Colombo Telegraph

Early 1988: Conspiracies Galore

By Rajan Hoole –

Rajan Hoole

The Year 1988: The Red Moon Over Sri Lanka And The Dawn Of New Wisdom – Part 2

In the absence of constraining loyalties or principles, particularly within the UNP, politics by early 1988 had become very volatile. India had enforced the Accord after recently threatening the Sri Lankan Government with logistical support for its erstwhile protege, the LTTE, with which she was now (in 1988) locked in conflict. Assignment Colombo (AC), the book written by J.N. Dixit, who was then Indian High Commissioner, while whitewashing India’s record during that period, gives us valuable insights into the political atmosphere in the South. At the time the Accord was signed, it would have been quite logical for Premadasa and Athulathmudali to encourage the JVP and other extremist elements to launch violent demonstrations against it for their own ends. But Dixit’s charge that Athulathmudali supplied arms to the JVP (AC, p.209), has so far not been supported by evidence.

Way back in mid-July 1985 Mrs. Bandaranaike had warned Dixit that Jayewardene was not serious about coming to terms with the Tamils and about the negative approach of Premadasa and Athulathmudali. Judging by her own actions in 1987, it seems that they were all in the race for the high ground of Sinhalese chauvinism. Privately, Athulathmudali confided to Dixit that the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact of 1957 if implemented would have solved the problem. When India was pressing for further concessions to the Tamils in the run up to the Accord, Athulathmudali had asked Dixit whether he could have confidential discussions with Rajiv Gandhi. By so doing Athulathmudali hoped to steal a march on his rival Gamini Dissanayake who, along with N. Ram of the Hindu and Dixit, was a key player behind the Accord. This was not encouraged (p.126).

Dissanayake and Ronnie de Mel, the two senior ministers in favour of the Accord, warned Dixit that Premadasa and Athulathmudali were ‘bent’ upon sabotaging the Accord (p.125 and de Mel to Dixit at dinner soon after the Accord was signed, p.150). On the one hand the LTTE for its own reasons was finding peace under the Accord a difficult prospect as much as the Tamil people were desperate for it. On 5th October 1987, on the other, Lalith Athulathmudali was instrumental in precipitating a crisis by insisting that the 17 LTTEers including senior leaders, who were detained with arms in the sea off Jaffna by the Navy, should be flown to Colombo under custody. The collective suicide of 12 of them in turn led to war between the LTTE and the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force). Subsequently, according to Dixit, Athulathmudali with Premadasa sent the LTTE messages through various channels offering them a deal where they would be given a special status as the sole representatives of the Tamil people. To back this up, Dixit says, Athulathmudali, in his capacity of National Security Minister, provided the LTTE with logistical support, operational intelligence and arms to fight the IPKF. Their strategy was to persuade Jayewardene to extricate himself by moving slowly on implementing the political settlement while using the JVP at one end and the LTTE at the other to sabotage the Accord. Then the Tamil question could be represented as a terrorist rather than a political problem.

Dixit’s claims here are supported by other testimony. Just after the Indian Army had taken over Jaffna, there were strong rumours that the LTTE was trying to make a deal with the Sri Lankan Government. N. Sabaratnam, principal emeritus of Jaffna Hindu College, wrote an editorial in the Jaffna daily Eelanadu in January 1988 protesting against such a move. He warned against going back to riding the ‘clay horse’ of talking to the Sri Lankan Government and called for the implementation of the political solution under the Accord without delay. The LTTE did not deny the charge. It blasted the Eelanadu press and stopped the paper, ending the career of Jaffna’s most respected and experienced opinion maker – the paper re-appeared in the 1990s as an LTTE organ and after 1995 was ‘exiled’ in the Vanni.

