Defence takeover and Tiger threat to sovereignty
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was well past 8 a.m. last Tuesday when the Chinese built Harbin-Y12
light aircraft rolled off the runway at the Ratmalana Air Force
base. Inside, two armed forces commanders Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle
(Army) and Air Vice Marshal Donald Perera (Air Force) chatted to
each other. The Y-12 gained altitude in the bright sky over the
sea and veered southwards.
An hour after
touch down at the Air Base at Wirawila, Air Vice Marshal Perera
drove off in a jeep. He was chief guest at a passing out parade
of the Youth Corps. Lt. Gen. Balagalle rested until the time arrived
for his engagement - chief guest at a ceremony after Army sappers
had completed a mine clearing course. It was conducted by US military
a.m. a message arrived from Janadipathi Mandiraya. The two service
chiefs had been told to return to Colombo for a meeting with President
Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Air Vice Marshal Perera cut
short his programme. Lt. Gen. Balagalle asked Maj. Gen. Susil Chandapala
to represent him. The duo were soon airborne for Colombo.
noon, they arrived at Ratmalana. Lt. Gen. Balagalle told senior
military officials at a meeting later that on his way to Colombo,
President Kumaratunga spoke on the mobile phone. She had told him
"this is your Minister of Defence speaking." He was asked
to call over immediately.
In combat uniform
he had worn for the passing out parade Lt. Gen. Balagalle drove
to Janadipathi Mandiraya. Navy Commander Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri
was already there. At a meeting that began immediately thereafter,
President Kumaratunga broke the news that she had taken over the
Ministry of Defence. She introduced former Police Chief and head
of intelligence, Cyril Herath, (he was present at the meeting) as
the new Defence Secretary.
was to later reveal that she had also taken over the Ministries
of Interior and Mass Communications. Forty five minutes later when
the meeting ended, President Kumaratunga had already set in motion
a number of measures. How they unfolded is explained separately
in political commentaries and reports in this newspaper.
Lt. Gen. Balagalle
also told a conference at the Joint Operations Headquarters, he
had received a phone call from ousted Defence Secretary, Austin
Fernando from London. He had said "this is the former Defence
Secretary speaking." Mr. Fernando was attending a seminar on
terrorism. At a house in Middlesex where he chose to stay a few
days, he told friends he was aware the take-over was coming. "Before
I left, I cleared my drawer. There is only some personal documents
and a deed for a family property," he said.
claimed it was not the intelligence services that gave him the news.
He was in possession of a document, presumably prepared by a student
of politics that made some clever guesses. It gave four different
scenarios and said one of them would come right on November 1. But
it had taken three more days, he pointed out.
A copy of this
document seen by The Sunday Times said "with LTTE's IA proposals
being published, create an emergency and threatened situation in
the country with the help of chauvinistic parties. Nation Saving
Coup. Take over Ministries of Defence, Mass Communications, Dissolve
Parliament, Nominations called…." This was the fourth
revealed to his friends in London that he had shown this document
to two Cabinet Ministers and a senior intelligence official whilst
in Colombo. According to him, all three had dismissed it. They had
said President Kumaratunga would not resort to such a course of
action. The former Defence Secretary had then claimed that a day
before he left Colombo, he told his colleague and friend, Interior
Secretary M.N. Junaid "Machan, I don't think I am going to
come back to my job."
Well, the forecast
of enforcing Emergency Regulations in that document nearly came
right. Government Printer Neville Nanayakkara had received a set
of regulations, 40 pages in all - the Emergency Regulations - for
gazetting. That was on Tuesday night but his staff found it contained
a lot of spelling mistakes. If that delayed the process instructions
not to go ahead arrived later.
By then, news
about the declaration of an emergency leaked out. It spread throughout
the world. Reports said a state of emergency has already been declared.
Panic set in.
That such widespread reports, some of them highly exaggerated, caused
serious damage to the business community and the nation's economy
is most unfortunate. Top men of the country's travel industry were
in the United Kingdom for the World Travel Mart - an annual event
where participants came up with innovative ideas to promote tourism
in their respective countries.
Many of them
telephoned whoever mattered in Colombo to complain their businesses
faced ruination. There was so much chaos and confusion that one
section of the defence establishment did not know what the other
section was doing. Needless to say that an upturn in the country's
economy, the result of a "no war, no peace" situation
has been seriously retarded. By the time the official announcement
arrived that a state of emergency has not been imposed, colossal
damage had been done.
