The then Brigadier Shavendra Silva explains the ground situation to Al Jazeera journalists on the western front at the onset of major operations in late July 2008. Although a section of the international community accused the army of depriving the media from visiting the Vanni, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa authorized some media visits. The Colombo based BBC correspondent was one the journalists, who had the opportunity to fly over Paranthan soon after Brigadier Shavendra Silva’s Task Force I (TF I) liberated the town. During the last phase of the offensive, a group of Colombo based Indian journalists was with TF I/58 Division. The Indian team included The Hindu correspondent. Brigadier Silva was one of the few senior officers who exploited the media and used it as a tool against the LTTE. In fact, Maj. Gen. Silva, in his current capacity as Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative in New York, continued his efforts on the media front, hence became a target for a section of the international press supportive of the LTTE macabre project. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa and the then army Gen. Sarath Fonseka effectively used the media to carry the GoSL’s message. The Defence Secretary’s spearheading role was the single most important factor in countering the LTTE media, which always had the upper hand during previous phases of the conflict. The former Navy spokesman Capt. D. K. P. Dasanayake played a significant role in managing the war-time ‘Indian factor’ which at one point overwhelmed the GoSL.(Pic by Captain Wasantha Jayaweera, formerly of the Special Forces)
In the wake of the Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA), the then President JRJ imposed a censorship on the independent media as it felt that suppression of the free flow of information could prevent the JVP from exploiting the deployment of the IPKF to fuel its subversive campaign. A powerful Competent Authority (CA) appointed by the government for that purpose debarred the independent media from reporting what was going on in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. It killed reports relating to the IPKF and the JVP-instigated insurgency.
In the absence of privately owned television networks as well as the Internet at that time, JRJ’s strategy was somewhat effective. At the behest of those in power, the CA even went out of its way to harass the print media. Articles submitted for approval were held for hours without rhyme or reasons, thus causing them to miss the deadlines.
Having joined The Island in June 1987 as trainee reporter, the writer experienced the appalling conduct of the CA during his many visits to the Information Department to submit articles. In some instances, the CA approved sections of news reports, features and comments published by the print media, prompting Editor of The Island Gamini Weerakoon to front-page a note to keep readers reminded that the media was subject to censorship. Most of those campaigning for media freedom today dared not criticize the government action at that time.
However, the Indian High Commission in Colombo issued statements concerning security matters regardless of the censorship. Capt. B. K. Gupta of the Indian High Commission dealt with the issue of the Indian Navy and the Sri Lankan Navy launching joint patrols in the Palk Strait consequent to the ILA (Patrolling of Palk Strait begins today-The Island Aug. 15, 1987). Gupta discussed the issue close on the heels of JRJ’s CA censoring a section of news report on the cooperation between the two navies (Joint Indo-Lanka patrolling of Palk Strait –The Island Aug. 14, 1987).
The Competent Authority brazenly deleted anything it felt could antagonize the political leadership. Among the many articles censored was the one which dealt with difficulties experienced by the police in the absence of sufficient number of Tamil speaking law enforcement officers for deployment in the Northern and Eastern Provinces was censored (Tamil and Muslim policemen for N&E-The Island Aug. 18, 1987). The CA butchered a news report which dealt with the crisis caused by the government accommodating armed forces in some schools in Colombo and its suburbs and the South, following their withdrawal from the Northern and Eastern Provinces (Quandary over forces still in some schools-The Island Aug. 26, 1987). The CA found fault with The Island for not submitting the headline of that news item, while warning us to follow instructions or face the consequences.
The JRJ administration had to pull out the bulk of the forces from operational areas to meet the growing threat posed by the JVP. The Defence Ministry was forced to assign more troops to quell the JVP rebellion in the wake of the JVP grenade attack on a section of the government parliamentary group on the morning of Aug. 18, 1987 in Parliament. The unprecedented attack claimed the life of Keerthi Abeywickrema, Member of Parliament representing and the Matara District Minister. The then National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali was among those injured in the blast.
The grenade attack sent shock waves through the political establishment causing uncertainty and political turmoil. The SLAF was given the tough task of running civil administration in the JVP stronghold of Hambantota as the government intensified anti-insurgency operations. In support of the police and security forces operations, the UNP authorized some government members to undertake clandestine operations with the help of vigilantes. The police and the armed forces, too, conducted covert operations outside the scope of regular operations.
