By Rajan Hoole –
As for the Israeli engagement and what it entailed, much valuable information is ob- tainable from By Way of Deception by Viktor Ostrovsky and Claire Hoy, which was published in 1990, and the proceedings and report of the Mossad Commission in this country the following year, provoked by the same book. The book was written by the Canadian journalist Claire Hoy on the basis of information Ostrovsky had gathered while serving in the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad from 1983 to 1986, before quitting and flying off to Canada. It caused a sensation in Sri Lanka because of its references to purported dealings between Sri Lanka and the Mossad. Some of the claims made in the book are:
1. Amy Yaar, the Mossad official in charge of the region dreamt up the Mahaveli Project – Sri Lanka’s largest river diversion scheme.
2. The Israelis helped Sri Lanka to cheat the World Bank and other investors out of dollars to pay for all the arms they were buying. Mentioned in particular was giving different views of the same construction to pass them off as separate parts of the project.
3. At one point the Israelis were simultaneously training both LTTE and Sri Lankan security personnel in close proximity of each other in Israel and the Israelis took great pains to avoid their seeing each other.
4. On one occasion the drawing of the inside of a vacuum cleaner was shown and explained to visiting Sri Lankan officials as per- taining to highly sophisticated radar equipment.
The Commission appointed by President Premadasa comprised Mr. S.W.B. Wadugodapitiya PC, Solicitor General. He is presently a judge of the Supreme Court. Premadasa had severed Israeli links and the Commission was seen as a means of embarrass- ing Jayewardene and those close to him. The four claims above were ridiculed before the Commission. The Mahaveli Project (claim1), it was pointed out, was thought of during the ten- ure of Minister C.P. de Silva in 1958 and had been on the drawing board from the 1960s, while Amy Yaar did not visit Sri Lanka until 1984.
As for claim 2, a host of senior officials testified before the Commission and the Commissioner concluded decisively: “To my mind what Ostrovsky has done, literally, is to transplant this type of fraud which he says is common in Israel to this country, and graft this deceitful ‘Israeli mentality’, as he describes it, onto the consciousness of Mahaveli officials in Sri Lanka.” Ravi Jayewardene objected dubiously to the third claim above, that the Israelis would not have trained the LTTE because Prabhakaran was against Israel. The fourth, it was said was not even original because it is there in a Graham Greene novel.
Yet, if one changes one’s point of view and understands the limitations of the book, many things fall into place or at least appear credible. For example, it would appear from the book that the Israelis had a contempt for the kind govern- ments who became their clients, and having dealings with Latin American dictators that the US General Vernon Walters associated with, Graham Greene would have been compulsory reading in the Mossad. Thus, the vacuum cleaner lark may have been a regular favourite with them. Viktor Ostrovsky was first a trainee and then a junior operative in the Mossad.
Claire Hoy explains: “Viktor kept a diary of his own experiences and of many related by others… And because the Mossad is such a small tight knit organisation, he had access to classified computer files and oral histories, counterparts of which would be unobtainable by a junior player in the CIA or KGB.”
Amy Yaar was Ostrovsky’s instructor and many jokes and stories would have been ban- died about, but one should not expect either to have had a deep interest in the history and details of the Mahaveli Project. Ravi Jayewardene’s wife Penny visited Israel in mid-1985 with Dr. (Mrs.) Hiranthi Wijemanne, as stated by the former in connection with the rehabilitation of injured soldiers. The book has referred to Dr. Wijemanne as the maid of Mrs. Jayewardene. One might expect this kind of mistake from a foreigner who met or heard of the Third World visitors casually. (Dr. Wijemanne is currently with UNICEF, Colombo.) Ravi Jayewardene denounced Ostrovsky as a ‘traitor’ and a ‘probation- ary Mossad driver’. But the Israelis themselves did not take his revelations lightly.
Mervyn de Silva told the Commission quot- ing a London Guardian report (18.9.90) that ‘furious Israeli government officials and intelligence chiefs met in crisis session’ to assess the gravity of the damage caused by the book. Also, he told the Commission that ABC news network had used Isser Harel, the founder of Mossad, to confront Ostrovsky in an interview and the lat- ter had faced the test without breaking down (CDN 20.7.91).
We now move on to the subject of Sinhalese settlements. On the subject of Israeli help, Presi- dent Jayewardene told Western journalists in Hong Kong in May 1984, ‘We are prepared to align ourselves even with the Devil to fight terrorism’. The same month the Israeli Interests Section was opened in the US Embassy in Colombo. Ravi Jayewardene met Amy Yaar who visited Sri Lanka about that time. He then went on a visit to Israel from 21st June 1984 to 1st July. According to his testimony (Island 28.3.91), he visited ‘all the border towns of Israel’. He also among other things met the Head of Mossad and the Prime Minister of Israel.
