Indians rule the roost
by K T Rajasingham, ‘Asian Times,’ Singapore, 2002
The Tamils of Sri Lanka, for the first time, experienced the full might of the Indian Army. Indians, who for many years had played the role of saviors, suddenly turned their guns against the very Tamils they had come to protect.
After the mass suicide of Pulendran, Kumarappa and others, while in the custody of the Sri Lankan forces on October 3, 1987, the Tigers went on the offensive. It was alleged that the Tigers attacked Sinhala villages in the Trincomalee district. Sri Lanka alleged that the Indian army aided and abetted the Tigers in these attacks. According to the National Intelligence Bureau, which was reported to have intercepted radio messages from an Indian army major by the name of Muttiah, he gave instructions to the LTTE on how to marshal their fighting units.
Thousands of Sinhalese peasants and ordinary civilians streamed into Matale and neighboring areas, after apparently being attacked by the LTTE, with the connivance of the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF).
On October 4, J R Jayewardene announced that he would be compelled to order the withdrawal of the IPKF from Trincomalee, if law and order were not restored immediately, and to call in the Sri Lankan Army to keep order. Immediately, the Madrasi regiment, which controlled Trincomalee, was ordered out of Trincomalee.
On October 8, Indian Defense Minister K C Pant, Indian Army Commander Krishnaswamy Sunderji and the Indian High Commissioner, J N Dixit, met President Jayewardene in Colombo. Also present were the Defense Secretary General Sepala Attyagalle, JOC Commander Cyril Ranatunga, Ravi Jayewardene, the Security Advisor to the president and others.
Ravi Jayewardene openly criticized the IPKF, stating, “The Indian Army is responsible for the massacre of the Sinhalese villagers in Trincomalee.” Sunderji retorted, “You shouldn’t be saying such things, you don’t know the facts.”
Ravi Jayewardene- the only son of President J R Jayewardene, was the very person who had armed and trained Sinhalese peasants in Weli Oya (Manal Aru) to fight the Tamils and to chase them from Trincomalee. Therefore, Ravi Jayewardene was very agitated to see Sinhalese criminal elements, who had been sent in to colonize the Tamil areas, being chased out of Trincomalee by the IPKF.
Subsequently, J R Jayewardene and Pant declared that the LTTE would no longer be accommodated. Pant announced, “The government of India has taken the decision to act firmly against all violent elements, which are obstructing the implementation of the Indo-Sri Lankan Agreement.”
A joint order was issued on October 7 to Indian and Sri Lankan forces to shoot on sight any person resorting to violence in the North and East. Earlier, India issued a statement in the Indian parliament, “The government of India strongly condemns these wanton acts of killing of innocent men, women and children. We are determined to implement the provisions of the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement and will use all the force at our command, to preserve peace and communal harmony.”
This was followed by a statement by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the Lok Sabah: “In these circumstances, the IPKF were given instructions to apprehend anyone carrying arms or involved in the massacre of civilians.”
Prabakaran, the leader of the LTTE, meanwhile reacted by calling off the ceasefire they had earlier agreed to and on October 6 the LTTE ambushed an IPKF jeep, near the Kankesanthurai cement factory gate. Mahataya, the deputy leader of the LTTE, fired his rocket launcher at the jeep and all the five Indian armed personnel in the jeep were killed.
“The process of confrontation with the LTTE had begun. Prabakaran, who used to visit Major-General Harkirat Singh’s headquarters often, stopped interacting with the IPKF. The levels of angry demonstrations against the IPKF increased. The culmination of the process saw the LTTE killing five or six Indian soldiers while they were returning from Jaffna city to their base on October 6 or so. A critical situation was developing.” Assignment Colomboby J N Dixit, page 212
Again, when J N Dixit, writing about developments in his Assignment Colombo said, “I recall General Sunderji visiting me on October 7, at my residence in Colombo after he had ordered the launching of the operations. He emphasized to me that he had advised Rajiv Gandhi to take this action because it was unavoidable, both from the military and political points of view. I must confess that I was caught up too much under the pressure of developing events to indulge in any analysis with him on the implications of the military operations we had launched.
“The military conflict with the LTTE put the entire process of the merger of the North-Eastern provinces and the establishment of the Interim Administrative Council on hold for nearly an year. The most significant instructions which I received from Minister of State for External Affairs, Natwar Singh was that while this process may have gone off into a spin, I must continue to persuade the Sri Lankan government to finalize the devolution package and amend the Sri Lankan constitution suitably to implement the devolution of powers to complete the formalities for fulfilling the promises made to the Tamils under the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement. India got involved in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka in two dimensions. First, to bring an end to separatist Tamil terrorism, the second to generate political and diplomatic pressure on the Sri Lankan government to fulfill its commitment to its Tamil citizens as envisaged under the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement.” – pages 213-214
On October 8, the IPKF, knowing its limitations, announced a curfew. As the IPKF started a war against the LTTE, its objectives began to be questioned and it caused political reverberations in India. There were daily calls by Indians for the withdrawal of the IPKF to India.
