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Prelude to the Indo-LTTE War

Annoyance and Anger of the Sinhalese, Part III

From the Colombo (ruling Sinhalese) angle, as Saeed Naqvi had aptly inferred in October 1987, then the prevailing political power struggle among the three UNP contenders (Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali and prime minister Ranasinghe Premadasa) to succeed Jayewardene contributed the prime motive for the 1987 Accord.

Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

In Part 1 of this Anthology, I asserted that there were four protagonists in the 1987 Rajiv Gandhi – Jayewardene Accord drama. Indian Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, Sri Lankan President Jayewardene, LTTE leader V. Pirabhakaran and the then Indian high commissioner to Sri Lanka J.N. Dixit were these four protagonists. Why did the Rajiv – Jayewardene Peace Accord fail, despite much overt hype and expectations?

The plot of the Hindu epic the Ramayana binds both India and Sri Lanka; though, some commentators have cited evidence that the Lanka of Ramayana was not the island Sri Lanka, but a location somewhere else in North India. For convenience, the Ramayana plot can be used to explain the dismal fate of the 1987 Rajiv – Jayewardene Accord. The three main characters of the Ramayana epic are Lord Rama (the hero), his consort Sita (the heroine) and King Ravana (the villain). Three of the above-noted four protagonists played the role of Lord Rama in the 1987 Rajiv - Jayewardene Accord simultaneously, trying to save the heroine ‘Sita’ – the damsel in distress. But the ‘Sita’ of these three protagonists was not the same. For Rajiv Gandhi, his ‘Sita’ was the Congress (I) Party, and not India per se; for Jayewardene, his ‘Sita’ was Sri Lanka; and for Pirabhakaran, his ‘Sita’ was his dream state Eelam. In 1987, Eelam was not a reality though, and two protagonists (Rajiv and Jayewardene) were dead opposed to Eelam becoming a reality.

'South' cover September 1987 Rajiv Gandhi JR JayawardeneSince the ‘Sita’ of Rajiv, Jayewardene and Pirabhakaran differed for each of these three protagonists, each attempted to outsmart and outgun the other two (who were seen as a double-headed Ravana, the villain). This simply explains the scenario.

Rajiv Gandhi aimed to outsmart both Jayewardene and Pirabhakaran, to make his ‘Sita’ (the Congress Party) strong in India, whose prominence has been slipping since he was prematurely elevated to lead the party following his mother’s assassination in November 1984.

Jayewardene dreamt of outsmarting both Rajiv and Pirabhakaran, to make his ‘Sita’ (Sri Lanka), the next Singapore of Asia.

Pirabhakaran’s objective was to outmaneuver both Rajiv and Jayewardene to bring his ‘Sita’ (Eelam) into existence.

The fourth named protagonist of the 1987 Rajiv – Jayewardene Accord, J.N. Dixit, while stationed in Colombo, played the role of the monkey god Hanuman to Rajiv Gandhi. He had two motives; (1) propping up the tattered image of his Commander in Chief Rajiv, and (2) ‘setting fire’(figuratively!) to Sri Lanka, to succeed in his first motive.

There was another Ramayana character, apart from Hanuman, who played a supporting, but notable role in moving the epic’s plot. This was Lakshmana, one of the three younger siblings of Lord Rama. Guess who played the Lakshmana role in 1987 to two protagonists (Rajiv and Pirabhakaran), though being chronologically an elder to these two protagonists? It was none other than a Ramachandran! (aka MGR), the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister. By the end of 1983, MGR had definitely become an adversary of Jayewardene, the villain to both Rajiv and Pirabhakaran. Take note of this parallel. In the Ramayana epic, it was the act of Lakshmana splicing the nose of Soorpanaka, the sister of villain king Ravana, that precipitated the major crisis of the abduction of heroine Sita by Ravana. In Sri Lanka, it was the logistic and material benevolence of MGR to the LTTE in the post-1983 phase that sparked the ire of Jayewardene and the Sinhalese at large.

Being one of the smartest professionals in Indian theatrics, MGR kept his deck of cards too close to his heart, until his death in December 1987, so as not to reveal openly whether his prime allegiance was to Rajiv or to Pirabhakaran. With Rajiv, MGR shared a political bond of convenience; but with Pirabhakaran, MGR had developed an emotional bond akin to that of a mentor which merged with his ‘birth-soil’ bond to Sri Lanka. As such, it may not be inappropriate to infer that in his dealings with the doomed 1987 Rajiv – Jayewardene Accord, between July and December of that year, MGR re-enacted one of his ‘double roles’ from his legendary movie career, as his swan song in the Indian political theater.

To counter the battering faced by Rajiv’s prime mnistership in North India, with MGR’s failing health being the prime incentive, Rajiv Gandhi and his Congress Party pals from Tamil Nadu (the likes of P. Chidambaram, Rangarajan Kumaramangalam and Mani Shankar Aiyar) plotted to deflate the emotive Eelam Tamil issue from the Tamil Nadu politics to recapture Tamil Nadu from the Anna DMK. This correctly explains the ambivalent vibrations MGR provided to the Rajiv – Jayewardene Accord.

Remember that in the Ramayana epic, Lord Rama had three younger brothers, from two stepmothers. For Jayewardene (the Lord Rama) in Colombo, it could be pointed out that Gamini Dissanayake played the Lakshmana role in the 1987 Accord plot. The other two ‘younger brothers’ of Jayewardene from two stepmothers, who failed to see eye to eye with Lakshmana in the 1987 Accord plot, were Ranasinghe Premadasa and Lalith Athulathmudali. While Premadasa was from one stepmother (of a different stock - a hierarchically lower Hinna caste), Dissanayake and Athulathmudali were the ‘twins’ from another stepmother (of the same stock - Govigama caste – as that of Jayewardene). The rank order of Jayewardene’s ‘younger brothers’ as charted by political seniority from their first entry into parliament was: Premadasa (in March 1960), Dissanayake (in 1970) and Athulathmudali (in 1977). But, in chronological seniority it happened to be Premadasa (1923), Athulathmudali (1936) and Dissanayake (1942).