One is struck by Ravi Jayewardene’s inter- est in visiting ‘all’ the border towns of Israel. The notable ones lying in the West Bank were planted amidst Palestinian habitations, and have since been protected by armed civilian paramilitary units. However, at that time of June 1984 not a single Sinhalese village had been attacked by Tamil militants. There were no attacks on old Sinhalese villages until nearly a year later in May 1985. There is little room to doubt that Ravi Jayewardene was then looking into setting up armed Sinhalese colonies in the North-East. He was moreover very much alive to the West- Bank type of retaliatory violence the move was bound to provoke. The foremost of these settle- ments resulted in the first massacre of Sinhalese in November 1984. Although Ravi Jayewardene was discreet, Athulathmudali as National Security Minister could not help vaunting the Government’s intention of settling 200,000 rough Sinhalese elements in the North (e.g. Is- land, 5.6.85).
There is further evidence of Ravi Jayewardene’s intentions from Ostrovsky, a point that the Commission entirely missed. If there were nothing in fact behind Ostrovsky attributing the Mahaveli Project to Amy Yaar, the book would have been fiction without any con- text to make it credible. He was no doubt repre- senting something he had heard. Ostrovsky said in connection with this project: “The Sri Lankan government was worried about unrest among farm- ers… So it wanted to split them up somewhat by moving them from one side of the island to the other.” This may have been how Gamini Dissanayake or Ravi Jayewardene represented to Amy Yaar their desire to shift some Sinhalese from the South-West into the North-East. Ostrovsky did not seem to understand fully the ethnic dimension involved.
One reading the first few pages of Gunaratne’s For a Sovereign State would see the significance of Ostrovsky’s reference to the Mahaveli Project. The four areas for Sinhalese settlement being talked about by Mahaveli officials to sunder the contiguity of the Tamil speaking region are the Malwathu River basin, the Manal Aru (Sand River) basin, the Yan River basin and the Maduru River basin. In the Mahaveli Plan, these had been designated Systems J, L, M and B respectively. System L was a priority because it was situated on the border of the Northern and Eastern Provinces and was inhabited by Tamils.
System L was, according to the plan, one of the last stages of the project, hopefully to be implemented if the NCP (North Central Province) Canal conveying Mahaveli River water to the North became a reality. Ostrovsky would have been quite accurate had he said that the task given to Amy Yaar was to redesign parts of the Mahaveli Project in the North-East so that they could be viable without Mahaveli water. We gather from Ratnatunge (ibid. p.315), that prospective crops were looked into, and one considered was the oil producing ‘miracle bean’ or jojoba that had been tried out in Israel’s Negev Desert. It would have been perfectly natural to seek World Bank funding for the project as investment ostensibly meant to ward off social unrest.
We pause now to reflect on what we do have. The Mossad Commission drew attention to the following from Ostrovsky’s book (p.69):
“Later when I was working for Yaar’s de- partment in Mossad headquarters I was as- signed to escort Jayewardene’s daughter-in- law – a woman named Penny – on a secret visit to Israel. She knew me as “Simon”… she in- sisted on telling me about the [Mahaveli] project and how money for it was financing equipment for the army. She was complain- ing that they weren’t really getting on with it. Ironically the project had been ‘invented’ to get money from the World Bank to pay for those weapons.”
There is nothing sensational in Ostrovsky’s references to the Mahaveli Project. They are in fact very pedestrian, by-the-way references. To him such subterfuge was part of Mossad routine. Ostrovsky’s reference to Mrs. Penny Jayewardene is again very ordinary. It is of a normal urban Colombo woman complaining from what she heard from her husband or oth- ers that things were not working to plan. The reference is also supported by the fact that in mid-1984 the Mahaveli Ministry was faced with a paucity of funds, partly due to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait withholding payments (e.g. Ratnatunga’s book p.164).
Further to Mervyn de Silva’s testimony that Ostrovsky ‘withstood the test’ when confronted on television, we may also look at the answers given by him to questions posed in camera by Commissioner Wadugodapitiya (see Mossad Commission Report). Ostrovsky’s answers were clear and unambiguous, coming from an intelligent man. He stated whether the information in question is something he obtained directly or had heard from someone (e.g. Amy Yaar). This is what we should have expected. Before publishing a highly controversial book, Claire Hoy, the co-author, and St. Martin’s Press, New York, the publisher, would have tested Ostrovsky thoroughly before putting their reputation on the line. Moreover, an annoyed Ravi Jayewardene called Ostrovsky a ‘traitor’, which he would not have if what he had in mind is an out-and-out fibber.
