Opportunity for deployment under UN command as STF celebrates 40th anniversary

- island.lk

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Having received its baptism of fire, within months of formation, in early 1983, the police para-military arm, the elite Special Task Force (STF), is now ready to serve under the UN command, in the near future.

The UN deployment is a much desired achievement in the wake of it celebrating 40 years of dedicated service to the nation having sacrificed much by its heroic members.

Well over a decade after the successful conclusion of the war, the STF is now engaged in peacetime duties. Incumbent STF Commandant, Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Waruna Jayasundara, says they are ready for deployment in any part of the world.

Jayasundara, who had served the STF for many years, received the top post, in June 2020, several months after the last presidential election.

Established on March 01, 1983, with a group of 60 personnel, the STF received the leadership of late Senior DIG Bodhi Liyanage, the first Commandant, and was followed by DIG Dharmasiri Weerakoon, Senior DIG Zerney Wijesuriya, late DIG Lionel Karunasena, late DIG Nimal Gunathilleke, SDIG Nimal Lewke, DIG K.M.L. Sarathchandra, DIG R.W.M.C. Ranawana, DIG J.K.R.A. Perera, Senior DIG M.R. Latiff and DIG Lionel Gunathilleke.

Having played a low-key role, during the unprecedented political-economic-social crisis that forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of the office of executive president, the STF now faces the unenviable challenging task of countering organized political groups pushing for political reforms.

With trade unions affiliated to various political parties, as well as professional bodies, such as the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA), threatening to cripple the government over the new tax regime, law enforcement authorities are certain to come under pressure. The STF will have to throw its weight behind the police, pressed into tackling the Opposition challenge.

Tackling political dissent is a challenging task, especially at a time restrictions cannot be imposed on the media. Privately owned print and electronic, as well as uncontrollable social media, pose quite a challenge as the slightest excesses,on the part of law enforcers, are certain to reach the public.

The formation of the STF, originally called Special Striking Force, during the JRJ administration, was meant to meet the growing threat, posed by Indian trained terrorists. JRJ gave the go ahead, following recommendations made by a committee, headed by one-time Minister J.W. Subasinghe, and the late President’s son, Ravi Jayewardene, an ex-military man, too, played a major, but an unassuming role, mostly behind the scene, in its infancy, as the then National Security Advisor. It would be pertinent to mention that in spite of the JVP-led 1971 insurgency, those responsible for national security didn’t form a specialized unit, within the police, to meet any eventuality.

The formation of the STF took place four months before the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) triggered the first Eelam War, with the killing of 13 soldiers at Thinnaveli, Jaffna. In Sept. 1984, the STF suffered a demoralizing setback when the LTTE planted landmine claimed the lives of four police commandos. The blast on the Point Pedro –Valvettiturai road also wounded nine other STF men.

Those who volunteered to join the SSF/STF were, initially, trained at Katukurunda and at the Army Combat Training School, Ampara, by instructors, led by the then Maj. Ananda Weerasekera, elder brother of parliamentarian Sarath Weerasekera, who served the Navy during a turbulent period, before retirement in the rank of Rear Admiral, and Maj. S. Manawadu. Ananda Weerasekera retired from the Army after rising to the rank of Major General and later ordained as Ven. Buddhangala Ananda Thera. The Ven. Thera passed away in late Dec 2021.

Tikkam blast

Their initial deployment covered Point Pedro, Velvettiturai and Kankesanturai and the gradual expansion cannot be discussed without deliberating the role played by the then National Security Advisor, Ravi Jayewardene.

Sri Lanka obtained ex-Special Air Services (SAS) personnel via Keenie Meenie Services (KMS), one of the first British mercenary companies to prepare the STF for the battles ahead. In the wake of the Tikkam blast, the STF was re-deployed in the Eastern Province.

SSF personnel initially used SLR rifles, though they gradually acquired a range of new weapons to meet the ever increasing threat. Among the weapons were US manufactured M 16 and German Heckler and Koch. They also acquired a range of mortars, including 120 mm used by the SLA.

The British personnel imparted their knowledge and expertise on a range of subjects, including tactics adopted by anti-riot squads, weapons training, firing practices, counter terrorism search, handling explosives, mapping, use of compass and first aid.

