by K T Rajasingham, ‘Asian Times,’ Singapore, 2002
Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi arranged to deliver his final letter, dated July 11, 1989, to Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa through his Principal Secretary, B G Deshmukh.
In the concluding paragraph, he brought to the notice of the president, the age-old practice of maintaining confidentiality regarding official correspondence, between heads of state, “unless otherwise agreed upon”. He alleged that all the correspondence between the two men had been officially made public by the Sri Lankan government. He informed Premadasa that he would be departing from the tradition by the authorizing his last communication to the Sri Lankan president to be made public “after you receive it”.
Accordingly, Rajiv Gandhi took the unprecedented step of releasing the coldly worded letter to the press, the moment it was delivered to the president, in retaliation for Premadasa’s act of making public all the previous Rajiv Gandhi-Premadasa correspondence. The letter-war came to an end after this, partly due to another important development.
The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leaders’ search for a residence in Sri Lanka had come to an end in the early part of 1988. For more than five years, A Amirthalingham and M Sivasithamparam were in self-imposed exile in Madras, India. In the early part of 1988, they rented a large high-walled house on Bullers Road, (342/2 Baudhaloka Mawatha) Cinnamon Garden, a posh residential area. It was a sprawling bungalow, which the TULF leaders, Sivasithamparam, Amirthalingham, V Yogeswaran and M Senathirajah shared. Amirthalingham and his wife Mangayakarasi and Somasuntharam Senathirajah, popularly known as Mavai Senathirajah, occupied the ground floor. Yogeswaran and his wife Sarojini shared the upper floor with M Sivasithamparam.
Vettivelu Yogeswaran, a lawyer by profession, was the former TULF member of parliament from 1977 to 1983. Earlier, he was an active member of the youth league of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi. He was elected to parliament representing the Jaffna electorate. He had to vacate his seat for refusing to swear allegiance according to the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, to uphold the unitary character of Sri Lanka. After the 1983 ethnic holocausts, he lived in Madras.
Yogeswaran was a good friend of this writer. After some incidents in Madras, Yogeswaran decided to go back to Jaffna, but this writer dissuaded him. At this time, V Prabakaran, the leader of the LTTE, had quietly slipped back to Jaffna and the LTTE had decided against allowing any other political or militant organizations or their leaders or members back to Jaffna. The LTTE had already sentenced Amirthalingham to death in 1982 at the meeting presided over by Prabakaran at a house in Myliddy, and the LTTE had imposed a ban on TULF activities in the Tamil areas.
But Yogeswaran went back to Jaffna, where he was held in house-arrest until the arrival of the Indian Army, on July 29, 1987. He was further warned by the LTTE that, he would be killed if he ever re-entered politics, but he tried his best to bring about an understanding between the LTTE and TULF. For the moderate Tamil politicians, such as the leaders of the Tamil United Liberation Front, staying alive in the face of threats from the LTTE and the Sinhalese extremist groups was a real challenge, not to mention that maintaining political credibility as members of the only unarmed Tamil political party that believed in democratic principles.
P Soosaithasan, the former TULF member of parliament for Mannar and Dr Neelan Thiruchelvam, a former TULF MP for Vaddukoddai, who, after many months of search, managed to get the house located on Bullers road for Amirthalingham and other TULF leaders to reside in Colombo. The TULF leaders felt that, to accept a house offered by the Sri Lankan government would erode their political credibility.
While the TULF leaders were in their new house in Colombo, the LTTE delegation was also in the capital talking with President Premadasa, the man the LTTE had earlier dubbed a “Sinhala chauvinist”.
It was pointed out that it was India that had spurned an LTTE offer for a negotiated settlement, in December 1988. Anton Balasingham, the LTTE ideologue, tried to establish contact with the Indian leadership through the Janata Dal leader George Fernandes, with whom he managed to have a secret meeting in India. He pleaded with Fernandes to mediate between the LTTE and the Indian government, as the LTTE was not in a position to either take on the IPKF or the Sri Lankan armed forces, as the LTTE was in disarray. He also informed Fernandes that the LTTE’s efforts to smuggle arms to their cadres in Sri Lanka had been foiled by the Indian Navy. Balasingham felt that if the IPKF withdrew at this precarious time, the LTTE would become a sitting target for the Sri Lankan armed forces. Therefore, he urged Fernandes that India should not withdraw the IPKF on the request of Premadasa. This negotiation was going on when Premadasa was the United National Party’s presidential candidate and was demanding the withdrawal of the IPKF.
George Fernandes explained to Balasingham that he was not in a position to take up the matter with Rajiv Gandhi, but would involve the President of India R Venkataraman, who happened to be a Tamil from South India. Accordingly, Fernandes sent a confidential letter to the Indian president, “The resident got back and asked for further details. He assured me that he would pass this on to the prime minister.”
Later, according to Fernandes, he was told by the government, not to interfere in the matter. This reply brought an end to Balasingham’s efforts for talks with the Indian government.
