Defence takeover and Tiger threat to sovereignty

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It 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 personnel.

Around 10.30 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.

Just before 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.

President Kumaratunga 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.

Mr Fernando 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 scenario.

Mr Fernando 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.

These political 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?

The guerrilla 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?

He doubled 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.

Handing over 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."

In reality, 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".

The guerrilla 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.

Some questions 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.

Any change 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).

The Government 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.

Weeratunga: the man and his mission
General 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.

The better 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 leave.

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."

After retirement, 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…"

This encounter 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.

There were 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.

There were 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… I did not have the kind of money they had assessed me for. I was told to go."

Gen. Weeratunga 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.
-Iqbal Athas

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