Wednesday 8 November 2023

Prez recalls debilitating Elephant Pass setback at Reid Avenue talk



A smiling President Ranil Wickremesinghe arrives at Royal College, Reid Avenue on Oct. 27 (pic courtesy PMD)

Close on the heels of humiliating battlefield defeats in the Jaffna peninsula, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga declared her intention to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel. Sri Lanka opened a diplomatic mission in Tel Aviv in Oct 2000 after having established full diplomatic ties with the Jewish State in May 2000, just a few weeks after losing Elephant Pass. Kumaratunga made her move after India refused to throw its military weight behind Sri Lanka’s bid to bring the war to a successful end in the Jaffna peninsula. Sri Lanka closed down the Israeli Interest Section in 1989.The Kumaratunga administration even subjected the print media reportage of Indo-Lanka relations pertaining to defence matters to censorship. In the wake of the Elephant Pass debacle and repeated assaults on the retreating SLA, the Kumaratunga government at one point feared the possibility of having to abandon the Jaffna peninsula. But, the SLA courageously fought back to halt the enemy advance and then made modest territorial gains. But, the politically motivated change of Northern and Jaffna Commands appeared to have led to Operation Agni Kheela, nothing but a catastrophe that caused quite significant damage to the SLA offensive capacity.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

President Ranil Wickremesinghe recently referred to the worst ever battlefield defeat suffered by the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) during the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Addressing a distinguished gathering at his alma mater Royal College, Colombo 07, on Oct 27, the UNP leader, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, recalled the supreme sacrifice made by two Royalists, namely Brigadier Percy Fernando and Colonel Bhathiya Jayatilleke during the chaotic withdrawal from the Elephant Pass (EP) base or Aanai Iravu, as it is known in Tamil, in late April 2000.

The strategically located EP base had never been overrun and was widely believed to be impregnable until the LTTE executed a meticulously planned operation, having disrupted the overland supply route. The EP calamity took place during Eelam War III when Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga served as the President (April 1995- Nov 2005).

At the time of the EP debacle, Wickremesinghe served as the Opposition Leader, having received the UNP leadership in 1994 after his party was voted out following a17-year long reign. During the UNP reign, the SLA experienced its worst setback at Pooneryn on the Vanni mainland in early Nov. 1993 that led to the hasty retirement of then Army Commander Cecil Waidyaratne.

Percy Fernando, Deputy General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the fully fledged 54 Division, and Bhathiya Jayatilleke, Commander of 54.1 Brigade, were promoted to the rank of Major General and Brigadier, posthumously. The SLA couldn’t have held the EP after the LTTE captured their sole source of drinking water, the wells at Iyakachchi, and immediate withdrawal became inevitable. Both top officers and many of their men suffered from severe dehydration and not so much from enemy fire. Jayatillake was also the son-in-law of then JOC Head Lt. Gen Hamilton Wanasinghe.

Paying a glowing tribute to the former Royalists, the UNP leader declared that in spite of the grave risk to their lives they didn’t flee theElephant Pass base but stayed with the withdrawing troops. The old Royalist said that they (Royalists) never fled under any circumstances. Wickremesinghe pointed out how he and Premier Dinesh Gunawardena faced daunting political challenges as Royalists.

Perhaps, the Elephant Pass debacle should be examined also taking into consideration the recent death of General Lionel Balagalle, one-time Army Commander who also served in Jaffna before the EP calamity. Widely regarded as the father of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) Balagalle had been the Chief of Staff at the time of the debilitating EP setback and was involved in failed attempts to thwart LTTE offensive action therein.

The SLA first deployed a platoon at EP in the early ’80s. In 1990, EP became the home for a battalion of troops and support units. A decade later, the SLA had over a Division plus troops in the EP sector but couldn’t repulse the LTTE offensive.

The EP strip was of strategic importance to both the SLA and the LTTE as it linked the Vanni mainland with the Jaffna peninsula. Both the Jaffna-Kandy A9 road and the railway line to Jaffna run through EP, and the narrow strip of land was in a sense the gateway to Jaffna. The EP debacle should be also examined keeping in mind, that at the time, the SLA held the Jaffna peninsula, comprising Waligamam, Thennamaratchchy and Vadamaratchchy areas.

Brig. Fernando had been walking with a group of soldiers moving northwards, away from Elephant Pass, when he was shot dead by a sniper, whereas Jayatilleke died from dehydration despite being admitted to the Palaly military hospital. Then Maj. Janaka Ritigahapola, the Commanding Officer of the Second Battalion of the Commando Regiment, who had been walking ahead of the Deputy Division Commander, later organized a night mission to recover the senior officer’s body.

Now retired, Lt. Col. Ritigahapola told the writer, last weekend, how the Deputy Division Commander’s battle buddy accompanied a group of commandos who volunteered to walk back to the spot where the Brigadier was shot through the back of his head. “We really do now know he was sniped,” Ritigahapola said, adding that the senior officer’s sidearm was brought back by his battle buddy. According to Ritigahapola, like him, Brig. Fernando had returned to EP within 48 hours before having attended the funeral of a serviceman who succumbed to injuries suffered at EP.

Otherwise the SLA would have had to depend on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to secure the senior officer’s body. The LTTE returned many bodies of officers and men attached to the 54 Division through the ICRC as the situation deteriorated. The writer used to contact the then ICRC spokesperson Harasha Gunawardene regularly to receive updates as the LTTE pressed ahead with its offensive in the Jaffna peninsula. According to Gunawardene, as many as 200 bodies, or more, may have been transferred across the frontline at that time.