What was later
published in the gazette it turned out was a notification that has
been repeated every month since the withdrawal of the state of emergency
in 2001. That notification invoked provisions of Chapter 40 (section
12) of the Public Security Ordinance to call out members of the
armed forces to maintain public order. That provision gave Police
powers to the armed forces. There was no state of emergency and
there was nothing new in the gazette that was published on November
6. See facsimile on this page.
developments had completely obscured an important issue that became
public only last week - Tiger guerrilla leader Velupillai Prabhakaran's
demand for an all powerful Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA),
outside both the constitution and normal laws to end the near two
decade long separatist war. See colour map on this page for the
areas that will come under his control if the demands are conceded.
The eight page
proposals, no doubt, lay the groundwork for a separate state. The
contents clearly defy expectations of the Government and a Government
in waiting in Sri Lanka. It goes far beyond the parameters spelt
out even by the Government of India.
Yet, the proposals,
the first since their "armed struggle," cannot be expected
to contain anything less than their "maximalist position."
Whether they would climb down during the negotiating process or
not remains to be seen. But the guerrillas have made their strategy
clear. This time they want to fight it out at the negotiating table.
No bullets would be fired. No lives would be lost. The battles to
achieve their aim will continue through talks instead of a war.
Or so it seems. Nevertheless they have made their military machine
strong and are ready for any eventuality.
But there are
many questions that beg answers. Could the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have placed those demands before the government
on or before February 22, 2002? In making the demands after this
date, twenty long months after the ceasefire, are they not doing
so from a position of greater strength? How did they acquire this
strength to achieve an unassailable bargaining stance?
build up began with the ceasefire. They extended to the east their
dominance in the Wanni by opening new "Poice Stations, Courts"
and introducing a new administrative infrastructure, tax collection
machinery among other matters. When these matters were highlighted
in these columns regularly, I was targeted. I was accused of being
a "spoiler" out to sabotage the peace process.
The state media
was used to vilify me. If the previous PA Government accused me
of being a "terrorist accomplice," some UNF leaders said
I had collaborated with arms dealers to wreck the peace process.
I re-iterate this to make one point - that successive governments
have used various tactics to intimidate the media to keep the truth
away from the public and thus avoid acute embarrassment to them.
Is it not clear now why Mr. Prabakaran was making all the preparations?
the military strength of the LTTE. He recruited even child cadres.
He smuggled in more state of the art military equipment. He extended
the sphere of his military influence even to controlled areas in
the North-East. This was through the Political Offices he was allowed
to open under the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). The military balance
in the east changed completely.
The UNF leadership
which was all out to please the LTTE and not hurt them neglected
the armed forces and the police. They became weaker through the
same CFA. For example, the number of security installations in the
North was halved since they were required to quit from public buildings.
They were not re-equipped and even the basic needs like ammunition
were not made available.
When it dawned
that the neglect had led to disturbing levels where the preparedness
of the armed forces have been affected, there was a rush to procure
equipment. This is where some arms dealers and some politicians
began a love affair. The multi million dollar deals, as I said before,
would pale into insignificance compared to allegations of corruption
during the People's Alliance. Now that she has taken over the Ministry
of Defence it would be President Kumaratunga's national duty to
probe these shady deals and punish those responsible. If the glare
of publicity over these transactions will affect cohabitation it
could be carried out initially without any fanfare.
the LTTE proposals to Norwegian Ambassador Hans Brattskar, Political
Wing Leader, S.P. Tamilselvan gave him a letter. He noted that "it
is essential that any interim governing authority [must] have plenary
power" to "accomplish the immediate return, resettlement,
and rehabilitation of tens of thousands of internally displaced
persons and refugees, and in order to reconstruct the North-East's
economic, educational, and cultural infrastructure".
Later, in a
letter officially acknowledging the receipt of the proposals, a
government statement referred to talks Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe,
held with Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vjpayee in New Delhi
last month. It noted that a Joint Statement at the end of the official
visit "made a definitive statement about the parameters within
which a negotiated political solution should be arrived at."
the LTTE demands have gone far, far beyond those definitive statements.
India declared that an "interim arrangement should be an integral
part of the final settlement and should be in the framework of the
unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka".
demands are not an integral part of a final settlement. They do
endanger the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka and consequently
pose security concerns to India too. The guerrillas want the armed
forces immediately to vacate land in the North and East and allow
civilian owners "unfettered access".
They also want
compensation paid to these civilians for past dispossession. Conceding
this demand in the northern Jaffna peninsula would make both the
Palaly airbase, the only air link to the rest of the country, and
the ports of Karainagar and Kankesanthurai vulnerable. Similarly,
in Vavuniya, it will make the airstrip and a large military base
totally vulnerable. The north-eastern China Bay airbase in Trincomalee
and the Dockyard there (where Eastern Naval Area Headquarters is
located) would also be placed in a precarious position.
