Tuesday, 14 October 2014

An assassination in the run-up to a presidential election



by Shamindra Ferdinando

In the run-up to presidential poll on Nov 09, 1994: People’s Alliance candidate Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and her rival Gamini Dissanayake at the Election Secretariat at Rajajiriya to hand over nominations

Having failed to convince the then Elections Commissioner, Chandrananda de Silva, not to hold the August 16, 1994, parliamentary election, in the Jaffna electoral district, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) moved the Court of Appeal against the polls chief, Jaffna Government Agent, as well as the Attorney General.

Jaffna electoral district comprises Jaffna and Kilinochchi. While the military controlled a small part of the Jaffna district, Kilinochchi was under 100 per cent LTTE control. The then TULF President, M. Sivasiththamparam, petitioned the court on July 8, 1994. Attorney-at-law, A.W.D. Silva, annexed a report by the writer published in the July 5, 1994, issue of The Island, to back the TULF’s call for cancellation of the Jaffna poll. The exclusive front-page report headlined, LTTE refuses to allow Jaffna, GA to leave Jaffna dealt with the crisis.

It would be pertinent to examine how the LTTE influenced the electoral process during the conflict, particularly after the departure of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in March, 1990, amidst speculation the country is heading for an early presidential election early next year (2015). India deployed troops here, in accordance with Indo-Lanka peace accord, signed on July 29, 1987. Some have conveniently forgotten the circumstances under which national elections had to be conducted due to LTTE interventions.

In the run-up to the August 16, 1994, parliamentary poll, the then Premier, Ranil Wickremesinghe, requested Tamil political parties to submit a common list for the Jaffna electoral district as the LTTE controlled a large part of the electorate. Wickremesinghe made the appeal at a meeting held at Temple Trees. The then Defence Secretary, Hamilton Wanasinghe, was on hand to explain the ground situation in the Jaffna peninsula as well as in the Jaffna islands. Wickremesinghe’s proposal was meant to pave the way to elect members of parliament, uncontested. Among those who had been invited to attend the meetings were leaders of the TULF, All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS) and the Eelam People’s Democratic People (EPDP). ACTC leader, Kumar Ponnambalam, strongly objected to Wickremesinghe’s proposal made on behalf of the government. Ponnambalam insisted that people shouldn’t be deprived of their right to elect members of parliament. If a free and fair election couldn’t be held in the Jaffna electorate, there was no point in electing members uncontested, Ponnambalam asserted. The TULF, too, opposed the proposal (Moves by government to get Tamil parties to submit common list for Jaffna district, ‘The Island’, July 5, 1994).

The government was compelled to shift the Jaffna election secretariat from Jaffna town to Tellippalai, an area under army control. The government also dispatched the then Director General of Combined Services, W. D.L. Perera, to Tellippalai, to run the election secretariat in the wake of the LTTE warning the then Jaffna GA, K. Manickavasagar, not to function as the chief returning officer of the Jaffna district. In fact, Manickavasagar couldn’t leave Jaffna for consultations with Elections Commissioner, Chandrananda de Silva, without LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran’s approval. The LTTE prevented Manickavasagar from attending a meeting chaired by the polls chief in Colombo, on June 29, 1994.

For want of overland transport, Manickavasagar had no option but to depend on a vessel chartered by the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) to leave Jaffna via Point Pedro.

Special status received by the EPDP, particularly in some Jaffna islands, irked other Tamil political parties. The EPDP exploited its close relationship with the UNP to its advantage, much to the anger of rival political parties, particularly the EPRLF. The UNP simply ignored the EPRLF’s demand to either disarm the EPDP or relocate them during the parliamentary election campaign as the group was essentially an integral part of the government security set-up in the Jaffna sector. The deployment of the EPDP was in line with the overall security strategy, which involved the deployment of all Indian trained terrorist groups against the LTTE. The EPDP operated alongside the navy in the northern region. At the time of the August 16, 1994, parliamentary poll, the EPDP had armed contingents in all Jaffna islands, except Nainathivu. The EPDP moved into Jaffna islands in 1990, in a big way, shortly after the outbreak of Eelam War II, in June, 1990.

At the time, the then President Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, called for parliamentary election, there hadn’t been police presence, except in Kayts. The President dissolved parliament on June 24, 1994. Nominations were to be received from July 4 to 11, 1994. The TULF’s petition to the Court of Appeal revealed the pathetic situation on the ground. Having explained circumstances under which the party had secured representatives in the Jaffna electoral district, at the 1989 parliamentary poll, the TULF told court that the government controlled maximum 20 per cent of the land area in the Jaffna electoral district. The court was also told the judiciary didn’t function in the Jaffna electoral district. The TULF also pointed out that registered political parties hadn’t been able to engage in political activity in the area since the outbreak of Eelam War II. Political parties couldn’t exercise what the TULF called their statutory right for broadcasting facilities for want of electricity. The TULF pointed out the absurdity in having an election in the Jaffna electoral district as only about 10 per cent of the population lived in the area, under government control, whereas the rest lived with the LTTE. The TULF also brought to the notice of the court that communities lived in isolation due to ongoing hostilities, and that nominations couldn’t be accepted at the Jaffna kachcheri though it was the practice, Jaffna GA couldn’t function, recognized political parties couldn’t even conduct interviews in Jaffna to pick candidates and the election register of 1986 was to be used, thereby depriving all those who had attained 18 years of age, after 1986, the opportunity to exercise their franchise (TULF makes application in court to prohibit holding of polls in Jaffna, ‘The Island’, July 11, 1994).