The LTTE directed phase four of large scale multi-pronged operation Ceaseless Waves (Oyatha Alaikal) at EP. That was meant to overrun the 54 Division plus troops deployed in the Elephant Pass sector. Phase I and II of Ceaseless Waves defeated the SLA in the Vanni and phase III, carried out beginning the second week of Dec. 1999, severely weakened the SLA position in the north, thereby facilitating the fourth phase. The first Unceasing Waves destroyed the isolated the Mullaithivu base, home to two infantry battalions and support units in July 1996. In terms of officers and men killed, Mullaithivu was the worst single battlefield loss.

The failure on the part of the SLA to thwart the LTTE offensive on the EP base is still a mystery. At that time, the fully equipped 54 Division, headquartered at Elephant Pass, had Division plus troops. Brigadier K.B. Egodawela, who had served as the GoC of the ill-fated Division, was among those who managed to escape the marauding LTTE units. The Division Commander had been among the sections of 54 Division which succeeded in evading the LTTE units deployed to block escape routes.

Undoubtedly, the loss of EP was the worst debacle the LTTE inflicted on the SLA. Close on the heels of their success at EP, the LTTE brought in all available units to press ahead with its assault on Jaffna. Fortunately, the SLA managed to repulse a series of determined LTTE attempts to advance on Jaffna town. Had the LTTE succeeded in its bloody efforts, Jaffna, regained in Dec. 1995 by Operation Riviresa, too, would have been lost. Had that happened, both the Palaly airbase and Kankesanthurai harbour would have been vulnerable to the LTTE offensive and the war could have taken a dangerous turn.

Unprecedented crisis

At the time the EP base fell, the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had been in the UK. Therefore, the decision to order the 54 Division to withdraw from EP was taken at a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC), chaired by the then Deputy Defence Minister, the late Anuruddha Ratwatte on the night of April 19, 2000. Amidst Opposition criticism of the President’s absence, the Presidential Secretariat declared that Mrs. Kumaratunga was abroad to receive medical treatment.

As pressure mounted on the SLA to take a swift decision on the EP base, the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya, risked his life to visit the base, under siege, for consultations with Division Commander Brig. Egodawela and other senior officers. Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya had flown to Palaly airbase on the morning of April 19 and from there moved overland to the EP in two light vehicles and returned, following consultations, to Palaly before taking a flight to Ratmalana.

Gen. Weerasooriya had briefed the NSC regarding the developing situation and the need to act swiftly to save the lives of officers and men as the combined security forces weren’t in a position to defend the EP base. The Army Chief has pushed for immediate withdrawal as the combined forces couldn’t intervene successfully. Responding to The Island query over the last weekend, the former Army Chief emphasized that he never asked for a ceasefire but underscored the urgent need to evacuate the defence complex if the enemy onslaught couldn’t be defeated.

The PA leadership opposed a ceasefire as such a move would undermine the government. Therefore, Deputy Defence Minister Ratwatte had given the go ahead for Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya to take necessary actions.

Over the Army communications setup, instructions had been given to Brig. Egodawela to carry out the withdrawal on April 22, 2000. By the time instructions were issued, some sections of the 54 Division had already shifted positions, the former Army Chief said, recalling Brig. Fernando opted to walk with his men though he had an opportunity to get on board an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) or some other vehicle.

The writer was among a selected group of journalists invited to cover a hastily arranged media briefing at SLA headquarters on the night of April 24, 2000.

Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya and Maj. Gen. Balagalle explained the measures that were being taken at that time to consolidate the government position in Jaffna, following their pullout from EP. They were flanked by Air Force Commander Air Vice Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody, Navy Commander Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera and Brigadier Palitha Fernando, the then military spokesman.

A grim-faced Army Chief declared that a re-thinking of strategy was required as the SLA consolidated its positions in the general area Soranpattu, northwest of Iyakachchi.

Against the backdrop of the developing crisis in Jaffna, the Army Chief dispatched Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera and Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka to the Jaffna peninsula. Maj. Gen. Perera received the appointment as Overall Operations Commander (OOC) for the entire northern theater while Maj. Gen. Fonseka assumed duties as Security Forces Commander, Jaffna.

Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya stressed the need to rapidly enhance the firepower to meet the emerging threat. The Army Chief also underscored the urgent need to bolster the fighting units in line with overall defence policy. He declined to comment on the enactment of laws to introduce hitherto unprecedented step of conscription to meet the serious manpower shortage experienced by the SLA.

Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya said: “When a war is on, like ammunition we need men.” Commenting on the need to strengthen the SLA, the Army Chief said: “We would like to further increase our firepower and re-equip.”

It would be pertinent to mention that the PA government subjected the reportage on the conflict to military censorship. The government felt uncomfortable that battlefield losses could erode its popularity among the public, therefore there was no alternative to censorship. The media raised the issue with the Army. Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya, who emphatically denied ever requesting the government to impose censorship. Brigadier Palitha Fernando strongly opposed the media taking up the contentious issue of censorship at this particular media briefing.

The LTTE carried out ‘Unceasing Waves’ during the late Lt. Gen. Rohan Daluwatte’s tenure as the Army Commander (May 1, 1996-Dec. 15, 1998) and his successor Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya (Dec. 16, 1998-Aug. 24, 2000). Lionel Balagalle succeeded Weerasooriya on Aug. 25, 2000 and served as the Commander till June 30, 2004, during a politically turbulent period as the country headed for Eelam War IV.

Playing politics at the SLA’s expense

Regardless of the consequences, the PA and the UNP clashed over the EP debacle. Having returned home from abroad, Mrs Kumaratunga immediately went on the offensive. Kumaratunga accused the UNP of seeking political advantage over what she called a temporary setback suffered by the SLA in the Jaffna peninsula. She flayed the UNP for asserting the withdrawal from EP as a major military debacle.

