The humiliating defeat suffered by the army in Jaffna in late April 2001 compelled the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga to pursue the Norwegian peace initiative.
Had Operation Agnikheela succeeded in achieving its objective, the CBK administration wouldn’t have had to depend on the Norwegians. Agnikheela was aimed at liberating Elephant Pass, which the SLA vacated in the third week of April 2000. But, debilitating battlefield setbacks in April 2001 left the GoSL with no alternative but to talk peace with the LTTE through the Norwegians. The government had to give up its ambitious military project and go on the defensive.
In the wake of the PA struggling on the war front, the UNP launched an operation of its own to dislodge the CBK administration. Having survived an attempt by an influential section of the UNP to oust him in April, 2001, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe initiated secret moves to bring down the PA government. Wickremesinghe’s move should be examined against the backdrop of the Norwegian peace initiative. In fact, the very success of that initiative depended on the UNP’s political strategy to force President Kumaratunga to call for early general elections, which she did, paving the way for the UNP-led UNF’s victory at the Dec. 5, 2001 parliamentary polls.
It would be pertinent to look at the situation in the immediate aftermath of the Jaffna debacle, which proved the LTTE’s conventional military prowess. The stunning military victory gave the group a massive boost in the wake of the British ban. The ground situation was conducive to the Norwegian effort, which envisaged bringing the two warring parties––the GoSL and the LTTE back to the negotiating table. The Norwegian bid didn’t necessarily mean talks between the PA administration and the LTTE. Unfortunately, the PA didn’t realise the Norwegian strategy.
Solheim arrives in Colombo
Norwegian Special envoy Erik Solheim arrived in Colombo in mid May 2001 to meet the LTTE leadership. Having arrived in Colombo, Solheim moved overland to Vanni for talks. However, LTTE leader Prabhakaran skipped the meeting. A few hours before Solheim accompanied by the then Norwegian ambassador in Colombo Jon Westborg and Norwegian Foreign Ministry official Ms Kjersti Tromsdal crossed the no man’s land to re-enter the SLA held area, the LTTE struck thrice in the Vavuniya District killing five soldiers and two policemen. The international community, too, strongly advised the GoSL to respond positively to the latest peace initiative (Mine blasts kill seven personnel as Solheim crosses frontline––The Island May 19, 2001).
In the wake of humiliating battlefield defeats in the Northern Province, the then Army Chief, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle initiated a special project to carry out target killings in LTTE held areas. The operation, spearheaded by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) got underway on July 18, 2001 with an attempt to kill a senior LTTE cadre identified as Jim Kelly. The first, second and third installments of the ongoing series ‘War on terror revisited’ on June 4, 6 and 8, 2012 discussed the undercover operations leading to the Dec. 5, 2001 general elections and the UNP exposing the DMI operation. The last DMI operation, which also involved ex-LTTE operatives, was conducted on Nov. 26, 2001 in the Eastern Province.
Another major development was the then SLN chief, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri launching Waruna Kirana in May 2001 to intercept LTTE vessels bringing in arms, ammunition and equipment to Mullaitivu-Chalai. Unfortunately, Waruna Kirana didn’t achieve its primary objective. A major drawback faced by those engaged in the Waruna Kirana operation was that they didn’t have credible intelligence as regards movement of LTTE ships. In fact, the SLN scored two successful hits on March 10, 2003 and June 14, 2003 during the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) on the basis of intelligence provided by the DMI. Waruna Kirana continued until Wasantha Karannagoda succeeded Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri on Sept. 1, 2005.
LTTE steps up attacks
The LTTE intensified attacks while urging the PA to deproscribe the group. The LTTE insisted that a deproscription was necessity for the group to return to the negotiating table. Tigers fired artillery and mortars at Janakapura and Kokkuthuduwai, causing panic among civilians. They blew up a bus carrying off-duty SLN personnel close to Mollipothana along the Trincomalee-Habarana road in late May. On May 26, 2001, the government declared that the ban imposed on the LTTE following a truck bomb attack on Sri Dalada Maligawa on Jan 25, 1998. The government insisted that the ban wasn’t negotiable. However, the Norwegians continued their efforts to have the LTTE de-proscribed. Having met Norwegian officials handling the peace initiative during the third week of April 2001, UNP leader Wickremesinghe declared that his support for PA-LTTE talks would depend on President Kumaratunga agreeing to set up independent commissions for the public service, police, elections and judicial sectors. Wickremesinghe reiterated his demand in early June 2001 on his return from Chennai, where he met Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram. Wickremesinghe was accompanied by his then confidant, Milinda Moragoda (UNP support for talks depends on PA’s response to independent commissions––The Island June 7, 2001).