From the Colombo (ruling Sinhalese) angle, as Saeed Naqvi had aptly inferred in October 1987, then the prevailing political power struggle among the three UNP contenders (Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali and prime minister Ranasinghe Premadasa) to succeed Jayewardene contributed the prime motive for the 1987 Accord. Dissanayake’s attempt to pull a ‘fast draw’ over his two contenders, Athulathmudali and Premadasa, in the presidential sweepstakes resulted in Jayewardene acceding to his deceptive ploys in hoisting the Accord as the ‘fair solution’ to the demands of the Eelam Tamils. This truly explains the virulent opposition of Premadasa and Athulathmudali to the Rajiv – Jayewardene Accord.

Eight newsreports and commentaries which appeared during July – October 1987 in the news magazines Economist, Time, South, World Paper, Asiaweek and Far Eastern Economic Review are transcribed below, in chronological sequence.

(1) Mervyn de Silva: Ethnic Conflicts Respect No National Boundaries. Far Eastern Economic Review, July 30, 1987, pp. 20-22.

(2) South Asia Correspondent: Non-Tiger Terror. Economist, Aug.22, 1987, p. 44.

(3) Manik de Silva: The narrow escape. Far Eastern Economic Review, Aug.27, 1987, p. 26.

(4) Anonymous Correspondent: ‘All Hell Broke Loose’. Asiaweek, Aug.30, 1987, pp. 10 & 15.

(5) Anonymous Correspondent: Narrow Escape – Jayewardene survives an attack. Time, Aug.31, 1987, p.9.

(6) Saeed Naqvi: Love thy Neighbour (Cover story). South (London), Sept. 1987, pp. 26-27.

(7) Tarzi Vittachi: Despite Sri Lankan Accord, Dangers still Loom. World Paper (Boston), Sept.12, 1987.

(8) Saeed Naqvi: Pretenders Line Up for JR’s Crown. South (London), Oct. 1987, p.14.

Specific mention should be made of the commentaries contributed by two astute Sinhalese political analysts, Mervyn de Silva and Tarzie Vittachi, in this anthology. In 1987, while Mervyn de Silva was living in Colombo, Tarzie Vittachi had been out of the island for nearly a quarter century. As such, I’d contend that Vittachi was sadly out of touch with the ground situation in the island. Tarzie Vittachi first gained recognition as the author of the ‘Emergency ‘58’ book (published in 1961), which chronicled the first large-scale anti-Tamil riots in post-independent Ceylon. Vittachi was a forceful critic of the depraved socialism practised by the Bandaranaike couple – Solomon and Sirimavo. Later revelations indicate that Vittachi’s reputation as a neutral commentator had been tarnished by allegations of his professional ties to the international agencies of Yankee imperialism that deal in deception. By the 1980s, Vittachi had turned into a fawning scribe to prop up Jayewardene’s flawed political legacy. Reading between the lines, one could feel the twang and twinge of annoyance both Mervyn de Silva and Tarzie Vittachi had in their commentaries for Tamil Nadu political leaders (especially MGR), who were supportive of the LTTE. But being Sinhalese, that is their prerogative.

Apart from Mervyn de Silva and Tarzi Vittachi, the views of Saeed Naqvi, contributed to the South journal [then published from London (now defunct)],also deserve attention. The founder editor of South journal was Denzil Peiris, another notable Sinhalese journalist, but the publisher-sponsor of this journal were of Pakistani descent. As such, the opinions that appeared in the South journal were satirical of the deeds of Indian politicians and diplomats. The front cover page cartoon of the Sept. 1987 issue of South journal was representative of such a stance. During 1987-88, I served as the science correspondent from Tokyo for this South journal; and Mervyn de Silva also contributed political commentaries on Sri Lanka to the South.

I reiterate that for the sake of historical accuracy, I have neither deleted nor condensed any material. As such, observations and comments which happen to be slanted against indigenous Tamils and/or the LTTE (wherever they appear) have to be taken as the thoughts/opinions of the contributors. Kindly note that the italics as well as the words/phrases noted in parentheses of all reports [excluding one, which was inserted by me for correcting an important factual error, in Mervyn de Silva’s commentary in the Far Eastern Economic Review] are as in the originals.

Ethnic Conflicts Respect No National Boundaries

by Mervyn de Silva

[courtesy: Far Eastern Economic Review, Hongkong, July 30, 1987, pp. 20-22]

In 1986, the UN Year of Peace, there were 36 wars or armed conflicts which claimed 3-5 million lives and involved 40 nations including superpowers. Considering its small population of 15 million, the Sri Lankan conflict, undeniably indigenous in origin, has made more than a modest contribution to this death toll. The insensate and unabating violence makes the island’s tragedy no less harrowing than Lebanon’s.

Like most Third World conflicts, the Sri Lankan crisis – apart from its ethnic origin – has regional and international implications and, more important, is rooted in the erosion of democratic processes in the country. In the initial decades after independence in 1948, Ceylon – now Sri Lanka – enjoyed a reputation as an exemplary ‘new’ nation because of its robust democracy and equitable economic policies. But the four year-old Tamil insurgency has now dragged the country’s polity, not just its regime, to a dangerous precipice.

However flawed in some aspects, the 30-year post-independence achievement, particularly the recognition of minority rights, was based on a consensual model in political, economic and foreign policies. In 1978, and more clearly, in late 1982, there was a conscious rupture with this past. In the July 1977 general election, the right wing United National Party (UNP) secured less than 52% of the popular vote but bagged 85% of the parliamentary seats, a quirk of the ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – the UNP’s main rival – managed only eight seats, though it secured about 30% of the total votes. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) swept the polls in the predominantly Tamil northern region, making its secretary-general the leader of the opposition in parliament, an unprecedented development that was to herald the coming ethnic confrontation.

