April 2006 during Oslo-arranged CFA: At the behest of the LTTE, students and the staff of Manchanthoduvai Technical College, Batticaloa, hoist the Tamileelam Flag at the college premises at a memorial event for Annai Poopathy, whose fast unto death in April, 1988, against the IPKF, caused irreparable damage to India’s image. Poopathy launched her fast on March 19, 1988, at Mahmangam Pillayar Temple, to highlight the atrocities committed by the IPKF on the Tamil community. She demanded an immediate unconditional ceasefire between the LTTE and the IPKF. She died on April 19th, 1988.
The parish priest of St. Mary’s church, Batticaloa Rev. Father Chandra Fernando was assassinated on June 6, 1988. Some say he was attached to the Batticaloa Mission House at the time of his killing. The killing was meant to silence those opposed to atrocities committed by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), People’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Eelam People’s Revolutionary Libation Front (EPRLF) and the LTTE. Both the PLOTE and the EPRLF operated in the temporarily-merged Northern and Eastern Provinces under the protection of the IPKF. They carried out IPKF directives regardless of the consequences. They operated both from IPKF bases as well as their own established close to IPKF detachments in line with the overall security strategy in place in the wake of the outbreak of hostilities between India and the LTTE.
Rev. Father Fernando, the then Vice President of the Batticaloa Citizens’ Committee (BCC), was particularly harsh on the IPKF for the failure on its part to stabilize the situation in Batticaloa. The 46-year-old priest earned the wrath of the IPKF high command in Batticaloa for being severely critical of its conduct. Rev. Father Fernado dared the IPKF publicly. In spite of repeated warnings from friends, Rev. Fernando alleged that the IPKF deployed in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, in accordance with the Indo Lanka Accord (ILA), was nothing but a failure.
The Sri Lankan military, police and the elite Special Task Force (STF) were confined to their bases.
Rev. Father Fernando was among the few civilians living in Batticaloa willing to discuss the situation, though they realized the danger in provoking the IPKF. Unlike many senior priests in Batticaloa, Rev. Fernando didn’t turn a blind eye to unprecedented atrocities committed by the IPKF and its allies, in the guise of counter-insurgency operations.
IPKF urged to quit Batticaloa
The BCC called a meeting in late Jan. 1988 amidst unprecedented turmoil in the Batticaloa district. The LTTE regularly targeted IPKF patrols moving through heavily populated areas knowing the jawans’ reaction. The LTTE sometimes launched attacks in predominately Muslim areas. Such attacks were meant to provoke IPKF attacks on the Tamil speaking Muslim community. Having made representations to the IPKF and the Indian High Commission on numerous occasions regarding the worsening situation, the BCC felt it should step up pressure on the IPKF to restore normalcy in the region. But a section of BCC realized that the IPKF was the primary cause of the catastrophic situation. It was obvious nothing would change as long as the IPKF was in control. Although the IPKF knew its conduct was under fire, it felt reasonably confident none would dare to challenge its mandate publicly.
Outspoken politician and Tamil nationalist Sam Tambimuttu was at the helm of the BCC as its Secretary. Having succeeded Prince Casinader during the mid 80s, Tambimuttu worked closely with other members of BCC. Rev. Father Chandra Fernando played a significant role in the BCC, which had access to the IPKF high command in Batticaloa.
Addressing members of the BBC and a group of representatives from Tamil and Muslim communities, Rev. Father Fernando declared that there wouldn’t be peace unless the IPKF quit the district. The immediate removal of the IPKF would be a prerequisite for restoration of normalcy in the region. The people living in the Batticaloa district were unanimous in their view that the continued presence of the IPKF in the region was no longer appreciated, he said. Much to the discomfort of those present, the priest declared that Tamil speaking people needed a viable political solution. The deployment of a foreign army was not in the best interests of the people, he said, lashing out at the Indian government as well as Indian High Commissioner J. N. Dixit. Rev. Fernando alleged that India was not interested in the wellbeing of the Tamil community. Instead, India wanted to station its army in Sri Lanka, the priest (Call to remove Indian forces from Batticaloa-The Island Jan 23, 1988).
The call for the IPKF to quit Batticaloa was made about three weeks after Indian High Commissioner Dixit toured Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts to assess the situation. The visit was his first to the Eastern Province after the outbreak of hostilities between the IPKF and the LTTE in the second week of Oct. 1987. Dixit was accompanied by the IPKF’s Eastern Commander Maj. Gen. Jameel Mahmood. The visit took place in the backdrop of Sri Lankan police executing 20 civilians in Batticaloa to avenge the death of a colleague at the hands of the LTTE. During a meeting at the main IPKF base in Batticaloa, the BCC urged High Commissioner Dixit to take up the massacre with President JRJ. The BCC also urged Dixit to immediately shift the police station. (Dixit tours Trincomalee and Batticaloa-The Island Dec 31, 1087).