Meanwhile, the entry of Amirthalingham into active politics was not taken well by the LTTE, who disliked him. He spoke in parliament in June 1989, arguing that the IPKF should not be withdrawn in a hurry from the North and East of Sri Lanka. The LTTE took umbrage to this speech, which was directly against the stand of the LTTE, which wanted the IPKF to be withdrawn immediately.
Yogeswaran was apparently briefed to patch up the relationship with the LTTE and Amirthalingham. It was later reported that Yogeswaran had held four meetings with two LTTE men to forge unity among the different Tamil militant groups and also with the TULF.
Subsequently, he arranged a meeting between the LTTE and Amirthalingham, at 7pm on July 13, 1989. That evening Amirthalingham and Sisvasithamparam were due to attend a dinner party hosted by the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, at the Hotel Taj Samudra, in honor of B G Deshmukh, the Principal Secretary, who had delivered the last letter from Rajiv Gandhi to the Sri Lankan president.
Yogeswaran told the sub-inspector of police, Thambirajah Kandasamy, about the visitors and requested him not to search the visitors. But, Kandasamy protested and told Yogeswaran, “We cannot trust these fellows, sir.” Yogeswaran replied, “They are our guests. They will feel insulted and would stop coming to meet us.” So, Kandasamy, though not satisfied with Yogeswaran’s explanation, agreed to his request.
At 6:45pm on July 13, three LTTE men, who were later identified as Visu, alias Rasiah Aravindarajah, one-time Vavuniya leader of the political wing of the LTTE, his assistant Peter Aloysius Leon and Vignan arrived at the residence. Sathiyamoorthy, the guard at the gate, demanded identification and they told him that they were from the LTTE and handed over their national identity cards. At this stage, Kandasamy appeared at a first-floor balcony and told the guard to allow the visitors in without a body-search. This was a tragic security lapse. Visu and Aloysius went upstairs to Yogeswaran’s apartment, while the third man stayed at the gate.
Later the visitors and the TULF leaders sat down and began their conversation. Everyone laughed and was relaxed. Amirthalingham explained to the LTTE youths that lack of unity was hurting the Tamil cause and the internecine fighting was eroding world sympathy. Conflict among the Tamils group was giving the government an opportunity to delay the devolution process. He assured Visu that the LTTE would be accorded a pre-eminent position in any united arrangement and told him to convey his sentiments to the LTTE leadership and persuade them to come to an arrangement with other Tamil groups.
Yogeswaran’s wife served refreshments to the men. Once Visu and Aloysius finished their drinks, they rose to place their tumblers on the table, then they turned together and pulled out their revolvers, firing at the TULF leaders. Amirthalingham was hit in the head and Yogeswaran on the chest and stomach, and Sivasithamparam on his right shoulder. The gun shots aroused the security chief Kandasamy, who rushed to find Visu and Aloysius still firing. He opened fire with his service revolver and the LTTE assailants backed off. Another guard fired from the balcony at the fleeing men and both assailants were shot. Meanwhile, in the commotion, the guard at the gate shot and killed Vignan, the third member of the assassination squad. Yogeswaran and Amirthalingham died from the gunshots, while Sivasithamparam escaped with injuries to his collarbone and was able to give a detailed statement from his hospital bed.
Yogeswaran’s widow Sarojini in her testimony before the Additional Magistrate M M A Gaffoor said, “On Thursday [July 13] morning, my husband told me two persons known as Visu and Aloysius had informed that they were coming to see him. He wanted me to prepare some sandwiches and cool drinks. Aloysius had spoken to my husband on the phone once in the morning and later in the afternoon. He also said that he was expecting the visitors between 6:30pm and 7pm. The same persons had visited my husband on four occasion during the past month.”
Sarojini, in her disposition before the Additional Magistrate continued, “At about 6:30pm he came downstairs to watch the TV news [Tamil]. The visitors arrived and he went upstairs. They were talking for about 15 minutes when Amirthalingham and Sivasithamparam joined them to commence discussions. My husband ask for two glasses of passion fruit juice and a cup of tea and also told me not to disturb them. From the pantry where I was preparing tea, I heard them laughing and talking. All of a sudden I heard several gun shots.”
Also, Amirthalingham’s wife Mangkayarkarasi told the magistrate that her husband was watching TV news with her when their servant handed him a letter saying that Yogeswaran wanted him and also Sivasithamparam upstairs. He went upstairs, saying that he would back in a short time. “I continued to watch the television. After about 10 to 15 minutes I heard several gun shots.” When examined by the additional magistrate, she said that she was not aware of the reason why her husband wanted to meet Yogeswaran. And she added that she did not know why those visitors were not completely checked as normally anyone who came to meet Amirthalingham was checked.
Furthermore, Sub-Inspector Kandiah, who was in charge of Amirthalingham’s security said, “Around 4pm, Yogeswaran told me that a person named Aloysius would be coming to see him, but asked us not to check him. On earlier occasions persons belonging to the LTTE had come carrying walkie-talkies and weapons. I have warned him on several occasions that, it was not advisable to let members of the organization enter with weapons.”
The police officer Kandiah said that Yogeswaran had told him that Amirthalingham and Sivasithamparam knew these persons and it was not necessary to search them.
