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Prelude to the Indo-LTTE War (1987-90)

An Anthology, Part 1

The opposition to the Rajiv – Jayewardene Accord came from all corners of the Sinhalese polity long before the LTTE weighed in against it, because this Accord was, in the words of the opposition SLFP’s critique, “hatched under a veil of secrecy and signed in haste under a nationwide curfew followed by tight press censorship, a ban on meetings and a military presence which prevents people affected by it from expressing their views publicly.” [Far Eastern Economic Review, Aug.13, 1987].

Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

The twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Rajiv Gandhi – Jayewardene Peace Accord (July 29, 1987), also known as the Indo-Lanka Accord, is appropriate for an historical appraisal of what happened at that time.

Despite the breast-thumping theatrics presented by many (politicians, journalists, academics, military men, gumshoes and JVP assassins) who played to the audiences in New Delhi, Chennai, Colombo and Jaffna in July-August 1987, all told, there were only four protagonists in the Rajiv – Jayewardene Peace Accord drama. Among these, three (Rajiv Gandhi, Jayewardene and V. Pirabhakaran) were aptly featured on the cover of the Far Eastern Economic Review issue of August 13, 1987. The fourth protagonist was J.N. Dixit, the then Indian High Commissioner in Colombo. Among these four protagonists, only Pirabhakaran is alive now.TIME cover August 10, 1987

Today, from one corner, we are served with a glut of reminiscences from the Indians who came to prominence after the signing of the Accord by virtue of their presence in Sri Lanka. The ex-military and ex-intelligence officials who have turned into memoirists are either serenading a new tune of passing the blame for the policy failures on those who are dead and gone or (still wallowing in a state of denial) are sticking to their pet myth that the Indian army did defeat the LTTE.

About Indian myths, I like the analysis of a ranking Indian thinker. First, read this:

“Most of the myths and stories are heroic in conception and teach adherence to truth and the pledged word, whatever the consequences, faithfulness unto death and even beyond, courage, good works and sacrifice for the common good. Sometimes the story is pure myth, or else it is a mixture of fact and myth, an exaggerated amount of some incident that tradition preserved. Facts and fiction are so interwoven together as to be inseparable, and this amalgam becomes an imagined history, which may not tell us exactly what happened but does tell us something that is equally important – what people believed had taken place…”

These are the thoughts of Jawaharlal Nehru, as he recorded in his book, ‘The Discovery of India’ (first published in 1946). This passage appears under the section ‘The epics, history, tradition and myth’ in chapter 4, carrying the same title as the book’s. The 1989 imprint of this book, which I have, mentions the copyright owner as Rajiv Gandhi (1982), and also carried a Foreword by Indira Gandhi, dated 4 November 1980.

From another corner, from the so-called “alternate Tamil leadership” of contemporary Sri Lanka (but who in 1987 were not major actors, such as a hibernating toady politician like V. Anandasangaree or a flotsam and jetsam like Douglas Devananda) we hear some self-serving banalities that it was because of the LTTE’s deeds that the Rajiv – Jayewardene Accord turned out to be a non-starter. This whimsical distortion of history deserves to be repudiated. Nehru’s thoughts on ancient Indian myths are acceptable for great religious epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharatha. But one should guard against myths being propagated about events which happened in our life time, as near as 1987. As such, I have assembled below in chronological sequence, the most notable ‘first drafts of history’ from my archival collection.

The opposition to the Rajiv – Jayewardene Accord came from all corners of the Sinhalese polity long before the LTTE weighed in against it, because this Accord was, in the words of the opposition SLFP’s critique, “hatched under a veil of secrecy and signed in haste under a nationwide curfew followed by tight press censorship, a ban on meetings and a military presence which prevents people affected by it from expressing their views publicly.” [Far Eastern Economic Review, Aug.13, 1987]. Minister Douglas Devananda who has embedded his political bucket to the SLFP wagon since 1994, seems oblivious to this historical fact of 1987 in his descriptions of past events. Not only the then leader of the SLFP Sirimavo Bandaranaike, but even powerful members of Jayewardene’s Cabinet (including President Jayewardene’s then prime minister R. Premadasa and the National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali) opposed the Accord. The yellow-robed Buddhist mullahs opposed the Accord. And, last but not the least, the JVP opposed the Accord. Within a span of three weeks of the signing of the Rajiv – Jayewardene Accord (between July 30, 1987 and August 18, 1987), the JVP’s sympathizers failed in their two attempts to assassinate both Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Jayewardene.

Far Eastern Economic Review cover August 13, 1987Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was turned into an ogre by the Sinhalese-owned Colombo print media and this status prevailed until his assassination on May 21, 1991. The Sinhalese polity as a whole felt castrated by Rajiv Gandhi’s bullying diplomacy. Though their opinion makers were spewing anti-Indian diatribes from all available outlets, neither the Sinhalese military nor the JVP flag-wavers of Sinhalese courage dared to touch a single Indian soldier offensively. Eventually, it was left to the LTTE to stand up to Indian bullying. This is one envy the Sinhalese military establishment still carries strongly in its heart, but, the Sinhalese tom-tom beaters will never acknowledge this openly. In those years, between 1987 and 1990, there were even observations that quite a large percent among Sinhalese commoners secretly admired Pirabhakaran’s guts in standing up to the bullying of the Indian panjandrums and the Indian military. President Premadasa was even noted by one or two Sinhalese analysts as one of these secret ‘admirers’ of Pirabhakaran.

History deserves to be preserved as it happened. As such, I present below the ‘first drafts of history’ in this Prelude to the Indo-LTTE war. Eleven reports which appeared during August 1987 in tje news magazines The Economist, Time, Asiaweek and the Far Eastern Economic Review are transcribed below, in chronological sequence.

(1) Anonymous correspondents: When Peace became Possible. Economist, Aug.1, 1987.

(2) Unsigned editorial: Tiger, Tiger, losing fight. Economist, Aug.8, 1987.

(3) Anonymous correspondent: Still in the Balance. Economist, Aug.8, 1987.

(4) Edward Desmond: A Deal in Sri Lanka – The Key Question; How Long Can It Last? (Cover Story) Time, Aug.10, 1987.

(5) Rodney Tasker: Rajiv’s gunboat peace (Cover story). Far Eastern Economic Review, Aug 13, 1987.

(6) Narendra Reddy: Forced into non-alignment (Cover story). Far Eastern Economic Review, Aug 13, 1987.

(7) Manik de Silva: Jayewardene’s Threat to Rule Alone if Accord Opposed (Cover story). Far Eastern Economic Review, Aug 13, 1987.

(8) Anonymous Correspondent: A Reluctant Surrender (Cover Story). Asiaweek, Aug.16, 1987.

(9) Rodney Tasker: Peace has Its Problems. Far Eastern Economic Review, Aug.20, 1987.

(10) Rodney Tasker: Playing Tigers and Indians. Far Eastern Economic Review, Aug.20, 1987.

(11) Manik de Silva: The Narrow Escape. Far Eastern Economic Review, Aug.27, 1987.

Though reporters like Edward Desmond, Rodney Tasker, Manik de Silva and Narendra Reddy who contributed these ‘first drafts’ have signed their names, unfortunately the identity of some other scribes are not known. It could be presumed that the commentaries which appeared in the Economist magazine should have had the Lanka Guardian editor Mervyn de Silva’s input, since he was the Sri Lankan correspondent to the Economist then. For the sake of historical accuracy, I have not deleted or condensed any material. As such, some observations and comments which happen to be anti-Tamil and/or anti-LTTE have to be taken as the thoughts/opinions of the contributors, who might or might not have been biased or who were deprived of opportunities to gather any alternate perspectives.


When Peace became Possible

[Correspondents in Colombo and Delhi; Economist, London, August 1, 1987, pp.20, 25-26]

Asked at a press conference why he was offering generous deal to Sri Lanka’s Tamils now, rather than four years and 6,000 deaths ago, Sri Lanka’s president, Mr Junius Jayewardene, replied, ‘Because of my own lack of intelligence.’ His new-found enlightenment, combined with the determination of the Indian prime minister, Mr Rajiv Gandhi, to clinch a deal, led the two to sign a pack on July 29th that might end Sri Lanka’s civil war. Within a day, it had brought 1,700 Indian peace-keeping troops to the island’s Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula. But, as Sinhalese riots amply showed, some of Mr Jayewardene’s countrymen did not want peace on his terms.

More than 35 people were killed on July 28th and 29th during riots intended to sabotage the peace. It was the worst violence that Colombo had seen since Tamil discontent took a military turn four years ago. Roads out of the city were jammed with office workers fleeing from the mayhem. A curfew and patrols of soldiers with orders to shoot rioters on sight closed the city down; but the violence moved to the outskirts.

Unconcerned, workmen outside the presidential palace busied themselves fixing pictures of Mr Gandhi to posts and erecting brightly-coloured bunting in his honour. When the Indian prime minister arrived on Wednesday to sign the deal, he was driven through a street still littered with glass, bricks and blood.

