By Rajan Hoole –
The Indo-Lanka Accord and Sri Lanka’s Fault Lines: July 1987 – Part – 8
The incident above took place against a mounting cycle of violence. A number of Tamil militants had, as mentioned, been shipped from Boosa and released in Trincomalee. Owing to what had happened in Trincomalee in recent years, there was also a mood to respond harshly when an occasion arose. Conditions of detention had also made them vindictive. One incident at Boosa about the time of the Accord says something of their state. An evening meal, which the detainees were served, had resulted in loose stomachs. They told a soldier who came into a particular room that they needed relief. The soldier refused and a PLOTE militant beat him up. The soldier went out and came with others who started shooting at the detainees. The latter survived with graze injuries by holding themselves flat on the wire mesh above them. Nine of the detainees were then taken out, beaten, shot and were run over with a vehicle.
The first communal clashes started in Trincomalee on 18th September 1987. The Thileepan fast was going on in Jaffna and a group of 200 Tamil ‘satyagrahais’ went to Anuradhapura junction where they were confronted by a group of Sinhalese. This was at the height of Thileepan’s ‘Gandhian’ death fast in Jaffna (see Sect.15.3). Both groups pelted each other with stones. One Tamil and two Sinhalese died. The IPKF separated the two groups by firing tear gas.
The first massacre of civilians after the Accord took place on 24th September. Some persons from Mihindupura, a recently settled suburb of Trincomalee, had set off in 5 bullock carts along the Vavuniya Road to collect firewood. The next morning two bulls returned home with their carts. Later 9 charred bodies were found burnt with a cart at Kattankulam. Three or four of them were identified as Sinhalese and one, as a Malay. Although suspicion fell on the LTTE, a fuller account of the incident was not available. During June, the previous year, the Sinhalese settlements around Mihindupura had been the scene of massacres and counter-massacres. On the morning of Wednesday 30th September, the bodies of 2 Tamils hacked to death were found in Mud Cove. Subsequently, a Tamil group stopped a lorry coming from Nilaveli in the same area, abducted and killed 3 Sinhalese men and left a woman alive with knife wounds. Communal clashes erupted which left several people dead. The Sri Lankan Police and the Indian Army (IPKF) went out on patrol.
Then took place the incident of 1st October reported above. The firing near Town Hall by the Sri Lankan Army was given in testimony by prominent local civilians, but was not reported in the Press. The IPKF later opened fire at a crowd of Sinhalese, which gathered at King’s Hotel Junction after rioting had broken out, killing one person. Of the 200 houses burnt, 150 belonged to Sinhalese. According to the Press, 10 were killed on this day, 35 were injured and 2000 were rendered homeless. The discrepancy with the earlier account above, may have resulted from the Sinhalese thrown into wells and buried not being counted in the Government’s figures.
However, the Indian Army’s subsequent behaviour appeared largely correct. There was anger among the Sinhalese as the Indian Army had prevented the Sri Lankan Army from leaving their barracks to aid the Sinhalese. At 9.30 PM the same day, 5 persons travelling in a green van opened fire on an IPKF patrol near the Town Hall. The IPKF gave a chase and apprehended them. Those persons admitted that they were homeguards who had been given T 56 guns by the China Bay Police. The following morning (2nd) at 7 AM, persons travelling in a white van with red stripes opened fire at an Indian Army foot patrol killing Private Gorakhan and injuring another. Once again the IPKF gave a chase and found the vehicle parked in the compound of the Sri Lankan Army Co- ordinating Officer, Colonel A.M.U. Seneviratne. The latter denied the shooting and claimed that the vehicle had been distributing breakfast to SLA units. Another incident took place where a man fired at the IPKF, left his shotgun and ran into Fort Frederick where the SLA was camped. The IPKF then prevented the SLA from moving out.