According to Jayewardene’s biographers, it became apparent tha, when the Indo-Sri Lankan agreement was signed there existed a substantial hidden agenda. K M de Silva and Howard Wriggins, the biographers of Jayewardene, wrote in J R Jayewardene of Sri Lanka: A Political Biography Volume Two: From 1956 to His Retirement (1989), “In the meantime, urgent discussions between J R and Rajiv Gandhi brought into force part of the hidden agenda of the peace accord, that the Indian troops would eventually be used against the LTTE. The Indian Defense Minister, K C Pant, was dispatched to Colombo. With practically worldwide condemnation of the LTTE and severe criticism of India for its failure to maintain the peace, the Indian government at last decided to disarm the LTTE and destroy it as a political force.
“There was thus the ultimate irony: the Indian government which intervened to prevent the destruction of the LTTE, by the Sri Lankan Army earlier in the year, was now doing it on its own; the Indian government, which objected to the Sri Lankan army taking Jaffna city, was doing so itself, and in that process inflicting much heavier causalities and far greater hardships on the people of the Jaffna peninsula than anything done so far by the Sri Lankan security forces. The Indian government, which accused the Sri Lankan forces of violation of human rights in their confrontation with the Tamil separatist groups, now found itself facing similar charges and with even greater frequency.” – pages 654-655
The ground situation was that Indian forces were fighting the Tamils. There was much jubilation among the Sinhalese that the Indian army was fighting the Tamils. Some analysts were of the view that India’s pride was at stake when the LTTE defied the Indian Army, so it was said that the Indian Army was forced to enter into a campaign to subdue the LTTE, to teach it a lesson.
Earlier, Indian intelligence agencies had briefed Indian Army leaders that should the need arise the Indian Army would be able to forcefully disarm the LTTE in 72 hours. Accordingly, when the war exploded at midnight on October 9, the IPKF moved to mop up the LTTE leadership with an airborne commando raid on Prabakaran’s headquarters at Pirambady Lane, Kokkuvil, a short distance from Jaffna University. When 13th Sikh Light Infantry commandos tried to land on October 12, they were met with ferocious fire from the awaiting LTTE gunmen.
Operation Pawan (Wind), was launched to disarm the LTTE, one of the most ferocious military campaigns ever unleashed on Tamil civilians, in the Jaffna Peninsula. The firepower of the Indian Army killed and maimed hundreds of civilians in the early days of the campaign. Property was damaged and destroyed and thousands of civilians were displaced and sought refuge in temples, churches, schools and other government buildings.
According to “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1987”, “The signing of the peace agreement on July 29 was marked by riots in Colombo and the southern part of Sri Lanka by Sinhalese opposed to the accord, resulting in about 100 deaths. When the responsibility of maintaining the peace in the north and east shifted from the Sri Lankan security forces to the Indian troops, these troops intervened in an attempt to stop internecine fighting among the Tamil militant groups and Tamil militant killings of civilians in the Eastern province. In October, when it became apparent that the LTTE would neither accept the accord nor turn in its weapons, the IPKF mounted a two-week military offensive against the LTTE, seizing its stronghold at Jaffna town. There were allegations of indiscriminate shelling and strafing of some civilian areas during this offensive and Tamil militants were accused of using civilians as human shield. At least 100 Tamil militants, 200 Indian soldiers and 350 civilians in the east and north lost their lives in these actions. At the end of the year IPKF was continuing its attack against the suspected LTTE separatists in the north and east, and the Sri Lankan security forces were deployed in the south to defend against the attacks by the antigovernment Sinhalese radicals against government officials and supporters of the accord.” – page 1,306
A leading Indian Weekly, India Today, in its May 15, 1988, issue, stated that the Indian Army’s Operation Pawan was launched in Jaffna without adequate intelligence, with overconfidence and clear underestimation of the motivation and the resolve of the enemy. In its cover story on the retirement of the Indian Army’s Chief of Staff, General Krishnaswamy Sunderji, a Tamil from South India, the magazine quoted senior Indian Army officers as saying that “Sri Lanka was another case of Sunderji’s style of rushing into things too fast with an eye to impress the political leadership”. The report said that one of the major criticisms leveled against Sunderji was, that of his hawkish posture and that he allowing the army to be spread too thin, specially after Operation Pawan, which had tied down about 80,000 troops.
On October 25, the Indian Army took control of Jaffna following 16 days of pitched battles with the LTTE. The city had been the stronghold of the Tamil Tigers. The commander of the IPKF said, “We are now in control of the old city of Jaffna.” This is the true story of the Tamils, who fell into the Indian domain and the Indian Army began to control the day-to-day activities of the Tamils in the province.
Meanwhile, the third summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was to be held in Katmandu, Nepal, in November 1987. Rajiv Gandhi invited J R Jayewardene to visit on his way back from the conference. Accordingly, Jayewardene was in New Delhi on November 7 for over three hours of bilateral exchanges. Rajiv Gandhi brought to the notice of the Sri Lankan president that it had become very important in the context of the conflict with the LTTE to fulfill the promises made to the Tamil community.
Gandhi further emphasized that the only way in which the LTTE could be successfully isolated was by the Sri Lankan government’s implementation of the relevant provisions of the Indo-Sri Lankan agreement as expeditiously as possible. According to J N Dixit, “Rajiv Gandhi told Jayewardene that some additional provisions for devolution of financial and land management powers would have to be incorporated into the constitutional and amendments and laws being discussed by the Sri Lankan government to make the devolution package credible and really responsive to Tamil aspirations. Jayewardene’s response was that these additional provisions could be provided for at a later date because introducing further clauses into the amendment under preparation would only delay the entire constitutional exercise.” Assignment Colombo page 217
But Rohan Gunaratna, in his Indian Intervention in Sri Lanka, writes of a secret agreement between Rajiv Gandhi and J R Jayewardene on November 7: “On November 7, President Jayewardene and Prime Minister Gandhi signed another agreement in New Delhi. However, this document has been kept a secret up to now, and pertains mostly to matters concerning northern Sri Lanka.
