By Rajan Hoole –
Having launched Operation-Liberation and taken over the Vadamaratchy sector, the Army was poised to take the rest of Jaffna. The population had mixed feelings. They were to varying degrees tired of the LTTE, bombing and shelling. The LTTE supporters left the Jaffna peninsula in droves, and the others hoped that the LTTE, which was then disorganised, would follow suit. India, which did not want to be cut out of the picture, air dropped food supplies over Jaffna on the 4th of June as a signal to the Government.
In early June, about the same time as the Indian airdrop, Jayewardene convened a meeting with the three officers who led the Vadamaratchy operation. They were Brigadier Denzil Kobbekaduwe and Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne who were in charge of the two advance columns and Lt. Colonel Sunil Peiris who was in charge of the commandos. Sunil Peiris had landed on the east coast of Jaffna by night with 150 commandos and had dug in, forming a line cutting off Vadamaratchy from Thenmaratchy Division to the south. Some of the others present at the meeting were Ministers Athulathmudali (National Security) and Gamini Dissanayake, General Attygalle (Defence Secretary) and Ravi Jayewardene (Personal Security Advisor to the President).
Jayewardene announced that India was stepping in and told the three who conducted the operation that they had 48 hours to do what they wished and asked if they would like to move ahead and take the rest of Jaffna. Kobbekaduwe and Wimalaratne wanted to proceed. Sunil Peiris said that it was ‘futile’, since the units and the men needed time to recover. Then Jayewardene decided to call it off. Sinha Ratnatunga tells us that General Ranatunge, the JOC Chief, had earlier advised against proceeding. It is also interesting that this decision-making involved younger officers and retired officers. It does not appear to have involved the Army Commander. Here again the sharp difference of opinion among the younger officers on how much the fighting men could be pushed is of interest.
Once the Indian Peace Keeping Force arrived, the interests of the country and the Army would have been best served by maintaining a smooth working relationship between the two armies. But this desirable aim was vitiated by what had become in practice a diffused command structure and a lack of cohesion in the Sri Lankan Army, with the Commander’s authority subverted through political interference.
This was evident in the crisis that cropped up on 5th October 1987. Seventeen LTTE members, including 5 leaders were apprehended at sea on 3rd October by the Sri Lankan Navy and were brought to Palaly, the main base, then shared by both the Indian and Sri Lankan armies. They had a few arms and were technically in breach of the Accord. The matter required delicate handling. National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, whose ambitions of total victory had been thwarted by the Accord, wanted the prisoners flown to Colombo. The LTTE initially took it for granted that since there was an official amnesty by the President, they would be released. Although the amnesty was conditional upon a surrender of arms, it was contended that a few arms for self- defence were allowed.
The Indian High Commissioner, Mr. Dixit, sensed the gravity of the problem, and on rushing back to Colombo, went to Jayewardene who agreed to stop the transfer, and asked Dixit to tell the Indian Army to take custody of the prisoners. But General Harkirat Singh refused to take an order from Dixit and wanted it conveyed through the proper channels. This meant that it had to go to the Indian Foreign Ministry, then to the Defence Ministry and downwards. In the meantime Athulathmudali had dispatched a plane to Jaffna and ordered Jayantha Jayaratne, the Sri Lankan brigadier in charge, to send the prisoners to Colombo. Jayaratne understood the consequences and his Indian counterpart Brigadier Rodriguez was also trying to stop it by methods short of direct confrontation with the Sri Lankans.
Iqbal Athas wrote about this incident in the Sunday Times two days after Athulathmudali was killed (25.4.93). Raheem, an LTTE leader who was in Madras, and knew Athas as a defence correspondent, called him in Colombo, and asked him to tell Athulathmudali not to proceed with this. He instead offered to come to Colombo with others in Madras to discuss matters of mutual interest. Athas had conveyed this to Athulathmudali who stuck to his position. Then some time on 5th October, Raheem telephoned Athas to say, “The men will never come to Colombo, see where they go.” Athas would have understood what Raheem meant and would almost certainly have conveyed that to Athulathmudali. Athas says that in the evening he heard that the prisnors were dead.
The LTTE, which was wary of the Accord, peace and elections, was already on a course of brinkmanship by gunning down several members of other groups in the East and by starting the Thileepan fast. Raheem’s call to Athas meant that the LTTE would start trouble – big trouble. We do know that on the 5th afternoon, LTTE leaders Mahattaya and Balasingham sought and obtained permission to take meals to the detainees and secretly gave them also cyanide capsules with instructions. That afternoon Mahattaya was giving a press conference in Jaffna. At 4.30 PM, he looked at his watch and told the shocked audience that it was time for him to go to Palaly and collect the bodies!
