Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Conflict over Air Force presence at Mullaitivu



By Shamindra Ferdinando

Various interested parties relentlessly push for further reduction of military presence in the Northern, as well as the Eastern Provinces, comprising eight administrative districts.

The Northern Province comprises the administrative districts of Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya. The Eastern Province consists of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara

Following the nearly three-year combined security forces campaign, the military brought back the whole of the two provinces under state control, in May, 2009.

Since then, those who had faith in the LTTE’s battlefield strategies are pursuing Velupillai Prabhakaran’s objectives.

 Among those wanting the government to further scale down armed forces deployment are some foreign governments as well as the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Geneva has repeatedly called for significant armed forces pull-out, regardless of the re-deployment of formations since the conclusion of the war over seven years ago.

Geneva on military presence

 Geneva has interpreted the first step in proposed security sector reform as withdrawal of a section of security forces.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, didn’t mince his words when he called for the reduction of the military force, deployed in the two provinces, to a less intrusive and intimidating as the first step in security sector reform.

 The declaration was made in the afternoon of February 9, 2016, during a media briefing at the UN compound, in Colombo. The media didn’t seek an explanation from the former Jordanian diplomat Hussein, as regards Geneva’s right to decide on military deployment here.

 Hussein had served as Jordan’s Permanent Representative to the UN (2007 to 2010) before being appointed United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in 2014. Immediately before being PR in New York, Hussein served as Jordan Ambassador to the US.

 Hussein asserted that over six years, after the end of war, people of the Northern and Eastern Provinces still lived in fear, to a certain extent. Hussein, who had played a significant role in setting up of the International Criminal Court, claimed that the continuing existence of fear, among the people living there, was due to intrusive as well as the intimidating presence of the military.

 Hussein declared: "The element of fear has considerably diminished, at least in Colombo, and the South. In the North and the East, it has mutated but, sadly, still exists." 

Having helped to form the ICC, Hussein received the appointment as the first President of the Assembly of State Parties of the ICC, in Sept 2002.

The UN diplomat called for urgent measures, on the part of the government of Sri Lanka, to create normalcy in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Hussein urged the government/military to vacate land, used by security forces, immediately.

Expressing serious concern over the slow progress, Hussein declared: "There are some measures that could be taken quickly which would reverse this trend of draining confidence. First of all, the military needs to accelerate the return of land it has seized (and is still holding) to its rightful owners. While some land has been returned in the Jaffna and Trincomalee areas, there are still large tracts which can and should be swiftly given back. Once the land has been given back, the remaining communities of displaced people can — if given the necessary assistance — return home, and a lingering sore will have been cured once and for all."

 They believe post-war national reconciliation couldn’t be achieved unless the government abandoned military bases to such an extent their presence would be irrelevant. Sri Lanka’s military deployment is now under discussion, both here and overseas.

TNA project

Last week, The Island dealt with on-going efforts to force the Air Force out of their Mullaitivu station, established over five years ago. Former Supreme Court judge, C.V. Wigneswaran-led Northern Provincial administration is determined to get rid of the Air Force presence at Mullaitivu as well as Iranamadu. Mullaitivu and Iranamadu airstrips established by the LTTE during the Norway arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), have been categorized as Air Force stations after  the crushing of the Tigers.

 The airstrip, near the Iranamadu tank, was meant to bring in plane loads of ammunition and some specialized armaments, which could have had helped the LTTE to stall the advancing army, on the Vanni east front. The Air Force transformed the Iranamadu airstrip to the largest such facility in the eastern part of the Vanni region. Spanning a length of 1,500 metres and width of 25 metres, it can accommodate even a fully loaded C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, the largest in service with the SLAF. Even a jet can land there in an emergency. The SLAF’s Rapid Runway Repair Wing (RRRW) had spearheaded the runway building project with the main work commencing in Feb. 2012, nearly three years after the liberation of the entire Vanni region.

Those pushing for the eviction of the Air Force, from Mullaitivu, have claimed that during the tenure of the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) government some Mahaveer families were given the land now occupied by the military. They called the disputed area Keppapulavu. According to them, the deeds for forest department land had been issued during the CFA. The UNP bended backwards to appease the LTTE even after the group quit the Norwegian-facilitated negotiating process, in late April, 2003.

