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8th, March 1998

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BJP govt not to complicate Sri Lankan Tamil issue

By Our Special Correspondent

BJP’s General Secretary, Mr. Govindacharya, has made it clear that while a BJP government at New Delhi will try and help Sri Lanka resolve the ethnic problem, it will do nothing to complicate it.

Speaking from the party’s headquarters in Delhi, the bachelor- ideologue sought to correct the impression in the Tamil diaspora that the BJP was going to mount pressure on Colombo, throwing its weight behind the Tamils. Following indications that New Delhi would come under the control of the “Hindu nationalist” BJP and Mr.Govindacharya’s interview to the Paris-based pro-LTTE publication, “Eelamurasu”, the LTTE had been telling the diaspora that if the West was out, India, especially south India, was in. Diplomatic sources said that even if this was not true, such propaganda did help to keep the flock together in an increasingly dismaying world support scene.

Clarifying matters, Mr. Govindacharya said: “India would naturally be concerned if a section of people in a neighbouring country felt uneasy and discriminated against. But any Indian effort to help Sri Lanka solve the problem should not complicate the matter”.

Delineating the BJP’s Lanka policy, Mr. Govindacharya, who is a Tamil from Tindivanam in Tamil Nadu, said that the party believed that any solution of the Tamil question would have to be within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. “There is no scope for a separate Eelam. Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and integrity would have to be maintained”, he said.

The BJP, he further said, believed that there could be no military solution to the ethnic problem here. “At the same time, we are convinced that terrorism is no way to secure redressal of grievances,” he cautioned. “Our experience in India has taught us that nothing can be achieved by force of arms or resort to terrorism,” he added to press the point home.

In answer to the inevitable question if a BJP regime in New Delhi, would be under tremendous pressure from its pro-LTTE allies in Tamil Nadu like the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Marumalarchi DMK( MDMK), Mr. Govindacharya said that he expected no pressure even though these parties were partners in an alliance which gave the BJP group 30 of the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu. Though in single digits in terms of MPs, these parties would count in the intricate numbers game being played in a hung parliament.

But Mr. Govindacharya looked at them differently.” Once they are in the Centre, these parties will acquire and all-India or national perspective on questions such as this. They will begin to realise the wider aspects of political responsibility,” he pointed out.

The Lankan Tamil issue had, at any rate, lost its electoral value in Tamil Nadu. The AIADMK, the most crucial and the largest component in the Tamil Nadu alliance, had completely omitted the Sri Lankan issue in in its manifesto. But the BJP had done it as part of its foreign policy statement, and the PMK and the MDMK had mentioned it from and ideological point of view. Yes, the BJP’s manifesto had said that a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict was needed, but it did not say that it would side with the Tamils. It took care to say that Indians were historically and culturally close to all Sri Lankans (and not just the Tamils)

The PMK and MDMK supported the claims of the Tamils vis-a-vis the majority Sinhalese. The MDMK said quite explicitly that a separate Eelam was the only solution. But the PMK merely said that the “liberation struggle” in Sri Lanka should be recognised by India significantly, neither mentioned the LTTE, partly because it was a banned organisation in India and partly because its terrorism was anathema for the masses in Tamil Nadu. The MDMK went one step further and declared that it was not supporting any particular Tamil group in Sri Lanka, thus formally distancing itself from the LTTE.

According to R.Rajagopal, the intrepid but pro-LTTE editor of the Tamil magazine , “Nakeeraun”, in the election campaign, neither the PMK nor the MDMK breathed a word about the LTTE or even the Lankan Tamil issue. They had gone beyond the alliance agreement not to raise “contentious” issues of this sort on common platforms and refrained from mentioning it even on their own individual platforms “They were selfish,” Rajagopal said. Since the Lankan Tamil issue was no vote catcher, why bother it? seemed to be the attitude. By all accounts, the elections were fought on local issues and the issue of stability at the Centre.

According to Rajagopal, the devastating serial bomb blasts in Coimbatore, had taken away a good chunk of votes from the ruling DMK. Some do look at this as a majority Hindu reaction to the DMK government’s brazen effort to blame the Hindu extremists and the BJP for it and let the Islamic extremists, the real culprits, off the hook. But others, like Rajagopal and a former Lankan diplomat with many years of service in Madras, believe that the rejection of the ruling DMK was a reflection of people’s revulsion against terrorism per se.

“The DMK government was seen as being soft on the terrorist conspirators and being negligent,“ Rajagopal said. According to the diplomat, Sri Lankan leaders need not at all be apprehensive about LTTE” taking a sympathetic chord in Tamil Nadu, because the Tamils had time and again demonstrated their revulsion against terrorism. “This was evident in 1991, when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated,” he said.

