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The Indo-LTTE War (1987-1990)

An Anthology, Part VII

The Acrobatic Leap and Fall of Athulathmudali

With the Indian Peace-Keeping Force still unable to make a final breakthrough and defeat of the LTTE, now holed up in the north of the island, persons close to JR [Jayewardene] were, for the first time, ready to talk to the LTTE about a possible settlement. ...

Then a second attempt [to talk to the LTTE in 1988] was made, this time at the instance of National Security Minister, Lalith Athulathmudali. It would seem that the Indians gave their blessings to this enterprise...

These negotiations were designed to get the LTTE to agree to a political settlement whereby their own position in the Northern Province, as the main spokesman of the Tamils, would be recognized, while they would have to abandon a similar claim to the Eastern Province. There was a great deal of anti-Indian feeling among the Tamils, especially in the north of the island, and the idea behind these secret negotiations was to seek to exploit that feeling to the advantage of Sri Lanka. - de Silva and Wriggins

Thus, the ‘secret’ negotiations with the LTTE initiated by Dissanayake (pro-Indian platform) and Athulathmudali (anti-Indian platform) were merely political exercises of one-upmanship and nothing to do with solving the Tamil issue.

Part 1 of series

Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

As of now, at the end of six parts of this Indo-LTTE War anthology, I have transcribed a cumulative 53 newsreports, commentaries and interviews that appeared in five ranking weekly newsmagazines (Time, Newsweek, Economist, Asiaweek and Far Eastern Economic Review) and a monthly newsmagazine, South, from London, founded in 1980. Now, Asiaweek and South magazines have become defunct.

Asiaweek Feb 8 1987 Athulathmudali & British mercenary in Jaffna : Direct talks with militants
Asiaweek February 8, 1987

 

To counter the spins and distortions relating to the Indian army’s success circulated by interested parties in the internet, I plan to continue transcribing the material which had appeared in these magazines until March 1990 (when the Indian army returned from Eelam territory after failing in its proclaimed objectives) in installments. Thus, it is not inappropriate here to let the readers know why I have adopted this angle in presenting the Indo-LTTE war. The reasons are as follows:

(1) By selecting only these six magazines (all published in cities not located in India and Sri Lanka) to re-tell the Indo-LTTE war, I thought of eliminating some of the pro-Indian, pro-Sri Lankan bias of scribes. In addition, none of these magazines can be tagged as having a pro-Tamil (LTTE) bias either. Between 1987 and 1990, I lived in Tokyo and Philadelphia, and I kept track of the unfolding events in Sri Lanka by regularly scanning these six magazines.

(2) In the 1990s, by and large, the biographer-historians (Prof. K.M. de Silva), memoirists (J.N. Dixit and the Indian army generals who had served in the Indo-LTTE war), journalists cum spin merchants (M.R. Narayan Swamy), quasi historians (Rajan Hoole, et. al.) and post-death apologists for Rajiv Gandhi (such as Subramanian Swamy), in their selective, distorted re-telling of the Indo-LTTE war, chose to omit/ignore the published records (probably by design or negligence or lack of access to these materials) available in these six newsmagazines.

(3) News coverage during the 1987-90 period was more lexical than visual. Contrastingly, in the post-internet phase the focus has shifted from lexical to visual. When I study the material which appeared during 1987-90, I can notice one transformation in the visual angle. Color photography was at its blooming stage, and photos which accompanied the lexical descriptions in news magazines were changing from monochrome to color. Though the much-touted ‘A picture is worth a 1,000 words’ has validity to a degree, it is not infallible. 500-1,000 words, if written with clarity, can present and preserve facts, thoughts and emotions of humans that cannot be captured by the camera.

Though the news reports that appeared in the selected six magazines had less of a pro-Indian, pro-Sri Lankan bias, a cryptic anti-Tamil (LTTE) bias in the coverage of the Indo-LTTE war is visible. This is because the journalists who fed the news reports from Colombo were non-Tamils (such as Mervyn de Silva for the Economist and Newsweek, Manik de Silva for Far Eastern Economic Review and ‘Anonymous’ for Asiaweek). Time and Newsweek had their stories written by journalists of Anglo-Saxon ethnicity, gathered from local contributors. This protocol had its merits, but the language deficiency (Sinhalese and Tamil) of these Christian Anglo-Saxon ethnic journalists also did contribute to some bias in their miscomprehension and mis-reading of the war’s progress.

In this part, I have transcribed 9 newsreports that first appeared in March-May 1988. In chronological order, these are as follows:

Edward Desmond: Beating the Bandh - Gandhi weathers a strike and a legal furor. Time, Mar.28, 1988, pp. 36-37.

Anonymous: A Matter of Morale. Asiaweek, Apr.8, 1988, p. 27.

Anonymous: War Without End. Asiaweek, Apr.15, 1988, pp. 23-24.

Anonymous: The Trials of Rajiv Gandhi. Asiaweek, Apr. 22, 1988, pp. 18-20.

Anonymous: [News snippets on] Ajith Kumara, Vijayamuni Vijitha Rohana and Arun Nehru. Asiaweek, Apr. 22, 1988, p. 67.

India Correspondent: Get a move on, soldier. Economist, Apr. 23, 1988, pp.35-36.

Susan Tifft: Clash at the Shrine [and] A Sri Lanka Hoax. Time, May 23, 1988, pp. 20-21.

Manik de Silva: Your slip is showing: The government makes the best of a hoax. Far Eastern Economic Review, May 26, 1988, pp. 41-43.

Anonymous: Red Faces in Colombo. Asiaweek, May 27,1988, p. 20

Among these 9 items, only three items directly relate to the Indo-LTTE war. Nevertheless, the other 6 items describe the two sub-plots (Rajiv Gandhi’s persisting headache in Punjab with Sikh separatists and the JVP hoax that punctured the image balloon of Sri Lanka’s then Minister of National Security, Lalith Athulathmudali) which had ties to the Indo-LTTE war. In many of the features (originating from Colombo) that promote Athulathmudali’s memory in the internet, I have noted selective evasion of this JVP hoax on the then arrogant and audacious Minister of National Security, that doomed his 1988 presidential bid.

Also of relevance at this juncture was the revelation provided by President Jayewardene’s biographer Kingsley M. de Silva in 1994 about the two ‘secret’ initiatives made by the UNP’s two Cabinet ministers to negotiate with the LTTE (without Indian help), around early 1988. Since these two initiatives, supported by President Jayewardene (for tactical reasons), have not received coverage in the newsmagazines of that period, for the historical record, I transcribe the two paragraphs from Prof. de Silva and H.Wriggins [J.R.Jayewardene of Sri Lanka, vol.II, Leo Cooper/Pen & Sword Books, London, 1994, pp.670-671.]

