Tuesday, 28 February 2017

A post-war bid to evict Air Force from LTTE built airfield




By Shamindra Ferdinando

All Ceylon Hindu Congress (ACHC) recently sought an appointment with President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, to make representations, on behalf of those demanding the government abandon the SLAF station at Mullaitivu, formerly an LTTE airfield, situated in a maximum security zone.

The military, engaged in operations on the Vanni east front, took over the airfield, in 2009.

ACHC President Kandiah Neelakandan e-mailed the writer, a copy of the letter, dated Feb. 23, 2017, addressed to President Maithripala Sirisena regarding the SLAF station in Mullaitivu which the top lawyer identified as Keppapulavu land.

Since the conclusion of the war, in May, 2009, the SLAF established stations at Iranamadu and Mullaitivu in the one-time LTTE bastion Mullaitivu administrative district. The two stations celebrated their fifth anniversary in early Aug last year. The SLAF set up a detachment at Mullaitivu, in June 2009, before upgrading the facility to a station, in August 2009.

The 9 SR (Ninth battalion, Sinha Regiment) captured the LTTE airfield in early January 2009. Situated about five kms west of the west bank of the Mullaitivu lagoon, the 2.5 km-long and, approximately 100 m wide airfield, had been used by Air Tigers to mount attacks on Colombo. The 9 SR, attached to the 59.3 Brigade, compelled the LTTE to abandon the airfield following a two-day battle. The largest airfield, captured by the Army, up to January, 2009, Mullaitivu was the fourth to be overrun on the Vanni front.

The following is the text of the brief letter, signed by Neelakandan, and ACHC General Secretary V. Kandasamy: "... while we pray to His Almighty Lord Sivakami Samedha Shri Nadarajapperuman for showering His blessings on Your Excellency’s Government and the people of this country. On the eve of Maha Sivarathiri we on behalf of the Hindus of this country make fervent Appeal to Your Excellency and the Government of Sri Lanka to give immediate reliefs to all the people who are fasting at Keppapulavu and all the others who have been deprived of their fundamental right to live in their own homes. We also appeal to Your Excellency to give us an appointment to meet Your Excellency and bring to Your Excellency’s attention the several other grievances of the Hindus of this country."

The ACHC decision to intervene on behalf the affected people shouldn’t be disputed under any circumstances. Messrs Neelakandan and Kandasamy declared in a brief note to The Island that they believed in the rights of the people , irrespective of race and religion, to know the truth regarding the land dispute, They asserted that the ACHC, being a religious institution, shouldn’t be an obstacle for the institution to issue a statement in this regard.

ACHC represents Federation of Hindu Religious Associations and Temple Trusts in Sri Lanka. In fact, ACHC’s move should be appreciated and strongly backed against the backdrop of a simmering dispute among some members of the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) over the Keppapulavu issue.

Those who had been agitating for the return of the Mullaitivu SLAF station/Keppapulavu conveniently refrained from referring to the wartime High Security Zone (HSZ) maintained by the LTTE. The LTTE had two fortified and fully camouflaged hangers, adjoining the airfield. At least two light aircraft had operated from Mullaitivu, an area deep inside the the LTTE held territory was not vulnerable to ground forces advance. However, the hangers had been fortified to such an extent to face possible air strikes by jets and infiltration by Special Forces and Commandos operating behind the lines.

The TNA has been sharply divided over its post-war strategy with an influential section challenging the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) leadership. ACHC has intervened amidst on-going disputes at Keppapulavu, Puthukudiyiruppu and the recently concluded Vavuniya agitation caused by factionalism within the grouping.

ACHC is certain to know about simmering factionalism within the former political wing of the LTTE. The TNA comprises ITAK, TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization), PLOTE (People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam) and EPRLF (Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front).

The EPRLF, headed by former Jaffna District MP Suresh Premachandran and Vanni District MP Sivasakthi Anandan, recently organized a protest campaign to highlight the issue of disappearances. The Vavuniya project was directed at the ITAK as well as the TELO.

The EPRLF has stepped up its efforts to grab a bigger role for itself in the grouping at the expense of the ITAK.

A section of the TNA is also behind the Puthukudiruppu protests. The grouping is divided over three major issues, namely the military holding public/private property in the former war zones, war time disappearances and continuing detention of LTTE terrorists (TNA calls them political prisoners).

An LTTE-time pact

In Oct, 2001, Tamil political parties at the behest of the LTTE reached an agreement to contest the impending general election. Interestingly, the TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front) had been the main party in the political grouping with R. Sampanthan signing the agreement on behalf of the then most influential political party. N. Kumarakuruparan on behalf of All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), N. Sri Kantha on behalf of TELO and Suresh Premachandran of behalf of EPRLF-Suresh wing signed the agreement.

The project was meant to pressure whichever party won the general election to immediately declare a ceasefire, lift restrictions imposed on the transport of a range of items northwards, beyond Omanthai, to do away with the ban on the LTTE and to enter into talks with the group to arrive at an acceptable political solution to the ‘Tamil national question’ through Norwegian initiative.