“Size of the Provincial Councils; size of the Board of Ministers; governors’ discretionary powers; parliament’s powers to amend the devolution package; parliament’s powers to legislate on subjects on the provincial list; matters relating to interim provision of emergency provisions; imposition of the president’s rule on the grounds of failure of the governor to comply with the directives; provincial council list; problems with regard to land settlement; any other matters by mutual agreement. Signed: Rajiv Gandhi and J R Jayewardene, dated November 7, 1987.
“It was such secret agreements that prompted Dixit [while addressing the Foreign Correspondents Association in Colombo on December 2, 1988] to later say that ‘there were lots of other documents apart from the Indo-Lanka Accord signed by the two governments”.
But J N Dixit in his Assignment Colombo, first published in 1988, did not mention the arrangements between Rajiv Gandhi and Jayewardene as a secret agreement as claimed by Rohan Gunaratna. He writes that a memorandum of understanding was concluded between Rajiv Gandhi and Jayewardene. According to Dixit “Jayewardene, however, agreed after some persuasion by Rajiv Gandhi to consider additional legislation related to the Devolution of Powers to the Provincial Councils on the following subjects. One, problems related to Land and Land Settlement; matters related to the Interim Provincial Administration and its establishment; defining conditions which would govern the imposition of president’s rule in a province if the governor or the Board of Ministers violated the presidential directives falling within the residual central jurisdiction; the size of the Provincial Councils; the governors’ discretionary powers; the size of the Provincial Council of Ministers and parliament’s powers on future legislation on devolved powers. Jayewardene signed a memorandum of understanding on this subject with Rajiv Gandhi on November 7.” page 217
After Jayewardene’s arrival from India, he made arrangements to present to the Sri Lankan parliament the draft bill for the 13th amendment to the constitution as agreed with Rajiv Gandhi. Accordingly, parliament passed two bills on November 12, 1987. These were certified two days later. One was the 13th amendment to the constitution, which reaffirmed that the “official language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala” but added that” Tamil shall also be an official language” and that “English shall be the link language”. Thus it did not clearly say that Sinhala and Tamil were the official languages.
The 13th amendment also provided for the creation of Provincial Councils in all nine provinces of the island. Through this amendment the government came forward to decentralize and devolve its administrative powers. But the provision of limited autonomy was not extended to the Tamil provinces alone – rather to all nine provinces. Through this amendment, India was outfoxed by President Jayewardene.
And the Provincial Councils Act No 42 of 1987, which was certified on November 14, provided a temporary merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, a half-hearted measure without any prospect for a permanent solution to the issue considered the crux of the ethnic crisis – a homeland for Tamils.
When these measures were debated on the floor, the leader of the opposition, Anura Bandaranaike, argued that the autonomy measures included too many concessions to the Tamils. He noted that the proposal would give the Tamils, who made up 13 percent of the nation’s population, control over 30 pecent of the land and 60 percent of the coastline.
The Minister of Agriculture, Gamini Jayasuriya, a notorious Singhalese chauvinist, had resigned on November 11 in protest over the plan. He had said that he opposed the unification of the Northern and Eastern provinces to establish a Tamil homeland.
Sri Lankan government legislators received armed escorts to parliament on November 10 for the debate on the bills amid unrest and threats of violence. The People’s Liberation Front (JVP) had threatened to kill any MP who voted in favor of the autonomy plans.
As a side show, Congressman Stephen Solarz, the influential chairman of the Asia-Pacific subcommittee of the US House of Representatives, announced that he would be nominating Rajiv Gandhi and J R Jayewardene for the Nobel Peace Prize for their statesmanship in formulating and signing the peace accord.
In the meantime, J R Jayewardene was again invited to India as the guest of honor at Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi on January 26, 1988. After the official celebrations were over, he held talks with Rajiv Gandhi and decisions on additional troops and the Provincial Council polls were reportedly taken up. Also on the agenda, it was reported, was the early withdrawal of Indian forces from Sri Lanka.
The Provincial Councils Elections Act, No 2 of 1988, in connection with the holding of District Council elections, was certified on January 27, 1988. Under this, every administrative district in a province constituted an electoral area. Membership to a Provincial Council under this law was to be determined as follows:
a) One member for 40,000 residents in one administrative district of the said province, or;
b) One member for every 1,000 square kilometers of area in that administrative district.
Elections to the councils was to be held for the first time under the proportional representative system. Polls for the North-West, North-Central, Sabagaramuwa and the Uva provinces were held on July 28, 1988. The main opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party boycotted the elections, arguing that, firstly, parliamentary general elections should be held.
The ruling United National Party (UNP) faced a coalition of four opposition parties called the United Socialist Alliance, led by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, the widow of the slain popular Sinhalese leader Vijay Kumaratunge. The People’s Liberation Front (JVP) ordered people to boycott the elections. The UNP won convincingly in all the four Provincial Council elections. Elections for the Western and Central provinces were held on June 2. The pro-Sinhalese front JVP stated that the Indian-brokered peace accord gave too many concessions to the Tamils, who formed 18 percent of the country’s 16 million people. The ruling party won in these two elections. Polling for Central Province was held on June 9. JVP rebels delayed the results being announced by preventing the transportation of ballot boxes from seven polling stations to the counting center. However, the ruling UNP won handsomely. In the end, the ruling party won in all six Provincial Council elections.
