Cyanide Drama: Referee Rajiv fought my battle
By Sugeeswara Senadhira
October 1987 was the most crucial period in Sri Lanka’s battle against terrorism unleashed by the LTTE. The arrest of 17 top Tiger cadres by the Navy off Jaffna on 2 October 1987 led to 3-years of fighting between the Indian Peace Keeping Army and the LTTE.
It is of interest to recall this suspense-filled incident today when certain pro LTTE hardliners are attempting to glorify LTTE terrorism by erecting a statue of LTTE cadre Thileepan who died after undertaking a fast against the IPKF. This attempt is seen as the first step to revive the gruesome terrorist outfit, which was crushed in 2009.
Many, including former President J.R. Jayewardene, shared the opinion that the turning point was the arrest and subsequent suicide of the 17 LTTE members including two area commanders, Pulendran and Kumarappa in October 1987. Referring to this, after his retirement in 1993, President Jayewardene said in an interview given to this correspondent, “The referee Rajiv entered the ring to fight my battle.”
Inside facts of that interesting ‘cyanide drama’ were never disclosed. After talking to many people including LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham and Dilip Yogi, the I.P.K.F Jaffna Commander, General Rodriguez and senior Sri Lankan military officers including Army Commander General Hamilton Wanasinghe and Jaffna Commander Brigadier Jayantha Jayaratne, officials and National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, I managed to piece together and link up the story which is as follows.
My article on this episode was published in the Sunday Times with the title, ‘The cyanide drama that brought ‘referee Rajiv’ into the ring’, on
1 October 1989 and it was re-published as ‘Appendix II’ in the famous book, “Broken Palmyra’. Following are the excerpts from that article:
On 2 October 1987, the Sri Lanka Navy received a tip off about a boat that might be carrying arms seen in the Palk Straits. According to Navy sources, the tip came from the IPKF, a naval patrol craft was dispatched to the area. The Navy men saw a fast boat trying to cross over to Sri Lankan shores. They gave chase and caught up with it. When they approached the boat the sailors saw the mounted gun and realised it was a vessel carrying LTTE militants. When the people in the boat were ordered to surrender, they did so without a fight.
Prize catch massacred 126 civilians
But the Navy were unaware they had caught a prize catch until they brought the prisoners and the huge stock of arms found in the boat to the Kankesanturai port. There Pulendran was recognised by a soldier as the LTTE Trinco Commander, the very same dreaded terrorist leader Pulendran who together with a group of guerrillas stopped two buses at Kithulotuwa in Habarana and massacred 126 civilians.
Pulendran along with Kumarappa, the leader for Batticaloa plus the rest of the cadres were handed over to the local commander of the Army, Brigadier Jayantha Jayaratne. The prisoners were frisked and their cyanide capsules removed. According to Dilip Yogi, the Tigers did not protest, they thought they would be released because of the prevailing general amnesty.
Brigadier Jayaratne (later promoted to the rank of Major General who died in October 1988) immediately informed his superiors and was told that a special plane would be sent to bring them to Colombo. By then, the LTTE had come to know about the arrest of their colleagues and demanded the IPKF Commander, General Rodriguez, to get them released since the Government of Sri Lanka had granted a general amnesty to LTTE militants.
General Rodriguez asked Brigadier Jayaratne to either release them or hand them over to the IPKF’s charge. After speaking to Colombo, Jayaratne informed his Indian counterpart that the prisoners would be sent to Colombo. But he agreed to allow a few LTTE leaders, including their theoretician Dr. Anton Balasingam, to visit the prisoners.
The IPKF chief wanted to keep some Indian soldiers to guard the LTTE, Brigadier Jayaratne agreed to allow the Indians to stand about 10 yards behind the Lankan troops guarding the prisoners.
Within a short time, more than 3,000 women and children arrived at the Palali camp, demonstrated and demanded the release of the 17 prisoners.
Rodriguez walked into Brigadier Jayaratne’s makeshift office at Palali and once again demanded the release of the Tigers. “If you try to take them to Colombo, the demonstrators will forcefully enter the camp. How can we control them? We can’t shoot women and children.” he argued. Jayaratne explained that he had to obey orders.
When he went to the hanger to ask the Tigers to board the plane, he was in for surprise. The 17 LTTE men took out cyanide capsules and warned they would swallow them if there was an attempt to take them to Colombo. The cyanide capsules were passed on to them by the LTTE leaders who had visited them. Jayaratne reported the latest development to Colombo but was instructed to send the 17 militants to Colombo at once.
As soon as Jayaratne replaced the receiver, the IPKF commander walked in again and said, “Don’t send them to Colombo. If they die there will be a bloodbath.” Jayaratne replied “No I have my orders. I have to send them to Colombo.”“You may have your order but you are the man on the spot. It is your responsibility to avoid any step which could have disastrous consequences,” Rodriguez argued.
When Jayaratne refused to change his decision, Rodriguez asked him to delay the departure of the plane by 12 hours. “Dixit (Indian High Commissioner) is in Delhi now and he is expected to land at Katunayake at 5 p.m today. He can drive to the President’s house and obtain an order from President Jayewardene for the prisoners to be handed over to the IPKF”
When Jayaratne refused to budge, Rodriguez tried to bully him. “I will not allow your plane to take off with the prisoners. I’ll order BMPs (armoured cars) on to the runaway”, he threatened.
“I’ll shoot your BMPs sir”, retorted Brigadier Jayaratne.
However, Jayaratne phoned Colombo again and made another attempt to which the reply he got was, “If you don’t send the prisoners to Colombo within the next two hours, you hand over your charge to your second-in-command and come to Colombo under arrest.” (This was the order given by Minister Lalith Athulathmudali).
Jayaratne selected 34 of his strongmen and told them to rush into the hanger when they received his signal and prevent the Tigers from taking cyanide. He kept the doctors, ambulances and stomach pumps ready.
He then walked into the hanger with his soldiers. But they could not stop the Tigers from biting into the capsules. Pulendran, Kumarappa and seven others died immediately, four died in the hospital and four were saved.
Within a week, a bloody fight broke out between the LTTE and the IPKF resulting in the death of over 1500 Indian soldiers and thousands of LTTE cadres and many civilians.