How UNP-LTTE honeymoon saved LTTE from IPKF (Part II)

by Shamindra Ferdinando

Had the UNP leadership practiced what it vociferously preached, JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera would have been alive today.

In fact, the JVP leader and most of his senior colleagues including Upatissa Gamanayake, the Marxist Party’s General Secretary, would have survived the bloody crackdown (1988-1990). But the government was not interested in bringing the JVP leaders before a court of law. The political-military leadership resolved to wipe out the JVP leadership once and for all.

The need to suppress the JVP superseded all other concerns. Human rights, press freedom and civil liberties were cast aside.

Had the UNP imprisoned them, they would have definitely received a presidential pardon after the change of government. But the UNP ensured that the top JVP leadership would not survive to fight another day.

How UNP-LTTE honeymoon saved LTTE from IPKF (May 10-Page 9) focused on the handling of the LTTE and the JVP but inadvertently left out issues relating to human rights and press freedom.

Somawansa takes refuge in UK

Let me examine what the UNP’s style was in countering JVP terror, extra-judicial activity, human rights, press freedom and international relations, as the chief opposition party now targets President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government on a range of issues, particularly human rights and press freedom.

Wijeweera’s successor Somawansa Amarasinghe was fortunate to reach UK via India. Had he been arrested, Amarasinghe too, would have been killed. The UK gave refuge to Amarasinghe until he decided to return to local politics. Amarasinghe would not have succeeded without India’s help. Despite the JVP’s much publicised antagonism towards the presence of the IPKF, India saved Amarasinghe. Although the then Indian High Commissioner J. N. Dixit and his deputy Nerupan Sen sharply differed on strategy with the former (Dixit), strongly objecting to the rescue effort, New Delhi authorised it.

The arrest of JVP leader at Ulapone, Kandy in the second week of November 1989 and his subsequent death at the hands of the army underscored the government’s resolve to annihilate the JVP. Wijeweera, who posed off as Nimal Kithsiri Attanayake, a wealthy gem merchant, quickly revealed his identity in a bid to avoid needless trouble. At the time of his arrest he had shaved off his beard and was wearing glasses. Flown to Army Headquarters Colombo in an SLAF chopper, he was executed immediately after the government recorded his statement in which the 47-year-old JVPer appealed to cadres to give up violence and surrender to the nearest police or security forces camp. It was a summary execution of a man who almost succeeded in overwhelming the government.

Execution of Wijeweera

The government’s explanation sounded almost similar to the account given by police after the deaths of notorious gangsters in their custody. The government claimed that Wijeweera and a senior JVP cadre (H. B. Herath) who was in custody were taken to their military and propaganda headquarters of JVP/DJV at an undisclosed location at a Colombo suburb where Herath pulled out a weapon and fired at Wijeweera. Troops accompanying the duo had opened fire at Herath resulting in his death. Unfortunately Wijeweera who was caught in the crossfire succumbed to his injuries. This was announced at a hurriedly arranged press conference chaired by State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne at the Joint Operations Command (JOC) at Flower Road. Wijeratne announced the cremation of Wijeweera at the Borella cemetery. I covered the press conference and as I remember Minister John Amaratunga, Army Commander Hamilton Wanasinghe, Presidential Security Advisor Gen. Cyril Ranatunga and IGP Ernest Perera represented the government.

None of the senior JVPers captured during the Premadasa administration were produced in a court of law. They were not even produced in a Kangaroo court as the LTTE used to do. Had Somawansa Amarasinghe fallen into army’s hands he would have suffered a similar fate. The JVP should not have expected a better deal, particularly after rejecting Premadasa’s peace offer. The President released 1,800 JVP suspects held in police and military custody about a week after assuming office in a bid to bring the JVP to the negotiating table.

Annihilation of JVP leadership

The annihilation of the JVP leadership could not have come at a better time for the UNP while engaged in negotiations with the LTTE. Although there were excesses, the country welcomed the destruction of the JVP. Security forces, police and death squads operating under the leadership of politicians targeted the JVP. Politicians took advantage of chaos to kill their political opponents, in some instances members of their own party. The present day UNP leadership may not want to be reminded of the support it received from the LTTE in February 1990 in Geneva when the international community targeted Sri Lanka over the deteriorating human rights situation. The LTTE which was preparing to launch Eelam War II gave a character certificate to Premadasa’s government. The LTTE claimed of improved human rights situation under Premadasa’s rule. It blamed the IPKF and auxiliary groups, particularly the EPRLF of a campaign of death and destruction in the temporarily merged North-East Province. As I remember, this was revealed by Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Mahinda Rajapakse who visited Geneva on behalf of the Opposition. Ironically, the JVP and the SLFP, which vigorously opposed foreign intrusion as in the case of the recent criticism of UK over the British Parliament discussing Sri Lanka’s national issue, sought foreign support against Premadasa’s regime which had the backing of the LTTE. Somawansa Amarasinghe ended up as a refugee in the UK.

Shortly after the execution of Wijeweera, Minister Ranjan Wijeratne accused a section of the Sri Lanka Bar Association of channelling funds it received from the London headquartered Amnesty International to the JVP. He also accused the British government of turning a blind eye to the activities of anti-government elements. Against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s decision to ask British High Commissioner David Gladstone to leave the country over alleged interference in domestic politics, Wijeratne slammed the Opposition led by Mrs. Bandaranaike for fishing in troubled waters. Referring to the 1971 insurgency put down by her, Wijeratne declared that she should be the last person to talk of human rights.