In reality, the Sri Lankan government created Provincial Councils for the whole island to deprive Tamils from obtaining special administrative privileges. Under the same unitary constitution, an extension of the devolutionary process was created as an ostentatious privilege to pacify the Tamils.
J R Jayewardene signed a gazette notification on September 9, 1988, authorizing the temporary merger of the North and Eastern Provinces to create a North-Eastern Provincial Council, according to Clause 37.1 (a) and 2 of the Provincial Act, No 42 of 1987. The said clauses read as follows:
37. (1) (a) The president may by proclamation declare that that the provisions of this subsection shall apply to any two or three adjoining provinces specified in such proclamation (hereinafter referred to as “the specified provinces”), and thereupon such provinces shall form one administrative unit, having one elected Provincial Council, one governor, one chief minister and one Board of Ministers, for the period commencing from the date of the first election to such Provincial Council and ending on the date of the poll referred to in subsection (2) of this section, or if there is more than one date fixed for such poll, the last of such dates.
(2) (a) Where a proclamation is made under the provisions of subsection (1) (a), the president shall, by order published in the gazette, require a poll to be held in each of the specified provinces, the fixed date or dates, not later than 31st day of December, 1988, for such poll, to enable the electors of each such specified province to decide whether –
(i) Such province should remain linked with the other special province or provinces as one administrative unit, and continue to administered together with such province or provinces, or;
(ii) Such province should constitute a separate administrative unit, having its own distinct Provincial Council, with a separate governor, chief minister and Board of Ministers.
(b) The president may, from time to time, at his discretion, by subsequent orders published in the gazette, postpone the date or dates of such poll.
With regard to the North and East merger and the subsequent poll Clause 37 (3) Para 2 states as follows:
“Provided that if at such poll in the Eastern Province, the decision of the electors of such province is that such province should remain linked with the Northern Province, a poll shall not be required in the Northern Province, and accordingly such provinces shall form one administrative unit, having one elected Provincial Council, one governor, one chief minister and one Board of Ministers.”
Accordingly, a referendum became mandatory in the Eastern Province one year after the merger to determine whether people there wanted the union to continue. The Sinhalese resented the merger of the two provinces and considered it as a major concession to a group comprising 18 percent of the 16 million population. The Tamils were unhappy with the clause because it kept open the possibility of the merger being reversed. The Tamil militants wanted the referendum scrapped. The merger paved the way for the holding of elections for the merged North-East Provincial Council.
The Election Department announced that nominations for a 71-member North-East Provincial Council would be received from October 3 to 10, 1988. Following the announcement, the Commissioner of Elections, Chandrananda De Silva, announced that polling would be held on November 19.
India had deployed more than 60,000 troops in Tamil areas to crush the LTTE, the only Tamil militant group that rejected the Provincial Council elections. By that time, the LTTE had killed more than 600 Indian troops.
The merger of the two provinces was opposed by Ranasinghe Premadasa, the prime minister, as well as the presidential candidate of the ruling party in the forthcoming presidential elections. In the party’s annual conference held on October 9, 1988, he declared that he was against the merger. He also added that if he were elected president in the December poll, he would ask the 60,000 Indian troops to leave and allow the people in the East to decide whether they wished to continue the link with the North.
Tamil militancy was the logical answer to state-sponsored terror, the exercise of the theory of subjugation, practiced by the Sinhalese political leadership. The moderate Tamil political parties, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi and later the Tamil United Liberation Front, preached non-violence but in practice, willingly or unwillingly, they aided and abetted violence.
Gradually militancy permeated the political horizons of the Tamil areas. Thus it became the logical extension for the emergence of several militant organizations. Gradually the most powerful of them began to devour the smaller ones, which either faded out or changed their approaches. However, when the LTTE became the dominant Tamil militant force, all other groups placed their trust and confidence with India and the IPKF.
During the initial stages of the accord, the IPKF and Indian diplomats did everything to win over the Tigers. The Indians considered it necessary to bring the Tigers into mainstream politics.
Once negotiations with LTTE leaders in Madras failed, the Police Commissioner of the city arrested 154 members of the LTTE on August 7, 1988. The LTTE militants were remanded to jail without bail for 15 days on preliminary charges of criminal nuisance. The police in Tamil Nadu said, “We can’t allow them to carry on anti-national propaganda from Tamil Nadu.” On October 10, 1988, Krishnakumar, alias Kittu, the chief representative of the LTTE in India, warned that he and his followers would start an indefinite hunger strike in their cells if they were not released or brought to trail. By the middle of October, the Indian government released Kittu and the other 153 members of the LTTE and flew them to Jaffna.
Meanwhile, the politburo of the TULF unanimously resolved in Madras to abstain from the Provincial Council elections. Earlier, on June 23, 1988, when TULF president Murugesu Sivasithamparam and secretary general Appapillai Amirthalingham visited Colombo, after the signing of the peace accord, they declared that the TULF was prepared to play a secondary role in the interests of establishing unity among the various Tamil organizations. Amirthalingham also expressed his unhappiness over the devolution package worked out under Indo-Sri Lankan Accord. He indicated that the scheme had to be amended to satisfy the reasonable aspirations of Tamils.
