Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Post-CBK victory at Nov 1995 presidential poll: Pooneryn factor



by Shamindra Ferdinando

Having assassinated UNP presidential candidate, Gamini Dissanayake, on the night of October 23, 1994, LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and the then President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga reached agreement on cessation of hostilities, on January 5, 1995.

Kumaratunga signed the document, in Colombo, whereas Prabhakaran signed it in Jaffna. Remember, Jaffna had been firmly under LTTE control with the military positioned at Palaly, Kankesanthurai and Elephant Pass. Jaffna islands, too, had been under military control.

The agreement was to be operational on January 8, 1995.

Two consecutive articles on Oct 15 and Oct 22, 2014, extensively dealt with the circumstances under which the then President DB Wijetunga had brought Dissanayake back to the UNP, depriving one-time Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe from an opportunity to contest the presidential election on November 9, 1995, the assassination of the popular politician, simmering crisis over Wickremesinghe being denied the opportunity to be at least Dissanayake’s substitute, Srima Dissanayake’s entry into politics, and the signing of the first formal agreement between an elected President and a leader of a terrorist group.

Although Kumaratunga’s predecessors, JRJ, Ranasinghe Premadasa, as well as DB Wijetunga, had reached agreements/understanding with the LTTE, there was never a formal written agreement between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, until January 5, 1995.

Why did Prabhakaran order Dissanayake’s assassination? Did any external factors contribute to Prabhakaran’s decision? Who made the initial move to establish contact between Kumaratunga and the LTTE?

Interestingly, the seven point agreement, reached on January 5, 1995, conveniently refrained from making any reference to the LTTE demands. The omission was surprising in the backdrop of the LTTE asserting, during the second round of talks, held on January 2, 1995, in Jaffna, that Prabhakaran expected lifting of restrictions on movement between the Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni mainland. President Kumaratunga included two senior representatives from the military, namely Brigadier, Siri Peiris and Captain Rajaratne, in her delegation for the January 2 talks.

For want of a thorough examination of ground realities, the Kumaratunga administration never realized Prabhakaran’s strategy. Although the government and the LTTE had been engaged in a dialogue, courtesy the International Committee of Red Cross, and through mutual contacts, major differences surfaced at the third round of talks, held in Jaffna on January 14, 1995. The government pushed for discussions on substantive political issues, parallel to humanitarian issues, whereas the LTTE demanded an immediate end to restrictions placed by the military on the Jaffna peninsula. In other words, Prabhakaran wanted the military to pull out troops from Pooneryn and Nagatheranthurai pronto to facilitate the negotiating process. Prabhakaran’s move placed Kumaratunga in an unenviable position. The terrorist leader upped the ante by demanding a formal ceasefire in place of cessation of hostilities. Prabhakaran declared that political negotiations would be subjected to a formal ceasefire.

The LTTE demanded the unhindered access to and from the Jaffna peninsula and across the Jaffna peninsula. In fact, the LTTE assassinated Gamini Dissanayake to ensure Kumaratunga’s victory at the November 9, 1994, presidential poll as it realized that the UNP would never give up siege on the Jaffna peninsula. The LTTE obviously believed that Kumaratunga would succumb to its pressure. In spite of all major population centers, including Jaffna town and its suburbs, Chavakachcheri and Point Pedro-Valvettiturai, being under its control, the LTTE experienced severe difficulties due to the military controlling two major entry/exit points to and from the Jaffna peninsula.

Having failed to evict the army from the isolated Elephant Pass base, in mid 1991, the LTTE prohibited civilians from crossing the Elephant Pass causeway under any circumstances. Instead, the LTTE used the Jaffna lagoon as its main supply route. People, too, were ordered to use the same route. In accordance with the overall military strategy, the navy set up a base at Nagathevanthurai, on the Vanni mainland, to intercept boat movements. The architect of the naval strategy, Vice Admiral Clancy Fernando, received the wrath of the LTTE. The LTTE assassinated the navy chief on the morning of November 16, 1992, at Galle Face, opposite hotel Taj Samudra. Fernando was the first service commander to die in a terrorist attack.