Mr Gandhi’s big contribution was to bludgeon Sri Lanka’s main Tamil guerrilla group, the Tigers, into accepting a deal. Soon after midnight on July 29th, the Tigers’ leader Mr Vellupillai Prabhakaran, emerged from 75 minutes’ conversation with Mr Gandhi and announced that he would go along with the deal. That was not the whole story. Mr Prabhakaran was still complaining that the agreement’s deadlines were too short (a ceasefire is due to come into force 48 hours after the accord was signed; the guerrillas are supposed to surrender their arms within another 72 hours after that). And he does not want the Tigers to have to give up their weapons before the Sri Lankan army retreats to the bases it occupied before the latest offensive.

He was waiting in Delhi on Thursday to resume his haggling with the Indian prime minister. But, unless the guerrillas want to risk going it alone, they will have to give in. One big reason is the backing Mr Gandhi got from the chief minister of India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, who has in the past been a support to the guerrillas and a buffer against pressures from Delhi.

Mr Gandhi has done the statesmanlike thing, but the speed with which he pushed the deal through reflects his domestic troubles. The prime minister needs a diplomatic success to deflect attention from the allegations of government corruption and mismanagement that are endangering his future. He got the breakthrough that made the agreement possible in a series of talks in mid-July between the Indian high commissioner in Colombo and Mr Jayewardene; he was determined not to lose his chance.

During those talks, Mr Jayewardene gave a lot of ground. The resulting agreement offers a concession which the government had said it would never make: the Tamil-dominated Northern province will be merged with the Eastern province, where the population divides roughly equally among Hindu Tamils, Buddhist Sinhalese and Muslims. The merger is only provisional – a referendum in the east will make the final decision – but it is still a bitter pill for the Sinhalese to swallow; especially since the new province will get considerable autonomy.

Mr Jayewardene is talking big risks. He faces massed ranks of rioters in Colombo, many of them Buddhist monks. At a rally, religious leaders proclaimed that Mr Jayewardene was prepared to make the Tamil areas a state of India, and that ‘Rajiv wants to sacrifice Sri Lanka to save his political career.’

The president’s colleagues in government are also giving him trouble. The prime minister, Mr Ranasinghe Premadasa, has condemned the agreement. Neither Mr Premadasa nor the national security minister Mr Lalith Athulathmudali, were there to greet Mr Gandhi when he arrived in Colombo. Both are in the race to succeed the 80-year old Mr Jayewardene, and are therefore keen to win popularity with the Sinhalese majority.

The old man is unwilling to step aside. Instead, he would like Sri Lankans to believe that he can, through this agreement, restore peace and prosperity to the country. The war against the Tamils is costing the government 12 billion rupees ($407 m) a year, out of a total budget of 65 billion rupees. Some 40,000 tourists used to pack Sri Lanka’s golden beaches and modern hotels. Only about half that many now come.

The jingoistic attacks on the peace plan may kill it; but Mr Jayewardene plans to turn his growing unpopularity to advantage. He has hinted that, if parliament does not accept the peace deal, he may call an election. That should help it through: Mr Jayewardene’s party members, who form an overwhelming majority in parliament, will be nervous about competing for votes with an opposition that has no qualms about playing to the Sinhala chauvinist vote. Of such base motives is peace sometimes made.


Tiger, Tiger, losing fight

[Unsigned editorial; Economist, London, August 8, 1987, p.13]

In the four years since civil war broke out between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority and its Tamil minority, more than 6,000 of the island’s 16m people have been killed, many of them by terrorists or by soldiers who used guns like hoses. This week, it suddenly seemed, one of the world’s wars may be near an end.

Sri Lanka’s President Junius Jayewardene and India’s prime minister Mr Rajiv Gandhi, signed a peace agreement on July 29th to which the Tamil guerrillas had nine-tenths assented only hours before. It happened because these two men, neither of whom is usually known for steady resolve in the face of opposition, have been firm enough to risk the wrath of both Sinhalese hotheads (who reject anything except continued Sinhalese domination) and Tamil ones (who will accept only total Tamil breakaway). Both leaders – especially Mr Jayewardene – will now have to keep steel in their spines. The challenge to the 80-year old Sri Lankan president at once became plain; in two days of Sinhalese riots this week in which two score people died; in the open denunciation of the agreement by his prime minister; in his security minister’s evident lack of enthusiasm.

The peace plan deserves all the backing that India and Sri Lanka can muster. It declares that the Tamil guerrillas (including the most deadly ones, the Tigers) will be disarmed by a joint Sri Lankan-Indian force; they, and several thousand political prisoners, will be given an amnesty. Ordinary Tamils, who make up a fifth of the population and have long been discriminated against in language, schooling and jobs, will be given equal status in Sri Lanka as a whole. They will also have more say over their own affairs in a merger of the Northern province, where they are a majority, and – unless it opts out in a referendum next year – of the Eastern province, where there are about as many Tamils as Sinhalese and Muslims. India promises to guarantee the agreement by shutting down guerrilla bases in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and patrolling the narrow Palk Straits between there and the island to stop the guerrillas being rearmed.

The plan stands a chance of working because Mr Jayewardene and Mr Gandhi have understood that ending a guerrilla war requires more than a set of reasonable proposals for remedying the grievances behind it. Those making the proposals have to be willing to threaten, or use, force to back them up. Sri Lanka did so in its assault on the Tiger-controlled Jaffna peninsula in May. This earned the usual international tut-tutting, not least from India. It also recaptured half the peninsula and showed the Tigers that Sri Lanka’s previously wobbly army was capable of fighting and winning.

India’s part has been subtler, but equally valuable. Mr Gandhi’s most useful contribution has been to tell the Tigers, who cannot survive on their own, that they would get no Indian support for continuing the war when a reasonable settlement could end it. This was not an easy thing for him to insist on – not least because of the sympathy India’s own 50m Tamils feel for their Sri Lankan cousins. It is also likely that Indian pressure stiffened Mr Jayewardene’s will to force through a settlement. In the past he has been reluctant to take on his own party’s Sinhalese hawks. India’s slightly menacing air-drop of food to the Jaffna peninsula during the Sri Lankan assault may have helped him make up his mind.

The deal is not wrapped up. The Tigers were still haggling over the fine print on Thursday, even though 1,700 Indian peace-keeping troops had landed in Jaffna that morning. It will be a tricky business to disarm the Tigers in any event, no matter how well Sri Lanka and India cooperate in doing it. Even if that hurdle is cleared, Mr Jayewardene will face large difficulties; in selling the agreement to the many Sinhalese who think it treasonous, and in steering the merged Northern and Eastern provinces thorough their first months. The two leaders have set out on the right path. They will deserve great praise if they stick to it. Mr Jayewardene will have saved his country. Mr Gandhi will have exercised powers of statesmanship and decision that seemed to have deserted him.


Still in the Balance

[Special Correspondent in Colombo; Economist, London, August 8, 1987, pp.18-19]

The movement of thousands of Indian soldiers into Sri Lanka at the invitation of that country’s government has had two purposes, one proclaimed and visible, the other unacknowledged but no less real. The first was to give life to the peace pact signed by Mr Rajiv Gandhi and President Junius Jayewardene in Colombo on July 29th. Since then more than 5,000 Indian soldiers have arrived in the Jaffna peninsula to try to restore the peace there.

The Tamil guerrillas in and around Jaffna town were at first reluctant to hand over their arms to the Indian troops. On August 2nd, however, Mr Vellupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers (the group that had emerged victorious from previous clashes among the several Tamil guerrilla forces), was brought back from Delhi, where Mr Gandhi had been wrangling with him for nearly two weeks. On August 4th Mr Prabhakaran ordered his men to start surrendering their weapons. Two days later, 3,800 Tamils who had been accused of supporting the rebellion were freed from jail.

The hidden purpose of the Indian soldiers is to buttress Mr Jayewardene against some of his own people: the diehards in Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority who bitterly resent the deal he made with the Indian prime minister. Both Indian and Sri Lankan officials say that the rioting in the south of the island, which began before the pact was signed, was not spontaneous; and that unless it was checked, it could topple the president. The Indians fear that if he fell a fiercely anti-Tamil government would come to power in Colombo.

While the Indian troops were settling in around Jaffna town in the Northern province, 2,500 Sri Lankan soldiers were withdrawn from Jaffna and flown south in Indian aircraft to cope with the trouble there. The Indians are said to be willing to send their own troops into the Eastern province or even to the south if asked. According to one Sri Lankan official, the Indian frigates that have taken station off Colombo are there as a warning to ‘those who want to upset the government’. Indian ships have also arrived at Trincomalee, the former British naval base on the east coast.

A large role in the Sinhalese rioting was taken by the far-left Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front), which had lapsed into obscurity after an attempted insurrection in 1971. The JVP left its mark on burnt-out buses, railway stations and other buildings all over the south. But Buddhist monks also played a big part in the agitation. So did Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which has opposed all the president’s attempts to conciliate the Tamils. Mrs Bandaranaike herself appeared at rabble-rousing Buddhist rallies, and two other politicians from her party were arrested for encouraging the violence.

