War on terror revisited: The Batticaloa revoltJune 19, 2012, 12:00 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
In the wake of Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan’s defection in March 2004, people living in the Batticaloa District gradually turned against the LTTE, with the majority throwing their weight behind the dissidents.
Those supportive of Karuna’s move portrayed the situation caused by the split as a battle between the LTTE’s Kilinochchi leadership and the group’s fighting formations which hailed from the Batticaloa and Ampara districts. The loss of Batticaloa, too, contributed to the ultimate downfall of the LTTE as a conventional fighting force.
Batticaloa’s hostility towards the LTTE increased after an LTTE operative shot dead eight Karuna loyalists, including Kuheneshan, widely believed to be a high ranker among the renegade group, at Crystal Terrace housing scheme, Kottawa on July 25, 2004. They were slain in their sleep.
Batticaloa Tamils defied an LTTE directive prohibiting public participation at the funerals of the three Karuna loyalists killed at Kottawa. Several hundred people paid their last respects to Pakyam Amarasevan alias Tehvan of main street, Kommathurai, Chennkalady, Ponnathurai Thurainadan alias Ruban of the same address and Kandiah Annandakumar of Kattankudy. The LTTE distributed leaflets warning the public of dire consequences if they attended what they called traitors’ funeral. The LTTE made an attempt to prevent public participation, having failed to dissuade families of the victims from bringing the bodies to Batticaloa. Families living in military held areas accepted the bodies, whereas those living in the LTTE-controlled region had no option but to accept the directive.
The LTTE struck several hours before then Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister, Vidar Helgessen arrived in Colombo to make a fresh bid to persuade the LTTE to return to the negotiating table. He was scheduled to meet both President Chandrika Kumaratunga in Colombo and LTTE political Wing leader, S. P. Thamilelvan in Kilinochchi.
The LTTE timed the massacre to exert maximum pressure on President Kumaratunga’s government, peace facilitator Norway and the Karuna faction. The Kottawa killings underscored the LTTE’s determination to consolidate its power in the Batticaloa-Ampara region, whatever the consequences.
It would be important to examine the circumstances under which the LTTE hunted down those taking refuge at the Crystal Terrace housing scheme. They had moved in on July 13, 2004 and were in the process of trying to obtain passports to leave the country. The police quoted a neighbour as having said he heard gun shots around 3.30 a.m. As people used to light crackers to scare monkeys away, he had not taken much notice, he said.
In fact, the first indication of the LTTE operation, the biggest directed against the Karuna faction in Colombo, since the March 2004 split, came to light after the military intercepted a conversation between two LTTE personnel. Although they discussed a successful hit in Colombo, there was no clue as regards the location. The conversation revealed that those involved in the operation had reached Karuna’s successor, ‘Colonel’ Thambirajah Ramesh based in the Batticaloa district. The Colombo police took about four hours to locate the scene of the massacre.
Among the dead were three Karuna loyalists arrested by the Hingurakkgoda police on July 5, 2004, while they were breaking journey at the Bubule temple. They were among 14 Karuna loyalists taken in by the police along with three T 56 Chinese assault rifles with six magazines, one T-84 rifle with three magazines, one T 81 with one magazine, one 9 mm pistol with magazine, 633 rounds of 7.62 ammunition, five rounds of general purpose machine gun ammunition, 52 cartridges for T 84s and five hand grenades. Produced before Polonnaruwa District Magistrate, Mrs. Sivapakyasundaram, they were released on Rs. 25,000 personal bail each.
In spite of an influential section of the military pursuing a controversial strategy to exploit the split caused by Karuna, the UPFA played it safe. The political leadership didn’t want to antagonise the LTTE or interfere in the Norwegian initiative.
Helgessen was visiting Colombo in the wake of Norwegian peace envoy, Erik Solheim meeting Thamilselvan on June 30, 2004 in Kilinochchi, where the LTTE demanded an assurance from the CBK government that it wouldn’t use Karuna to undermine the LTTE or face the consequences. Then Norwegian ambassador in Colombo, Hans Brattskar, too, had been present, when Thamilselvan made that demand.
