By Rajan Hoole –
The Army’s involvement in establishing the Weli Oya settlement in the Mullaitivu District and the subsequent dirty war to uproot Tamil villages in the East, both with the participation of the Mossad, placed it in a very difficult situation. These projects were clearly in breach of International Law and the Geneva Conventions. It made the Government’s programme among the Tamils appear in the likeness of Israeli aggression into Palestinian territory. This had grave political consequences through legitimising Tamil claims to nationhood as a people separated from the Sri Lankan State, as demonstrated by its actions. Indirectly, it had grave military consequences.
By this time, the war was in the hands of amateur politicians and amateur military strategists. Ravi Jayewardene would have denied any credit for being among the former since he probably did not understand the political consequences of what he was doing. Lalith Athulathmudali read copiously on guerrilla warfare and reportedly thought he had what it takes to win. Another structure – the Joint Operations Command – was imposed and the control of the war was given to the JOC chief. By bringing handpicked retired military officers into positions, who moreover served at the will and pleasure of politicians, political control of the machine was all but complete. Another strategy in this control was the offer of plum diplomatic postings to favourite service chiefs after retirement.
During this period massacres of civilians with complete impunity and the uprooting of civilians simply by going into a village and opening fire or by aerial attacks on peasants harvesting paddy became the norm. Apart from the Cabinet, those who headed the JOC must take full responsibility for implementing this policy.
Thus following the Anuradhapura massacre, ‘Bull’ Weeratunge was packed off to Canada as high commissioner, while Cyril Ranatunge, a retired brigadier selected by Ravi Jayewardene, was made JOC chief after promoting him to lieutenant general. With the JOC head now effectively more powerful than the army commander, it became unnecessary for the Government to indulge in further manoeuvres with a view to appointing army commanders to its liking. Major General Nalin Seneviratne succeeded Weeratunge as army commander, but references to him in the Press were rare compared with those to the JOC chief. In reports of Operation Liberation, the Army’s major operation in 1987, the Army Commander was almost completely overshadowed.
The role of the politician is also underpinned by the fact that there was no independent professional guiding the Army at administrative level. In the early 80s the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence was Colonel Dharmapala, a retired officer known to fall asleep at meetings. Then it was General Attygalle, the army commander until 1977, again in his 60s and so on. By the mid- 1980s the defence establishment had become notorious for corruption, and retired officers who went into it spoilt their reputation rather than achieve anything tangible.
Nalin Seneviratne had been in charge of Jaffna before being promoted to army commander. When asked about his control over the area by a foreign journalist, he had pointed to the perimeter fence at Palaly camp and said that it stopped there. Rather than listen to such men and seek political accommodation seriously, the Government preferred to bring in retired generals and give prominence to over- ambitious officers who were willing to toe the line of the politicians. Arms merchants and defence consultants too were knocking at the door with their sales talk and commissions.
The heady mixture of commerce and patriotism did the country’s reputation little good. Here is an extract from a report by Nick Davies in the London Daily News of 4.3.87 titled “Soldiers in Tamil Protest”, on the experience of British ex-SAS mercenaries from the KMS:
“The Special Task Force moved into the island’s Eastern Province and the KMS men began to hear reports of atrocities. The mercenaries, many of whom have long SAS experience of counter-insurgency, complained that this was a fatal error. They wanted the ‘Task Force’ to win hearts and minds of Tamil villagers to cut off the support they offered Tamil guerrillas. They complained that the Task Force was making enemies of them all and made a series of protests to the senior mercenary on the ground, an ex-SAS colonel who joined the KMS after being targetted by Irish terrorists. He could do nothing. Discontent among the mercenary ranks grew. Less qualified “cowboy” reinforcements were sent from London, including one man who had served a jail sentence for armed robbery.
“Then Israeli security consultants arrived on the island and unhampered by restrictions from their own government, began to take over the KMS operation…. Now senior ex- SAS men have refused to renew their contracts and others have walked out. David Walker who is believed to be still in Sri Lanka, is reported to have sacked KMS teams who have been training other specialist army and navy units for the Sri Lankans, in an attempt to save the contract with the STF.”
