Thursday, 5 September 2013

JVP’s bid to cripple Torrington Square media complex thwarted

War on terror revisited : Part 166


In the background of the SLAF chopper used for VIP flights, President Ranasinghe Premadasa stands with his son, Sajith and daughter, Dulanjali at his Ambanpola estate, during the ceasefire with the LTTE. Babu, tasked with assassinating the President sometimes accompanied him to Ambanpola, also in SLAF choppers. A young SLAF pilot, Roshan Goonetileke stands next to the President (Recently retired from the post of Chief of Defence, with the rank of Air Chief Marshal)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

At the height of the JVP-led second insurrection (July 1987-early 1990) the government placed the elite Special Task Force (STF) in charge of security at the SLBC/Rupavanini /ITN complex at Torrington square. Amidst JVP efforts to sabotage the complex, the STF was given the unenviable task of ensuring uninterrupted services. The then ASP (Operations Colombo) Nimal Lewke recalled STF Commandant Lionel Karunasena instructing him to establish a base at the complex to enhance security (Having served the STF as its Commandant during a crucial period in the war against the LTTE, Lewke retired at the conclusion of the conflict, with the rank of Senior DIG).

According to Lewke, the then Defence Secretary, Gen. Sepala Attygalle had wanted the STF to be in charge of security at the complex. Lewke said: "The then Chief Inspector Upul Seneviratne functioned as the officer-in-charge of the complex. A group of commandos took up position at the complex. We worked closely with other services to thwart JVP plans." (Seneviratne was killed in a claymore mine blast on the morning of July 7, 2006 at Digana as he was on his way to the Katukurunda STF training base. Seneviratne held the rank of SSP at the time of his death).

Due to growing JVP threats directed at employees of the three institutions, the STF went to the extent of accommodating them at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI). However, some employees, including those who had been engaged in news reading quit, compelling the military and the STF to assign news readers and in some instances camera crews for media coverage. Lewke said that an SLAF crew accompanied the government’s chief negotiator, Minister A.C.S. Hameed on a special mission across army frontlines in Palaly for a clandestine confab with the LTTE (previous piece dealt with Minister Hameed’s mission which almost ended up in disaster on June 16, 1990). It was the only such mission undertaken by the government after the outbreak of hostilities on the night of June 10, 1990.

Thevis Guruge warned

As the JVP was known to have infiltrated the armed forces and the police, those in charge of counter-insurgency operations had to take precautions to prevent infiltration of the Torrington complex. Lewke recalled warning the then SLBC Chairman Thevis Guruge of a possible attempt on his life and the presence of a JVP mole within the complex a few days before his assassination on July 23, 1989. The JVP killed the versatile Rupavahini personality Premakeerthi de Alwis (42) on the night of July 31, 1989. Lewke said: "We were seriously concerned about the threat to Guruge as well as several other employees. Subsequent to the killing of Guruge and Alwis, the JVP also killed SLBC News Editor Kulasiri Amaratunga (62), as it stepped up violence in the wake of the government entering into a fresh dialogue with the LTTE in May 1989." Amaratunga was shot in the neck by a gunman at his Mount Lavinia residence in August 1989.

Lewke recollected the severe difficulties caused by the assassination of media personalities. Obviously, the JVP felt that the government could be seriously undermined by crippling the SLBC and the two state-run television stations.

The attempt to sabotage the Torrington complex should be examined in the backdrop of the JVP targeting the Lake House distribution network in the provinces. The JVP ordered people not to buy Lake House publications or face the consequences. The government ordered the military and the police to distribute the Dinamina, Daily News and the Observer, free of charge.

Insurgents released,
terror intensified

Having won the parliamentary polls in early April 1989, President Premadasa caused a devastating setback to counter-insurgency operations by releasing hundreds of insurgents. Although the President’s political colleagues and the military top brass realized the stupidity of the President’s move, none dared dispute him. With the release of suspects, the JVP stepped up its campaign with an all out assault on the government media. Lewke stressed the importance of the work undertaken by the military and the police to ensure that the Torrington complex remained operational. Lewke said: The "collapse of operations there could have had a devastating impact on the overall government counter insurgency strategy. There could have been chaos if the state media failed at that time."

However, government forces could concentrate fully on the JVP threat due to the LTTE returning to the negotiating table (May 1989-June 1990). Although the military brought the JVP to its knees in November/December 1989, it remained involved in the Torrington square media operation.

It would be pertinent to mention that the STF was also responsible for the safety and security of the LTTE delegation during its stay in Colombo. The STF remained in charge of visiting LTTE delegates’ security from May 1989 until June 1990 a small contingent was escorted to the Ratmalana air base, for transfer to Palaly.

The then Leading Aircraftsman (LAC) P.W. Dissanayake, a member of the four-man SLAF crew led by the then Flying Officer Andrew Wijesuriya which accompanied Minister Hameed into enemy-held territory recalled joining the then State Minister for Defence, Ranjan Wijeratne on a special mission in late March 1990. Dissanayake (retired in Dec 2008 with the rank of Warrant Officer) said: "Close on the heels of the last Indian army contingent leaving Sri Lanka on March 24, 1990, State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne visited major security forces bases in the northern and eastern districts. The minister explained the situation to the officers and men and their new responsibilities in the wake of the Indian pullout. Having visited the camps, the minister returned to Colombo, to brief President Premadasa at Sucharitha."