What the PA really feared was the emerging threat on the Palaly-Kankesanthurai joint military complex in case the SLA had to abandon Jaffna following the EP debacle. The PA sought some sort of consensus with the UNP regarding the developments in the Jaffna peninsula whereas the UNP parliamentary group felt the government had suffered an irreversible setback and the situation could further deteriorate in case the SLA position in Jaffna town and its suburbs became untenable.

The LTTE launched the offensive against the EP base on Dec. 11, 1999, as the country was heading for presidential election on Dec. 21, 1999. On Dec. 18, 1999, the LTTE made an abortive bid to assassinate Kumaratunga at the final presidential election rally. In the run-up to the previous presidential election held on Nov. 09, 1994, the LTTE assassinated UNP candidate Gamini Dissanayake in late Oct. 1994.

In the Jaffna theatre post-EP debacle, the LTTE pressed ahead with offensive operations and the SLA struggled to defend its positions. The UNP demanded a special debate on the situation as the SLA vacated Ittavil, Pulopullai and Pallai. The PA sustained censorship to deprive the public of their right to know what was going on in the north. The ICRC continued to transfer bodies of SLA personnel found in areas under LTTE control. The PA and UNP shamelessly played politics with the Jaffna situation regardless of the fact that the then the entire Vanni theatre had already fallen into the hands of the LTTE.

However, the SLA with a range of new arms, ammunition and equipment acquired in the wake of the EP crisis, thwarted the LTTE offensive and stabilized the situation. As the SLA gradually brought the situation under control, the PA removed both Majors General Janaka Perera and Sarath Fonseka. President Kumaratunga scrapped the post of OOC while Fonseka was replaced by Brig. Anton Wijendra. The PA appeared to have felt confident that the LTTE no longer posed a threat on Jaffna therefore the services of the two officers, who led the defence and also the counter attack, was no longer required. Maj.Gen. Perera received the appointment as Chief of Staff whereas Fonseka moved to Vanni. What really made the PA remove both Perera and Fonseka?

Maj. Gen. Wijendra consolidated the SLA positions in the Jaffna peninsula before the launch of Operation Agni Kheela (Rod of Fire) in early 2001 that was meant to regain the area lost to the LTTE in the previous year. The offensive went awry. The LTTE inflicted heavy losses on the SLA. That was the last large-scale SLA offensive before the signing of a Ceasefire Agreement in Feb. 2002 following the return of the UNP to power at the Dec 5, 2001, general election.

Tuesday 31 October 2023

Vanni war and Israel-Gaza conflict: Funding catastrophes



Four-wheel drive double cabs with anti-aircraft guns captured during Vanni offensive. The LTTE procured these vehicles in 2003-2004 with the support of the then government of Sri Lanka (pics courtesy SLA)

The utterly duped Sri Lanka government had no qualms in bending backwards to appease the LTTE in so many ways believing the so-called peace facilitators to the bitter end, despite the LTTE violating virtually all CFA rules.

Viking peace facilitators took the Lankan leaders on right royal ride by making them believe in the Tigers to the bitter end. A case  in point is the payments made by the then government in respect of an undisclosed number of brand new four-wheel drive double cabs acquired by the LTTE from Toyota Lanka (Pvt.) Ltd. According to a letter sent by S. Pulieedevan of the LTTE Peace Secretariat, dated
January 26, 2004, to Bradman Weerakoon, the Secretary to Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, the government had paid Customs duty, surcharge, excise Duty, PAL, VAT and BTT for those double cabs. The LTTE only paid the CIF value of the vehicles. During the Vanni battles, the Army captured double cabs mounted with anti-aircraft guns. These double cabs could have been among the vehicles acquired from Toyota Lanka. What really baffled the public is that the LTTE received such special status even 10 months after it quit the negotiating table.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The creation of Hamas now fighting Israel can be easily compared with the formation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and other Tamil groups in the late 70s. Hamas is an Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement.

Hamas and the LTTE were meant to undermine the elected representatives of the Palestinians, and the Tamil speaking community, respectively. That was one of the primary objectives of those who initially sponsored Hamas and the LTTE and other Tamil groups which gave up separatist agenda during Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure as the President (Jan. 02, 1989, to May Day, 1993).

Later objectives of the sponsors and strategies of Hamas and the LTTE changed over the years as they rapidly expanded, drawing funding from many other sources. Both groups achieved conventional status, and the losses they inflicted on governments were an indication of their military prowess. When Israel, the founding benefactor of Hamas, stopped funding it, regional powers, opposed to the Jewish State, stepped in, in a big way.

The LTTE went to the extent of killing Rajiv Gandhi who, in his capacity as the Indian Premier, forced Sri Lanka to accept the deployment of the Indian Army here (July 1987-March 1990) to impose a solution that suited New Delhi’s overall strategy at that time. Gandhi was killed in May 1991 by an LTTE suicide bomber during an election rally in Tamil Nadu. During the IPKF deployment here the LTTE humiliated India by killing over 1,300 officers and men whereas Hamas stunned Israel with an unprecedented Oct. 07 attack after a spate of large scale attacks/confrontations over the years. Israel fought three wars with Hamas in 2009, 2012 and 2014 and the current conflict is so far the worst.

Last week The Island dealt with some of the issues at hand in an article titled Vanni war and Israel-Gaza conflict: similarities and differences. The writer felt the need to discuss the Indian financial package that helped turn a Sri Lankan armed group into one of the world’s most sophisticated fighting machines. But soon after India halted funding terrorism here, the LTTE expanded its vast network of revenue sources here and overseas. One of its new-found sponsors happened to be the government of Sri Lanka.

Before we further discuss the LTTE funding/revenue sources, it would be pertinent to mention how Israel facilitated the growth of Hamas to undermine the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and faction, Fatah.

Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Segev, who had been the Israeli military governor in Gaza in the early 1980s, is on record as having told the New York Times that he had helped finance the Palestinian Islamist movement as a counterweight to the PLO and Fatah.

New York Times quoted the retired Brig. General as having disclosed how the military government funded Hamas through mosques. Number of others had commented on the Israeli funding for Hamas. Perhaps one of the most significant statements pertaining to the Jewish state’s affiliation with Hamas was made by Avner Cohen, one-time Israeli religious affairs official who served the Gaza administration for over two decades. Wall Street Journal in 2009 quoted Cohen as having declared: “Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation.” That was the year Israel fought its first war with Hamas. Cohen has revealed the warning he issued to the Israeli government in the mid-80s over its divide-and-rule strategy in the occupied region. The Wall Street Journal quoted the Israeli as having said: “I … suggest focusing our efforts on finding ways to break up this monster before this reality jumps in our face.”

The US, the UK, France or EU didn’t find fault with Hamas at the time Israel promoted Hamas at the expense of the PLO and Fatah. Israel is paying a very heavy price for what can be called a strategic miscalculation in their policy.

Jayantha Dhanapala on states sponsoring terrorism

Over a year after the successful conclusion of the war against the LTTE, the late Jayantha Dhanapala, one-time UN Under-Secretary-General for the Office for Disarmament Affairs from 1998-2003, appeared before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. Dhanapala, the career diplomat, who has had diplomatic postings in London, Beijing, Washington DC, New Delhi and Geneva and also performed ambassadorial duties in Geneva accredited to the UN from 1984-1987 and in Washington DC from 1995-1997 addressed the entire gamut of issues on Aug. 25, 2010.

Dhanapala dealt with the contentious issue of governments sponsoring terrorism with the focus on the Indian funding of the LTTE. Perhaps, Dhanapala may not have taken President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s funding and arming of the LTTE into consideration. Let me reproduce what the erudite former diplomat Dhanapala who served as the head of the Norwegian-funded Secretariat for Coordinating Peace Process (SCOPP 2004-2005) declared before the LLRC: “Now I think it is important for us to expand that concept to bring in the culpability of those members of the international community who have subscribed to the situation that has caused injury to the civilians of a nation. I talk about the way in which terrorist groups are given sanctuary; are harboured; are supplied with arms and training by some countries with regard to their neighbours or with regard to other countries. We know that in our case this happened, and I don’t want to name countries, but even countries who have allowed their financial procedures and systems to be abused in such a way that money can flow from their countries in order to buy the arms and ammunitions that cause the deaths, the maiming and the destruction of property in Sri Lanka are to blame and there is therefore a responsibility to protect our civilians and the civilians of other nation States from that kind of behaviour on the part of members of the international community, and I think this is something that will echo with many countries in the Non-Aligned Movement where Sri Lanka has a very respected position and where I hope we will be able to raise this issue.”

The writer covered the LLRC proceedings for The Island throughout the sittings held at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute (LKI) named after the much-respected Foreign Minister slain by the LTTE. Actually, Dharnapala’s statement, regardless of its importance, never received the government attention it deserved. In fact, the government simply ignored it. The then Rajapaksa government was more preoccupied in playing politics with the accountability issue than addressing the concerns of the Tamil speaking people and the Western powers who had to woo the vociferous Tamil Diaspora for their local vote bank.

Dhanapala not only dealt with India but underscored the responsibility of Western powers who allowed the LTTE to raise funds in their countries to wage war here. The sinking of nearly a dozen floating LTTE arsenals over the years in Indian waters, Sri Lankan waters, and on the high seas, revealed the extent of the funding available to the LTTE. The LTTE had a range of weapons, including heavy artillery, shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles, anti-tank missiles, underwater equipment and fast boats. Acquisition of such an arsenal couldn’t have been done without unlimited funds. The group had so much funds it hired foreigners and went to the extent of making an attempt to bribe a US State Department official.

Nearly 15 years after the war, only India knows how much the Gandhi governments spent on establishing a massive terrorist project in Sri Lanka. In fact, the LTTE demanded compensation from India to cover up losses the group suffered in the wake of the 1987 Indo-Lanka peace accord. The LTTE wanted compensation for the denial of its right to tax people living in areas under its control and those who entered that region.

It would be pertinent to mention that India spent not only on the LTTE but also on nearly half a dozen Tamil groups, including the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) and the Tamil National Army (TNA) that was formed in the wake of India’s decision to withdraw its troops from the then temporarily merged Northern and Eastern Provinces after the Premadasa government asked them to leave unceremoniously.

How Sri Lanka funded LTTE

During the war, the then Opposition MP Bandula Gunawardena, in his own hand writing, released a statement that dealt with payments made to the LTTE at the behest of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Lawmaker Gunawardena who now served the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa Cabinet, disclosed that the Treasury made the largest single payment months after the eruption of Eelam War II in the second week of June 1990. According to the document issued by MP Gunawardena, the first payment had been made on August 09, 1989, a couple of months after the LTTE initiated talks with Premadasa while the Indian Army was deployed here. Altogether, there had been 15 payments of Rs 5 mn each on 15 separate occasions, with the largest and the final payment of Rs 50 mn paid on Nov. 05, 1990.

At the time of these payments, R. Paskaralingam had been the Secretary to the Treasury and he couldn’t have resisted the orders issued by the President. Premadasa also had no hesitation in issuing a large stock of T-56 assault rifles and ammunition to the LTTE. His administration also issued weapons to other Tamil groups. Perhaps, Sri Lanka should officially acknowledge the type and the amount of weapons issued to Tamil groups and the funds paid to them.