By early 1978, the UNP abandoned the well-tested Westminster model and installed a powerful executive presidency. The rationale for this change was ‘stability’, the prerequisite for accelerated growth through a free-market economy, dependent on foreign investment and aid. In 1980, SLFP leader and former prime minister, Sirima Bandaranaike, was expelled from parliament for ‘abuses of power’ while in office. The critical turning point came in December 1982 when a device all too familiar in authoritarian states, but unknown to Sri Lanka, was used. In place of the general election due shortly, a referendum was held, under emergency rule. The referendum – carried with a bare majority – extended parliament’s term and the ruling UNP’s overwhelming dominance in it, by another six years.

The relatively open political system was firmly closed. For the Tamil leadership, it was the end of the road. Since 1956, when Sinhalese became the sole official language, the Tamil leaders and their Gandhian ‘passive resistance’ campaigns had failed to check a process which the Tamils now describe as majority domination and discrimination. For the younger generation, a university-admissions scheme – introduced in 1973 and favouring the Sinhalese – was a deadlier blow than the official-language policy. [NOTE by Sachi: Mervyn de Silva had erred here. The crude media-wise ‘standardisation’ scheme was first introduced by the then SLFP regime in 1971, in the aftermath of first JVP insurrection. I should know, because I entered the University of Colombo in 1972 and was in the 2nd Tamil medium batch which had to face this crude media-wise ‘standardisation’.] In the eyes of the Tamil youth, the TULF had outlived its usefulness. So the torch was passed on to the youth and a generational revolt started among the Tamils. The weapon of parliamentary protest was replaced by a resort to arms. Failing to read the signs correctly, Colombo adopted an even tougher law-and-order approach. Terrorism acquired a popular base.

An epochal ethnic resurgence in new nation states has put to the severest test the primary loyalty of communities within those states, especially national minorities with a distinctive culture. In this particular stage of state formation, that allegiance seems to lie more often with ‘nation’ than with ‘state’. A Kurd is a Kurd whether he has been born in Iran, Iraq or Turkey. Ethnic loyalty transcends borders. Thus, ethnic unrest not only brings turmoil to society and danger to the state but complicates inter-state relations. And since the state is the basic unit of the world system, the current ethnic challenge is the most anti-systemic force today.

The ethnic situation in Sri Lanka had always a built-in external factor created by geography, history and culture. Most Tamils in Sri Lanka – 13% of the island’s population – identify culturally with their 50 million ethnic brethren in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The Palk Strait separating Sri Lanka from southern India has traditionally been a haven for smugglers, refugees and rebels. The vicious anti-Tamil riots of July 1983 activated this long-dormant factor. The Tamils had voted overwhelmingly against the referendum seven months earlier, the last gasp of democratic protest. Rebel activity increased.

More than 100,000 refugees fled to Tamil Nadu, already an operations base and propaganda centre of young Tamil militants. When a panic-stricken regime moved yet another constitutional amendment to force MPs to renounce separatism, the TULF withdrew from parliament and all its leaders sought exile in Madras. Symbolically, the Sri Lankan Tamil had found shelter in the greater Tamil homeland. In any event, the TULF had slowly awakened to the truth that its demand for regional autonomy, via devolution and decentralization, would not be granted. It could not be. Devolution is the antithesis of centralization. An authoritarian regime, which refuses to share power with the non-violent Sinhalese opposition, could hardly share power with a minority, whose youth had pointed a gun at its head.

The aftermath of the July 1983 riots gave then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi the chance to offer her good offices. A UNP regime rattled by the international consequences of the riots, especially to its aid-dependent economy, readily accepted the offer. The balance of political forces in Sri Lanka did not permit an internal settlement of an essentially internal problem. Equilibrium could only be restored by a superior external force. Mrs Gandhi seized the day with ill-concealed pleasure. Sri Lanka had been India’s friendly neighbour, and therefore highly valued. Pre-independence Sri Lankan leaders drew ideas and inspiration from the Indian nationalist movement. Far more significantly, Sri Lanka, like India, was a secular democracy, followed middle-path economic policies, and was stoutly non-aligned. All that changed with the 1977 polls in Sri Lanka.

The UNP’s economic model was Singapore and South Korea. That non-alignment – a highly flexible policy anyway – would be reshaped to suit this model was made embarrassingly plain when Colombo was sufficiently disingenuous to apply to join ASEAN. The glamour of the ‘Singapore Girl’ tantalized an elite that had been imprisoned too long in an austere and closed economy.

For good reasons, Mrs Gandhi watched these Sri Lankan policy changes with rising anxiety. After the British leased the island of Diego Garcia to the US, the latter’s military presence in the Indian Ocean increased, causing concern in New Delhi. Thus, she encouraged and strongly supported Bandaranaike’s UN resolution in the 1970s to declare the Indian Ocean a zone of peace. Indian anxieties turned into an obsessive concern as the US created its Central Command in the early 1980s to counter Soviet activities in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

Colombo’s negotiations with an American firm, which has been a Pentagon contractor, to build oil-storage facilities in the strategic Trincomalee harbour riled Mrs Gandhi. An Indian offer was rejected outright. So was a Soviet feeler. However, both countries were more disturbed by an agreement with the US for a transmission facility for Voice of America in Sri Lanka, which it was alleged would also have a military dimension. New Delhi’s security anxieties are interactive, external and domestic. Swept by sectarian strife, the Indian elite has a paranoid fear of Balkanisation, as ethnic and regional nationalisms challenge the centre through armed struggle in many states. Recent history has also made India hyper-suspicious of US aims. During the Cold War, Washington viewed India’s non-alignment as immoral. Besides, the US took Pakistan’s side on Kashmir, the generic conflict in the Subcontinent. Since then, the Indian elite is convinced that the US is determined to vest Pakistan with a status of parity, denying India its regional pre-eminence.