The local press cried foul at the Indian Army and President Jayewardene was quoted as ordering the Indian Army to restore order in Trincomalee or leave. The IPKF poured in 11 additional platoons to maintain order. More Sinhalese left the area and their number was estimated at 5000. The Sri Lankan Air Force was reported airlifting food for the Trincomalee refugees – although considering the loading and unloading, it would have taken about the same time to transport the food by road. A high level conference was also held to iron out differences between the Sri Lankan forces and the IPKF and Lt. Gen Depinder Singh arrived in Trincomalee.
In another incident on 4th October, the IPKF shot dead the Ven. Saddharmalankara Thero of the China Bay Buddhist temple who was leading a protest demonstration against the IPKF. Policemen who went there were assaulted by the IPKF. It was from the China Bay Police Station that the armed persons who fired at the IPKF had set off 3 days earlier.
The newspapers of 6th October quoted Prime Minister Premadasa as saying in an address at the New York Buddhist Temple, “We are prepared to sacrifice any gain and suffer any loss individually and collectively to preserve the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of the motherland.” Two years later he gifted a generous quantity of arms to the LTTE! In another irony during the crisis in Trincomalee, the JVP, which wanted the SLA to drive out the Indian Army, attacked a Sri Lankan Army camp in Kantalai near Trincomalee and stole the weapons. The JVP, despite its patriotic rhetoric, never fired a single shot at the Indian Army. At the same time, the local press expressed satisfaction that the IPKF was proving effective in restoring order in Trincomalee.
The question whether there was connivance between the Indian Army and local Tamil hoodlums in the violence which erupted in Trincomalee on 1st October 1987 after someone fired at Brigadier Joshi’s party, was put to a senior Sri Lankan police official who was very familiar with the events. He said that in his estimation there was no such collusion. He added, “Although the local press was crying foul, the Indian Army did not come equipped for policing duties. Their mandate was something else. Once a riot breaks out on such a scale, there is little you could do immediately unless you were prepared for it. It took them a little time.”
The official also felt that although the Press blamed the LTTE for the attack on 1st October, it was rather those released from Boossa. It was, he said, ‘a different story’ with regard to the massive attacks on Sinhalese civilians after the 12 LTTE leaders in SLA custody committed suicide on 5th October. However, suspicion about some low-level collusion on 1st October is hard to resolve. But normally in any peace- keeping exercise, the peace keepers begin very cautiously in dealing with non-state armed groups. This may explain some of the perceived leniency.
Up to the time of the crisis precipitated by the LTTE by attacking Indian Forces on 10th October, the latter had for the most part acted correctly in a peace-keeping capacity. There was of course a new problem confronting the Sinhalese in Trincomalee whose interests had earlier been looked after by the Sri Lankan forces. But having been a law unto themselves for many years, the latter had not cultivated the tact to handle this new situation in which the Indian Army was present. Instead, their gut- feelings and undisciplined actions complicated matters.
There is a gruesome sequel to this episode. The LTTE recommenced war with the SLA in June 1990 after working with President Premadasa and having the IPKF withdrawn. Major General Kobbekaduwe was placed in charge of the East on the 12th June 1990 and supervised initial operations until he was transferred to the North the following month. Major General Gerry de Silva then took charge of the East. About 900 Tamils disappeared in the Trincomalee District. This happened under Brigadier Lucky Wijeratne and Colonels Saliya Kulatunge and Sunil Tennekon. Colonel A.M.U. Seneviratne who was in charge at Trincomalee during the crisis above was posted to Batticaloa in 1990 as brigadier-in- charge. Disappearances ran into the thousands in Batticaloa. In one notable incident among several, 184 villagers, including 68 children, from around Sathurukkondan, near Batticaloa, were taken away on 9-9-1990, killed and burnt. Justice J.F.A. Soza for the Human Rights Task Force in 1993 and the North-East Disappearance Commission a few years later, have both gone into the matter, accepted its veracity and identified some of the culprits. The wheels of justice have remained stuck in what Soza described was ‘a veritable massacre of innocents’.
One of the underlying problems in Trincomalee was that of remedying state-backed encroachments by Sinhalese. An even more graphic problem was Weli Oya and all that it represented.
To be continued..