The PA on June 8, 2001 requested Norway to replace Solheim, alleging that his conduct was detrimental to Sri Lanka’s interests.
In June 2001, President Kumaratunga relieved SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem of his ministerial portfolio. The PA accused Hakeem of secretly negotiating with the UNP leader in a bid to undermine the PA. The President acted fast in the wake of the UNP exploring the possibility of moving a no-faith motion against the PA with the help of the SLMC and the JVP. Leader of the National Unity Alliance (NUA) Mrs. Ferial Ashraff, MP, resigned her portfolio against President Kumaratunga’s decision to sack her colleague Hakeem. The PA faced an uncertain future in the wake of the UNP handing over a no-confidence motion bearing 97 signatures that was handed over to the Secretary General of Parliament on June 22, 2001. The UNP move was backed by three Tamil parties. Wickremesinghe stepped up pressure on the PA leadership to give in, reiterating his call for the immediate establishment of four independent commissions. The PA no longer had a majority in Parliament due to the SLMC switching its allegiance to the Opposition. Of the 11-member SLMC parliamentary group, seven, including Hakeem joined the Opposition ranks. In spite of political turmoil, President Kumaratunga in the last week of June 2001 left for the UK leaving Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake in charge of the President’s Office. She conferred all her powers on the Premier under Article 37(1) of the Constitution (PM granted presidential powers––The Island June 28, 2001). The following day, Prime Minister Wickremanayake declared that the PA wouldn’t give into UNP tactics. Addressing a photographic exhibition at the National Art Gallery, the Premier emphasised that the PA wouldn’t negotiate with the UNP (Ratnasiru will not let opposition dictate terms to govt––The Island June 29, 2001).
Wickremesinghe earned the appreciation of the party for spearheading the operation targeting the PA. It was an unexpected turn of events. The changing political landscape facilitated the Norwegian peace initiative. Wickremesinghe consolidated his position. Those who had made an attempt to oust him in late April 2001 now had to accept his leadership (Ranil consolidate his position in the UNP––The Island July 1, 2001).
In the absence of President Kumaratunga, who was away in the UK, Prime Minister Wickremenayake ordered a series of air strikes on LTTE targets. Jets launched from the Katunayake air base bombed LTTE positions at Pooneryn on the Vanni mainland and Nagarkovil on June 30, 2001. It was the first air strike since the debacle suffered by Agnikheela troops on April 25, 2001. Air strikes coincided with the transfer of Jaffna Security Forces Commander Maj. Gen. Anton Wijendra, who conducted the disastrous Agnikheela offensive. SLAF headquarters said that 12 sorties had been carried out on Kalmunai point, Pallai, Pooneryn and Nagarkoil. Wijendra took over Jaffna command on Aug 3, 2000 from Maj Gen. Sarath Fonseka. Wijendra was appointed Volunteer Force commander. Maj. Gen. Susil Chandrapala took over Jaffna command. Much to the surprise of ordinary troops, the government restored the post of Overall Operations Commander (OOC) again. Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Neil Dias was named the OOC. When the PA wanted to get rid of Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera from Jaffna, the post off OOC was scrapped. Both Wijendra and Chandrapala were from the Engineers. (Government resumes air strikes––The Island July 1, 2001).
A section of the international community expressed concern over the decision to resume air strikes. The US and India were among the countries that felt that resumption of air attacks would be detrimental to ongoing Norwegian efforts to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table. They pointed out that attacks had got underway on June 30, 2001 hours before Norwegian Ambassador Jon Westborg told Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar that Norway would continue with the peace imitative. Norway named its Deputy Foreign Minister Raymond Johansson as the head of the Norwegian delegation to spearhead the effort. The team included Jon Westborg, Erik Solheim and Ms Kjersti Tromsdal (US, India ‘criticism’ stops planned air strikes?––The Island July 8, 2001).
PA crisis deepens
The political crisis deepened with the SLMC and the National Unity Alliance (NUA) opposing the PA taking action against Hakeem. On the morning of July 5, 2001, Hakeem’s supporters targeted those backing Minister Ferial Ashraff in several places in the Ampara District. Hakeem’s people reacted angrily to Mrs Ashraff having the NUA’s Delegates’ Conference at the Ampara town hall. At Samanthurai, the police had to fire into the air to disperse rampaging SLMC supporters. Mrs. Ashraff convened the Ampara meeting following the expulsion of National List MP Basheer Segu Dawood from the party (Ferial’s Ampara meeting sparks violence––The Island July 6, 2001 and SLMC condemns Ferial’s NUA conference––The Island July 6, 201).
