Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Wartime elimination of UNP leadership




2018 Premadasa commemoration at Aluthkade (L) Dulanjalee, Hema, Wickremesinghe, Sirisena and Sajith

(pic Sujatha Jayaratne)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) held a successful May Day rally in Jaffna yesterday. In Colombo, a commemorative event was held near Aluthkade court complex to mark the 25th death anniversary of the late President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, assassinated by the LTTE near the Armour Street police station as he was leading the UNP May Day procession, in 1993. The UNPer was 69 years at the time of his assassination.

Among those present at the Aluthkade event, organized by the late Premadasa’s family, were President Maithripala Sirisena and PM Ranil Wickremesinghe. From there, they rushed to the Presidential Secretariat where the much delayed cabinet reshuffle took place amidst continuing political turmoil resulting from the massive drubbing received at the Feb. 10 Local Government polls.

Last week, Regional Development Minister, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, delivered the Lalith Athulathmudali commemoration speech at the BMICH. Athulathmudali was assassinated on the night of April 23, 1993, at Kirulapone. One-time National Security Minister Athulathmudali was 57 at the time of his assassination.

Fonseka, Sri Lanka’s most successful Army Chief, lamented the demise of Athulathmudali whose assassination was blamed on Premadasa by a section of the then UNP leader’s political opponents. The police, however, believed the LTTE carried out the assassination. A Commission, appointed by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, following the presidential poll in Nov. 1994, pointed the finger at Premadasa and some persons close to him. The Commission report was released in Oct. 1997.

The LTTE assassinated UNP dissident Athulathmudali and UNP leader Premadasa within 10 days in April-May 1993, in the run-up to the Western Provincial Council polls. The assassinations were meant to plunge the country into chaos, amidst the simmering ‘battle’ between the UNP and the dissident group, led by Athulathmudali, and Gamini Dissanayake - top ministers of the JRJ administration. The LTTE assassinated Dissanayake at Thotalanga along with several top rungers of the UNP, on the night of Oct 23, 1994. Dissanayake, 52, was the UNP presidential election candidate at the time of his assassination. Athulathmudali’s assassination paved the way for Dissanayake to return to the fold at the expense of Ranil Wickremesinghe and secure the UNP presidential candidature with the blessings of the then President D.B. Wijetunga.

The Dissanayake assassination took place between the parliamentary and presidential polls, in 1994, however talks between the Kumaratunga administration and the LTTE continued despite the dastardly act of the latter. In spite of the assassination, Kumaratunga went ahead with direct peace negotiations. The LTTE resumed the war with devastating missile attacks on a transport aircraft, blasting several Navy craft berthed at Trincomalee, killing 100s of armed forces officers and men, in late April, 1995.

Gamini returns to the fold

Today, many had forgotten the circumstances under which Dissanayake returned to the UNP, following Premadasa’s assassination. The demise of Premadasa and Athulathmudali led to the swift realization that Dissanayake could return to the UNP, through the National List, after a brief tussle with the Ranil Wickremesinghe camp take over the parliamentary group and be the candidate at the scheduled presidential polls the following year.

Wijetunga declared Dissanayake the winner following a secret ballot held among the UNP parliamentary group, in late Aug. 1994, in the wake of Kumaratunga leading the SLFP-led People’s Alliance (PA) to victory at the Aug. 16, 1994 parliamentary polls. Wijetunga declared Dissanayake the winner by three votes. The UNP parliamentary group comprised 94 members. Having initially named Dissanayake as the UNP parliamentary group leader, a section of the party cleverly manipulated the parliamentary group and the Working Group to name Dissanayake the presidential candidate.

Close on the heels of Premadasa’s assassination, Wickremesinghe shifted from Gampaha to Colombo as he sought to consolidate his position.

The LTTE exploited the political situation in Colombo to further destabilize the government. Political assassinations were key element in that strategy. It would be pertinent to examine despicable LTTE strategies that crippled major political parties, caused uncertainty and instability. The UNP never recovered from those targeted killings, carried out by the LTTE.

At the time of those high profile assassinations of UNP leaders, the LTTE directed its operations from Jaffna. In fact, the military held Elephant Pass, Palaly and Kankesanthurai while the LTTE controlled the rest of the Jaffna peninsula. Having lost the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to Jaffna, in June 1990, the armed forces struggled to maintain Jaffna presence with supplies moved by sea and air.

Fonseka’s Army restored the MSR, in January 2009, though the peninsula was brought under government control in early 1996 during Kumaratunga’s presidency.

The JVP May Day rally, in Jaffna, certainly reminded the country of the restoration of normalcy almost a decade ago. Next week, the SLFP will hold its May Day rally in Batticaloa, once an LTTE stronghold where the group maintained strong presence until Fonseka’s Army brought the Eastern Province under the government control, in mid 2007. The Eastern Province had never been completely brought under State control before though from time to time successive governments conducted operations.