Let me remind the reader that the last and the largest payment was made many months after the LTTE executed several hundred surrendered policemen in the East after they were ordered to do so by the then government and overran isolated Army detachments along the Kandy-Jaffna road, north of Omanthai. As a result, the Army lost the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) route to Jaffna. The MSR was restored in January 2009, nearly 19 years after the military suffered defeat in the Vanni.

During the conflict, successive governments accepted the LTTE’s right to tax people living in areas they controlled. Those entering the region under its control, too, were taxed.

But following the signing of a one-sided Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE in Feb. 2002. arranged by the Norwegian facilitators ,unknown to many, including then Commander in Chief President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the then government did away with all restrictions. Overnight, the government accepted a region under exclusive control of the LTTE where the group denied the right of other Tamil political parties to engage in political activity. The LTTE was granted special status. The government paved the way for the LTTE to receive substantial foreign funding and also bring in a range of equipment through the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) without checks.

Funding for LTTE radio

Only Hamas really knows what it did with funds received from Israel. Similarly, only the LTTE knows what it really did with funds received from Sri Lanka during the conflict. Let me examine one incident during the 2002-2003 period that involved Sri Lanka, Norway and the LTTE on the basis of disclosure made by Bradman Weerakoon, the then Secretary to Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, regarding the agreement on an LTTE proposal to install and operate an FM station in Kilinochchi.

Weerakoon, in an article titled ‘Initiating and Sustaining the Peace Process: Origins and Challenges’ included in ‘Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons’ discussed the circumstances under which the equipment had been brought into the country, with the support of the Norwegians. Weerakoon described the agreement on the FM station as a confidence building measure.

The upgrading of the LTTE propaganda arm took place following the closure of Vanni Sevaya and restrictions on the Army with regard to dissemination of security related news. (Vanni Sevawa catered especially for the armed forces, police and Sinhala civilians living in the area)

Having described the installation of the new equipment as a confidence building measure, Weerakoon inadvertently exposed the despicable LTTE strategy. Had it been a genuinely confidence building measure, the LTTE would have discussed their move to establish an FM station before ordering the equipment.

Weerakoon discussed in considerable detail how the LTTE had conducted the transaction with the help of the Norwegians. Weerakoon said: “The Political headquarters of the LTTE in a letter to the PM’s Office on Oct. 1, 2002, informed the government that it had purchased a new FM transmitter, which they would like to bring to Vanni to be used in their dissemination campaign about the peace process. The equipment had already been purchased by them in Singapore at a cost of USD 93,265 and was on the way by sea. The letter requested customs clearance and duty free importation and no delay.”

Weerakoon also revealed how the Norwegians utilized their diplomatic status to clear the LTTE cargo duty free by substituting itself as the consignee of the goods. But once the Norwegians handed over the goods to the LTTE through SCOPP (Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process), the SCOPP became liable for duty amounting to Rs. 3 mn, which according to Weerakoon, was paid with funds made available by Norway to the SCOPP. Weerakoon estimated the annual donations received by SCOPP from Norway at Rs. 12 mn.

Weerakoon admitted that the LTTE had informed the government of its move, while the cargo was on its way to Colombo and the Norwegians stepped in at the right moment to have the equipment delivered to the LTTE.

A treacherous government ordered the Army to transport the equipment from Colombo port to Omanthai and hand them over to the LTTE, while their Vanni Sevaya remained closed.

While Weerakoon referred to Norwegian funds being utilised to pay for import duty, the then Director General of SCOPP, Dr. John Gooneratne claimed using funds received from Sweden. The revelation is made in a letter Gooneratne wrote to Treasury Chief, Charitha Ratwatte. The letter dated Jan. 16, 2004, referred to the role played by the Prime Minister’s Office in carrying out the controversial transaction.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know, at least now, who actually paid duty for the LTTE equipment?

Funding through government

Sri Lanka obviously believed the LTTE wouldn’t accept a political solution and the group couldn’t be defeated on the battlefield. Therefore, the group granted the opportunity to tax the people in the North and East, whereas Western powers turned a blind eye to massive fund raising projects undertaken by the LTTE in Europe, the US and Canada as well as other countries. How much did the LTTE spend on acquiring and operating a fleet of large ships to store arms, ammunition and equipment in the high seas and transfer weapons as and when required?

The LTTE brazenly used the CFA to secure funds even from the international community. The then government fully cooperated with the LTTE strategy.

Former respected MP Rajiva Wijesinha, during his tenure as Secretary General of SCOPP, and during the initial phase of the Vanni offensive that was launched in March 2007, made a shocking revelation regarding funds received by the LTTE. In response to Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda’s criticism of the SCOPP, Prof. Wijesinha issued a statement titled ‘Sri Lanka’s civil society organizations: Shady techniques and bribes to the Tigers?’

Wijesinha dealt with hitherto unknown funding operations arranged by the UNP government in support of the peace process facilitated by the CFA. One of the grants-UNDP project worth USD 600,000 signed by Bradman Weerakoon who was also the Commissioner General for the Coordination of Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation as well as the External Resources Department raised eyebrows.

Wijesinha expressed surprise at the signing of the agreement on Dec 19, 2003 amidst deepening political turmoil caused by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga suspending Parliament. She also sacked three ministers and brought the Army on to the streets of Colombo. However, what Prof. Wijesinha didn’t say that by then the LTTE had quit the negotiating table. Why did the government authorize such a huge amount of UNDP funds for the so-called LTTE Peace Secretariat nine months after the LTTE suspended its participation in the Norwegian arranged talks? Prof. Wijesinha pointed out that the UNDP funding was made available to the LTTE just months ahead of the general election. Did the UNDP realize what it was doing?

