SPECIAL REPORT : Part 97November 10, 2015, 5:19 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Avant Garde controversy couldn’t have re-erupted again at a worse time for Sri Lanka and the ruling UNP-SLFP coalition. Leader of the Democratic Party and war winning Army Chief, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake with axes to grind tore apart the government over its failure to prosecute Avant Garde proprietor retired Army Commando Maj. Nissanka Senadhipathi. They directly accused Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, PC, and Law and Order and Prisons Reforms Minister Tilak Marapana, a former Attorney General of throwing their weight behind Senadhipathi’s outfit.
The split in the coalition which brought Maithripala Sirisena into power last January sent shock waves through the government as well as its international supporters. President Maithripala Sirisena acted swiftly to assert himself at the expense of the UNPers who ended up having egg on face.
In the wake of raging controversy, Marapana had no option but to quit the government to save the coalition. Having sent his letter of resignation to President Maithripala Sirisena, Marapana called a media briefing at his residence on Monday (Nov 8) where he reiterated that Avant Garde was a legitimate operation and the police cooked up a case to appease their new masters after the January 8 revolution. Marapana repeated that police action directed at Avant Garde was similar to police raid on a safe-house operated by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) at the Aturugiriya Millennium City in early January 2002. The then Defence Minister Marapana recalled the police mounting the raid on the basis of allegations that the DMI had conspired to assassinate UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. The DMI affair immensely contributed to the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga taking over three ministries, including defence portfolio in early November, 2003. Marapana was among those who were deprived of portfolio as a result.
The Avant Garde affair caused irreparable damage to the incumbent Attorney General as well with Field Marshal Fonseka repeatedly accusing the department of throwing a lifeline to the company under a cloud. Fonseka named AG Yuwanjana Wanasundera and Solicitor General Suhada Gamlath as the main culprits. The allegations made against them would have delighted those wanting to accommodate foreign judges and other international experts in the proposed war crimes court as envisaged by the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council.
Marapana wouldn’t have referred to the DMI affair had he not been certain it facilitated Kumaratunga’s move against the UNP. The November 2003 take-over of ministries in the wake of the LTTE quitting the Norwegian-led peace process in April same year finally led to the eelam war IV in August 2006. It would be pertinent to examine the DMI affair which shaped Sri Lanka’s response to terrorism.
In the run-up to the Dec 5, 2001 parliamentary polls, UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe alleged that the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) was planning to assassinate him. He claimed that the DMI was training Tamil terrorists at the Panaluwa Army Testing Range to mount an attack on his campaign bus, as well as his political rallies. The unprecedented allegation triggered hostilities between the then ruling People’s Alliance (PA) and the UNP, with the army placed in an extremely embarrassing position. The UPFA came into being ahead of the April 2004 parliamentary polls.
On the instructions of Wickremesinghe, the then UNP Chairman Charitha Ratwatte and Deputy Chairman Daya Palpola wrote a hard-hitting letter to the then Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle warning that he would be held responsible ‘in the event of an unfortunate incident’. The UNP duo accused the Army chief of training personnel to engage in a destabilization campaign against the UNP.
Having consulted the government, an irate Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Balagalle addressed a letter to Ratwatte and Palpola dismissing their accusations. The Island, in a front-page exclusive headlined ‘Army chief says no truth in UNP claims,’ in its Nov 11, 2001 issue revealed the exchange between army headquarters and the UNP headquarters, Sirikotha. The report was based on what Lt. Gen. Balagalle had told this writer the previous evening. The army chief, himself a one-time head of the DMI, said that there was absolutely no basis for the UNP allegation that a hit squad was undergoing training in the use of high explosives and thermobaric weapons.
The UNP ignored the army chief’s letter. The allegation was repeated throughout the campaign.