Annihilation of a political party

The first prominent politician, assassinated by the LTTE, was an SLFPer. Attorney-at-law, Mayor of Jaffna and former MP Alfred Thangarajah Duraiappah was assassinated in the north on July 27, 1975. Duraiappah, 49, was shot dead outside the Varadarajah Perumal temple at Ponnalai. Although, the SLFP lost Duraiappah, its top leadership survived though the LTTE almost succeeded in assassinating Kumaratunga on the night of Dec 19, 2001, at her final presidential election campaign rally. On the same day, the LTTE assassinated retired Maj. Gen. Lucky Algama, a former Army Chief of Staff, at a UNP rally at Ja-Ela. Kumaratunga survived the suicide blast. Algama, one of those officers who had the courage to execute a bloody campaign against the JVP, wasn’t lucky. The armed forces brought the JVP to its knees, in early 1990, with the elimination of almost all its top leaders, including Rohana Wijeweera, in Nov. 1989.

The current crisis in the UNP should be examined in the context of the LTTE killings. Before the LTTE claimed the lives of Athulathmudali (April 23, 1993), Premadasa (May Day, 1993) and Dissanayake (Oct. 23, 1994), it blasted Ranjan Wijeratne on March 2, 1991, in Colombo. Wijeratne, 60, was the General Secretary of the party at the time of his assassination. Premadasa loyalist B. Sirisena Cooray succeeded Wijeratne and held that post until the assassination of Premadasa whose successor Wijetunga sought Cooray’s resignation. Wijetunga brought in Dr. Gamini Wijesekera as the UNP General Secretary, who perished with Dissanayake at Thotalanga. Wijetunga purged the party of Premadasa loyalists though the late leader had made him the Prime Minister at the expense of the unity of the party. Premadasa’s move angered an influential section of the UNP. That led to Athulathmudali and Dissanayake quitting the UNP to form their own political outfit.

The Havelock Road blast claimed the lives of about 20 civilians and several police bodyguards attached to the then Deputy Defence Minister’s guard. Wijeratne, widely considered No. 2 in the Premadasa administration, vowed to defeat the LTTE though he never received the required political backing. Premadasa believed in a negotiated settlement in spite of the LTTE resuming hostilities, in June 1990. In the wake of the LTTE’s treachery, Wijeratne declared in parliament: "I am going all out for the LTTE. I never do anything in half measures." Some speculated Wijeratne’s assassination couldn’t have been carried out without inside help.

Wijeratne dealt ruthlessly with the JVP. However, Wijeratne lacked the wherewithal to destroy the LTTE. The then UNP leadership never felt the requirement to increase the Army’s strength or firepower. As Field Marshal Fonseka pointed out at the Athulathmudali commemorative event the other day, the UNP Minister in charge of finance in the JRJ government, deprived Athulathmudali of the much required finances. Fonseka discussed difficulties confronted by Athulathmudali and his first and only official meeting with the then National Security Minister, in 1986, at the time he was a Major.

Kumaratunga, who was also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, provided tremendous boost to the military. Although, Kumaratunga lacked the foresight to increase the strength of the Army, or additional vessels for the Navy, she authorized acquisition of Kfirs (1996), MiG 27s (2000) and Mi 24s (1995) as well as a range of other armaments, including multi barrel rocket launchers. But, the armed forces couldn’t deliver until Mahinda Rajapaksa assumed presidency. The war victory achieved within three years could never have been possible if not for former Gajaba Regiment veteran Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s return from the US to coordinate the war effort as Secretary to the Ministry of Defence. The LTTE made an abortive bid to assassinate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on the morning of Dec. 1, 2006, as government forces were struggling in the Eastern Province. Had the LTTE succeeded, it could have dealt an irreparable damage to the war effort as devastating as the attempted assassination of Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, inside army headquarters, on the afternoon of April 25, 2006.

Had the LTTE succeeded in eliminating Fonseka and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka could have probably lost the war. The LTTE developed the assassination of political as well as military leaders as part of its overall strategy meant to overwhelm the government. In May 2016, Fonseka, in parliament, alleged Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ‘stage managed’ a suicide assassination attempt on himself in a bid to win public sympathy for his family. Fonseka declared "No terrorist will set off a suicide bomb 25 meters away from the intended target," Fonseka told parliament during a debate on reducing the security contingent provided to the former Defence Secretary.

Controversy over assassination of a President

The LTTE thrived on conspiracy theories. Unsubstantiated allegations caused turmoil among the majority community. The LTTE acted swiftly and decisively to manipulate rapidly developing situations. The August 8, 1992 blast that killed the then Northern Commander Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne was blamed on Premadasa. Some alleged Wimalaratne had planned the mine blast at the behest of Premadasa. The Araly Point blast wiped out a group of experienced officers, much loved and respected Kobbekaduwa and Wimalaratne, the latter known for his battlefield exploits. Likewise, Premadasa’s assassination, too, fueled suspicion with his family demanding an explanation from the then UNP government.