The ITAK hadn’t been in the scene at that time. TULF leadership had no option but to work according to LTTE directives or face the consequences.

The LTTE had been in a commanding position at the time it formed the political outfit, especially to contest Dec 5, 2001 general election. The LTTE achieved a series of significant battlefield victories, including the unprecedented success at Elephant Pass, in April, 2000. The then Kumaratunga administration struggled, both on political and military fronts, in the wake of over a dozen members of the People’s Alliance (PA) parliamentary group switching their allegiance to the UNP.

Way paved for political project

The LTTE overwhelmed the Kumaratunga administration on the political and military fronts. In the run-up to the Dec 2001 parliamentary poll, the army suffered a debilitating setback on the Jaffna front. What was expected to be the first phase of a large scale ground offensive ended in failure with the Jaffna forces suffering massive losses.

On the morning of April 25, 2001, the army launched Operation Agnikheela I, to expand the Eluththumaduval defence line. The operation got underway at 5.30 am; a few hours after the LTTE launched a heavy mortar attack on Muhamalai, Kilali and Nagarkovil causing many casualties. A confident Lt. Gen. Balagalle arrived in Palaly as troops were making headway, though the situation changed later in the day. (Army mounts Agnikheela 1: regains more territory––The Island April 26, 2001). The army top brass soon realized that troops couldn’t penetrate strong LTTE fortifications. The enemy withstood heavy artillery and mortar attacks as well as air strikes. The first major operation, in 2001, was in disarray. The army had no alternative but to call off the operation. It was a humiliating setback. The SLA believed that the deployment of two Divisions would force the LTTE to abandon Pallai. Although they regained approximately eight square kms, a series of devastating counter attacks caused heavy losses among troops. The army withdrew, leaving behind bodies of about 100 personnel which were later returned by the LTTE through the ICRC. The army lost about 200 personnel. Almost 900 received injuries (Fallback to save lives: Pallai offensive called off––The Island April 29, 2001). In fact, the SLA launched Agnikheela to regain Elephant Pass. It was the most ambitious project launched by Lt. Gen. Balagalle since President Chandrika Kumaratunga picked him over one of the most decorated soldiers, Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera, to command the army. Agnikheela was launched two days after the LTTE called off its unilateral ceasefire declared at midnight Dec 24, 2000.

The LTTE stepped up pressure on the PA administration with a devastating attack on the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) in July 2001. The commando raid destroyed aircraft worth millions of dollars and brought immense pressure on the administration.

Having secured a commanding battlefield position, the LTTE developed a political strategy using TULF-led groups. The Oct 2001 political pact brought together groups which accepted the LTTE leadership. The LTTE ran the grouping though at an early stage the TULF was left out and the ITAK brought in as the main party. The grouping was in crisis in the post-war era though it worked as a team under LTTE command (Oct 2001 to May 2009).

The TNA faced a major crisis in the wake of one-time LTTE battlefield commander Karuna Amman quitting the organization, in early 2004. Karuna made a determined bid to discourage TNA members of parliament, representing the Ampara and Batticaloa electoral districts, from following the LTTE line. However, the TNA survived the bloody battle for supremacy between the LTTE and the breakaway LTTE faction primarily consisting of cadres born in the Batticaloa and Ampara sectors.

ACHC intervention

ACHC’s intervention in the Mullaitivu land issue should be examined against the backdrop of the internal crisis in the TNA. The alleged attempt on the life of TNA heavyweight Jaffna District MP M.A. Sumanthiran cannot be taken lightly though an influential section of the group dismissed recent media reports pertaining to the arrest of members of the defeated LTTE cadres in connection with the incident. Five LTTE cadres, including some who had been in direct touch with some diaspora elements, had been remanded in connection with the alleged Sumanthiran assassination bid.

There had been another arrest of an LTTE cadre in the eastern Batticaloa district following an alleged attempt to strangle Karuna.

Perhaps ACHC should also discuss the situation with other parties to the crisis in addition to President Maithripala Sirisena. President Sirisena has publicly accused some Tamil politicians of sabotaging the yahapalana government efforts to settle the war displaced. Responding to a query posed by the Tamil media, at a Janadhipathi Mandiraya meeting with editors and proprietors of print and electronic media last year, an irate President Maithripala Sirisena claimed that some northern politicians had instigated public protests. President Sirisena alleged that those politicians had advised protesting public not to accept alternate land offered by the government.

As ACHC, in its letter to President Sirisena referred to ‘all the others who have been deprived of their fundamental right to live in their own homes’ in addition to the Keppapulavu displaced, it would be pertinent to mention that the civil society never took up the large scale displacement of people caused by the LTTE. In Oct and Nov 1990, the LTTE forced the entire Muslim population out of the Northern Province at gun point. The LTTE confiscated their property. Those who had been demanding accountability on the part of the government for unsubstantiated war crimes allegations never bothered at least to voice their concerns. The Sinhalese were driven out of the Jaffna peninsula and some other parts of the Northern Province at a much earlier stage of the conflict. Even seven years after the end of the war, the government hadn’t been able to resolve the issue.