The ruling United National Party was itself divided. Some members of the cabinet accused the national security minister, Mr Lalith Athulathmudali, of making grave mistakes during the riots in Colombo. They cited two specific blunders: about 2,000 policemen had been sent away to keep order at a festival in Kandy; and, after letting huge crowds assemble in Colombo, the police maddened them by using tear gas (foreign reporters who had to scramble over walls to escape the fumes confirm this version of events). By July 29th the president had virtually taken over control of security operations himself, and was relying heavily on his finance minister Mr Ronnie de Mel, a supporter of the agreement and a bitter rival of the security minister. After a sailor in a Sri Lankan guard of honour struck Mr Gandhi with his rifle butt on July 30th, Mr de Mel publicly demanded Mr Athulathmudali’s resignation.

The security minister and the prime minister, Mr Ranasinghe Premadasa, had signally failed to support the president over his peace pact. Both have their eyes on the next presidential election. In that election, due in about 18 months’ time, it is almost certain that the main opposition candidate will denounce the pact in order to appeal to chauvinists among Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority. Some think the ruling party will have to trim its sails accordingly. Mr Athulathmudali has already increased his popularity among Sinhalese, who see him as an outright opponent of the pact. (They might be disappointed: he has suggested that if he became president he would seek to alter its terms rather than scrap it.)

His elevation to the presidency would cut short the political ambitions of Mr de Mel. The finance minister, who is long on service but short on magnetism, might choose to hitch his wagon to a rising young star, Mr Gamini Dissanayake, the minister for lands, who was largely responsible for negotiating the peace pact.

The fact that Mr Jayewardene is already 80 may not deter him from seeking to retain the presidency himself. Some people think he is counting on the prospect that the proposed merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces – a central element in the accord – will be annulled when it is submitted to a referendum next year. The Eastern province, where the Tamils are in a minority, may well vote against the merger if its Muslim inhabitants side with the Sinhalese. The president might then be able to base his campaign for re-election on the claim that he had both tamed the Tigers and wriggled out of the merger.


Asiaweek cover August 16, 1987A

Deal in Sri Lanka -The Key Question: How Long Can it Last?

[Edward Desmond; Time magazine cover story, August 10, 1987, pp.6-10]

Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was savoring a diplomatic breakthrough as he emerged from the President’s House in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo last week. The previous day he had joined Sri Lankan President Junius R.Jayewardene in signing an agreement, long sought by India, that held promise of ending a four-year-old insurgency in which more than 6,000 have been killed.

As the Prime Minister strode past the white-uniformed men of a Sri Lankan naval honor guard, one of the sailors suddenly broke ranks and swung at Gandhi with the butt of his rifle. The Prime Minister ducked and received only a glancing blow on the back of his neck and left shoulder. But if he escaped serious injury in the incident, for which the Sri Lankan government quickly apologized, the Prime Minister must have realized how much strife and distrust had been aroused by the pact he had just initiated – and how uncertain were its chances of success.

The agreement was worked out during three weeks of secret talks between New Delhi and Colombo. Its centerpiece was Jayewardene’s concession of local rule in two regions heavily populated by Sri Lanka’s Tamils, an ethnic minority comprising 12.5% of the country’s 16 million people. In exchange, Gandhi, whose government has provided refuge and vital support to Tamil insurgents fighting the Colombo government, promised to ensure that the rebels would lay down their arms.

Gandhi’s pledge was backed up the morning after the signing ceremony, when 3,000 Indian troops landed by air and sea on the Tamil-dominated Jaffna Peninsula in the north of the island. Their task: disarm the guerrillas and take up peacekeeping duties.

The Indian military’s job will not be easy; indeed, a direct confrontation between the guerrillas and their former protectors may be inevitable. The Indian army’s first contact with representatives of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the largest and most militant of the five rebel groups, ended in a standoff. A group of 400 angy Tamils rocked the vehicle of the Indian commander, Major General Harkirat Singh, while yelling that the Tigers would not lay down their arms. A senior Tiger commander told TIME, ‘The Indians will have to cross our dead bodies to get these weapons.’ The Tiger’s main complaint was that their leader, Velupillai Prabakaran, had been confined to a New Delhi hotel room because of his resistance to the pact, which he called a ‘stab in the back’. But early this week, Prabakaran was permitted to return to Jaffna after pledging that he would ask his commanders to lay down their arms.

As his aircraft descended toward Colombo at midweek, Gandhi could see that Jayewardene had serious problems of his own. Columns of black smoke rose over the capital as angry mobs, overwhelmingly from the Sinhalese majority, battled police and burned buses to protest the settlement. At least 70 people were killed last week as police and soldiers resorted to rifle fire to contain the rioting. In the protester’s eyes, Jayewardene, once their hero, had caved in to rebel demands and Indian pressure. ‘Let’s be truthful,’ said one government official. ‘Ninety percent of the Sinhalese people are against us.’

For all the controversy it has aroused, the accord offers benefits to both countries – if it holds up. For Sri Lanka, it could mean a return to peace after years of bloodshed and political turmoil; for India, success would promote its coveted image as the regional superpower. Said US State Department Spokesman Charles Redman: ‘We applaud the statesmanlike efforts and perseverance of these courageous leaders in achieving this accord.’

The potential gains are especially attractive to Gandhi, who is facing growing opposition at home. If the accord does not crumble, the Prime Minister will have not only enhanced India’s image as a peace-maker but also extracted concessions from Colombo that amount to a compromising of Sri Lankan independence in the areas of defense and foreign affairs. The Indian initiative carries risks as well: should the Tamil Tigers resist and drag the Indian peacekeeping forces into the insurgency, the enterprise could turn into a political calamity for Gandhi.

Jayewardene is taking an even bigger chance. His Prime Minister, Ranasinghe Premadasa, refused to attend the pact’s signing and is actively speaking out against it. The military, 45,000-strong, backs the President, but foreign diplomats in Colombo believe the accord is seriously straining the loyalty of the lower ranks. The main opposition party and Buddhist monks, who form an influential force in Sinhalese society, were in the vanguard of the antigovernment demonstrations. Said Madihe Pannaseeha, chief priest of the Amarapura Chapter of Buddhists: ‘India’s aim is the total subjugation of Sri Lanka. First of all, they will take the north and east. Then they will infiltrate the central provinces. Ultimately they will have the whole country.’

Sinhalese distrust of India runs deep. Over two milleniums, Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority has fought back periodic invasions from Hindu India. Sri Lanka’s Tamils are Hindus too, and the Sinhalese tend to regard them as India’s natural allies. The current round of Tamil-Sinhalese conflict goes back to 1956, when the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, now the leading opposition group, assumed power in Colombo. In a burst of Sinhalese chauvinism, the party made Sinhala the sole official language and restricted job and educational opportunities for ethnic minorities, effectively reducing the Tamils to second-class citizens.

Though Jayewardene’s United National Party eased the discrimination in 1977, bitter feelings remained. Tamil resentment erupted into sporadic violence. In July 1983 one of those incidents catapulted the country into war: after Tamil guerrillas ambushed and killed 13 Sri Lankan soldiers, enraged Sinhalese stampeded through Colombo and killed at least 600 Tamils. With that, a full-fledged Tamil insurgency was born.

The rebels’ goal was a unified, independent state for Tamils in the island’s Northern and Eastern provinces, though it was widely assumed that most would settle for an autonomous homeland. The 3,500-man Tigers, under the charismatic leadership of Prabakaran, emerged as the most powerful insurgent group, dominating the Jaffna Peninsula. The Tigers’ nationalist line proved more appealing to Tamils than the doctrinaire Marxism of other organizations; they also showed no reluctance to gun down competitors.

Outnumbered by the Sri Lankan military and poorly armed, the insurgents would not have gone far without assistance from India. Just 22 miles across the Palk Strait from northern Sri Lanka lies India’s Tamil Nadu state, home of 55 million Indian Tamils. On an initially covert but increasingly visible basis, New Delhi and the Tamil Nadu state government provided the rebel groups with weapons, training camps and staging areas. Even as it armed the guerrillas, India pressed the Jayewardene government to negotiate a settlement with the Tigers. New Delhi, however, did not endorse the Tigers’ demand for independence, insisting instead that Colombo grant local rule.

Jayewardene refused. The Tigers dug in on the Jaffna Peninsula, from where they staged frequent raids and terrorist attacks into the south. During a single week in April, a car bomb in Colombo and a massacre in the Eastern Province claimed the lives of at least 240 civilians, nearly all of them Sinhalese. A month later the Sri Lankan military launched an all-out offensive against the Tigers in the Jaffna area. India demanded that Colombo call off the action, then defied Sri Lankan sovereignty by sending air force cargo planes to parachute 22.5 tons of nonmilitary supplies into the Tamil areas.