The LTTE wants
control for ISGA over the marine and offshore resources of the adjacent
seas (of the North-East) and the "power to regulate access
thereto." This includes the Palk Straits where, at present,
India and Sri Lanka share a maritime boundary. This demand raises
serious questions over sovereignty. The "Power to regulate
access" will debar the Sri Lankan Navy its sovereign right
of movement in the seas over which the LTTE is seeking control.
How will it
then protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka?
The marine and offshore resources in the Palk Straits in particular
are at present shared by fishermen from Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu.
Would this not therefore pose threats to Indian interests? On the
other side, this very "power to regulate access" makes
way for the sea-going arm of the guerrillas, the Sea Tigers, to
gain both legitimacy and dominance in the seas off the North-East.
That includes the Palk Straits. Such development would see the emergence
of a third navy in the region, besides that of India and Sri Lanka.
over Indian investment and economic interests also arise from the
proposals. Take for example the World War II vintage oil tank farm
in Trincomalee, part of which has been leased out by the Indian
Oil Corporation (IOC). The LTTE proposals say that "existing
agreements will continue, but the Government of Sri Lanka shall
ensure that all proceeds under such agreements are paid to ISGA.
to such existing agreements should be made with the concurrence
of the ISGA." This would mean that for the leasing arrangement
in Trincomalee, the IOC would have to pay the LTTE-controlled ISGA
instead of the State-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC).
which has admitted that there is a gap between its own proposals
and that of the LTTE wants to negotiate. When talks resume in November,
how things will play will become much clearer.
But for UNF
leaders, it is time to reflect on the past and take note of the
lessons learnt. That would include learning not to keep the truth
away from the people. As recent events have shown, this is a very
costly thing to do. No amount of foreign troops and foreign support
can help in this. Even the United States experience in Iraq now
underscores this reality.
the man and his mission
Tissa Indraka Weeratunga, a man who led troops during some of the
most turbulent moments in Sri Lanka's history is no more. He was
the ninth Commander of the Sri Lanka Army. The first to serve as
General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Joint Operations Headquarters
(JOH), he was later Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in Canada. He
died on Friday. He was 73 years.
part of his military career was in the Jaffna peninsula. It began
with controlling illicit immigration and smuggling across the Palk
Straits. From there he saw the transition of Tamil moderation into
militancy. Thereafter he held sway at some very critical moments
in the nation's history - the horrendous ethnic violence in July
1983, the guerrilla attack on Sri Maha Bodhi in May 1985, the induction
of Indian Peace Keeping troops in July 1987, to name a few.
Bull was his
pet name from school days. He earned it for his childish imprudence.
He had many friends. He was both adored and admired by some. I was
one of them. He also had his adversaries. Some of them were bitter
critics. They loathed his military life-style. In the history of
any army in the world, officers and men who were exceptional, who
were honest, always had their enemies. History is replete with examples
of those great men. Gen. Weeratunga was no exception.
I met him for
the first time in 1983, soon after the riots of that year. My friend
and colleague then at the SUN and WEEKEND newspapers, Sinha Ratnatunga,
was working on his book - The Politics of Terrorism. General Weeratunga
was being interviewed as Army Commander by Sinha for his maiden
effort. I was there helping him with some research on Tiger guerrillas.
On that very
occasion Gen. Weeratunga had given me some literature in Tamil about
the guerrillas. There were some tape recordings of speeches too.
Our next interview that evening was with the Deputy High Commissioner
for India, late Cherry George. The senior diplomat's house was guarded
by Army sentries. It was due to anti-Indian sentiments prevailing
then. I parked my car outside the house but did not lock it. When
we returned to the car late that night, the material Gen. Weeratunga
had given was missing.
It later transpired
that the soldiers had checked my car. They saw the Tiger guerrilla
emblem on the documents and chosen to confiscate them. I telephoned
Gen. Weeratunga next morning. The material was returned with friendly
advice - hereafter guards or no guards, lock your car before you
It was after
his retirement that I developed a close relationship with Gen. Weeratunga.
We found moments almost every week to meet, greet and talk. He spoke
frankly about his past experiences, about his personal relationship
with late J.R. Jayewardene, his successes and even his failures.
He was candid enough to admit what he declared were "mistakes"
he had made. "If I have to go over it again, I wouldn't do
it," he once said pointing out a few instances.
