Saturday, March 18, 2017

How Sri Lankan Militants Tried To Topple The Maldives Government In ’88

There is a Maldivian legend about a Sri Lankan prince named KoiMalé who was marooned in a Maldivian lagoon with his wife, the daughter of a Sinhalese king, and who then went on to rule the nation as its first Sultan in the 12th century AD. Nearly 800 years later, a group of Sri Lankan mercenaries, armed to the teeth, would attempt to help unseat the then Maldivian president in a coup d’état that has now become something of a legend of its own. This is the story of their bold but ultimately futile attempt.

A Plot Is Hatched

It was 1988. Less than a year had passed since the Indo-Sri Lanka accord was signed and the 80,000 strong Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) had made its way to Sri Lanka. In the northern parts of the island, battle was raging between the IPKF and the LTTE, and tensions were rising in the South. A thousand kilometres away, a Maldivian businessman named Abdullah Luthifi had hatched a plot to overthrow the dictatorial government of President Abdul Gayoom in what he hoped would be a bloodless coup. To this end, he sought the help of a group of Sri Lankan Tamil militants known as the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), led by the enigmatic Uma Maheswaran.
On November 3, 1988, some 80 heavily armed PLOTE cadres along with Luthifi and another Maldivian national reached the shores of Malé by fishing trawler (commandeered by the militants), having set off from Mullikulam beach off Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka. Prior to this, PLOTE members disguised as tourists had spent months in and out of the Maldives, laying the groundwork for the takeover.
Despite some initial hiccups, the highly-trained mercenaries hurriedly set out to capture key government buildings including the airport, and television and radio stations. But even the best-laid plans of mice and men tend to go awry, and it wasn’t long until, due to sheer miscommunication, things began to go south.


In an exclusive interview given to the Island over five years ago, Luthifi recounted that, in spite of the PLOTE cadres being asked to enter the Maldivian army barracks through a lightly-guarded entry point, a few of them had opened fire, prompting the Maldivian troops to retaliate.
“Had they entered the barracks, the majority would have thrown their weight behind us. We lost the group leader, and thereby the initiative. I didn’t want to kill anyone. I believed those loyal to Gayoom would give up quickly. They wouldn’t have been a match for the experienced PLOTE cadres. Unfortunately, due to hasty action on the part of the group tasked with seizing the army barracks, we gave the game away,” he told the Island.
The group leader Luthifi was referring to was PLOTE member Vasanthi, who was privy to the finer details of the plan ‒ needless to say, his death a costly loss to the conspirators. However, the militants were able to confine the Maldivian soldiers to their barracks ‒ at least for the time being.
According to an account given by PLOTE Spokesman Skanda, a group of cadres led by PLOTE member Babu was to take over the radio station followed by the telecommunications network. A second group headed by one Farook was to then take into custody President Gayoom and the Maldivian Defence Minister.
Babu and his troops raided the radio station and telecom towers, only to find that the premises were closed for the day. They had not accounted for the fact that November 3 was a holiday in the Maldives. The strong steel doors at the facilities, according to Skanda, were able to withstand PLOTE’s explosives. Farook, meanwhile, was on his way to intercept the President at his residence, but having been alerted to the ongoing mayhem, Gayoom had made his escape.

India To The Rescue

Things quickly started to fall apart. Gayoom, realising that he was still in control of telecom, hastily alerted the international community, seeking help and intervention from the Governments of Sri Lanka, India, and the United States.
Beating President J. R. Jayawardene to the punch, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi stepped in, offering immediate military assistance to the Maldivian president.
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