Sri Lankan intelligence agencies now know that Mrs Gandhi began to take an interest in the growing Tamil revolt only in late 1982. In 1980, she had described Bandaranaike’s expulsion from parliament as ‘an outrage’ and a ‘disgrace’. The presidential polls and the referendum foreclosed her hopeful option of a change of regime in Colombo and a less hostile foreign policy. After July 1983, the Tamil refugee presence in Madras may have become a social irritant. The Sri Lankan issue had, however, entered the bloodstream of Tamil Nadu politics. The state’s chief minister M.G. Ramachandran was soon the personal patron of the largest guerrilla group, the Tamil ‘Tigers’. True, Rajiv Gandhi rode to power at the end of 1984 on the crest of an emotional wave after his mother’s assassination. Yet, his Congress party had little influence in the south. In Tamil Nadu, the Congress was a junior partner of Ramachandran.

‘We will be judged by our relations with our neighbours,’ said the buoyant young Gandhi, full of high ideals. Reconciliation with neighbours meant political compromises with restive and rebellious minorities at home. So Gandhi followed up with political accords in Punjab, Assam and Mizoram. However, the Punjab accord has not eliminated Sikh extremist violence and India persists in accusing Pakistan of fomenting trouble. It is not certain whether Mrs Gandhi consciously chose to make the Tamil rebels the cutting edge of New Delhi’s Sri Lanka policy. Anyway, her son inherited the problem. His more than two-year old effort as honest broker has been a dismal failure. He has been unable to tame the intransigent Tigers. He has watched Colombo undertake a massive military build-up, receiving equipment, training and advice from foreign sources.

In a contradiction that is a dialectician’s delight, Colombo’s supporters – Pakistan, Israel and China – were bound to infuriate the honest broker and fit all too neatly into his instinctive response to the host of problems that suddenly confront him. Gandhi was under siege: humbling electoral defeats, governmental and party crisis, and scandals which did not leave him unscathed. And Punjab continued to explode as Hindu-Muslim riots went on unabated. Skirmishes on the Chinese border had followed the tense Indo-Pakistani confrontation early this year. The US had given massive military aid to Pakistan. By May, Gandhi was holding countrywide rallies invoking the themes ‘destabilisation’ and the presence of the ‘foreign hand’, the favourite rallying cries of his mother.

Systems analysis tells us that assertive actions externally and other morale-boosting diversions can help contain domestic disequilibrium. That is precisely what President Junius Jayewardene did when he mounted a massive military offensive in the north when Sinhalese opinion in the south was boiling after the Good Friday massacre in the northeast and the terrorist bombings in the heart of Colombo. Gandhi’s reply converted the mediator into the interventionist. The airdrop of relief supplies over Sri Lanka’s Jaffna peninsula in early June, though humanitarian in intent and harmless physically, was a violation of a small neighbour’s sovereignty. Whether he knows the vogue word or not, Gandhi had bowed to the ‘inter-mestic’ – those problems that lie at the inter-face of the international and the domestic. The airdrop was a ‘help to the Tamils’ and a ‘message to Colombo’, explained Gandhi. He might have added that they are not the ultimate protectors of the Tamil people. He has also asserted India’s regional supremacy. Can he now deliver? Or will the region’s paramount power, like the superpowers, learn the awesome dilemmas and limits of power in a Third World crisis?

*****

Non – Tiger Terror

by the South Asia correspondent

[Courtesy: Economist, August 22, 1987, p.44]

Had President Junius Jayewardene been killed when he was attacked on August 18th in Sri Lanka’s parliament building, his ministers would have fought bitterly over who should succeed him; and the peace agreement with the island’s Tamil rebels might have been sunk. That did not happen, but what did was bad enough. Shots were fired and two grenades were thrown, a member of parliament was killed and the national security minister Mr Lalith Athulathmudali, was badly hurt.

The president is left wondering what the word ‘security’ means in his country. The would-be assassin is thought to have had a job inside the building where the attack took place. According to some Sri Lankan and Indian politicians, the security forces themselves may have been infiltrated by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the wild-eyed group from the country’s Sinhalese majority which is suspected of planning the assault.

The JVP consists mainly of unemployed young men who follow a particularly passionate form of Sinhalese chauvinism. They see the peace accord with the Tamils, which gives a lot of autonomy to the Northern and Eastern provinces, as a sell-out to the Tamil guerrillas whose ultimate aim is an independent state. The JVP has acquired weapons from friends in the army, and by raiding government armouries. In 1971 the organisation led an unsuccessful anti-government insurgency in which thousands of people were killed. However, a man claiming to belong to another group, the hitherto unknown Patriotic People’s Movement, telephoned the BBC to claim responsibility for this week’s attack.

Whoever did it, the implications are the same: the men of violence want to frighten Mr Jayewardene’s colleagues into voting against the peace pact in September or October, when, the president says, he will put it to parliament. They may be disappointed. The early signs are that the president will be able to rally enough support to get the agreement approved. Many members of parliament are suspicious of the agreement but dislike the idea of violent opposition to it; and they are not keen to face the general election which might follow if they voted against their leader. Others are prepared simply to give the accord a chance, for a few months at least.

Such people might be won over to a yes vote if events in the Tamil north and east run smoothly. The main guerrilla group, the Tamil Tigers, is surrendering weapons in quantity. Other guerrillas have already done so. Nobody is keen to give an accurate count, but mortars, AK-47 rifles, grenades and ammunition have been handed over. That’s the lot, say the Tigers. The Indians do not believe them, but the surrender of arms may be more than a gesture.

The Tigers’ leaders are beginning to look and act like ordinary politicians. They wear ordinary clothes, earnestly face the press, and are now bargaining hard over an interim council to run the Northern and Eastern provinces until an election can be held. The Tigers are trying to keep a rival group, the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front, off the council. The Front was reduced to around 100 men after the Tigers mauled it last year, but it has support in the Eastern Province, where the Tigers are weak.