LTTE strategy

 Having finalized CFA, in Feb 2002, the LTTE implemented a well-coordinated project to challenge the military presence in the Northern and Eastern provinces. The LTTE executed the plan in coordination with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the public. The LTTE formed the TNA, in Oct, 2001, in accordance with its overall plan to overwhelm the Sri Lankan state. 

The European Union Election Observation Mission, in mid 2004, confirmed the LTTE-TNA partnership, where Tigers stuffed ballot boxes in their presence to ensure victory of TNA candidates. The EU dealt with the LTTE-TNA operation in its report on the April 2004 parliamentary election. The Rajapaksa administration didn’t even bother to comment on the EU confirmation that the TNA had secured the lion’s share of parliamentary seats in the North-East with the LTTE’s support. The Election Commission, too, conveniently remained silent.

Soon after signing the CFA, the LTTE launched protests outside selected military bases. The LTTE leadership had no qualms in involving students in violent protests directed at military bases. The TNA publicly endorsed the despicable LTTE strategy. Western diplomatic missions turned a blind eye to what was going on. The much talked about ‘Pongu Thamil’ protest campaign was meant to put pressure on the UNP over military bases.

An embarassed UNP administration directed Army headquarters not to release daily situation reports in an effort to suppress the crisis up North and in some parts of the Eastern Province. But, the military released information to a section of the media, regardless of government directives. Much to the discomfort of the UNP leadership, its attempts to influence the media failed.

On the one hand the LTTE and its allies strongly pushed for reduced military presence in the Northern and Eastern Provinces while they consolidated the LTTE-held area recognized by the CFA.

Austin on LTTE scheme

Austin Fernando, who had been the Defence Secretary at the time of the CFA, explained the situation faced by the then government. In an article titled ‘The Peace Process and Security Issues’ accommodated in ‘Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons’ edited by NGO guru Kumar Rupesinghe, in early 2006, Fernando dealt with the issue at hand. Let me reproduce verbatim what present Governor of the Eastern Province Fernando stated: "...even the long established forward defence lines were challenged by the Tamil public, purportedly instigated by the LTTE causing political embarrassment to the government of Sri Lanka as happened in the army camp raid in Point Pedro and numerous attempts to break into the High Security Zones (HSZ) in the Jaffna peninsula. At an inspection of the Point Pedro camp immediately after the incident, it was apparent that the LTTE had instigated children and parents demanding ‘public presence’ (inclusive of LTTE cadres) within the HSZs. The contradiction is that the Tamil public in HSZs of the LTTE (eg. Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Puthukudirippu, Vakarai, Pittugala, Taravai and Karadianaru camp areas) did not enjoy such freedom."

The so-called civil society turned a blind eye to LTTE actions. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) threw its weight behind the LTTE project.  The CFA facilitated their campaign to weaken the military presence, in accordance with the CFA.

The on-going efforts to further reduce military presence up north should be examined with overall eelam objectives in mind.

Swaminathan’s role

Prisons reforms, rehabilitation, resettlement and Hindu religious affairs Minister D.M. Swaminathan, on Feb 28, 2017, explained his role in securing some land held by the Air Force in Mullaitivu. Fifty two families had received land. Referring to the on-going public protests at Mullaitivu, which commenced on Feb 1, 2017, the ministry, said that Swaminathan had discussed the issue with President Maithripala Sirisena on Feb 14. The discussion led to President Sirisena issuing instructions to the military vacate land, held by them, as soon as possible. Subsequently, the Air force handed over 42 acres of land. In addition to Swaminathan, TNA leader, who is also the Opposition Leader, R. Sampanthan, has received an assurance from President Sirisena regarding the planned release of 42 acres of land on March 1. President Sirisena has reiterated his commitment on Feb 27.

Present Air Force leadership will have to take all factors into consideration in responding to the new threat. Mullaitivu situation must be tackled carefully. The government shouldn’t allow its partners to exploit the situation at Mullaitivu or any other district to their political advantage. Obviously, both members of parliament and outside are seeking political gains at the expense of national security. The Air Force leadership, the writer is sure is pondering over the crisis as the service celebrated its 66 anniversary last week.