At that point, according to Indian diplomats, Jayewardene saw the writing on the wall: he realized that India, with its superior military might, was determined to stop Colombo’s efforts to defeat the Tamil rebels. Said a Western diplomat in Sri Lanka: ‘The military option was no longer viable. Direct talks with the militants, considering their adamancy, were not viable.’ Jayewardene’s only way out was to negotiate with New Delhi.

In June and July, secret talks began through diplomatic intermediaries. Says Neelan Tiruchelvam, a leading Tamil moderate: ‘The Indian and Sri Lankan governments felt the only way it would work was to present Tamil and Sinhalese extremists with a fait accompli.’ Colombo agreed to New Delhi’s proposal for Tamil local rule, while India acceded to Jayewardene’s request that it impose the settlement on the rebels – by force if need be. (Indian troops had helped Colombo once before, when they intervened briefly to put down an insurrection in 1971.) Asked at a news conference last week why he had not come up with such a proposal four years ago, Jayewardene, 80, and noted for his idiosyncratic remarks, drew gasps when replied, ‘Lack of courage on my part, lack of intelligence on my part, lack of foresight on my part.’

The terms of last week’s agreement:

  • Within 48 hours of the signing, a ceasefire to take effect throughout the country.
  • Within 72 hours, rebel units to lay down their arms and Sri Lankan soldiers to return to barracks.
  • Colombo to decree a general amnesty for all Tamil rebels and to free all Tamil political prisoners.
  • Colombo to declare that English and Tamil, in addition to Sinhala, be official languages.
  • New Delhi to expel any Tamil advocating separatism or terrorism in Sri Lanka and to close down rebel camps in Tamil Nadu. Indian and Sri Lankan naval vessels to patrol the Palk Strait to interdict any supply shipments for the rebels.
  • Colombo to create a unified, locally ruled province out of the northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka. By the end of the year, residents of the new region would elect a governor, chief minister and a cabinet.

Some 92% of the northern area’s residents are Tamils; the comparative figure stands at just 40% in the eastern region. As a result, the agreement provides that easterners would decide by referendum next year whether to remain unified with the north. Most observers believe the easterners would opt out. The provision is unacceptable to the Tigers.

India took advantage of its strong position to pull Sri Lanka more closely into its orbit. Jayewardene’s pro-Western attitudes and laissez-faire economic policies have long irritated New Delhi, which describes itself as a nonaligned, socialist-leaning country and sees itself as the dominant force in South Asia. As part of the accord, Jayewardene agreed to deny military use of the naval base at Trincomalee and other Sri Lankan ports ‘in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests’ and promised that foreign broadcasting facilities in Sri Lanka would have no ‘military or intelligence purposes’. The latter concession was prompted by Indian concerns about a Voice of America transmitter under construction near the west coast town of Puttalam, north of Colombo.

Moreover, Colombo said it would consult with India before bringing in ‘foreign military or intelligence personnel.’ Since 1984, Sri Lanka has relied on Israeli, Pakistani and other foreign experts to help combat the insurgency. Asked at a press conference whether Sri Lanka had moved closer to India, Jayewardene hesitated, then said softly, ‘We are free, and we will remain friends of India’.

Winning concessions from Jayewardene was only part of Gandhi’s task. If the peace plan was to succeed, he needed cooperation from Sri Lanka’s Tamils and their supporters in India. Foremost among the backers were M.G. Ramachandran, Tamil Nadu’s influential chief minister, and his pro-Tamil party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Without Ramachandran’s acquiescence, it would be difficult to clamp down on rebel activities in the state. To Gandhi’s relief, Ramachandran consented, perhaps because the Tamil rebel groups have become something of a threat to law-and-order in Tamil Nadu.

The second, and much more difficulot, job of persuasion centered on the Tigers. Gandhi’s representatives approached Tiger Chief Prabakaran. With Colombo’s permission, an Indian air force helicopter flew to Jaffna a week ago to pick up the Tamil chieftain, who had not been informed of the peace proposal. The first stop was Madras, the Tamil Nadu capital, where Chief Minister Ramachandran tried but failed to cajole Prabakaran into going along. Next, Prabakaran was flown to New Delhi for three days of discussions. The Tiger leader continued to resist, arguing that his fighters would not be safe without their weapons once Indian forces departed. He insisted that the future of the Eastern Province could not be separated from that of the Northern.

As the talks grew heated, Prabakaran described the deal as an ‘act of betrayal’ and charged that he had been ‘tricked’ into coming to New Delhi. ‘Let them take away our arms,’ he declared. ‘But the peacekeeping force proposed to be deployed will have to protect Tamil lives and property. When we are disarmed at the instance of India, India will be held responsible for atrocities against Tamils.’ Even a meeting with Gandhi failed to soothe the Tiger Chieftain. Placed under military guard, he sat out the pact signing in a room at the government-owned Ashok Hotel in New Delhi. Indian officials hinted that Prabakaran would face exile if he did not have a change of heart.

Countering those pressures with an ultimatum of their own, the Tiger leadership and several smaller rebel groups announced that they would not lay down their arms until Prabakaran returned to Jaffna. ‘Our friendship with India,’ said the Tiger statement, ‘depends on the Indian government’s understanding of our basic issues.’

Early this week, Prabakaran appeared to give in. After promising that he would ask his fighters to put down their arms, New Delhi arranged for him to fly on an Indian air force plane to Jaffna, where he arrived Sunday afternoon. It appeared that a concession from Colombo was what brought about a change in Prabakaran’s attitude. Sri Lankan officials told Prabakaran that he could have a leading role in an interim body administering the Eastern and Northern provinces until elections. He was also reportedly guaranteed the right to appoint a personal security force. Despite the apparent end to the impasse, observers in Colombo and New Delhi were unsure what would actually happen after Prabakaran met with his men.

Jayewardene may have trouble keeping his part of the bargain. The day before he and Gandhi signed the pact, opposition leaders and Buddhist monks sparked violent antigovernment demonstrations. In front of Colombo’s central rail station, Madoluwe Sobitha, a well-known monk, told a crowd that Jayewardene was no different from Sri Lankan leaders who had ‘sold out’ the country first to the Portuguese, later to the British. ‘There are only 24 ohours left for us to do something about this,’ he declared. Before long, protesters were hurling stones at police, and several buses were torched. Outnumbered police killed several demonstrators. Protests spread around the country; Red Cliffs, Jayewardene’s vacation home on the southern end of the island, was set on fire.

The next morning, two hours before Gandhi was due to arrive, the government declared a curfew across the island and deployed soldiers to keep demonstrators from approaching the presidential residence. In addition to holding back the angry crowds, senior police and military officers had their hands full trying to keep their own unhappy forces in line. Said one enlisted man: (I have been wearing this uniform nonstop for four days. But what use is it? I am unable to support my own people. This gun I have should be pointed in the other direction.’ Still, the security forces held, and Gandhi’s car drove through empty streets to the President’s House, where he was welcomed by Jayewardene and Kandyan drummers in brilliant white-and-red uniforms.

Even in his own camp, Jayewardene faced trouble. While the pact was being initialed, Prime Minister Premadasa, who had boycotted the ceremony, was busy giving alms of yellow rice, curd, fruit and cake to Buddhist monks. He claimed he had not been involved in negotiating the deal with India. ‘I asked them not to sign this, even yesterday,’ he told the monks. ‘There is terrorism in Sri Lanka only because India is backing it.’

Since many in Jayewardene’s ruling United National Party feel no different, the agreement stands a slim chance of winning ratification in Parliament. Mere identification with the document appeared to be dangerous; late in the week a UNP deputy who had attended the signing ceremony was assassinated by a group of Sinhalese men; in response, Jayewardene granted UNP deputies permission to carry weapons. Jayewardene has vowed to dissolve Parliament and call new elections if there is no ratification. That threat may keep his party in line: given the widespread Sinhalese anger at Jayewardene, elections would probably be a disaster for UNP deputies.

At the same time, Opposition Leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike, head of the centrist Sri Lanka Freedom Party and Prime Minister from 1960 to 1965 and from 1970 to 1977, supported last week’s demonstrations: ‘From now on we will have to consult India on everything,’ she declared. Government censorship kept opposition statements out of the papers.

Jayewardene’s best chance to rebuild his political position would be the success of the pact itself. Said Defense and National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali: ‘The key thing is the disarming of the separatists. A week from now, I want to be able to say India has done a, b, c and d. Then I can go to the people and make a plea for no more violence.’

As Indian forces arrived in the Jaffna area, comments by Jyotindra Nath Dixit, the Indian high commissioner in Colombo, heightened Sinhalese fears that India might be aiming at more than a temporary stay. When the troop deployment was announced, Defense Minister Athulathmudali explained that the units would be under Sri Lankan command. Sounding a bit like a proconsul, Dixit at first told a Colombo news conference that the Indian troops would answer to him; he later allowed, however, that Jayewardene was in ultimate control of the peacekeeping force. Asked how long they would remain, Dixit answered, ‘Whenever our troops have moved into a foreign territory since independence, they have left when the job was done.’ Countered Athulathmudali: ‘Indians have a timeless culture.’

