Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Inauguration of new int’l airport in north amidst demand for abolition of unitary status



by Shamindra Ferdinando

Palaly was always the centre of all security operations in the Jaffna peninsula till the military brought the Jaffna, electoral district under its control, in early 1996. Both the SLAF Palaly and the Security Forces headquarters, Jaffna, were located within the Palaly High Security area. The expansion of Palaly base began in the aftermath of the LTTE resuming hostilities in June 1990.

Legendary ground commander Vijaya Wimalaratne had been among those who functioned as the SF Commander, Jaffna. Actually Palaly had been the largest single security complex in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Palaly linked with Kankesanthurai harbour to ensure the continuous supply of men and material to the largest single command in the Northern theatre.

Strategic Palaly remained the only air supply link to the North, during the conflict with the Navy, maintaining sea supply routes to and from Kankesanthurai et al.

Even after the military brought the Jaffna peninsula under government control, in early 1996, Palaly air base remained under missile threat and later some parts of it came within the LTTE artillery range, especially after the fall of the strategically important Elephant Pass base, in 2000. Having liberated Jaffna, in the first week of Dec 1995, the military brought the rest of the peninsula under its control, in early 1996.

The LTTE shot down two Avros, one taking off from Palaly and the second descending to land there in late April 1995 at the onset of Eelam War II. Over 100 officers and men perished.

The LTTE used shoulder-fired heat-seeking SAM missile for the first time, on April 28, 1995, though some asserted that they could have been deadly US Stinger missiles, provided by Washington to Afghan Mujahedeen to fight the Russians. Two Avros were brought down on consecutive days.

Acquisition of missile capability forced the then Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga government to review its strategy in the northern theatre of operations. There was no alternative but to expand Palaly as part of an overall strategy to deprive the LTTE from targeting aircraft, landing or taking off from Palaly. Kumaratunga ordered ‘Operation Riviresa’ to clear the Jaffna peninsula. ‘Operation Riviresa’ was the largest ever offensive undertaken by the Army up to that time. The mission, launched in August 1995, to liberate Jaffna, involved three Infantry Divisions, including the Reserve Strike Force/53 Division. The successful conclusion of ‘Operation Riviresa’ certainly enhanced security at Palaly. The Palaly-KKS overland route ensured continuous supplies to bases established south of Elephant Pass up to Kilinochchi, following ‘Operation Sath Jaya.’

Subsequently, the LTTE evicted the Army from Kilinochchi and Paranthan and the strategic Elephant Pass sector, held by a Division plus troops. Having lost Elephant Pass, in April 2000, the Army pulled back to Eluthumaduwal-Muhamalai line. The Jaffna defence line extended from Kilali to Nargarkovil on the Vadamaratchchy east coast via Muhamalai. Essentially, this forward defence line remained till the conventional LTTE fighting capability collapsed in Dec 2008-January 2009 in the Vanni mainland.

The fall of Kilinochchi, in early January 2009, immediately after the re-opening of the Elephant Pass causeway, led to the collapse of the remaining LTTE combat power, by the third week of May 2009. An unprecedented ‘double encirclement’ achieved by the 58 and 53 Divisions at Anandapuram, in April 2009, hastened the LTTE’s collapse. The LTTE lost as many as 600 cadres, including some of their experienced commanders, including Velayuthapillai Baheerathakumar alias Theepan, who was overall commander of all LTTE units on the northern front. The rest is history.

Post-war deployment

of northern forces

Destruction of the LTTE’s conventional military power enabled the then government to review wartime security measures in place in the Northern Province. However, the Army retained the Jaffna deployment. The Jaffna deployment underwent a drastic change in January 2009 when two infantry Divisions, 53 and 55, under the then Major General Kamal Gunaratne and Brigadier Prasanna Silva, entered the Vanni mainland. Their push southwards across Elephant Pass was facilitated by the then Brigadier Shavendra Silva’s celebrated Task Force I /58 Division attacking the LTTE northern defence line. With Jaffna-based 53 and 55 Divisions entering the Vanni, the Jaffna deployment dropped sharply.

