Jan 2, 1989 Dalada Maligawa: President elect Ranasinghe Premadasa signs the visitors’ book before he addressed the nation
In Dec 1988, the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) and the police clashed with armed persons backed by the IPKF at Sumedagama in the Trincomalee district. The Joint Operations Command (JOC) and the Indian High Commission acted quickly to defuse the situation in the wake of the SLA killing five armed members during a confrontation.
The police, too, killed another armed person in a separate confrontation. The situation deteriorated further when a gun battle between the SLA and the IPKF resulted in the death of an Indian soldier, also in Trincomalee. Both the JOC and the Indian High Commission felt that sporadic incidents could develop into a major confrontation in Trincomalee. They warned of the possibility of SLA-IPKF battles spreading to other districts.
Police headquarters sent DIG Mahesh Selvaratnam especially to investigate the situation and take remedial action.
Responding to the Indian High Commission allegations, the SLA and the police insisted that the IPKF and some cadres of the EPRLF were responsible for causing mayhem in Trincomalee. They cleared the LTTE of involvement.
In the wake of the EPRLF securing the administration of the temporarily merged North-East Province at the Nov 19, 1988 PC polls, the group began flexing its muscles. The EPRLF had the IPKF’s backing to meet any eventuality. The IPKF provided weapons to hundreds of EPRLF cadres as well as other groups loyal to India in accordance with an overall security plan. India wanted to establish an armed force comprising members of all groups other than the LTTE to protect the EPRLF administration.
President JRJ faced the prospect of having an extremely hostile political entity in the temporarily merged province with an armed force of its own. Although the UNP realized the danger in the Indian move, it couldn’t intervene.
The government was helpless. But the EPRLF-IPKF alliance was going to be Ranasinghe Premadasa’s problem in the wake of Dec 19, 1988 presidential election. The country was in turmoil. The presidential election was held amidst violence with the JVP on the offensive in the South. JVP gunmen targeted election staff. In separate incidents, two senior presiding officers died. The IPKF was in charge of security in the Northern and Eastern districts, though the government deployed Sri Lankan troops and police in predominately Sinhala areas in the Eastern Province with the consent of the IPKF.
The bottom line was that President JRJ had no option but to obtain IPKF approval for deploying local forces. Having overcome an attempt by an influential section of the party to undermine his campaign, Ranasinghe Premadasa won the Dec 19, 1988 presidential election by polling 2,569,199 votes to beat his main contender, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The SLFP leader polled 2,289,960, whereas Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya (SLMP) leader, Oswin Abeygunasekara obtained 235,719 votes. Abeygunasekara’s campaign had the backing of the UNP.
Premadasa was sworn in as the second executive President on the morning of Jan 2, 1989 at the Dalada Maligawa.
Delivering his inaugural address to the nation, a confident Premadasa revealed his readiness to meet both the LTTE and the JVP in a bid to bring both groups into the political mainstream. The President’s move was anticipated. The President was making an attempt to form a common front against the Indian intervention.
The UNP leader was of the opinion that the government could work closely with the JVP as well as the LTTE due to him, JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran wanting the IPKF out. President Rajapaksa felt he could exploit their hostility towards India/IPKF to his advantage. The JVP most probably realized President Premadasa’s strategy, hence its decision to spurn the peace offers. However, the President didn’t make any direct overtures to the LTTE.
EPRLF-led Tamil Front takes shape
President Premadasa resented the IPKF’s presence. During his tenure as the Prime Minister Premadasa strongly opposed the Indian intervention. The President was wary of the IPKF-EPRLF nexus. The President and his advisors felt tangible actions were needed to neutralize the threat posed by the IPKF-EPRLF grouping. They considered the formation of a Tamil front under the EPRLF leadership ahead of the parliamentary elections in April 1989, a major threat. The Indian sponsored group included members of the TULF, TELO, EROS and ENDLF. The IPKF believed the LTTE could be isolated by bringing the TULF and all armed Tamil groups under one umbrella. In support of the political coalition, India intended to set up a strong force capable of taking on the LTTE. The Indian plan was obvious. The Indian government and the IPKF asserted that their operation could be legitimized by involving the TULF. The Indian operation was launched at the expense of the TULF.
The Tamil front contested the general election in April 1989 on the TULF ticket, though the EROS fielded candidates in Jaffna, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Vanni on its own. The EROS contested the four electoral districts as Independent Group I. It ended up winning 13 seats, whereas those who contested on the TULF ticket won 10 seats. Both won one National List seat each. The Democratic People’s Liberation Front, the political wing of the PLOTE failed to secure a single seat. Under President Premadasa’s leadership, the UNP secured 125 seats including 15 National List slots. The Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) contested on the UNP ticket. The SLFP managed to win 67 seats, including nine National List slots.
Political pact amidst war
Interestingly, the TULF was brought back from India in May 1988 following tripartite consultations involving India, TULF and the LTTE. The original plan was for the TULF to participate at the first ever provincial council election scheduled for August, though it couldn’t be held as scheduled. One-time TULF MP Vettivelu Yogeswaran revealed the understanding between the TULF and the LTTE a few days before TULF leaders, Appapillai Amirthalingham, Murugesu Sivasithamparam and R. Sampanthan were scheduled to return.
