War on terror revisited: Part 11
June 26, 2012, 6:55 pm
by Shamindra Ferdinando
Having decided to pursue a common strategy against the then government consequent to a series of talks with the JVP, President Chandrika Kumaratunga took over the Defence, Interior and Information portfolios and prorogued Parliament on Nov 4, 2003 till Nov. 19, 2003. Her action effectively scuttled the government’s budget scheduled to be presented on Nov. 12.
The President replaced Defence Secretary, Austin Fernando with one-time IGP, Cyril Herath. She also brought in Tilak Ranavirajah as Information Secretary in place of Kumar Abeysinghe besides a series of new appointments. Herath was the first retired policeman to function as the Defence Secretary.
In a recorded televised address to the nation, President Kumaratunga stressed her right to exercise the duties and responsibilities bestowed on her under the Constitution in the national interests.
The President made this unprecedented move in the wake of the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe agreeing to discuss an LTTE proposal for the setting up of an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA). It was the LTTE’s response to a power sharing plan offered by Wickremesinghe on July 17, 2003 after the group quit the negotiating table in April 2003.
But, much to the resentment of the JVP, President Kumaratunga used her address to the nation to reassure both the LTTE and Norway. She pledged to discuss with the LTTE what she described as ‘a just and balanced solution of the national problem, within the parameters of the unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka. The following day, presidential advisor, Lakshman Kadirgamar reiterated President Kumaratunga’s commitment to the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). On a presidential directive, then Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, too, assured the SLMM of the armed forces’ commitment to the CFA.
The President also extended an invitation to the UNP to join her to form a national government. The JVP and other nationalist groups felt that the President was using them to advance a political strategy of her own, which could seriously undermine their efforts to do away with the CFA. Much to the surprise of her partners, the President on Nov. 12, 2003 met then Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister, Vidar Helgessen, special envoy, Eric Solheim and Norwegian ambassador in Colombo, Hans Brattskar. Earlier in the day, the President and Prime Minister initiated a dialogue and pledged to continue it, thereby undermining her very own understanding with the JVP. (CBK in talks with Ranil, Norwegians to save peace bid –– The Island of Nov 13, 2003). They met again on Nov. 18, 2003 at President’s House, where Wickremesinghe repeated his invitation to the President to take over the peace process.
They agreed that a high powered committee should continue consultations with regard to the peace process. (Ranil renews call to CBK to take over peace process: Agreement on Committee for future working arrangements –– The Island of Nov 19, 2003).
The JVP and other nationalist groups felt let down. They alleged that the President had deviated from their plan and was now working overtime to pursue the Norwegian initiative. (President forced to change stance –– The Island of Nov 20, 2003). In fact, Wickremesinghe’s response took the President and his own party by total surprise.
Those who believed Wickremesinghe could give in to pressure by his party for a massive protest in Colombo against the suspension of Parliament reacted angrily as he invited Kumaratunga to lead the peace process. It was a political masterstroke by Wickremesinghe. The UNP leader enticed Kumaratunga with an opportunity to run the peace process. He derailed the JVP’s plan, thereby giving an unexpected boost to the Norwegian initiative. In fact, the suspension of Parliament created a situation conducive to the continuation of the peace process. But the LTTE continued its violence. It also demanded the implementation of the ISGA proposals. Had the LTTE renounced violence, adhered to the CFA and also acted responsibly as well as reasonably as regards the ISGA demand, it could have probably reached a tripartite agreement with the President and Prime Minister, under the auspices of the Norwegians. In spite of taking over the defence portfolio, the President continued to provide chopper rides to the LTTE. Although all expected the President to act against the LTTE, she adopted a conciliatory approach, much to the comfort of Western powers.