Even if the Indians plan to stay only long enough to disarm the Tigers, that may take longer than New Delhi or Colombo ever anticipated. The Indian commander in Sri Lanka, Major General Singh, met late last week with Kumarappa (a nom de guerre), the Tiger commander in Jaffna. Singh eventually persuaded Kumarappa to allow him to talk with local people. A few miles away, in the village of Tellipallai, the mob of 400 Tamils closed in on the general’s car and began rocking it back and forth. The protesters chanted slogans declaring they wanted an independent Eelam and would never surrender their arms. ‘These people are diehards,’ Singh said later. ‘But I think we can deal with them.’

After three days in Sri Lanka, the Indian peacekeeping brigade had yet to collect a single rifle from the Tamil Tigers. At the air base in Palali, on the Jaffna Peninsula, Indian planes and helicopters were arriving around the clock with crates of ammunition, mortars and heavy equipment. To all appearances, the Indian force had come to stay for a while. [Reported by Qadri Ismail and Ross H.Munro/Colombo and K.K.Sharma/New Delhi]

Lok Sabha Pandemonium

While Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi savored success in Colombo, his political troubles at home bubbled on. Stirred up by charges of corruption in the government, Congress (I) Party and opposition members last week brought Parliament’s ‘monsoon session’ to a virtual standstill.

The ruckus began in the Lok Sabha, the lower house, after an opposition Janata Party member proposed a motion that would have opened a floor debate on the corruption issue. The intent was to thwart a Congress (I) plan to form a parliamentary committee, dominated by its members, to look into the charges. The inquiry centers on kickbacks paid by Bofors, a Swedish armsmaker, to Indian officials in connection with a $1.3 billion deal, a contract signed in 1986 while Gandhi also held the Defense portfolio. Since the scandal broke last April, Gandhi’s image has been hurt by claims that he shielded friends who illegally transferred wealth to Switzerland and by his expulsion of four critics from Congress (I). The opposition’s move to get the corruption issue on the floor failed, but caused so much disarray that the Lok Sabha had to be adjourned twice on its first day in session. When Defense Minister K.C.Pant began to read a Congress (I) proposal for a parliamentary investigation, angry opposition members squatted in front of the Speaker’s chair in an attempted sit-in. Congress (I) deputies rushed forward, shouting and shaking their fists. In the crush, Ajoy Biswas, a member of the Communist Party of India – Marxist, snatched Pant’s notes.

The next day Minister of Parliamentary Affairs H.K.L. Bhagat demanded that Biswas be suspended. The move was resisted by the opposition and even tacitly by Speaker Balram Jakhar, who read Biswas’ apology. Given Congress (I)’s four-fifths majority, however, the motion passed. The Speaker then asked Pant to put his motion on the agenda, thus formally bringing it before the Lok Sabha.

Despite Parliament’s gestures of support, disillusionment with Gandhi is growing in his party. At a Congress (I) meeting last week, a resolution proclaiming ‘full faith’ in his leadership led to such heated debate that it was not put to a vote. Former Defense Minister V.P. Singh was a visible critic. En route to Uttar Pradesh, he was stopped 22 times by supporters shouting anti-Gandhi slogans.

The Biswas suspension was reversed at Gandhi’s insistence, but not before the opposition had boycotted the Lok Sabha for a day. Surprisingly, the government did not push through the Bofors inquiry in their absence. That effort will come this week – and with it, most likely, trouble for Gandhi.


Rajiv’s gunboat peace

[Rodney Tasker; Far Eastern Economic Review, Hongkong, August 13, 1987, pp.8-9]

It happened so fast that there was no time for cheering or protest. The arrival of thousands of Indian troops in Sri Lanka’s northern Jaffna peninsula and two frigates off Colombo on 30 July – with the ink on the previous day’s peace accord between the two countries barely dry – took both the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil communities totally by surprise. Whether this manifestation of a dramatic cartwheel in Indo-Sri Lankan relations will lead to a lasting peace in this troubled islan, or whether it will eventually provoke another round of bloodletting, is the crucial question.

Certainly, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene have thrust their governments into a bond which will be difficult to break in the near future. By signing a sweeping peace accord backed by military might, Gandhi has effectively pledged New Delhi to ensure Jayewardene’s survival by both ridding him of the threat posed by an armed Tamil rebellion and a dangerous Sinhalese backlash.

In return, Jayewardene has allowed Gandhi to extend Indian hegemony beyond its shores. In an exchange of letters between the two leaders attached to the accord, Jayewardene has granted New Delhi the right to vet his country’s strategic stance – including any foreign military presence on the island. Both the trade-offs could prove risky as the two governments move to consolidate their gains from the agreement. The Indians had a great deal of trouble persuading by far the most powerful Sri Lankan militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), to go along with an agreement which requires them to lay down their arms and denies them use of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu as a safe haven.

A more accurate term of the process could be coercion. LTTE leader V Prabhakaran was refusing to order his 3,000 guerillas to lay down their arms throughout his enforced stay in New Delhi, where he was taken by Indian officials from his Jaffna base on 24 July. But then, according to Tamil sources, Indian Foreign Secretary K.P.S. Menon pointed out to him that while his forces were more than a match for the Sri Lankan army, there were now 4,000 – 5,000 Indian troops fanning out in Jaffna to make sure his men complied with the accord.

It was only on 4 August, two days after his return to Jaffna, that Prabhakaran announced that in the interests of peace he was ordering his men to hand over their weapons. Prabhakaran told the Jaffna rally that he was forced to toe New Delhi’s line and wanted to avoid a confrontation with the Indian army. However, he added that he was still committed to a separate Tamil state, ‘without which there will be no lasting peace’.

Even if Indian troops do manage to pacify the LTTE for the moment, the militants will be restless politically. Colombo has made it clear that neither Prabhakaran nor any of his colleagues will be able to take part in an interim administration in Jaffna in the run-up to an election, under the accord, for a joint provincial council of the northern and eastern provinces. Even in this election, which has to be held by the end of the year, the disarmed LTTE will be challenged by other militant groups, whom they despise and have fought, and possibly also by the moderate Tamil political party, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF).

The TULF, which the LTTE has said should have no future political role in the Tamil areas, had 16 seats in the national parliament until its MPs were forced to withdraw by popular pressure after the 1983 anti-Tamil riots in Colombo. Since then, most of the TULF leaders have lived in self-imposed exile in Madras. As one former TULF MP, Neelan Tiruchelvam, told the REVIEW, the party will now have to reorganise and assess its position in Tamil areas which have been revolutionised by the rebellion.

According to local reports, the Indian troops were not given a warm reception when they arrived in Jaffna. In some cases they were obstructed as they moved towards the militant stronghold of Jaffna town. By contrast, some 300 troops who escorted Prabhakaran to his headquarters after his arrival in Jaffna on 2 August were cheered all the way back to their camp. But unless the Indians manage to mop up all the militants’ weapons they face the prospect of being drawn into the quagmire of a confrontation with still-rebellious Tamils.

The Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, J.N.Dixit – nicknamed ironically in Sinhalese intellectual circles ‘the Indian Viceroy’ – has said that Indian troops will remain in Sri Lanka, as provided under the accord, only as long as Colombo wishes. The Jayewardene government may want them to remain for some time, because they already have allowed Colombo to withdraw about 1,500 of its own 6,000 troops from Jaffna to keep the peace in the south. The Sri Lankan soldiers proved essential as a back-up force for the police in quelling widespread violence among Sinhalese who accuse Jayewardene of a sell-out to India.

Violence in the south claimed 59 lives in the Colombo area alone, and damage to government property is estimated at US $160 million. The timely arrival of the troops, as well as the appearance of the two Indian frigates off Colombo, enabled the government to get on top of the situation after three days of rioting.

But resentment against Jayewardene personally remains widespread on the streets. Many Sinhalese believe that the Indian-dictated clauses in the peace accord and the huge Indian military presence in the country amount to a virtual surrender of sovereignty to New Delhi. ‘We have been reduced to little more than the status of Bhutan,’ a senior government official commented.

The two frigates arrived ostensibly to carry out a command and control role, liaising with the Sri Lankan navy and to help military communications. But most observers believe they are primarily a ‘gunboat’ way of enforcing New Delhi’s support for Jayewardene, and an implied threat to those forces who now oppose him. On board the frigates there are thought to be troops who could be quickly landed in an emergency. Dixit, who was actively involved in forging the accord, candidly told newsmen that ‘there are enough men on board to protect me if I am attacked.’

The three main Sinhalese forces which have led the anti-government campaign are the main opposition party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the Buddhist clergy and the underground Marxist movement, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. Government sources say elements of the ruling party also joined the protests. Much depends now on how Jayewardene is able to sell the accord to his Sinhalese community as the only way to stop the bloodshed and appease the Tamils. He will also have to explain why India, which until recently even he treated with dark suspicion, should be now regarded as something of a saviour. Even some government leaders agree that most Sinhalese are unhappy about the accord, but that the government had no other option.