As our relationship
grew, he became more than a friend, a guru or a teacher. He taught
me matters military, matters defence, matters security. We sat together
sometimes to discuss and analyse many a military offensive after
they have ended. His ability to clinically dissect areas of weaknesses,
identify strong points and explain them cohesively in laymen's terms
was remarkable. In doing so, much more remarkable was his ability
to ignore effortlessly the fact that a few failed offensives were
carried out by his own protégés.
When the latter
reacted to public exposure, he dispassionately pointed out to me
misleading or erroneous claims. He was well read. He quoted extensively
from books, his own experience and often asked that I read a particular
book. I owe part of my collection to him. He had a puckish sense
of humour and could laugh at himself. Seated opposite him at his
table at the JOH once, I noticed a crystal memento. There were two
large cows. The lettering on a brass plaque that held it read "Cows
may come and cows may go, but this bull goes on forever."
he opted to wear a sarong and matching shirt regularly. The first
time he chose to do so, he had picked one of Barbara Sansoni's colourful
fabrics. He wore it on a visit to my house. I greeted him. As he
sat down on a chair, he asked "how do you like my new kit?"
I told him to look behind. "Oh, hell ….." he went
on. The curtain on the patio door was identical and made from the
same fabric. He wanted to go home to change. I stopped him. His
death wish was that he be cremated in a sarong and shirt and not
in military attire.
He was also
fearless. As one military offensive after another ended in disaster,
with a tough media censorship during the People's Alliance rule,
both Gen. Weeratunga and I were once subjected to some insidious
forms of intimidation and harassment. Once I asked him "can
I write something about this when the censorship is withdrawn?"
His reply "Iki, keep that until I die. You can relate this
encounter and the many things I have told you…"
was about an arrogant politician who behaved like a general of sorts.
He wanted to find out who was providing military information to
The Sunday Times. The politico who was claiming one victory after
another during disastrous military offensives was embarrassed. He
had assigned intelligence men. They were not only waiting outside
my residence but also at Gen. Weeratunga's. Close tabs were made
on our phone calls to find out what we spoke. On occasions they
kept trailing either me or him.
But there were
conscientious men in the same intelligence outfit who abhorred dirty
tricks of that kind. From the assignments given by the ambitious
politico, they had begun to detest his actions. One of them warned
me about what was going on. I learnt that five three-wheeler scooters,
all posing off as if they were on hires with passengers, were assigned
for this exercise.
They took down
the vehicle numbers of my visitors. They trailed them sometimes.
I also learnt that during these "operations" they had
found out that it was I who was briefing Gen. Weeratunga and not
the other way around. There were no military men who were using
him as a conduit.
One day when
he arrived outside my residence, a man wearing a white collar-less
shirt (like the one worn by VIP security men) was a distance away
writing down the number of the licence plate in his car. Gen. Weeratunga
asked me out, pointed his finger at the man and said "look
at that idiot. He does not even know how to spy."
I told him
he should stop visiting me. I said I would also stop seeing him
until things cooled down. "If they want, let them kill me.
They won't keep me away from seeing people whom I want," he
said. Gen. Weeratunga placed himself in harm's way not only to keep
his friendship with me but also share his knowledge and experience.
I am proud to say his courage in doing so helped The Sunday Times
in no small measure.
many long retired military men of Gen. Weeratunga's stature who
had serving security forces personnel as body-guards. Some still
do. This is not to fault them. He had none. Not for him the phalanx
of body-guards in retirement. He chose to remain with his wife Sonia.
He drove around in a 14 year old Mitsubishi Gallant car bought from
his meagre earnings as our envoy in Canada.
no Pajeros, Prados or BMWs for him, like some of the modern day
millionaire Commanders who have retired. Nor did he acquire property
in Sri Lanka or abroad. He was a regular visitor in the morning
to the fish market at Delkanda. Once I asked him why he could not
employ a driver to do his errands. His reply came promptly "Iki,
quite frankly I cannot afford it. That is why I have to go to get
my half a kilo of talapath or paraw…"
One day, during
a conversation, it turned out that he had to travel the following
morning to Matara. He told me the Department of Inland Revenue had
summoned him for an outstanding inquiry over non payment of taxes.
"I have been putting this off because I was engaged in a war.
But things are catching up with me now," he said. Upon his
return from Matara, he telephoned to say "I had to tell those
b…..rs I did not have the kind of money they had assessed
me for. I was told to go."
has left behind a great legacy for Sonia and their three children
- Rohan, Annouchka and Ajit. He lived and died a man of honesty
and integrity. I have lost a dear friend and mentor.