Another piece of crucial testimony comes from M.R. Narayan Swamy’s Tigers of Lanka (p.304), where he says that the Sri Lankan Government gave the first batch of arms to the LTTE in June 1988. Instrumental in the deal, according to the author, was Brigadier Denzil Kobbekaduwe who was then stationed at Trincomalee. He is said to have contacted Padman, LTTE’s Trinco leader, and offered him arms and sanctuary in Sinhalese areas outside the North-East, in return for not attacking Sinhalese villages. Narayan Swamy describes this as a carte blanche to inflict losses on Indian troops and flee into adjoining areas outside the IPKF’s operational region. The arms, he says, were collected by the LTTE from the SLA’s Adampan Army camp in Mannar, but that such supplies were stopped at once when the Indians brought it to Jayewardene’s notice. It may be noted that Kobbekaduwe’s name rose to prominence under Athulathmudali’s tenure as National Security Minister. These two’s rise to fame ran a parallel course that was checked by the arrival of the IPKF.

Narayan Swamy’s charge provoked an angry reaction among Colombo’s intelligentsia, particularly in view of Kobbekaduwe being implicated. We asked Narayan Swamy for further clarification. An excerpt from his response follows:

“Although I cannot name my source, I can tell you that the person who told me about the secret arming of LTTE by Colombo was an Indian military intelligence official. I cannot authenticate if he was speaking the truth, or half-truth or telling an outright lie. The last may not be possible because the man had no interest in lying — I spoke to him in Oct. 1990, when the military engagement was all over and he had no axe to grind (as far as I could make out). In any case, this source even told me about the many connections that sections of Indian military intelligence had with sections of LTTE — I have made reference to that as well in my book. I also know that the claims that Kobbekaduwe was involved in arming the LTTE were denied during the inquiry into his assassination and not-so- very-kind remarks were passed about me for having said so. I had no enmity with the late general, and whatever I wrote was in good faith. As you will agree, considering the secretive nature of LTTE and LTTE-related activities, it is impossible to say with certainty that information A or B is 100 percent correct or not.”

Jayewardene himself did not contradict Dixit’s concerns about conspiracies from within the Government to sabotage the Accord. His reply on one occasion was that ‘in such a complex and murky politico-military situation contradictory forces come to the fore’ (p.270). Jayewardene was guest of honour at India’s Republic Day celebrations on 26th January 1988 and then had talks with Rajiv Gandhi where he was frank about his difficulties with Premadasa and Athulathmudali. While remaining committed to doing his best to make the political solution under the Accord a reality, he said that ‘he was facing continuous opposition from Prime Minister Premadasa as well as nearly half the Cabinet led by Lalith Athulathmudali. He also informed Rajiv Gandhi that Premadasa, some elements of the officers cadre of the Sri Lankan Army and Lalith [Athulathmudali] were conniving at JVP’s depredations in Southern and Central Sri Lanka’ (p.224).

In earlier years when Premadasa and Athulathmudali vehemently opposed any autonomy to the Tamils beyond the counterfeit DDC’s, one could have readily believed that Jayewardene was orchestrating their positions. But in early 1988 there is good reason to accept that he was becoming wary of them. The two were ambitious of becoming president at the end of the year when elections were due and had no scruples. For the present they had a common interest in sabotaging the Accord, which would also down-size Dissanayake as a competitor. Jayewardene too was interested in going for a third term as president.

The Indo-Lanka Accord was also his personal decision after much vacillation. Dixit mentions a private meeting at Jayewardene’s residence on 15th July 1987 where Mrs. Elena Jayewardene opened the session with two questions. The first was, if Jayewardene agreed to the Accord, whether Rajiv Gandhi would come to Colombo for the signing ceremony? The second was, if in the event of extensive opposition ‘within’, the President was in danger of being overthrown, whether Rajiv Gandhi would ensure his safety and continuance in power? Dixit’s response was positive and the topic was changed (p.135). When the Accord was signed Indian naval boats with troops on board were on the alert close to Colombo. It is clear that the Jayewardenes were distrustful of Premadasa and Athulathmudali and were relying on India. These were the circumstances in which the Indian High Commissioner was called upon to play the viceroy.

To be continued..

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power  – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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