As a reply to Amirthalingham’s statement, the Sri Lankan daily newspaper The Island in its editorial dated June 25, 1988, wrote, “Whatever the aspirations of the Tamil people according to Mr Amirthalingham are, he must realize that there could be no move made outside the scope of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement. The TULF leaders, we are certain, are well aware of how strongly the Indo-Lankan agreement is being resisted in certain quarters. Any attempt to ask for more would only result in jeopardizing the agreement itself. On the other hand, the TULF itself has the gun of the Tigers held at its head. How future developments would proceed is hard to predict but would possibly be dependent on how far the IPKF is able to defang the Tigers. The Indians could leave behind a toothless Tiger or leave it with some fangs so that the Tigers could be released from the cages for the Indians to achieve their desire for regional hegemony when required, as demonstrated by events in the past five years.
“While the ethnic pot is still on the boil and far from crystallizing, events since 1983 have resulted in the realization of one important fact: there is no possibility of the establishment of a state of Eelam – the goal of the TULF as well as other Tamil groups. The Tamils were successful in getting support of New Delhi to the point of intervention, but only to realize that all that Indian altruism was for its own geopolitical goals. The Indians have clearly shown that they do not want a separate Tamil state in Lanka to catalyze the formation of another Tamil state in India. That is well demonstrated in the commitment of its troops in the North and East.”
Indian officials insisted that the TULF should participate in the Provincial Council elections. The EPRLF leader Pathmanabha held meetings with Amirthalingham in Madras, urging him and his party to participate. The TULF leader insisted that the IPKF-LTTE war should stop first. So the LTTE was away from the negotiation table, and the TULF refused to participate. Subsequently, the Indian High Commission in Colombo started funding the EPRLF, ENDLF and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). These groups, patronized by India, made the necessary arrangements to file nominations for the 71-member North-East Provincial Council.
The EPRLF and the ENDLF entered into an electoral alliance and the two groups filed nominations in the Northern province comprising the districts of Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaithievu, Vavuniya and Mannar. The IPKF played a key role in the filing of the nominations in the Northern province. They vetted all those who came forward to file nominations. The undemocratic approach of the IPKF allowed all the 36 nominees of the EPRLF-ENDLF alliance to be declared uncontested winners.
In the East, even though the EPRLF entered into an electoral alliance with the UNP, mutual mistrust sidelined the electoral alliance. On November 19, out of 534,306 voters in the Eastern province, only 399,066 voters turned out. The SLMC won 17 of the 35 seats in the Eastern province, while the UNP won one, the EPRLF 12 and the ENDLF five. In the entire North and East, the EPRLF won 35 seats, the ENDLF 12, the UNP one and the SLMC 17 seats. The victorious EPRLF announced that Varatharaja Perumal would be the leader of its elected councilors. They also announced that the EPRLF would form a coalition Provincial Council administration with the ENDLF.
Varatharajah Perumal, from Jaffna, was a graduate and majored in economics. He was arrested as the first accused in a robbery of the Puloly Multipurpose Cooperative Society bank in 1975 and imprisoned. He survived the brutal Welikade prison massacre in July 1983. While in Batticalao prison he escaped in a September, 1983 jail break.
On December 10, 1988, Varatharajah Perumal assumed the Chief Ministership of the North-East Provincial Council. A five-member board of ministers (three Tamils including the Chief Minister, one Muslim and one Sinhalese) were also sworn in. The EPRLF provincial administration had its first taste of the Sri Lankan government’s foot-dragging when it proposed to have Trincomalee as the capital of the North-Eastern Province.
The government was intransigent. The EPRLF was determined to make Trincomalee the capital with the consent and support of the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo. They also had another battle on their hands – the devolution of powers to the Council. For this they had to wait until Ranasinghe Premadasa took over as president of Sri Lanka.
J R Jayewardene’s second term was due to end on February 3, 1989, and according to the country’s constitution presidential elections had to be held between December 4 and January 3. But the man who had governed Sri Lanka since July 1977 kept his opponents and other people guessing as to whether he would run for a third term as president. The Sri Lankan president, a political veteran, even challenged Rohana Wijeweera, the leader of the Sinhalese extremist group, the JVP, to a face-to-face duel. At an election rally at Colombo on May 23, 1988, he told the crowd, “Let us fight face-to-face and see who will die and who will win. Why kill innocent people?”
Jayewardene called on Wijeweera to meet him at Galle Face, a stretch of open land along Colombo’s seafront, and said he would go alone. “I will then invite him to Galle Face. Let him fix the date. I will come alone. I will come walking.” Such kind of rhetoric was common with him.
At last, on the eve of his 83rd birthday on September 17, 1988, Jayewardene announced that he did not want to run in the presidential elections due in December, because the constitution allowed only two terms.
Premadasa had earlier boycotted the official function when Rajiv Gandhi visited Sri Lanka the previous year,to finalize the Indo-Sri Lankan Peace Accord. Eventually, he voted for the pact in parliament.
The opposition’s candidate, Srimavo Bandaranaike, announced that she would renegotiate with New Delhi for amendments in the pact. Even though it was very difficult for Premadasa to openly oppose the terms of the accord, he said, “It shall be my endeavor to continue the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of our motherland,” shortly after receiving his party’s nomination.
