Had the navy failed to thwart a secret mission undertaken by LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s brother-in-law, Kumarappan, in early Oct 1987, the situation would have taken a different turn. Kumarappa’s clandestine mission would have succeeded if not for unparalleled extraordinary feat by the then Lt. Travis Sinniah and Leading Seaman Prematilleke, who risked their lives to abort a journey undertaken by a group of senior LTTE cadres.
The much talked about surrender of weapons by the LTTE to the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in line with the Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA) within 72 hours was nothing but a farce.
Although the LTTE had handed over some weapons following the cessation of hostilities, the group retained its 100 per cent fighting capability and a range of weapons acquired over the years. They had plenty of explosives and the expertise to manufacture landmines and various improvised explosive devises in case fighting resumed. But they never expected a war with their benefactor, India, which remained supremely confident of meeting any eventuality.
The IPKF was strong enough to suppress any resistance by the Sri Lankan military in case it revolted against President JRJ in the wake of a section of the ruling party strongly opposing the ILA. The then Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa strongly opposed the Indian intervention, though he did not want to say anything that may jeopardise his chance of being President JRJ’s successor.
Although India failed to disarm the LTTE, President JRJ had no option but to amalgamate the Eastern Province with the Northern Province pending a referendum before Dec. 31, 1988 in the Eastern Province to decide whether the arrangement should be made permanent.
The IPKF conveniently turned a blind eye to what was going on the ground, with the LTTE still working closely with Indian Intelligence services in spite of refusing to hand over its arms. The LTTE and its benefactors felt that the group’s weapons should be retained regardless of clause 2.9 of the ILA. In fact, the IPKF acted as if it were not aware of the total number of weapons in the hands of the LTTE. In spite of JRJ applying pressure on India to ensure the implementation of the ILA, the LTTE was allowed to hold on to its armaments.
The IPKF very clearly indicated that it was not keen to disarm the LTTE, though the ILA specified a period for the disarming operation. The IPKF asserted that it could not adhere with a time frame hence the LTTE was given an opportunity to maintain its arsenal. IPKF realised its folly ten weeks after being deployed in Northern and Eastern Province to implement the ILA.
Army gives up Jaffna
India prevented the JRJ administration from discussing security aspects of the ILA with the military, particularly those deployed in the Jaffna peninsula. Much to the dismay of the military, especially those involved in Operation Liberation, ILA envisaged troops giving up the area liberated during the first and second phases of the offensive. Although the army swiftly completed the first phase of the offensive launched on May 26, 1987 within a week, it could not complete the second phase due to Indian intervention. Although the army felt humiliated, it refrained from at least publicly expressing concern over the controversial decision to return to pre-May 26, 1987 positions. The IPKF was blunt in its dealings with the Sri Lanka military. Troops were confined to their bases, while LTTE cadres were allowed to enter restricted areas in spite of complaints.
It would be pertinent to mention that the military was kept in the dark in the run up to the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement in Feb. 2002.
The then Brig. Gerry H. de Silva, the senior most officer based in Jaffna at the time of the IPKF deployment in the Jaffna peninsula, in his memoirs, A Most Noble Profession, reveals possible difference of opinion among the top brass as regards the Indian intervention and JRJ administration’s response. The Gemunu Watch veteran was the Security Forces Commander, Jaffna. Due to protests in Colombo and its suburbs as well as several other parts of the country, the government felt it had no option but to re-deploy units previously based in the northern and eastern provinces, to quell violence. The JVP took advantage of the crisis to launch its second attempt to grab power prompting JRJ to unleash the army on the Marxists.
Jaffna troops shifted to South
According to Gen. de Silva, on the night of July 29, 1987 he received a telephone call from Colombo informing him of the arrival of the IPKF at first light the following day. He was directed to abandon the entire area captured during Operation Liberation and prepare for re-deployment in the South. The Jaffna Commander received instructions from the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Nalin Seneviratne and General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the Joint Operations Command (JOC) Gen. Cyril Ranatunga to the effect that the Indian Air Force would swiftly airlift troops from Jaffna to Katunayake air base. Giant IL 76 transport aircraft bringing in IPKF to Palaly were to airlift the army. It was an unprecedented arrangement. When a concerned De Silva queried Gen. Ranatunga about the directives, Lt. Gen. Seneviratne had intervened. “When I questioned the GOC JOC on these orders, the army commander Lt. Gen. Nalin Seneviratne grabbed the telephone off General Ranatunga and told me to shut up and just follow instructions,” de Silva said.
The army complied with the directive leaving Jaffna in the hands of the IPKF. JRJ administration drastically cut down on deployment of security forces and police, including the elite Special Task Force (STF) in operational areas. The flare-up in the South could not have come at a better time for the IPKF and the LTTE. Drastic drop in government strength in the Northern Province as well as Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts facilitated LTTE efforts to consolidate its power in the region. The IPKF, too, liked the withdrawal of government forces from the Northern and Eastern Provinces as its actual deployment in Sri Lanka was meant to neutralise a possible threat from the army. India deployed T 72 main battle tanks and a range of other equipment necessary to meet a conventional military threat. The IPKF was never meant to confront any of the groups sponsored by India. Instead the IPKF was fully geared to engage in operations against Sri Lankan forces. The immediate withdrawal of experienced fighting formations deployed in the Jaffna peninsula in the wake of the ILA defused a potential crisis. The IPKF realised that the army was not going to cause any trouble, whereas the LTTE continued to flex its muscles.
