By Rajan Hoole –
The Rise and Fall of the Tamil Militancy and the International Legal Implications of the Government’s Counter-Insurgency – Part 6
Jockeying for Succession
1984found militarism riding a crest. As a very ambitious national security minister, Athulath mudali’s semantic talents were given a full range of application. For the first time, he was almost hogging the newspaper headlines. The Colombo media evinced nothing but adulation for him. His reasoning was very similar to that behind the PTA and the Emergency Regulations. How much real power he had would be a matter of conjecture. Judging from Gunaratne’s book, Ravi Jayewardene’s group had little enthusiasm for him. In a way he was performing for the Government, the role assigned to the political wing leader Anton Balasingam by the LTTE – viz., to explain the actions of the military wing.
Lalith Athulathmudali’s speech to school-leavers at Sangamitta Girls High School, Galle, in early October 1984 is revealing: “When one is in the thick of a battle, one cannot pause to consider who is responsible for a particular attack. Anyone whose life is threatened and is faced with the prospect of death, has the right to determine how he should act in such circumstances… One politician asked me if innocent people were being killed by the Navy in the surveillance zone. I requested this politician to come aboard one of the naval vessels and try to determine whether a particular boat or vessel detected on the high seas was manned by terrorists or innocent people” (Sun and Island 2.10.84).
It explained also the Army’s practice at that time. Anyone sighted by the Army after a militant attack was a legitimate target. Massacres of Tamil civilians had become the order of the day. April 1984, the month after Athulathmudali was made National Security Minister saw increased confrontations in Jaffna, which left over a hundred Tamil civilians killed in indiscriminate firing by the Army. In mid- August, Valvettithurai was shelled from the sea. In early September 16 civilians were killed in a Police rampage near Point Pedro after 4 policemen were killed in a landmine attack in Thickham. The Hartley College library and science laboratory were burnt. A few days later a Jaffna-bound passenger bus was hijacked by army personnel at Rambewa between Anuradhapura and Vavuniya, taken along the Mannar Road and the passengers were fired at. The 60-year-old driver and 14 passengers were killed. 31 others escaped, some with injuries.
This followed the killing of 8 soldiers in Mullaitivu. During early December 1984, 9 soldiers were injured in a landmine blast in Uyilankulam, and following this, soldiers ran amok killing about 100 civilians between Chemmantivu and Uyilankulam.
The newspapers and visitors to Sri Lanka were treated to a series of explanations by Athulathmudali. About June he explained to the visiting British MP Jeremy Corbyn how a woman vegetable seller on the ground was killed when air force troops opened fire at terrorists on the roof of Chunnakam market. When Amirthalingam issued a statement from India about the killing of 16 civilians in Point Pedro, Athulathmudali countered that Amirthalingam did not know what was going on in Jaffna. And so it went. It was also during this period that Mark Tully, the New Delhi based BBC correspondent, styled the Sri Lankan Army ‘the most undisciplined army in the world’.
In an interview with N. Ram of the Hindu (Island 24.9.84), Athulathmudali spoke of District Development Councils as the basis for a political solution and quoted some unknown source to the effect that the Sinhalese formed the majority in Trincomalee District in 1760 AD. On the failure to discipline or court martial misbehaving soldiers, he cited the lack of evidence acceptable in a court of law and the legal rights of such soldiers. It was a strange argument from the main author of laws which denied civilians the legal right to life, while at the same time enabling troopers to take the law into their own hands and to kill with impunity.
Athulathmudali in fact argued repeatedly to the effect that civilians in the vicinity of an attack on the security forces were guilty for not having provided information. The law it seemed had allowed an open licence for attacks on persons so deemed guilty. TheIndemnity Act which Athulathmudali brought before Parliament in mid-1988 to retrospectively sanction these killings became controversial only because the security forces were then killing Sinhalese. It was withdrawn and surreptitiously re-introduced in December 1988 in the form of an amendment, extending the scope of earlier legislation covering the post-election and communal violence in 1977.
In the meantime, Gamini Dissanayake was finding the going difficult. The Sun of 23.10.84 carried a report of his speech at Kotmale. He picked up the incident of Buddha statues robbed from Raja Maha Vihare at Mahiyangana. The robbers were most unlikely to have been Tamils. Dissanayake held forth, “What do the terrorists expect by robbing these venerable objects of worship from these temples? Their plan is to destroy Buddhism and the day it is destroyed it will be the end of the Sinhalese race.”
Following the Kent and Dollar Farms massacre, Dissanayake made another helpful speech to peasants at Nivitigala (Island 5.12.84): “Every patriotic citizen should be in readiness to fight terrorism even with [agricultural] implements such as katties and mammoties and poles if ordered by the Government. The lives and property of the people will be safe only if unitary status is preserved in Sri Lanka.” Even if Athulathmudali was riding a lame horse, Dissanayake was way behind.