The UNP-led United National Front (UNF) emerged victorious with 109 seats, while the defeated PA managed to retain 77. The remaining seats were shared by the JVP (16), the TNA (15), the SLMC (5), the EPDP (2) and the DPLF (1). It was one of the bloodiest elections with the five-week of campaigning claiming the lives of almost 50 people, with the Dec. 5 massacre of a group of SLMC supporters at Udathalawinna being the single worst incident. The United National Front coalition government after assuming office ordered a raid on a safe house used by the DMI situated at Millennium City, Aturugiriya, in early Jan. 2002, which changed the course of the conflict. The UNF cited intelligence reports that Anuruddha Ratwatte’s sons wanted in connection with the Udathalawinna massacre were taking refuge at Aturugiriya.
Although the UNP subsequently played down the incident, it turned out to be one of the major political blunders in the conflict. It contributed to a deterioration of the security situation and thereby helped the CBK-JVP combine to undermine the UNF government. Finally President Kumaratunga took over three key ministries in Nov. 2003.
Had the UNP leadership been a little cautious, it would never have publicly accused the army of an assassination plot, Gen. Balagalle told The Island at that time.
Operating hit squads behind enemy lines had been a key element in the army’s strategy, Lt. Gen. Balagalle said, alleging the then Opposition had failed to grasp what was going on. He said: "Had they quietly raised the issue with us and sought a clarification without playing politics with national security, the Aturugiriya fiasco could have been averted. Even ex-LTTE cadres were brought in for those operations along with a valuable input from especially northern civilian informants. We were successful due to many reasons such as training from Pakistani instructors. We also accommodated troops from other fighting battalions to engage in operations behind the enemy lines, though the Special Forces and Army Commandos spearheaded the campaign."
The Aturugiriya raid ruptured relations between the UNP and the Army. It caused irreparable damage to national security and giving the PA an opportunity to undermine the UNF government.
At the behest of the UNP, a section of the media, including the Colombo-based correspondents working for international news agencies, highlighted the Aturugiriya raid speculating the army’s alleged involvement in anti-government activities. Investigating officers alleged that those based at Aturugiriya had been involved in the alleged attempt to assassinate Wickremesinghe in the run-up to the Dec 5 polls. Subsequently, they were accused of planning attacks in the city and suburbs to sabotage the Norwegian-led peace process.
The UNP allegations had the desired impact in the wake of state television showing recovered items, which included 66 sets of LTTE uniforms, four thermobaric weapons, seven claymore mines each weighing 10 kgs, 10 claymore mines, each weighing one kg each, three T-56 assault rifles along with 400 rounds of ammunition, 10 anti-tank weapons, detonators, cyanide capsules, exploders, remote controlled devices and wire rolls.
While a section of the media lashed out at the army, in a front-page exclusive captioned ‘Controversy over police raid on army officer’s Millennium City residence,’ on Jan 4, 2002, The Island revealed that a police team from Kandy led by UNP loyalist, Kulasiri Udugampola, had raided an army safe house. The police team was backed by a team of CCMP (Ceylon Corps of Military Police). In spite of the army strongly objecting to the police action, with both Lt. Gen. Balagalle and the then Director of DMI, Brigadier Kapila Hendarawithana (Subsequently Chief of National Intelligence, now retired) reassuring the government of the legitimacy of operations undertaken by the DMI, the police was let loose on covert operatives. In spite of Lt. Gen. Balagalle rushing Hendarawithana, who later figured in many controversies to the scene, SP Udugampola went ahead with the raid. He had obtained permission from courts to search the premises. Udugampola had the backing of the then Interior Minister, John Amaratunga. IGP Lucky Kodituwakku, though being convinced of the legitimacy of the DMI operation, was helpless.
The Kandy police raided the safe house shortly after the officer-in-charge of the DMI operation had handed over part of their arsenal. Those involved in the hit-and-run operations in LTTE held-areas had returned to Colombo on Dec 27, 2001 in the wake of the Wickremesinghe administration declaring its readiness to go ahead with a Norwegian initiative to bring about a truce. The Kandy police also accused the army of planting two claymore mines targeting a UNP candidate along the Wattegama-Panwila road, in the run-up to the Dec 5, 2001 polls.