The Tamils want military protection. The Indian troops who moved into northern Sri Lanka after the agreement was signed are happy to give it to them now, but India says it would like its 9,000 men out of Sri Lanka by December. Mr Rajiv Gandhi will probably have to keep his soldiers there for longer than that. Sinhalese extremists are one reason. Another is next year’s referendum, which will give the Eastern province, where the Tamils are less predominant, a chance to opt out of its provisional merger with the north. If the east votes to split away, as many Sri Lankans expect, it will revive many of the Tigers’ grievances, and could mean a resumption of fighting. As one Indian commentator puts it, until the referendum is tackled the Sri Lankan peace accord will be plagued by built-in obsolescence.

*****

The Narrow Escape

by Manik de Silva

[Courtesy: Far Eastern Economic Review, 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 Patriotric 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 were 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.’

*****

‘All Hell Broke Loose’

by Anonymous correspondent

[Courtesy: Asiaweek, Hongkong, August 30, 1987, p.10 & 15]

In the long committee room, away from the main chambers of Sri Lanka’s Parliament building in Kotte city outside Colombo, President Junius Jayewardene, 80, sat facing 140 MPs from his ruling United National Party. It took two rows of chairs around the U-shaped table to seat them all. On Jayewardene’s right was Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa; on his left, chief government whip Vincent Perera. They were assembled on the morning of Aug.18 to discuss the peace accord signed July 29 between New Delhi and Colombo to end the island’s seven-year old conflict between Tamil separatists and the Sinhalese majority. A full Parliamentary debate on continuation of emergency rule was scheduled for later that morning. At about 9:35 am, a junior minister was giving an account of bloody anti-accord riots that had broken out in the south. Jayewardene was listening attentively. Suddenly, as one eyewitness later put it, ‘all hell broke loose’.

It happened in a matter of seconds. From behind the partly-ajar door of an anteroom that opened on to the committee chamber, a lone assailant fired a pistol at Jayewardene. The bullet winged past the president, who was leaning forward to accept a file from clerk Norbert Senadheera. The shot caught Senadheera in the right shoulder. Then, as Premadasa was pulling Jayewardene under the table, the would-be assassin lobbed two grenades into the room.

As the first bomb hurtled towards Jayewardene, a horrified voice cried out, ‘Get down.’ MP Ratnanayake Karunaratne recalled seeing ‘something that looked like a black tennis ball landing on the president’s table.’ The grenade bounced off and careened towards National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, exploding even before it hit the ground. Seconds later, the next missile also blew up near the same spot.

Panic-stricken politicians scrambled to escape from the smoke-filled room. ‘We thought there were more bombs so most of us broke the glass windows in our haste to get out. Some of us cut ourselves,’ recounted Karunaratne. In the terror and confusion, the attacker escaped, unidentified by any of his victims. As Karunaratne and others hustled a shaken but unhurt Jayewardene outside, troops, fire engines and ambulances converged on the scene.

Among the seriously injured were Plantation Industries Minister Montague Jayawickrema, who suffered a heart attack; Cultural Affairs Minister Edwin Hurulle; Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Percy Samaraweera; MP G.V.S. De Silva; and Athulathmudali, who suffered internal injuries. Doctors who removed the security minister’s ruptured spleen said his spine was also damaged. The only fatality was junior minister Keerthisri Abeywickrama, who died of severe head injuries in hospital. Although he sat behind Athulathmudali, he caught the full blast because he had stood up. ‘If the grenades had exploded on the table before bouncing on the ground, both the president and the prime minister would have been killed,’ notes an officer attached to the ballistics department. That would have set up an unprecedented constitutional crisis, because the charter does not provide for a clear method of succession in such a situation.

A bare two hours later, a remarkably cool Jayewardene went on national readio and television. His usually spotless white Arya-Singhala national costume was still stained with blood. ‘I was not wounded,’ said the president, ‘but my clothes were soaked with the blood of others. I will keep my clothes as a memento of this, yet another attempt to disrupt the parliamentary democratic system of our country.’ Tamil militancy seems to have been defused in the north, where Tamil guerrillas last week were continuing to lay down their arms. But, said the grim-faced president, ‘the terrorist movement in the south has not ceased, and I will take every step to stop it.’

Observers said the president was referring to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), an outlawed Marxist pro-Sinhala organisation based in the predominantly Sinhalese south. The JVP was virtually wiped out by the government after it launched a bloody insurrection in 1971. Though Colombo rounded up more than 150 overt JVP members in June, the band was widely suspected of instigating anti-accord rioting last month.

Late that night, however, an anonymous caller from a little-known group, the Deshapriya Janata Viyaparaya (Patriotic People’s Movement), telephoned the British Broadcasting Corporation in Colombo to claim responsibility for the attack. Next day, a series of posters, drawn on newsprint in bold black and red and signed by the DJV, appeared around the capital. The group also claimed they were behind assaults in June on the Katunayake Air Base and the Ratmalana Defence Academy in the southwest.

‘We have been keeping tabs on this group for some time. It’s a hard-core JVP group headed by several ex-security forces personnel,’ Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police Ernest Perera told Asiaweek. ‘Most of the senior members of the group were already in custody when this happened. We are trying now to see whether their claim is correct or whether they are looking for publicity.’

Believed to be linked to the extremist group are several Buddhist monks, including Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero, who last month led an anti-accord demonstration in Colombo’s Pettah district that left some eighteen people dead. That same day, the DJV distributed leaflets vowing that ‘revenge would be taken if Jayewardene splits the country.’ Once his close associate, Sobitha Thero broke ranks with Jayewardene and the UNP when the president rejected a call by Buddhist monks in 1984 to declare an all-out war against Hindu Tamil separatists in the north and east.

Whoever staged the attack, they somehow managed to evade detection. Security is stringent at the sprawling Parliament complex. Checks at the huge iron gates and on the grounds are thorough. The complex itself is situated on an island and the surrounding lake is mined. Not surprisingly, investigators are looking for clues to determine whether security personnel or employees inside the Parliament building had in any way aided the assassination attempt on the president. At mid-week, seven persons, including two personal bodyguards to Premier Premadasa and two employees in the building’s canteen, had been detained for questioning.

