As AirLanka’s state of the art A 340 began its descent over the moonlit, calm blue waters, the sight of burning lights at Hulule International Airport bewildered the group of French tourists on board.
Many wondered whether it was a hallucination. It was only hours earlier they had left the Maldivian capital after a holiday, basking in the sun, swimming, snorkelling and scuba diving in some of the liveliest tourist resorts. They were now home bound and had arrived only last Saturday evening to board the pre-dawn Sunday AirLanka flight UL 557 to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.
But barely an hour after they were airborne, flight UL 557 was touching down in Male. The mystery baffled them but inside the cockpit Captain Milinda Ratnayake, AirLanka’s Chief Pilot and crew were busy. For air traffic controllers at the Hulule Control Tower, it was a very unusual hour to be hugging their microphones. They cleared UL 557 for touch down and gave instructions to taxi towards a well secured parking apron. Besides Captain Ratnayake, Captain Chira Fernando, was also on board as relief pilot. Men of the Maldivian National Security Service (NSS) the single national security arm of the Maldives, had many hours earlier ringed the airport the only gateway to the world from the Republic. Some were manning anti aircraft and other gun positions that surround the runway or adjoin the single storey terminal building. Hulule Interantional Airport is located just minutes from the capital.
Other NSS men in olive green stood guard outside the green camouflaged Sri Lanka Air Force Hawker Siddley HS 748 AVRO that lay parked on the apron.
The mystery of the UL 557 flight to Male began to unfold minutes after the cabin doors of the first class compartment flung open. A truck drove up to link the ramp. Sri Lankan security men in blazers ran up the steps to ensure all was okay in the well laid out first class cabin.
Ascending the stairs thereafter was none other than Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, President of Sri Lanka. Those were her first steps in the journey last week to France, the first ever by an executive President from Sri Lanka. Flight UL 557 that pre dawn Sunday took off to Paris from Male instead of Colombo.
And for some 120 French tourists who said goodbye to Male earlier that evening and arrived in Colombo, had an unsolicited free return to the Maldives. Many wished they could have boarded UL 557 in Male and saved the cost of a ticket and some precious time. But top secret security measures make no room for such fancies. And this was one such instance.
President Kumaratunga flew into Male that Sunday evening by the Sri Lanka Air Force AVRO from Ratmalana. At the controls was veteran airman, Group Captain C.T. Gunawardena, from SLAF’s Number Two Squadron.
Earlier that Sunday evening President Kumaratunga flew from the city to Ratmalana airport by an SLAF helicopter. She was accompanied by three security aides. From there the AVRO flight began on Sunday night.
Hours before she left the city, top secret instructions had been issued to flight crew of UL 557. After they were airborne, they were to head to Male to pick up a VIP team and proceed to Paris. When the A 340 Airbus touched down at Hulule, other members of President Kumaratunga’s entourage were already on board. Before crack of dawn, the Presidential party was airborne to Paris.
Captain Ratnayake guided flight UL 557 from Male through Sri Lanka flight information region, reported to Colombo airways and headed non stop to Paris for a touch down in frosty weather.
Last week, officials in Sri Lanka’s defence establishment, were taking no chances with President Kumaratunga’s security. The security apparatus responsible for her safety and for that matter, the country’s entire security mechanism, were on an unprecedentedly high level of alert.
The reason - the LTTE was observing the so-called “national heroes” days for three days from November 25 to 27. The event, according to LTTE, is timed to coincide with the death of its first guerrilla, “Lt. Shankar” on November 27, 1982, after he was fatally wounded during an Army search operation. Intelligence authorities note that November 20 to 27 is observed as “National Heroes Week.”
Adding greater weightage to the event this year, were a string of reports made to the Government by the former Director of Military Intelligence (DMI), Brigadier Chula Seneviratne (now deputy GOC of the Army’s 54 division in the north) in August and September, this year, that the LTTE had vowed to re-capture the peninsula before November 27, the last day of “national heroes week.” The warnings came amidst reports of moves by LTTE to smuggle shiploads of military hardware into the country.
And in the recent weeks the National Intelligence Bureau learnt of reportedly elaborate plans by the LTTE to attack some specific targets in the city. Among those identified were, the Twin Towers (Colombo’s tallest edifice), the port and Telecommunication Headquarters.
Joint Army, Navy and Air Force teams were deployed to beef up the already heavy security in the city and suburbs. Additional police strength was drawn into the city from the provinces. An unusually large number of policemen were deployed in plain clothes on the streets, near schools, public buildings, VIP residences and security installations. Armed Police parties were ready on hand in every police station to move into any area from where trouble was reported.