Alleged threat on JRJ
Responding to a query by the writer, De Silva asserted that the Indian military believed that a sizeable section of the armed forces was hostile to the government. On the basis of information gathered by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and other agencies, the IPKF estimated at least 40 per cent of the entire military strength was disloyal to President JRJ. In his memoirs, De Silva says the IPKF may have claimed there was a threat to President JRJ’s life from the army to justify the deployment of two frigates carrying troops in the outer Colombo harbour for two weeks. The Sri Lankan military was told of heli-borne Indian commandos coming to the rescue of President JRJ in case the army moving against the political leadership. But in hindsight the deployment of the Indian navy was probably in line with their overall deployment of forces in the event of the Sri Lankan military, resentful of the Indian adventure, launching attacks. India recalled frigates as relations improved between the two armies.
Contrary to reports, the military had always stood by the military leadership and there was no evidence whatsoever regarding a section of the military planning to seize power in the wake of the ILA, the former Army Commander said.
Perhaps the IPKF refrained from disarming the LTTE to use it against the army in case of hostilities between the Indian Army and the Sri Lankan military. Those preparing contingency plans would have definitely examined the options available for the IPKF in case of a possible threat from the Sri Lankan military. Had that happened, the IPKF would have had an opportunity to utilise not only the LTTE but all other groups against Sri Lanka. The IPKF was ready for any eventuality, though it underestimated the fighting capabilities of the LTTE in spite of it being trained by Indian personnel. The IPKF never realised the mindset of the LTTE fighting cadre until it was compelled to take on the group about 10 weeks after the signing of the ILA. The IPKF never bothered to study LTTE tactics until fighting broke out in the second week of Oct. 1987. Before discussing IPKF operation codenamed Pawan, it would be important to examine the events leading to the outbreak of hostilities.
A courageous act
The unexpected capture of an LTTE trawler named Kadalpura in the northern seas on Oct. 2, 1987 by the navy led to the swift collapse of the ILA signed on July 29, 1987. India was compelled to launch Pawan, after the group went on the rampage over those arrested onboard Kadalpura taking cyanide to avoid being airlifted to Ratmalana from Palaly. Among them were Pulendran and Kumarappa, two of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s closest associates.
The detection and seizure of Kadalpura was made by the crew of P 457, one of the Israeli-built Dvora MK 1, commanded by Lt. Commander Ariyadasa. His deputy was the then Lt. T. J. L. Sinniah now with the US diplomatic mission in Colombo. Having played a significant role in operations on the high seas targeting LTTE vessels during Eelam war IV, Sinniah retired about a year ago as Commodore.
Had P 457 missed Kadalpura, which was moving from Valvettiturai to Tamil Nadu, the IPKF wouldn’t have been forced to fight the LTTE.
Travis Sinniah recalled the circumstances under which the navy had apprehended the LTTE vessel. P 457’s crew comprised of 12 officers and men. In spite of Indian navy launching patrols in Sri Lankan waters consequent to the ILA, the Sri Lankan navy was not debarred from performing its duties, though there were certain restrictions as regards engagement of craft in the sea.
The detection was made during the morning watch at around 2.45 by Lt. Sinniah. P 457 shadowed/tracked and intercepted the LTTE craft about 45 minutes later approximately 35-40 nautical miles north-east of Point Pedro. P 457’s crew quickly realised the importance of the detection as one of those on board vessel identified himself as Kumarappa, brother-in-law of Prabhakaran. Newly married Kumarappa displayed his wedding ring to Lt. Sinniah as he was questioned. In his first public comments on the incident over 25 years ago, Commodore Sinniah said: “The vessel was a large modified trawler painted in battle grey. At night, we could have easily mistaken it for an Indian navy patrol boat. It was fitted with radar and state of the art radio equipment available at that time. There were 18 LTTE leaders on board, including Kumarappa, the then LTTE deputy leader who was married to Prabakaran’s sister as well as Trincomalee leader Pulendran wanted for Kittulottuwa massacre, where they attacked passenger buses on their way to Trincomalee. Among the victims were eight service personnel returning from leave on these buses. Five navy personnel were among the slaughtered. Some of the detained LTTE personnel were bodyguards assigned to protect leaders.”
The group carried a range of weapons. They were armed with personal weapons. The navy found several other arms, including M16s, Berettas, SMG, FNs sniper et al.
“Once challenged they took up position with weapons but did not fire fearing we’ll retaliate. They kept on moving towards India and did not stop though repeatedly warned that we’ll take action,” Commodore Sinniah said. Had the LTTE vessel reached Indian waters, P 457 couldn’t have done anything. At one point P 457 crew feared the LTTE craft was going to succeed as they declared they wouldn’t stop whatever the consequences. They identified their vessel as Kadalpura.
P 457 made the detection during a nine-day attachment to the Northern Command, though it launched combat patrols from Trincomalee.
In fact Kadalpura could have escaped if not for two members of P 457’s crew volunteering to jump into the moving LTTE craft from the moving navy vessel in the choppy seas. Commodore Sinniah was reluctant to highlight his role in the detection. He is averse to publicity but explained the circumstances under which the navy seized the LTTE vessel. “I along with Leading Seaman Prematilleke jumped off the Dvora into the moving LTTE vessel and confront 18 LTE personnel. We were armed and ready for any eventuality. Although shots were fired during the confrontation no one was hurt seriously. We commandeered the LTTE craft and sailed it back to Kankesanthurai under the watchful eye of P 457.” The distance from the scene of the confrontation to Kankesanthurai is 80 miles.