The meeting at the Mandressa camp was also attended by Sri Lankan security officials. They said that they couldn’t discuss the matter of police stations, without specific instructions from Colombo (Batticaloa citizens’ request to shift police complex refused-The Island Jan 3, 1988). The BBC also called for the removal of the IPKF from the Eastern University situated at Vantharamoolai. The IPKF maintained a heavy presence of ground forces at strategic locations to meet any eventuality. Although the LTTE couldn’t threaten major Indian bases in the Eastern Provinces, it regularly targeted troops on patrol as well as those on supply missions. By late May, Batticaloa was in chaos with the IPKF stepping up operations. The IPKF vowed to continue anti-insurgency operations until the LTTE renounced violence. The IPKF efforts supported by para military operations conducted by the PLOTE and the EPRLF caused substantial losses to the LTTE. But civilians, too, suffered at the hands of foreign troops and their local collaborators.
The assassination of Rev. Father Fernando should be examined in the backdrop of the battle for supremacy in Batticaloa between the LTTE and its one-time masters.
The killing was blamed on both the PLOTE and the EPRLF, which received arms and ammunition from the government of India through the IPKF.
Political recognition for terrorists
Both PLOTE and the EPRLF sought political recognition in late Jan. 1988 ahead of the first election for the temporarily merged North-Eastern Provincial Council later that year. They had the blessings of the Indian government. Indian High Commissioner Dixit discussed the pivotal importance of giving Tamil groups an opportunity to contest the forthcoming election by recognizing them as political parties. Dixit pushed hard for political recognition for Indian sponsored groups, which in spite of the ILA, openly carried weapons. The then Elections chief, Chandrananda de Silva, confirmed efforts made by Tamil groups to secure political recognition. The polls chief said that among those who sent in their applications were Tamil armed groups (Terrorist groups seek recognition as political parties-The Island Feb 4, 1988).
The EPRLF was the first Tamil group accepted by the Election Secretariat. It was recognized on Feb. 11, 1988. The recognition of the PLOTE was delayed much to the annoyance of Indian High Commissioner Dixit.
The government came under heavy Indian pressure to recognize armed groups in spite of them still carrying weapons in violation of the ILA. In fact, the amalgamation of the Eastern Province with the Northern Province was subject to the disarming of all Indian sponsored groups, including the LTTE, in accordance of the ILA. But President JRJ was compelled to conduct the election under the auspices of the IPKF. Colombo-based western embassies turned a blind eye to what was going on. Although President JRJ resented India’s dictatorial attitude and its effort to establish an administration in the NE Province loyal to New Delhi, he could not do anything. The UNP was struggling in the wake of the JVP stepping up attacks with the killing of the General Secretary of the party, Nandalal Fernando, on the morning of May 20, 1988 in the Wellawatte police area. Fernando was the second top UNP official assassinated by the JVP. UNP Chairman Harsha Abeywardena was shot dead on the morning of Dec 23, 1987 also in the Wellawatte police area. Under pressure on the southern front, the government easily succumbed to Indian pressure.
The UNP filled Abeywardena’s vacancy with tough talking Ranjan Wijeratne, who played a pivotal role in preparing the party for the PC polls. Wijeratne took the JVP challenge head-on. On his instructions, the police and the armed forces intensified their campaign. Although the JVP unleashed violence in a bid to discourage political parties from contesting the PC polls, it couldn’t stop the government from going ahead with the polls.
Polls on a staggered basis
The first PC polls were held on a staggered basis on April 28, 1988 in the North Western, North Central, Uva and Sabaragamuwa Provinces. The UNP comfortably won all four provinces with the main challenge coming from the United Socialist Alliance (USA) due to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) deciding against taking part in what the party described as an Indian exercise to divide the country on ethnic lines. The JVP, which was a proscribed party at that time, too, adopted a similar stance.
The PC poll for the Southern Province was held on June 9, 1988. The UNP secured the South, too, without a problem.
While the UNP was battling the JVP in the south, the IPKF was busy creating a situation conducive for its allies to capture power in the North – Eastern Province. The assassination of Rev Father Fernando should be examined in the backdrop of the IPKF’s efforts to silence dissent in the province. Nothing would have been as important as neutralizing a discordant voice, particularly in Batticaloa.
In the wake of Rev. Father Fernando’s assassination, the IPKF warned the people of Batticaloa to keep their distance from the LTTE or face the consequences. The announcement was made on the last Sunday in the month of July 1988 through public address systems. The IPKF declared that anyone assisting the LTTE would be punished regardless of his or her status in society. The IPKF went to the extent of declaring that anyone harbouring LTTE terrorists would be regarded as a terrorist and dealt with appropriately. A senior IPKF officer based at Mandressa camp told the writer that the Indian Army would not tolerate a civilian-LTTE link. The Citizens’ Committees in Batticaloa and Ampara were told to move away from the LTTE or face the consequences. (IPKF warns: don’t harbour LTTE-The Island July 29, 1988). Such a public warning had never been given by the IPKF, though different commands privately threatened Citizens’ Committees against having links with the LTTE. The IPKF warning highlighted the plight of Tamil speaking people living in the Northern and Eastern districts. President JRJ couldn’t interfere with the IPKF strategy.