The military threw a cordon around Jaffna peninsula, in late 1991, in accordance with its overall strategy to cut off LTTE entry/exit points, to and from the peninsula. Sea borne troops established a new army base at Pooneryn, while the navy moved to nearby Nagathevanthurai. The navy was tasked to intercept illegal boat movements across the Jaffna lagoon. Civilians, too, perished in the naval action. The Military action caused severe difficulties to both the LTTE and the civilian population.

Although the army couldn’t launch a major offensive, meant to bring the Jaffna peninsula under its control, in the wake of the LTTE killing war veterans, the then Northern Commander, Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne on the morning of August 8, 1992, the military relentlessly targeted LTTE movements across, Jaffna lagoon.

A UN agency, deployed in Sri Lanka held a series of talks with the LTTE commencing late 1992, to explore ways and means of opening the Pooneryn-Sangupiddy route, across the Jaffna peninsula. Dr. Peter Nicholas, the then senior protection officer of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the agency’s regional legal advisor, Bo Schack, met LTTE representatives in Jaffna on Dec 9, 1992, to pursue the matter. In spite of several rounds of tripartite, talks involving the government, the LTTE and UNHCR, the much touted bid failed due to Prabhakaran demanding the immediate withdrawal of troops from Pooneryn and Nagathevanthurai.

The military strongly opposed the LTTE move. The then President Ranasinghe Premadasa acknowledged concerns expressed by the military leadership. Regardless of international pressure, Prabhakaran refused to cooperate with the UNHCR.

In late September/early October, 1993, the army launched ‘Operation Yal Devi’ to clear the LTTE/civilian boat launching point at Kilaly, in the Jaffna peninsula. Yal Devi was nothing but a disaster. Although the then army leadership portrayed Yal Devi as a resounding success, the poorly planned large scale offensive pathetically failed to make a dent in the LTTE. Within four weeks, after the army called off Yal Devi, the LTTE launched a devastating multi-pronged assault on Pooneryn and Nagathevanthurai, killing several hundred army and navy personnel. The then army chief Lt. Gen. Cecil Waidyaratne, quit after having accepted responsibility for the humiliating battlefield losses. The battlefield disaster shook the then President Dingiri Banda Wijetunga’s government.

Although the navy abandoned Nagathevanthurai, the army reinforced Pooneryn to ensure the siege on the Jaffna peninsula continued. The UNP ruled out vacating Pooneryn under any circumstances. The LTTE struggled to move supplies, across the Jaffna lagoon, in spite of the navy no longer having a base at Nagathevanthurai.

The CBK-Prabhakaran agreement, on cessation of hostilities, finalized on January 5, 1995, as well as the latter’s demand for the removal of the army base at Pooneryn, made at the third round of talks, on January 14, 1995, should be examined in the backdrop of the failed bid to re-open the Main Supply Route (MSR) through the Jaffna lagoon, during the 1992-1993 period. Prabhakaran had been so desperate to ensure a safe entry/exit point without compromising his deployment of units, Gamini Dissanayake was assassinated to pave the way for fresh round of negotiations. The LTTE obviously believed that the cessation of hostilities could facilitate its imitative to manoeuvre CBK to vacate Pooneryn. The LTTE offered to transform cessation of hostilities to a formal ceasefire to pave the way for political negotiations if CBK gave up Pooneryn. Although an influential section of the government wanted to accept the LTTE’s offer, the military strongly opposed. Prabhakaran indicated, in no uncertain terms, that he wouldn’t proceed with the peace initiative unless CBK sacrificed Pooneryn. Vacation of Pooneryn would have facilitated LTTE movements across the Jaffna lagoon, thereby increasing the threat on isolated military bases in the Jaffna peninsula. Prabhakaran needed unhindered access to and from the Vanni mainland to guarantee continuous MSR between the peninsula and the Vanni mainland. It was purely a military requirement.

