By Rajan Hoole –
We saw in earlier chapters that Gandhiyam and other social service NGOs helping Tamils in these border areas were being targetted from late 1982. Gandhiyam was sealed in April 1983 and its leaders detained. On the eve of the July ’83 violence Gamini Dissanayake made veiled threats of strong-arm tactics against Tamils settled in areas earmarked for Sinhalese colonisation (Chapter 5). In the prison massacre, Dr. Rajasundaram, perhaps the single most active worker among these refugees in the field, was murdered by the State in a most contemptible manner.
In the weeks following the July violence there was an air of impunity and anarchy and also, as we shall see, grand plans to drive away the Tamil settlers and even destroy old Tamil villages along border areas and put in militarised Sinhalese settlements. And whom did these strategists choose as their model? Why, Israel of course! Gamini Dissanayake was at the forefront and for him it was a continuation of what was begun before the July 1983 violence. He was soon joined by Ravi Jayewardene who, as the President’s security advisor, was a key figure at operational level.
On the one hand Jayewardene was talking to the Indian Government’s envoy G. Parthasarathy who was trying to push through a political settlement to the ethnic problem, but on the other he was making overtures to the US in a bid to achieve a military solution. The num- ber of Tamil militants however was then small and the escalation sought by Jayewardene was to prove very costly.
In the afternoon of 30th September 1983, the US Defence Secretary Casper Weinberger flew into Colombo and had talks with President Jayewardene during a brief stopover. This was picked up by the Indian Press, which speculated about US military assistance to Sri Lanka in re- turn for naval facilities at Trincomalee. The manner in which the Sri Lankan foreign ministry dealt with the matter was to look for trouble where none existed. They issued a statement that Weinberger had decided to take this route while flying from Peking to Islamabad in Pakistan, and had made a refuelling stop in Colombo. They stressed that it was none of India’s business. While Weinberger was here on a 90 minute stopover, the statement said, Jayewardene invited him to tea and they met. The Foreign Ministry by its haughty attitude gave an impression that a favourable deal with a super power was involved. These developments were the context in which the Indian Government took a decision in late 1983 to train and arm Tamil militant groups.
What the US was looking for, would become clear later. The US and Britain did not want to confront India by becoming directly involved in Sri Lanka. The Weekend columnist Don Mithuna (30.9.84), quoting the London Economist, said: “The Americans made up for their own cold-shoul- dering of Sri Lanka by providing a go-between, Gen- eral Vernon Walters, who helped to draft the agree- ment signed last May (1984) with Israel.” Despite denials by the US Embassy in Colombo, that there had been some direct US assistance is suggested by the American author of Only Man is Vile. William Mc Gowan quoted a Sri Lankan Air Force pilot telling him (in 1987) that a Vietnam War veteran had flown several operations in this country.
Sri Lanka had broken diplomatic ties with Israel in 1970 in keeping with a Third World consensus when the Left-leaning government led by Mrs. Bandaranaike was voted into power. Jayewardene’s government that was elected in 1977 was anxious for Israeli help. That it had made contact with Israel before the July 1983 violence was confirmed in an interview to the veteran journalist Mervyn de Silva by Mr. David Matnai, first head of the Israeli Interests Section in the US Embassy (Sunday Island 2.9.85).
There was one matter concerning which sections of both the Sinhalese and the Tamil elite drew inspiration from Israel – the border areas of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The former saw in the Israeli example a means to breaking the back of Tamil nationalist aspira- tions and preserving a unitary Sri Lanka under the hegemony of the Sinhalese elite. The Tamil elite saw in it a means of securing the sparsely populated border areas from further intrusions by the State through colonisation. The Western Jewry’s Zionist dream of Israel, was made viable by absorbing a large number of Shepardim Jews who till then were living with dignity among the Arab people, and to whom Israel’s violent and iniquitous creation brought insecu- rity. The Sinhalese and Tamil elite’s border projects too, like the Zionist dream, had to be accomplished by proxy.
The Sinhalese elite looked to pushing militarised colonies of deprived Sinhalese into the North-East in an Israeli West-Bank style ex- pansion into Arab territory. Many among the Tamil elite drew inspiration from Leon Uris’ Exodus which glorified the pioneering spirit of post World War II Jewish refugees in Palestine. Although young Tamil school leavers were can- vassed, it was mostly the Tamil refugees from the Hill Country with few other options in the world who settled in these areas.
According to Sinha Ratnatunga, President Jayewardene entrusted the task of making con- tact with Israel to his son Ravi in October 1983. Thereafter Cabinet Secretary G.V.P. Samarasinghe had a secret meeting with senior Israeli officials in Europe during November 1983 (see Ratnatunge’s Politics of Terrorism p.162). The deal for Israeli intelligence expertise was finalised later during UN General Assembly ses- sions in New York and was formally operational by May 1984.
Sinha Ratnatunga (p.315 of the book above) gives us an insight into the mind of the Sinha- lese establishment: “The President who is also the Minister of State Plantations also hopes to boost the plantation industry in the Eastern Province. The twin objective is to develop the unused land as well as establish a stronger presence of the State in the area… At the initial stage, separatist [i.e. Tamil] youths objecting to such programmes may attempt to disrupt its workings, but the newly established Planters Corp [sic] supported by the regular forces may be required to defend these schemes.”