“With the Indian Peace-Keeping Force still unable to make a final breakthrough and defeat of the LTTE, now holed up in the north of the island, persons close to JR [Jayewardene] were, for the first time, ready to talk to the LTTE about a possible settlement. Two initiatives were attempted in February 1988. The opening move was by Gamini Dissanayake, and the intermediary was Kumar Ponnambalam, leader of the Tamil Congress. That approach failed because the Indians were opposed to it. Then a second attempt was made, this time at the instance of National Security Minister, Lalith Athulathmudali. It would seem that the Indians gave their blessings to this enterprise. [Footnote: This is based on information obtained in discussion with Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali.] The intermediary, a US-based Tamil academic, was in Colombo during the last weekend of February, having spent some days in Madras. These negotiations were designed to get the LTTE to agree to a political settlement whereby their own position in the Northern Province, as the main spokesman of the Tamils, would be recognized, while they would have to abandon a similar claim to the Eastern Province. There was a great deal of anti-Indian feeling among the Tamils, especially in the north of the island, and the idea behind these secret negotiations was to seek to exploit that feeling to the advantage of Sri Lanka.

The Indian government was generally unhappy about the negotiations initiated by Athulathmudali but they themselves were unable to object openly because of their lack of success in capturing the LTTE leader and his associates and destroying the LTTE as a political organization. Under the pressure from Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian High Commission in Colombo and the IPKF were intent on eliminating the leadership of the LTTE. The IPKF was insistent that they had the LTTE on the run and that they would be able to break their resistance by the end of March 1988. JR himself remained steadfast to his demand, which the Indians supported, of an unconditional surrender of the LTTE. Nevertheless, he was willing to support these secret negotiations. The Indians for their part did not believe that the secret negotiations would yield any positive results.”

One should place in perspective what was the real motive of these two ‘secret’ negotiations with the LTTE, initiated by Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali. Both were then leading contenders for the presidential nomination on UNP ticket, and were competing with each other as well as against Premadasa, the then prime minister, for the same nomination. While positioned as the prime minister, Premadasa held the nominal advantage. Thus, the ‘secret’ negotiations with the LTTE initiated by Dissanayake (pro-Indian platform) and Athulathmudali (anti-Indian platform) were merely political exercises of one-upmanship and nothing to do with solving the Tamil issue.

That Athulathmudali was working against the implementation of the Rajiv-Jayewardene Accord and was focused on fomenting trouble since the since July 1987 has been recorded by J.N. Dixit, as follows:

“My anticipation that once Jayewardene signs the agreement he will be decisive in neutralising Premadasa and Lalith Athulathmudali and their policies against Tamils and the agreement, also proved to be wrong. Jayewardene either did not have the political will, or his approach was that of tactical intrigue because of which he refrained from reining in Lalith and Premadasa from their negative activities against the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement.” [Book: Assignment Colombo, 1998, pp. 344-345].

In the newsreports provided below, dots, words within parenthesis, words in italics and in bold fonts (wherever they appear) are as in the originals.

Beating The Bandh – Gandhi weathers a strike and a legal furor

[Edward Desmond; Time, Mar. 28, 1988, pp. 36-37.]

For more than a year, India’s squabbling opposition parties have tried – and failed – to form a common front strong enough to challenge Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Last week eight of the major parties in the opposition finally managed to join forces in a call for a Bharat bandh (Close India), a daylong nationwide strike to foce Gandhi to resign and call early national elections. The effects were unsettling but hardly decisive. In at least seven states, work came to a halt for a day, as opposition cadres in Calcutta, Bombay and other major cities enforced the stoppage with stones and fists. Police arrested some 50,000 activists in an effort to keep the strike in check. Sporadic violence reportedly claimed at least ten lives.

The stoppage left Gandhi’s grip on power undisturbed, even though the opposition claimed an ‘unprecedented success.’ At the same time, the Prime Minister’s authority was challenged in an unrelated showdown in the Rajya Sabha, Parliament’s upper house, where opposition legislators managed to force the government into a compromise on a bill to extend New Delhi’s direct rule in terrorism-plagued Punjab.

Among the most enthusiastic supporters of the strike were opposition members of Parliament, who did their best to disrupt proceedings in both houses. They boycotted the morning question hour, then at noon began thumping their desks and chanting, ‘Remove Rajiv and save the country!’ Even before the tumult rocked Parliament, stores closed, workers walked off their jobs, and streets grew silent as citizens observed the strike call in West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh – seven of India’s 24 states, containing 360 million people.

The strike’s success in those states probably owed more to fear of violence in the streets than to support for the opposition. In Calcutta the ruling Marxist-led Left Front dispatched cadres to roam the deserted streets – some had been turned into cricket pitches by children – and make certain the call for stoppage was heeded. When a gang of 300 Marxist supporters found shops open for business in Calcutta’s middle class Ritchie Road neighborhood, they ransacked 18 stores and injured 40 people.

Kerala’s Marxist government also lent its authority to strike enforcers, who broke into central government offices while police stood by. In Bombay a man was seriously injured when strike backers pelted a commuter train with stones. Said K. Ajay Kumar, owner of a Bombay tire shop: ‘ I don’t mind forgoing a day’s business. I don’t want to risk my life.’

In countering the strike, the government used force as well. As thousands were arrested around the country, paramilitary police turned out in Tripura and other states controlled by Gandhi’s Congress (I) Party to keep order. Wherever the walkout did not take hold, opposition spokesmen blamed failure on the ‘unashamedly biased propaganda conducted by central government and the unprecedented repressive measures.’ Buta Singh, Gandhi’s Home Minister, answered by congratulating the majority of Indians who rejected ‘this undemocratic call for a bandh.’ Whatever the opposition claimed, the bandh did not come close to obtaining its objective. The government made no move to advance the date of national elections, which must take place no later than December 1989.

Gandhi faced a more substantive challenge on his Punjab policy, which aims to isolated an armed Sikh separatist rebellion that has cost an estimated 5,000 lives in the past five years. After a promising accord with the Akali Dal, Punjab’s main Sikh party, fell apart last year, Gandhi reacted to a steady increase in terrorist violence by dismissing the state government and imposing President’s Rule, which leaves near total power in the hands of the police and a New Delhi-appointed governor. The hard line seemed to end political dialogue in Punjab, but two weeks ago Gandhi changed tactics when he ordered the release of five Sikh high priests and 40 militants from a Jodhpur jail. Said he: ‘We will negotiate with anyone if they give up violence and agree to talks within the framework of the constitution.’

But there was trouble in the Rajya Sabha as soon as Home Minister Singh tried to hurry past legislators a bill for a constitutional amendment extending President’s Rule in Punjab. The bill also aimed to widen the conditions under which New Delhi can impose emergency rule, which among other things empowers New Delhi to detain people without formal charge. Singh tried to slide the bill through a late Friday afternoon session, when unofficial business is transacted and few legislators are normally in attendance.