At the same time, despite Gandhi’s apparent sincerity in honouring his role in the accord to the hilt, some moderate Sinhalese question how long India will continue to help Jayewardene to maintain stability if it feels it has achieved what it wants in terms of foreign-policy goals.

But most foreign diplomats in Colombo tend to take a sanguine view of the new closeness between India and Sri Lanka. To Sri Lanka’s friends, almost anything is preferable to the situation before the accord, when the country was in danger of sliding deeper into a brutal civil war.


Forced into non-alignment

[Narendra Reddy; Far Eastern Economic Review, Hongkong, August 13, 1987, pp.8-9]

The Indian Government considers the recent agreement with Sri Lanka as a ‘major contribution to peace, regional security and non-alignment’. After his Colombo trip to sign the accord, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi told parliament that Sri Lanka had agreed to be responsive to India’s ‘political and security concerns.’

In the letters that Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene exchanged following the accord, Colombo has agreed to meet three of India’s security concerns. First, Colombo will consult India in the employment of foreign military-intelligence personnel. Since 1983, Sri Lanka has sought such help from Pakistan, Israel and South Africa in its fight against the ethnic Tamil insurgency.

Secondly, Sri Lanka will not permit the military use of Trincomalee or any of its other ports by any country prejudicial to Indian interests. New Delhi insisted on this clause because it feared that the US was trying to develop a naval facility at Trincomalee. As a corollary to this concession, Sri Lanka is understood to have agreed to terminate the contract with a Singapore-based firm for the development of an oil-storage depot at Trincomalee and to promote it as an Indo-Sri Lankan joint venture.

Thirdly, Sri Lanka has also agreed to review its existing agreements with foreign broadcasting organisations. India had apprehensions that the installations being operated by the Voice of America in Sri Lanka were being used for military and intelligence purposes. In essence, India does not want Sri Lanka to become a military base of any foreign power. Soon after signing the accord, Jayewardene sought military assistance if needed from the US, Britain, China and Pakistan, but India has not considered this a violation of the bilateral accord. On its part, India has offered military aid, including hardware and training of troops, to Sri Lanka.

In return, Sri Lanka has secured from India a commitment not to allow its soil to be used for terrorist activities aimed at Sri Lanka. New Delhi has agreed to deport all Sri Lankan nationals found to be engaged in terrorist activities. The understanding covers deportation of those who are ‘advocating separatism or secessionism’. It is likely that the two sides will enter into an agreement to extradite terrorists, along the lines of the covenants signed by India with Britain and Canada. More important, the two sides will set up mutual consultative machinery to review any issue which in future could militate against each other’s interest of unity, territorial integrity and security.

Thus, in a span of four years, India which was merely a mediator in the ethnic conflict has become a guarantor of peace on the island. In the event, New Delhi has had to give guarantees to Colombo as well as Tamil militants, who have little faith in each other. To overcome the misgivings of the Tamils, Indian officials had a series of meetings with all the militant groups. The leaders of these groups including V. Prabhakaran of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were flown to New Delhi for consultations, a few days before the signing of the agreement.

The annexure to the agreement sets out the ways to overcome the suspicions of the Tamil minority. The six-point understanding set out in the annexure makes Indian involvement as guarantor more specific. An Indian peace-keeping force would be stationed ‘to guarantee and enforce the cessation of hostilities’. There would also be an Indo-Sri Lankan observer group to monitor the cessation of hostilities. Even before the agreement was signed the Indian armed forces had been alerted to take up the peace-keeping mission.

On the request of the Sri Lankan president a 6,000-strong Indian military contingent was despatched to Jaffna. The representatives of the Indian and Sri Lankan Red Cross would be present at the time of surrender of arms by the Tamil militants. On its part, Colombo agreed to disband the home guards and paramilitary forces earlier deployed to fight the militants in the eastern and northern provinces.

The Indian presence would not end with the cessation of hostilities. Representatives of the Indian Election Commission will be present during the polls to be held within the next three months for the joint council for the north and the east and also at the referendum to be held in the eastern province by 31 December 1988.


Jayewardene’s Threat to Rule Alone if Accord Opposed

[Manik de Silva; Far Eastern Economic Review, Hongkong, August 13, 1987, p.10

Despite Sinhalese riots and strong opposition from members of his own cabinet, President Jayewardene has so far been able to prevent a major revolt against the Indian-guaranteed Tamil agreement, and has made it clear he will use his full constitutional powers to make the deal work.

The 82-year old president, who has two more years in office, has gone on record as expressing his confidence that there will be no political revolt within his United National Party (UNP), despite rumblings, especially from Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa. Jayewardene has made the point that any revolt must be expressed by opposing the legislation to implement the accord to be presented in parliament.

If that happened, he would use his power to dissolve the assembly and would rule without it pending new elections which would have to be called within three months. ‘Whatever I can do without laws, I will do. Whatever I can do with laws, I must do through parliament. And if they are not with me, I will dissolve them,’ he said.

The threat to sitting MPs would deprive them of many privileges – including their right to armed bodyguards – and many of them would be likely to lose their seats if elections were called. Despite Premadasa’s opposition, the cabinet itself mandated Jayewardene on 27 July to go ahead with the accord and though it is fairly well-known that some other ministers were opposed, it is now clear that the majority of them will tow the line.

Jayewardene is optimistic that once the majority of the people of the country understand the provisions of the accord, they will go along with it. He attributes the rioting, which cost 59 lives in Colombo and its outskirts, to ignorance and the inflammation of the Sinhalese majority by what he called ‘a Sinhalese terrorist group working among the Sinhalese’.

He is bitter about opposition to the accord from former prime minister Sirima Bandaranaike and her Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) organising protests against the agreement which the subversives were able to use to unleash violence. The massive presence of Indian troops is a deterrent to street violence in the coming weeks. But after the Indian army pulls out, Sinhalese resentment could resurface and strain the government’s ability to maintain order.

Strains within the cabinet, despite their endorsement of the accord, soon became clear. Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel called for the resignation of National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali over the attack on Gandhi by a sailor with his rifle butt. But Athulathmudali, whose initial response to the accord was lukewarm, has no intention of resigning and Jayewardene is not likely to push him out. Athulathmudali – a possible candidate to succeed Jayewardene – pointedly said that he was not responsible for the navy: Jayewardene himself, as defence minister was.

What Premadasa’s eventual stand will be remains a matter of wide speculation. Jayewardene has been working hard to win him around. But Premadasa, who enjoys considerable popularity both in the country and the UNP parliamentary group, has not in any way yet indicated that he will throw his weight behind Jayewardene to make the accord work. If he does, at least some of Jayewardene’s problems would be over.

Bandaranaike and her SLFP have gone on record as urging Premadasa to press on with his opposition, promising him their backing. But the prime minister understands very well that his future lies with his own party, the UNP, and any cheering from the SLFP is clearly for its own purposes.

De Mel, who has long been one of the staunchest advocates of peace, is credited by knowledgeable sources with initiating the Indian military assistance which enabled Sri Lankan troops to be moved from the Jaffna peninsula for internal security duties in the south from 30 July. De Mel, apparently without clearance from the president, had told Gandhi when he welcomed him at Colombo airport that unless military assistance including troops was immediately provided, the consequences of the rioting would be frightening.

This discussion was formalised at the president’s house with Gandhi presenting de Mel’s proposition to Jayewardene, who concurred. Senior governmental sources agree that if de Mel had not done what he did and Colombo had to take a formal decision on requesting the assistance, by the time the request was made ‘the match would have been over’. In the event, the first 1,500 Indian troops were in by 4.30am the next day, with a second contingent landing six hours later. Indian Air Force transport aircraft were also used to ferry Sri Lankan soldiers out of Jaffna for quick deployment in the south to stop the rioting and re-impose law and order.

The ruling party MPs are under pressure, particularly by subversives, not to back the accord. One MP, Jinadasa Weerasinghe, was shot dead by a mob as he drove to his constituency. The homes of other MPs have been attacked and Jayewardene’s holiday home at Mirissa was badly damaged. The president told a group of MPs who discussed their personal security with him that if they so desired, they would be given the status and powers of reserve superintendents of police.

The SLFP argues that the accord was ‘hatched under a veil of secrecy and signed in haste under a nationwide curfew followed by tight press censorship, a ban on meetings and a military presence which prevents people affected by it from expressing their views publicly.’ The party has expressed very strong opposition to the merger of the northern and eastern provinces provided under the agreement saying that the Sinhalese and Muslims of the eastern province, who together outnumber the Tamils there, will be at the mercy of a Tamil terrorist-dominated administration.


A Reluctant Surrender

[Anonymous; Asiaweek, Hongkong, August 16, 1987, pp.8-9]

At 4:11 pm, on August 5, Thileepan Yogi gently laid down his Smith & Wesson automatic pistol on a white cloth-covered table in a symbolic gesture of surrender. As some 200 journalists jostled each other for a clearer view, Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary Gen. Don Sepala Atigalle placed his right hand on the weapon to signify acceptance. Declared the soldier: ‘Today is a historic day for the future of Sri Lanka. This act of surrendering of all arms signifies an end to the bloodshed and violence that has affected the entire fabric of our democratic society. We sincerely hope that from now on, all of us Sri Lankans will live in peace and harmony in this our own, our native land.’