The tri services and police search parties set up surprise road blocks and conducted searches in various parts of the city. More than 200 persons were arrested on suspicion and the process will continue for some more weeks.
During November, last year, the LTTE triggered off a few incidents. Security officials took a cue from this to plan out preventive measures this year. On November 11, last year, LTTE suicide bombers exploded a bomb at the entrance to Army Headquarters in Colombo. At the same time, a female suicide bomber exploded herself outside the Kompannaveediya (Slave Island) railway station. A week later, on November 18, last year, Tiger guerrillas shot down an SLAF Y8 aircraft when it was making its landing approach over the sea to touch down in Palaly.
Weeks before the heroes week arrived, a countrywide hype had already been created by wide publicity to the event. Railway authorities cancelled the night mail train from Colombo to Badulla. Front page news reports said the move was the result of fears of a guerrilla attack. High ranking Transport Ministry officials confirmed there were threats of an attack. According to NIB sources, there was intelligence of LTTE plans to blow up the rail track on the Trincomalee line somewhere at Palampattaru. Following this information, the Police warned Railway authorities to take additional security precautions. That was how the cancellation came.
But the references in the news items that the cancellations were caused by fears of a guerrilla attack only went to contribute to public fears. It was only five days later that the Ministry of Defence issued a statement to say “that the cancellation or curtailment of night mail trains was not on the advice or instructions of the Ministry.”
In the absence of any positive public assurances, public fears led to many avoiding the city last week. Traffic Police officials said traffic flow was much less last week and city streets resembled conditions that prevailed on a holiday. There were many business houses in the suburbs that did not send their men to the city. One leading vegetable vendor in Nugegoda said he could not replenish his stocks since he did not want to travel to Pettah last week.
The so called “heroes week” also coincides with LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday on November 26. The high level security alert and the slowing down of normal life made one security official to wryly remark “it seems the whole country is observing that b...’s birthday.”
Security authorities did not take lightly the radio intercept of LTTE communications last week. When instructions went out from one base last week asking cadres to ensure that they (and the public) light lamps at the auspicious hour of 6.07 p.m. This was two minutes after their leader, Prabhakaran delivered his “annual address to the nation.” According to LTTE, “traditionally his speech concludes at 6.05 p.m. immediately after which all places of worship in Tamil Eelam sound their bells for one minute.” At 6.07 p.m. flames are lit at “national heroes” burial grounds and other public places. The public who are unable to attend are ordered to light lamps from their homes.
Radio intercepts of these conversations prompted the authorities to suspect whether the instructions were codes for carrying out attacks. But with the week passing off with no incidents, there was a sigh of relief. Senior security officials say that the tight security precautions will however, continue.
Prabhakaran’s “address”, the text of which was distributed by the LTTE’s Secretariat in London, underscores the group’s official stance to the current developments in the ongoing separatist war. Here are some excerpts.
“It is on this day we venerate and pay our respects to our heroes who adorn our temple of freedom as thousands of shining flames of liberty.
“Today is not a day of mourning to weep for the dead nor a sad day to plunge into sorrow. Today is the sacred day of our martyrs.
“Today we remember and venerate our fighters in our hearts who have sacrificed their precious lives for a noble cause. Today we salute them for their heroism and supreme sacrifice.
“The price we pay for our liberation in terms of great sacrifices is invaluable. The sacrifices made by our heroes for the cause of our people to live with dignity and sovereignty are unparalleled in the history of the world. An epic of heroism unique in history has been created on our soil.
“The freedom struggle of the Tamils has been a raging inferno for a long time. Several forces have joined hands with our enemy in a continuous effort to extinguish this fire of freedom. As a consequence, we have been facing various crises and set-backs at different times. We are compelled to struggle alone against formidable forces without support or assistance from anywhere. Therefore, the price we pay for our freedom is immense. It is our martyrs who have paid with their lives to protect and preserve the flame of national freedom. During our long journey towards liberation we have crossed rivers of fire. It is our commitment to the cause that sustained us during these violent upheavals. The cause we have charted to fight for the right to self-determination of our people is right, fair and just. From the beginning up to now, we are resolutely committed to our cause. Our cause is our towering strength. It is because of our firm commitment to our cause we have our importance, individuality and history.
“The higher ideals of other Tamil groups could not withstand the political upheavals that swept Tamil Eelam. But no force could break our will.