The tactics backfired. Alert opposition members protested, forcing Singh to delay the bill’s introduction. When he tried again at the next session, opposition members were out of their maroon leather chairs in the semicircular Rajya Sabha chamber and ready for a fight. ‘We seek emergency powers to strike at the very root of terrorism and to silence forever the call for Khalistan,’ said Singh. Some legislators shouted, ‘Shame! Shame!’ as others charged that the government was up to no good. Said L.K. Advani, president of Bharaitya Janata, a right-wing nationalist party: ‘This is a devious device with sinister intentions not mentioned in the objects and reasons of the bill.’

Advani and his confederates grudgingly accept the extension of President’s Rule in Punjab. But provisions concerning just when New Delhi could impose the harsher emergency rule stirred the legislators’ ire. The bill’s wording added the phrase ‘internal disturbance’ as grounds for declaring emergency rule, thus greatly expanding the conditions of ‘war or external aggression or armed rebellion’ already enshrined in the law. Moreover, opponents charged, the amendment seemed to suggest that the government could declare an emergency anywhere in the country, not just in Punjab. That possibility inspired immediate comparison with the 18-month period of emergency rule imposed by Rajiv’s mother, Indira Gandhi, from 1975 to 1977.

When the debate on Singh’s bill began, 20 Marxist members of the Rajya Sabha marched down the chamber’s aisles to intimidate Pratibha Devi Singh Patil, the house’s chairwoman. The protesters gestured angrily and shouted, ‘Down with Rajiv’s dictatorship!’ Amid the tumult, Minister Singh agreed to new wording that strictly limited the amendment’s application to Punjab. Still, the opposition did not yield and chose to storm out before the final vote approving the bill.

Like the bandh, the row in the Rajya Sabha posed no immediate threat to Gandhi. Still, the Prime Minister is said to be increasingly concerned about his slipping popularity. The economy is souring, with inflation at 10%, the highest annual rate in six years, and the budget deficit stands at an all-time high of $5.8 billion. In Sri Lanka, India’s efforts to suppress the separatist Tamil Tigers’ insurgency against the government of President Junius R. Jayewardene is turning into a seemingly bottomless mire. The 60,000-troop Indian forces on the island have lost nearly 400 men.

Corruption allegations involving kickbacks in the government’s 1986 Bofors arm deal still hound Gandhi, though the issue has receded. Perhaps most corrosive in the political environment is the widespread sense that Gandhi, who assumed power in 1984 with promises to revitalize the Congress (I) Party, streamline a swollen bureaucracy and liberalize the economy, has in fact accomplished very little. Says Pran Chopra, a visiting professor at New Delhi’s Center for Policy research: ‘By 1987 much of that hope had gone. It is now a case of only hanging on in a beleaguered mood. It is a constant holding action.’

What makes the holding action possible is the very fractiousness of the opposition, of parties too divided by ideology or personal rivalry to work together, even on an action as potentially promising as the bandh. Bharatiya Janata did not support the strike, for example, because of the involvement of Communists in organizing the stoppage. Some potent regional parties opted out for lack of interest, as was the case with the National Conference of Kashmir and the Mizo National Front of Mizoram. As long as such divisions persist, Gandhi’s grip on power looks secure, no matter how serious the general discontent. [reported by K.K. Sharma/New Delhi].

*****

A Matter of Morale

[Anonymous; Asiaweek, Apr. 8, 1988, p. 27.]

 On either the 18th or 24th of every month, Sri Lanka’s Parliament convenes for a special session. At each meeting, a senior minister from the ruling United National Party briefs colleagues on the continuing ethnic violence in the country. Last week it was the turn of Parliamentary Affairs Minister Vincent Perera. Standing stiffly before a packed house, he announced that over the past month an average of five people had died daily in ethnic clashes in the troubled north and east. In eastern Trincomalee district alone, he said, Tamil separatists gunned down 64 civilians, most of them Sinhalese.

Such killings, some military observers believe, have led to souring relations between the mainly Sinhalese Sri Lankan Army and the Indian forces trying to keep peace on the island. The reason lies with the terms of the India-Sri Lanka accord signed last July. Under the agreement, Sri Lankan Army posts set up around civilian settlements were dismantled and soldiers in the main camps were confined to barracks. Local militias were also disbanded. ‘The villagers were left completely defenceless,’ says one senior Sri Lankan Army officer, ‘but we trusted the Indian peacekeeping force and didn’t object.’

That trust shattered last September, he says, when terrorists went on a rampage in the east and even managed to infiltrate a high-security naval dockyard guarded by the Indians. After the latest attacks on Sinhalese villages, some Sri Lankan soldiers apparently even threatened to mutiny. ‘We are finding it an extremely difficult tightrope to walk on,’ says another senior armyman. ‘On one hand, we have to ensure there will be no incidents between our troops and the Indians. On the other, we have to appease our soldiers who are growing increasingly restless over the situation.’ While conceding there was some friction between Indian and Sri Lankan soldiers in the field, an Indian Army source maintains the top brass of the two armies get along well. Moreover, in Tamil-dominated areas, adds an Indian Foreign Office official, ‘the Sri Lankan Army wreaked so much havoc in the days before the Indians took over that the civilians don’t really want us to leave.’

Aware of the need to boost military morale, Colombo wants Sri Lankan forces to patrol jointly with the Indians. During Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene’s visit to New Delhi in January, the Indians agreed that the security of Sinhalese villages be left to Sri Lankan troops, provided they first inform the regional Indian command before moving out of camp. But such clearance takes days to come, if at all. On March 15, Lands Minister Gamini Dissanayake, a close Jayewardene aide, rushed to New Delhi to discuss the matter further. But K. Natwar Singh, India’s minister of state for external affairs ruled out any chances of ‘joint operations.’

Many see Colombo’s request for joint patrols as merely a political stunt to counter opposition assertions that Sri Lanka’s sovereignty is being usurped. Yet some fear the Sri Lankan Army’s disgruntlement may take a more ominous turn. Of late, some junior officers have even begun talking about staging a coup.

*****

 War Without End

[Anonymous; Asiaweek, Apr. 15, 1988, pp. 23-24.]

The voice on the other end of the phone was desperate. ‘Please do something if you love me and your children!’ it pleaded. ‘They are setting fire to a house down the road and it won’t be long before they come here.’ The police inspector was in a bind. It was his wife calling, his village that was being ravaged by a gang of gunmen. But he could not move from his police station in the eastern Sri Lankan town of Kalmunai because he first needed clearance from the Indian Army’s peacekeeping force and could not get it until word came from regional headquarters in Batticaloa, 40 km away.

