Having crushed the LTTE’s multi-pronged offensive launched in early August 2006, President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared that he would have the best officers to lead the war against terror. In the wake of the armed forces beating back LTTE offensives in the Trincomalee and Northern theatres, addressing an SLFP convention at the BMICH in the first week of September 2006, he declared that the cast, creed, and race of an officer would be immaterial, as long as they did their duty.
In an obvious reference to SLAF chief Air Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke, the President revealed that some people had objected to Goonetilleke’s appointment as he studied at a particular college. They also pointed out that the officer’s father had been critical of the war effort and was not a Buddhist. The President said: “I consulted Gotabhaya regarding the appointment and he said that particular officer was the best choice and should be given the opportunity to command the service.”
Announcing the liberation of Sampur following a week-long battle at the SLFP convention, the President also referred to the appointment of Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka as the Commander of the Army, as he was about to retire (Mahinda says only the best will head the forces––The Island Sept 8, 2006). He told the media at Temple Trees in the run-up to the last presidential poll in Jan, 2010, that Fonseka’s appointment, too, had been made on the recommendation of his brother, Gotabhaya, who was present at the meeting. During the almost three year long offensive there couldn’t have been at least one occasion where President Rajapaksa taking a decision regarding security matter without Gotabhaya being consulted. In fact, there has been absolutely no change in the situation even after the conclusion of the conflict.
Gotabhaya’s response to Opp. strategy
As troops gradually made headway in the eastern theatre of operations, an influential section within the ruling coalition and the Opposition launched a destabilisation campaign. They triggered chaos inside the ruling coalition causing uncertainty. The political crisis threatened the on-going military action on the eastern front. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa was quick to realise the danger of political turmoil, as he felt the enemy could take advantage of the situation. The Opposition resented the Defence Secretary’s bold statements as regards the political crisis. They accused him of interfering in political issues. But, the Defence Secretary always voiced his opinion much to the consternation of some politicians.
In a brief interview with The Island published on Feb 25, 2007, an irate Defence Secretary lashed out at those undermining the war effort by propagating lies.
The Opposition alleged that government forces were moving into LTTE-held areas in the Eastern Province, while the LTTE was given the opportunity to run the Northern Province. The Opposition claimed that the SLA wasn’t confronting the LTTE, hence allowing large enemy forces to withdraw to the Vanni through the jungles north of Weli Oya. The propaganda operation succeeded to a large extent, with some even within the establishment suspecting significant battlefield victories achieved by the SLA on the Eastern Front. The Opposition sought to discredit the military in a bid to undermine President Rajapaksa and Gotabhaya.
In a front-page story captioned ‘Gotabhaya vows not to be distracted by political chaos with strap line Fresh offensive gets underway’, The Island quoted Rajapaksa as having said: “Absolute rubbish. See what is happening on the ground, not only in the East, but the North as well. We are working to a plan and won’t be distracted by unfair criticism.” The Defence Secretary was responding to Opposition allegations that the SLA was moving into the Eastern Province, while the LTTE took over the Northern Province.
The Defence Secretary said that whatever the Opposition said, the LTTE was on the run. He pointed out the absurdity in Opposition claims in the wake of the LTTE abandoning their important bases in the Eastern Province, leaving behind artillery pieces, mortars and explosives-laden boats. Rajapaksa stressed that squabbling, petty politics and insignificant disputes shouldn’t be allowed to impede the war effort.
In spite of losing some territory, the LTTE still felt that President Rajapaksa couldn’t sustain a major military campaign in the Eastern Province. The TNA believed in the LTTE’s wherewithal to thwart the UPFA’s military as well as political strategies, and the UNP, too, believed that the UPFA would fail on the war front, hence they attacked President Rajapaksa on a broad front. The Colombo based diplomatic community and the NGO circuit, too, believed that the government couldn’t sustain the offensive much longer as a massive LTTE onslaught was imminent. Even the destruction of the LTTE’s floating warehouses on the high seas didn’t influence their thinking. They believed Sri Lanka’s streak of luck would be short-lived.