Ironically, the brazen attack may have strengthened the government’s position on the peace pact. Says lawyer Shantilal Perera: ‘Many Sinhalese who were of two minds over the accord are now completely supporting the government.’ But the latest violence also suggests a more ominous scenario: that the extremist Tamil movement of the north may have been exchanged for a Sinhalese guerrilla war in the south.

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Narrow Escape – Jayewardene Survives an Attack

by Anonymous correspondent

[Courtesy: Time, August 31, 1987, p.9]

The parliamentary committee room erupted with applause when Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene walked in. It was the ruling United National Party’s first caucus meeting since Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed the historic July 29 accord aimed at ending four years of bitter civil strife in Sri Lanka. Obviously enjoying the tribute to his peacemaking efforts, Jayewardene smiled and then called the meeting to order.

He did not have long to savor the accolade. Less than 20 minutes later, the thick glass door of a storeroom adjoining the committee room burst open, and a shot was fired directly at the President’s chair. Within seconds, two hand grenades exploded in the chamber. ‘There was pandemonium,’ said Cabinet Minister Abdul Majeed. ‘The room was filled with smoke, and members were shouting all sorts of things.’

Miraculously Jayewardene escaped unharmed. An aide who was leaning over to talk to Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa stood between the gunman and the seated President at the moment of the attack. The aide was struck and critically wounded. The grenade blasts left District Minister Keethisiri Abeywickrama dead and ten people, including Premadasa, injured. Still wearing his blood-stained clothes, Jayewardene delivered a nationwide radio address hours of the attack. ‘We intend to carry on our work,’ he said, ‘irrespective of the evil forces ganging up against us.’

The task he referred to was to put into practice a month-old peace accord that will give Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority substantial local governing powers in the parts of the country where they predominate. The Tamils, who are mostly Hindus, make up 12.5% of the island’s nearly 16.7 million inhabitants and are concentrated in its northern and eastern provinces. Since the pact was signed, separatist Tamil guerrillas have ended their war and begun to lay down arms under the watchful eyes of 7,000 Indian peacekeeping troops.

The largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority remains bitterly opposed to the accord. There is widespread anger that the Sri Lankan government has granted too many concessions to the Tamils. A previously unknown Sinhalese group called the Patriotic People’s Movement claimed responsibility for the assassination attempt, but the killers immediately fled the scene. By week’s end no arrest had been made.

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Love Thy Neighbour

 by Saeed Naqvi

[Courtesy: South, London, September 1987, pp. 26-27]

The July peace accord between India and Sri Lanka is evidence of yet another area of superpower consensus. If it fails it will be despite their efforts. The Soviet Union has long been urging New Delhi to contain the ethnic conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese which has claimed 6,000 lives over the past four years.

Soviet alarm reached a pitch after the bloodletting which started in April when a bomb blast at the Colombo bus terminal killed 150. In May, a senior Soviet official told South in Moscow: ‘We fear the situation in Sri Lanka may be out of the control of the Sri Lankan authorities. The blast in Colombo was no home-made bomb. It was imported and sophisticated technology.’

But what appears to have clinched matter was the attitude of Washington. This became clear when the US State Department issued the mildest of statements after Indian aircraft dropped relief supplies on the beleaguered Jaffna peninsula on 4 June. By June, the US had already evolved its aggressive, high-profile policy for the Gulf, and was determined to escort reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers. Pakistan’s support was essential.

US Under-Secretary of State for political affairs, Michael Armacost, said as much in an informal chat with journalists in New Delhi two days after the peace agreement between India and Sri Lanka. Pakistan had to be armed to fight the USSR in Afghanistan and because it was crucial to the US Central Command, which is the multi-billion-dollar version of the rapid deployment force set up after the fall of the Shah of Iran and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. In mid-June, General George Crist, commander in chief of Centcom, visited Islamabad at the head of a military delegation to discuss placing airborne early warning systems in Pakistan and to upgrade facilities for the US navy at Gawadar port in Baluchistan, near the mouth of the Gulf. The visit coincided with the escalation of the US presence in the Gulf.

It is axiomatic that preferential treatment of Pakistan causes a proportionately adverse reaction in India, where Rajiv Gandhi’s image had taken a battering as a result of a string of electoral reverses and a spate of corruption charges. In New Delhi, the ruling Congress (I) had endorsed a resolution condemning ‘the foreign hand destabilising India’. Gandhi went to Moscow. The US and the West, meanwhile, were preoccupied with the Gulf, and needed to ensure tranquility elsewhere in the region by giving Gandhi a political victory. This they did by endorsing his Sri Lankan initiative. President Ronald Reagan’s letter congratulating Gandhi arrived barely six hours after the signing of the accord between New Delhi and Colombo.

The agreement concedes the main Tamil demands, linking the northern and eastern provinces (subject to a referendum within a year) and giving Tamil and English the status of official languages along with Sinhala. But it is the letter accompanying the agreement which has clearly altered the geopolitical structure of the region.

This says that the two leaders will ‘reach an early understanding about the relevance and employment of foreign military and intelligence personnel with a view to ensuring that such presence will not prejudice Indo-Sri Lankan relations.’; that ‘Sri Lanka’s agreements with foreign broadcasting organisations will be reviewed to ensure that any facilities set up by them in Sri Lanka are used solely as public broadcasting facilities and not for any military or intelligence purposes’; and that ‘Trincomalee or any other ports of Sri Lanka will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests.’

While Gandhi’s popularity has increased as a result of the accord, criticism against President Junius Jayewardene is mounting in Sri Lanka. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, head of the opposition Sri Lankan Freedom Party, and Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, say the agreement alters the unitary character of the constitution. Others, such as national security minister Lalith Athulathmudali, take exception to the accompanying letter. ‘The letter makes our foreign policy subservient to India’s,’ says Athulathmudali. ‘How can we ever sell it to the people?’

