The Island


Premadasa’s plan goes awry as JVP opens up new front
War on terror revisited

LTTE personnel taking salute at the ‘Col’ Kittu memorial ceremony in Jan 2004. Kittu was killed by the Indian Navy on the high seas.

Part 101

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The then Indian government reacted angrily to the growing relationship between President Ranasinghe Premadasa and the LTTE. Although many party seniors as well as officials realized President Premadasa’s folly, none dared to dispute his controversial strategy, which antagonized India.

The Foreign Ministry remained silent as Premadasa stepped up his anti-India campaign. The President was naïve enough as far as military matters were concerned to believe that he could inflict heavy losses on one of the largest armies in the world by arming the LTTE, which was on the verge of collapse, in the face of relentless Indian military action at the time President Premadasa threw a lifeline to Prabhakaran’s LTTE. The President’s move paved the way for a historic meeting between LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham and President Premadasa at the latter’s private residence, ‘Sucharitha’, on May 4, 1989.

In late June 1989, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) launched a major offensive in the northern region targeting LTTE bases. The operation got underway in the wake of President Premadasa requesting the IPKF to stop operations pending its withdrawal by July 29, 1989. Almost 100 persons, including LTTE cadres, IPKF personnel and a top government official died in the last week of June, 1989 in the northern region.

At that time, the LTTE had media contacts based in Colombo, who countered statements issued by the Indian High Commission in Colombo as regards violence sweeping the northern region. Primrose Sharma was the Indian High Commission spokesperson at that time. The Sri Lankan government and the LTTE accused the IPKF and the EPRLF-led administration in the temporarily merged North-East Province of forcibly conscripting youth for the Citizens’ Volunteer Force (CVF)/Tamil National Army (TNA). The EPRLF publicly defended its right to form an armed force of its own to protect the provincial administration. Hundreds of youth fled their homes and some of them sought refuge in Colombo to escape the EPRLF conscription drive. Some of them were accommodated at Hindu College, Wellawatte.

A desperate President Premadasa sent a telex message to Premier Gandhi requesting him to suspend IPKF action as it could jeopardize ongoing negotiations between him and the LTTE. India ignored President Premadasa’s plea (IPKF in new offensive-The Island July 2, 1989.

The TELO, ENDLF and the EPRLF formed the Tamil National Council (TNC) to pursue what the then Chief Minister called Tamil speaking people’s right for self determination. Close on the heels of the first round of talks between President Premadasa and the LTTE (May 3-May 30, 1989), the EPRLF called for the abolition of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. The TNC asserted that far reaching constitutional amendments were required to facilitate genuine devolution of powers to the temporarily merged province.

Killing outside Maldivian High Commission

On the night of July 16, 1989, an unidentified gunman shot dead PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran at Frankfurt Place, Bambalapitiya. Some alleged that a section of the PLOTE had carried out the assassination at the behest of India’s premier intelligence outfit, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Interestingly, Maheswaran was gunned down opposite the Maldivian High Commission against the backdrop of the PLOTE launching a sea borne attack on the Maldives. (The war on terror revisited series discussed the PLOTE operation as well as the Indian military operation to save the then Maldivian leader Mohammed Abdul Gayoom). The then Senior Under-Secretary of the Foreign Ministry, Ibrahim Hussain Zaki, is on record as having said that he had seen Maheswaran lying dead near the Maldivian High commission in Sri Lanka. "When I saw him lying dead, I quickly recalled that it was he whom I had seen in my room in mid 1988 about three months before the coup attempt," the Maldivian media quoted Zaki of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) as having said.

Zaki linked Maheswaran with an attempt made on Nov 3, 1988 to overthrow the Maldivian government.

The police failed in their responsibility to conduct a proper investigation. The Premadasa regime went out of its way to suppress information regarding security matters. The then Competent Authority deprived The Island of an opportunity to reveal the identity of the person killed outside the Maldivian High Commission in our July 18 issue. The police or the intelligence services never examined the possibility of Maheswaran being killed for his role in the Maldivian coup attempt (PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran gunned down at Bambalapitiya-The Island July 19, 1989).

In an exclusive interview with this writer over a year ago, the Male coup leader, businessman Abdulla Luthufee (his first since the Nov. 3, 1988 coup attempt), said that the raid on Male would never have been possible without his relationship with Maheswaran whom he described as a friend. The raiding party comprised 80 PLOTE cadres, including those trained by Indian military instructors. Maheswaran’s assassination should have prompted investigators to examine the Maldivian connection.

Gen. Ranatunga speaks out

The Premadasa government was struggling in the South with the JVP going on the rampage. The situation in the North was worse. The government couldn’t handle the challenge posed by the IPKF in the wake of Prime Minister Gandhi’s refusal to withdraw troops. Indian leaders didn’t mince their words when they declared that India wouldn’t meet President Premadasa’s July 29, 1989 deadline to quit Sri Lanka. India’s position fuelled speculation that Sri Lankan troops would throw their weight behind the LTTE battling the IPKF. A gun battle between the Sri Lankan Army and the IPKF at Atambagaskade in the Vavuniya district in early July 1989 sent shock waves through the security establishment. The confrontation claimed the lives of two IPKF personnel, while three received injuries. Senior representatives of the Sri Lankan Army and the IPKF moved swiftly to defuse tension and prevent clashes from spilling over into the neighbouring areas. President Premadasa’s security advisor, Gen. Cyril Ranatunga emphasized that the failure on the part of India to withdraw the IPKF before the deadline wouldn’t lead to hostilities between Sri Lankan forces and the IPKF. Gen. Ranatunga also scotched rumours that President Premadasa, in his capacity as the Commander-in-Chief, had ordered the re-deployment of troops in the Northern and Eastern districts immediately after the lapse of the deadline given to the IPKF. In accordance with the Indo Lanka Accord (ILA), Sri Lankan armed forces were confined to barracks (Ranatunga rules out confrontations—The Island July 25, 1989).