The police took two pistols and a revolver from the dead assailants. They also raided the hideout at Narehenpita in Colombo and took vital documents into custody. Police told the Additional Magistrate that according to their investigation, the assailants had taken an early meal and had planned to leave Colombo for an unknown destination soon after the shooting.
Meanwhile, as usual, the LTTE denied involvement in the killings and blamed “diabolical forces at work to disrupt the on-going peace talks between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government”. It was interesting to note that Adele Balasingham, who was at that time staying with the LTTE delegation in Colombo, purposely avoided mentioning even one sentence about the assassination of Amirthalingham in her book The Will to Freedom. She might have to explain one of these days the reason for omitting the recording of the deaths of a Tamil leader whose career spanned the political horizon of Sri Lanka for well over four decades.
“Even as the Sri Lankan media, under strict censorship, blacked out the news, the word of tragedy spread quickly. And policy makers in New Delhi’s South Block, sat up all night rewriting the entire Sri Lankan equation once again. It was evident that the killing was going to have a major impact on relations between the two estranged neighbors. Said an official of the Ministry of External Affairs [MEA], ‘This is just what we have been warning Premadasa about. The LTTE is not trustworthy. Can you imagine what they will do in the Tamil areas if Indian army leaves?’ Officials point out Amirthalingham had been declared a ‘traitor’ by the LTTE because of his softer stand towards India.” – India Today, July 11, 1989: Special Reports – Sri Lanka Undiplomatic Oneupmanship, page 44
On July 15, 1989, the bodies of Appapillai Amirthalingham and Vettivelu Yogeswaran were placed in caskets and taken from their Bullers Road residence (Baudhaloka Mawatah) to Ratmalana airport, and from there by air force plane to Trincomalee. There, North-Eastern Provincial Governor Nalin Senivaratne, Chief Minister Annamalai Varatharaj Perumal, and his four cabinet ministers received the caskets. They were then taken in a hearse to Trincomalee Town Hall, where they were kept to allow people to pay their last respects. Hundreds of people waited in long queues to have the last glimpse of their leaders while Indian soldiers provided security.
President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was at the time in Amparai, was the first to react to the killings. He announced the murder of the two TULF leaders at a religious ceremony at Amparai and called on the gathering to observe a two-minute silence. He also wished Sivasithamparam a speedy recovery. He called the killings reprehensible and brutal. Later, he described Amirthalingham as a dedicated servant of the people, who had tried to function within the framework of democracy. He said, “I take this opportunity to pay a special tribute to this great leader. Killing cannot solve problems, whether private or political. That is why we advocate non-violence, to show the futility of violence and to direct our efforts at achieving peace in the country.”
On his return to Colombo, President Premadasa issued another statement condemning the killings and announced that he had directed the Inspector General of Police to take personal charge of the inquiries.
At the funeral, Sri Lanka was represented by Gamini Disanayaka, the Minister for Mahaveli Development and the Indian government by Natwar Singh, the Minister of State for External Affairs, and by Lal Mehoratra, the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo. The Tamil Nadu Indian National Congress Party was represented by its Secretary Yasodha, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kalagam by its Deputy Secretary Rahavanandan and Indian Union Muslim League by Kaja Mohideen.
EPRLF declared a three-day mourning period, beginning on July 14. The cremation took place amid emotional scenes never before witnessed in the Jaffna district.
Natwar Singh, in his oration, made particular reference to the efforts Amirthalingham had made to unite the Tamil militant groups. He said, “The two leaders worked tirelessly to forge Tamil unity. The Tamil unity had become imperative now.” Natwar Singh’s oration was a moving one. The Sri Lankan government’s official representative, Gamini Dissanayake, also delivered a moving oration. “I have come to Jaffna to pay my last respect to two of my parliamentary colleagues and friends. Both, Amirthalingham and Yogeswaran had addressed vast crowds on this very esplanade, where I am speaking. Today, they are silent. Their silence, however, is louder than all the words they could have spoken.”
He continued, “There is a lesson we can learn from their deaths – that violence gets us nowhere, that we must eschew violence and take the path of peace and non-violence. Mr Amirthalingham took over the leadership of the TULF at a very difficult time, a time when the spirit of democracy was slowly being eroded and violent politics was emerging as a factor. He was compelled to struggle with this contradiction. We may have our differences about Mr Amirthalingham’s handling of the situation, but no one can challenge his sincerity and honesty of purpose. The divisive politics which has been the bane of Sri Lanka during the past years brought about a situation after 1983, when the Tamil leadership chose to opt out of the Sri Lankan political system and asked the government of India to be their intermediary.