The rule had been strictly observed since an outburst of arson, looting and killing in the Kalmunai area a few days earlier. This time, however, the Sri Lankan policemen could not wait any longer. Five minutes after the phone call, they armed themselves, jumped into their jeeps and sped out under the eyes of the Indian troopers, who neither stopped nor helped them. They were still too late. At least seventeen people died that day, March 31, in the villages of Maligaikadu and Santhamarudu, victims of marauders of an extreme faction of Tamil separatists.

The Indian peacekeepers arrived after New Delhi and Colombo signed a historic pact last July. Tamil extremists, funded unofficially by Indians, had spread their war from Jaffna in the north, where it broke out five years ago, to much of the rest of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province and Eastern Province, too. India promised to stop helping them and restore peace. But the conflict has not ended. The ineffectiveness of the peacekeeping force has soured relations with their local counterparts and called into question India’s role in Sri Lanka.

One reason for the continuing was is the Tamils’ disregard for the truce. India pressured the main group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, to agree to the July accord, but it has never been clear how far that commitment went. Now a new story of the LTTE’s involvement is emerging. J.N. Dixit, Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, has been reported as saying that, in a hush-hush deal, the Tigers were paid off to participate. Government sources in New Delhi confirm that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was indeed offered a monthly sum and it was, says one well-placed official, ‘slightly less than the $390,000 he was collecting as taxes every month at gunpoint.’

The Indians seem to have thought the Tigers would be more susceptible to money than persuasion. ‘The LTTE’s top leadership basically comprises the sons or relatives of known smugglers who thrived in the 1960s and 70s,’ says a source in New Delhi. Dixit is reported as saying that an initial payment was made. His reason for divulging the information, it is said, is to discredit the LTTE.

But the Indian soldiers themselves have been accused of atrocities. News leaks tell of a report by the medical superintendent of Jaffna’s main hospital which finds the Indians guilty of killing 50 civilians, including three doctors and two nurses, during an attack in October. The Tigers had been using the hospital grounds as a base and the Indian army went in as dusk fell. There was no electricity and they seem to have shot indiscriminately.

Moreover, the current troubles in the east apparently have little to do with the Tigers. Many of the victims have been Muslims, who form a quarter of Eastern Province’s population and have so far been neutral in the Tamil-Sinhalese strife. Muslim leaders and Sri Lankan intelligence sources claim that the culprits are members of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front, another militant Tamil group. Some are saying that the Indians are encouraging EPRLF raids to frighten Muslims out of the province because they are becoming increasingly anti-Indian. New Delhi denies the reports.

A Sri Lankan army intelligence source says a Muslim militant group set up to oppose the Tigers has now approached the LTTE for help. Their common ground, it seems, is their aim to wipe out the EPRLF. In such circumstances, the fighting can only get worse.

*****

The Trials of Rajiv Gandhi

[Anonymous; Asiaweek, April 22, 1988, pp. 18-20.]

The tiny form in the cot lay unnaturally still. Gently, deputy inspector-general of police Sandeep Singh Virk lifted the thin veil covering five month-old Raj Kaur. His handsome face tightened at the sight: the baby lay in a pool of blood, her life snuffed out by a shot through the heart. The bullet-riddled bodies of seventeen other people, most of them family members, sprawled grotesquely on the cowdung-paved ground outside the house in Rajhra hamlet near the holy city of Amritsar. The killers had left behind a note claiming responsibility for the heinous deed. It was signed by ‘Lt.-Gen.’ Hari Singh of the Khalistan Commando Force, one of several extremist Sikh groups fighting for a separate Khalistan nation in India’s northern Punjab State. The Rajhra incident on March 31 pushed the number of Sikh terrorist killings in Punjab to more than 600 in the year’s first quarter, making it the bloodiest three months since the Sikh militant campaign erupted in 1984.

The rise in extremist violence came in the wake of new carrot-and-stick measures implemented by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to tackle Punjab’s separatist conflict. On March 4, New Delhi dangled the carrot before the militants by releasing four imprisoned Sikh high priests, including Jasbir Singh Rode, nephew of slain Sikh extremist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Also set free were 40 Sikhs who had been held on sedition charges since the Indian Army’s 1984 storming of the Golden Temple, Sikhdom’s holiest shrine. Bhindranwale died in that assault.

A few days later, Gandhi, 43, produced the stick: a constitutional amendment that would give New Delhi emergency powers in Punjab, to impose if it so wished. The bill had a stormy passage through Parliament and was reluctantly ratified by President Ramaswamy Venkataraman on March 30. Despite Gandhi’s assurances that the emergency powers would not be misused, the 77 year-old president expressed deep misgivings about the controversial clause. In an unprecedented action, he issued a press statement that he had given his assent to the bill because the Indian Constitution ‘does not give any discretion to the president in a matter relating to the amendment of the Constitution.’

The next day, as if on cue, the terrorists struck in Rajhra and other parts of Punjab. On April 2, Gandhi called an emergency meeting with Home Minister Buta Singh, a Sikh, and other top aides to discuss the fresh wave of extremist violence. Then New Delhi announced a new counter-terrorist strategy: the erection of a barbed wire fence along Punjab’s 553-km border with neighbouring Pakistan, a security move that would be complemented by stepped-up patrolling of the area. To bolster Punjab’s 80,000-strong security forces, another 10,000-paramilitary troops were to be deployed in the state, mainly to guard banks and vital installations. By the government’s reckoning, increased border surveillance would help curb smuggling of arms into Punjab from Pakistan, whom India accuses of aiding the militants. Islamabad vigorously denies the charge.

Gandhi’s critics put the blame for Punjab’s deteriorating situation squarely on his shoulders. They question the wisdom of releasing the militant high priests from prison while dozens of innocent Sikhs still languish in jail. The move, they say, gave legitimacy to extremist elements and demoralised the state police and administration. Punjab watchers say many moderate Sikhs are also wondering why the government opted to deal with Rode at the expense of Sikh political parties such as the Akali Dal (Longowal) led by Surjit Singh Barnala. The party was in power in Punjab until last May when New Delhi dismissed the Barnala government and brought the state under direct President’s rule on the grounds, ironically, that it had failed to curb terrorism. The state government was formally dissolved five weeks ago.

That move has cleared the path for fresh state elections. Although no date has yet been announced, many believe Gandhi’s latest measures in Punjab, particularly the constitutional amendment, are aimed at enhancing the electoral chances of the ruling Congress (I) party. As oppositionist L.K. Advani, president of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party puts it: ‘I don’t believe the government has a policy on Punjab. If an emergency is imposed it would be a pre-election gambit.’ Marxist leader Harkishen Singh Surjeet concurs. ‘The government has messed up the situation [in Punjab] totally by its suicidal line of surrender to extremists,’ he says. ‘What we see now is a vicarious attempt to impose emergency on the country. Then, law & order will be handed to the military. The [general] elections may follow after that.’

