President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s government never recovered from the loss of the Elephant Pass base in April 2000. In spite of making some territorial gains since Sept. 3, 2000, the SLA couldn’t regain the entire territory lost to the enemy. The government faced a stiff conventional military challenge. The LTTE continued to build-up pressure on many fronts. The government couldn’t launch at least a basic humanitarian mission without involving an NGO/International agency. The restoration of ship services between KKS and Trincomalee in April 2001 to facilitate the ICRC’s north-south patients transfer programme was a case in point. The LTTE provided a security guarantee to the ICRC chartered ship Jaya Gold to resume transportation of patients from the Northern Province referred to Colombo hospitals, only after the government entered into an agreement with the ICRC and the LTTE. The ICRC suspended weekly services in April 2000 when the Kankesanthurai harbour and Palaly airbase came under LTTE artillery and mortar fire (Ship services to KKS restored with strap line ICRC brokers agreement between army and LTTE––The Island Jan. 4, 2001).
Christmas truce Dec 2001
The ICRC arrangement came into operation during a 30-day unilateral truce declared by the LTTE to pave the way for a fresh round of talks with President Kumaratunga’s government. The LTTE’s truce came into operation at midnight Dec. 2001. The PA ignored the LTTE offer. The SLA was given the go ahead to resort to offensive action. Troops advanced about two miles beyond their forward defence lines at Omanthai, Vavuniya. They killed seven LTTE cadres before returning to base without suffering casualties. The SLN destroyed two boats carrying LTTE cadres off Pooneryn, also in the first week of Jan 2001 (Troops move beyond Omanthai, seven Tigers killed––The Island Jan 5, 2001). Regardless of the LTTE’s truce, the SLA continued with operations. But, Norway persisted with its efforts to bring the warring factions back to the negotiating table. Fighting erupted on the night of April 19, 1995 following a 100-day truce.
Addressing the media on Jan 5, 2001, Media and Information Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and military spokesman Brig. Sanath Karunaratne rejected the LTTE offer. Minister Yapa stressed that a ceasefire could be considered only after the two sides entered into a fresh round of negotiations. The minister recalled his senior colleague, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s response to the LTTE’s offer. Kadirgamar declared that they could resume negotiations, while fighting continued in the north. Brig. Karunaratne said that having launched offensive action on Sept. 3, 2000, the SLA had regained approximately 140 square kms of territory, including Chavakachcheri, Colombuthurai, Kaitadi, Navatkuli, Ariyalai and Thanankilappu by the first week of Jan 2001. The spokesman asserted that the worst was over in spite of the LTTE’s Unceasing Waves IV causing some losses in the last week of Sept. 2000. Unceasing Waves IV forced the SLA to abandon some of its positions along the Kilali-Muhamalai-Eluththumadduval-Nagarkovil defence line (No ceasefire says Media Minister––The Island Jan. 6, 2001). The SLA stepped up operations ahead of its frontline in the second week of Jan. 2001, with Security Forces Commander Jaffna, Maj. Gen. Anton Wijendra vowing to press ahead with planned action (Troops on offensive ahead of defence lines––The Island Jan. 10, 2001).
Oct 31, 2000: Norwegian special envoy meets LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran at Mallavi. Subsequently he met President Chandrika Kumaratunga in Colombo to apprise her of the situation.
Norwegians back in Colombo
In spite of an ongoing Norwegian peace effort spearheaded by Special Envoy Erik Solheim, the then government was determined to make an all-out effort to evict the LTTE from the peninsula. The SLA felt that it could muster sufficient forces on the northern front by April 2001 for a major assault on LTTE frontlines in the Jaffna peninsula. Acquisition of a range of arms, ammunition and equipment boosted the morale of the military. The government told the Norwegian envoy that the LTTE’s offer was irrelevant. The SLA was ready to launch another military adventure (Green light for more offensives with strap line security forces firepower enhanced––The Island Jan 14, 2001). The Norwegian initiative had the backing of Western powers as well as NGOs. They pushed the government to accept the LTTE offer. The SLA launched heavy attacks on Ponnar and Avarakadu in the third week of January 2001. The SLA secured seven square kilometres of LTTE-held territory. The LTTE caused heavy losses to troops advancing on its territory. The SLA placed the number of killed at 54, including two officers and 236 officers and men wounded. Both the SLA and the LTTE continued to play down their own losses (Troops overrun LTTE’s northern most-positions––The Island Jan. 18, 2001). The SLA transferred the bodies of 41 LTTE cadres killed on the Jaffna front to the Vanni through the ICRC. Due to restrictions imposed by the SLA and the LTTE, the ICRC had to move bodies across the Jaffna lagoon in fishing boats. The SLA recovered 15,000 rounds of different types of ammunition. The LTTE moved additional forces to face further SLA offensive action.
