Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Accountability for Male invasion Gayoom assassination bid

War Crimes charge: Urgent need for reappraisal of GoSL’s response


Coup leader Abdulla Luthufee is pictured among Indian troops soon after the collapse of PLOTE attack

By Shamindra Ferdinando

With the next session of the
Geneva-based United Nations
Human Rights Council (UNHRC)
session three months away, The
Island intends to discuss what Sri
Lanka’s response to unsubstantiated
war crimes allegations should
be as well as the government’s failure
to exploit the ‘ground situation’
for want of a cohesive strategy.

Accountability had never been an issue in Sri Lanka until the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) brought the LTTE down to its knees on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon in May 2009. Until then the international community as well as those who had been loudly singing for their supper, both here and abroad, weren’t bothered about accountability issues. In fact, those who had been involved in a spate of peace initiatives, including the government of Norway responsible for the last bid (Feb 2001-April 2003), conveniently overlooked the contentious issue of accountability.

Successive Sri Lankan governments, too, ignored the need to examine the issue thoroughly. The incumbent government should have appointed a commission with a mandate to examine the entire gamut of issues, including accountability as soon the SLA finished off the LTTE on the Vanni east front. Sri Lanka should have invited the international community to facilitate the investigation.

Those threatening President Mahinda Rajapaksa to address accountability issues before the next United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session in March, 2014 or face dire consequences had never sought at least an explanation from India as regards it responsibility for causing death and destruction in Sri Lanka. Having sponsored over a half a dozen terrorist groups in Sri Lanka, India is now pushing for an independent investigation into war crimes along with its Western allies, who turned a blind eye to massive fund raising projects to acquire arms, ammunition and equipment.

The PLOTE factor

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as recommended by the government of South Africa should examine the entire range of issues, including an unprecedented attempt by the People’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) to assassinate the then Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to pave the way for a Colombo based Maldivian businessman Abdulla Luthufee to take over the government. Luthufee may never have had the opportunity to militarily challenged Gayoom without the PLOTE support. At the time, the PLOTE launched the operation during the first week of Nov. 1988 it operated under the guidance of the Indian army as well as the intelligence services deployed in Sri Lanka. The PLOTE carried arms and ammunition provided by the Indian military. In fact, it was one of the groups extremely close to Indian intelligence services and the beneficiary of both weapons as well as funds. Did somebody within the Indian intelligence community know about the PLOTE operation? How PLOTE preparations for Male operation did go unnoticed? And most importantly, what would have happened if the coup attempt succeeded? None of those seeking to establish the circumstances under which the SLA cleared the last pockets of LTTE resistance on the Vanni east front were bothered about regional instability and uncertainty caused by Indian action. The UN, the EU as well as the Commonwealth didn’t even issue statements highlighting the crisis caused in Male due to Indian interference in Sri Lanka. Instead, India was praised for saving democracy in the Maldives by swiftly responding to the sea borne raid mounted by Sri Lankan terrorists. Had the terrorists succeeded, there would have been a bloodbath leading to a protracted conflict. Strangely the security crisis caused by Sri Lankan terrorists had never been an issue at international forums, particularly because the government in Male was sensitive to India’s concerns. The bottom line was Gayoom didn’t want to embarrass India. The then Sri Lankan President JRJ’s government too, largely remained silent for reasons best known to the UNP leadership.

The PLOTE was among terrorist groups invited by India to participate at Thimpu deliberations in the latter part of 1985. The Thimpu confab held under the auspices of New Delhi was meant to dilute the sphere of the Tamil United Liberation Front’s (TULF) influence particularly in the Jaffna peninsula and to pave the way for a grand alliance among terrorist groups namely the PLOTE, Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), LTTE, Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS) and the TULF. The assassination of two TULF stalwarts, both former MPs, in September 1985 by TELO at the behest of Indian intelligence services should be closely examined in case Sri Lanka was compelled to undertake a wider investigation into accountability issues.

Saving Gayoom the Indian way

India never conducted an investigation into its intervention here hence the Maldivian episode was never investigated. Had Sri Lankan terrorists killed Gayoom, those sponsored by India would have claimed the lives of two Presidents. Instead of taking responsibility for failing to thwart the PLOTE operation, the Indian navy claimed credit for saving the Gayoom’s administration. The Indian media talked in glowing terms of the operation code-named ‘Operation Cactus’ to save Gayoom. The Indian navy pointed out that success of ‘Operation Cactus’ prompted The TIME magazine to feature the Indian Navy on its cover, hailing it as the ‘the Next Military Power.’

The TIME magazine didn’t even mention that the PLOTE was one of the Indian trained groups working on the ground under direct Indian army supervision. The PLOTE raiding party included eighty men originally trained by Indian instructors to engage Sri Lankan forces. The Indian navy which proudly declared its role in the crackdown never explained how two 40 feet long trawlers carrying 40 men each managed to leave Mollikulam under its nose on the night of Oct 29, 1988 to reach Male at 4.30 am on Nov 3, 1988.