Handing over of a part of the Air Force held area in Mullaitivu will certainly not stop on-going public protests instigated by an influential section of the TNA. In fact, both Swaminathan and Sampanthan hadn’t been originally involved in the project to evict the Air Force from Mullaitivu. High profile public protests had been an integral part of the campaign to undermine the current TNA leadership. Sampanthan had earned the wrath of some members of the TNA for promoting Jaffna District MP M.A. Sumanthiran, leading attorney-at-law, and the party spokesman. With the TNA deeply divided over issues ranging from the release of military held land to the 30/1 Geneva Resolution, different factions are likely to step up pressure on the government. Evidently, they’ll go all out against military presence in areas that had been previously held by the military.

Constitutional reforms

A determined bid to force significant scaling down of the military should be examined amidst stepped up calls for empowering Provincial Councils with land and police powers.

Nationalist groups are of the opinion that in spite of political rhetoric, the government, the TNA and their foreign partners may soon reach consensus on the full implementation of the 13 Amendment to the Constitution that was forced on President JRJ by New Delhi. Police powers to PCs should be examined vis a vis drastic cut in military muscle in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

The National Joint Committee (NJC) asserts that those wanting to divide the country on ethnic lines are likely to be satisfied with the full implementation of the 13 Amendment to the Constitution and few critical amendments meant to weaken the executive presidency in relation to Provincial Councils. Police powers to Provincial Councils against the backdrop of the Governors losing executive powers can cause quite a problem. Those wanting to empower PCs believe they didn’t require a brand new Constitution. Instead, they will influence the government to bring in an Amendment meant to fully implement the 13 Amendment to the Constitution. That’ll set the stage for a federal state in the North-East region. The 20th Amendment will be aimed at diluting presidential power to bring a province under direct rule, weakening of Office of the Governor, elimination of the Concurrent List and the government ability to implement ‘national policy’ in all provinces in respect of all subjects and functions.

The deployment of armed forces should be the sole prerogative of the government. That right shouldn’t be subjected to negotiations with political parties and civil society organizations. Those who had been shedding crocodile tears for civilians deprived of their original land turned a blind to the LTTE build up leading to the Eelam War IV.

 The LTTE built seven airstrips in the Vanni region. The Task Force I/58 Division captured the seven airstrip in the first week of February, 2009, north-east of Piramantharukulam in the Puthukudirippu area.  The two-km long airstrip situated west of Sundarapuram, Thirivilaru, had been among a network built in Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi districts.  However, only those at Iranamadu and Mullaitivu had been built to acceptable standards. The SLAF acquired both. The LTTE enforced tough security measures to prevent civilians coming near airstrips. There had never been protests against measures adopted by the LTTE to protect installations vital to them. Those who had been complaining about heavy military presence in the Northern and Eastern Provinces since the conclusion of the war never found fault with the LTTE. In fact, they never found fault with the LTTE for withdrawing from Norway managed negotiations in April 2003 with the then Premier Wickremesinghe.

The TNA remained silent. The civil society and the diplomatic community, too, contributed to the LTTE strategy. The LTTE complained about everything. They resorted to various tactics to impose restrictions on the armed forces. Specific measures were made to protect its airstrips. The LTTE called for the intervention of the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) to stop the Air Force from flying over the Vanni. The LTTE stepped up pressure on the mission, comprising Scandinavian countries, in the wake of the Air Force spotting light aircraft on the Iranamadu airstrip. Norway and SLMM ignored Sri Lanka’s concerns. Although, the SLAF pointed out the danger in allowing the airstrip project, the then government lacked the strength to bring the operation to an end. Although government representatives complained to the SLMM, they didn’t really pursue the matter. National security certainly hadn’t been on the minds of the then leaders, who believed in appeasing the LTTE. Had the LTTE remained at the negotiating table it could have developed its military infrastructure under the very noses of the then government leaders. The SLFP-led government that succeeded Wickremesinghe’s administration followed foolish policy of appeasement. No government would have tolerated the assassination of its Foreign Minister like Mrs Kumaratunga’s did in Aug 2005. Don’t forget, her successor Mahinda Rajapaksa, too, promptly accepted Norwegian facilitation as well as Peace Co-Chairs’ role. The President twice sent delegations for talks with the LTTE abroad. President Rajapaksa also made an attempt to negotiate with the LTTE through NGO guru Dr Kumar Rupesinghe. The LTTE spurned Rajapaksa’s efforts as it was convinced of its military capability. Those who had been demanding accountability on the part Sri Lanka never found fault with the LTTE strategy as they, too, had faith in the LTTE’s strength until the fall of the strategic Elephant Pass, on January 1, 2009.