Yogeswaran said that they had been able to reach an understanding with the LTTE during consultations in India (TULF leaders return on Monday-The Island May 12, 1988). Yogeswaran inadvertently revealed what was going on in New Delhi, while the IPKF was waging war against the LTTE. The Indian media quoted the then Mahaweli Development Minister Gamini Dissanayake as having said in New Delhi that, provincial elections in August would entirely depend on the IPKF’s ability to suppress the LTTE.
The LTTE would never have expected the TULF to join hands with Indian sponsored armed groups. On the other hand, the TULF had no option but to join the EPRLF-led grouping due to Indian pressure. Except for the LTTE, all other Tamil political parties and groups worked under the auspices of the Indian High Commission and the IPKF.
The Indian government didn’t tolerate dissent as it worked hard to isolate the LTTE. The LTTE was given only one opportunity during September 1989 to join the political mainstream. The previous article dealt with India declaring a 10-day unilateral ceasefire to facilitate the LTTE’s return to the negotiating table. The LTTE ignored the offer.
Moves to pacify JVP backfire
The security situation continued to deteriorate in spite of President Premadasa’s efforts to restore government authority in the South as well as in the IPKF-dominated Northern and Eastern districts. President Premadasa’s attempts failed. On the night of Dec 13, 1988, the JVP attacked the Welikada Prison, resulting in a major battle with the armed forces. The JVP operation highlighted the rapid deterioration of the security situation in the wake of the Nov 19, 1988 presidential election.
In January 1988, the JVP mounted an unprecedented attack on army commandos at Hungama killing three personnel. It was the second major incident since the lifting of the five-year-old state of emergency. President Premadasa lifted the emergency regulations, though security chiefs felt that the time wasn’t opportune for the removal of the state of emergency. In the first incident, subversives shot dead three soldiers and wounded five other personnel, including one officer also in the deep South.
Bradman Weerakoon (presidential advisor 1989-1993), in an article captioned President Premadasa-LTTE peace negotiations discussed the then UNP leader doing away with the countrywide state of emergency on Jan. 12, 1989 regardless of opposition by his Cabinet and his security advisors. According to Weerakoon, the President ordered the release of 1,800 JVP detainees. After a brief quiet period, the JVP intensified attacks on the police and armed forces.
Successive attacks on the army in the south within a week after the lifting of the state of emergency humiliated President Premadasa in the eyes of those who opposed his controversial strategy of appeasement. The release of 1,800 JVP suspects, too, contributed to the rapid deterioration of the situation in the Southern, Central and North Western Provinces. The police and the army struggled in the face of JVP attacks. JVP gangs executed suspected informants and supporters of the UNP, SLFP as well as left parties. The police and the military, too, hit back with a vengeance. The government unleashed death squads. President Premadasa allowed his security chiefs to adopt whatever anti-insurgency measures to eradicate the JVP.
An irate President wanted the JVP dealt with as early as possible. The police, armed forces as well as death squads, some of which operated under politicians, stepped up operations targeting JVP cadres. In hindsight, President Premadasa wanted a trouble free south before he entered into negotiations with the LTTE. The government turned a blind eye to security forces and police carrying out reprisals in the south. In fact, it was part of the overall strategy. Although a section of the security establishment resented the strategy, the political leadership at the highest level decided the JVP should be destroyed at any cost. The armed forces had the blessings of the political leadership to do whatever required of neutralising the JVP.
Premadasa suffers another setback
President Premadasa struggled to contain the situation. Although the UNP leader repeatedly declared he would pursue the three ‘Cs’ strategy namely consultation, consensus and compromise to restore peace in the country, President Premadasa always believed that he was right. Having failed to persuade the JVP to come to the negotiating table, President Premadasa explored ways and means of reaching out to Tamil speaking people. The president desperately wanted to win the hearts and minds of the Tamil speaking people.
He suffered a severe setback when the SLA went on the rampage in the districts of Mannar and Vavuniya in the third week of Jan. 1989. Troops were accused of killing 14 civilians in separate incidents on Jan 17 and Jan 20, 1989.
Seven of them were killed close to Atambagaskadawewa close on the heels of gunning down of a member of the National Auxiliary Force (NAF) and one civilian on Jan 17. Troops shot dead seven more civilians after the LTTE ambushed a routine SLA patrol at Silavaturai off Kondachchi. The Silavaturai incident claimed the lives of seven. Violence claimed the lives of 16 SLA personnel, 13 IPKF and 25 civilians from Jan 8 to Jan 22, 1988. Both the LTTE and JVP inflicted losses on the SLA (Killings in NP; Inquiry ordered-The Island Jan 22, 1988).
Pending an investigation, army headquarters shifted about 100 officers and men of the 5 CLI (Ceylon Light Infantry) out of Mannar and Vavuniya. On instructions from Colombo, Vanni Brigade Commander, the then Brig. Ranjan de Silva, called a meeting with senior EPRLF, TELO, ENDLF and TULF representatives to discuss the situation (CLI men moved out pending probe into killings-The Island Jan 26, 1989).
Indiscipline among troops remained a major issue, though the SLA had been fighting Indian sponsored terrorist groups since 1983. Troops tended to go on the rampage at the slightest provocation in the absence of a cohesive strategy to deal with the situation.