Rajagopal said that the election result in Tamil Nadu showed that the Tamils there had identified themselves with the Indian nation,” Tamils are thinking of stability at the national level. The BJP, which was thought to be a party of North Indians, is no longer thought of as such. The Tamils want a good leader at the national level and they see the BJP giving one. A survey conducted by our magazine in Tamil Nadu found that 41% preferred Vajpayee as Prime Minister, cutting across party affiliations,” he said.

“Tharasu” magazine editor, “Shyam” Shanmugham, said that BJP was a new face on the scene, which fascinated the people. “As in the field of cinema, which also attracts actresses from all over India, political audiences like to see new faces now and then. When one does appear, they like the freshness, and don’t bother about the origins of the new Goddess.”

Separatist feelings have almost completely disappeared in Tamil Nadu, and the significance of this to the Tamil separatist struggle in Sri Lanka is that it cannot look at Tamil Nadu as a ready made platfrom or base. As Prof. M.N. Srinivas, the well known Indian sociologist put it. :

The youth of Tamil Nadu do not see the need for militancy and separatism any longer because opportunities for mobility are now open to them.

The burgeoning non- Brahmin Tamil middle class is acquiring technical qualifications, and queing up in front of the US embassy to pursue higher studies abroad. And when they do go abroad, they become even more committed to India!”

The Oliver Twist

By Rajpal Abeyanayake and Frederica Jansz

Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe relinquished duties last Thursday in an unusual way. Given an extension of service only a fortnight earlier for an indefinite period, suddenly, upon his return from a visit to Thailand on Monday he was asked to give up his job. Seventy two hours later Air Marshal Ranasinghe handed over command of the near 18,000 Sri Lanka Air Force to Air Vice Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody, who himself became possibly the officer who has served as Chief of Staff (Second in Command) for the shortest duration - two weeks. The entire exercise of the change of command reeked with controversy. Firstly, there was this Presidential Committee report headed by the Defence Secretary that had unanimously made strictures on Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe. Despite this report Air Marshal Ranasinghe is given an extension indefinitely. As a direct consequence, the man who should have succeeded him, Air Vice Marshal Anselm Peiris, Chief of Staff, is forced into retirement and Air Vice Marshal Weerakkody takes his place.
Outgoing Air chief Oliver ranasinghe hands over the baton to the new Commander jayalath Weerakkody.

Outgoing Air chief Oliver ranasinghe hands over the baton to the new Commander jayalath Weerakkody.

Right: Ex-Chief of Staff Anselm Peiris ... opportunity denied?

In civilian life there have been several instances where adeputy has not consented to instances of such expediency. In the United States, when President Richard Nixon fired Attorney General Richardson, his Deputy refused to accept the job.

In Sri Lanka when Justice Minister Nissanka Wijeyeratne resigned over a prison break-out his deputy Shelton Ranarajah refused to take the job. Senior most Supreme Court Judge R.S. Wanasundera stood by his principles rather than take the job as Chief Justice. But that maybe civilian life and indeed such illustrious cases are rare. In the military some may have to do as their political masters say. One of the last acts of Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe prior to his retirement was to give a news conference, extracts of which The Sunday Times carries today. Incidentally, in the interview that follows, Air Marshal Ranasinghe, in answer to a question about whether the Special Presidential Commission on aircraft procurement had faulted him, states, "I don't think the report says anything detrimental like that. But excerpts from the Commission Report states, to quote : ".....this epitomises a total lack of responsibility by the Commander, and had he taken the intelligence reports seriously the loss of Avro aircraft may have been averted. It also appears the commander's statement that he did not believe the LTTE to posses stinger missiles..

Excerpts from the news conference:

Q: For the first time in the history of the Air Force a commander designate has been sidelined. Was Anselm Peiris asked to resign because if he took over as commander he would probably have exposed certain corrupt deals in the Air Force?

A: It is not so. One could expose even within or outside. Anybody who wants to expose they can, provided we have done something wrong. He was not sidelined for this purpose.

Q: You said he was not sidelined for this purpose. Can we infer therefore that he was sidelined and if so why?

A: I used the word sidelined because it contained in the question. He was not sidelined, it is just that a fit and proper person will be appointed as Commander of the Air Force. And that is what is going to happen now.

Q: The normal course of action when a commander retires is that he names his successor. Does this mean that you named Jayalath Weerakkody?

A: Well, I would have to say yes to this. Yes.

Q: Why?

A:For various reasons. The Commander of the Air Force is selected and appointed on the basis that he is a fit and proper person. It's all round qualities and things like that, but he should be a capable person. It maybe my recommendation but it is upto my higher authorities to accept it or not.