On 22nd October 1984 a bomb being carried by Paripooranam, a young engineer from Kayts, exploded accidentally opposite Foreshore Police Station, Kotahena, killing him. Two died in a house in Peliyagoda when another bomb exploded apparently by accident. Another car bomb exploded opposite Fort Police Station injuring 11 civilians. This was the first bombing attempt in Colombo by a Tamil group. An earlier attempt by the TEA led by T. Maheswaran, a Welikade survivor, to bomb two Air Lanka flights from Colombo through placing bags with time bombs for transit in Colombo, at Madras, went awry killing about 30 civilians in Madras airport on 2nd August 1984. Prime Minister Premadasa made a huge blurb in the Press with a civil defence plan, which at least gave the message that he too was in the running for the next president.
All Party Conferences were taking place from time to time and one was scheduled for mid- December 1984. Although the Government’s intention was to delay, it had to make cosmetic proposals that arguably met Tamil aspirations so as not to give India and world opinion cause for complaint. (Now Rajiv Gandhi had become Prime Minister of India after the murder of his mother in October.) But what Sri Lanka could not do was totally to oppose any meaningful devolution. This is what the other jockey Cyril Mathew did, not understanding that he could not go on as before. On 24th December 1984, Jayewardene sent him a letter removing him from the Cabinet.
The Minister of Industries and Scientific Affairs and President of the Kelaniya Sacred City Trust became a non-entity overnight, unmissed and unmourned. The exhaust pipe had made the mistake of trying to transform itself into the steering. Mathew made one last whimper by calling a press conference and accusing India of having engineered his removal.
By this time, the South was too disillusioned to care. Gamini Dissanayake, Mathew’s comrade in arms of yesteryear, was quick to grasp the new reality. He became a moderate and came to the forefront of negotiations through Indian mediation, the fruition of which was the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord and the political solution contained therein. Having staked his fortunes in the National Security Ministry, Athulathmudli’s position had little flexibility. But his ability to exercise unchecked power in the contest between him and Dissanayake contributed significantly to the sabotaging of the Indo-Lanka Accord and plunging the country into further violence.
The Degradation of the Tamil Cause and the Indo-Lanka Accord
The end of 1984 and early 1985 saw two major attacks by TELO, the Tamil group that was most closely cultivated by India. One was on Chavakacheri Police Station and the other on a troop train. There were throughout this period regular massacres by the Sri Lankan Forces. At Vattakandal in the Mannar District 40 civilians were killed at an army post and other civilians were forced to drink the blood of the dead. The Anuradhapura massacre of about 150 Sinhalese civilians on 14th May followed the Army’s killing of 70 civilians in the LTTE leader’s village of Valvettithurai a few days earlier. This was followed by the Navy’s massacre of 30 civilians in the Kurikkadduvan ferry off Jaffna. Most major actions by Tamil groups are believed to have been orchestrated by the Indian Agency RAW.
This was followed in June 1985 by a cease- fire brokered by India and talks between the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil parties at Thimpu that ended inconclusively in August. By this time, much of the territory in the North- East had become no-go areas for the Sri Lankan forces. This was the situation until the beginning of 1987. During these one and a half years the main drama shifted to what was going on among the Tamil groups. Many of them had become depoliticised groups under Indian patronage, cut off from the aspirations of their people, whose differences were cultivated and exploited by India. Attempts by interested Tamils to bring an understanding among them so as not to let their differences betray the common struggle against the Sri Lankan State, failed. The differences were experienced by the people in the form of indiscipline and tit for tat killings.
The crucial change came from how the most tightly organised of these groups, the LTTE, went about settling these differences between April and December 1986 by annihilating the other groups This also gave the Sri Lankan forces who had been watching with glee a tremendous military advantage. On the other hand, had the LTTE chosen, it could have wielded decisive influence to unite the Tamil struggle politically. But it had on the other hand, been the key stumbling block to such a unity. In the sequel, from January to early June 1987, the Sri Lankan forces had retaken most areas they had lost control of and only Jaffna town and its environs remained, but was about to fall. The Sri Lankan Army was moving in from Tellipalai and people were leaving daily for Vavuniya and Colombo by the busloads. At this point India stepped in with a veiled threat to the Sri Lankan Government to bail the Tigers out and imposed the Indo-Lanka Accord to the great relief, particularly of the Tamil populace and no doubt the rank and file in the Sri Lankan Army. To be sure, without Indian intervention, the Tigers would have faced their most humiliating defeat in the loss of Jaffna.
The political solution under the Accord is criticised retrospectively (the LTTE agreed to it at that time) by the LTTE lobby for its deficiencies. But on the other hand it had laid down the framework for a temporarily merged North-East Provincial Administration that was to be elected. Thus the Accord had at least conceded the Tamil demands for substantial autonomy and a merged North-Eastern Province in principle, though formally subject to a referendum after five years. It provided an opportunity for a democratic leadership among the Tamils to emerge and talk to, negotiate with, and appeal to the Muslims and Sinhalese, and rationalise the arrangements. It had to be a gradual political process that must democratically involve the Tamil people as a whole.
To be continued..