“We are now facing a new challenge, a new war of aggression. Our historical enemy, Sinhala Buddhist Chauvinism, has taken institutional form in the guise of Chandrika’s regime and has been conducting a genocidal war against the Tamil nation. Having mobilised the full military might of the Sinhala nation, it has occupied the historical lands of the Tamils in the North.
“The central strategic objective of this aggressive war was to destroy the military strength of the LTTE by utilising several divisions of troops and massive fire power. But the Sinhala army has failed to achieve this military objective.
“From the beginning we realised the Government of Chandrika would not do justice to the Tamils nor would it resolve the Tamil national problem. We were deeply dismayed when her Government adopted an intransigent and bellicose attitude during peace talks with the LTTE. The talks ended inconclusively when the Government refused to grant even meagre concessions to the urgent day-to-day needs of the Tamils and gave primacy to the interests of the military establishment. Since the Government believed in military supremacy, in military approaches and in a military solution, it did not treat the peace talks seriously and deliberately created conditions for the failure of the negotiating process. From the beginning until today the deepest aspiration of the Government is to achieve military hegemony in the Tamil homeland and to subjugate the Tamils under military domination.
“This approach pre-dominated by militarism and chauvinism has complicated the ethnic conflict and firmly closed the doors for peace. It has aggravated the armed conflict. It has seriously disrupted the Sri Lankan economy. In totality, Chandika’s Government has been caught up in an insurmountable crisis.
“The international community is now beginning to realise that Chandika’s “war for peace” is not only destroying the Tamil national life but also plunging the entire island into a major catastrophe. To distract the world’s criticism from her hard-line military approach and for the escalation of the war, Chandrika is sending peace signals. While issuing statements that she is prepared for talks with the LTTE through third party mediation, she has also laid down ridiculous conditions that we should surrender arms before talks. No liberation movement with self-respect could accept such humiliating conditions.
“Having unleashed an intense propaganda campaign categorising our liberation movement as a “terrorist” organisation and our freedom struggle as “terrorism” this Government is making every effort to ban our organisation locally and abroad. Furthermore, the Government is making massive military preparations to escalate the war and issuing statement that the LTTE would be wiped out within next year. In these circumstances, we have grave doubts about Chandrika’s peace gesture.
“We are not opposed to peace, nor are we opposed to a resolution of the conflict by peaceful means. We want an authentic peace, a true, honouralbe, permanent peace, a condition in which our people can live with freedom and dignity in their own land without external coercion determining their own political life. We have grave doubts whether the forces of Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism will allow such a peaceful life to the Tamil people.
“The Government may entertain a notion that it has gained military hegemony by the occupation of Tamil lands and that this position could be used as a mode of pressure to its advantage in the peace talks. As far as we are concerned, peace talks under such conditions cannot be free and equal. We cannot expect justice from a Government that attempts to barter the rights of our people with military power as its trump card. It is for this reason, we want peace talks to be held in a congenial environment free from the pressure of military aggression. Our position is that political negotiations should be preceded by creating conditions for de-escalation, withdrawal of troops and normalcy. We are prepared to talk and reach an agreement on these issues.
“We do not expect Chandrika’s Government to accept our just position. For years the forces of Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism believed in and practised a policy of military domination and oppression. Chandrika’s regime too, is functioning under the shadow of military power. Therefore we have serious doubts whether Chandrika’s Government will give up the policy of military domination and resolve the conflict on the basis of moral power and justice.
“We cannot gain our rights by pleading with the Sinhala rulers. We must fight and win our rights. History has not recorded any liberation struggle that has won without fighting, without bloodshed, without death and destruction, without sacrifices.”
The birthday proclamations by Prbhakaran in the years earlier had an echo of promise, as they were voiced when he had the control of the Jaffna peninsula and its people. In contrast, his pronouncement this year from the isolation of his Wanni jungle base, forced out from the peninsula, the heartland of the Eelam ethos, rings rhetorically hollow. The comparison emphasises the reality that it is the population and their will that is what matters. In this context all words, however profound, remain rhetoric unless and until meaningfully translated into action.
As much as the words by Prabhakaran in the prevailing situation sounds somewhat empty, so will the promises of Government unless the measures to restore normalcy are timely and meaningful. Towards that end the restitution of civil administration and political institutions are essential. To keep the people in the doldrums without leaders of their choice is to keep a door open for alternate options. And Prabhakaran is knocking on the door. Timely action even if only a little is progressive and a whole lot better than too little too late.Go to the Defence Column