Indeed, some fear that the government may use emergency rule to postpone elections not only in Punjab but in the rest of the country as well. Although national parliamentary elections are not due until 1990, emergency regulations can be extended for a period of up to two years. After that, some observers reckon, the Congress (I) government can re-introduce a bill in Parliament to renew the special powers for another two years. Only a simple majority is required to pass the necessary legislation in Parliament and Congress (I) holds two-thirds of the seats in the Lower House.

Those who subscribe to this theory say Gandhi may be reluctant to face the electorate at the moment because his personal image has been badly battered. At present, there are fifteen parliamentary by-elections due across the country, either because of resignations or deaths of members. Among them: a key constituency in the historic city of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh State, a traditional Congress (I) stronghold.

The battle for Allahabad is set to be a tense showdown between Gandhi’s government and opposition, which is hoping to field former cabinet minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh, the PM’s archrival. A win for Singh might spark a chorus of demands for Gandhi’s resignation. ‘Singh has touched chords in the public mind at the grass roots level,’ says political commentator Rajni Kothari. ‘This is why Rajiv is panicking. He knows his own popularity is on the wane.’ But former foreign secretary Romesh Bhandari, who is now convenor of the Congress (I)’s foreign affairs cell, told Asiaweek’s Ravi Velloor that ‘there is no erosion of [Gandhi’s] image as far as the people are concerned…The current political situation is being dealt with as best can be done. Anybody else would have been totally at sea.’

A defeat in Allahabad would only add to the pressures mounting on Gandhi. Besides the chaos in Punjab, he faces separatist campaigns in the country’s northeast as well. Negotiations with Gurkha militants demanding an independent Gurkhaland state have faltered. Recently there has also been a spurt in killings in Tripura State by the Tribal National Volunteers, an outlawed separatist group.

Closer to the capital, the premier was confronted by a prolonged anti-government agitation launched in January by poor and middle-income kisans (farmers), the Congress (I)’s traditional vote bank. Banding together under the year-old Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) led by Mahendra Singh Tikait, a charismatic farmer from Sisauli village in Uttar Pradesh, several thousand kisans converged on bustling Meerut, 64 km from New Delhi. For four long weeks, they laid siege to the city, living in makeshift camps, their numbers swelling each day. Their demand was simple: a better deal for the Indian farmer. Although the Meerut siege ended without any major concessions for the BKU, the disciplined but spontaneous unity of the kisans forced New Delhi to sit up and take notice.

Around the same time as the farmers’ agitation, local lawyers launched a nationwide wildcat strike, forcing the Supreme Court to shut its gates for two days. The trouble stemmed from a month-old incident near Tis Hazari, the capital’s lower courts, when local police lathi-charged a small group of slogan-shouting lawyers. The angry lawyers demanded the authorities take action against the police officer responsible. The situation finally blew up after pro-government goons clashed with the agitating lawyers outside Tis Hazari on Feb.17. In the ensuing melee, the stone-throwing mob manhandled lawyers and shattered the windscreens of several cars parked nearby. In an unprecedented protest a few days later, lawyers at the Supreme Court stayed away from work.

Luckily for Gandhi, the opposition has not been able to capitalise fully on his troubles. Response to a Bharat bandh (nationwide strike) called March 15 by leftist and centrist political parties was lukewarm, although the initiators claimed otherwise. There have been efforts, spearheaded by the anti-government Janata Party, to unite various opposition groupings such as the Congress (S), Lok Dal (B) and V.P. Singh’s Jan Morcha. The Janata Party, which rode to power in 1977 on an anti-Congress (I) wave, has already absorbed the rural-based Lok Dal (A). By and large, however, the unity moves have been unproductive and do not seem to be worrying the PM. Said Gandhi recently of his political rivals: ‘The same warriors have reappeared, some new faces have been recruited. But their ideology, motivation and commitment to reactionary ends have not changed.’

Even some senior oppositionists doubt whether their diverse groupings will be able to meld effectively. Janata Party leader George Fernandes, for instance, thinks workable unity is not immediately possible because the opposition parties still differ on two many key issues. Because of that, he says they have been unable to successfully challenge Gandhi and the Congress (I). ‘The opposition today,’ declares the fiery oppositionist, ‘are like animals who are stunned in the slaughterhouse moments before being killed.’

*****

News Snippets

[Anonymous; Asiaweek, Apr. 22, 1988, p. 67]

ARRESTED: Ajith Kumara, 25, Sri Lankan wanted in connection with a grenade attack on government MPs in Parliament last August; during a routine police check in Naula village, 140 km northeast of Colombo, April 8. Kumara, a sweeper employed in the parliamentary complex, carried a $33,000 bounty for his capture. He disappeared from Colombo with his family after the blast, which killed a district minister and a parliamentary staffer and seriously injured six senior ministers. Picked up in a raid against illegal liquor, he finally revealed his identity and admitted to having thrown grenades, police said. However, he did not disclose who his individual backers were or how the weapons were smuggled in. Police said the outlawed Sinhalese-extremist group Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, which has claimed responsibility for the attack, arranged the hideout in the central Matale hill district, and gave Kumara land and money.

APPEALING: Vijayamuni Vijitha Rohana, 24, Sri Lankan naval rating who attacked Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi from a guard of honour last July; against his six-year term of rigorous imprisonment; in a writ filed in a Colombo court April 6. The sailor was acquitted of attempted murder but found guilty of culpable homicide by a military tribunal last November. However, he claims he hit Gandhi with his rifle butt only to disgrace him, and says a civilian court should have tried him. He also insists the prosecution erred in relying on the evidence of others to prove the charges, instead of having Gandhi appear.

UNDER INVESTGATION: Arun Nehru, 43, former Indian minister of state for internal security and once a confidante of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi; for alleged corruption in a government arms deal; by the Central Bureau of Investigation, which filed a report with a special judge on March 10. The CBI hopes to find out whether Nehru misused his office in 1986 when he ordered 55,000 pistols from Czechoslovakia for police and paramilitary forces. Many of the weapons in the $15 million consignment later turned out to be defective. Nehru, who has made similar charges against Gandhi’s administration, claims the inquiry is politically motivated. A cousin of the PM, he was expelled from the ruling Congress (I) party last year after he clashed with Gandhi on political issues. He is now a leading member of the opposition Jan Morcha (People’s Front) headed by former defence minister V.P. Singh, who resigned after starting an investigation into another arms deal involving people close to the PM.

*****

Get a Move On, Soldier

[India Correspondent; Economist, Apr. 23, 1988, pp.35-36.]

 Time is not on the side of India’s soldiers in Sri Lanka. As they hunt the island’s Tamil rebels, discontent is growing among the 55m Tamils who live in the southernmost state of India itself, Tamil Nadu. This is not just another of India’s frequent little local difficulties. The Indian government would not happily have gone ahead with its Sri Lankan intervention last year without the strong backing it then got from Tamil Nadu. That support is weakening.