“After many discussions and negotiations, the Indo-Sri Lankan Agreement of 1987 paved the way for the devolution of powers and national integration, within the unitary constitution of Sri Lanka. For a time, there was peace in the North and East. But again violence broke out. The Indian Peace Keeping Forces in Sri Lanka now have to go away. This must be done through negotiation and goodwill. I wish to say here that, all Tamil people should strive to live in peace, harmony, and unity to serve the democratic process of Sri Lanka and preserve their own culture and tradition. Mr Amirthalingham and Yogeswaran represented this process. The Tamil people must ensure that this process continues. We must avoid mistakes of the past, we must avoid populist politics and integrate our nation’s sovereignty on human and democratic values.” He concluded by saying, “Thousands of sons of our soil are here today. We all bow our heads to the two outstanding human beings. You, the people of Jaffna, whom they represented nationally and in parliament, must now share a part of the sorrow with their bereaved widows and children.”
Later, in parliament it was questioned how Natwar Singh and the Indian delegation entered Sri Lanka lawfully without obtaining visas. It was also stated that entering Sri Lanka in this manner was a “serious breach of immigration laws and tantamount to a callous disregard to the sovereignty and the self respect of Sri Lanka as a nation. But that was the arrogance of India.” Indian Intervention in Sri Lanka by Rohan Gunaratne, page 307
In August 1989, Ranjan Wijeratne brought Ernest Perera, Inspector General of Police, to meet the press. Perera said that a person named William W Mariyadasan of Anderson Flats, Narahenpita, had been arrested and that he had made a confession. He and Nadarajah Sathyanandan of Kashapa Road, had identified the assassins when the inquest into their deaths were held on July 21, 1989. No relatives had come forward to identify or claim the bodies of the killers.
By 1990, the news regarding the real killers and people who were behind the killing of Amirthalingham and Yogeswaran began to emerge. According to the authors of Broken Palamyra – A Joint Endeavor by Rajan Hoole, Daya Somasundaram, K Sritharan and Rajani Thiranagama, who were teachers at Jaffna University, “For reasons well understood in Colombo, the affiliations of their killers remained for months, officially at least a mystery. By early 1990, however, the press in Colombo started treating people to conflicting reports in keeping with the general spirit of the times. The Colombo-based Tamil daily, the Virakesari, carried reports according to which, at public meetings in the North and East, LTTE spokesmen gave reasons why they killed Amirthalingham. The English-language press, on the other hand, carried reports quoting a senior LTTE spokesman in Colombo denying the LTTE having a hand in the killings. Interestingly, denials and the affirmations sometimes appeared on the same day. Those who did the killings were themselves gunned down by the security men and came to be commemorated as martyrs on wall posters which appeared in the Tamil speaking areas.” – pages 426-427
On March 15, 1990, Lanka Guardian published an interview with the LTTE deputy leader Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah, alias Mahataya. The interview was conducted by Mervin de Silva, the editor of the paper:
Mervin De Silva: If you stand for the multiparty system, why did your men kill Amirthalingham and other TULF leaders?
Mahataya: They were not killed because they held views different from that of the LTTE, but because they were acting as the agents of India, in short, traitors, collaborators. In that background, the LTTE kills those who betray the cause. In a national struggle, the battle is everywhere, the traitor anywhere.
After three years, M Sivasithamparam, who was also seriously wounded in the attack, while proposing a vote of thanks for the delivery of the Amirthalingham memorial lecture, “They came as our guests. They called as friends. They ate biscuits, Mrs Yogeswaran served them. They drank tea she poured. They discussed Tamil unity. They got up to place their cups on the table. They put their hands in their pockets, and pulled out the revolver and shot at us. It is because of the courage of the two guards and the policemen that the others who lived in that house are living today.
“Why did they kill Amirthalingham and Yogeswaran? Is it because they worked for the Tamils? Is it because they helped to work out a solution to the Tamil problem? Is it because they wanted all Lankans to live in this country with dignity and honor? Amirthalingham had worked hard to eliminate discrimination against the Tamils. He had also taken up the cause of the Tamils of the Indian origin. He had defended the rights of the Muslims and the oppressed section of the Sinhalese. Why did they kill him? They have not told the world why they killed him.”
Sivasithamparam said that Amirthalingham did all that was possible to serve the democratic process. “We did all that was possible. We cooperated with the Sinhala political parties and worked with them in the government, even after the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact was torn up. In 1972, when the new constitution was drafted, we asked for only six things – the reasonable use of Tamil and such small things. Our letter was not even acknowledged. In 1984, when the All Party Conference met, we were asked to state our grievances. That was the type of treatment our attempts to find out a democratic solution, received. We stomached all those things and worked with the APC, because we wanted to find a democratic solution. One day when the plenary met, President Jayewardene shocked us with the announcement that consensus had been reached and two committees would be appointed to go into the grievances and devolution of power. We protested. We told him that we ask something and you are saying something else and how can there be consensus. President Jayewardene replied that in cabinet meetings the consensus is what the prime minister decides. We tried everything possible but at every turn we were betrayed.”
In the ultimate analysis, Amirthalingham had unshakeable faith in the democratic process and in the path of negotiated settlement that led to his betrayal and assassination. As A J Wilson later said in his book Break up of Sri Lanka, “If there had been some concession by the Sinhala people, that would have given legitimacy to Tamil leadership, which had faith in a negotiated solution, if the Sinhala leadership had reacted to the non-violent protest, the violent phase could have been averted. And Amirthalingham would have been with us today!