Q: While taking this opportunity to wish you a happy retirement, following the question you answered just now you said that your successor was named because he was a fit and proper person and you recommended him for that. Is this why Anselm Peiris was overlooked because he was not fit and proper or capable?

A: I do not wish to comment on this matter at all.

Q: A committee appointed by the President has found that the loss of two Avro aircraft the CR 834 and 835 could have been prevented, if you had taken seriously intelligence reports. Why have you not accepted responsibility for these two air disasters which killed 105 persons?

A: Various people will say various things. Why did you not do that, why did you not do this? I would wish all those people who criticize like that now, were in my position at that time, and taken a decision at that time, at that moment on what to do. I do not think they are correct here. If the committee has gone into this, the committee would have found out whoÕs responsible for those crashes.

Q: But you are on record as having told the committee that if all intelligence reports are taken seriously then the Air Force cannot fly.

A: By all means I did not ignore any intelligence report. Well, when I say intelligence reports not information. I would like to put a question back to you . Recently they said that there are eight or ten suicide cadres in Colombo. One cadre exploded herself right in front of Air Force headquarters, and there were one or two cadres that got blasted.... so at least there should be another five or six. So tell me what you would do in a situation like that just because the suicide cadres are there. If you were the Air Force Commander would you come to office or not?

Q: The question here is why intelligence reports were not taken seriously. You are on record as having said that it is not possible to do so all the time.

A: I have taken all intelligence reports very seriously and I have taken action as per the situation at that time. And even today it is happening. I will give you another good example. You tell me, intelligence has said that there are nine to eleven missiles presently available with the terrorists. Has anyone told you or do you know what type of missiles are available today? No, everyone says there are eleven missiles or nine missiles. Out of that we could account for four or five. The balance is there. We are taking action to avoid all that. But we do not know where they are. So, in a situation like that what do you expect me to do?

Q: While congratulating you on your achievements as Air Force Chief can I mention that there were also a record number of air crashes and downing of planes during your tenure. Now several explanations have been adduced to this. But also one explanation was to scapegoat the media. The Sunday Times was accused of carrying pictures of aircraft, but the Air Force issued a calendar with pictures of the same aircraft.

A: Okay. I will tell you frankly there is a magazine called the Jane's In that book you get all the details of every aircraft.. If you go to Lake House Bookshop you can buy one of those books. So that is why we have published these photographs because it is available outside. What we have found fault with about the press is the publishing of other details of operational matters. Not the details of the aircraft.

Q: So do you seriously believe that most of these attacks were carried out because the press carried these details?

A: No, I would not say that. I do not say in general the press carried damaging stories. But some of those articles were damaging.

Q: Would you like to specify which articles?

A: I cannot specify anything but if you go through the records it has been said even at security council meetings it has been discussed that some of these articles have proved detrimental, as they have jumped the gun and published a plan or anticipated a plan.

Q: Would you at this point agree that you have had an adversarial relationship with the media particularly with Iqbal Athas who writes the Situation Report of The Sunday Times. Mr. Athas has quite directly said he suspects the Air Force to be responsible for the attack on his residence. Have you responded to this or carried out any investigation on your own?

A: I will say outsiders accused the Air Force. I do not think this particular press gentleman accused the Air Force of anything. On my own I found out from the Air Force who was out, or whatever it is, and there was nothing amiss.

Q: Are you aware that in a preliminary report of the CID's investigation into the attack on Iqbal Athas and his family indicates service personnel were involved. What do you have to say?

A: Service personnel do not mean the Air Force.

Q: But do you intend carrying out any investigation?

A:Why should I? The CID report will indicate whether it is Air Force, Army, Navy or Police personnel or whoever it is.

Q: Is it true that the procurement of equipment in the Air Force has been conducted on an ad hoc basis to perhaps satisfy the gains of a few?

A: Absolutely not. The Air Force Commander would not purchase anything on his own. Purchases would be after proper evaluation. After calling for tenders, a technical committee goes into it, a financial committee goes into it and then it goes to the Cabinet Ministry tender board ,and there, depending on the quantum of money the authority of the Cabinet tender board and finally the authority of the Cabinet has to be obtained. So, in that context even as Commander of the Air Force I cannot purchase whatever I want. Buying any equipment has to go through a fine tooth comb. So these allegations are for cheap popularity or cheap publicity.