Jayewardene says he will introduce legislation in September on those clauses of the agreement which require constitutional amendment by a two-thirds majority in parliament. But Premadasa says some of the provisions of the accord impinge on the ‘entrenched clauses’ of the constitution, such as those affecting the country’s ‘unitary character’. He says: ‘To alter these, we shall need a national referendum on an issue which claimed 6,000 lives prior to the accord.’

The more immediate concern is what will happen to the 6,000-strong Indian peacekeeping force currently recovering arms from the Tamil guerrillas in the north and east – especially if it is unable to recover all the weapons that Colombo claims the guerrillas possess.

Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the dominant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, has said the accord will fail, but has agreed under Indian pressure to a surrender of arms. ‘We had no choice,’ he said in Jaffna on his return. ‘Pax Indiana is all very fancy,’ said a former Tamil MP, ‘but this one could well end up as an Indian catastrophe. And should it begin to go wrong, Gandhi will not be able to blame it on the malignant foreign hand because every foreign hand has gone along with him so far.’

Jayewardene faces a Sinhalese backlash. To recover some support, he may ask the Indian troops to leave ahead of schedule. But at present two naval frigates are anchored off Colombo, and more than 300 commandos are stationed near the presidential palace with enough arms and ammunition to take on half the Sri Lankan army.

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Despite Sri Lankan Accord, Dangers Still Loom

by Tarzie Vittachi

[Courtesy: World Paper, Boston, September 12, 1987]

Has the accord signed between President Junius Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi brought peace to the island of Sri Lanka after 10 years of ethnic violence? Has the snake in Paradise been scotched at last? Will the Tamil Tigers, who fought tooth and claw to partition this island of 26,000 squre miles and establish a separate state for the minority of 1.5 million Tamils, settle down to accept the regional autonomy which the accord provides? Will they abandon violence and participate in the democratic process, sharing proportionate power with the majority of 14.5 million Sinhala Lions?

These and 100 other anxious questions are on the lips of every Lankan at home and abroad who has lived through 10 bloody years of unimaginable terror or observed it from afar. Breathing sighs of relief at the signing of the accord were most of the Sinhalese who have insisted on a unitary state and most of the Tamils who never wanted to break away despite the indignities and injustices heaped on them ever since the government of Solomon Bandaranaike took the expedient racist shortcut to power in 1956.

Lankans may be chagrined that peace in their land is now subject to the goodwill and iron whim of the government of India, and concerned about the sincerity of Rajiv Gandhi, who in July indulged in a spasm of Big Brother tantrums by dropping ‘humanitarian aid’ to Tamils in unauthorized overflights by Indian Air Force bombers escorted by Indian MiG fighters.

Whatever their doubts about the durability of the peace agreement, Lankans have almost unanimously agreed that two good things have happened:

The killing has stopped. The militants are surrendering their weapons. No one gainsays the value of that boon.

The interference of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu in the lives and political processes of Sri Lanka has been stopped. The militant Tamils were housed, fed, armed and supplied for four years by and through Tamil Nadu. The tiny Sri Lanka army, navy and airforce were incapable of preventing that incursion.

Now the Indian navy patrols the 28-mile Palk Strait, which has kept the two countries distinct during the 2,400 years of history of Sri Lanka. Three divisions of the Indian army are encamped in the North to provide muscle to the accord.

What persuaded President Jayewardene to entrust the keeping of the peace to the government of India? This was in spite of his publicly expressed rage at its violation of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty by the airdrop of ‘humanitarian aid’, a la Colonel North to the Nicaraguan contras. The answers are not far to seek.

First, he was out of options. His own forces were incapable of preventing the supplying of arms and logistical assistance from Tamil Nadu. It was too dangerous to hitch the political integrity of his little island to one or more of the big powers, who have no permanent friends but only permanent interests.

Second, he preferred Sri Lanka being beholden to the government of India rather than become a victim of the communal chauvinism and irredentism of Tamil Nadu politicians. They were manipulating the ethnic problems in Sri Lanka to promote their own separatist ambitions in India. India is a big regional power, bound, despite occasional aberrations, by its international obligations to behave responsibly as a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Commonwealth. Tamil Nadu has no such responsibilities and was intervening in Sri Lanka as a maverick, much as the ancient rajas of South India had done thousands of years ago.

Third, the government of India ‘has a vested interest in the integrity of the island of Sri Lanka’, as Rajiv Gandhi once said. India’s complicity or connivance in the partitioning of Sri Lanka inevitably would be seen and used as a wedge to promote the fragmentation of India into separatist ethnic and linguistic states.

Fourth, Jayewardene, who celebrates his 81st birthday this month, has an intuitive trust and personal affection for young Gandhi. He feels the son is a very different personality from his mother, Indira, who played the role of elder sister to Bandaranaike’s widow, the president’s political bete noire.

Has then the racial problem of Sri Lanka been solved? No guaranteed permanent solutions exist to such problems, as we know from the history of the Middle East. You cannot ‘solve’ problems like that but you can change their character and intensity. That is what Jayewardene has achieved.

Danger is ahead. The accord provides for a referendum in the Eastern Province to decide whether it should be merged into the now-autonomous North. Only one-third of its population is Tamil. The rest are Sinhalese and Moors. If the result yields an overwhelming NO, as it is likely to, would the militant Tamils accept the verdict peaceably? They are bound to cry foul and try once more to take to violence. But without a supply of arms from Tamil Nadu, that course would not take them far.

The corollary to this, of course, is the presence of Indian troops in the island and the dependency on the Indian navy will be prolonged. The extended presence of a foreign army will certainly be seen as an incubus by the Sinhalese – as well as by moderate Tamils – and used as a rallying cry by Mrs. Bandaranaike and her cohorts. Like her husband, they never have been adverse to using racial expediency to attain and retain power. They tried to exploit the situation, denouncing the accord as a sellout to India. But that move, which caused a rash of rioting among the Sinhalese, has been stopped by the firm imposition of Emergency measures. The sore continues, however, to ooze.