“But, as they say in Hinduism, his ‘physical body’ is not with us any more. That was set alight by his son Ravi, the boy for whose telephone call he had waited, before he went upstairs to meet the killers. But the killers could destroy only his ‘physical body’. They could not and cannot destroy his soul, his sacrifices, his message. As Dissanayake said, in concluding his emotional oration, ‘The names of Amirthalingham and Yogeswaran will be engraved not so much in stone, but in the hearts of men’.
“And three years after his death, the Sinhala public openly began to discuss federalism as a possible solution to the ethnic problem. Bandaranaike’s daughter Chandrika has placed before the nation a solution which had adopted federalism without the use of the word. Sri Lanka is on the verge of becoming a union of regions, a phrase Amirthalingham coined. Amirthalingham’s death was not the end. It is only a beginning in achieving his federalist goal.” The Murder of a Moderateby T Sabaratnam, pages 403-404
In December 1995, this writer went to London to the Public Document Office to do research on Sri Lanka, during the British colonial administration. While in London, this writer received a message that Mangkayakarasi, the widow of Amirthalingham, who was living in London, who had expressed a wish to meet me. Accordingly, we met on May 26, 1996, at her house in Surbiton, Surrey, outside London. I was shocked to see her plight. The beautiful woman I had met for the first time in 1961 at the Jaffna esplanade when she led girl students on a protest march. Now, a streak of sorrow was written all over her face and age had begun to tell. With her was her second son, Dr Baheerathan (Ravi) who came over to help us in our conversation.
Mangkayakarasi told me that she never dreamt that “Thamby” – that is how Prabakaran was called – would ever arrange to kill her husband. “He spent his teenage days in our house, holding my pettycoat and always calling me akka [sister].” Mangkayakarasi asked me why Prabakaran was so monstrous to have arranged to kill her beloved husband. “What harm had my husband has done to him? It was he who brought all the youths into politics and the limelight. He treated all those youths as his own children.” She almost wept when she explained the murder details that took place on July 13, 1989.
She explained to me that she was now a refugee in England, living on the subsistence given by the government. In his latter days, it was known that Amirthalingham was virtually a pauper and lived on whatever allowance he received as a parliamentarian. He gave up his lucrative legal practice at the Bar and was a fulltime politician.
In the meantime, PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran, who came to Colombo to attend the funeral of Amirthalingham and Yogeswaran, was gunned down on July 16, 1989. This was alleged to be the work of a group of PLOTE cadres who disagreed with his politics and policies. Furthermore, while the LTTE delegation was in Colombo, Neelan and Lakshman, two LTTE cadres, riding a motorcycle, shot and killed Sam Thampimuthu, the EPRLF member of parliament and critically wounded his wife Kala, who was the daughter of former Senator Manickam of the ITAK, in front of the Canadian Embassy.
Meanwhile, Rajiv Gandhi’s uncompromising attitude made the Sri Lankan president furious. He realized that writing letters to Rajiv Gandhi and urging him to withdraw the Indian forces would not bring the desired results. He adopted another strategy. He assumed the role of the supreme commander of all the forces in the island, including the Indians. He ordered Lieutenant-General Kalkat, the Commander of the Indian Armed Forces in Sri Lanka, to withdraw the Indian forces before the end of July 1989, or risk being ordered to barracks. The ultimatum, in the form of a legal document, was delivered to the Indian commanding officer, on July 23, at Trincomalee.
“By the middle of July, with no quickening of the pace of the IPKF withdrawal, Premadasa decided to force the issue by playing a trump card. This was to be the ultimatum to the Officer Commanding the IPKF forces in Sri Lanka, from himself as Commander-in-Chief. Its objective would be either to have the IPKF withdrawn on July 29, or order them to get back into their barracks and negotiate the logistics of withdrawal with the Sri Lankan security forces. This ultimatum, which the team officials who worked ceaselessly with him during this period called the ‘Whereas’ document, since it was studded with ‘Whereas’ and legal terminology, was to be delivered personally to Lieutenant-General Kalkat in Trincomalee at 3pm on Friday, July 23. Kalkat himself appears to have had a premonition of such an order, because on the evening of July 27, he had told some Indian reporters that IPKF would attack if the Sri Lankan forces came out of their barracks into which they had been sent in terms of the July 1987 Agreement. Kalkat is quoted as having said: ‘My mandate includes the provision of security and peace for all in the North-East Province and to keep the Lankan forces in their barracks. Any change in mandate by force and my soldiers will reply to it. On-going operations against the LTTE a matter will continue despite Mr Ranjan Wijeratne’s demand for a unilateral ceasefire. We will not tolerate any violence and the IPKF is fully prepared to meet any eventuality.’.”Premadasa of Sri Lanka: A Political Biography by Bradman Weerakoon, pages 80-81
Kalkat, in an interview after the withdrawal said, “This was part of the same game plan. The two of them decided that if IPKF remained there then neither could cheat the other on the accord. And each one thought that he was cleverer than the other. So both were playing a game to doublecross each other. Who could prevent them from doing it was the IPKF. Our stand was it was not over and if they do it, they will end up killing each other. That is the reason why the IPKF remained there. Because, we were sure that it would not work. And it was apparent that both sides would not do what they were saying. Their priority was let us get the IPKF out.