Warning from London
In the wake of fighting, London-based LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham urged the government to accept their offer immediately or face the consequences. The former British High Commission employee Balasingham warned that the SLA would be driven out of Jaffna, unless the PA accepted the peace offer. Balasingham declared that the LTTE would return to an all-out war and gave the government time till Jan 24, 2001 (Forces dismiss Balasingham’s threat, say ‘military action will go on’––The Island Jan 21, 2001).
Close on the heels of the threat from London, the SLA launched a rare night operation in the Jaffna peninsula to extend its forward defence line at Muhamalai. The then Chief of Defence Staff, Lt. Gen. Rohan de S. Daluwatte said that troops had regained approximately eight square kilometres of what he called strategically important high ground at Muhamalai, including two and half kilometres of the Jaffna Kandy A9 road. The operation helped the SLA straighten its defence line extending from Kilali to Nagarkovil on the Vadamaratchchcy east coast through Muhamalai and Eluththumadduval (Troops in night offensive: LTTE abandons Muhamalai––The Island Jan 24, 2001).
However, immediately after the success at Muhamalai, the SLA lost 11 personnel, including three officers, in a mine blast within the newly captured area. The blast was caused by a soldier accidentally stepping on an anti-personnel mine which triggered a secondary blast. The day before the lapse of its unilateral ceasefire, the LTTE extended the truce by another month. The government promptly dismissed the LTTE move as a propaganda effort.
In his farewell message, Maj. Gen.Janaka Perera urged the officer corps to rally round new Commander Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle. “What matters is not the individual, but the safety and welfare of the fighting men and the mission to achieve victory,” Maj. Gen. Perera said. The war veteran declared that every major campaign and victory that the SLA could be proud of, he had been a key player and an active participant. Paying a glowing tribute to two of Sri Lanka’s much loved sons, Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Vijaya Wimalaratne, Maj. Gen. Perera said that he had learnt his basic tactics and strategies under them. An irate Maj. Gen. said that he hadn’t been given the opportunity to command the Army, though he had the required expertise and the knowledge to defeat the LTTE. “The powers that be and the gods above have decreed that I should not be the commander and that blessing had been bestowed on Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle. All of us are actors on a stage. We play our parts and when the curtain falls, we depart.”
Although China remained Sri Lanka’s main supplier of military equipment throughout the war, the PA established contact with Czechoslovakia in the mid 90s to acquire their products. In January 2001, this correspondent, in the company of Divaina defence writer Keerthi Warnakulasuriya had the opportunity to meet Chairman/Managing Director of a top Czech arms exporting firm, MPi, Pavel Jerabek and Michael Smrz, Director and Administrator of MPi. Smrz said that the privately owned MPi headquartered in Prague could provide weapons which would help the GoSL achieve its military objectives. MPi supplied multi barrel rocket launchers, main battle tanks, bridge-laying vehicles and tank recovery vehicles following the Elephant Pass debacle. The MPi set up its operation in Colombo in 1994. Smrz said that the Czech firm expanded its role since the Elephant Pass debacle in response to the GoSL’s growing need to enhance its firepower.
Smrz was in one of the two delegations in Colombo at that time to discuss Sri Lanka’s defence needs. The visit took place in the wake of the SLA taking delivery of T-55 AM2 main battle tanks for immediate deployment on the Jaffna front. Lt. Gen. Jiri Sedivy, Chief of General Staff of the Czechoslovakian armed forces was in charge of the other delegation. Smrz said that they could equip the Sri Lankan military to defeat the LTTE (Czech official says ready to supply Lanka with advanced weapons––The Island Jan 24, 2001). At the conclusion of their meetings, with the military in Colombo, the delegations had dinner at Minister S.B. Dissanayake’s residence in Colombo. Minister Dissanayake was one of those who strongly campaigned for Czechoslovakian armaments. Czech Defence Minister Vladimir Vetchy visited Colombo the following month.