The SLMC replaced its Chairman H. M. Farook with MP A. L. A. M. Athaulla in the second week of July 2001. The SLMC was responding to Farook’s failure to resign as Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Kenya in line with a decision taken by the party to give up all posts held by members of the party. Hakeem’s father-in-law Ismail Qudus returned from Kuwait, where he was Sri Lanka’s ambassador (SLMC fires Chairman––The Island July 15, 2001).
CBK suspends Parliament
President Kumaratunge issued a proclamation on 10 July 2001 proroguing Parliament under constitutional powers (Article 70), to outmanoevre the Opposition.
Parliament must be summoned within two months of prorogation in terms of the Constitution [Article 70 (3)]. The presidential proclamation declared that Parliament would reconvene on Sept. 7 2001.
The President issued the Proclamation after 115 Opposition MPs petitioned the Speaker of Parliament, Anura Bandaranaike, on 10 July, demanding a debate on the no-confidence motion on 18 July.
The no-confidence motion signed by 98 parliamentarians was tabled on 21 June, accusing the government of failing to solve the ethnic problem and mishandling the economy.
President Kumaratunga ordered the police to crush a UNP led protest campaign in Colombo on July 19th, 2001. Police action claimed the lives of two persons and wounded about 100. The UNP leader alleged that the Presidential Security Division (PSD) was trying to assassinate him at the behest of President Kumaratunga (PSD trying to eliminate me, says Ranil––The Island July 20, 2001). Vowing to launch a protest campaign on its own, the UNP didn’t join the JVP-led demonstrations. The police warned the JVP of dire consequences if it launched street protests.
In the early hours of July 24, 2001, the LTTE caused massive losses in an unprecedented raid directed at the Bandaranaike International Airport and the adjacent Katunayake airbase, home to Sri Lanka’s precious Kfir and MiG squadrons. The LTTE destroyed two Kfirs, one MiG 27, three K8 advanced training aircraft and two Mi 17 transport helicopters. Attackers also destroyed three SriLankan airlines aircraft––two A 340s and one A 330. Among the damaged aircraft were two A 320s and one A 330 and five Kfirs. If those in charge of the SLAF base at Katunayake had been on the alert, the LTTE couldn’t have succeeded in its mission. The failure by the SLAF could be compared only with the letdown at Anuradhapura, where a sleeping SLAF allowed the LTTE to storm the base in Oct 2007. The PA received another blow when Lloyds of London categorised the Colombo port as ‘war risk.’
In August 2001, the SLAF lost another MiG 27 when it crashed landed at Kurana, Katunayake, immediately after taking off from the Katunayake runway.
The PA, struggling in the face of the UNP no faith motion, held separate talks with the JVP and UNP to overcome the crisis. The UNP also made an abortive bid to impeach President Kumaratunga over abuse of power, violation of the Constitution and financial irregularities in Sept. 2001. The UNP move forced the PA to sign an agreement with the JVP on Sept. 5, 2001 to save President Kumaratunga. The PA-JVP agreement envisaged the setting up of a Constitutional Council and independent commissions to run the public service, the judiciary, the elections secretariat and the police. Unfortunately, the deal with the JVP didn’t help President Kumaratunga avert the crisis which led to the dissolution of Parliament on Oct. 10 2001 due to a group of PA members switching their allegiance to the UNP leader. The PA rebels made their move on Sept. 10, 2001 It was Wickremesinghe’s moment of triumph. PA rebels included ministers Prof. G. L. Peiris, S. B. Dissanayake, Mahinda Wijesekera, Bandula Gunawardena, Lakshman Kiriella, Ediriweera Premaratne, Jayasundera Wijekoon and Ananda Munasinghe. Having caused the dissolution of Parliament, the newly formed Sri Lanka Nidahas Deshapremi Sandanaya or Sri Lanka Free Patriotic Alliance (SLFP-A) entered into an agreement with the UNP ahead of the Dec. 5, 2001 parliamentary polls. Ex-MPs, Bandula Gunawardena, Maj. Gen. (retd) Sarath Munasinghe and Wijeyapala Mendis joined the UNP on their own (Patriotic Alliance, UNP sign Mou––The Island Oct 18, 2001).