A couple of weeks after the TULF petitioned the Court of Appeal, the LTTE allowed Jaffna GA Manickavasagar to leave for Colombo. After having arrived in Colombo, in ICRC chartered ship, Manickavasagar told the writer that he received explicit instructions that he shouldn’t participate in the electoral process under any circumstances. A visibly shaken official said that he was ordered not to return to Jaffna if he acted contrary to the instructions received in Jaffna (LTTE permits GA to leave with strict orders, with strap line, No dabbling in election work, he was told, The Island, July 23, 1994)

Manickavasagar briefed Defence Secretary, Gen. Wanasinghe and Public Administration Secretary Austin Fernando (held the post of Defence Secretary during Ranil Wickremesinghe’s premiership during the Norwegian arranged ceasefire), as regards the situation in the Jaffna peninsula.

The judiciary ignored the TULF’s concerns. The government was allowed to go ahead with the polls.

The EPDP, which fielded candidates, only in the Jaffna electoral district, secured nine seats by polling just 10,744 votes (1%).

Just ten days ahead of the August 16, 1994, election, Defence Secretary, General Wanasinghe, warned political parties of a possible LTTE assassination attempt. Addressing senior officials of political parties in the fray, at the Defence Ministry, Wanasinghe asserted that the LTTE would strike before the day of the election to cause chaos. Among those present were Dr. Gamini Wijesekera, (UNP), Dharmasiri Senanayake (SLFP) and Rauff Hakeem (SLMC). The then Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Gerry de Silva, army Chief of Staff, Major General Lucky Algama, and DIG Merril Gunaratne, attended the conference. Although a major LTTE operation didn’t materialize, in the run-up to the general election, the LTTE assassinated UNP presidential candidate, Gamini Dissanayake, on the night of October 23, 1994 at Thotalanga, in the Kotahena police area. Ironically, among the victims of the Thotalanga massacre, caused by a suicide cadre, was Dr. Gamini Wijesekera, who received General Wanasinghe’s warning. Close on the heels of Chandrika Bandaranaike assuming the premiership, a section of the media accused some senior army officers of a ‘plot’ on the day of the election. Among those, whose names transpired in unsubstantiated media reports, were the then Brigadier Sarath Fonseka, Colonel Gamini Gunasekera, and Lt. Col. Asoka Thoradeniya and Lt. Col. M. R. W. Soysa. Alleging that there was absolutely no basis for accusations against them, they requested President Wijetunga to initiate an inquiry.

Army Chief of Staff Lucky Algama, too, sought presidential intervention to clear his name consequent to media reports pertaining to his alleged involvement in the plot. Algama was responding to a report carried in a tabloid, Yukthiya, in its August 28, 1994, edition as regards the alleged coup. Algama forwarded a letter, dated August 27, 1994, to President Wijetunga, through Lt. Gen. Gerry de Silva. The media also linked one-time army Commander, Lt. General Cecil Waidyaratne with the plotters. (Alleged army conspiracy on election day with strap line Algama asks President for probe, ‘The Island’, August 30, 1994).

Even Colombo based international news agencies took unsubstantiated reports, as regards the alleged coup, seriously. Reuters, in a Colombo datelined report, declared that Deputy Defence Minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte, had initiated an inquiry into the coup days before the August 16, 1994, general election. The agency quoted the then cabinet spokesman, Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake, as having said Ratwatte was looking into the coup.

Minister Senanayake was speaking in the wake of President Wijetunga directing the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to inquire into the alleged army plot.

In the wake of the People’s Alliance (PA) victory, achieved under Kumaratunga’s leadership, the LTTE obviously felt that it could reach an understanding with her in case she won the presidential election that was to follow the parliamentary poll. In accordance with the LTTE plan to facilitate Kumaratunga’s victory, it ordered the assassination of the UNP presidential candidate. It would be important to realize that the decision was meant to take out the UNP candidate whoever secured the party’s support to be the UNP presidential candidate. In hindsight, that particular decision was probably taken after Kumaratunga’s victory, in August, and in the run-up to the presidential election, on November 9, 1994.

