Jan 10, 2002: Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgeson shakes hands with PM Wickremesinghe (from left) Norway’s special envoy to Sri Lanka Erik Solheim, Norwegian ambassador Jon Westborg, Vidar Helgeson, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Prof. G.L.Peris.
The LTTE reacted angrily to an unprecedented political pact between the ruling SLFP-led PA and the JVP signed on Sept. 5, 2001. The short-lived agreement threatened to undermine the LTTE’s strategy to force President Chandrika Kumaratunga to call for early parliamentary polls to pave the way for a change of government. The LTTE felt that as long as the PA remained in power, the Norwegian peace initiative wouldn’t bear fruit and, therefore, a major destabilization effort was needed to wreak chaos in a bid to facilitate a conspiracy against the incumbent administration. The LTTE obviously knew of the ongoing UNP project to engineer an influential group of SLFPers to switch its allegiance to Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham lambasted the PA-JVP for having reached an agreement.
On Sept 15, east of Foul Point Trincomalee, sailors onboard an SLN Fast Attack Craft (FAC) observed a fiber glass dingy carrying three persons, including a child. P 422 was escorting ‘MV Lacerta’ leaving the Trincomalee harbour. Although the dingy flew a white flag, the FAC crew was suspicious. The Commanding Officer of the Israeli built Dvora FAC didn’t want to take a chance. SLN gunners fired several warning shots over the dingy while keeping a distance of approximately 100 meters. Suddenly, the dingy, powered by one Outboard motor started moving rapidly towards the FAC. SLN gunners managed to successfully engage it when the explosives laden dingy was about 20 meters away. The blast disabled the FAC. One sailor suffered head injuries. The abortive bid was a diversionary attack.
The following day, about 20 Sea Tiger craft, including some explosives laden boats, targeted an SLN convoy about 27 km northeast of Point Pedro. It was on its way from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai. While a section of the attacking craft engaged escorts, some targeted ‘MV Pride of South’ carrying over 1,300 officers and men. In the absence of proper troop carriers, the SLN was using privately-owned vessels to move personnel returning to their bases. Over 50 security forces personnel received injuries during the battle. Several FACs were damaged. Had the Sea Tigers succeeded, the consequences would have been catastrophic. It could have had a devastating impact on the PA, in view of the impending parliamentary polls. The SLN wasn’t equipped to rescue those onboard ‘MV Pride of South’ in the event of a terror strike. On the other hand, the Trincomalee–Kankesanthurai lifeline would have been severed. That would have been disastrous as the SLA didn’t have an overland main supply route to Jaffna since June 1990. (LTTE targets ship carrying 1300 men after abortive bid to blast Dvora–The Island Sept. 17, 2001).
The attempt to destroy ‘MV Pride of South’ should be examined in the wake of the disastrous Operation Agnikeela in April 2001 and the attack on the BIA in July 2001.
On the evening of Oct. 30, 2001, the LTTE attacked a ship 12 nautical miles north of Point Pedro. Silk Pride was on its way to Kankesanthurai carrying a stock of fuel. The LTTE was stepping up pressure on the CBK administration in the wake of political instability (LTTE blasts ship carrying fuel to Jaffna –The Island Oct 31, 2001). But, subsequently, the SLN identified the ill-fated ship as Dunhinda. The SLN said the vessel, which was attacked 10 nautical miles north of Point Pedro had carried diesel and kerosene. A small group of sailors managed to put out a fire onboard the vessel caused by two simultaneous suicide attacks directed at the ship’s engine room. The navy managed to rescue the entire 11-man civilian crew and 13 out of the 16 security forces personnel onboard the vessel. The SLN recovered bodies of three personnel. The SLN towed the stricken vessel to the Kankesanthurai harbour (Sailors put out blaze in oil tanker, ship limps into KKS port – The Island Nov. 1, 2001).
UNP steps up political offensive
Both the SLMC and the CWC joined the UNP-led United National Front (UNF), along with the dissident SLFP group led by S.B. Dissanayake, who was the General Secretary of the party. Jeyaraj Fernandopulle quit the dissident group at the eleventh hour, though he was one of the leading conspirators. The SLFP-led PA struggled both on the political and security fronts. Minister Dissanayake’s move stunned President Kumaratunga, who backed his candidature for the post of SLFP General Secretary at the expense of Minister Maithripala Sirisena.