The then security forces spokesman, Brig. Sanath Karunaratne emphasised that those operating from Aturugiriya were involved in ‘army duties’ (The Island Jan 4, 2002). Regardless of protests by the army, those arrested were taken away to the Narahenpita CMP headquarters before being transferred to Kandy. They were treated like criminals and held under humiliating conditions. Six of them, including an officer were held in one room. For two weeks, the media reported all sorts of conspiracy theories.
Those arrested were held for almost two weeks before being released. The police raid would never have been possible without an influential section within the army cooperating with the political establishment to undermine a vital operation, which brought the LTTE under immense pressure.
The UNP and the police justified Udugampola’s raid. Asked whether he had used the safe house to accommodate his sons, one-time Defence chief, the late Anuruddha Ratwatte, candidly acknowledged that he wasn’t even among those who knew of the existence of that particular rear base, though the army kept him informed of operations undertaken by the DMI. (Feb 1 issue of The Island, 2002)
Marapana thwarted an attempt by the Kandy police to prolong the detention of DMI operatives using the provisions of the PTA. The Wickremesinghe regime didn’t even bother to consult the armed forces and police top brass regarding the provisions of the PTA. Then Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri told the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) how the then government, had bypassed them with regard to sensitive military issues.
The UNP realised the importance of clandestine operations undertaken by the DMI when the CFA (Ceasefire Agreement) declared that ACTIVITIES BY DEEP PENETRATION UNITS should be ceased along with the cessation of all military action. The LTTE wouldn’t have demanded a ban on DMI operations unless it had been vulnerable to those hunting them in their own backyard. Obviously, the LTTE wouldn’t have bothered about the DMI had the latter been stalking Wickremesinghe in the run-up to Dec 2001 polls.
Retired Senior DIG Merril Gunaratne, who was Defence Advisor to Wickremesinghe during the CFA, exposed the UNP leadership in ‘COP IN THE CROSSFIRE.’ The first book of its kind, written by one-time Director General of Intelligence, revealed how the top UNP leadership has taken security issues lightly at the expense of the country as well as the party. Asked whether he had been involved in the operation to move the Kandy police against the DMI, Gunaratne told The Island some time back that he categorically opposed the move. "I was convinced the PA government wouldn’t target Wickremesinghe, thereby allowing the UNP to benefit from the sympathy vote. Unfortunately, the top UNP leadership felt the army was hell bent on destroying the UNP."
The Aturugiriya raid had a catastrophic impact on the armed forces, which experienced untold hardships due to miscalculations on the part of political and military leaders. Following the betrayal of the DMI, the LTTE unleashed a series of operations in the city, its suburbs and in the Eastern Province. Altogether, about 50 military personnel, Tamil informants as well as ex-terrorists, died at the hands of the LTTE as their identities were revealed owing to the raid on the army safe house. The dead included two senior military officers, both killed in Colombo. Although, the two military officials, holding the rank of Major and Colonel could have been on a hit list regardless of the Aturugiriya fiasco, the LTTE exploited the situation to demoralise the army. Daring operations directed at the DMI and police intelligence helped boost the LTTE’s image. The military was placed in an unenviable position as the suspension of the PTA effectively neutralised counter-measures directed at LTTE hit squads.
Inspector Dale Gunaratne (now retired), the then President of the Police Inspectors’ Association, was perhaps the only officer publicly critical of the UNP’s response to the LTTE threat. Although his superiors reacted angrily, Gunaratne lashed out at the government for allowing the LTTE to exploit the CFA to its advantage. Citing the killing of Inspector Thabrew at the Dehiwela police station, IP Gunaratne alleged that the suspension of the PTA in keeping with the CFA was nothing but a grievous threat to those fighting terrorism. He kept on lambasting the UNP and his own superiors for not taking action to neutralise the growing LTTE threat. But the UNP was determined to salvage the crumbling peace process at any cost. For those at the helm of the government, the lives of security forces and police didn’t matter, as long as they believed the LTTE would remain in the negotiating process. Politicians felt whatever the provocations, the peace process should continue.