The LTTE refused to allow special committees tasked to deal with the violations of cessation of hostilities. When an irate CBK accused Prabhakaran of blocking special committees, hence sabotaging the agreement on cessation of hostilities, the terrorist leader declared that the committees couldn’t be allowed to function unless their foreign heads briefed him. Prabhakaran wanted Audun Holm (Norway), Johan Gabrielson (Norway), Lt. Colonel Paul Henry Hosting (Holland) and Maj. Gen. C. Miller (Canada) to meet him in Jaffna. The air force flew them to Jaffna where they briefly met Prabhakaran, on February 5. Even after that, the LTTE didn’t allow monitoring committees to function. The LTTE called for modification of the agreement, on cessation of hostilities, to address several other issues, such as mobility of LTTE cadres in the Eastern Province, comprising the districts of Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee, LTTE movements in coastal waters as well as fishing rights. The LTTE insisted on the right of its cadres to carry weapons in the Eastern Province. The LTTE emphasized that monitoring committees wouldn’t be allowed to function unless the government met its additional demands. The LTTE ignored the government stand that the organization couldn’t put forward new demands after having agreed to set up monitoring committees in accordance with cessation of hostilities, finalized on January 5, 1995. These demands were made in addition to the primary condition that the Pooneryn base should be vacated.

January 5, 1995 agreement on
cessation of hostilities

The following is the text of the agreement for a specific period:

(A) There will be no offensive operations by either party during this period. An offensive operation will be considered a violation of the agreement.

(B) The security forces and the LTTE will maintain their present position on the ground, keeping a minimum of 600 metres between each other. However, each party would receive the right of movement within 100 metres from their own bunker lines, keeping a minimum of 400 metres in between. Any party moving in the restricted areas would be considered an offensive operation.

(C) The Navy and the Air Force will continue to perform their legitimate tasks for safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country, from external aggression, without in anyway engaging in offensive operations against the LTTE, or causing any obstructions to legitimate and bonafide fishing activity in specified areas.

(D) Acts such as sabotage, bomb explosions, abductions, assassinations and intimidation directed at any political party, party or any individual will amount to an offensive operation.


* It is suggested that committees to deal with violations of this agreement be set up to inquire into any instances of violation of the above terms of agreement. These committees could be set up in areas of Jaffna, Mannar, Vavuniya, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara and any other areas deemed necessary.

* It will be the responsibility of these committees to take immediate action on complaints made by either party to this agreement to inquire into and resolve such disputes.

*These committees could comprise of representatives drawn from Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, ICRC and from among retired judges or public officers, religious heads and other leading citizens; all appointed by mutual agreement.

* Each committee could consist of five members, two from the government, two from the LTTE and a foreign country who will be chairman.

* Freedom of Movement for committees to perform their tasks will have to be ensured by both parties to this agreement.

* Facilities for the committees to act swiftly and impartially will have to be provided by mutual agreement.

(F) Recommend establishment of communication link between security forces and the LTTE military commanders which will enable them to sort out problems expeditiously, locally.

(G) Cessation of hostilities will continue until notice of termination is given by either party. Such notice should be given at least 72 hours before termination.

Could there be anything as ridiculous as agreeing to suspend sabotage, bomb explosions, abductions, assassinations and intimidation after the LTTE having massacred nearly 60 people, including Gamini Dissanayake. Kumaratunga or her advisers, were naive to believe that permanent peace was feasible with the LTTE, though it maintained a formidable conventional military capability. They never realized that Prabhakaran always utilized negotiations to consolidate his position on the ground or remove whatever impediments, which undermined his strategy. Prabhakaran’s initiative, in 1994, was meant to break the crippling siege on the Jaffna peninsula after having failed to dislodge the army base at Pooneryn in November, 1993. Had it not for the daring sea borne landings, carried out in the immediate aftermath of the assault on Pooneryn, the LTTE would have totally annihilated those deployed there. Although a Court of Inquiry exposed those guilty of negligence, leading to the worst debacle up to that time, the government didn’t take punitive action against top officers, though some disciplinary action was taken.

By mid March, 1995, the agreement on cessation of hostilities was on the verge of collapse. Kumaratunga struggled to cope up with the rapidly deteriorating situation. The government was reluctant to publicly accept that the much hyped peace initiative was about to unravel. A desperate President tried to end the stalemate by bringing in an external player into the process. The President, as well as her close circle of friends, obviously couldn’t comprehend the mindset of Prabhakaran