At the time now retired Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe took over Jaffna command on December 7, 2009, six months after the conclusion of the war, the army had 27,000 personnel deployed in the Jaffna peninsula.

The phased withdrawal of the Jaffna HSZ began on Oct. 28th, 2010 with troops vacating a part of Vasavilan. In the second stage, troops handed over Ilavali North, Ilavali North West and Viththakapuram. Troops, gave up Naguleshwaram, Telippalai, Thanneiselvapuram, Maviddapuram, Maviddapuram South, Palaivikaman North, Palaivikaman South and Kadduvan West, on May, 9, 2011, in the third stage.

In the next stage, troops vacated Kurumpasiddy and Kurumpasiddy East on October 6, 2011. The final stage paved the way for civilians to return to Valalai and Ideikadu on November 29, 2011.

At the time the fighting was brought to an end, the military held 4,096 hectares in the Jaffna peninsula. The Rajapaksa government returned more land before the last presidential election. President Maithripala Sirisena and Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, too, released Jaffna land since January 2015. With the gradual handing over of land, the Army deployment in the Jaffna peninsula, too, was correspondingly reduced, though the bases in the Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni mainland constituted comprehensive strength to meet any eventuality.

In line with overall security deployment, the Navy and the Air Force, too, effected changes. The Navy northern command is located at KKS with separate facilities available for SLN whereas the civilian sector is being now developed with Indian financial assistance and expertise. Sri Lanka finalized an agreement with New Delhi, in January 2018, to develop the KKS harbour. This was done about 09 months before President Maithripala Sirisena quit the UNP-led government after having sacked Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe. In spite of appointing Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Premier on Oct 26, 2018, President Sirisena couldn’t sustain the operation. A dejected President was compelled to reappoint Wickremesinghe premier in the wake of their failure to prove a simple majority in parliament.

Sri Lanka and India signed an agreement to provide a loan amounting $ 45.27 million (Rs. 6.9 billion) to upgrade the KKS harbour.

Finance and Mass Media Ministry Secretary Dr. R.H.S. Samaratunga and Export-Import Bank of India Managing Director David Rasquinha signed the agreement in New Delhi.

"Transforming promises into reality, India extends additional financial assistance of Rs. 6.9 billion to upgrade KKS Harbour in Sri Lanka. Agreement signed in New Delhi today," the Indian High Commission in Colombo said in a Twitter post.

In July 2011 Sri Lanka and India signed a Memorandum of Understanding to develop the KKS port under an agreement the two countries had reached during the visit of the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa to India in June 2010.

The Cabinet in May 2018 approved Premier Wickremesinghe’s proposal to enter into a loan agreement with the Indian EXIM Bank for $ 45.27 million to develop the harbour.

Today the Jaffna deployment is perhaps less than one third of the total deployed there at the height of the war, before January 2009.

Civilian airport in Palaly

Outgoing President Maithripala Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe, on Oct 17, 2019, ceremonially inaugurated the Jaffna International Airport, within the area coming under the purview of SLAF Palaly. The vast majority of Sri Lankans did not even realize that the civilian operation meant to share the runway currently used by the SLAF. The commissioning of the airport was marked by a flight belonging to Alliance-Air, a subsidiary of Air India, landing there. In spite of the inauguration, regular flights between India and Sri Lanka are yet to be finalized.

SLAF deployment there will continue to be, whereas the civilian section, named as Jaffna International Airport, will run parallel to it. The arrangements as regards the using of the runway as well as other facilities will be similar to that in place at Ratmalana.

At the onset those responsible for the Jaffna International Airport sought to take over SLAF facilities for the civilian project. The SLAF strongly opposed the move. The SLAF asserted that though assistance could be provided, the civilian project shouldn’t be a hindrance to SLAF Palaly which is of pivotal importance to Sri Lanka’s overall security needs. The opening of Palaly should be studied against the backdrop of the Easter Sunday carnage - the single worst terrorist operation the country has faced.