The reaction in the state has taken the form of a campaign to ‘save Velupillai Prabhakaran’, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, whom India’s soldiers in Sri Lanka are trying to kill or capture. Its real cause, however, is the power struggle that has been going on in Tamil Nadu since the death in January of the state’s chief minister, M.G. Ramachandran, who first made his name as a film star. [Note by Sachi: A factual slip in this sentence to be noted is that MGR died not in January 1988, but in December 1987.]

MGR, as everyone knew him, had backed Mr Rajiv Gandhi’s policy on Sri Lanka to the hilt. He urged Sri Lanka’s militant Tamil groups to accept the peace agreement  signed on July 29th last year, under which the island’s Tamils were supposed to drop their demand for independence in return for regional autonomy under a federal constitution. When Ramachandran died, his party split. While 97 of its 131 members in the state legislature rallied behind his widow, Mrs Janaki Ramachandran, the other 34 supported his mistress, another film star called Jayalalitha, who had been the party’s chief crowd-puller.

The Janaki Ramachandran faction could not muster a majority in the legislature. The Congress Party, which, although dominant in India’s central parliament, has long been in opposition in Tamil Nadu, began to press the Janaki faction to give it a share in the state government as the price for its support. When this was rejected, Mr Gandhi dissolved the Tamil Nadu legislature as a prelude to a state election.

The prime minister’s advisers had hoped that the quarrel within the state’s ruling party would make voters swing to Congress. The opposite seems to be happening. The central government’s high-handed action in dissolving the legislature has inflamed Tamil sentiment. This is mainly helping another Tamil-based party, whose leader opposed the Sri Lanka accord.

The fuse of Tamil feeling has been reignited. The most disturbing development is the emergence of the Tamil Arasam, a violent movement demanding independence for Tamils – not in Sri Lanka, but in Tamil Nadu. The Tamil Arasam has links with the Tamil Tigers. It has blown up television towers and tried to blow up a statue in Madras of Jawaharlal Nehru, which Rajiv, his grandson, had unveiled in January. It is a tiny group, but it is disturbing at a time when the central government already has its hands full trying to bring Sikh terrorism in Punjab under control.

For Mr Prabhakaran’s guerrillas in Sri Lanka, these developments hold out the possibility of a reprieve. The Indians are stepping up the pressure on the Tigers. Between April 7th and 15th they killed 55 guerrillas. In a single action on April 10th they captured 377 suspected militants, of whom 25 turned out to be Tigers. The Tigers’ arm supplies are running low. Around April 10th three of their leaders contacted the Indian command to seek surrender terms. The Indian government’s aim is to complete its task in Sri Lanka quickly, and withdraw. The troubles in Tamil Nadu must have raised Mr Prabhakaran’s hopes of holding on.

*****

Your Slip is Showing

[Manik de Silva; Far Eastern Economic Review, May 26, 1988, pp. 41-43.]

In a dramatic move that caught even many of his cabinet colleagues by surprise, National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali announced on 10 May that the Sri Lankan Government had struck a deal with the outlawed Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front – JVP) to end its subversive violence. The activities of the JVP, which is comprised of pro-Sinhalese Marxists, have cost hundreds of lives in southern Sri Lanka since the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka peace accord in July 1987.

The government’s ban on the JVP – in force since Sinhalese-Tamil communal rioting in July 1983 – had been lifted, Athulathmudali told a crowded Colombo news conference where copies of President Junius Jayewardene’s gazetted order lifting the ban were distributed. The minister said that in return, the JVP had agreed to surrender its arms by 29 May and return to the democratic mainstream.

Athulathmudali seemed to have pulled off a coup which would considerabl strengthen his hand in obtaining the ruling United National Party’s (UNP) presidential ticket should Jayewardene not seek a third term – a possibility the president is considering.

The articulate, high-profile minister gave details of how the secret agreement had been reached after a month of intensive negotiation involving himself, a mystery man calling himself Krishna Chandrasiri Senanayake, who claimed authority to negotiate for the JVP, and Fr Tissa Balasuriya, a Roman Catholic priest and human rights activist. Balasuriya had long been advocating a negotiated peace between the government and the Tamil separatists of the north and the JVP.

Senanayake, whose real name is Sugathadasa Chandrasiri, is a Colombo University dropout who did not claim any place in the JVP hierarchy. But he was clearly familiar with the style and substance of the outlawed group, as well as with its inner workings. He made contact with Balasuriya and was persuaded by the priest that the government and the JVP should negotiate. The priest told Athulathmudali that the JVP was prepared to talk and put the minister in touch with Senanayake. Athulathmudali, with Jayewardene’s approval, first met Senanayake on 18 April at the Centre for Society and Religion, an organisation Balasuriya runs from the Fatima Church in Colombo.

There Athulathmudali told Senanayake that he wanted a letter from the JVP leadership authorising Senanayake to negotiate. Senanayake agreed and later produced a document apparently signed by JVP general secretary Upatissa Gamanayake. The National Intelligence Bureau found the signature to be similar to those in their files, though a government examiner was wary.

Athulathmudali, who announced over national radio that he had held 21 meetings with Senanayake before the purported agreement was reached, said that on 9 May Senanayake tuned up with an agreement bearing the signature of JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera and Gamanayake. Athulathmudali insists that Senanayake said he was physically present when the document was signed by the JVP leaders, but Senanayake said later that all his dealings with the JVP were through an intermediary named ‘Rohan’ and that he had not witnessed the signing.

The country was buzzing with news of the agreement when the first doubts about its authenticity began to surface. Senanayake’s background was questionable to say the least. He had been susended from university for alleged cheating and had once appeared before a Colombo magistrate on charges of forgery. It was also learned that Senanayake had previously sought contact with the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its leader in parliament, Anura Bandaranaike, by falsely claiming a relationship to Maitripala Senanayake, a senior SLFP member who was often acting head of the Sri Lankan Government during the prime ministership of Anura’s mother, Sirima Bandaranaike.

Word of Senanayake’s questionable character got to Jayewardene, and the president was told that the government may have been taken for a ride. Jayewardene was said to have replied cryptically that it would be ‘a very short ride,’ indicating his willingness to reimpose the JVP ban if the whole business turned out to be a hoax. But in the event, Jayewardene saw advantage in allowing his earlier, ill-founded decision to stand, putting the ball in the JVP’s court.

A senior ministerial source told the REVIEW: “The JVP, the opposition and even an influential section of the government has long been demanding that the proscription be lifted and the JVP allowed back into the democratic mainstrean. We said ‘yes, but first the violence must stop.’ They said the proscription must be lifted first. For whatever reason, the proscription has been lifted and now the JVP must demonstrate its own bona fides.”

