January 8, 1990 Koliyakulam: A smiling Gopalswamy Mahendraraja alias Mahattaya responds to media queries in the wake of the LTTE receiving political recognition. Except for the writer, seated on the right next to Mahattaya, others represented Indian media organizations. The LTTE later accused Mahattaya of being an Indian agent and executed him. In hindsight, could the Koliyakulam meeting have aroused Prabhakaran’s suspicion of a possible clandestine link between India and Mahattaya? (Pic courtesy the LTTE)
Close on the heels of the LTTE receiving political recognition with President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s blessings, Gopalswamy Mahendraraja aka Mahattaya, newly appointed leader of the People’s Front of Liberation Tigers (PFLT) ruled out the possibility of the LTTE/PFLT reaching an agreement with Indian-sponsored groups.
Having announced the newly gained political status at a packed media conference in a five-star hotel in Colombo on the morning of Dec. 20, 1989, the LTTE called a media briefing in the north in the first week of Jan. 1990 to further explain its position to a select group of Colombo-based Indian journalists and Rita Sebastian, who at that time represented an international media organization. The writer, too, received an invitation from the LTTE to join the only formal media briefing held before the outbreak of hostilities on June 1990. The meeting took place at an LTTE safe house at Koliyakulam, in the northern part of Vavuniya, west of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road.
May 3, 1989 at the SLAF grounds Colombo: LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham and his wife, Adele with Yogiratnam Yogi (in battle fatigues) after they were flown from Mullaitivu by the SLAF. The LTTE delegation met President Premadasa at ‘Sucharitha’ the following day (Pic Jude Denzil Pathiraja
Addressing the media, Deputy LTTE military commander and PFLT leader Mahattaya explained that there was no space for IPKF-sponsored groups in the temporarily-merged North East Province. He was joined by Yogiratnam Yogi, a key member of the LTTE negotiating team led by the group’s theoretician Anton Balasingham having talks with President Premadasa.
The media briefing was held under the very nose of the IPKF, which still remained in charge of security in the province in accordance with the Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA).
Mahattaya and Yogi didn’t mince their words when they reiterated that pro-LTTE groups would be eliminated at any cost. Dressed in jungle fatigues, the LTTE duo declared their plans to take over the districts of Jaffna and Trincomalee once the IPKF left the country. Most importantly, Mahattaya emphasized that the LTTE hadn’t dropped its longstanding demand for a state of eelam, though it was engaged in negotiations with the Sri Lankan government(LTTE vows to eliminate pro-Indian Tamil groups-The Island Jan 10, 1990).
Mahattaya and Yogi were speaking in the wake of the LTTE stepping up operations in the province targeting the EPRLF, the TELO, the ENDLF, the PLOTE as well as the Tamil National Army (TNA), formed by the IPKF to prop up the crumblig provincial administration.
They denied allegations that the ongoing LTTE offensive had the backing of the Sri Lankan Army. Insisting that the SLA hadn’t been involved in the LTTE-led operations, they asserted that the group didn’t require the SLA’s support to bring the operation to a successful conclusion. However, they appreciated government forces for not interfering in their operations.
Mahattaya explained action taken by the LTTE to neutralize rival groups with the blessings of President Premadasa. President Premadasa turned a blind eye to what was going on in the Northern and Eastern provinces. None of his advisors and ministers dared to warn the President of the danger in legitimizing LTTE operations. Bradman Weerakoon was his international affairs advisor (1989-1993), Gen. Cyril Ranatunga was security advisor, while Gen. Sepala Attyagalle held the post of Defence Secretary. Ranjan Wijeratne held the portfolio of State Minister for Defence. Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe, too, remained a mere spectator as the President went all out to appease the LTTE.
The government didn’t even challenge the statement attributed to Mahattaya and Yogi that the LTTE would take over Jaffna and Trincomalee once the IPKF pulled out. The President was confident of steering direct negotiations with the LTTE to a successful conclusion. Gen. Ranatunga in an informative piece headlined ‘Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: The Role of the Military’ in a
published by Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe (Feb. 1998) quoted President Premadasa as having told the service commanders in the presence of an LTTE delegation that they would now have to find another enemy, as the LTTE had given up arms and entered the political process. Although Gen. Ranatunga hadn’t revealed when and where the statement attributed to President Premadasa was made, during direct negotiations (May 1989-June 1990), it underscored the President’s faith in Prabhakaran.
President Premadasa quietly accepted the LTTE’s right to carry weapons. In fact, the then UNP government covertly encouraged the LTTE to neutralize those working according to India’s agenda in the run-up to the IPKF pullout.
Provincial Councillor assassinated
The LTTE assassinated EPRLF heavyweight George Thambirajah and four of his bodyguards at Sampaltivu, about six miles away from Trincomalee on the Neelaveli-Trincomalee road in January 1990. The LTTE justified the assassination by identifying Thambirajah, an EPRLF member of the North East Provincial Council (NEPC) as a key figure in the TNA. Thambirajah was on his way to attend an EPRLF meeting.
The assassination took place in the wake of Varatharaja Perumal, Chief Minister of the NEPC, leaving for New Delhi in a bid to work out a post-IPKF security plan.
Arumugam Kandaiah Premachandran aka Suresh Premachandran accused India/IPKF of turning a blind eye to operations conducted by the LTTE with the support of the Sri Lanka Army. Following Thambirajah’s assassination, Premachandran alleged that the LTTE and the army had killed over 200 members of rival groups during the month of Dec. 1989, while India looked the other way. Premachandran was a prominent member of the EPRLF at that time and was staying at Hotel Taj Samudra. Premachandran urged President Premadasa to stop the LTTE from hunting down members of rival groups (EPRLF wants government to twist PFLT arm-The Island January 7, 1990). Today, Premachandran represents the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).