TULF led move
Amidst political turmoil, a four party Tamil alliance led by the TULF dropped a bombshell. Addressing the media in Colombo on the morning of Nov. 3, 2001, the then TULF General Secretary R. Sampanthan and ex-Batticaloa District MP Joseph Pararajasingham declared that the newly formed alliance had the backing of the LTTE. The alliance comprised the TULF, TELO, ACTC and the EPRLF (Suresh Premachandran faction). Throwing its weight behind the Norwegian peace initiative, the alliance said that its primary objective was to facilitate the return of the warring parties to the negotiating table. They indicated their support for the talks between the LTTE and the next government. The Tamil alliance indicated that there wouldn’t be further talks between the LTTE and the incumbent CBK administration. It declared that it would field candidates in the electoral districts in the then temporarily merged northern and eastern provinces and Colombo under the TULF’s rising sun symbol.
The LTTE resumed hostilities on the night of April 19, 1995, by sinking two SLN gunboats in the Trincomalee harbour.
The TULF-led briefing was held with the blessings of the LTTE and Norway. The alliance declared a four point plan to resume the dialogue between the GoSL and the LTTE. The alliance insisted that its support for the SLFP-led PA or the UNP-led UNF would entirely depend on their response to the alliance demands, which, in fact, were LTTE’s prerequisites for the resumption of talks: lifting of the ban on the LTTE (imposed consequent to the attack on the Dalada Maligawa on Jan 25, 1998), the declaration of ceasefire, the lifting of the ‘economic embargo and resurrect the Norwegian peace initiative.
Responding to a query, Sampanthan declared that there was no point in Tamil political parties talking with the government. From now on it would be the LTTE, Sampanthan declared (LTTE will talk for the Tamils, says Alliance – The Island Nov 4, 2001).
Although the Tamil alliance strongly denied having a secret pact with the UNP-led UNF ahead of the parliamentary polls on Dec 5, 2001, it very clearly indicated that there wouldn’t be any reason for the LTTE to negotiate with the incumbent administration. Sampanthan said that the EPDP, which represented the interests of the government, wouldn’t pose a challenge to the alliance in any part of the country at the forthcoming parliamentary polls.
Colombo based Western embassies supported the Opposition initiative as they, too, felt that the resumption of talks would depend on the government agreeing to LTTE’s prerequisites reiterated by the Tamil alliance.
The Tamil alliance gave an assurance that the LTTE wouldn’t mount major operations in the run-up to the general election. The LTTE wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize their initiative, the alliance declared.
‘Attempt to kill Ranil’
In the wake of the Tamil Alliance giving an assurance on behalf of the LTTE that major military operations wouldn’t be launched in the run-up to the polls, the UNP accused the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) of planning to assassinate UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe during the campaign. The UNP’s unprecedented allegation was endorsed by its partners. International news agencies gave wide coverage to the alleged attempt on Wickremesinghe in spite of the then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle personally assuring the UNP that the DMI wouldn’t interfere with the campaign. The DMI was accused of planning to use high explosives and thermo baric weapons targeting Wickremesinghe. Lt. Gen. Balagalle was responding to the then UNP Chairman Charitha Ratwatte and UNP Vice Chairman Daya Palpola (Army Chief says no truth in UNP claims–The Island Nov. 11, 2001). Immediately after the election, the UNP ordered the police to expose what it called a DMI operation involving ex-LTTE cadres behind enemy lines. This matter has been dealt with in detail previously.
The PA was in disarray. The coalition never recovered from SLFP General Secretary Dissanayake’s crossover; The UNP had the support of all major political parties except the JVP. The army was in a collision course with the UNP over the alleged attempt on Wickremesinghe’s life. The PA remained silent, leaving Lt. Gen. Balagalle to deal with the situation. The DMI affair placed the entire Sri Lankan military in an extremely vulnerable situation with some alleging the DMI operation was aimed at thwarting the resurrection of the Norwegian peace imitative.
A few weeks before the election, an unidentified gunman shot dead retired Chief Inspector Thambirasa Jayakumar near Ondaachchimadam Junction in the Kalawanchikudy police area. Forty-eight year old Jayakumar had been on the UNP nomination list for the Batticaloa District. He was the first candidate to be killed. The UNP and the Tamil Alliance remained silent, though they knew Jayakumar was a victim of LTTE terror.