David Walker who ran the KMS (Keeny Meeny Services) was an ex-SAS major hiring out ex-SAS mercenaries. Nick Davies’ report quoted security sources in Britain as saying that the deal with the Sri Lankan Government had been endorsed by MI6 and approved by Whitehall. KMS was the type of outfit used by the British and the US governments for unsavoury covert operations. Because of possible repercussions in the USA, President Reagan had sub-contracted KMS for the Administration’s covert operation in Nicaragua. The KMS was used to fund, arm, and train Contra rebels to overthrow the Leftist Sandinista government that had earlier, in 1979, overthrown the US-backed dictator Somoza. The British Prime Minister Magaret Thatcher is believed to have been instrumental in the KMS deal to train the STF. The then Labour Foreign Affairs Spokesman George Foulkes had tabled a question in Parliament asking Prime Minister Mrs. Thatcher about her meetings with David Walker and the commitments she had made with regard to Sri Lanka.
The security forces were getting a pot-pourri of SAS training and Mossad strategies. A particular incident was reported in the Saturday Review of 30th November 1985 in a lighter vein. Lt. Col. C.L. Algama, who was co-ordinating officer, Mullaitivu, addressed a letter to the Government Agent, Mullaitivu, dated 12th November 1985. He made an accusation that his staff were not giving information about incidents that came to their knowledge, such as abductions, dead bodies and other encounters involving militants. After pointing out that this was punishable (i.e. under the PTA), he ended: “Severe action will be taken if evidence could be found of irresponsible conduct.”
Later on 25th November soldiers went into the Mullaitivu bus stand, made random arrests of civilians and took them to the army camp for ‘a tete-a-tete, tea, biscuits and fun’. Colonel Algama told them, “I am with the Sri Lankan Army for the past 20 years and we are here for a fight indeed, and our duty is to fight. However, I am not for it… I can crush the entire Mullaitivu [town] within minutes”, he said, pointing to an artillery piece pointed at the town, and added that he would like to enlist the co-operation of the people to crush terrorism once and for all.
No harm was done. But the attitude was potentially dangerous. Instead of reconciliation, the Army was being pushed into a situation where they dealt with the people as aliens. It was a point in the evolution of the Army. Algama’s role 3 years later during the JVP insurgency is now part of history. To be fair by him, a human rights lawyer who was in the deep South during the JVP insurgency said that Algama did kill, but he was not a mass-killer. His targets were selected from a certain political standpoint. A little over a month after the incident above, there was an escalation, which was a natural step in such thinking. In Jaffna, the civilians were already cut off from the Army, which was encamped in Jaffna Fort. On 1st January 1986, a good part of the city was declared a firing zone for the defence of the Fort. On 4th January, probably after a provocation, the Army fired shells, killing 21 civilians. It all flowed from Jayewardene’s statement in July 1983 that they cannot worry about the lives of the Tamils or their opinion about the Government.
The case of another officer is of interest. Major P.A. Karunatilleke of the Armoured Corps was in Anuradhapura. He was regarded by his colleagues a good officer. Soon after the Anuradhapura massacre by the LTTE of 14th May 1985, the Tamils in the area took refuge in a protected area. A corporal in the Military Police suddenly opened fire at them and killed 6 civilians. Major Karunatilleke, according to a fellow officer, shouted at the corporal, pulled out his service revolver and shot him dead. It was an exceptional and creditable action, especially when anti-Tamil emotions were high. It is quite possible that he then suffered for it.
Herman Gunaratne mentions the presence of a Major Karunatilleke at a meeting of Ravi Jayewardene’s group in December 1984. During the JVP insurgency, P.A. Karunatilleke earned notoriety for mass killings in the South. He and Colonel Janaka Perera are known to have been in regular contact with Deputy Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne at the height of the insurgency during 1989. Karunatilleke repeated the performance at Valaichchenai and Eastern University following the re-commencement of war in the Tamil areas the next year (see our Report No.7 of 1991). Both Janaka Perera and Karunatilleke presided over more than 300 disappearances in Jaffna during 1996 (see our Special Report No.7 of 1996). An officer who worked under Karunatilleke described him also as a man who regarded with contempt fellow officers making money in various corrupt ways.
By early 1987, the fighting had escalated with regular aerial bombing and shelling against civilians in Jaffna. A number of officers were also disillusioned with the state of affairs and several of them had planned to talk to President Jayewardene and ask him to offer a federal solution and bring the war to an end. Most of them were young and from elite schools in the South and many of them knew Jayewardene personally. But at the end of May, Operation Liberation was launched in the north-eastern (Vadamaratchy) sector of Jaffna and things moved fast. India intervened and the Indo- Lanka Accord was signed at the end of July. These officers referred to, drifted out of the Army in the coming years.
*To be continued.. Next week – The Indo-Lanka Accord
*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