The Easter Sunday suicide bombing campaign underscored the need to re-examine security. Those responsible for security should examine whether the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ), responsible for the Easter Sunday carnage, made an abortive bid to carry out an operation, also in northern Sri Lanka. This should be the priority against the backdrop of the NTJ attack on a Batticaloa Church. Sri Lanka should be grateful to India for providing specific information regarding the impending attack though our irresponsible political, police and military leaders couldn’t thwart the operation. However, the level of Indian infiltration of the NTJ, too, should be a matter of concern to Sri Lanka as Indian Intelligence seemed to be far more concerned about developments here than our own. The level of Indian infiltration of the NTJ or whatever you may call it, certainly was astonishing and frightening.

Sri Lanka needs to ensure highest possible security at the Jaffna International Airport in line with standards adopted at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). Sri Lanka shouldn’t lower its guard, under any circumstances. The government should guarantee BIA standards at the Jaffna International Airport before commencement of regular flights from South India. Jaffna International Airport should be linked to the BIA and the entire range of agencies, including the State Intelligence positioned there, before the newly inaugurated airport can receive flights from South India.

India spearheaded the Jaffna International Airport project as the UNP and President Sirisena clashed over the implementation of it. The then Transport and Civil Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva publicly declared President Sirisena’s decision to implement it on our own. But, that Sirisena promise, too, was meant to be broken. As finally President Sirisena took the credit for clinching an agreement with India and Japan in respect of Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo port having initially refused to involve India.

In the absence of a proper security set up, the Jaffna International Airport can be exploited by those seeking illegal entry. Maintaining airport security apparatus is as important as naval patrols this side of the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary.

New challenges

Sri Lanka paid a huge price for neglecting security after the last presidential election. In the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday carnage, some members of the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) called for greater military presence in the north, though they quickly hanged their stance. Then TNA heavyweight Jaffna District lawmaker M. A. Sumanthiran, PC justified the Easter Sunday carnage. The President’s Counsel had no qualms in justifying horrific crime, just a week after near simultaneous seven suicide blasts claimed the lives of 270 people. Over 400 received injuries.

Lawmaker Sumanthiran and the leader of Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) Mavai Senathiraja were among those invited for the inauguration of the new airport. Senathiraja was a signatory of a recent controversial policy document, released in Jaffna, following consultations among five northern political parties. The grouping included the ITAK-led TNA. The grouping demanded the abolition of Sri Lanka’s unitary status to pave the way for a federal structure, re-merger of the Eastern Province with the North et al. The 13-point policy statement was nothing but a proposal for the division of the country, on ethnic lines. Having backed the LTTE, until the very end, in May 2009, the TNA-led grouping is now pushing for Federal structure encompassing the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

Perhaps, their demands were meant to be rejected by both leading candidates, Sajith Premadasa (New Democratic Front/ symbol swan) and Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna/symbol lotus bud) as well as Anura Kumara Dissanayake contesting under the symbol compass to enable them to shun the Nov 16, 2019 poll. Both Sajith Premadasa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa have categorically denied that they would ever give in to such demands.

The TNA will pursue its strategy to isolate Sri Lanka. While seeking international support to win its demands, the TNA will seek to enhance its power in the next parliament. The TNA parliamentary group consists of 16 members, though two of them no longer received instructions from TNA hierarchy. Regardless of the outcome at the presidential poll, the TNA will push for the maximum number of seats in the Northern and Eastern Provinces at the next general election. Since the formation of the TNA, in late 2001, the grouping contested several general elections, with the April 2004 being its best performance. The LTTE helped the TNA to secure 22 seats at that election. In today’s environment, the TNA will find it difficult to secure at least a similar number of seats won at the last general election, let alone better its best performance achieved in 2004.

The TNA threw its weight behind the UNP-led coalition that backed war-winning Army Chief, the then Gen. Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena at the 2010 and 2015 presidential polls.

Whoever wins the coming presidential election, Sri Lanka faces the daunting task of averting stepped up pressure on various fronts. Ensuring security will be of paramount importance. But guaranteeing security will only be one critical factor in having stability denied due to the negligence on the part of political and military leaderships.

The Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) that inquired into the Easter Sunday carnage, in its report revealed the pathetic state of affairs at the highest level of political and security establishments entrusted with the security of the State.