Meanwhile, Wijeweera denied in a letter to the media that anyone had been authorised to negotiate on behalf of the JVP, and Gamanayake, in a six-page statement, insisted that the JVP would not have bartered its principles away in return for a lifting of the ban. Sri Lankan authorities arrested Senanayake, but intensive grilling failed to shake his story that he had acted in good faith, though through an intermediary, who has not been found. The government believes the hoax could not have been Senanayake’s individual effort. One minister has suggested that the whole schme was designed by the JVP to get the ban lifted without the group having to give up its arms.

While the government’s decision to lift the ban stands, it continues its cordon and search operations against the JVP. The JVP’s campaign of violence continues unabated – at present against the UNP and United Socialist Alliance candidates, who are running for seats in the southern provincial council. Elections are scheduled in June.

*****

Clash At the Shrine [and] A Sri Lanka Hoax

[Susan Tifft; Time, May 23, 1988, pp.20-21]

It has been almost four years since the Indian army drove Sikh separatists from the Golden Temple of Amritsar in Punjab. More than 600 people died in the bitter confrontation, and five months later the assault led to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of vengeful Sikh security men. Last week gunfire crackled around Sikhdom’s holiest shrine as paramilitary forces besieged scores of defiant rebels who had spent many weeks transforming the Golden Temple into a fortress once again. By week’s end the intermittent exchanges of gunfire had killed more than 30 and injured many more. The situation teetered on the edge of another bloody upheaval.

Even without further carnage, the standoff revived pessimism about the future of the troubled northwestern state of Punjab, where Sikh extremists have been demanding the creation of an independent homeland called Khalistan since the early 1980s. The Amritsar clashes also signaled the failure of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s carrot-and-stick policies aimed at curtailing the seemingly unstoppable terrorism in Punjab. An estimated 4,500 people have been killed since the separatists’ struggle began. So far this year more than 900 have perished as a result of the violence, almost as many as during all of 1987.

Gandhi embarked upon his zigzag course a year ago, when, after fruitless efforts at negotiation, he decided on a get-tough approach in Punjab. He dismissed the moderate but weak state government and imposed President’s Rule, which left near total power in the hands of security forces and a New Delhi-appointed governor. When the bloodshed increased, the Prime Minister swerved again. Last March, in a conciliatory move that Home Minister Buta Singh characterized as a ‘calculated risk’, Gandhi released five Sikh high priests and 40 other militants from a Jodhpur jail. His hope was that one of the priests, Jasbir Singh Rode, a nephew of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the rebel leader who died in the 1984 Golden Temple assault, would use his radical credentials to help rein in the extremists and eventually open negotiations with New Delhi.

So far, that has proved a vain hope. In the past two months the death toll has mounted even as New Delhi directed its security forces in Punjab to refrain from drastic countermeasures. On April 29, Sikh extremists killed 32 people, 17 in Amritsar district alone; four days later, 18 more perished in separatist violence. The terrorists not only continued their hit-and-run attacks but consolidated their control of the Golden Temple, a twleve-acre complex where some of the extremists live. Increasingly, Sinkh youths were seen walking the temple grounds with Chinese-made AK-47 rifles. Other rebels were busy on rooftops and in towers, piling up sandbags or laying bricks to provide cover. Policemen complained bitterly about the government’s soft stance.

Whatever it was – an exercise in appeasement or an effort at conciliation – New Delhi’s policy was forced to an abrupt end early last week. The breaking point arrived when police approached separatists building fortifications near the shrine’s outer rim and asked them to stop. The Sikhs withdrew inside the temple and then fired on the police. A deputy inspector general was wounded. In the ensuing seven-hour gun battle, five Sikhs were killed and five injured. Some 800 worshippers and half a dozen journalists and photographers were trapped inside the temple during the clash but were eventually evacuated. That left the temple occupied by an estimated 70 hard-core militants.

By midweek hundreds of troops, including members of India’s elite national security guard, the Black Cats, had been dispatched to Amritsar, where a heavy paramilitary force was already in place. The men took up positions behind rooftop sandbags and inside nearby buildings, shooting whenever they spotted anyone inside the shrine complex. So fearful were the militants of drawing fire that they left the bodies of eight worshipers and fellow rebels where they had fallen early in the fray. Some of the corpses lying on the marble parikrama, or walkway, of the shrine’s courtyard began to decay in the pre-monsoon heat.

On Thursday evening the Black Cats seized a water tank located atop a hostel in the temple complex. The position offered a clear field of fire into the heart of the shrine, which suggested that security forces were positioning themselves for an all-out assault. But although Gandhi was under increasing pressure to order troops to storm the temple, authorities in Punjab and New Delhi were clearly skittish about initiating a repeat performance of the politically costly 1984 siege. ‘We want to avoid bloodshed,’ said J.F. Ribeiro, the senior security adviser to Punjab Governor S.S. Ray. As important, officials feared that any attack on the 400 year-old shrine would boost the separatists’ cause, which still does not enjoy widespread support in Punjab.

New Delhi’s strategy appeared to be one of firm but measured control. With each move, government troops sought to tighten the noose around the militants while refraining so far from a more provocative all-out assault on the Golden Temple. Using a loudspeaker, authorities late in the week implored the embattled separatists to send out some 20 women and children still inside the complex. The pleas were answered with a shower of bullets, another indication that the Sikhs had no intention of giving up. Soon afterward, paramilitary forces tightened their siege by taking two key buildings in the shrine itself – a community kitchen and a conference hall. They later succeeded in seizing other buildings in the temple complex. The move put troops within a few hundred feet of where many of the extremists were based.

Starving the militants out was not considered a viable option because the temple has extensive food supplies. In any case, the longer the siege, the greater the likelihood that the temple would become a magnet for even moderate Sikh leaders, who would feel compelled to prove their political allegiance by marching to Amritsar and courting arrest.

Rode did precisely that. After hurrying back to Amritsar from Patiala following the initial temple clash, Rode, 33, closeted himself with senior police and civilian officials but refused to agree to persuade the rebels to lay down their arms. Instead, accompanied by three other priests and 26 followers, he set out for the shrine and was arrested less than a mile from the Golden Temple.

Regardless of the outcome at the Golden Temple, the long-term prospects for a settlement in Punjab have rarely looked more grim. Only a day before the initial incident in Amritsar, militant Sikhs fired on a Hindu wedding reception in the neighboring state of Haryana, killing 14 and injuring more than a score of others. The specter of terrorist violence spilling over Punjab’s borders and infecting other areas of the country brought calls for Gandhi’s resignation from some opposition Members of Parliament.

Government officials are worried that the Sikh had-liners, using terrorism as a tool, might eventually succeed in transforming their minority movement into a full-blown separatist uprising in Punjab. In some border areas of the state, which has a 60% Sikh majority, the terrorists have already forced Hindus to flee towns and villages. More troubling is the fact that in many pockets of Punjab, extremists, not the local authorities, effectively control the courts and police stations.