Premadasa’s daughter, Dulanjalee, in an exclusive interview with the writer following the May Day assassination, said that the family couldn’t accept the LTTE as the perpetrator unless the government/law enforcement authorities provided evidence. Dulanjalee declared that she had no option but to raise the issue with Wijetunga as police investigations into her father’s assassination were conducted in a thoroughly unprofessional and haphazard manner. She called for the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry. An irate Dulanjalee alleged that those who had benefited from her father never bothered to look after the family after the assassination. She hinted at complicity of someone/a group in her father’s entourage facilitating the assassination. The slain Head of State’s daughter wrote to Wijetunga on May 12, 1994. She made a copy of that letter available to the writer at Shirohana’s, where the interview took place (Dulanjalee refuses to accept Premadasa killed by LTTE, wants full scale probe-The Island, May 19, 1994).

Subsequently, Dulanjalee sought an explanation from Wijetunga as to the number of suspects arrested in connection with her father’s assassination. Dulanjalee’s second letter to Wijetunga followed soon after she received a letter from the then Secretary to the President, K. H. A. Wijedasa, dated May 19, 1994.

Having declined to appoint a Commission of Inquiry, Wijetunga released his response to Dulanjalee’s letter dated May 12, 1994 to the media. The writer received a call from Wijedasa, who emphasized the pivotal importance of carrying President Wijetunga’s response in full to set the record straight. The Island carried Wijetunga’s response in its May 27, 1994, edition.

The UNP never explained why the scene of the May Day crime was scrubbed clean within an hour after the blast. Such a murder site had never been cleared before. In previous cases, the police swiftly cordoned off the scene of the incident to ensure a required environment to facilitate investigations. Let me reproduce the relevant section verbatim from Dulanjalee’s letter dated May 21, 1994, to Wijetunga: "The purpose of my requesting a Commission of Inquiry is due to the mysterious circumstances under which the assassination took place and the unprofessional and haphazard manner in which the investigations were carried out. A particular aspect where much doubt had been expressed, is the manner in which the site of the assassination at Armour Street was cleared and washed within an hour after the assassination. From what I gather it is the normal practice to cordon off any premises where any murder takes place. However, in the case of the death of the Head of State of Sri Lanka, it was cleared within such a short space of time without allowing time for further clues to be followed up apart from the initial investigations. Even the Scotland Yard investigators who were in the country inquiring into the killing of Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali at the time expressed surprise as to why the site was cleared in such a hurry. Even the site of Mr. Athulathmudali’s killing was cordoned off till the investigations were fully completed."

Dulanjalee also pointed out that the CID had taken over the investigation only on May 12, 1994, nearly two weeks after the assassination.

In the wake of Dulanjalee’s salvos, Premadasa’s son was brought in to the decision making Working Committee but the UNP deprived Hema Premadasa an opportunity to enter parliament from Colombo.

Police top brass, on June 8, 1994, briefed the slain President’s family as regards the investigation. Dulanjalee told the writer following the two and half hour meeting with the police at Hema Premadasa’s Wijerama Mawatha residence that she had seen her father’s assassin known as Babu at Sucharitha (Dulanjalee to police-released suspects doing well-The Island, June 10, 1994).

Assassination of Maj. Gen. Perera

Sri Lanka never examined the LTTE’s strategy in respect of Premadasa’s assassination. In fact, the suicide blast was meant to eliminate the second executive President Premadasa and create an environment conducive to change the UNP administration. The destabilization of the UNP, by assassinating Premadasa and Athulathmudali, ahead of the Western Provincial Council polls undermined the ruling party though it surely helped Dissanayake’s return to the fold.

It would be pertinent to mention that Dissanayake had been at logger heads with Premadasa over the UNP’s counter-insurgency strategy before the split at the onset of Premadasa’s presidency. Once Dissanayake had strongly criticized the then Foreign and de facto Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne’s counter-insurgency strategy at a UNP parliamentary group meeting chaired by Premadasa. The latter had dismissed Dissanayake’s concerns urging him to leave government if he was not happy.

Retired Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera was the last top UNPer killed by the LTTE a year before the war ended in May 2009. Perera, who earned a name for himself in operations against the JVP, as well as the LTTE, was killed in a suicide attack on Oct 6, 2008, at Anuradhapura. The UNP accused the Rajapaksa administration of not providing sufficient security in spite of the threat posed by the LTTE. The previous administration can never absolve itself of the responsibility for providing the required security.

The Anuradhapura killing deprived the UNP of a capable leader who could have accepted bigger responsibilities.

An unprecedented political combine comprising the UNP-TNA-JVP picked war-winning Fonseka as the common presidential candidate in late 2009 for the January 2010 poll. The same combine fielded Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidate at the January 2015 presidential polls.

The North no longer posed a conventional military threat coupled with terrorist operations though the TNA that once recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of Tamils retained wherewithal to advance a political strategy inimical to Sri Lanka.

Would Sampanthan’s TNA be part of the UNP-led side at the next presidential poll less than two years’ away? Having supported the UNP-led projects in 2010 and 2015, the US is most likely to be in the operation in 2020, too, to thwart the Joint Opposition bid. The possibility of former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rjapaksa coming forward as JO candidate would make the next presidential poll volatile.