Gen. Ranatunga gave his assurance in the wake of the IPKF protesting against the SLAF engaging in hostile acts. The IPKF and the Indian High Commission accused the SLAF of causing unnecessary friction amidst rising tension in the war zone. The IPKF reacted furiously to an SLAF aircraft carrying out midnight manoeuvres over an IPKF base in the Vavuniya district. The then Chief of Staff of the SLAF, Terrance de S. Gunawardane, confirmed the night flight. Gunawardena said that ILA couldn’t bar the SLAF from carrying out training exercises. The IPKF caused another controversy when it asserted that Gen. Ranatunga, too, should notify the Indian military authorities if he wanted to visit the North (SLAF dismisses Indian army protests of ‘hostile’ acts-The Island July 27, 1989).

Battle outside Mannar hospital

The IPKF went on the rampage in Mannar town after the LTTE killed over 25 IPKF personnel outside the Mannar base hospital in the third week of Aug. 1989. It was the worst attack on the IPKF during 1989. The LTTE launched a multi-pronged attack on the IPKF taking cover in the hospital. Heavily armed terrorists swooped down on the IPKF point after a surprise mortar attack on unsuspecting jawans. The IPKF probably thought that the LTTE wouldn’t engage troops outside the hospital (Over 25 IPKF men killed near Mannar hospital-The Island Aug 18, 1989).

A bloody crackdown

About a week before the lapse of President Premadasa’s unrealistic deadline for the IPKF’s withdrawal, the JVP declared its intention to launch a massive protest campaign on July 28 against India and the presence of Indian forces in the country. The JVP ordered both public and private sector employees not to report for work on July 26, 1989. Posters and leaflets warned workers of dire consequences unless they heeded the directive issued by the Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya (DJV). JVP directed bomb attacks at the State Bank of India building at Sir Baron Jayatilleke Mawatha, Fort and the Indian Bank at the Main Street. In the South, a landmine ripped through an army vehicle killing two and wounding four. It was the first major attack on the army after a quiet period. An irate President ordered the police and the military to crush demonstrations organized by the JVP on the morning of July 28.

As the JVP threatened to march on the Indian High Commission and India House, India bolstered its firepower in Colombo. Having informed the government, India airlifted a heavily armed contingent of para-commandos attached to the IPKF to Ratmalana. The Para commandos landed at the Ratmalana air base on July 27, during JVP led protests in Colombo. The government couldn’t resist the Indian deployment in Colombo. Indian commandos took up position at the High Commission and India House. The Indian High Commission asserted that its troops would protect Indian lives and property regardless of the consequences. Indian troops also took up positions at the Taj Samuda, where many Indian diplomatic staff took refuge for the second time during 1989. They were forced to move into the Taj in the second week of June 1989, due JVP threats.

In spite of State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne assuring security for the Indian diplomatic staff and Indian property in Colombo, India declared its intention to maintain additional strength as long as the JVP posed a threat. India emphasized its right to sustain required military presence to meet any eventuality. Instead of withdrawing its forces as demanded by President Premadasa, India increased its military presence in Colombo, much to the consternation of the government.

The government warned the JVP to call off the planned demonstrations. But, the outfit however, forced hundreds of people to launch protests in the provinces. The police and armed forces opened fire on protesters killing about 200 persons on the morning of July 28, 1989. The armed forces and the police prevented the wounded being moved to nearby government hospitals. Troops also thwarted attempts to remove bodies of those killed during the bloody crackdown. In Moneragala alone, over 25 persons were killed. Interestingly, the JVP failed to mobilize people in the Matara and Hambantota districts during the July 28 demonstrations. It was the worst day in terms of the number of people killed during the second JVP-led insurgency. During clashes between the police backed by security forces and JVP-led protesters on July 29, 1987, about 150 persons died. The dead included several Buddhist monks.

The situation continued to deteriorate as troops executed family members of suspected JVP cadres in the wake of attacks on the army and the police. Once, the then army chief Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe had to take up the issue with those in charge of security in the North Central region. In the wake of the July 28, 1989 incidents, both the government and the JVP stepped up violence. Those suspected of being involved with the JVP were summarily executed.

Landmine blast rocks Middeniya

In late Aug. 1989, six soldiers died in a landmine explosion at Gomadiya, a village several miles away from Middeniya in the Hambantota district. Two personnel, who survived the blast, were airlifted to Colombo for medical treatment as troops launched a clearing operation in the area. It was the second major landmine blast directed at the army by the JVP. Six army personnel, including two officers died in a landmine blast at Galewela in the Matale district (Six soldiers killed in landmine blast-The Island Aug 24).

The JVP obtained landmines from Indian sponsored Tamil groups operating alongside the IPKF. Did the IPKF authorize the arming of the JVP, too, in response to President Premadasa giving arms, ammunition and money to the LTTE? The IPKF couldn’t have been unaware of the LTTE receiving arms from President Premadasa. Had the government bothered to investigate, it could have ascertained the circumstances under which the JVP had acquired landmines.

Tamil groups received landmines courtesy India at the onset of their campaign with the July 23, 1983 landmine attack being the first major reported incident, which plunged Sri Lanka into crisis.The JVP blasted a police vehicle proceeding towards Gannoruwa also in the Hambantota district on the afternoon of Oct 27, 1989 killing four policemen. Seven policemen received injuries. It was the biggest blast since the killing of 12 soldiers, including two officers in the Middeniya and Galewela areas. The use of landmines by the JVP had a devastating impact on the armed forces. On the other hand, the sudden appearance of mines compelled the government to go all out against the JVP.

To be continued on Feb 6

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