“For the LTTE, their concern was that, as long as the IPKF was there, they could never get away with their demand for an independent Tamil Eelam. For the Sri Lankan government, or the Sinhala government of Premadasa, it was quite clear that we could insist that the Sri Lankan government honor its part of the Agreement. There were so many things to be done. The land reforms. There were the illegally occupied land, they had many areas where, the demographic pattern had been changed. In the Northern province, certain area was made a separate territory for the so-called experiments in irrigation, but basically the Sinhala convicts were resettled there. It was a convict’s colony. They were trying some arid agricultural experiments etc. Those land belonged to the Tamils, it was part of the Tamil homeland. There were many issues like that. Both felt that, it was not in their interest to honor the accord. Particularly, after Jayewardene stepped down and Premadasa took over. He had always opposed the agreement. In that, he was backed by a large chauvinistic group of Sinhalese.”
On July 25, the Indian High Commissioner handed the Foreign Secretary a letter and a note from New Delhi. India reiterated its readiness to withdraw the IPKF and wanted Sri Lanka to implement the Peace Accord. Foreign Minister Wijeratne was invited to Delhi, but no mention was made of a cessation of hostilities with the LTTE. President Premadasa replied that Colombo preferred government-to-government talks and that the IPKF should cease its hostilities against the LTTE. Against this backdrop, the cabinet met on July 26. Thondaman raised the issue of the IPKF withdrawal and it was agreed to hold a special cabinet meeting on July 27. The next morning, at the press conference, Ranjan Wijeratne said that he would go to New Delhi, provided India accepted the president as the Commander-in-Chief of all forces on Lankan soil and agreed to cease hostilities against the LTTE. He also told that talks were already going on to resolve the conflict between India and Sri Lanka.
As the countdown approached, the special cabinet meeting was held on the evening of July 27. Premadasa briefed ministers on the situation and the action he proposed to take. A formula was devised after discussions as proposed by S Thondaman. The formula was as follows:
- The president of Sri Lanka has requested the prime minister of India to recommence the withdrawal of the Indian armed forces contingent. A significant withdrawal will commence by July 29, 1989.
- The government of India and Sri Lanka will forthwith commence discussions in Delhi and Colombo to draw up a timetable for the complete and expeditious withdrawal of the Indian armed forces contingent from Sri Lanka.
- The IPKF will upon commencement of the discussions, suspend all offensive military operations in the Northern and Eastern provinces.
President Premadasa said that it would be better to let the formula go as Thondaman’s and not as coming from the government, and Thondaman agreed. It was long past 11pm when Thondaman rushed to Indian House with his formula to meet the Indian High Commissioner, where he was received by Mehrotra. The High Commissioner said that the formula would not be acceptable to India, adding, “Things have gone too far to save the situation.” Thondaman responded, “If this is not acceptable, let us sit together and see how it can be made acceptable to India.”
Accordingly, Mehrotra made extensive amendments and subsequently the draft read, “The governments of India and Sri Lanka will forthwith commence discussions in Delhi and Colombo, to discuss all issues of mutual concern, including the timetable for the withdrawal of the IPKF from Sri Lanka and the implementation of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement.”
The Indian High Commissioner asked, “I shall be sending this as your formula. Will the government of Sri Lanka accept this?” Thondman assured, “I give you my assurance that I will persuade the president to accept it, if India is agreeable.” It was 2am before they finalized the draft and Mehrotra dispatched the message, as Thondaman’s formula, to New Delhi.
Subsequently, the Indian High Commissioner contacted the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ranjan Wijeratne. He said that Rajiv Gandhi wanted other amendments made. India had taken the view that the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister must visit Delhi to negotiate the IPKF withdrawal and the implementation issues of the Indo-Lanka agreement.
Wijeratne observed that Delhi had dropped the question of the suspension of hostilities in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Mehrotra contacted Rajiv Gandhi. At that time, Foreign Minister Narasimha Rao and Foreign Secretary S K Singh were at Gandhi’s residence. After consulting Singh, a compromise was suggested. Mehrotra and Bernard Tilakaratne, the Sri Lankan foreign secretary, signed a joint communique, which was released simultaneously in Colombo and New Delhi, on July 28, 1989.
“The president of Sri Lanka has requested the prime minister of India to recommence the withdrawal of the IPKF. The withdrawal will recommence on the 29th of July 1989. The High Commissioner of India reiterated the invitation of the Minister of External Affairs of the government of India to the Foreign Minister of the government of Sri Lanka, to visit India to discuss the time schedule for the withdrawal of the remaining IPKF contingent in Sri Lanka. The invitation has been accepted. This opportunity will be used to review the implementation of the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement. During the visit of the delegation, the question of cessation of all offensive military operation by the IPKF and the safety and security of all communities in North-Eastern province of Sri Lanka, will also be discussed.”
