Situation Report

8th December 1996

Tiger plan to attack Sri Maha Bodhi, Ratmalana airport

By Iqbal Athas

One of Buddhism’s most holiest places in Sri Lanka Ñ the Sri Maha Bodhi complex at Anuradhapura which houses the sacred Bo Tree Ñ from late last month came under the highest security cordon in its more than 2500 years of existence.

Perimeter fences interspersed with bunkers, searchlight towers and observation points have ringed the much venerated precincts. Ten designated entry and exit points with metal detectors have been set up to screen visitors.

Both the Army and the Police have been entrusted with the task of maintaining maximum security.

Deputy Defence Minister General Anuruddha Ratwatte, personally supervised the introduction of these measures and offered prayers at a ceremony on November 25. On hand with him were Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Rohan Daluwatte, Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Mohan Samarasekera, Air Force Commander, Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe and Inspector General of Police, W.B. Rajaguru.

The presence of frontliners of the country’s defence apparatus at Sri Maha Bodhi symbolised the significance of the event.

Early last month, intelligence authorities repeated their warnings to the Government of LTTE plans to attack the sacred city of Anuradhapura during its “National Heroes Week”. They said the idea was to trigger off a communal backlash.

It was only in August this year, security forces uncovered a detailed LTTE plot to attack Sri Maha Bodhi and a string of other targets. This followed the arrest in the Valikamam area of the Jaffna peninsula of an LTTE cadre who later turned out was an important member.

Identified by the nom de guerre Kalaivaanan, he confessed he was responsible for making mock up models of targets which the LTTE planned to attack. They were used by guerrilla “instructors’ to brief suicide cadres. In doing so, the “instructors” would also take into account information on the targets gathered by guerrilla spies during reconnaissance missions.

Among the mock up models he had made Kalaivaanan confessed to security forces officials Ñ were those of the Ratmalana airport and the Sri Maha Bodhi. He disclosed that reconnaissance for this purpose had been carried out by a fellow guerrilla who had worked as cleaner in a lorry that ferried goods from Vavuniya through Anuradhapura to Puttalam.

Security forces put out a confidential alert to army detachments and Police stations to track down this guerrilla, identified as Illankovar. Hardly a week after this, an enterprising police constable at a checkpoint in Kalaoya, north of Puttalam figured out that the description of the man who he had checked and on whom he recorded notes resembled Illankovar. The meticulous way in which the police constable took down details helped the Police to trace the man, arrest him and hand him over to the security forces.

He was brought down to Colombo and subjected to intense interrogation. His revelations led the Army and Police to a weapons cache in Kalaoya. Thereafter, it resulted in the arrest of a close associate of Illankovar.

Both Kalaivaanan and Illankovar have bared details of the plot to attack the Sri Maha Bodhi. Twelve LTTE suicide cadres were to arrive in a lorry loaded with explosives and weapons to carry out the attack. The man who was to have driven the lorry, now identified as a hard core LTTE guerrilla, has also been taken into custody. Police investigations into the case is almost complete and the report is to be sent to the Attorney General’s Department.

Another reminder to the government from the intelligence community last month was a possible LTTE attempt on the Ratmalana airport during the “heroes’ week”. In fact Kalaivaanan revealed that the LTTE guerrilla who provided information on the Ratmalana airport after reconnaissance was still at large somewhere in the city. Both security forces and police are aware of the identity of the man.

It was from Ratmalana airport that President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, took off to Male on November 24 in an SLAF AVRO, as reported exclusively in these columns last week. From there she boarded AirLanka Airbus A 340 for her official visit to France. For this purpose AirLanka flight UL 577 from Colombo to Paris was on that day diverted through Male.

Officials of the defence establishment in Colombo were not taking any chances late last month since the LTTE was observing the so called “National Heroes” day for three days from November 25 to 27.

The “National Heroes Day” ostensibly is a commemoration coinciding with the death of the first LTTE cadre, “Lt. Shankar” on November 27, 1982, after he was fatally wounded during an Army search operation.