The LTTE-backed Tamil National Alliance (TNA) recorded its best performance at the general election held in early April, 2004. The Parliament conveniently forgot what the EU polls observation mission said about the LTTE helping the TNA to secure over 20 seats in the Northern and Eastern Provinces by stuffing ballot boxes. This was against the backdrop of the devastating split in the LTTE caused by Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna Amman, one-time commander of LTTE formations which thwarted Operation Jayasikurui in the Vanni theatre in 1997/1998 period.

The writer intended to discuss the funding made available by various interested parties, including governments to those who promoted the peace process involving the LTTE over a period of time.

The Hamas attack on Israel should influence Sri Lanka to examine various aspects of the conflict that was brought to an end through military means-an effort so far unmatched by any country since the end of World War II.

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Vanni war and Israel-Gaza conflict: similarities, differences



British Tamils occupy Parliament Square in London demanding immediate Western intervention to halt Sri Lankan offensive against the LTTE in 2009 (pic courtesy Tamil Guardian)

The US utilised Hamas attack to prepare an emergency funding project that conveniently accommodated Ukraine battling Russia. The funding amounted to USD 105 bn in military and humanitarian aid to Kiev and Tel Aviv. Having visited Tel Aviv last week, US President Joe Biden declared that their security is directly connected to the success of Ukraine and Israel. Interestingly the largest share of USD 105 bn allocation has been earmarked for Ukraine (more than USD 61 bn) with Israel receiving over USD 14 bn, over nine bn for humanitarian assistance for Ukraine, Israel and Gaza and over USD 14 bn for border enforcement with Mexico. Regardless of US pouring military assistance, Israel remains unsure of its capacity to fight a ground war in Gaza to the finish. The delay in launching the ground offensive underscores Israel’s continuing dilemma. That is the reality.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Unparalleled Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, triggered a spate of comments on Sri Lanka’s war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that was brought to a successful end in May 2009. Hamas captured about 230 persons, including Israeli military personnel and foreigners and moved them to areas under their control. The abducted persons’ whereabouts remain unclear though four, including two Americans were released so far. Respected expert on terrorism experienced in Sri Lanka, M.R. Narayan Swamy, discussed the similarities of Sri Lanka’s conflict and the ongoing Israel-Gaza war. New Delhi based Swamy, who had served UNI and AFP during his decades long career discussed the issues at hand while acknowledging no two situations were absolutely comparable. Swamy currently serves as the Executive Director of IANS (Indo-Asian News Service).

Now there is a possibility of Lebanon being dragged into the conflict as Iran threatened Israel amidst ongoing heavy exchange of fire between Israeli forces and Lebannon based Hezbollah. However, the battles on the Lebanese border have tied up several Israeli Divisions thereby preventing them from joining the formations deployed against Hamas.

How’s Hamas’ attack similar to that of LTTE?’ and ‘Hamas’ offensive on Israel may bring it closer to LTTE’s fate’ dealt with the issues involved. Let me reproduce Swamy’s comment: “Oct 7 could be a turning point for Hamas similar to what happened to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka in 2006. Let me explain. Similar to Hamas, the LTTE grew significantly over time eventually gaining control of a significant portion of Sri Lanka’s land and coast. The LTTE was even more formidable than Hamas. It had a strong army, growing air force and a deadly naval presence. Unlike Hamas the LTTE successfully assassinated high ranking political figures in Sri Lanka and India. Notably LTTE achieved this without direct support from any country well Hamas received military and financial backing from Iran and some other states [emphasis is mine]. The LTTE became too sure of their victories overtime. They thought, they could never be beaten and that starting a war would always make them stronger. But in 2006 when they began Eelam War 1V their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran couldn’t have foreseen that within three years he and his prominent group would be defeated. Prabhakaran believed gathering tens of thousands of Tamils during the last stages of war would protect them and Sri Lanka wouldn’t unleash missiles and rockets. Colombo proved him wrong. They were hit. By asking the people not to flee Gaza despite Israeli warnings Hamas is taking a similar line. Punishing all Palestinians for Hamas’ actions is unjust just like punishing all Tamils for LTTE’s actions was wrong. The LTTE claimed to fight for Tamils without consulting them and Hamas claimed to represent Palestinians without seeking the approval for the Oct.7 strike. Well two situations are not absolutely comparable. We can be clear that Hamas is facing a situation similar to what the LTTE faced shortly before its end. Will Hamas meet a similar fate as the LTTE? Only time will answer that question.”

Swamy quite conveniently refrained from mentioning India’s direct role in setting up one of the deadliest terror projects in the world in the 80s. How could he forget the loss of nearly 1,400 Indian military personnel and double that number wounded here?

Former Editor of The Hindu Malini Parthasarathy who also had served as Chairperson of The Hindu Group released a list of politicians assassinated by the LTTE, as she hit back hard at those who raged against the comparison of the Hamas to the LTTE. The list included two Jaffna District MPs, Arumugam Murugesu Alalasundaram and Visvanathan Dharmalingam, assassinated in early Sept 1985. Slain Visvanathan Dharmalingam’s son, Dharmalingam Siddharthan, who represents the Vanni electoral district on the Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) is on record as having said that the two MPs were abducted and killed by TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation.) gunmen. The list posted by Parthasarathy included PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran assassinated in Colombo in July 1989. The LTTE hadn’t been involved in that killing. Maheswaran is believed to have been killed by his onetime associates, perhaps over the abortive PLOTE raid on the Maldives in Nov 1988. India never bothered at least to acknowledge that the Maldives raid was carried out by men trained by India to destabilise Sri Lanka. There is no doubt that Maheswasran’s killers, too, were known to the Indian intelligence at that time.