Soon after the Kilinochchi meet, the TamilNet quoted Thamilselvan as having said that UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe had reassured the LTTE through the Norwegians that the UNP leadership wasn’t in anyway involved in UNP National List MP, Ali Zarheer Moulana helping Karuna to flee Batticaloa. In spite of Moulana admitting his complicity in the operation, the LTTE accused the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) of using Karuna.
The LTTE as well as the Norwegians failed to realise that Karuna wouldn’t have to depend on Moulana if he had the backing of the DMI at that time. Had Karuna been protected by the DMI at that time, the military could have easily arranged for him to be evacuated by air. Having disbanded fighting units under his command on April 9, Karuna fled Batticaloa. His destination was Colombo.
Moulana accepted responsibility and quit his parliamentary seat. The former MP emphasised that the LTTE had been aware of the move to get Karuna out of Batticaloa. Moulana claimed that ‘Colonel’ Thambirajah Ramesh, who had been Karuna’s deputy at the time of the unprecedented split had sought his help to get the one-time Batticaloa leader out of the district. Moulana asserted that as Ramesh had got in touch with him from Kilinochchi, he felt that the move had the blessings of the top leadership. Perhaps the LTTE believed that the Batticaloa fighting cadre would disintegrate following Karuna’s departure.
The LTTE obviously underestimated Karuna’s resolve to hit back and the readiness of the military to manipulate the crisis to its advantage. Interestingly, Batticaloa had been the centre of gravity in the destabilisation project directed at the LTTE.
People of Batticaloa reacted angrily as the LTTE assassinated ex-TNA MP Kingsley Rasanayagam in October, 2004. After the split in early March, 2004, the LTTE ordered Rasanayaham, elected to parliament at the April 2 general election, to quit. An LTTEdeath squad shot Rasanayagam near the Kalliyankaadu cemetery as he was about to get into his car. It was the first major political killing since a wave of attacks in the run-up to April polls. An EU Election Observation Mission highlighted the LTTE complicity in election violence. According to the EU mission, there were two primary reasons for the LTTE attacks: "Firstly, the LTTE intended that no other rival Tamil party (or Tamil candidate from the mainstream political alliances) to the TNA would be able to claim to represent Tamil interests. A chilling message to this effect was sent early in the campaign, when a UNP candidate was assassinated."
UpFA continues UNP policy
The LTTE obviously felt that Karuna could be suppressed by target killings of members of the breakaway group and those backing the Batticaloa revolt. The military too, realised the need to counter the LTTE strategy in Batticaloa, though the government wasn’t interested. In spite of accusing the UNP of bending backwards to appease the LTTE, the UPFA basically followed the same plan. It continued to provide chopper rides to senior cadres in charge of the Eastern Province to reach Kilinochchi. The government was of the view that doing away with the facility could make it difficult for its efforts to persuade the LTTE to return to the negotiating table. Although President Kumaratunga in the run-up to the April 2, 2004 General Election took over three portfolios, including defence, alleging the UNP’s failure to protect national security interests, her new government, too, followed the UNP strategy.
The UPFA also reiterated its commitment to the CFA arranged by Norway and underwritten by the US, EU and Japan. The government assured that the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP), too, would continue.
While the LTTE and the Karuna faction battled it out in the Batticaloa district, the government was struggling to persuade the LTTE to return to the negotiating table. The government was of the opinion that the Batticaloa killings couldn’t be allowed to distract its efforts to resume talks, hence an agreement was reached to go ahead with the talks. The Norwegians were relieved, as the UNP pledged its support for the peace efforts. The SLFP-led coalition, which lashed out at the UNP prior to the April 2, 2004 polls for allowing the LTTE to exploit the CFA, pledged its support for the same strategy under the purview of the Norwegians. Had the LTTE too, cooperated with the Norwegian efforts, it could have advanced its strategy gradually. But the LTTE, chose to flex its muscles.
Instead of giving President Kumaratunga and the Norwegians an opportunity to initiate a fresh round of talks, the LTTE pursued Karuna.