Yogi, leader of the political wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the largest militant group fighting for a separate Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka, sat stonefaced throughout the short speech. He had taken part in the ceremonial surrender at Palali Air Force base in Sri Lanka’s northern Jaffna district only because his leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, had asked him to be his envoy. At first, Yogi ignored Atigalle’s proffered hand, but then shook it coldly at the insistence of Lt.-Gen. Harkirat Singh, commander of India’s peacekeeping forces currently stationed in Sri Lanka. Soon after the 10 min. ceremony, he and his comrades left.

Earlier, six trucks driven by Tiger fighters had delivered to the camp 147 weapons and ammunition, including sub-machine and anti-aircraft guns. More arms were expected to roll into at least sixteen designated collection points in the north and east, most of which will be manned by Indian troops.

The laying down of arms by the LTTE was a crucial part of an agreement signed July 29 between New Delhi and Colombo to end Sri Lanka’s seven-year ethnic conflict. The accord called for Tamil separatists to surrender their weapons, government troops to return to barracks and India’s forces to be flown in to ensure a ceasefire. Clearly unhappy at the pact, Tiger boss Prabhakaran had refused to attend the ceremonial surrender himself.

The first hitch had come when Tigers in Jaffna refused to give up their arms without an order from Prabhakaran, who was then in New Delhi. The Tiger leader and his family were promptly flown home on an Indian Air Force plane. On landing at Palali, they were bundled inside an Indian-made tank and driven straight to Telippalai, some 16 km from Jaffna city. There, they were transferred into a waiting LTTE vehicle. Their Indian Army escort was handed a receipt which read, ‘Valuable cargo received in good order.’

In Jaffna, Prabhakaran reluctantly gave the go-ahead for surrender because, he said, a refusal would have meant direct confrontation with Indian troops. ‘The accord is trying to bring an end to our armed struggle. We don’t want to stop, but unfortunately we have been forced to do it,’ he told a massive crowd of cheering Tamils who gathered last Tuesday on the grounds of a temple in Telippalai. Prabhakaran said he had told Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that there were ‘several shortcomings’ in the accord and the Tigers would not accept it. But the Indian leader had given him certain assurances, he continued, ‘and since I have confidence in the Indian government and Mr. Gandhi, we are going to hand over our arms.’

However, a separate homeland remains their goal. ‘The mode of our struggle has changed,’ said Prabhakaran at the rally. ‘But we will be fighting for a Tamil [homeland] with the support of the people. The accord is not a lasting solution.’ At the same spot minutes earlier, his close lieutenant, Sivasubramaniam Kanagaratnam, alias Capt. Raheem, had told Asiaweek: ‘Circumstances have forced us to lay down our arms. But remember that we haven’t signed any pact, either with the Indians or the Sri Lankan government. The war has ended, but the struggle will continue.’

While he talked, Raheem checked security arrangements. Heavily armed Tigers ringed the dais, and as an added precaution, the stage was encircled by barbed wire. Several checkpoints were set up to prevent rival militant groups from bringing weapons to the meeting. The Tigers have reason to be cautious. In fratricidal fighting over the years, they have killed at least 1,700 militants from rival groups. Fearing these groups will seek revenge, the Tigers have no intention of giving up all their weapons. One young fighter said they may ‘hold on to at least 50% of them.’ A defence ministry source said Colombo would grant licences to those who want to keep their arms for personal security.

Tamil separatists say their militancy is the historical result of Sinhalese chauvinism. Over the years, a series of government policies have discriminated against the country’s minority Tamils in favour of the dominant Sinhalese in matters of language, education and employment. The Indo-Sri Lankan accord seeks to remove some of that discrimination and to give the Tamils more autonomy.

Under the agreement, Tamil-dominated Northern Province will be merged with the Eastern Province to form one administrative unit with one governor, one chief minister and one board of ministers. Similar provincial administrations will be set up in Sri Lanka’s seven other provinces. The governor, a presidential appointee, will select a chief minister from elected members to a provincial council. The chief minister in turn will choose a board of ministers to assist him. Power will be further devolved thorough local government units to ensure representation of all ethnic groups and communities. However, the governor will be responsible for implementing laws enacted by provincial councils, and will have veto power.

Certain functions have been exclusively retained by the central government. These include formulation and implementation of national policies relating to agriculture, industrial development, education and cultural activities; defence, internal security and law & order; and foreign affairs and justice. ‘Substantial powers’ on cultural affairs and education are to be granted to provinces. Proposals being considered will give the councils the authority to establish and manage private universities. A non-discriminatory national education policy is also being formulated. As to law & order, all ranks below assistant superintendent of police in provincial divisions will be recruited through commissions set up in each province.

The proposed legislation, to be placed before Parliament by the end of this month, will also create a separate authority to administer and develop the port of Trincomalee and its surrounding region in Eastern Province. The area will be outside the authority of any provincial or local government body. A ‘letter of understanding’ annexed to the new accord permits joint Indo-Sri Lankan development of an oil tank depot at Trincomalee. Says Gamini Dissanayake, Sri Lanka’s Land Minister: ‘Trincomalee is no longer vital to the interests of the superpowers in the Indian Ocean region…so why shouldn’t we allow the Indians to develop it?’

One Sinhala fear is that Sri Lanka’s one million ‘Indian’ Tamils – descendants of workers whom the British imported from southern India in the last century – could dominate the Central Province’s council. But Savumyamoorthy Thondaman, leader of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress, a trade union representing the 700,000-strong Indian labourer community, dismisses the worry as ‘all imagination’. Says he: ‘Elections would be under proportional representation system. We might have a heavy concentration in the Nuwara Eliya district in the Central Province. But what about the predominantly Sinhalese Kandy and Matale districts?’

Thondaman welcomed the peace accord. Nagulendran Ramaswamy, a retired government official whose soldier son was killed in 1984 and who is still waiting to hear from another son who joined the Tamil extremists, was equally joyful. But he did not think the peace would last. ‘People here are not going to give up the cause for which they suffered,’ he warned. ‘I would only think of this as a temporary respite, a breathing space for the Tamil people and possibly an avenue to achieve freedom without resorting to violence.’

The mood of the ordinary Tamil in battle-scarred Jaffna, however, was optimistic. The bustle of daily life had returned to the roads, and families had begun repairing homes damaged in the civil strife. Standing at the door of his house, Sivasami, a small trader, declared simply: ‘We are happy that peace has returned. My friends are coming back to their homes in Jaffna.’ Exulted Rev. Nagulendran, a young Baptist priest: ‘Peace at last. Now I can hold my Sunday services without looking up at the church roof every time I hear a sound.’

For Colombo, peace meant an opportunity to rebuilt a ravaged economy. ‘The financial aspect of ending the war would be tremendous,’ Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel told Asiaweek. ‘The billions spent on defence can now be used to improve the quality of life for Sri Lankans.’ De Mel has urged a gradual reduction of defence expenditure over the next three years. The Sri Lankan government has also asked the World Bank for a soft loan of $200 m[illion] for reconstructing the war-damaged north and east. Colombo is also expecting a boom in tourism now that the fighting is over. As de Mel succinctly put it, ‘Some of us have reservations about the terms of the accord. But the prospects of peace nullifies these reservations.’


Peace has Its Problems

[Rodney Tasker; Far Eastern Economic Review, Hongkong, August 20, 1987, pp.20-21]

Peace, rushed through in an unequal treaty and enforced by Indian muscle, has held so far in Sri Lanka. But goodwill is sadly lacking from both the Tamil and Sinhalese sides of the conflict which has claimed 6,000 lives in a four year civil war. With 6,000 Indian troops enforcing the 29 July Indo-Sri Lankan peace accord in the rebellious Tamil northern and eastern provinces, the political and military focus has shifted swiftly to the south, the majority-Sinhalese heartland.

Here, President Junius Jayewardene is having to tax all his considerable political skills to keep his cabinet in line, combat opposition Sinhalese forces as well as comforting his military commanders to implement an accord which even he evidently believes is demeaning to his tiny island republic. Jayewardene, who turns 81 in September, seems assured of stamping his authority on doubting members of his cabinet. As one minister commented: ‘He is very much the boss, and he knows how to crack the whip.’

But hardly anyone in the Sinhalese community, including the cabinet, is happy with the peace accord. The price Colombo is having to pay is an understanding that it will make its foreign and security policies subservient to Indian interests. Apart from the substance of the pact, it is the method by which it was reached that has riled some members of the cabinet. The accord and the crucial letters of understanding between the two heads of government, allowing India to vet Colombo’s external stance, were arranged secretly. Lands Minister Gamini Dissanayake and Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel were members of the cabal, but Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali and Agriculture Minister Gamani Jayasuriya are known to feel miffed that not only were they excluded from the process but were not allowed to moderate an agreement which they believe to be too hasty and one-sided.