Before rushing into conclusions regarding Hamas and LTTE, perhaps a proper examination of the circumstances they emerged is necessary. The two situations-fourth phase of the Eelam conflict and the latest Hamas strike on Israel and the devastating counter attack cannot be compared under any circumstances. Efforts to compare the two issues is more like comparing apples and oranges, though mutually Tamils and Sinhalese have so many commonalities having intermingled throughout history like the Arabs and Jews.

It is no doubt Jews are a people that suffered persecution throughout known history under Assyrians, Babylonians to Romans and so forth. Such persecution includes expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain 1492. So what Hitler and the Germans did was to take the historic process to another extreme.

Yet to blame the Palestinians and treat them like animals and to simply butcher them for the latest uprising by Hamas for all the humiliations and suffering they have been going through non-stop since Naqba in1948, from the time of the creation of Israel is to allow the creators of the problem, including the UK, USA and United Nations to wash all their sins on the true other victims of this conflict, the Palestinians.

It would be pertinent to mention that Israel in spite of having one of the world’s best fighting armed forces with 100 percent backing from the West cannot totally eradicate Hamas the way Sri Lanka dealt with the LTTE.

The circumstances under which the LTTE launched a large-scale offensive in Aug 2006 and its objectives had been very much different from that of Hamas. The LTTE really believed that it could have defeated the Sri Lankan military in the north by cutting off the sea supply route from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai and simultaneously overrunning the Kilali-Muhamalai-Nagarkovil forward defence line (FDL). The total collapse of the FDL could have allowed the LTTE to eradicate isolated fighting formations trapped north of the FDL. But, in the case of the Gaza war, the Hamas strike was meant to provoke Israel to unleash a massive unbridled counter attack that caused maximum losses on the civilians. As Hamas expected the Israeli counter attack has triggered massive protests in the West against their leaders. They have been accused of encouraging violence against Palestine. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other US allies are under heavy pressure from Muslims and other horrified communities’ world over to take a stand against the US.

A Western lifeline for LTTE

UK Premier Rishi Sunak pledged unequivocal support for Israel before flying to the Jewish State where he reiterated British commitment. Sunak followed US President Joe Biden, the first foreign leader to visit Tel Aviv amidst indiscriminate attacks on Gaza. At the time this comment was written on Oct 22, the international media reported the possibility of French President Emmanuel Macron also undertaking a visit to Tel Aviv. Canada, too, declared support for Israel. Their declaration of support for Israel didn’t surprise anyone.

Against the backdrop of various interested parties comparing the Vanni situation and the developing regional crisis with devastating global implications, it would be pertinent to examine the Western response to the eelam war.

Western powers intervened on behalf of the LTTE facing annihilation in the hands of the Sri Lankan military. By late Feb 2009, the LTTE had taken such a beating on the Vanni front, its command and control structures were in tatters. Responding to LTTE’s pleas for help backed by demonstrations organised by Tamil Diaspora in Europe and Canada, the then British and French Foreign Ministers, David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner arrived in Colombo in late April 2009. They demanded an immediate halt to offensive action. They wanted to visit Prabhakaran. The combined British – French move backed by the US was meant to save Prabhakaran. Later a diplomatic cable originating from the US mission in London disclosed Miliband’s intervention was due to domestic political compulsions. Interested parties also speculated about a US role in a possible bid to evacuate Prabhakaran but Sri Lanka insisted that the offensive could be brought to an end only if Prabhakaran surrendered.

In May-June 1987 when the SLA engaged in ‘Operation Liberation’ and advanced on Prabhakaran’s Vadamaratchchi base, India intervened. Having forced JRJ to call off the first Brigade-level offensive, Indian Mi-17s landed in Jaffna on July 24 to evacuate Prabhakaran, his wife and the two children along with several other LTTE cadres. This happened five days before the signing of the Indo-Lanka accord in Colombo that paved the way for the deployment of the Indian Army (July 1987-March 1990).

Had India allowed Sri Lanka to finish off the LTTE, it could have avoided a disastrous war here. Thousands of lives could have been saved if India didn’t play politics with the Sri Lanka issue. New Delhi paid a very heavy price and over a year after its pull out the LTTE assassinated wartime Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi during a general election campaign in May 1991.

Let us get back to the Western effort to rescue Prabhakaran, the way India did in July 1987. The Western objective was the same though the tactics and circumstances were different. The UK and France with the blessings of the UN and the US tried to save Prabhakaran in late April 2009 to fight another day.

India-Israel relations

Although Indian Premier Narendra Modi won’t fly to Tel Aviv to reiterate their support for Israel, New Delhi would be extremely cautious in addressing the issue. India cannot jeopardise her growing relationship with Israel, a key weapons and technology supplier over the years though in the 80s New Delhi strongly opposed Israeli presence in Sri Lanka. The Jewish state is one of the few countries which backed Sri Lanka throughout the war against separatist Tamil terrorism. A range of Israeli arms, ammunition and equipment made Sri Lanka’s triumph over terrorism possible.

Since India joined the US-led club, New Delhi has received a massive boost to her overall military capacity thanks to Israel and New Delhi would do nothing to upset her relationship with the Jewish State whose continuing support is of critical importance, especially against the backdrop of Russia-Ukraine conflict. The acquisition of Pegasus spyware has overnight changed India’s capabilities. That is the undeniable truth. India being one of the four members of ‘Quad’ that included US, Australia and Japan, is now in a strategic relationship with Israel. Massive Israeli weapons sales have boosted the Indian military facing China and Pakistan.

In India, thousands of people demonstrated in many cities in support of Palestine experiencing an escalation of violence perpetrated by Israel. In Mumbai, Kerala and Lahore, demonstrators expressed their solidarity with the Palestinian people and called for an end to the Israeli occupation and blockade of Gaza.