Indo-Lanka Accord exploited
The deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) fueled the JVP insurrection with many youth volunteering joining the outfit’s ranks. The Indian military presence facilitated the JVP’s second attempt to overthrow an elected government. The JVP believed that at least a section of the armed forces would revolt against JRJ, primarily due to the suspension of successful Operation Liberation in June 1987. The then Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Brig. Gen. Gerry H. de Silva in his memoirs tiled A most Noble Profession launched in 2011 discussed the IPKF’s assertion that about 40 per cent of the armed forces despised JRJ. In an interview with this writer, now retired Gen. de Silva (Commander of the Army 1994-1996) emphasized that the armed forces had always being loyal to the government in power. “We were surprised by the IPKF’s claim,” a smiling de Silva said, adding that the IPKF officers soon realized their folly. The Indian intelligence services and the High Commission had erred in their assessment, the Gemunu Watch veteran said.
Indian sponsored terrorist groups could not have been unaware of India’s assessment. They, too, must have sought to exploit the situation. The same could be said about the JVP, which wrongly assumed that the armed forces, particularly the fighting forces consisting of rural youth, would switch their allegiance to the JVP. Much to the surprise of the JVP, it realized the armed forces remained loyal to the government, though a few personnel cooperated with the proscribed organization.
The JVP distributed leaflets urging the armed forces to turn their guns on the UNP government for having invited the Indian Army to take over the Northern and Eastern Province. In spite of its rhetoric, the JVP never wanted to take on the mighty IPKF, though a section of the media recently boasted of JVP operations in the East in the wake of the Kumar Gunaratnam affair.
Had the JVP attack in Parliament caused the deaths of the top UNP leaders, the insurgency would have taken a different course. The attacker subsequently identified as Ajith Kumara hurled two hand grenades into Committee Room ‘A’ of the parliamentary complex as the government group was having its bi-weekly meeting ahead of the first session of the House since the signing of the ILA. Those present at the meeting later told the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) an attacker lobbing two grenades towards them and President JRJ and Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa. The attempt on his life promoted JRJ to blame terrorists among the Sinhala community for the attack.
The JVP assassinated Hambantota District MP Jinadasa Weerasinghe on Aug. 1, 1987 at Angunakolapelessa. The situation continued to deteriorate in areas outside the Northern and Eastern Province due to JVP hit-and-run attacks. The JVP caused immense damage to the national economy by destroying public property. By late Sept. 1987, the armed forces had minimal presence in the two provinces leaving the IPKF in charge. Even those based there were under constant IPKF surveillance with restrictions imposed on their movements, whereas the LTTE and other Tamil armed groups operated freely. The Sri Lankan military was ordered not to step out of their bases without prior approval. Although the military brought the situation to the notice of JRJ, he could not do anything. The IPKF remained adamant that the Sri Lankan military had forfeited its right for deployment under any circumstances, consequent to the ILA.
Home guards asked to surrender weapons
In Sept. 1987, the LTTE launched an attempt to disarm home guards deployed in areas vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The deployment covered the Eastern districts as well as adjoining areas. The LTTE demanded an immediate surrender of their weapons in line with the ILA. The Sri Lankan government ignored the demand, though the Tigers persisted. The LTTE launched a highly publicized fast unto death opposite Nallur Kandasamy kovil to draw international attention to its demand. The LTTE claimed that the IPKF should take charge of weapons in the hands of the home guards. India promptly rejected the LTTE call (Home guards won’t handover weapons to IPKF-Indian Defence Advisor-The Island Sept. 19, 1987).
Hot on the heels of the LTTE’s call, the IPKF increased its strength in the Eastern Province. The then General Officer Commanding the Indian Army, Southern Command Lt. Gen. Depinder Singh was quoted by the Indian press as having said that he was ready to bring in more troops to maintain law and order. Lt. Gen. Singh would never have thought he was going to need thousands of troops, main battle tanks, helicopter gunships and a range of other equipment, the following month for a different purpose.
The LTTE strongly opposed the re-opening of new police stations in the Northern region and insisted that the ILA desist from helping the government restore a police presence in areas once dominated by the group.
LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran felt that the re-establishment of police stations would be detrimental to the interests of the LTTE and intensified protests after the police launched recruitment drive in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The LTTE wanted to fill the vacuum. Having killed hundreds of members of other Indian sponsored groups, the LTTE believed it had the capacity to run the two provinces. It conveniently forgot it could have been in serious trouble if not for India’s intervention in June 1987. India intervened as the troops of Operation Liberation were consolidating its positions at Tellippalai (on the western front) and Achchuveli (on the eastern front). The two Brigades engaged in the second phase of Operation Liberation were pushing towards Jaffna.