In case Sri Lanka and South Africa agree on a mechanism to inquire into the conflict, it would be of pivotal importance to probe the Maldivian affair. The Commonwealth ignored the Male raid, was a member, though the UK is pushing for a war crimes investigation targeting Sri Lanka. Perhaps, the UK move would give Sri Lanka an opportunity to place all facts before the international community as well as the media. The government shouldn’t shun the chance to accountability on the part of those who had been only interested in the final days of the Vanni offensive.

In an exclusive interview with the writer in October 2011, Luthufee revealed how he finalized the project after having a series of discussions with the then PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran. According to him, they had been discussing the operation since the deployment of the Indian army in Sri Lanka in July 1987. Luthufee revealed that his personal relationship with Maheswaran made the unprecedented operation possible. However, Maheswaran didn’t take part in the raid leaving a senior Indian trained cadre in charge of the mission. Luthufee and another Maldivian joined the mission. (The Island published three articles; Male plot leader speaks out Nov 3, 2011,Rajiv saved us from Gayoom Nov 4, 2011 and How Luthufee moved SAARC venue from Male to Addu)

On July 16, 1989, Maheswaran was shot dead in Colombo. The police never managed to establish motive for the assassination though some believed his decision to take up Luthufee’s assignment may have led to his death.

PLOTE-JVP relationship

The government should realize the necessity to record facts to prevent propagation of lies, in some instances, inadvertently. Ikram Sehgal, Publisher and Chief Editor, Defence Journal, Karachi, wrongly blamed the EPRLF (Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front) for the raid on Male. The accusation was made at a presentation made in Colombo on Feb 23, 2005, jointly organized by the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad and Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) Sehgal’s statement meant that even 17 years after the attack on Male, the identity of the perpetrators could still be mixed up. Sehgal alleged that 200 EPRLF cadres had been involved in the operation, while speculating on the possibility of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) being aware of Luthufee’s adventure. Citing swift Indian intervention in support of Gayoom, Sehgal asserted that India could have allowed the raid to take place to secure the Maldivian president’s confidence. But that allegation has never been substantiated.

There had never been a similar attempt by terrorists in any part of the world. Those who had examined the Sri Lankan conflict never really took the Maldivian factor into consideration though it is an issue the global community couldn’t ignore. Had the PLOTE operation succeeded, the fate of Male would have been different. A destabilized Male could have been a cause for concern in the entire region. The crisis caused by Somali pirates compelled the international community to establish a multinational naval force to neutralize the threat. Just imagine two terrorist groups, the LTTE and the PLOTE having the capacity to launch maritime operations in the region. The LTTE remained active on the high seas until the Sri Lankan Navy eradicated its fleet in a series of operations. (The swift destruction of four of the eight vessels sunk by the SLN was made possible by US intelligence.)

Today, the PLOTE is a key constituent of the five-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) now running the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) led by Chief Minister Wigneswaran. The TNA comprises of Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) and three former terrorist groups, the TELO, EPRLF and PLOTE.

Strangely both the Indian and Sri Lankan governments acted as if the PLOTE didn’t do anything wrong. The PLOTE went to the extent in training some Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) cadres to launch landmine attacks. The first mine attack was mounted on the morning of July 21, 1988 at Kapparathota in the Weligama electorate.

The writer and staff photographer Jude Denzil Pathiraja were the first journalists from Colombo to visit the scene of the attack. The JVP had targeted a convoy of vehicles carrying a group of UNP Southern Provincial Council members to Galle. Those standing near the scene of the blast alleged that it could have caused deaths among students of the nearby Sangananda Kapparathota Vidyalaya. Fortunately, there hadn’t been any children on the narrow road when the targeted convoy passed the spot.

The blast took place in the wake of the then President JRJ placing the security in the entire Southern Province comprising the districts of Galle, Matara and Hambantota under the army. It would be pertinent to know that Maheswaran couldn’t have unaware of the liaison with the JVP, though top PLOTE military commander Mannikkadasan was widely believed to be responsible for helping the JVP. A series of JVP landmine attacks sent shock waves through the military. The JVP-PLOTE project meant that the Indian intervention could have had far reaching consequences. Had the JVP mastered mine warfare, the southern insurgency could have taken an entirely different mode, especially after the outbreak of eelam war II on the night of June 10, 1990. The military couldn’t have coped with the JVP if it had the capacity to restrict mobile and foot patrols as Tamil terrorist did by using a range of mine. Tamil groups utilized ordinary landmines as well as radio controlled devices and claymore mines which caused massive destruction.

For some strange reason, the government failed to examine the relationship between the PLOTE and the JVP. In fact, the Indian intervention had a debilitating impact not only on the Northern and Eastern districts but other areas as well. The then UNP government should be congratulated for wiping out JVP terrorism within three years, though it failed on the northern front. The swift destruction of the JVP thwarted a possible long term alliance between the JVP and the PLOTE which could have had caused a major security crisis in the South.

Now that the international community is demanding Sri Lanka to explain its conduct of its forces on the Vanni east front, the government should seek to establish the conduct of all Indian trained terrorist groups and funding networks. The proposed TRC should examine the culpability of India as well as of those who had turned a blind eye to a regional bully terrorizing a country for what one-time Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit asserted was India’s national security interests.