The presidential election was fixed for December 19 and the general elections for parliament for February 15, 1989. Along with Premadasa and Srimavo Bandaranaike, Ossie Abeygoonasekara of the United Socialist Front contested the presidential election.
At this time, baffling reports emerged of a mercenary attack and the capture of the Maldives Islands, located south of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. The Republic of Maldives is a group of atolls about 417 miles southwest of Sri Lanka. Its 1,400 coral islets stretch over an area of 35,200 square miles. The Maldives was populated by Islamic seafaring people from North India. Originally, the islands were under the suzerainty of Sri Lanka. Maldives came under the British Protectorate in 1887 and was a dependency until 1948, of the then British colony of Ceylon. An independence agreement with Britain was signed on July 26, 1965, for the creation of a republic.
Ibrahin Nassir, the president since 1968, was removed from office in 1978 and replaced by his Minister of Transport Dr Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. A national referendum confirmed the new leader. Just before the mercenary attack, Abdul Gayoom had been elected as president for the third time and he was to be inaugurated on November 11, 1988.
Nassir moved to Singapore when Gayoom was elected in 1978. Relations between the two men deteriorated when Gayoom appointed a committee to investigate allegations that Nassir had embezzled state funds. Gayoom ordered some of Nassir’s property seized and his brothers tried for corruption.
In 1980, Nassir allegedly hired nine former members of Britain’s elite Special Air Service commando group and sent them to assassinate Gayoom. The assassination attempt was foiled when the plan was leaked to the news media in Sri Lanka.
Abdullah Luthfee, a Maldivian expatriate businessman and his collaborator, a fellow businessman Sagar Nassir (no relation to Ibrahim Nassir) organized the mercenary attack. Abdullah Luthfee, the owner of a chicken farm in the outskirt of Colombo, contacted a Tamil militant organization, alleged to be the PLOTE. About 150 of them were trained for the attack.
The Tamil mercenaries, along with Abdullah Lutfee and Sagar Nassir, left by ship for Male in the Maldives from Kalpitya, in the Puttalam District in western Sri Lanka. It baffled everyone that the mercenaries managed to get training in the suburbs of Colombo unnoticed to the Sri Lankan government’s security forces. In the early hours of November 4, the group mounted an armed insurrection against President Gayoom and his government.
The leaders of the coup almost succeeded in the capturing government buildings, including the Presidential Palace, but they failed to capture Gayoom. The coup leaders in their excitement failed to disconnect telephone lines linking with the rest of the world and Gayoom managed to contact New Delhi and Colombo and call for assistance.
The matter still remains a contentious issue and the government has yet to go into the whole episode to reveal those involved and those party to the mercenary invasion of the Maldives.
Subsequently, Rajiv Gandhi agreed to take military counter measures against the coup and an Indian commando battalion with supporting elements was airlifted to Male, but the ringleaders along with senior members of PLOTE escaped by ship. They took with them 27 hostages; seven of whom were said to be foreigners. Immediately, Indian Navy ships were deployed and on November 6 they captured the fleeing men and handed them over to Male for appropriate legal action. The Indian Navy found four of the hostages dead and three missing. Among the wounded was the Maldivian transport minister
A few points emerged:
1. The attackers were Tamil mercenaries. Maldivian officials confirmed that the government had “conclusive evidence that the mercenaries hired were Tamil guerillas”.
2. The mercenaries were hired by Abdullah Latufi.
3. The mercenaries left for Male by ship from Kalpitya in the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka.
4. The mercenaries received training and briefing on the chicken farm belonging to Abdullah Latufi, and Sri Lankan intelligence failed to uncover this.
5. The Sri Lankan Navy failed to accost the pirate ship within Sri Lankan waters.
6. Sri Lankan government officials immediately pinned the blame on the LTTE for staging the attack.
7. Immediately after the foiled attempt, Ibrahin Nassir, from Singapore, categorically denied his involvement by issuing a statement through his lawyers.
8. In April 1988, the Sunday Times reported that Sri Lankan President Jayewardene and Uma Maheswaran, the leader of People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam, met for the first time and discussed various issues for more than two hours. That was the first reported meeting with Jayewardene and a Tamil militant leader. Later, Tamil sources close to PLOTE confirmed such a meeting had taken place. The same sources revealed that Uma Maheswaran had sought political recognition from the president.
Later, Uma Maheswaran and the PLOTE enjoyed a greater amount of operational latitude in the city of Colombo, from the government. The PLOTE actually enjoyed the patronage of the Sri Lankan security forces.
On July 16, 1989, Uma Maheswaran was killed in Colombo and the ENDLF claimed responsibility. Even though the killing of Uma Maheswaran was seen as settling some old scores by the erstwhile cadres of PLOTE, the link between the murder of the PLOTE leader and the foiled coup attempt in Maldives cannot be separated. It was a calculated deliberate attempt to silence Uma Maheswaran, who had some important information that might compromise some personalities in the national security machinery of Sri Lanka. The situation of the foiled coup in the Maldives drew an analogy to the situation in Sri Lanka.
In March 1984, Premadasa, then prime minister, the Leader of the House and the presidential candidate for the ruling party, talked of the existence of training camps for Tamil militants in Tamil Nadu. He explained his position thus, “Do you think” he asked, “that we are on a campaign against the Union Government of India? No. We are not even carrying on a campaign against the Tamil Nadu government. Our complaint is that they have allowed our people to get there and prepare for terrorism and wage war against our country. That is our complaint.