At Amritsar, the separatists, in their view, have constructed a seemingly unbreachable strategy. If the government backs down, they win. If they die in a fight for the Golden Temple, their cause will be strengthened. The militants may be surrounded, but they have the government where they want it. [reported by Ross H.Munro/ New Delhi]

A Sri Lanka Hoax [box-story]

For a country badly in need of some good news, National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali had an astonishing announcement last week. An agreement had been signed that very morning, he told a press conference in Colombo, under which the leaders of the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna, an outlawed Sinhalese political organization, had promised to end their terrorist campaign against the government. In return, said the minister, orders had been issued to rescind the government’s five year-old ban against the JVP.

The group is enraged that President Junius Jayewardene, 81, signed an agreement with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi last year in an effort to reach an accomodation with Sri Lanka’s Tamil insurgents and thereby end a vicious civil war. The JVP maintains that Sri Lanka’s 12 million Sinhalese should not have to bend to the wishes of their 2 million Tamil countrymen. Accordingly, the JVP has been waging a murderous crusade against Sinhalese officials who support the accord with New Delhi. In the past ten months, the JVP has killed at least 90 people, including the chairman of the ruling United National Party, and last August came close to assassinating Jayewardene during a daring attack inside Parliament.

Now, declared Athulathmudali at the press conference, the worst was over, thanks to the accord signed by the JVP’s leader Rohana Wijeweera, and his deputy, Upathissa Gamanayake. The minister introduced two men who were sitting beside him: Krishna Senanayake, 24, whom he described as a JVP member who took part in the negotiations, and a Roman Catholic priest who witnessed the signing.

It sounded too good to be true, and sure enough, it was. Next day police announced that Senanayake was wanted on three counts of forgery and other offenses. Associates at the University of Colombo, where he had been suspended for cheating on exams, described him as a ‘psychological case.’ Hours later a letter arrived at Colombo newspaper offices from JVP leader Wijeweera denying that there had been negotiations, let alone an agreement. Both Senanayake and the priest protested that they must have been victims of a hoax.

The disclosures were a political setback for Athulathmudali, who hopes to run for President later this year if Jayewardene does not attempt to amend the constitution to make himself eligible to seek a third six-year term. On the morning after the press conference, in fact, posters praising Athulathmudali as the ‘nation’s savior’ appeared on walls and billboards throughout Colombo.

The government did not immediately reimpose its ban on the JVP hoping that some kind of negotiation might still be possible. Judging by the tone of Wijeweera’s letter, however, that seemed unlikely. Calling the Jayewardene government ‘illegal,’ a ‘gang of ‘rogues’ and a ‘treacherous den of thieves’, the JVP leader insisted that his group had never negotiated with the authorities and never would.

*****

Red Faces in Colombo

[Anonymous; Asiaweek, May 27, 1988, p.20.]

On May 10, local and foreign journalists crowded into the briefing room at the Ministry of Defence in Colombo. Most had an inkling why an emergency press conference had been called by National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali. For several days, the city had been abuzz with talk that the government had worked out a deal with the outlawed Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), an extremist Sinhalese group bitterly opposed to the India-Sri Lanka peace accord signed last July. After the reporters had settled down, Athulathmudali walked into the room accompanied by an emaciated youth, a Roman Catholic priest and Defence Secretary Sepala Atiygalle. The young man was introduced as Chandrasiri Senanayake, an attorney and JVP member, and the priest as Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, a well-known human rights activist. The Security Minister soon got to the point. The ban on the JVP was to be lifted without any preconditions that very day, he announced, in return for the group surrendering its arms on May 30.

Athulathmudali said the agreement had been negotiated over a period of three weeks with Fr. Balasuriya acting as mediator and Senanayake representing Upatissa Gamanayake, head of the JVP’s military arm, the Deshapriya Janatha Viyaparaya. ‘Mr. Senanayake got the final approval of Mr. Gamanayake and [JVP leader] Mr. Rohana Wijeweera this morning,’ said the minister. ‘At 6.15am we set out signatures to the final draft. Mr. Wijeweera and Mr. Gamanayake had signed earlier in the presence of Mr. Senanayake.’

The government had reason to be ebullient. In recent months, the JVP has been waging a terrorist war in Sri Lanka’s south and west to protest the peace accord, which it sees as a sellout to the Tamil minority. But the euphoria was shortlived. Even before the reporters had sat down to write their stories, denials began pouring in from their JVP contacts. The next day, copies of a typewritten letter signed by JVP chief Wijeweera, were delivered by hand to leading politicians and newspaper & magazine correspondents. The letter, which carried the JVP seal, claimed that the party had not entered into any pact with Colombo and had nobody by the name of Chandrasiri Senanayake in its ranks. Wijeweera’s denial was quickly followed by one from Gamanayake.

Senanayake, meanwhile, did a complete about-face. At a press conference held in an empty Colombo house, he claimed that he had not dealt directly with either Wijeweera or Gamanayake. He said his contact had been a man named Rohan, who mediated between him and the two JVP leaders. Security Minister Athulathmudali had prevented him from disclosing that fact at the May 10 briefing, he added. By this time, government investigators and reporters were digging into Senanayake’s background. What surfaced was unsavoury: in the past he had been charged with cheating in law examinations, forging documents and keeping stolen goods. He was, moreover, not an attorney.

How did the government get duped into believing the JVP signatures were authentic? A government examiner was to have verified them before the document was made public, but the official had wanted more time. Instead of waiting, Athulathmudali decided to do a little investigating on his own. He showed the letter to Wijeweera’s brother-in-law, Dr. Chandra Fernando, who was then in police custody. Fernando is reported to have said that the signature on the paper ‘looks like Rohana’s’. The minister was not fully satisfied, however, and asked President Junius Jayewardene whether it would not be prudent to wait for the official verdict. According to sources close to the presidential secretariat, Jayewardene had insisted the announcement be made immediately as he was lifting the ban on the JVP on May 10.

While it is unclear who perpetuated the scam, Athulathmudali is convinced he has been tricked by the JVP. But he maintains the government will abide by the agreement and not reimpose a ban on the party. With that move, he has put the ball squarely in the JVP court, say political commentators, and has given it a chance to respond ‘dramatically’. Nonetheless, some Sri Lankans plainly blame Athulathmudali for the hoax. Last week, posters carrying his photograph was plastered on Colombo walls. ‘King Liar’, they read. The minister remains unflappable, however. ‘Some have suggested this is a conspiracy to discredit me,’ he said. ‘For me it is a chance for peace. The only political question is whether it will bring peace and democracy. If it does not, there will be no winners or losers.’

Continued...Part VIII

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