The then Commandant of the elite Special Task Force (STF) Superintendent of Police Lionel Karunasena in May 1989 was informed of the impending talks with the LTTE. Karunasena was directed to provide security to LTTE representatives arriving in Colombo for the first ever direct negotiations between the government and the LTTE. President Ranasinghe Premadasa wanted the STF, which was also responsible for his own security to be in charge of the LTTE representatives’ ‘close protection’ during their stay in Colombo. President Premadasa obviously feared for the safety of his visitors in Colombo.
In spite of the Presidential Security Division (PSD) handling President Premadasa’s security, the STF played a critical role in the overall protection plan. In fact, the STF assigned several hundred personnel for the President’s protection.
Having obtained President Premadasa’s approval, SP Karunasena summoned ASP Nimal Lewke to his well guarded office in Colombo. At that time Lewke was based in Batticaloa, though in accordance of the Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA) the STF couldn’t conduct operations in any part of the country against the LTTE. The Sri Lankan armed forces were confined to barracks. However, the para-military wing of the police department was heavily involved in anti-insurgency operations directed against the JVP/Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya (DJV) in the South.
The meeting between President Premadasa and SP Karunasena took place after the LTTE’s International Secretariat in London had accepted the President’s invitation for talks on April 15, 1989.
Lewke recently recalled the circumstances under which he had been given the unenviable task of protecting LTTE representatives during their visits to Colombo and transit through the Katunayake International Airport (KIA). In a brief interview with the writer, Lewke, one-time commandant of the STF said that Commandant Karunasena had apparently been in a quandary and deeply concerned when he walked in to the commando chief’s office.
Lewke said: “We in the STF had a very high regard for Karunasena, as he was a very keen, dedicated, disciplined officer. When I sat in front of him, he smilingly told me ‘Nimal, I have a special task for you’. I was surprised as it was not the normal way he entrusted responsibilities to his officers. The normal firmness in his voice was not there and I knew that something out of ordinary was going to happen.
“After a lapse of a few seconds, I was informed of the impending negotiations with the LTTE and the STF being chosen to provide security to LTTE representatives visiting Colombo. I was told to pick my own team and be ready to provide security to the visitors. I was stunned. I was being asked to look after a group of terrorists we had been fighting. It was definitely not a task any armed forces officer wanted to be entrusted with. I resented the idea.”
Asked whether he could have opted out of the assignment, Lewke said that the Commandant was firm in his conviction that the STF should carry out the task. Karunasena was of the opinion that they couldn’t ignore directives received from President Premadasa.
Lewke said: “Still I could not respond to the Commandant. In a firm voice, the Commandant told me that it was the President’s wish and the STF had no option but to carry it out. Then I excused myself, and asked him why the President had to choose the STF. The Commandant said that it was a request from the LTTE hierarchy that STF should be deployed for their protection. Regardless of my anxiety, I felt proud that the LTTE, too, respected our capabilities.”
The Commandant wanted Lewke to select his own team. Rohan de Silva, Jagodaarachchi (currently at the PSD), Rohan Fernando (Puttalam) and Keerthipala (CID) were among those picked by Lewke as they, too, had received ‘close protection training’ and worked closely with Lewke on the battle front. Lewke acknowledged that none of those selected by him would have liked the assignment and they, too, had felt they same way as he.
STF receives Balasingham at KIA
President Premadasa demanded the best possible protection for the visitors arriving at KIA in late April 1989 for the first round of talks in Colombo. Lewke had been present at the KIA when one-time British High Commission employee and LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham and his Australian born wife Adele arrived from London at night. They were accompanied by Prabhakaran’s wife, Mathivathani, his daughter, Duwarka and son Charles Anthony as well as Lawrence Thilagar. Prabhakaran’s second son, Balachandran was born years later in the Puthukudirippu area.
Senior representatives from the Presidential Secretariat were there to receive the LTTE delegation. Having welcomed the visitors, the Presidential Secretariat officials left the airport instructing the STF to move them to a safe location.