Although the LTTE quickly realised the loss of fresh cadres from the East could cause a catastrophic situation, it didn’t have an effective plan to attract Batticaloa cadres. The denial of fresh Batticaloa cadres had been as bad as Karuna deserting the organisation, along with several thousand men and women.
Norwegian peace envoy Solheim went so far as to advise Karuna not to desert the organisation. The UK, too, tried to intervene in the dispute. The British HC in Colombo, Steven Evans, accompanied by UK Defence Attache, Colonel Mark Weldon, visited Kilinochchi on March 9, 2004, a week after the Karuna revolt.
In late July, 2004, Tom Phillips, head of the South Asian Desk of the British Foreign Office, accompanied by HC Steven Evans, visited Welikanda and Batticloa to receive a firsthand briefing from then Brigadier, Vajira Wijegoonewardene and Colonel Laksiri Amaratunga. Wijegoonewardene had been the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 23 Division headquartered in Welikanda, while Amaratunga was in charge of the Batticaloa Brigade Headquarters.
The British wanted to know whether they were helping the renegade faction.
After Karuna’s decision to give up the fight on April 9, 2009, when the LTTE confronted his cadres on the banks of the Verugal River, many believed that Prabhakaran’s erstwhile friend wouldn’t survive. However, within weeks, Karuna loyalists launched hit and run attacks, particularly targeting those sent from the Northern Province to suppress the rebel group. The rebels caused chaos among the northern units, while encouraging Batticaloa cadres still loyal to the Kilinochchi leadership to defect. The situation was deteriorating rapidly. The LTTE stepped up pressure on the government to arrest Karuna loyalists. The military declined to carry out arrests unless they were carrying weapons. The army and police took several Karuna loyalists into custody, but couldn’t protect them, while being held in detention. An LTTE cadre serving a short sentence for jewellery theft and assault on July 15 shot dead two Karuna cadres, including senior member, Satchi Master. The killings in the Batticaloa prison caused anxiety among senior government officials.
The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) declined to intervene in the bloody feud on the basis that the CFA didn’t refer to any procedure in case of a split in the LTTE. The SLMM, headed by the Norwegians, insisted that it couldn’t do anything to save the rebel group from annihilation. The SLMM’s second-in-command and then acting spokesperson, Hagrup Haukland told The Sunday Island (Monitors unlikely to rule on massacre-August 1, 2004) that they weren’t sure whether the massacre of eight sleeping Karuna loyalists at Kottawa was linked to the CFA. When asked to explain the presence of SLMM members at the scene of the carnage, Haukland said: "There had been intense speculation and confusion over the number of dead and the SLMM wanted to establish the number of dead."
The SLMM conveniently turned a blind eye to CFA provisions, which prohibited killings by both parties to the agreement. The international community felt that Karuna was nothing but a temporary distraction and couldn’t be allowed to interfere in the ‘peace process.’ The LTTE launched a spate of attacks targeting those considered hostile towards its cause. Among the victims was a person who had unsuccessfully contested a parliamentary polls on the EPDP ticket in the Trincomalee District.
The SLMM and the Norwegians brought heavy pressure on the Karuna faction. Those who had been silent on the LTTE using children as cannon fodder, suddenly accused Karuna of using child soldiers. Karuna was no saint. In fact, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was told of Karuna’s direct role in the massacre of several hundred unarmed policemen in June 1990 at the onset of eelam war II. Retired SSP Tassy Seneviratne at the forefront of a campaign to pressure police headquarters to investigate the circumstances under which the police had surrendered to the LTTE, made the allegation urging the LLRC to take up the issue with the government. Having being summoned by the LLRC, Karuna denied ordering the massacre while blaming it on the Kilinochchi leadership.
Instead of compelling the LTTE to adhere to the CFA, the government and the SLMM worked overtime to explore ways and means to arrange a ceasefire between the military and the LTTE’s Kilinochchi leadership. There had been a series of talks between the military and the LTTE in the East, to iron out differences between them.
(This issue would be dealt with
further in the next installment
on June 22)
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