JVP leader returns
Self-exiled JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe returned to Sri Lanka on the morning of Nov. 22, 2001 to take over the JVP polls campaign. The PA facilitated his return following a 12-year exile in the UK. The PA leadership felt that Amarasinghe’s return would be beneficial to the PA, under fire by the UNP, PA rebels, CWC, SLMC as well as the Tamil Alliance. Somawansa returns to lead polls campaign––The Island Nov. 23, 2001). SLFP strategist Mangala Samaraweewa was of the opinion that the PA and the JVP could continue to work together, though their bilateral agreement signed on Sept. 5, 2001 had failed to save the PA government. Samaraweera blamed the PA rebels for creating the conditions which forced President Kumaratunga to go for early elections.
PA fights back
The PA accused the UNF-led UNP of having a secret deal with the LTTE. The PA also alleged a clandestine Norwegian role in the project. Interestingly, the PA offensive was led by Mangala Samaraweera, who identified Gampaha District UNP MP Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena as the go-between. Samaraweera lambasted the UNPer for seeking the LTTE’s cooperation to win the forthcoming election. Samaraweera’s onslaught sent shock waves through the Opposition alliance. The vast majority of people reacted angrily to alleged secret negotiations between the UNP and the LTTE. With the general election two weeks away, the UNP leader called a special media briefing at the UNP Media Centre on Nov 23, 2001. On his instructions, Dr. Jayawardena launched a counter-offensive against Mangala Samaraweera, at that time CBK’s chief political strategist. Dr. Jayawardena was flanked by S. B. Dissanayake, who boldly accused CBK and Mangala Samaraweera of planning to assassinate one of their own to win sympathy on the eve of the poll. Leading PA rebel, Prof. Peiris and the then UNP spokesman Dr. Karunasena Kodituwakku, too, strongly countered Mangala Samaraweera’s allegations (Jayalath denies ‘secret deal with LTTE’; challenges Mangala to prove charges–The Island Nov 24, 2001).
In the wake of S. B. Dissanayake’s allegation, the PA detailed the STF to protect National Unity Alliance Leader Ferial Ashraff, M. L. M. Hisbullah and S. Ganeshamoorthy. All of them contested electoral districts in the Eastern Province. The PA denied STF security to Prof. Peiris and Rauff Hakeem after they had deserted the government (Special STF security for favoured few––The Island Nov 25, 2001).
Prof. Peiris on Nov. 23, 2001 released a copy of a letter Wickremesinghe sent to US President George W. Bush, UK Premier Tony Blair and the President of the European Union, Romano Prodi, attacking President Kumaratunga over a statement attributed to her during a campaign rally. Wickremesinghe said that the President had encouraged violence against his party supporters. Wickremesinghe likened President Kumaratunga to that of General Pinochet, Idi Amin and President Ceaucescu. Soon after joining Wickremesinghe’s team, Prof. Peiris was named the UNF spokesman (Ranil asks US, British leaders to take notice of CBK threat–The Island Nov. 24, 2001).
Wickremesinghe had the explicit support of Western powers to go ahead with the Norwegian initiative. Being a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Norway had the required international backing for its initiative. They believed that the UNP could dislodge the CBK administration, which remained the only impediment to the resumption of a fresh round of talks on the LTTE’s terms. By the first week of Dec, the Norwegians and the LTTE had basically reached agreement on the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). They waited for the outcome of the general election to make an annoucement. Wickremesinghe had a clear edge over CBK and a UNF victory was inevitable.
In the wake of Prabhakaran’s heroes’ day message, TULF politician Joseph Pararajasingham reiterated their commitment to the LTTE’s condition for the resumption of talks. Pararajasingham asserted that the stand taken by the Tamil Alliance would strengthen the hands of the LTTE. On Dec. 1, 2001, the then Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar declared that the LTTE wouldn’t be de-proscribed in the run-up to the polls. “It can be considered only if and when the peace process has advanced to a point of irreversibility and it is clearly agreed that all discussions will take place within the parameters of a single indivisible State of Sri Lanka.” Releasing an eleven-page statement on behalf of the GoSL, Minister Kadirgamar alleged that the LTTE was making an attempt to psychologically intimidate voters, manipulate the democratic process against the incumbent PA administration.