In reality, however, the “National Heroes Day” is focused on the birthday of Tiger leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran on November 26. Quite apart from this week being observed in remembrance of the fallen Tiger cadres, the week is also more significantly noted for the “Heroes Day Message” of Prabhakaran which takes the tone of a “message to the nation (Diaspora)”. It is also dished out for consumption by the international community as a statement of policy.

This year’s message by Prabhakaran focuses heavily on the Sinhala Buddhist factor as being the chauvinistic element which motivates the traditional enemy of the Tamils. Notably whilst identifying Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism, he has chosen not to label the Tamil community as being Tamil Hindu. The perspective Prabhakaran tries to put over is a strong religious fervour singling out the Buddhists as the enemies of the Tamils. This is a significant shift and is perhaps attuned to a new strategic thrust in Prabhakaran’s communo-military ideology.

It is in keeping with this focus on Buddhist chauvinism that he targets places of Buddhist worship. The hallowed significance of the sacred Bo Tree and the Dalada Maligawa to the Buddhists world cannot be over- exaggerated.

Indeed the significance of these revered places of worship is not only central to Buddhism but also have a spiritual link to the very basis of the religion in Sri Lanka. To vandalise and desecrate these historical sites is a sure fire method of whipping communal feelings to boil. This has not happened since the ugly July of 1983. And the LTTE badly needs a communal holocaust to bolster its image in the international community and the growing awareness that it is a terrorist organisation.

It is paradoxical that a high profile military presence and defence measures have to be implemented in these places of worship which are the epitome of ahimsa and the fountain of the principles of Pancha Seela. But there is little other option in the face of the viciousness of the use of religion as a tool to further sectarian communal strategies. This is unfortunately the price the country and a civilisation have to pay countering terrorism.

A knowledgeable section of the country’s defence establishment were somewhat unhappy over President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s flight to Male in an SLAF AVRO.

They questioned whether the AVRO flight to Male was not fraught with greater risks as opposed to flying by AirLanka from Katunayake which could have been secured by stringent security measures.

Unquestionably the security of a head of state is not a matter that is negotiable. In the context of the ongoing separatist war and the significance of LTTE’s “heroes week”, the most demanding measures need to have been implemented to ensure the President’s security.

These knowledgeable circles question whether the SLAF AVRO was a safe means for Presidential travel even though it was secure against sabotage.

The question is not one of sabotage nor of the airworthiness of the AVRO. Neither was there any slightest doubt of the competence of the crew who manned this flight or indeed of the competence of the Sri Lanka Air Force for this mission. It was only by the way that the crew was headed by Group Captain C.T. Gunawardena not only a veteran pilot but a highly respected flyer. Not only that, he has also first hand knowledge of the environment in the Maldives as he was at one point of time flying for the Maldivan Government which included being the pilot for President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

The question raised is whether this travel was otherwise foolproof for a late night flight across over 450 miles over water into Hulule, which is the only international airport in the archipelago. The only other facility as an alternative is a landing strip over an hour away from Hulule or further distance southwards at Gan Island, the one time British Military Base. Quite apart from the flying time to these alternate options, if eventuality demanded so, is the question whether at that past midnight hour, the alternate landing strip had infrastructure facilities to technically receive a VVIP flight.

Compounding the restriction on landing facilities which should have been a planning alternative, was the fact that the British built Hawker Siddley aircraft has only an endurance of five hours. This gives little flying option on a flight to Male which itself takes two hours and twenty minutes.

It does not take a wizard to work out the pros and cons had there been a bad weather situation over Male or any other unforeseen eventuality which necessitated altering of flight plans.

Furthermore, it is pointed out that the AVRO did not have an on board International Navigation System which is a computer backed equipment to give the exact location of the aircraft.

That all went well is a matter of luck. Considering the technical shortcomings mentioned that this flight was commissioned is ample testimony of confidence and faith in the competence of the SLAF and the crew.

VVIP security is not a matter of ad hoc planning and resorting to unexpected measures as a means to ensure security. It requires the weighing of all options against threat perceptions and other dangers which require the protection of important personalities. There is a lesson to be learnt on the wisdom of the flight to Male.

In securing protection of a VVIP nothing should be left to chance. Vulnerability is not only from an enemy but also could arise from ill conceived planning.

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