Focus on JVP

The UNP-LTTE honeymoon (May 1989 to June 1990) allowed the government to fully concentrate on the JVP. The LTTE backed the UNP in return for getting the IPKF off its back, an issue I dealt in "How UNP-LTTE honeymoon saved LTTE from IPKF." The international community was in a dilemma as the government and the LTTE manipulated the negotiating process for their own advantage. The negotiating process allowed the UNP to commit all its resources to annihilate the JVP. Had it failed before the LTTE resumed offensive action in June 1990, the country would have plunged to total chaos. Such a situation would have caused the disintegration of the country. Whatever its faults in tackling the LTTE, the UNP should be congratulated for crushing the JVP. Had India finalised the withdrawal of the IPKF as demanded by the UNP, the UNP-LTTE honeymoon would not have lasted 14 months. Instead, the LTTE would have resumed attacks months before the execution of Wijeweera and the disintegration of the JVP’s terrorist campaign. The UNP wanted the IPKF out by late July 1989.

Threats on media

The UNP was in an indecent hurry to get rid of the IPKF. Had the UNP correctly assessed the situation, it would have allowed the IPKF to annihilate the monster created by Mother India. Once Minister Wijeratne threatened to arrest me unless I revealed the identity of a military official who supplied information on which The Island exclusively revealed that arrival of IPKF personnel matched the number of IPKF personnel withdrawn. Angered by our reports, Wijeratne demanded the identity of the officer whom he said would be stripped of his rank. He called me a subversive at the post-cabinet press briefing. This was done in the presence of over 20 local and foreign journalists. Defence Secretary General Sepala Attygalle, who was seated beside Minister Wijeratne, confirmed the reports, prompting Minister Wijeratne to end his verbal barrage. I recalled this to remind human rights champions of today the way the UNP handled the media. Any report which it considered detrimental drew an angry response. A report on the arrest of a Malaysian passport holder identified as an associate of casino king Joe Sim by the Bureau of Special Operations (BSO) in early June 1991, triggered a CID investigation. As I recall SSP O. K. Hemachandra was Director of CID at that time. A junior officer who recorded my statement on the fourth floor simply wanted me to name DIG Premadasa Udugampola as my source. The UNP wanted to ‘fix’ Udugampola as he was stepping on Premadasa’s toes. The man was deported.

Unlike nowadays subtle threats and attacks on the media were almost routine. The threats directed at 60-year-old Aththa cartoonist Jiffry Yoonoos in August 92 was a case in point. UNP goons first threatened him for ridiculing President Premadasa. When he ignored the threats, he was knifed. The CID targeting Asia Week correspondent John Colmey over a cartoon and the attack on a group of journalists covering a DUNF campaign opposite the Fort Railway station, early August 92, highlighted the terror. The break-up of the UNP over the Lalith-Gamini led attempt to impeach Premadasa in October 1991 caused further pressure on the media. Once a senior aide to Premadasa warned us not to antagonise the President. "Do you want to continue to publish papers," he asked. This was not an isolated case. In fact, the UNP always behaved in a similar fashion, the case in point is the pressure brought on the media during President JR Jayewardene’s administration.

Bloody crackdown

The UNP crackdown on a JVP inspired protest campaign in late July 1989 resulted in the deaths of about 200 people. The protest organised to pressure Indians to leave Sri Lanka drew a strong response from the UNP. Despite the UNP and the LTTE working overtime to force India to withdraw the IPKF, the JVP protest drew a bloody attack with dozens of people being gunned down in Moneragala and Anuradhapura. It was the worst day of violence after the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord two years before. Interestingly, the JVP failed to inspire protests in the south. The JVP lost its grip on the south after the bloody crackdown on a protest in the second week of November 1987 at Tissamaharama where scores of people died at the hands of the army. I had the opportunity to speak with some of the families who suffered due to excesses during a visit to Tangalle, Ranna, Hungama and Kudawella shortly after the Tissamaharama massacre. Excesses, whether they were directed against the civilians irrespective of ethnicity, were wrong and should be condemned. Similarly threats on press freedom too should be condemned whichever the party responsible for the degrading actions. The killing of journalist Richard de Zoysa was a case in point. Zoyza who worked for the Inter Press Service was abducted, tortured and shot twice through the head and his body left at Koralawella during Premadasa’s regime. The State-run Rupavahini identified him as a JVP heavyweight in charge of the Colombo district. Lankapuvath did the same. The UNP prevented us from carrying a statement issued by the Sri Lanka Police Inspectors’ Association critical of the government in relation to the involvement of the Colombo police in the vigilante type killing of the respected journalist.

Unprecedented violence

The country experienced unprecedented violence during the deployment of the IPKF (July 1987-March 1990) which coincided with the UNP-LTTE honeymoon (May 1989-June 1990 and the murderous crackdown on the JVP under Premadasa’s leadership(January 1989-March 1990). Despite the absence of mortar fire, artillery assaults, air strikes and claymore mines, the UNP-JVP battle caused thousands of deaths. Human rights and press freedom took a backseat as death squads roamed the streets in unmarked vehicles. The UNP leadership did absolutely nothing to correct the situation. In fact, reprisals were encouraged. The bottom line is that the UNP rightly assessed that JVP terror had to be suppressed by equal means regardless of the consequences. Had the UNP failed, there would have been anarchy.


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