So finally, it was Thondaman’s formula that avoided a major crisis between India and Sri Lanka. Under the agreement, India made a token pullout of 600 soldiers from Trincomalee and a high-level delegation led by Foreign Minister Ranjan Wijeratne flew to New Delhi for talks. The Sri Lankan delegation included ACS Hameed – Minister of Higher Education; Bernard Tilakaratne – Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Dr Stanley Kalpage – Sri Lankan High Commissioner in India; Bradman Weerakoon – Presidential Advisor on International Affairs; Sunil De Silva – Attorney General; W T Jayasinghe – Secretary to the cabinet; and Felix Dias Abeyasinghe – Secretary to the Committee for Peace. The delegation left for New Delhi on July 29 and had several rounds of talks with the Indian Prime Minister, P V Narasimha Rao – the Minister of External Affairs – and K C Pant – Minister of Defense.
The Sri Lankan delegation returned to Colombo on August 5, after seven days of intense talks and armed with a position paper that gave the stands of the two countries and discussed four main issues. The two issues raised by Sri Lanka were: The time schedule for the IPKF withdrawal and cessation of offensive military operations by the IPKF. On the first, Sri Lanka wanted the withdrawal of the IPKF to be completed by the middle of September, but India wanted until February 1990. In the second, Sri Lanka wanted the IPKF to cease hostile operations immediately and without laying down any qualifications for a reciprocal LTTE ceasefire. But, India offered to suspend offensive military operations for 15 days, which would be extended once the LTTE joined and participated in the North-East Peace Committee. The peace committee was to be chaired by a Sri Lankan cabinet minister and was to comprise representatives of all Tamil militant groups and the Tamil political parties. It was to take action to bring peace to the North and Eastern provinces. The decisions of the committee had to be unanimous.
The two issues India raised were: A review of the implementation of the Indo-Lanka agreement of July 1987, and the arrangements for the safety and security of all communities in the North and East provinces. On the first topic, there was agreement. India accepted Sri Lanka’s request not to link the implementation of the agreement with the withdrawal. Sri Lanka reciprocated by clarifying the actions taken to date to devolve power to the North-East Provincial Council and the steps to be taken to set up a provincial police force and to facilitate the effective functioning of the Provincial Council.
On the second topic, Sri Lanka agreed to set up a committee to review and coordinate security arrangements during the withdrawal of the IPKF. India accepted the proposal. Sri Lanka wanted the committee to comprise the Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, the General Officer Commanding the IPKF, the Inspector General Police of Sri Lanka and the Governor of the North-East province. India accepted the first three, but wanted the Chief Minister of the North-East province, instead of the governor.
Soon after arriving in Colombo, Foreign Minister Ranjan Wijeratne reported to President Premadasa. Premadasa summoned a special cabinet meeting on August 7, where he said that he wanted India’s proposals debated in parliament. Unfortunately, the opposition parties evaded expressing their opinions in parliament. At a subsequent cabinet meeting opinion was divided. Thondaman, Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake, Ranjit Attapattu and Festus Perrera – all senior ministers – thought that Sri Lanka should avoid confrontation with India. But the newcomers to the cabinet took a harder line. They argued that Sri Lanka should insist on getting the IPKF out. They were of the view that Colombo should not give in to any India’s demands.
Meanwhile, Premadasa sent his advisor, Bradman Weerakoon, to India on August 15 to resolve three sticky matters:
- The date of the IPKF withdrawal;
- Cessation of hostilities by the IPKF against the LTTE, and;
- The composition of the security coordination group.
Weerakoon’s mission was to negotiate an early withdrawal of the IPKF, earlier than India’s stipulated February 1990 date, and for a permanent ceasefire instead of India’s offer of 15 days and the inclusion of the governor of the North-East province in the Security Coordination Group.
Weerakoon met External Ministry officials in New Delhi and also Rajiv Gandhi. The Indian prime minister was very accommodating and agreed to accelerate the IPKF’ withdrawal by the end of December 1989 and also agreed with Colombo’s desire to reconstitute the Security Coordination Group. They agreed that the group should be headed by the Sri Lanka’s Minister of State for Defense and comprise the Chief Minister of North-East province, Sri Lanka’s Defense Secretary and the General Officer Commanding of the IPKF. With reluctance, Rajiv Gandhi also agreed to extend the ceasefire to one month with the promise that it would be further extended if the LTTE behaved properly.
President Premadasa was not satisfied. He desired to have a speedier IPKF withdrawal – preferably by the end of October, and the ceasefire to be permanent.
Indian calculated on the basis of three shiploads per week of 1,500 to 1,600 personnel and equipment, including a preparatory period of three weeks. Therefore, according to the Indians’ time frame, they would need 28 to 30 weeks running up to February 1990.
These points were finally resolved on September 6, when Ranjan Wijeratne met Rajiv Gandhi at Belgrade, where they were attending a Non-Aligned Movement summit. The meeting was described as “friendly, cordial and cooperative” and Rajiv Gandhi agreed to a permanent ceasefire, but wanted adequate safeguards built into the agreement. It took 10 days to draft the final wording for monitoring the ceasefire.