Shortly after the conclusion of the second round of talks between President Premadasa’s representatives and the LTTE in Colombo at the army headquarters sports pavilion during the period June 16 to July 2, 1989, Prabhakaran ordered the elimination of the TULF leadership.
The LTTE assassinated TULF leader Appapillai Amirthalingam at his Colombo residence in the presence of his wife on July 13, 1989. All three members of the LTTE hit squad were shot dead by Amirthalingam’s police bodyguard, T. A. Nissanka. The 76-year-old Mrs. Amirthalingam, accompanied by her youngest son, Dr. Bahirathan visited Nissanka at his home at Ambanpitiya, Kegalle on May 29, 2009, ten days after the army killed Prabhakaran.
The press quoted Mrs. Amirthalingam as having said: “Every time these people came and murdered, they managed to escape, but Nissanka killed all of them.”
Had Nissanka failed to kill the assassins, the LTTE would never have been implicated in the killings. Although the government made a desperate attempt to shield the LTTE, the recovery of bodies led to them being identified as members of the LTTE. Interestingly, they were part of the LTTE delegation in Colombo!
Amirthalingam and several other TULF leaders returned to Sri Lanka from India after the induction of the IPKF to ensure the implementation of the ILA. They returned, after having reached an understanding with the LTTE.
Those who had ordered the SLAF to ferry LTTE couldn’t have been unaware how the organization brought a team of assassins from Mullaitivu to Colombo, during talks between President Ranasinghe Premadasa and the LTTE. The hit squad accompanied LTTE delegates airlifted from Mullaitivu to Colombo by the SLAF during the IPKF presence. Although the then Commandant of the elite Special Task Force (STF) SSP Lionel Karunasena had assigned a crack team of bodyguards under the then ASP Nimal Lewke, the LTTE delegation was allowed to bring in armed bodyguards. The use of SLAF choppers by LTTE assassins wouldn’t have come to light if the assassins had managed to escape after killing TULF leader A. Amirthalingam and politburo member V. Yogeswaran. The LTTE cadres killed by PC Nissanka Thibbotumunuwa, assigned to provide security to Amirthalingam’s residence, were identified as Visu, Aloysius and an accomplice who waited outside. The gunmen also targeted Yogeswaran’s wife, Sarojini and TULF President, Murugesu Sivasithamparam.
The LTTE had taken umbrage over Amirthalingam’s speech in Parliament in June 1989, pleading for the continuation of the IPKF presence in Sri Lanka. The LTTE probably felt that the TULF leader was speaking at the behest of India, which contemptuously ignored President Premadasa’s demand for the IPKF pullout made on the morning of April 13, 1989.
President Premadasa reiterated his commitment for a negotiated settlement with the LTTE, even after the assassination of the TULF leader.
The Amirthalingams live in the UK, where they took up residence after the killings in Colombo. Sarojini was assassinated in Jaffna years later even after the liberation of the entire peninsula.
As the IPKF gradually pulled out large contingents from outlying areas in late 1989 after the change of government in New Delhi, the LTTE moved swiftly to fill the vacuum. The LTTE established bases all over the provinces as Sri Lankan forces remained confined to barracks. Having observed the rapid expansion of LTTE power in the Northern and Eastern districts, the government made an attempt to launch patrols in some areas. Close on the heels of the LTTE routing the IPKF trained TNA in Dec. 1989, the police and the army felt that they could resume routine security patrols in Batticaloa town and its suburbs. The LTTE strongly objected to the government move. The LTTE was blunt. The LTTE explained that government forces had no right to patrol Batticaloa or any other district as the LTTE was solely responsible for neutralizing the TNA. By January 1990, the IPKF, too, had suspended operations leaving the LTTE in full control of the province except for some parts of the Jaffna peninsula and Trincomalee (Tigers don’t want security patrols with strap line Indian Army also suspends operations-The Island Jan 6, 1990).
The LTTE continued to flex its muscles as the IPKF stepped up the withdrawal of personnel. During, the second week of January, 1990, two jawans, two civilians, two members of the Citizens Volunteer Force (CVF), another militia loyal to the EPRLF and five LTTE cadres died in a confrontation.
Having allowed the LTTE to dominate the northern and eastern provinces in the wake of the gradual IPKF pullout, President Premadasa finally made an attempt to control the LTTE.
The LTTE was in a belligerent mood and it resented the government’s call for suspension of ongoing operations. State Minister of Defence Ranjan Wijeratne admitted that the government had raised the issue with the LTTE/PFLT as it was concerned with the situation. The minister reluctantly admitted that the government had failed to obtain the desired result despite pushing for an immediate ceasefire.
The LTTE called for public meetings in predominately Tamil areas. When the police advised the LTTE not to organize such events in view of existing emergency regulations, the group told the law enforcement authorities not to interfere with its activity.
The LTTE emphasized that its campaign would continue. It took up the position that it had no option but to go before the people in view of the forthcoming elections to the NEPC. The LTTE insisted that dissolution of the NEPC and fresh elections were a prerequisite for a permanent peace in Tamil areas. Minister Wijeratne admitted that the LTTE was having meetings in spite of emergency regulations (PFLT to continue polls campaign in North-East-The Island January 20, 1990).