The disgruntled ministers feel that the letters granting India sway over Colombo’s foreign policy were based on wrong presumptions that Sri Lanka was too pro-US and was recruiting Israeli and Pakistani military support. They also complain that these amount to a Finlandisation of Sri Lanka, with no reciprocal concessions by New Delhi. Political analysts say the clauses in the letters reflected Indian fears more than the realities of Sri Lanka’s links with foreign powers. By stating that the country’s strategic deep-water Trincomalee harbour should not be used by foreign interests unacceptable to India, New Delhi meant the US. But the US denies any ambition to use the harbour as a staging post for its warships in the Indian Ocean.

The clause referring to Sri Lanka’s employment of foreign intelligence personnel meant Indian concern over Israeli and Pakistani military advisers in Colombo. However, official sources say that while there is still an Israeli interests section of the US Embassy here, Israeli military advisers departed from the country two years ago. Sri Lankan troops are trained in Pakistan, but there are no Pakistani military advisers permanently based in the country.

The one agency still operating in the country is Keeny Meeny Services, comprising mainly former British SAS officers, who have trained Sri Lanka’s 1,000 – strong Special Task Force in the eastern province. That may have to stop, under the accord. Indian concern about foreign broadcasts from Sri Lanka centre on Voice of America’s (VOA) relay facilities near Colombo. Sri Lankan officials say the facility has no military uses and there is an understanding with the VOA that the station will only relay English-language broadcasts, and these will not contain propaganda directed against any particular country.

Despite these disagreements on the accord, even Premadasa appears now to be falling in line behind Jayewardene, while carefully keeping his options open as a leader who can say ‘I told you so’ in the event of the accord collapsing. Political sources say that while Premadasa can count on street-support against the accord at the moment, if he is sacked by Jayewardene he will instantly find himself in the political wilderness.

For similar reasons, Athulathmudali is keeping a low profile while he watches his political star decline. Without a war – and violence has now stopped in the north and east – his ministry has little clout, and he appears to have lost the trust of his president for dragging his heels in the process of forging political peace.

Both ministers can be counted on, therefore, to go along with Jayewardene’s accord for their own political survival. Jayasuriya is one minister who will probably bow out rather than be identified with an agreement he believes to be a premature caving-in to Tamil gunmen. Jayewardene may well sympathise with his political colleagues. In an interview with a group of foreign correspondents on 7 August he complained that when he asked the US for logistical aid in his moment of need, Washington pointedly said it would only respond on the understanding that India had given its nod.

As Jayewardene said in a televised speech on 6 August, the main threat to the country has shifted quickly from the Tamil areas to ‘terrorism in the south’. By that he meant the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), an underground Sinhalese militant group which espouses ethnic chauvinism and Marxism and which has been successful in recruiting young students, Buddhist monks and is even officially estimated to have up to 5% support among young troopers in the armed forces. The JVP has jumped on the Sinhalese backlash against the accord for its own goal of destabilizing the government, and is accused by the police of seizing 141 guns during the post-accord period alone to add to its terrorist arsenal.

On top of this threat, Jayewardene must also keep an eye on the armed forces themselves. There is undoubtedly a great deal of resentment over the accord among the ranks who have lost 800 men in the battle against the Tamil militants since 1983. The Indians, in particular, worry about the possibility of a military coup against Jayewardene. All eyes are now on ‘the old fox’ Jayewardene and how he manages to shepherd through an accord which his own community distrusts. His advisers say he views the accord as the only option for his embattled island. Cynics say it is a final gesture for peace in ‘his’ time.


Playing Tigers and Indians

[Rodney Tasker; Far Eastern Economic Review, Hongkong, August 20, 1987, pp.20-21]

Will the Tamil militants bid a sincere farewell to arms? A large element of doubt hangs over that question as 6,000 Indian peacekeeping troops wait for weapons to be surrendered in Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern provinces. A more pertinent question among Sinhalese politicians in the south is whether the Indian troops go out and get the Tamils’ arms.

V. Prabhakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has made it clear that he and his armed followers are a reluctant party to the Colombo-New Delhi peace accord. On 7 August he sent his main political officer, who goes under the nom de guerre of Yogi, to Jaffna’s airport, Palali, to hand over five truck-loads of weapons to the authorities. Palali is now the Indian army’s headquarters, as it was the northern headquarters of the Sri Lankan army, which has now withdrawn 3,000 troops to the south. The move was seen as Colombo’s decision to leave the north to the Indians for the moment while the Sri Lankans concentrate troops in the south to guard against a violent Sinhalese backlash against the peace accord.

After attending the ceremony for the token handing over of the weapons by Yogi, this correspondent traveled in an Indian Air Force transport aircraft with 150 Sri Lankan troops gleefully returning south after a dangerous sojourn in Jaffna. Indian field commander Maj.Gen. Harkirat Singh commented, as he looked at Sri Lankan troops queueing up for their flight back to the south: ‘Those are the men you should be talking to. They are all leaving. We haven’t asked them to go.’

The Indian army in the north has been saddled with a sensitive task under the peace accord. It is doubtful whether all the estimated 5,000 Tamil militants’ weapons will be handed over to Indian troops, in which case Colombo expects the soldiers to go out and get them. As a senior Sri Lankan Government official commented: ‘We expect only 20% of their arms,’ adding ruefully, ‘those that have been handed over so far are only the weapons given to them by the Indians.’

Lands Minister Gamini Dissanayake, a key figure in the forging of the accord and known to be close to President Jayewardene, told the REVIEW: ‘The Indians will go out and get [the arms]. I think the president will insist on this.’ Others are less sure. The Indians, who speed around Jaffna in jeeps flying white flags, are committed by their Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to the role of neutralizing the Tamil militants. Singh kept repeating to correspondents at the ceremonial hand-over of arms that Prabhakaran had just announced his intention to give up the fight, rather than do battle with Indian troops. But he did not add that Prabhakaran had vowed to continue the struggle for a separate Eelam state in the north and east by other, presumably political, means.

If indeed that is the tough LTTE leader’s policy now, there is bound to be trouble. The Tigers, as the LTTE fighters are commonly called, have built a reputation in the peninsula as fighters who are accustomed to getting their way at gun-point. As toothless Tigers, they will have to establish political dominance not only over rival militant groups, but also counter the forces of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), a moderate political party.

The northern province has undergone a radical social transformation since 1983, when the Tamil insurgency turned increasingly violent. To the young, the Tigers are heroes. Until recently, the Tigers had effectively controlled the Jaffna peninsula. To the older, conservative Tamils, maybe the TULF is the champion of their causes, though its leaders have been hibernating in exile in the south Indian city of Madras since 1983.

While the Sri Lankan Government now releasing the estimated 4,000 suspected Tamil militant detainees in the south, to return to the north in Indian ships, the political situation in Jaffna could well develop into one where separatist fighters try to muscle their way to a limited power – with or without arms. The political process would be smooth if Indian troops remained in the area until after elections for a joint council for the two provinces are held by the end of the year. But, as Dissanayake told the REVIW, New Delhi’s troops should be gone by the end of August. That could be risky, because Tamils – particularly the young – would feel exposed and unprotected if they went against the will of the Tigers.


The Narrow Escape

[Manik de Silva; Far Eastern Economic Review, Hongkong, August 27, 1987, p.26]

Sri Lanka’s 81-year old President Junius Jayewardene narrowly escaped assassination on 18 August when a revolver shot was fired and two grenades lobbed into a committee room of the parliament where he was chairing a meeting of the government’s parliamentary group. An MP was killed and the high-profile National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali seriously wounded in the attack. Athulathmudali, who underwent five hours of surgery and had his spleen removed, was out of danger, doctors said.

A man claiming to be from the Patriotic People’s Movement, a previously unknown group, phoned a BBC reporter and said his group was responsible for the attack. He said his group opposed the 29 July Indo-Sri Lankan accord signed by Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to end the four year old separatist revolt by minority Tamils. The group, he said, also opposed the presence of 7,000 Indian troops stationed in the Northern and Eastern provinces to implement the peace accord.

Five other ministers, including Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, and 10 MPs suffered minor injuries. An official spokesman said that the attack was ‘in all probability an inside job’, but refused to answer any questions saying that could hamper the investigation. The revolver shot hit an official who had taken some papers to Premadasa sitting next to the president at the meeting. The spokesman said that had the official not come between the assailant and the head table at the vital moment, Jayewardene would have been hit and described the president’s escape as miraculous.

The assailant escaped as confusion broke out in the committee room. Jayewardene and Premadasa quickly whisked away by security men to their homes. Several hours after the attack, Jayewardene said in a broadcast to the nation that while terrorism in the north and the east had been ended, southern terrorists, meaning Sinhalese, were active. He pledged that the government would carry on its work ‘irrespective of the evil forces ganging up against us.’


Prelude to the Indo-LTTE War, Part II


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