Dissanayake stressed that Minister Wijeratne never indicated the possibility of resumption of hostilities or any problem with the LTTE. Instead, he underscored the importance of the ongoing ceasefire agreement with the LTTE, though some feared Prabhakaran quitting the negotiating table. The STF was also deeply involved in President Premadasa’s security. Both President Premadasa and his predecessor, JRJ largely depended on the elite force for important projects.

Gamini, Lalith earn
Premadasa’s wrath

President Premadasa felt he could exploit the Indian pullout to his political advantage. The president’s assertion was based on the premise that his understanding with Prabhakaran could be transformed into a permanent peace agreement. Although a section of the UNP as well as the military top brass feared the President’s project could go wrong, none of them wanted to voice their concerns. The LTTE cleverly propagated that India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) was still continuing its destabilization project though the Indian army quit the country. The LTTE identified one-time Mahaweli Minister and JRJ confidant Gamini Dissanayake as the person spearheading the Indian agenda here. On the other hand, one-time National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali was branded as a person promoting Israeli interests here. The allegation was made subsequent to the closure of the Israeli Interests Section on April 20, 1990. President Premadasa lambasted Athulathmudali in parliament though he was not identified by name. The state-run media gave wide coverage to President Premadasa’s criticism directed at Athulathmudali who expressed doubts about the UNP leader’s strategy. President Premadasa resented Dissanayake and Athulathmudali for being critical of his handling of the peace process. When Dissanayake and Athulathmudali teamed up later to move an impeachment motion against President Premadasa, an angry President declared in parliament: "…I had the Israeli Interests Section removed. In such a context, there is nothing to be surprised about Mossad rising against me. Please remember that there are among us those who have gone to Israeli universities and lectured there and earned dirty money."

Athulathmudali voiced his concern that the military could find itself in an extremely difficult position in case the LTTE resumed hostilities. Athulathmudali asserted that the vacation of Point Pedro and Valvettitutai during the ceasefire and the failure on the part of the government to redeploy troops in the immediate aftermath of the Indian pullout could cause an unprecedented crisis. Obviously, Athulathmudali’s successor, State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne too, went along with President Premadasa’s strategy. Minister Wijeratne remained silent about major concession made by President Premadasa, though he realized the LTTE was exploiting the situation.

Baseless theory

Some have speculated that President Premadasa, with the help of a faction led by Gopalswamy Mahendraraja alias Mahattaya plotted to eliminate Prabhakaran in a lightning operation. That couldn’t have been the case in the backdrop of assertions that Mahattaya had been under the influence of the Indian intelligence and Minister Dissanayake too, was plotting against President Premadasa, with the connivance of India. Instead, President Premadasa allowed Prabhakaran to flex his muscles by restricting the military presence in Jaffna as well as the Vanni theatres to very much less than two battalions. A simple examination of the military deployment would reveal that the President and his advisors never planned for any eventuality. Although President Premadasa could have beefed up the military presence in the Northern region, consequent to the eradication of the JVP threat in November/December 1989 and the Indian army pullout in March 1990, he did absolutely nothing. Had there been some sort of understanding with Mahattaya, it would have been shown on the ground. At the time, the LTTE resumed hostilities during the second week of June 1990, the army deployment in the Eastern Province comprised just three infantry battalions and less than two in the entire Northern region.

When fighting erupted, the army didn’t even have adequate transport to move troops from the South to the northern and eastern districts. The then President Premadasa’s security advisor General Cyril Ranatunga revealed in his memoirs, the army using private transport to move troops. Arms and ammunition too, had been in short supply due to the UNP administration neglecting the armed forces’ needs due to the Indo-Lanka Accord and the subsequent honeymoon with the LTTE. Unfortunately, the likes of Ranatunga and the then army commander Lt. General Hamilton Wanasinghe remained passive onlookers as the situation rapidly deteriorated in the northern and eastern provinces.

The Indian pullout was meant to speed up the national reconciliation process with the LTTE promoting PFLT (People’s Front of Liberation Tigers) in the northern and eastern districts. Instead, the LTTE overnight changed its attitude when the last Indian contingent left Trincomalee. Although the state-run media as well as those in the privately owned media worked overtime to portray a rosy picture, the situation continued to deteriorate rapidly with the LTTE imposing restrictions on the military. The LTTE went to the extent of detaining officers who defied its diktat. The LTTE took up the position that all movements between security forces camps in the Jaffna peninsula should be strictly subject to its prior approval. The situation in the Eastern Province was better, though the LTTE repeatedly interfered with the security forces and police, much to the resentment of those deployed there. Until war erupted in June 1990, the President did absolutely nothing to review the situation. Instead, he bent backwards to appease the LTTE. The President remained committed to peace at any cost until the war erupted during the second week of June 1990, with the execution of over 600 policemen.