Sunday, April 19, 2015

Trincomalee: April 19, 1995

The United States, and much of the rest of the world, will remember April 19, 1995, for the Oklahoma bombing, the single most devastating act of terrorism in the US soil before 9/11. But, Sri Lankans will remember that day for an even more heinous act. On that day, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) terrorists betrayed the trust and goodwill of the Sri Lankan government by violently breaking a ceasefire, restarting their separatist war.

It was five days after the traditional New Year. Sri Lankans had celebrated the first New Year in peace in many years. Peace between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had been established after the People’s Alliance (PA) won the general election in August 1994, ushering fresh hopes of reconciliation and lasting peace. The peace was fragile, yet it still held, until that quiet night on April 19, 1995.
Trincomalee and the environs (

Trincomalee is a large natural harbor valued by many nations, especially during the colonial times and the Cold War period. It was a strategic naval base during the Eelam Wars and was a principle target of the LTTE.

April 19, 1995, was another usual day. The night was quiet and peaceful. Sailors of two Sri Lanka Navy gunboats, SLNS Sooraya and SLNS Ranasuru, anchored in the Koddiyar Bay in Trincomalee may not have realized that this will be the last few moments of tranquility for years to come. At the middle of the night, death was stalking them. Some of them would not see the sun rising over the horizon again. Twelve sailors died in the attack.

The LTTE attack on the two gunships which claimed the valued lives of nearly 20 young men was the launch of the war after several months of peace. It shattered one of the main objectives of the PA government, which had come to power with promises of establishing a lasting peace. The LTTE did not formally pull out from the peace talks. Their way of leaving the peace process was through a treacherous attack on two navy ships at the dead of the night.

Sri Lankan people had been war weary for more than a decade. The war had brought unspeakable calamities to the island. Even in Colombo, one could not be certain of returning home safely. The war had claimed thousands of lives, including, as many suspected, the life of one President of the country. There was a need for a respite in all corners of the country, except in the minds of a few leaders of the LTTE.

By 1993, winds of change were blowing throughout the length and breadth of the political scope in Sri Lanka. The new political party, the PA, which was an alliance between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and four other left-wing parties, was offering a credible challenge to the United National Party government. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the daughter of two former Prime Ministers and the widow of a famous actor turned politician, was leading the alliance. She promised peace, a promise people in the north and the south embraced gladly.

The PA won the general election in August 1994 and formed a government, with Kumaratunga as Prime Minister. It initiated a peace process as well. Soon, it was the time for a presidential election. During the election campaign, the UNP candidate Gamini Dissanayake was assassinated on October 24, 1994. All fingers pointed towards the LTTE, despite the fact that a ceasefire was in force. This put Kumaratunga in a delicate position. On one hand, she could not act complacent as such an act would appear strange when an opposition politician had been assassinated. On the other hand, she did not want to alienate the LTTE. Therefore, she expressed the view that the LTTE cannot be put the blame on when its complicity was not yet proven. People refused to trust her explanation, but refused to abandon her peace process either.

The 1994 November Presidential Election saw a mandate for peace, when Prime Minister Kumaratunga swept the election with more than 62 percent of the votes. She attracted the support of a wide range of people. The election could not be held properly in much of the Northern Province where the LTTE controlled a large area. But where it was possible, the small numbers of people who casted their votes overwhelmingly chose Kumaratunga. She polled 96.35 percent of votes casted in Jaffna District (Turnout was just three percent). In Batticaloa District where the turnout was 65 percent, Kumaratunga received 87.3 percent of the votes polled.

It was with this mandate that the peace process was continued. Several rounds of peace talks were held, the Sri Lankan government usually being open to the conditions put forward by the LTTE. Warning calls were too weak and far between and the people were not ready to heed them either. Although the LTTE was known to have broken agreements before, the government decided to trust its intent. The fact that the LTTE was just repeating its tactic of buying time became apparent only when it launched the attack on Trincomalee.

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