During the Eelam War I (the period before the deployment of the Indian Army in the Northern and Eastern regions), the STF dominated theEastern Batticaloa and Ampara districts. In terms of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, that had been forced on Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan military, the police and its para-military arm were confined to barracks. By the time, India quit Sri Lanka mission, in March 1990, the LTTE was prepared to launch Eelam War II. Fighting re-erupted in the second week of June 1990. During the IPKF deployment, the STF joined the other services, and the police, in fighting the second JVP-led insurrection.

The STF went flat out against the JVP and the reports of excesses during that period hadn’t been denied.

The Bolgoda Lake killings during the Kumaratunga presidency were nothing but a black mark on the STF.

‘Bolgoda killings’ caused irreparable damage to the STF’s reputation in the mid-1990s, when some officers and men were found guilty of extra-judicial killings in the city and its suburbs. During Eelam War IV, an ‘STF operation’ in Trincomalee, too, brought disrepute to the force, though overall it has been a well-disciplined unit.

In response to the LTTE threat, at the onset of Eelam War II, the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s government launched military operations. In line with the overall counter-terrorist strategy, the STF was tasked with regaining the Ampara and Batticaloa districts. The STF achieved the challenging task, within months. In the post-IPKF era, the military and the STF faced the battle hardened LTTE that received tremendous boost, by way of experience gained by confronting the mighty Indian Army and the free flow of weapons from abroad. By then, all other Indian trained groups, including the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), responsible for Nov. 1988 abortive bid to oust the then Maldivian President, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, had given up terrorism. Only the LTTE remained committed to the macabre Eelam project. By 1993, the military and the STF cleared the East to enable the conduct of the Local Government polls.

The LTTE, on May Day 1993, delivered a stunning blow to the STF by mounting suicide attack on President Ranasinghe Premadasa. The LTTE cleverly infiltrated Premadasa’s security contingent and the STF cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for the unprecedented security lapse, whatever the political environment security chiefs had to work in. During Premadasa’s honeymoon (May 1989-June 1990) with the LTTE, the STF provided security to members of the LTTE delegation. The writer, during this period, met the late Anton Balasingham at the Hilton. There were STF personnel outside Balasingham’s room.

When Eelam War II erupted in the second week of June, 1990, the STF had to escort a small group of LTTE personnel, from the Colombo Hilton to the Ratmalana air base. They were then airlifted to Palaly and allowed to leave the base safely as Premadasa and his chief negotiator, the late A.C.S. Hameed, made a desperate bid to bring the LTTE back to the negotiating table.

With emergence of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, as the Prime Minister, and then President, in late 1994, the government entered into fresh round of negotiations. Following a 100-day truce, fighting erupted in late April 1995 with the sinking of two Navy gunboats, at the Trincomalee harbour, and shooting down of Avro aircraft, with heat-seeking missiles, as they were approaching the Palaly airbase. The LTTE made some rapid progress in the Eelam War II, though it couldn’t sustain the tempo. In the East, the LTTE stepped up pressure on STF detachments at Tikkodai, Porativu, and Ambalanturai. In Dec. 1996, the LTTE forced the STF out of its Pulukunawa detachment. In one of the fiercest attacks, faced by the STF, the combined STF-Army contingent, deployed at Pulukunawa, failed to thwart the multi-pronged attack. The LTTE captured some arms and ammunition, including artillery pieces. However, those who vacated the base, with the arrival of reinforcements, fought back to regain the Pulukunawa detachment, within 24 hours.

In 1997, the STF expanded its deployment to the Vanni region. That year, the Army, engaged in Operation ‘Jayasikurui’, suffered devastating losses in the Vanni theatre after making vast advances. After a series of heavy defeats, in the Northern Province, and an abortive bid to assassinate Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the President and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, by the terrorists, the UNP regained power, at the parliamentary polls, conducted in Dec. 2001. The stage was set for another round of talks with the LTTE, with the signing of the virtually one-sided Ceasefire Agreement, drawn up by the Norwegians.

When Eelam War IV erupted, in June 2006, the STF was asked to launch operations in support of the overall combined security forces campaign in the East. The STF played a critically important role, during Eelam War IV.

During the 40 years of service to the nation, the STF lost 464 officers and men in the line of duty, while 774 were wounded. Six of its civilian employees also died during this period.

The number of dead and wounded, suffered by the STF, when compared with the SLA, may seem insignificant, though the contribution made by the unit to defeating terrorism was DEFINITELY NOT. The SLA lost 6,000 officers and men during Eelam War IV alone, while some 27,000 received injuries.