The EU threw its full weight behind the peace process by sending EU Commissioner in charge of External Relations, Chris Patten for talks in Colombo and Kilinochchi in late Nov 2003. The peace process was ready to take off again under Kumaratunga’s leadership. An irate JVP leadership lashed out at the SLFP again (JVP wants SLFP to come out clear –– The Island of Dec 3, 2003). The JVP, Sihala Urumaya and the Patriotic National Movement (PNM) lambasted the President for arranging an LTTE delegation to leave for South Africa in the wake of Rupavahini and Sri Lanka Telecom facilitating a live telecast of Prabhakaran’s ‘Maveear Day’ address to Europe. Rupavahini Chairman, Harin Peiris declared: "this particular facility was given as the UNP did in 2002. We didn’t want to turn down a request made by the Tamil Television Network (Nationalists rap President over live telecast-The Island Dec. 1, 2002 issue).
The JVP warned that if the ever tried to return the defence and interior ministry portfolios to Wickremesinghe to appease the international community, she would have to do so at the risk of being impeached. (Grounds for impeachment if CBK hands back defence –– JVP-The Island of Dec. 11, 2003). Addressing a public rally at the Kinniya Grand Mosque, SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem proposed that the President and the Prime Minister share the defence and interior portfolios. (Rauf wants CBK, Ranil share defence –– The Island of Dec 3, 2003).
A deeply troubled JVP called for an Indian intervention for a de-merger of the Eastern Province from the Northern Province, as army headquarters directed then Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka to take over the army Volunteer Force. Fonseka took over the new appointment on Dec 9, 2003 (Maj. Gen. Fonseka heads Army Volunteers –– The Island of Dec 12, 2003). In fact, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had repeatedly demanded the Sinha Regiment veteran’s removal from Jaffna to facilitate the peace process. Fonseka incurred the wrath of the UNP as well as the LTTE when he fiercely resisted a move to do away with high security zones in the peninsula, as long as the LTTE retained a long range artillery/mortar capability.
CBK buckles under pressure
However, the JVP launched a sustained campaign targeting the President. An influential section of the SLFP cooperated with the JVP as it strongly believed in calling for early general elections. They worked in unison until a reluctant President accepted the JVP move. The then JVP heavyweight, Wimal Weerawansa told a public rally in Trincomalee that the JVP and the SLFP were on the verge of forging an electoral pact in January 2004 (SLFP-JVP compromise on alliance – The Island of Jan 15, 2004).
Ousted Defence Minister, Tilak Marapone asserted that in spite of the President having the defence portfolio under her purview, she wouldn’t dare force the LTTE out of Manirasakulam and neutralise LTTE artillery positions south of Trincomalee harbour. Marapone also faulted the President for failing to protect Eastern Province Muslims (Marapone does not expect CBK to take on the LTTE –– The Island of Jan 16, 2004)
Meanwhile, Norway replaced Maj. Gen. Tryggve Tellefsen with Maj. Gen. Trond Furuhovde, the first head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) much to the delight of the President. Kumaratunga demanded Maj. Gen. Telefsen’s removal after the navy accused him of being biased towards the LTTE.
The SLFP and the JVP sealed their electoral pact on Jan 20, 2004, though they sharply differed on the most vital issue-the peace process and a settlement based on devolution of powers to the provinces. SLFP General Secretary, Maithripala Sirisena and JVP General Secretary, Tilvin Silva signed the agreement on behalf of their respective parties. Although the President and JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe didn’t participate at the ceremony at the BMICH, then Opposition Leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa, then considered an obstacle to such an agreement, was present on the occasion.
The SLFP-JVP pact didn’t discourage the President from giving chopper rides to the LTTE. On the other hand, the President continued a dialogue with the UNP through Mano Tittawella, who negotiated an agreement with Malik Samarawickrema, UNP Chairman and a staunch Wickremesinghe loyalist. The President felt that the peace process should be pursued and every effort made to engage the LTTE. She believed that Wickremesinghe had no alternative but to cooperate with her plan. The Prime Minister disagreed. He felt the President was trying to further her political interests.