What would have been Prabhakaran’s decision if the UNP picked Wickremesinghe as its presidential candidate? In spite of Wickremesinghes giving resolute leadership to the party, during the severe political crisis, caused by the rebel Lalith-Gamini group, President Wijetunga called for a secret vote, among the UNP parliamentary group, to pick the leader of the parliamentary group. The President, in his capacity as the party leader, decided on a secret vote as he felt it could be advantageous to Dissanayake. President Wijetunga declared Dissanayake as the winner after having held the secret ballot at the presidential secretariat, much to the opposition of some seniors, who felt that the process could be manipulated to the advantage of Dissanayake. Immediately after President Wijetunga declared that Dissanayake had polled more votes than Wickremesinghe, the latter, who was seated next to Wijetunga got up from his seat and offered it to his rival. Having consolidated his position as the UNP parliamentary group leader, Dissanayake, swiftly secured the UNP’s endorsement as its presidential candidate (Gamini tipped to be UNP presidential candidate, The Island, September 2, 1994). The President ignored Wickremesinghe, in spite of him being former Prime Minister and the fact that he never deserted the party during the crisis caused by the bid to impeach President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

The LTTE would have studied the clandestine project, conducted by President Wijetunga, at the behest of Dissanayake to clear the way for the one-time DUNF rebel to win the next presidential poll. The perception that Dissanayake would have had New Delhi’s support, too, prompted the LTTE to target Dissanayake. In early September, the UNP indicated that Dissanayake’s candidature could be officially announced at the first working committee meeting of the party since the defeat at the August 16, 1994, parliamentary poll (Gamini UNP presidential candidate, The Island, September 6, 1994).

Prabhakaran would have ordered a hit on Dissanayake soon after the UNP campaign got underway. The LTTE could have ensured a fresh round of negotiations with a new government leadership only if Dissanayake’s defeat could be guaranteed, hence the decision to do away with him. Wickremesinghe would have been in Prabhakaran’s gun-sight had he been allowed to assume his rightful place in the party at the correct time.

Having assured the LTTE, in the run-up to the parliamentary, poll that a new PA government would be ready for direct negotiations with the LTTE, the opposition grouping requested the LTTE not to interfere with the August, 1994, election. The PA was making overtures to the LTTE, while the TULF and other Tamil political parties, except the EPDP, pushed for the cancellation of Jaffna poll. In an obvious bid to secure the LTTE’s support, Kumaratunga told Wasantha Raja, the then producer and presenter of the BBC’s Sandeshaya: "I’m prepared to invite the LTTE for unconditional talks. I am willing to expand the Northern Province to include Tamils areas in the East and make a single unit. I will redefine the Eastern Province and devolve more power." Wasantha Raja received Kumaratunga’s assurance before he left for Jaffna, where he met LTTE leaders. But the LTTE refused to cooperate with the PA’s plan. Prabhakaran ordered people to boycott the electoral process. The LTTE, probably felt that throwing its weight behind Kumaratunga’s campaign could be disadvantageous to its overall strategy. In spite of that, Kumaratunga declared her intentions to go ahead with talks soon after taking the premiership. The new Premier chose the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) an an intermediary to proceed with negotiations. The PA never realized the LTTE strategy. As always, the LTTE wanted to deal with the government from a position of strength. It realized the simmering internal crisis in the UNP, over President Wijetunga’s move to deprive Wickremesinghe of an opportunity to contest the next presidential poll, as well as the rumblings in the PA over Kumaratunga’s rapid rise.

The LTTE knew whatever the shortcomings in the political strategy, the military remained a formidable force, capable of facing its conventional military challenge. In an obvious bid to underscore its prowess, the LTTE, on the night of September 19, 1994, blew up SLNS Sagarawardene in the Gulf of Mannar. On Oct 9, 1994, the LTTE sank cargo ship, Ocean Trader carrying supplies to Jaffna peninsula. In spite of grave provocations, Kumaratunga went ahead with the first round of talks on Oct 13, 14, 1994, in Jaffna. The ICRC quickly arranged the two parties to meet again in Jaffna, on Oct, 24, 1994. Although, President Wijetunga, remained Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, he didn’t intervene. Both the LTTE and the PA realized that Kumaratunga’s presidential election campaign received a massive boost due to the Jaffna talks. Kumaratunga went out of her way to appease the LTTE, as well as those who felt the LTTE conventional military capability was far superior to that of the military. In an interview with the BBC, in Colombo, Premier Kumaratunga lambasted the military leadership, which she said has ‘reigned supreme’ for 11 years. Kumaratunga accused the military leadership of trying to act as a ‘government unto themselves’ and seeking to sabotage her peace initiative.

Perhaps, the LTTE felt that UNP presidential candidate, Dissanayake, still could pull it off, in spite of Kumaratunga campaigning on a peace platform. Dissanayake was blown up on the night of October 23, 1994, about eight hours before Kumaratunga’s delegation was to leave for Jaffna. Dissanayake’s assassination compelled Kumaratunga to put off the second round of talks, but it ensured her victory at the Nov 9, 1994, presidential poll. Kumaratunga received a staggering 62 per cent of the vote, though the UNP fielded Gamini Dissanayake’s widow, Srimathi to attract the sympathy vote. The LTTE welcomed Kumaratunga’s victory in a statement issued on November 12, 1994. Prabhakaran also declared a one-week unilateral ceasefire with effect from November 12, the day Kumaratunga assumed presidency. Kumaratunga initiated talks on November 19, 1994, regardless of Dissanayake’s assassination.