Q: But what about the purchase, for example, of 20 bombs to destroy airport runways at a cost of over Rs. 31 million. All these bombs are still lying in Air Force warehouses. Then the procurement of anti-missile systems for F7 aircraft bought at a cost of over Rs. 102 million. These were fitted but not used in any operational sortie. And the purchase of Airborne Surveillance System for the SLAF's only Beechcraft at a cost of over Rs. 377 million? It has been on the ground more than in operation. Are any of these allegations true?

A: Airborne Surveillance System is in operation right now. That is not on the ground. It gets airborne and does the job when required. With regard to purchase of bombs I think you are referring to purchase of laser guided bombs. Yes, we went into a purchase for a particular requirement. I will tell you why. At the time we wanted accuracy. One hundred percent accuracy of bombing. A long time ago there were accusations of indiscriminate bombing. But fortunately for the last four years we have not been accused of any indiscriminate bombing. We have achieved the accuracy. Earlier we had only Puccara and Sia Machetti aircraft for bombing. Now supposing we have to take a target which is very valuable, and we can take no second chances we have to achieve this on a first drop. It is due to this that we decided we needed laser guided bombs. We went through the proper procedures of government and went into a purchase. In that purchase we said you have to prove 100% accuracy. Zero accuracy. When it was demonstrated the first one fell short and so did the second and third, so we said no we could not go ahead because we wanted zero accuracy. Why we insisted on this was that after the Puccara aircraft, we purchased the Kfir aircraft. With the Kfir aircraft which has an advanced computer system for bombing we can achieve 8 metre accuracy. if you can drop a bomb within 8 metres you can destroy everything. So that is the accuracy that you want.

Q: UNP General Secretary Gamini Atukorale alleged recently in Parliament that you have three houses at Rajagiriya, Kotte and Raddoluwa. (He did ask) how this is possible on the salary of an Air Force officer?

A: I own only two houses. One I built 12 years ago. I was no-one in the Air Force at that time. Then I built my second house six years ago and that is declared in my assets and in my income tax. I have two houses yes, I am proud to say I have two houses. Why do you think we are paupers or something?. Yes I have two houses so what? I built all these houses before I became Commander. You must understand servicemen are not paupers. How come some journalists have three storied houses, and some journalists do not have houses?

Q: Mr. Athas in his Situation Report has said that with regard to the commission which investigated the downing of so many aircraft, it has been determined that you were one of the people who was responsible for procurement of aircraft. He quoted the commission report.

A: Some people say this. But the good side of the report won't be stated . I think the same report says that technically there was nothing wrong with those crashes.

Q: If there was technically nothing wrong, why has the report then faulted you?

A: Have you seen the report?

Q: I haven;t, but I am quoting on what was stated about the report in the press.

A: These are all allegations. Just because I do not keep company with you people? I do not think the report says anything detrimental like that..... I doubt there is any such allegation.

Q: Should not this report in that event be made public?

A: If the report is to be made public the government will do so. If there is any allegation they will take action against me. I was fighting a war with good intention. I am leaving today a very happy man. I have achieved the best I could achieve for this organization. My conscience is clear. I am very grateful to this organization.

Q: You said the media has divulged battle plans, and this has been detrimental to the forces.

A: This is the whole problem. When these things are leaked out it is like espionage. During World War I and II the media lifted them up and made the service personnel heroes. But today what is happening, is the media making heroes out of our people? No, some people are slinging mud. These service personnel are fighting your and your children's war. .Lives have been lost because of this type of thing.

Q: Can you give specifics.

A: I can't give you specifics now.

Q: Can you give specifics on a later date.

A: I am a civilian as of today. But you are welcome to call me and clarify anything.

Q: You said that the press should prop up the forces. Now in the case of arms procurement, the tax payers money is channelled to purchasing arms. Don't you think the forces are then accountable to the public on every cent that is spent; and also don't you think that the media is a conduit between the Air Force and the public in this exercise?

A: We are responsible as military personnel to the public for their funds. But the military does not state what we want to purchase. The public can purchase and give us . All that the military needs is correct and good equipment. Anybody can purchase, who cares? All that we need is the equipment to fight.

Q: You did not answer my question. The public is totally unaware of how their money is being used. All those matters are left to the discretion of the Commander of the Air Force. Don't you think the media needs to act as a conduit for the public? A: Yes, that is the role of the media as I have said, you are free to ask any questions and I will tell you the truth. The public must know the truth. But there are certain things you cannot tell until the operation is over. But as far as accountability goes the Treasury has rules and regulations which we are following. We also fall within that framework.

A: Yes, that is the role of the media as i have said, you are free to ask any questions and I will tell you the truth. The public must know the truth. But there are certail things you cannot tell untill the operation is over. But as far as accountability goes the Treasury has rules and regulations which we are following. We also fall within that framework.

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