Rumblings of discontent emerged within Jayewardene’s party when the accord was announced. Jayewardene bluntly offered to accept the resignation of any minister who balked. None did. The alternative was to throw their lot in with Mrs. Bandaranaike, but that is too bitter a medicine for men who abhored her regime and drove her into the political wilderness.

Part of the dissidence was due to Jayewardene’s preferred tactic of producing a fait accompli. Sri Lankans have a 50-year tradition of democratic public debate. They like to talk things out even if the argument becomes circular. Jayewardene cannot wait that long. When the Tamils agreed to come to the negotiating table at Timpu two years ago, I suggested to him that the outcome depended on the extent of his own magnanimity. He reflected for a long minute, as is his way. ‘I am an old man now,’ he answered. ‘Do you think that I want this terrible conflict to be my legacy to history? I have a personal interest in what you call magnanimity.’ Well said. It now remains to be well done.

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Pretenders Line Up for JR’s Crown

by Saeed Naqvi

[Courtesy: South, London, October 1987, middle page supplement, p.14]

With the July India – Sri Lanka accord having dominated affairs recently, the incipient struggle for succession within Colombo’s ruling United National Party has proceeded largely unnoticed. President J.R. Jayewardene told South soon after the accord: ‘I do not intend to run for a third term in 1988. Our constitution does not permit it. I am now 81. I need some rest. There is no question of my seeking a constitutional amendment to seek a third term’.

The signal was clear for those in the succession race. The power struggle was largely responsible for the Sinhalese-dominated UNP’s inability to arrive at a negotiated settlement with Tamil separatists in the northeast ever since ethnic violence broke out in Colombo in July 1983. Ironically, the UNP power struggle resulted in the accord, which has now become its main focus.

Jayewardene was 71 when elected to power in 1977. Two relative newcomers to national politics, national security minister Lalith Athulathmudali and land minister Gamini Dissanayake, soon emerged as his favourites. The question of succession was already an issue when Jayewardene started his second term in 1982. After the 1983 ethnic violence, the pace of the power struggle quickened with the hawkish protagonists competing to win Sinhalese support.

By then Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, a consummate politician with grassroots support, had entered the race. Premadasa, a hardliner in relations with New Delhi, comes from a lower caste background and built up his power base through a popular low-cost housing policy. Lalith, Gamini and Jayewardene – and all previous presidents – have come from the majority upper class Govigama Buddhist caste.

Since 1984 Lalith has been the front runner. As national security minister, he had at his disposal the means to demonstrate his hawkishness towards the increasingly militant Tamil minority. Through strong military action in the northeast, Lalith sought to convey two messages to the Sinhalese majority and to New Delhi. To the Sinhalese he projected himself as the tough protector of their interests. To New Delhi he portrayed himself as a hawk-beaked dove, consolidating his credibility with the Sinhalese so as to reach a negotiated selttlement with the Tamils.

But violence provoked further violence and Lalith moved – almost in spite of himself – inexorably towards a military solution. With Sri Lankan troops on the verge of taking Jaffna in June, New Delhi intervened; Indian air force planes dropped relief supplies on the besieged town of Jaffna as a prelude to a more direct involvement.

Gamini, meanwhile, had established links with New Delhi by some secret cricket diplomacy. As president of the Sri Lanka cricket control board, he came into contact with N. Ram, proprietor and associate editor of the Hindu, the most powerful newspaper in south India, and a former wicketkeeper. As go-between, they used C.T.A. Schafter, a Sri Lankan Tamil businessman living in Madras in south India, who was once a captain of the Sri Lankan universities cricket team.

The Hindu had access to the Madras-based leaders of the Tamil Tigers, the dominant Tamil militant group, as well as the ministry of external affairs and the prime minister’s office in New Delhi. To avert Indian military action, the trio, along with the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, Jyotindra Nath Dixit, and Jayewardene hammered out the outlines of the accord in secret. ‘Secrecy was of the essence, otherwise Lalith would have leaked it to the press and blown the agreement,’ Gamini told South.

Only one other member of Jayewardene’s cabinet was aware of the full details of the agreement prior to the signing ceremony – finance minister Ronnie de Mel. Gamini had foiled Lalith. With the focus in Sri Lanka on reconstruction, de Mel, a dove and a supporter of a peaceful settlement, has moved to centre stage in domestic politics. He is currently New Delhi’s favourite, having recently won grants and loans from India totalling US$ 35 million.

Meanwhile, differences have reportedly developed between the Indian troops and Tamil Tigers in the northeast after joint Indian and Sri Lankan vessels patrolling the Palk Straits intercepted a cache of arms being shipped to India.

The Tigers are unhappy with the accord because they believe India is favouring their rivals, such as the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front, which will be given an equal role in the interim administration in the northern and eastern provinces. The Tigers’ supporters have since picketed the Indian troops in Jaffna, lending further credibility to New Delhi, especially among the Sinhalese majority who earlier opposed India’s role.

In the present climate, Jayewardene’s possible successors would profit by being in New Delhi’s good books. De Mel is the man of the moment and although Gamini was instrumental in swinging the accord, he has now had to take a back seat as de Mel leads the reconstruction drive. Lalith, initially a severe critic of the accord, has finally acquiesced, with nothing to gain from a hawkish stance, especially in the face of New Delhi’s strict monitoring of the accord.

Premadasa, however, has retained his option to oppose the accord within the cabinet. He is said to have circulated a written criticism of the accord and observers say he will bide his time until the pact, which provides for devolution of power to the new northern and eastern provinces, comes up in parliament. He will then argue that some of the provisions violate the constitution, changes to which can be only ratified by a national referendum and not by a two-thirds majority in parliament.

Once the affair with India sours, the field could open again for the opposition to show their strength; already the opposition Freedom Party leader, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and a strong section of the Buddhist clergy opposed to the accord are stoking Sinhalese chauvinism.

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