airlifted hundreds of polling staff from the Ratmalana air base to China Bay. Polls chief, Chandrananda de Silva said that he had to depend on polls staff from the South due to the reluctance on the part of public servants in the Eastern Province to man polling booths. De Silva estimated that approximately 4,000 polling staff was needed to be deployed in the Eastern Province to man nearly 600 polling booths (Polls staff airlifted –The Island November 18, 1988).

Lt. Gen. Kalkat alleged that the LTTE had ordered the killing of five civilians every night from every village between November 12 and 19 (Poor turnout of Sinhala voters in East with strap line heavy polling reported in certain areas-The Island Nov 20, 1988). Although the LTTE mounted a series of attacks in the Eastern Province, a substantial number of Tamils and Muslims exercised their franchise. However, the vast majority of Sinhalese living in the Eastern Province kept away from voting. The IPKF and the EPRLF brought voters to polling booths under the very noses of the election staff. The EPRLF ordered the electorate to vote for its candidates or face the consequences.

With the setting up of Perumal’s administration, the IPKF intensified its operations targeting the LTTE. Unfortunately, the EPRLF failed to consolidate its base and further expand on it much to the anxiety of the Indian government. In spite of winning the NEPC with the IPKF’s patronage, the EPRLF couldn’t win over the hearts and minds of Tamil speaking people. In hindsight, both India and the EPRLF failed to comprehend the then Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa’s strategy. Perhaps, they felt President JRJ would pave the way for either Gamini Dissanayake or Lalith Athulathmudali to contest the presidential election in December 1988. Had that happened, the EPRLF could have had an opportunity to consolidate its position in the NE province without difficulty. India firmly believed that it could come to an understanding with Dissanayake or Athulathmudali to ensure the implementation of the ILA. The Indian strategy collapsed when Premadasa secured the UNP presidential nomination in early November 1988. Much to the disappointment of India, both the UNP presidential candidate, Ranasinghe Premadasa and his main challenger, Sirimavo Bandaranaike vowed to abrogate the ILA. They declared that the IPKF would be asked to leave immediately after their victory. Amidst bloody violence perpetrated by the LTTE in the NE province and the JVP in the South, Premadasa won the country’s second presidential election held on December 19, 1988. Premadasa secured 50.43 per cent of all votes cast at the election to defeat Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who obtained 44.95 per cent of votes. Those living in areas under LTTE control couldn’t vote for want of polling booths.

In fact, both India and EPRLF knew the trouble they were heading for even before the November 19, 1988 NEPC polls as Premadasa handed in his nomination for the presidential election on November 10, 1988. Soon after securing the nomination, Premadasa told his close associates of his intention to reach an understanding with the JVP as well as the LTTE, much to the discontent among party men. The President felt that he could win over Tamil speaking people and the majority community by getting rid of the IPKF as both the LTTE and the JVP opposed the ILA. The war on terror series had dealt extensively with the consequences of President Premadasa’s ill-fated strategies.