The final agreement was signed on September 18, in Colombo, by the Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Bernard Tilakaratne and the Indian High Commissioner Lachine Lal Mehrotra. The following is the text of the joint communique issued on that day.
“A Sri Lankan delegation, led by the Foreign Minister, Mr Ranjan Wijeratne, visited India from July 29 to August 4, 1989. Mr Bradman Weerakoon, Special Envoy of the President of Sri Lanka, held further discussion in New Delhi from August 15 to 17, 1989. A final round of talks was held between Mr Rajiv Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, and Mr Ranjan Wijeratne, Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, during their visit to Belgrade from September 4 to 7, 1989.
“The talks were held in a cordial and friendly atmosphere. They covered bilateral issues, including the de-induction of the remaining IPKF contingents in Sri Lanka, the implementation of the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement, and measures to ensure the safety and security of all communities of the North-Eastern province of Sri Lanka.
“The implementation of the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement was reviewed in depth by the two sides. The Sri Lankan side briefed the Indian side on the progress made and the further steps taken by them for the expeditious implementation of the devolution process, such as establishing of the provincial police force and facilitating the effective functioning of the North-Eastern Provincial Council, and the establishment of an adequate administrative structure for that purpose. The Lankan side also informed the Indian side that it would institute all measures to strengthen the civil administration as early as possible which would ensure peace and normalcy in the North-Eastern province.
“The Sri Lankan side informed the Indian side of their decision to set up a peace committee on September 20, 1989, to afford an opportunity to all political and ethnic groups in the North-Eastern province to come together to settle their differences, through a process of consultation, compromise and consensus, and to bring all groups into the democratic process, thereby ending violence and improving conditions for the physical safety and security of all communities. This would help restore normalcy and contribute to the effective functioning of the North-Eastern Provincial Council. The first meeting of the peace committee will be held within three weeks of the setting up of this committee. This decision was welcomed by the Indian side.
“It was decided to set up a security coordination group comprising the Sri Lankan Minister of State for Defense, the Chief Minister of the North-Eastern province, the Sri Lankan Defense Secretary and the GOC of the IPKF, with a view to avoiding any adverse impact on the law and order situation in the North-Eastern province and to suggest measures to ensure the safety and security in the North-Eastern province as the phased de-induction of the IPKF and the strengthening of the civilian administration of the North-Eastern province of Sri Lanka proceed. This group will keep in view the recommendations of the peace committee relating to the safety and security of the inhabitants of the North-Eastern province.
“In view of the above, the process of de-induction of the IPKF, which recommenced on July 29, 1989, will be continued on the expeditious schedule. All efforts will be made to accelerate the de-induction by December 31, 1989.
“The Indian side stated that the suspension of offensive military operations by the IPKF will come into effect at 6am on September 20, 1989. An observer group consisting of the Sri Lanka Army Commander and the GOC of the IPKF will report any violations of the cessation of hostilities and immediate consequential action taken, and recommend further remedial action to the president of Sri Lanka.
“The above agreement denotes the completion of the negotiation process regarding the withdrawal of the Indian Armed Forces from Sri Lanka.”
“Mr Premadasa was pleased with the agreement between Delhi and Colombo. During a private meeting at his residence, the president told us that he emerged triumphant in the diplomatic tug of war with Rajiv Gandhi and that the fate of the IPKF was sealed. Though Sri Lankans had pledged to enhance the EPRLF’s provincial administration with more devolutionary power, Mr Premadasa had his own scheme of things. The LTTE team was also pleased since their political strategy of securing the withdrawal of the IPKF from Tamil homeland had now become a reality.”The Will to Freedom by Adele Balasingham, page 245
According to Bradman Weerakoon, “The crisis was over. Premadasa had proved that he could take a bilateral issue to the brink without flinching. He had also shown an unwavering determination to stand by principle.” Premadasa of Sri Lanka: A Political Biography page 81
Lieutenant-General Kalkat, the Commanding Officer of the IPKF in an 11-part interview, “India’s Vietnam: The IPKF in Sri Lanka 10 Years On”, says, “The main thing I was concerned about was that the Sri Lankan government was hostile to us to the full extent possible. Not that they were fighting us, but they were abetting the fighting. I did not want my soldiers to be caught like what happened in Vietnam or in Afghanistan. I wanted to make sure that every soldier came home safely. I did not want to lose lives during the withdrawal.
“Secondly, I wanted the withdrawal to be with dignity, not as in Vietnam where people were running away, hanging on to helicopters. Those thing would be terrible for the morale of an army. I was quite determined that as we went in with our flag flying high, we would come out with our heads high. So certain plans had to be put into action. The most difficult part of my entire command was managing the withdrawal of the IPKF. At one stage we had 70,000 troops, we slowly brought them down to 50,000 and then to 30,000. When you are in a narrow bridgehead, with the LTTE all around and you getting militarily no assistance from the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE free at that stage, the prime concern for me was the lives of my soldiers.”
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