Lewke said: “Balasingham was extremely nervous. While speaking with representatives from the Presidential Secretariat, Balasingham smoked several cigarettes. Throughout his conversation with the officials, he kept looking at us. Balasingham obviously seemed agitated. We were in civvies. Members of my team were authorized to carry side arms. When I told Balasingham I represented the STF, Prabhakaran’s chief negotiator promptly said he was aware of it.”
The STF had escorted the LTTE team to a spacious bungalow belonging to the airport authority situated within the premises. The visitors stayed until they were airlifted at first light to Nedunkerni the following day. The SLAF was responsible for their security on the way as the STF had been specifically instructed not to accompany them. The SLAF was engaged in a highly dangerous mission. The SLAF realized the possibility of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) taking hostile action as it was still engaged in operations against the LTTE in spite of being asked by President Premadasa to suspend operations pending its withdrawal. The IPKF ignored President Premadasa’s directive contemptuously.
Minister wanted Balasingham killed
Although some felt Balasingham would visit Colombo immediately after arriving at the KIA, the British passport holder wanted to consult Prabhakaran first of all. The people strongly resented the government giving concessions to the LTTE. President Premadasa incurred the wrath of the people for appeasing the LTTE. An influential section of the government strongly objected to proposed talks between the government and the LTTE. That grouping was of the opinion that President Premadasa was causing irreparable damage to Sri Lanka’s relations with India.
President Premadasa realized the growing opposition to his initiative within his own camp, though he remained confident of the outcome of negotiations with the LTTE. The President was perhaps overconfident. Lewke recollected a chance encounter with a powerful minister who didn’t hide his feelings when he commented on the proposed talks with the LTTE.
Lewke said: “Having had consultations in Mullaitivu jungles, the LTTE delegation was scheduled to be airlifted from the Mullaitivu jungles to the SLAF grounds at Parsons Road. I was waiting with a section of my security team to receive the delegation when an SLAF chopper landed. We thought the LTTE delegation was coming, though the passenger turned out to be a powerful minister. He wanted to know what I was doing there. When I told him that I was waiting for the arrival of LTTE representatives, he reacted angrily. The minister wanted to know the names of the delegates. When I revealed their names, he looked hard at me, held my hand and told me, ‘you call yourself a Kandyan Buddhist like me and you should remember what these b…s did at Sri Maha Bodhiya; if I were you, I would shoot and kill all of them. If you do that, you’ll be a hero’. So saying the minister went away. I was flabbergasted; I did not know what to say. I felt sorry for myself. I never found fault with the minister for his reaction.”
Stay at Hilton Colombo
The STF contingent detailed to protect the LTTE negotiators always operated in civvies. They were accommodated on the top floor, where commandos in civvies guarded them. The Hilton staff, too, came under close scrutiny for obvious reasons. The possibility of infiltration by the JVP or some other Indian sponsored Tamil group compelled the government to adopt extraordinary security measures. President Premadasa left nothing to chance. The LTTE delegation visited the Presidential Secretariat and Sucharitha on several occasions.
Lewke said that the minister’s angry reaction to the presence of LTTE representatives in Colombo helped him realize how daunting their task was. A section of the government felt that President Premadasa was making far too many concessions to the LTTE at the expense of national security. In spite of many expressing doubts about the LTTE’s sincerity, the President remained confident of reaching an understanding with the LTTE. Unlike his predecessor, President J. R. Jayewardene as well as successors, President Premadasa personally handled negotiations and went to the extent of inviting LTTE representatives to his private residence Sucharitha, where confidential talks took place. Discussions regarding transfer of arms from the Sri Lanka Army to the LTTE also took place at Sucharitha with the participation of A. C. S. Hameed, Chairman of the UNP as well as the chief negotiator for talks with the LTTE, State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne and Defence Secretary Gen. Sepala Attagalle. The transfer of arms was investigated by a presidential commission which inquired into the assassination of one-time National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali during Premadasa’s presidency.