At Palaly, Brigadier Jayantha Jayaratne was very reluctant to force the detainees into the plane and he told this to Athulathmudali on the telephone. Athulathmudali threatened to strip him of his rank and bring him to Colombo under arrest. He added that he would have his second- in-command take charge. When an attempt was made to force the LTTE detainees into the aircraft, twelve of them bit their cyanide capsules and committed suicide. The LTTE then went on a binge massacring Sinhalese civilians, and provoking a war with the Indian Army that was very costly to the civilians.
The incident undoubtedly weighed heavily on Jayaratne’s mind. He was the same officer referred to earlier who was unhappy with what was going on in Jaffna under Weeratunge in 1979 and was taken out. Jayaratne later reflected very sadly to his former commander, Lt. Gen. Denis Perera, that he had been a sergeant in the cadet platoon at Royal College, Colombo, while Athulathmudali was an ordinary cadet. Now, he added, Athulathmudali had spoken to him in such a humiliating manner. Jayaratne would also perhaps have remembered Athulathmudali the ambitious schoolboy, who, without having touched a tennis racket, went about canvassing votes to have himself elected secretary to the Tennis Club. This was to pick up points for extra-curricular activities for the head prefectship. Many years later this schoolboy grew up to be the national security minister who clearly wanted a further round of war and, through it, to advance his political ambitions, and succeeded.
Jayaratne died the following year of natural causes. Here was an officer who felt a sense of responsibility for his country and for the Army, and was unwilling to seek career advancement by toeing the line of unscrupulous politicians who knew no restraint. Concerning Athulathmudali’s order to Jayaratne, following the LTTE’s Anuradhapura massacre of May 1985 where no resistance was offered by the Army, the question was posed by the Press as to who should take responsibility and perhaps resign. Athulathmudali denied responsibility for the security lapse. He said (Sun 22.5.85) ‘that he had no direct authority over anyone and has not been given the legal power to give direct orders’! If Jayaratne had the presence of mind, like Harkirat Singh, he should have asked Athulathmudali to send the order through the correct channels (i.e. the army commander). Sri Lankan officers had after years of anarchy lost sensitivity to procedures.
Allegations have come from Narayan Swamy, Dixit and Jayewardene as reported by Dixit, that, with Athulathmudali’s connivance, weapons were given to the LTTE by Kobbekaduwe. This cannot be disbelieved (see Sect. 16.1). It was in keeping with Athulathmudali’s earlier desperate action to wreck the Accord. One should not be surprised if the Army Commander did not know. Worse was to come. Before going into it, we will look at a considered view taken by a high-ranking Sri Lankan officer of the Indian Army’s presence in the North-East. The following is an extract from Javed Mansoor’s interview in The Sunday Times of 14th August 1988 with Army Chief-of- Staff Major General Hamilton Wanasinghe who became lieutenant general and army commander the next day:
Mansoor: If the IPKF (Indian Army) were suddenly asked to return home, what would be your position?
Wanasinghe: I would be in a jam. That is if the Southern (JVP) threat too exists.
Mansoor: In the East, will troop deployments be increased in view of the recent attacks on Sinhalese villages?
Wanasinghe: I don’t think it will be useful to beef up strength. If they want to attack a village, they will do it. And it is done after careful observation of the area. We cannot anticipate such attacks and we cannot have the ground thick with troops.
Wanasinghe was thus very clear that it was in Sri Lanka’s and in its Army’s interests for the Indian Army to remain. He was also clear that neither the Sri Lankan nor the Indian Army could be blamed for the LTTE attacks on Sinhalese villages. It then suited the LTTE and the anti-IPKF lobby in the South to blame the Indian Army. To this day the LTTE attacks these villages with impunity after which politicians go there and promise extra security and then nothing happens. Even after Premadasa’s election as president and his abrasive pledges to send the Indian Army home, Wanasinghe is on record saying that the Indian Army would be needed for some time. This makes the episode of handing over arms to the LTTE even more remarkable. The basic facts in what follows are from the Kobbekaduwe Commission proceedings, where all the main actors testified, except Premadasa and Ranjan Wijeratne, who were by then deceased.
*To be continued.. Next week – Handing Over Arms to the LTTE