What they didn’t realise was that the SLA was preparing to open a new front west of Vavuniya even before the successful conclusion of its campaign in the Eastern Province. The Army chief, Lt. Gen. Fonseka strongly felt the need to sustain maximum possible pressure on the LTTE in both provinces. Forces had faith in the Sinha Regiment veteran and his capacity to prosecute a ground offensive under extremely difficult conditions. Veteran of many a battle, Lt. Gen. Fonseka pushed for a all-out war on many fronts in the Northern theatre. Nothing would have contributed to that strategy more than opening a new front, thereby compelling the LTTE to commit some of its best units to confront the SLA. Fighting the LTTE on multiple fronts wouldn’t have been realistic unless the government increased the SLA’s strength. The President authorised the increase in the SLA’s strength so that the army would have the much needed flexibility. By March 2007, the SLA was ready to launch the newly raised 57 Division with the intention of liberating Kilinochchi. Before discussing progress on the Vanni front, it would be important to examine the political challenges faced by President Rajapaksa.
The entire war effort could have collapsed if the President didn’t overcome political obstacles in his path. The President to a large extent depended on his brothers, Gotabhaya and Basil, to ensure political stability, prompting the Opposition to call the ruling coalition ‘sahodara samagama’ (a company comprising brothers).
Challenge within the SLFP
Having won the Nov. 17, 2005 presidential election by a margin of about 200,000 votes thanks to the LTTE-TNA combination depriving the main Opposition candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe of the Tamil vote, the LTTE resumed major attacks in the first week of Dec. 2005. In January 2006, the LTTE destroyed an Israeli built Shaldag class Fast Attack Craft (FAC) off Trincomalee and in April, May and Dec targeted, Lt. Gen. Fonseka, ‘Pearl Cruiser’ carrying 700 officers and men and Gotabhaya, respectively.
Had the LTTE succeeded in executing any one of them, Sri Lanka’s war on terror could have suffered irrevocable damage. The LTTE launched eelam war IV in the first week of Aug 2006 but quickly lost the initiative. By early Feb. 2007, the military campaign in the Eastern Province reached a decisive stage, with the SLA readying to open a new front in the Vanni theatre.
The Defence Secretary in late Jan. 2007 indicated the government’s intention to continue with the offensive. Having visited newly liberated Vakarai, one of the strongest LTTE bases in the Eastern Province, the Defence Secretary said that the on-going successful military operations would influence further military action. The LTTE was in disarray and couldn’t carry out a phased withdrawal. They fled, leaving a vast quantity of equipment, including two 152 mm artillery pieces, one 120 mm mortar, two 12,7 mm anti-aircraft guns (Forces’ success in the East to influence further military action––The Island Jan 25, 2007).
An influential section within the SLFP initiated its destabilisation bid. The then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who had played a pivotal role in helping Prime Minister Rajapaksa to secure the PA presidential election candidature, opposed the President’s political and military strategies. Samaraweera challenged Rajapaksa much to the chagrin of the Rajapaksas. After consulting those close to him, the President, in early Feb. 2007, warned the rebellious members to fall in line or face the consequences. The President felt that failure to act swiftly and decisively could cause a political turmoil. Basil, too, accepted the urgent need to arrest the situation, while Gotabhaya asserted that the delay to ensure political stability could be an impediment to the on-going military campaign. Some government members, including several vociferous supporters of the Rajapaksas remained silent as they felt the battle for supremacy in the SLFP could go either way. No one wanted to take chances. The rebellion was gathering momentum. Then on Feb 8, 2007, the President gave an dire warning to the ginger group. Addressing a group of newly appointed electoral organisers at Temple Trees, he emphasised that he wouldn’t allow any group within the SLFP to challenge his authority. He warned that he wouldn’t succumb to pressure and added that those disgruntled elements could leave the party. The warning was given in the wake of Ministers Mangala Samaraweera, Anura Bandaranaike and Sripathy Sooriyaarachchi skipping an Emergency vote in Parliament. The bone of contention was the President accommodating a group of UNP MPs among the government ranks to strengthen his position in Parliament, due to the JVP spurning his invitation to join the government. Basil played a pivotal role in enticing Opposition members to join government ranks.