But, on the other hand, Hamas, in spite of overall Israeli prowess and strategic assets available, appeared to have achieved 100 percent surprise as Israel did nothing until large scale infiltration at an unprecedented level took place right under their nose. The Hamas action appeared to have united the people world over against the US-led grouping and taken the heat off Russia engaged in a difficult war in Ukraine.

A considered move

Perhaps one of the most significant decisions taken by Sri Lanka as the LTTE deteriorated on the Vanni east front was to invite India to deploy a fully-fledged medical team close to a point where the wounded were brought in by sea. Sri Lanka made the request several weeks after the military brought Kilinochchi under its control. It would be pertinent to mention that Kilinochchi functioned as their main administrative centre after the military regained Jaffna in late 1995. The loss of Kilinochchi in the first week of January 2009 quite clearly stunned the LTTE, Tamil Diaspora as well as those foreign powers confident of the group’s battlefield prowess. The government moved quickly to bring in an Indian medical team amidst accusations that the war wounded were being deprived of treatment. The team consisted of 62 personnel. India set up a medical facility at Pulmoddai, north of Trincomalee.

Sri Lanka went out of its way to treat those who had been evacuated from Puthumathalan to Pulmoddai. The writer had been one of the few journalists taken to the Puthumathalan seas by the Navy to witness the evacuation of the wounded by the ICRC and then transferred in a ship to Pulmoddai. This was in late April 2009. Subsequent to the visit to the Puthumathalan seas and Navy deployment at Chalai, the writer had an opportunity to meet the Indian medical team at Pulmoddai.

After the war, the Indian High Commission declared that their Pulmoddai facility treated over 3,000 war wounded and soon after the war ended the medical mission moved to Zone 1 of Menik Farm displaced persons camp. India pulled out its team from Menik Farm at the end of August, 2009 after having treated over 25,000 displaced persons. Sri Lanka opened a sea route between Puthumathalan and Pulmoddai in early 2009, soon after the closure of the overland route to and from the LTTE held area. The move underscored the government’s determination to assist the civilian population.

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka never made a real effort to set the record straight. Successive governments conveniently failed to place all available information before the international community. Any other country engaged in such a huge military operation would have second thoughts in giving foreigners direct access to the war wounded. But, Sri Lanka did.

Sri Lanka’s continued failure to mount a strong defence at the Geneva based Human Rights Council is a mystery. The Yahapalana government betrayed the war winning military by co-sponsoring an accountability resolution against the country. That was on Oct 01, 2015.

Until the very end, Sri Lanka allowed the World Food Programme (WFP) under the protection of the ICRC to move essential supplies to those living in the rapidly shrinking Vanni territory under the LTTE’s control. Once the overland route had to be closed, essential items and medicine were despatched in ships to Puthumathalan. The world shouldn’t forget that selected members of the Colombo-based diplomatic community were given real time drone footage of the Army breaking through the LTTE positions to facilitate a massive rescue operation. Have you ever heard of an Army accused of perpetrating genocide breaking enemy line for those trapped within to escape and take refuge within the territory under its control?

Israel fought the first Gaza war (Dec 27 2008-18 January 2009) against Hamas in the wake of heavy rocket attacks on its territory. It was the first large-scale invasion of Palestinian territory after Hamas took over Gaza from Fatah in 2007. The Israelis called the offensive ‘Cast Lead.’ Regardless of losses suffered, Hamas retained its command and control structure and was back in action soon. The possibility of Israel achieving victory over Hamas appeared remote and unrealistic. However, the Sri Lanka military during Dec 2008-January 2009 delivered a knockout blow to the LTTE. By the end of January 2009, the LTTE’s command and control structures were gone. A massive naval cordon involving a range of vessels, spearheaded by Fast Attack Craft (FACs) blocked sea escape route while Air Force was on high alert to intervene in case an attempt was made to evacuate Velupillai Prabhakaran, his family and top commanders from the battlefield. In a bid to reduce reaction time, the Air Force shifted a pair of jets from Katunayake air base to China Bay. The rest is history.

Although Israel claimed victory in the first Gaza war, Hamas was soon back in action. According to international media reports, Hamas fired over 200 rockets and dozens of mortar rounds at Israel during the second week of Nov 2012. Tel Aviv was hit for the first time since 1991 Gulf war when Iraqi Scud missiles landed therein. Israel launched ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’ to neutralize the threat but never extended the operation to a ground incursion.

In July 2014, Israel carried out ‘Operation Protective Edge’ which included a minor ground incursion –just a few kms into Gaza. This particular operation was conducted in the wake of breaking up of Hamas association with Egypt over the former’s alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood which the then Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi considered a threat to him. The issue prompted Egypt to close down smuggling tunnels from Egypt to Gaza, one of the major revenue sources for Hamas. The two-week long operation obviously didn’t cause serious damage to Hamas. Over the past several years, Hamas clearly succeeded in building up a massive arsenal that overwhelmed the much touted Iron Dome-a highly mobile air defence system jointly developed by the US and Israel. The latest Hamas attack proved that terrorism cannot be defeated by air and naval bombardments and availability of high tech arms, ammunition and equipment. Ground forces had to go the whole hog whatever the consequences.

The Sri Lanka military achieved irrevocable victory in a sustained campaign in the East (Aug 2006-June 2007) and North/Vanni (March 2007-May 2009) but our corrupt and utterly useless political party system never built on the military’s success. Today war winning Sri Lanka is a bankrupt country dependent on Western tool IMF and tied to the Washington headquartered lending body having obtained a USD 2.9 bn bailout package. The IMF suspended the programme recently to pressure the government to end its corrupt ways and means and to take tangible measures to meet projected revenue targets.