This euphemistic description no doubt takes into account the sensibilities of the Australian readership of the book. Interestingly, Don Mithuna says in the article of September 1984 quoted above: “The Israeli Interests Section itself has reportedly claimed that they are here not to train any soldiers but to promote their diplomatic image as well as for “agricultural” purposes.” Mervyn de Silva told the Mossad Commission (CDN 20.7.91) that as of August 1984, there were re- portedly up to six domestic intelligence experts from Israel working with the Government ‘to establish a new intelligence network against the Tamils’.
Against these developments it becomes easy to understand what was in the Government’s mind when the Joint Services Special Operations Command (JOSSOP) was formed on a directive from the President at the beginning of October in 1983. It was a joint organisation of the three services and the Police along with some civilians under Navy Commander Rear Admiral Asoka de Silva as Co-ordinator-in-Chief. Its stated purpose was to “co-ordinate anti-terrorist activities in the districts of Vavuniya, Mannar, Mullaitivu and Trincomalee” (Rohan Gunasekera, Island 13.11.84). Another important role of JOSSOP was to oversee civil affairs such as land- settlement.
With such a high-powered organisation in place, the first operation to the credit of the Rear Admiral was announced in the Press a week af- ter Casper Weinberger’s visit. It was described as a ‘flush out’ operation. It had nothing to do with flushing out ‘terrorists’ armed to the teeth who were indeed very scarce at that time. This was about corralling human beings, men, women and children, and deporting them to god knows where. There was no direct connection with Weinberger of course, but the context sug- gests where the Government was heading.
The item by Peter Balasuriya in the Island of 7th Oct.1983 titled ‘Gandhiyam Movement’s squat- ters to be evicted’, said: “… It is stated that over fifty stateless families, comprising nearly 250 men, women and children had been brought from the plan- tations and settled on 500 acres earmarked by the Government for the settlement of landless villagers within the electorate under a World Bank project. This encroachment had started two years ago when the Gandhiyam Movement launched a large-scale encroachment in the jungle areas of Vavuniya and Mullaitivu and other areas off Vavuniya.”
It claimed that under a land policy scheme with World Bank assistance, landless peasant families in the Vavuniya District had been picked by the Government Agent for settlement in 500 acres of virgin forest at Pavatkulam, but was unable to proceed because of encroachers sponsored by the Gandhiyam. The aim of the stated operation was clearly to establish a Sin- halese settlement using World Bank funds. It was barely two months after the communal violence and Tamil allotees, if any, were not going to take up land in the mixed area south of Vavuniya under the supervision of the armed forces they did not trust. Gamini Dissanayake was minister of lands and Mahaveli develop- ment, and what’s more, the second-in-command at JOSSOP was D.J. Bandaragoda, Additional Secretary, Mahaveli Development!
Bandaragoda had been the ideal Govern- ment Agent for Trincomalee from the point of view of the Sinhalese State, who used every sub- terfuge to push Sinhalese settlement. The cam- paign against the Gandhiyam through the Press was first orchestrated by the Government 10 months earlier, during the one-sided Referen- dum campaign, on 28th November 1982 (see Sect. 8.2). Mr. R. Sampanthan, MP, found it sin- ister enough to contact Jayewardene immedi- ately. The reference to the Gandhiyam in the Press report cited (Island 7.10.83) was symptom- atic of sick minds that had lost any sense of pro- portion. It said at the end:
“The activities of the Gandhiyam move- ment and its leaders in Vavuniya and other parts of the Eastern Province are now the sub- ject matter of investigations by the CID and ISD. Some of its leaders are already in cus- tody while some escaped recently after the Batticaloa jail break.”
The fact was that Gandhiyam was finished. Its offices were sealed on 6th April 1983. Of the two leaders arrested, Rajasundaram was mur- dered and the ‘some’ who escaped was in fact one – A. David. Those whom the Gandhiyam had looked after now faced the tender mercies of the JOSSOP. The talk of investigation by the CID and ISD was only a threat to those who might come forward to continue Gandhiyam’s work. The nasty things regularly being said about Rajasundaram did not strike those say- ing them as utterly indecent and unfair to a self- less and dedicated man whom their agents had murdered without giving him a chance to ex- plain himself in court. Living in this state of mind was to see ghosts, as with the alacrity with which the chiefs of the Mahaveli Authority in the wake of the anti-Tamil violence of July, took steps against imagined organised hordes of Tamils occupying lands they had designated for Sinhalese colonisation.
The cause of the JOSSOP however required talking the Gandhiyam to life and attributing to it all kinds of fantastic actions in order to play on Sinhalese fears. This created a climate of self-justifying repression and a blind escalation of the conflict. With every step the Government was suspending the democratic means to right- ing a wrong. About this time, thanks to the 6th Amendment, nearly all the parliamentary rep- resentatives of the Tamils had lost their seats in Parliament, making thus a symbolic break. By the end of 1983, except for those most discern- ing about the consequences of big-power in- volvement, nearly all the Tamils were happy about India’s support for the Tamil militant groups. The Government’s simple-minded ar- rogance had carried relations with India to breaking point.
Talking up organised hordes of Tamils en- croaching on borderlands with Gandhiyam help was to be the stuff of orchestrated campaigns during those times. The use of foreign aid to es- tablish militarised Sinhalese settlements became an issue with the publication of Viktor Ostrovsky’s book (see Sect. 20.5). This was pi- ously denied. But that was part of the game. We saw above an indication of how World Bank money was to be used. Not long before, the Mahadivulwewa settlement had been estab- lished in the Trincomalee District using subterfuge to circumvent Tamil protest. The money involved came from the European Union.
To be continued..