At the behest of the SLFP leadership, Ven. Vatinapaha Somananda thera, on behalf of the All Island Clergy Association urged the President to take punitive action against those who skipped the Emergency vote. The stage of was set for a critical phase of an operation targeting dissidents.
While beleaguered UNP leader Wickremesinghe was fighting to reassert his authority in the wake of a powerful section of the UNP parliamentary group throwing its weight behind President Rajapaksa along with the SLMC as well as the CWC, which contested the parliamentary poll (April 2004) on the UNP ticket, the President stripped Samaraweera and Bandaranaike of their ministerial portfolios. The President bluntly told the SLFPdissidents to continue their campaign sans ministerial portfolios. A visibly upset Anura Bandaranaike called for CBK’s support to go on the offensive. He called CBK to join a media briefing in Colombo aimed at targeting the Rajapaksa brothers, in spite of him being warned not to cause further problems. The President sent a message to Bandaranaike through business tycoon Harry Jayawardena, a mutual friend, not to side with Samaraweera. Bandaranaike was warned to keep his distance from Samaraweera. CWC leader Arumugam Thondaman quickly realised that the dissidents’ move could end up in a catastrophe. Thondaman rushed to President Rajapaksa to reaffirm his support. Having sacked those who challenged his authority, a confident Rajapaksa on Feb 11, 2007 left for the Maldives on a three-day state visit. The President invited three UNP defectors, Milinda Moragoda, Prof. G.L. Peiris and Rohitha Bogollagama to join his delegation for talks with Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. The decision to go ahead with an overseas visit highlighted his confidence in Gotabhaya and Basil (Anura wants Chandrika to battle Rajapaksa brothers; SLFP seeks more UNP crossovers and MR confident dissidents helpless, leaves for Male––The Island Feb 11, 2007)
JVP’s response to Rajapaksas move
Much to the surprise of Bandaranaike, Samaraweera and Sooriyaarachchi, those who had been in touch with them and pledged their support for the attack on the Rajapaksas remained mum. The President’s decision to strip dissidents of ministerial portfolios wrong-footed them all. The JVP on Feb 11, 2007 issued a statement criticising the President’s move against Samaraweera and Sooriyaarachchi. The JVP politburo didn’t refer to Bandarnaike. The JVP alleged that the President was targeting some of those who had supported his presidential bid, while embracing those undermined him. The SLFP leadership asked the JVP to mind its own business. Among those who publicly supported the Rajapaksas move against rebels within days after them being stripped of portfolios were ministers Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Pavitra Wanniarachchi, Dilan Perera, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya, Sarath Amunugama and Jagath Pushpakumara (JVP sheds tears for Mangala and Sripathy, silent on Anura with strap line Mind your own business-SLFP––The Island Feb 12, 2007)
Although the JVP strongly backed Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s presidential election campaign in Nov 2005, the President couldn’t have forgotten how the JVP almost succeeded in blocking him from being appointed the Prime Minister immediately after the April 2, 2004 parliamentary polls. The JVP pushed for the appointment of Lakshman Kadirgamar as the Prime Minister of the UPFA government. The JVP proposed that if Kadirgamar wasn’t acceptable because of his ethnicity either Anura Bandaranaike or Maithripala Sirisena should be the next Prime Minister. The JVP went to the extent of making it a condition for its continued support. Due to its unexpected success in securing 39 seats, the JVP was in a position to exert pressure on the SLFP leadership. The JVP did everything possible to undermine Rajapaksa, particularly during Opposition protests against the UNP signing the Ceasefire agreement with the LTTE, in Feb 2002. The JVP always considered Rajapaksa a serious threat to their future political plans. Having undermined Rajapaksa for years, the JVP had no option but to support his presidential bid in Nov 2005, but refused to support him in parliament, thereby created uncertainty. Realising the danger, the President quickly reached an agreement with the UNP as early as Feb 2006. A section of the UNP considered the president’s move as an admission of weakness. Within weeks after signing of the Memorandum of Understanding by SLFP General Secretary Minister Maithripala Sirisena and UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema, the UNP boasted that the UNP would form a government in April 2006. The President responded by enticing a section of the UNP parliamentary group to join him.