Essentially, the Tamil society firmly believed in the LTTE’s capability to achieve its military objectives. The formation of the TNA, in Oct 2001, had been aimed at achieving its political objectives. The TNA played a significant role, both in and outside parliament, over the years, and firmly remained committed to the cause until the very end. The diaspora had been part of the LTTE-run operation meant to raise funds to procure arms, ammunition, and equipment and also to obtain the services of various foreigners. The diaspora also exerted pressure on EU governments, as well as Canada and the Scandinavian countries, at the behest of the LTTE. The diaspora had been so influential that the largest grouping Global Tamil Forum (GTF) had its inauguration at the House of Commons, in Feb 2010. In a way, the decimation of the LTTE had freed the diaspora as well as the TNA. They are now free to charter their own courses. The existing post-LTTE partnership between the TNA and the GTF should be examined carefully as they push the Yahapalana government over constitutional reforms.

Having lost the war, in May 2009, the LTTE rump and those who had been at the beck and call of Velupillai Prabhakaran, both here and overseas, are now pursuing separatist objectives. They are hell bent on achieving LTTE objectives through constitutional means and campaign of protests. The on-going agitation, aimed at forcing the government to abandon the SLAF station at Mullaitivu, is a case in point. Recently, Prisons reforms, rehabilitation, resettlement and Hindu affairs Minister D.M. Swaminathan took up the Keppapulavu issue with President Maithripala Sirisena. Subsequently, Minister Swaminathan issued a statement to the media assuring the matter would be settled soon and the President discussed the issue with Army Chief Lt. Gen. Crishanthe de Silva. But the Keppapulavu issue involved the Air force. Had those wanting to regain the land, where the LTTE had its largest airfield, succeeded in their on-going project, it may inspire further protests. The next target will be the SLAF station at Iranamdu, originally set up by the LTTE. The LTTE undertook construction of airfields, east of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road during the Norway-run peace process. The CFA, which came into operation in Feb 2002, made things much easier for the LTTE. The LTTE efficiently utilized that period to enhance its military strength both in terms and men, material and infrastructure projects such as the Mullaitivu airfield.

Nagarkovil example

During the CFA, the LTTE ordered a series of protests in the Northern and Eastern Provinces to force the military to give up areas dominated by them. The LTTE cleverly used the then government to pressure the military. Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne (KG), in his memoirs Rana Maga Osse Nanthikadal recalled one such instance

KG dealt with an incident at Nagarkovil, in Vadamamaratchy (Jaffna peninsula), soon after the signing of the CFA to underscore the growing threat posed by the LTTE. The UNP-led United National Front (UNF) government, as well as the Army top brass, bended backwards to appease terrorists. At the time of the Nagarkovil incident, KG had been the 55.1 Brigade Commander, an appointment he received before the CFA. Having taken over the Brigade, deployed along the northern front line, KG had seized an LTTE fortification, situated 200 meters, south of Nagarkovil junction. Soon after the signing of the CFA, the LTTE demanded that the Army withdraw from that position to facilitate the Norwegian-led peace process.

Due to KG’s refusal to quit the forward position, the LTTE had sought Norwegian intervention. Subsequently, the then powerful Minister Milinda Moragoda, accompanied by Army Commander Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, had visited KG’s Nagarkovil headquarters before proceeding to the Army point. KG explained that Moragoda, having praised the peace process, called for the withdrawal of troops from the disputed territory. Moragoda explained the requirement, to compromise, to ensure the success of the peace process. When KG stressed that the position couldn’t be vacated, under any circumstances, Moragoda bluntly declared the Army could never defeat the LTTE. KG quoted Moragoda as having told him that the Army could never win this war. Although, the Army had waged war for about 20 years, it couldn’t bring the war to a successful conclusion. As the Army couldn’t achieve success, in the future, the government was going ahead with negotiations. Therefore, quit the disputed territory to facilitate the peace process.

Much to the disappointment of KG, the Army Chief had endorsed Moragoda’s position. KG examined the stand taken by Moragoda and Balagalle on behalf of the political and military leaderships, respectively, to highlight the Army’s plight. KG described their disgraceful fearful response to terrorists with disgust. KG couldn’t stomach the commander of the Army meekly giving into Moragoda, who, at that time, wielded immense political clout. Moragoda had been a member of the then government’s four-member peace negotiating team tasked to engage in talks with the LTTE. The team comprised Prof. G.L. Peiris, Moragoda, SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem and career diplomat Bernard Goonetilleke, the first head of the Peace Secretariat.

A few weeks later, Army headquarters shifted KG, from Nagarkovil, to the Army Command and Staff College. Obviously, Balagalle felt that KG’s presence, at Nagarkovil, could undermine the ‘peace project’ and moved him out of the then temporarily-merged North-East province. KG declared that Balagalle’s endorsement of Moragoda’s assertion that the Army could never have finished off the LTTE caused him great pain and disappointment.