“What would be the position of India if we allowed the Sikhs to come here and train themselves to fight the government of India ? We would have been blamed and we would never have allowed that. We will never allow anybody to use not only our soil or anything else to wage war or invade any other country in this world. That is our policy. We do not want any country to behave in that fashion. We want others to follow our example.” Premadasa of Sri Lanka: A Political Biography By Bradman Weerakoon, page 74
That was the declared policy of the government of Sri Lanka. Yet the soil of Sri Lanka was used to plan, plot and arrange for an attack on the Maldives. It is startling to note that the author of the declared policy, who took up reign as the president of the country, convincingly failed to go into all those aspects of the plot. Questions are still posed as to why the government tolerated a blatant deviation of its policy by not instituting any investigations when it became evident that Sri Lankan soil had been used to plan and plot the foiled coup The failure to investigate the attack on the Maldives raised reasonable doubts about the government’s stated policy. Was it a deliberate act to cover up anything? The international community awaits an answer.
Premadasa was a strong-willed person full of political ambition and determination. He hailed from the slums of Keselwatte with no formal education, yet he emerged as a skilful communicator, managing to rise up in the political arena monopolized by the feudal manorial descendents known as the Kandyan Sinhalese Walawua elites.
Premadasa, born on June 23, 1934, turned out to be a devout Buddhist with fierce Sinhalese nationalism. He joined A E Goonasinghe’s Labor party in 1949 and in 1950 he entered the Colombo Municipal Council as an elected councilor. He was elected as deputy mayor of Colombo in 1955. In the same year he joined the United National Party and contested unsuccessfully in the 1956 parliamentary general elections at Ruwanwella constituency, a rural area outside his forte. In March 1960 , he contested Colombo Central successfully, but failed in the 1960 July elections. From 1965, he won re-election two times, projecting himself as a member of the country’s downtrodden majority and a friend of the common man. It is an image he had nurtured, along with ties to the powerful Buddhist clergy throughout his political career. He launched low income housing programs and built thousands of basic homes. One reason Jayewardene chose Premadasa as the presidential candidate was because of his strong ties with low income groups.
When Premadasa was chosen to run for the presidency, he laid down a condition. This is clearly described by Bradman Weerakoon in his bookPremadas of Sri Lanka: A Political Biography, as follows:
“Finally Premadasa accepted on one condition. There was to be no contest. There would be only one nomination and it had to be ratified by the party conference. The working committee convened a special conference on October 9, 1988, in the spacious Sugathadasa indoor stadium in Colombo. Premadasa appeared before the special sessions of the party as the presidential candidate of the UNP and was enthusiastically endorsed by 15,000 delegates who had got together in Colombo that morning … In his acceptance speech, Premadasa set out succinctly and cogently his perception of the new deal he was placing before the people and his new vision for the future. He focused on three imperatives: the restoration of peace, the enforcement of discipline, and prosperity through the eradication of poverty.” – page 56
Sirisena Coorey, the Minister of Housing, a trusted friend, loyal colleague and a seasoned and successful campaigner, became Premadasa’s chief campaign manager.
Security became the primary concern in the campaign. The JVP had threatened voters to boycott the elections. The same threats and calls for a boycott came from the LTTE. The government announced that the security forces had been directed to enforce law and order and authorized to use maximum force wherever deemed necessary.
Oswin Abeyagunasekera, the nominee of the left-wing United Socialist Alliance, received the support of the EPRLF. The EPRLF appealed to its supporters to give their first preference vote to Oswin Abeyagunasekera and to leave the second and third preferences either blank or in favor of Premadasa. They insisted not to vote for Srimavo Bandaranaike.
The Indian government decided to support Premadasa since the UNP supported the accord. Srimavo Bandaranaike adopted anti-Indian rhetoric during the campaign and she realized that if she were to win in the Sinhalese areas where the JVP continued to hold sway, the anti-Indian stand was the only one beneficial to her. But both the candidates publicly proclaimed that they would send back the IPKF.
When the campaign was in the full swing, in November, it was reported that 600 persons had been killed in election-related violence by Sinhalese extremist groups. The JVP demanded the immediate resignation of the government and the abrogation of the Indo-Sri Lankan accord. Security officials alleged that the JVP had killed more than 600 government supporters in the two months running up to the elections. The extremist front accused the government of mismanagement and large-scale corruption.
The presidential election was defined as a challenge between the bullet and the ballot. Suddenly, a new group hunting for rebels emerged in Sri Lanka, mainly in the south. The specialty of this group was to hunt and kill the Marxist rebels blamed for the wave of violence it had unleashed in the country. The news media spotted the group, called the People’s Revolutionary Red Army (PRRA), when posters appeared all over Colombo city and its suburbs, demanding “Kill Wijaeweera”, and “Death for Wjeweera’s henchmen”. The posters were signed by the PRRA. Several people opposed to the government and the ruling party’s presidential candidate were killed. The Red Army was reportedly comprised members of a leftist political party whose supporters had been gunned down by Sinhalese extremists.
In the meantime, another clandestine group patronized by the paramilitary organization called the Green Tigers came to the forefront in attacking anti-Premadasa political elements. The Green Tigers referred to any armed group of the ruling party, extremist elements of the Sinhalese hoodlums and Tamil militants who had deserted their original militant organizations.