On the midnight of Feb. 7, the President dissolved Parliament and announced Sri Lanka’s third general election in four years on April 2, 2004. Although the President opposed having an early general election, she ultimately gave in to the combined pressure of the JVP and a section of the SLFP, led by Anura Bandaranaike and Mangala Samaraweera. The President believed that the dissolution of Parliament should take place in January 2005.
According to SLFP General Secretary, Maithripala Sirisena, the JVP had a hidden agenda. Minister Sirisena’s claim should be examined having in mind The Island columnist, C. A. Chandraprema assertion: "Why Gotabhaya succeeded while everybody else failed, is because unlike al others, he had the fullest backing of his brother President Mahinda Rajapaksa. No other President would have taken the decision to go for a head on confrontation with the LTTE which was considered by many Western powers to be undefeatable. No other President would have taken the political risk of prosecuting a war considered to be unwinnable even by dominant sections of the local political establishment. No other President would have stayed the course so resolutely, despite setbacks on the military front and tremendous pressure coming from overseas. WITHOUT MAHINDA THERE WOULD HAVE BEEN NO DECISION TO WAGE WAR. WITHOUT GOTABHAYA, NO VICTORY (emphasis added) (Gota’s War: The Crushing of Tamil Tiger Terrorism in Sri Lanka).
According to SLFP General Secretary Sirisena, three days after the April 2, 2004 General Election, the JVP made its controversial move to sideline Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The UNP suffered a stunning defeat, with the UPFA winning 105 seats (including 13 National List) against the UNP’s 82 (11 National List). The UPFA tally included 39 seats for the JVP (3 National List). The TNA obtained 22 seats (2 National List). The JHU gained 9 (2 National List), the SLMC 5 seats (I National List), the EPDP 1 and the Up-country People’s Front, 1.
Having discussed cabinet appointments, particularly the post of the Prime Minister on April 4, 2004, JVP General Secretary, in a confidential missive to President Kumaratunga called for the appointment of National List MP Lakshman Kadirgamar as Prime Minister, though the vast majority of SLFPers backed Rajapaksa for the premiership.
The JVP emphasised that there couldn’t have been a better person than Kadirgamar for the premier’s post, particularly due to his international standing. The JVP also assured the President that the vast majority of Sinhala Buddhists would accept Kadirgamar as the premier. Minister Sirisena in his memoirs (Atthai Sattai) launched in the run-up to the last General Election in April 2010, revealed that the JVP recommended the late Anura Bandaranaike and him as prospective candidates for the premiership, if Kadirgamar was not acceptable, on the basis of his religious belief.
The JVP warned the President of dire consequences if she went ahead with cabinet appointments regardless of its recommendations.
The JVP reminded the President of the pivotal importance of having a loyal Prime Minister in view of the forthcoming constitutional amendments.
The President had inquired from the SLFP General Secretary about his opinion as regards the JVP’s push for Kadirgamar. The President had MP Sirisena flown from Polonnaruwa for a special meeting at President’s House, where he was asked to reveal his choice. The President had been in the company of Kadirgamar and Kusumsiri Balapatabendi, secretary to the President.
A surprised SLFP General Secretary was reluctant to respond to the query. Initially he had said that it was the President’s responsibility. When he was pressed for a direct answer, the SLFPer declared that the people expected Opposition Leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa to be appointed Premier. Sirisena said: "The President didn’t like my response. She was disturbed." He said an angry President asked how Mahinda could be appointed as 39-member JVP parliamentary group strongly opposed him.
Balapatabendi, too, had sided with Sirisena. Halfway during the discussion, Kadirgamar had walked out of the meeting, prompting the President to send Sirisena and Balapatabendi to Kadirgamar’s residence to discuss the issue further. The President finally agreed that Rajapaksa should be given appointed PM. The JVP gave up two of the five National List slots it was promised by the SLFP when the latter found it difficult to accommodate some of those assured of National List slots. Having failed to keep Mahinda Rajapaksa out of the PM’s office, the JVP entered into an uneasy relationship with him, though they gradually enhanced the association.