The timely deployment of Czech supplied GRAD RM 70 multi barrel rocket launchers helped the SLA thwart the LTTE assault on Jaffna in April-May 2000. During this writer’s interview with Smrz, it transpired that there had been an attempt to interfere with the transfer of weapons system from Prague to Colombo. A delay in their deployment could have caused a catastrophic situation. Brig. Karunaratne, who was sent to Prague to ensure the speedy transfer of the weapon systems, too, confirmed the alleged attempt. The first chartered aircraft carrying two GRAD RM 70s disappeared for several days shortly after it left a Czech airport. The aircraft was later observed at an airport in a former Soviet republic. After hurried representations were made, the aircraft was allowed to take off. Once the aircraft touched down at the Bandaranaike International Airport, Czech military personnel here to assist the SLA were horrified to see some wires of both GRAD 70s cut. The Czechs, with SLAF technicians managed to repair the damage swiftly and cleared them for deployment in Jaffna. The second aircraft carrying two more GRAD 70s was intercepted by fighter aircraft of a Middle Eastern country and forced to land in a military airport. The aircraft was held for three weeks. An East European country (not Czechoslovakia), had to make representations on behalf of Sri Lanka to secure the aircraft’s release. Powerful external elements had intervened on behalf of the LTTE to cripple the Czechoslovakian weapons deal. They had approached some Czechoslovakian politicians to launch a campaign against the supply of weapons to Sri Lanka at the height of the conflict. At one point, MPi was compelled to seek legal assistance to facilitate the arms transfer. Having prevailed over the attempt to interfere with the deal, the MPi quickly transferred armaments required by the SLA, including Tatra 815 all terrain tank transport vehicles. Jerabek explained the difficulties experienced by his company when Sri Lanka sought immediate enhancement of its firepower. Sri Lanka felt that it could obtain quality Czech weapons at a reasonable price, as the former Soviet bloc country was in the process of replacing its armaments with NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) standard equipment (Inside story of attempted ‘weapons blockade’––The Island Jan 28, 2001).
The attempt to sabotage the Czech transaction should be examined against the backdrop of Norway, one of the 12 original members of the NATO, pursuing a much ambitious peace initiative. Czechoslovakia joined NATO on March 12, 1999 along with Poland and Hungary. Various interested parties applied pressure on Czechoslovakia not to help Sri Lanka. A prolonged delay in deployment of Czech rocket launchers would have given the LTTE a clear advantage on the Jaffna front. Czechoslovakia provided launchers free, while the GoSL bought expensive rockets. Czechoslovakia continued with supplies much to the relief of President Kumaratunga’s government. Amidst bloody fighting in Jaffna, President Kumaratunga sent close friend Minister Mangala Samaraweera to Prague to thank the Czech leadership on behalf Sri Lanka. Those pushing for a negotiated settlement felt that Czechoslovakian help could strengthen the SLA again. They believed a stronger SLA would be an obstacle to the peace initiative spearheaded by Norway.
End of a brilliant career
Having served the SLA for 34 years, Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera, RWP, RSP, VSV, USP retired on Jan 31, 2001. Perera was a gifted officer whose contribution to Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE could never be disputed. When the LTTE was on the verge of defeating the SLA in Jaffna in April-May 2000, President Kumaratunga sent Maj. Gen. Perera and Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka to defend the Jaffna peninsula. The PA deprived the war hero of an opportunity to command the SLA, in spite of his brilliant track record. Perera also played an important role in crushing the JVP’s second insurrection. Sri Lanka paid dearly for retiring Perera (Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera retires today: Fought decisive battles against LTTE, JVP––The Island Jan 31, 2001).The PA would have done the same to Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Fonseka if Mahinda Rajapaksa had not won the Nov. 17, 2005 presidential poll. President Rajapaksa readily accepted Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s recommendation that Maj. Gen. Fonseka be given the opportunity to command the SLA even at the expense of the then Commander, Lt. Gen. Shantha Kottegoda.
In his farewell message, Maj. Gen. Perera urged the officer corps to rally round new Commander Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle. “What matters is not the individual, but the safety and welfare of the fighting men and the mission to achieve victory,” Maj. Gen. Perera said. The war veteran declared that every major campaign and victory that the SLA could be proud of, he had been a key player and an active participant. Paying a glowing tribute to two of Sri Lanka’s much loved sons, Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Vijaya Wimalaratne, Maj. Gen. Perera said that he had learnt his basic tactics and strategies under them. An irate Maj. Gen. said that he had not been given the opportunity to command the Army, though he had the required expertise defeat the LTTE. “The powers that be and the gods above have decreed that I should not be the commander and that blessing had been bestowed on Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle. All of us are actors on a stage. We play our parts and when the curtain falls, we depart.” Wishing the new chief luck, one-time General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the elite 53 Division declared that he had wanted to command the Army. Strongly defending his push for the top post, the outgoing Army’s No 2 declared that officers should be ambitious. (Defeat LTTE militarily, rally around army commander-Janaka Perera––The Island Feb. 4, 2001 and Janaka Perera-the LTTE’s hoodoo man––The Island Feb. 4, 2001).
On the day, Maj. Gen. Perera retired, the Norwegian Special envoy met President Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Kadirgamar in Colombo. The Norwegian envoy was told that the GoSL was prepared to initiate a fresh round of talks with the LTTE, though it could not agree to a ceasefire. However, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe took up a different position. UNP and Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe told the special envoy that he didn’t oppose the LTTE’s call for a ceasefire to facilitate talks. The Norwegians pushed hard for resumption of talks. In a bid to win over political backing, Norway offered an all paid trip to Norway for both government and Opposition members. The JVP rejected the Norwegian invitation (Sri Lanka parliamentary delegation to visit Oslo next week––The Island Feb 18, 2001).