We may take it that Ostrovsky did hear references in the Mossad to the prospective use of Mahaveli funds from the World Bank for military type projects to contain the Tamils. We may go further. These projects have an older provenance – the huge land acquisitions by the State in Trincomalee District from 1980, Prima Flour Mills under Mathew where jobs were given overwhelmingly to Sinhalese from outside Trincomalee and the campaign against Gandhiyam from November 1982. The plans were hotting up about mid-1983 as events indicate. These grand plans are confirmed by Sinha Ratnatunge (p.308 of his book), which included giving farmlands in the interior of Trinco District to ‘youths and the Armed Forces – predominantly Sinhalese’.
However, the violence of July 1983 placed the Jayewardene government in a self-inflicted fi- nancial and economic crisis and the Government was desperately appealing to the West. In a very pained chapter of his book (Who are the True Friends?), Ratnatunge complains that the West was keeping Sri Lanka, whose democracy was threatened by ‘Marxists’, at arm’s length. Hence his obsession with passing off July 1983 as a Marxist plot, even though he confesses that evi- dence is lacking.
L. Piyadasa points out (p.95 of his book) that the US had become disillusioned with Jayewardene by 1983. This was signalled by the US inviting Prime Minister Premadasa instead of President Jayewardene for a visit to the US of South Asian leaders. Jayewardene’s attacks on democracy and his exacerbation of the Tamil problem did not hold out to the US the prospect of a stable and trouble free client. Piyadasa’s assessment in early 1984 that the US would not be interested in naval facilities in Trincomalee under such unsettled conditions, has been borne out by events. Piyadasa observes that the pro-Western cronyism of the Jayewardene-Esmond Wickremasinghe-N.G.P. Panditharatne clique, mistakenly led them to expect the West to underwrite the heavy eco- nomic and political cost of Sinhalese racism.
However, the visits to Colombo of US Defence Secretary Casper Weinberger on 30th September 1983 and of President Reagan’s Roving Ambassador General Vernon Walters 38 days later, appeared to signal an apparent change of US policy towards support for Jayewardene. There was no doubt a substantial price involved.
Among Ostrovsky’s claims inquired into by Commissioner Wadugodapitiya was the follow- ing in p.68 of his book:
“In order to convince the World Bank es- pecially [with its USD 250 Million commitment] that the project [under the Mahaveli Authority] was feasible – and would also serve as a convenient excuse for moving farmers from their land – the Mossad had two Israeli academics, one an economist from Jerusalem University, the other a professor of agriculture, write scholarly papers explaining its importance and its costs.”
Among Mahaveli Authority documents ex- amined by the Commission was an agreement dated 10th November 1983. This was signed by Itzhak Abt on behalf of the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture and N.G.P. Panditharatne on behalf of the Mahaveli Authority. The purpose was to obtain two Israeli experts on long term assignments. The Commission however found only evidence of two Israeli experts in Agriculture and Economics coming on assignments long afterwards, one in 1986 and the other in 1987. The Commissioner found Ostrovsky’s charge of Israeli experts preparing a false feasibility report for a World Bank funded project to be untrue. He would have been fair had he said that he found no evidence to substantiate the charge.
When questioned by the Commission, wit- nesses such as Gamini Dissanayake and N.G.P. Panditharatne, who held the top positions in the Mahaveli Authority during that period, were unable to say who initiated the agreement with Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture. They said that it was consequent to negotiations with an Israeli delegation that was in this country from 14th July to 6th August 1983. They were not in a posi- tion to state with certainty the purpose of the delegation.
This is utterly disingenuous. The visit of the delegation coincided with the July 1983 violence, besides other relevant developments. About 19th July 1983 Gamini Dissanayake met the GAs in the North-East and warned them against helping or accommodating Plantation Tamils. Even draconian laws to evict these Tamils were proposed (see Sect. 20.4 & 5.6). On 23rd July many of them who were refugees around Trincomalee were forcibly moved to the Hill Country. The author of For a Sovereign State informs us that at this time Mahaveli Authority officials were in a state of hyper-excitement with plans for grand Sinhalese settlements in the North-East (Sect. 13.3). We must also place the visit by the Israelis in July 1983 in the context of the current bluster by Jayewardene and Athulathmudali of draconian measures to fight terrorism and having ‘Tamils live among the Sinhalese’.
To be continued..