Post-war responsibilities

Following the successful conclusion of the conflict, the elite unit received greater responsibility in fighting illicit narcotic trade and organized crime, regular law enforcement, high profile/high risk arrests, protection of radioactive materials deployed across the country, responses to crisis, VVIP Security, search and bomb disposal, fire and rescue in expressways and enforcement of the law with regard to the offenses related to the environment.

The STF faces daunting challenge in preserving the experience gained in counter-insurgency operations in the South (1987-1990) and combat operations in the Eastern Province. With the government recently declaring its intention to gradually cut the strength of the Army to 100,000 by 2030, after reducing the numbers to 135,000 by next year, an assessment is also likely as regards the STF. Currently, the STF consists of nearly 8,000 officers, and men, deployed across the country, including Jaffna.

It would be the responsibility of both political and military leadership to maintain the overall capabilities of the armed forces and the police. There cannot be any dispute over the need to reduce the number of men, under arms, as Sri Lanka struggles to cope up in an extremely rough economic crisis. The peacetime political-economic-social crisis has placed the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government, with pressure being exerted on all sectors, to cut down on expenditure. However, it would be a grave mistake, on the part of the incumbent administration, to deprive the armed forces and law enforcement the wherewithal to maintain peace and, particularly, the strength to face future challenges.

The continuing debate over the granting of police and land powers to the provinces, in terms of 13th Amendment to the Constitution, enacted in late 1987, has not so far touched the fate of the STF, in case full implementation of the controversial piece of legislation, which Sri Lanka was forced to adopt, becomes a reality. As the STF, too, comes under the Inspector General of Police what would be the destiny of the para-military armm, in the event the police deployment, in the provinces, come under respective Chief Ministers.

STF Commandant DIG Waruna Jayasundara

Subsequent to the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), in late Feb. 2002, the LTTE launched a series of protests, targeting security forces bases, and police stations, in the then temporarily merged Northern and Eastern Province.

Close on the heels of the attack on the Valaichenai police station, the LTTE targeted an isolated base, held by the elite Special Task Force (STF), at Kanjirankudah, south of Batticaloa. Several hundred civilians launched a protest campaign, on Oct. 9, 2002, shortly after an incident involving STF personne, and two LTTE cadres, M. Visuvanathan, in charge of Pottuvil, and Christy Rajah. The LTTE exploited the situation to launch the protest. The LTTE used civilians as a human shield to move into the detachment, though the STF fired warning shots into the air. But, once the STF realized the LTTE’s strategy, the commandos opened fire, killing several persons. Protesters fled carrying the dead and the wounded. The STF recovered seven bodies. Of them, two were identified as Vijayaprakash and Nagarasa. To the surprise of many, Vijayaprakash was identified as one of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), but released consequent to the CFA.

At the behest of the LTTE, students and their parents stormed the Point Pedro Brigade headquarters, on Sept. 2, 2002, and the Valaichenai police station, on Oct. 1, 2002, inflicting considerable damage on those facilities. The LTTE obviously felt that a sustained protest campaign, directed at the troops and the police, deployed therein, in the wake of Pongu Thamil rallies, would undermine the government’s authority. Instead of taking effective counter measures to control the situation, the then government brought pressure to bear on the media not to highlight the deteriorating situation.

The government restricted the issuing of daily situation reports, and went to the extent of censoring situation reports, issued by the military. The government’s response should be examined, taking into consideration the circumstances under which the police raided the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) safe house, at Aturugiriya, on the ridiculous allegation the Army, with the involvement of ex-LTTE cadres, planned to assassinate Prime Minister Ranil Wckremesinghe, during the 2001 general election campaign.

Although the STF’s response to the LTTE threat to its camp, at Kanjirankudah, it helped the government to stabilize the situation. Tamil civilians resisted LTTE attempts to use children in protests. The government gave an interesting twist to the Kanjirankudah incident. It alleged that the Presidential Security Division (PSD) had been involved in the attack, prompting both the President’s Office and the PSD to issue statements.

The then PSD head, DIG N. K. Illangakoon, a former Deputy Commandant of the STF (he later served as IGP) said that his officers hadn’t even visited the base, ahead of the incident. Shortly after the incident, the government appointed the then SSP Nimal Lewke, the Deputy Commandant of the STF as the senior officer in charge of its personnel deployed in the Ampara-Batticaloa.

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