The government decreed special emergency regulations on November 9, empowering the army to shoot on sight anyone demonstrating against the government or instigating strikes. Security forces were subsequently empowered to bury bodies without waiting for an inquest. More than 1,200 Sinhalese youths were arrested and detained at Boosa prison near Galle.
A few Tamil militants who were enlisted in the ruling party goon squad, when interviewed after the presidential and parliamentary elections, said that they had been kept in several houses in various parts of the Western Province in groups of 40 to 50. Each group was under a handful of Green Tigers, who were in contact with the ruling party election campaigners. On the instruction of the campaign managers, the Tamil militants were taken to several opposition rallies and houses of several opposition leaders and instructed to attack.
According to reliable estimates, the goon squads of the ruling party were involved in the killing of more than 2,000 civilians in the name of the Sinhalese extremists – JVP. The final days of the campaign were marked by waves of killings, abductions and attacks on political rallies. The fear syndrome gripped the nation.
On December 20, 1988 Ranasinghe Premadasa, the number two man in Jayewardene’s government, was declared elected by Chandrananda De Silva, the Election Commissioner. A turnout of 55.32 percent of the country’s 9.3 million voters was recorded, where turnout was usually 80 percent. Premadasa won 50.43 percent of the vote compared with 44.95 percent for Srimavo Bandaranaike, and Oswin Abeyagoonasekera polled 4.63 percent. This gave Premadasa a majority of over 300,000 votes. On the day of the election, more than 25 civilians and several members of the security forces were killed. Foreign observers invited to monitor the election reported many incidents of “violence, threats and other acts of coercion”. The invited independent observers, three each from Pakistan and Bangladesh and two each from India and Nepal, reported of problems of general intimidation.
At his victory speech at Colombo’s town hall on December 20, Premadasa invited his election rivals to join him in eliminating post-election violence and pledged as the first priority of his new government to restore law and order.
Srimavo Bandaranaike challenged the fairness of the election in the Supreme Court. She said that “state power was wrongful used” and had been used to deprive the majority of Sri Lankans of their right to vote. At a news conference she said, “I wish to firmly state that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the Democratic People’s Alliance [which she led in the presidential election] do not accept the results of this presidential election. We do not accept it because there are glaring cases of malpractices. If there was a fair election, I am definite that I would have been elected.” Bandaranaike further said that she planned to petition the Supreme Court and asked anyone who had evidence of malpractice to send it to her.
India said it looked forward to “working in close cooperation” with newly elected president, who during election campaign hinted publicly he planned to expel Indian troops deployed on the island. The Indian Foreign Ministry in a statement said “the government welcomes the successful completion of the presidential elections in Sri Lanka, despite threats and intimidation by extremist elements”.
J R Jayewardene, in one of his final acts, dissolved parliament and set February 15, 1989, for general elections. On January 4, President Premadasa formed a 20-strong interim cabinet urging ministers to ensure that essential services disrupted by recent rebel violence worked at peak efficiency.
The new president, in his first address to the nation, on January 2, 1989, from the venerated precincts of the Temple of the Tooth (Dalada Maligawa in Kandy) had in the back of his mind the fact that the IPKF, while fighting the LTTE, was the virtual ruler of eight districts in the North and Eastern provinces. This irritated him as he considered it an affront to his authority and a derogation of the oath he had taken to ensure sovereignty and Buddhist Sinhalese supremacy maintained in the country. So he declared at Kandy, “Whatever the cost, I will not surrender an inch of Sri Lankan territory. Whatever the cost, I will not surrender a shred of our sovereignty.”
He appealed to the Janata Vimukthi Perumuna and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for negotiations “among ourselves through a process of consultation, compromise and consensus … We should not and will not create situations that provoke or invite intervention. Our own affairs must be conducted in a manner that makes foreign intervention unnecessary.”
Premadasa was a staunch Buddhist and a Sinhalese chauvinist. “Most of the political leaders of his generation had either by their foreign education or their affluent status, the need to say the right things that would ensure that they were part of the Sinhalese Buddhist mainstream. With Premadasa, that was not necessary. For in this respect he had nothing to be shy of. Nothing inhibited him.” Premadasa of Sri Lanka: A Political Biography By Bradman Weerakoon, page 62
Premadasa made known his intention to jealously guard the interests of Sinhalese Buddhists by establishing an extra-territorial administrative apparatus in the traditional homeland of the Tamils in North and Eastern provinces, with the view to imposing again the authority of the Sinhalese-dominated government. Premadasa, with his home-grown diplomacy and political sagacity, began to inch successfully towards his cherished goal.
The Indian High Commission convened a meeting in which all Tamil groups and Tamil political parties, namely EROS, EPRLF, TELO, ENDLF and TULF, participated. Even though EROS attended the meeting it refused to ally itself with EPRLF and TULF. The PLOTE contested on a platform critical of the 1987 Peace Accord. Ultimately, the Indian diplomats decided which Tamil group should put up which candidates and where. The Indian High Commission funded the election campaign as it had earlier in the Provincial Council elections.
The parliamentary elections were held for the first time on a proportional representation basis. Accordingly, every voter was expected to mark the ballot paper not only with a vote for the party of their choice, but also with their preferences for three out of a panel of candidates.