On 28 September 1988, quite out of the blues news trickled through of an attempted coup on the Maldive Islands. Sri Lankans were more shocked when it was learned that the coup leaders -Maldivians led by Abdullah Luthufi- were assisted by a Sri Lankan Tamil militant group -the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE).
How did a group of Sri Lankans get involved in planning a coup in another country?
A past PLOTE spokesman –Skanda- said he had met Luthufi together with PLOTE Leader, Uma Maheswaran on a number of occasions and believed he was merely one of Uma’s ‘fans’.
“Though Luthufi rarely spoke to me on politics”, he always referred to woes ordinary Maldivians faced under the ‘dictator’ Gayoom. “…Most of the people are forced to live on less than $ 1 a day” he used to say. “Anyone who criticizes the government openly faced harassment”.
He also mentioned he could not go back to his own country as the ‘dictator’ would have him killed.
According to Luthufi, then president Gayoom was opening the country to radical islam by sending large numbers of young people to madarases in Egypt where they were being indoctrinated.
“I believed the bond between Uma and Luthufi arose because of their shared aversion to oppression. None of us in the CC or the polit-bureau had an inkling of the plan to bring about regime change in the Maldives”, Skanda said.
In the aftermath of the debacle in the Maldives and many self-criticism sessions regarding his high-handed and unilateral act in sending a group of cadres to overthrow the government of the Maldives without the concurrence of either the CC or the polit-bureau, Uma defended himself saying, “You have to understand that first and foremost, we are internationalists and are a revolutionary movement. A group of oppressed people from the Maldives approached us asking for help… they did not have money but loved their country and wanted to overthrow an oppressive leader.
“Luthufi showed Gayoom was leading his country on the road to religious extremism. The Maldives is just a short distance from Sri Lanka and religious extremism will spread and affect the working class of this country which is already divided by racism. Religious extremism will simply fragment and decimate the working class, turning them into pawns in the hands of megalomaniacs…
“You know” he said “we were the ONLY group to be disarmed by the Indians. Luthufi agreed to let us land weapons on one of the uninhabited isles which could later be brought to land in small boats………
“These were some of the reasons why I took that decision unilaterally. “We needed to act fast; perhaps I was wrong to act without consultation.
“However, had our effort been successful we would have been compared with Castro and Che Guevera who helped overthrow Batista in Cuba and not termed mercenaries………
“We were not offered a single penny to help the Maldivians. In fact we lost both men and money in our effort to help them”.
Lufuthi’s request was simple and direct. He wanted help to overthrow a dictatorial government and replace it with a more people friendly regime.
Once Uma took the decision to involve himself in the Maldivian expedition,a secret unit of around 80 cadres was formed, Skanda said.
For months PLOTE cadres moved in and out of the Maldives checking the layout of the land, holding meetings with Lufuthis’s group and planning an armed take over.
Another group –in Europe- was charged with purchasing a ship to be used for the expedition.
The purchase of a ship had a two-fold aim –one to transport the Maldivians and PLOTE cadres to Male where they would take over the administration and the long-term plan to use it as a means of transporting weapons for the ongoing struggle against the Sri Lankan government.
The operation planned by Uma, Luthufi and 2 PLOTE leaders Vasanthi and Farook who led the mission was simplistic…..
Unfortunately the plan began unravelling at an early stage.
The ship purchased for the operation, was seized for non-payment of insurance just prior to the date of departure to Sri Lanka from France.
In order to keep to schedule the group hijacked two trawlers off Kalpitiya. The group in one trawler was led by Vasanthi.The group on the second boat was led by a PLOTE cadre Farook and Luthufi.
According to the plan, a group of cadres led by one Babu was to take over the radio station, and the telecommunications network. Farook’s group was to take into custody President Gayoom and his defence minister.
Lufuthi and Vasanthi’s group were expected to capture the only military base.
A group of Luthufi’s supporters was expected to meet the incoming group on the mainland and together take over the administration.
The two groups left at midnight on 30 October and expected to reach their destination on 2nd Nov.
Almost immediately problems arose, the weather turned bad and the trawler began to drift away from its route. The winds were pushing the trawlers toward Australia.
The PLOTE cadres who were totally unused to rough sea travel, were sea-sick to the extreme. “The moment we put even a morsel of food into our mouths we threw up” said Rahavan who participated in the raid. It had been estimated we would reach the Maldives by 2nd November.
We ultimately reached the Maldives at 4.00 am on 3rd Nov. Then we found there was no room to dock the ships. Ultimately at midnight the first ship led by Lufuthi and Vasanthi was able to dock.
Luthuufi’s people who were supposed to meet the incoming fighters, were nowhere to be seen. They had probably left as we missed our date said Rahavan.
The incoming group according to Rahavan had no alternative but to make its way to the army camp. On alighting from the ship the communication set they carried, fell into the sea. The group had now effectively no communication with either the second ship or with their leadership in Sri Lanka.
On the way out of the harbour the group was spotted by a group of policemen and immigration officials who attempted to stop them. One of the PLOTE cadres fired in their direction -The officers cut and ran. However, the firing alerted the military and when the attackers arrived at the camp, the now alerted soldiers opened fire on them.
Vasanthi, the man with intimate knowledge of the detailed plan was hit by gunfire and was among the first to die. The group was unable to overrun the camp as the soldiers had been alerted, however, they were able to confine the military to barracks.
In the meantime the second group was able to dock and made their way to the radio station and telecommunication centre which were housed in the same complex. A single cadre Peter had been left on the second trawler in charge of communications.
Babu’s group found both the telecommunication centre and the radio station closed as it was a holiday in the Maldives! The steel doors were able to withstand the explosives charges the attackers used.
Unaware that Babu had not disconnected the telecom centre, Farook and his group moved in to take President Gayoom and his defence minister into custody. However at the sound of gunfire the President’s security detail spirited him away from his residence. The defence minister too went into hiding.
By the time Farook and his group arrived the birds had flown. Despite searching for the fugitives they could not be traced. Hearing of the attack on the telecom and radio station, president Gayoom believed the facility had fallen to the attackers. It was only by chance at 7.00 am he discovered the lines were still open.He called the Indians, the US, the British and the Sri Lankan government seeking help to quell the attack.
According to Rahavan a US flight from the Diego Garcia base was the first to respond. At 7.30 am the US fighter jet circled the area but left shortly afterwards. At this point Rahavan and Farook realized the mission had failed. They began planning to retreat. The question was how?
With Vasanthi’s death, they did not know whether any plan had been made for a retreat in the event of failure. “We were stranded” said Rahavan –“no communication, no way to get back and 80 cadres to evacuate”.
An emergency plan was put into operation, one group was sent to the harbour to hijack a ship, a second group to take hostages.
By afternoon the group had secured a ship –Progress Light. Its crew agreed to transport the group. The second group took a number of civilian hostages captive, including a Maldivian minister and his Swiss-born wife…
“At around 6.00 pm the first Indian flight with soldiers landed” Rahavan said. “We knew it was time to recall our cadres and leave. Within two hours a total of seven troop bearing flights landed. We switched off the generators plunging the country into darkness and prepared to leave. Three of our comrades died in Male. After confirming that all remaining cadres were on board at 12.10 am (4.11.1988) the ship began its journey out of Male”.
The shipping lane leaving Male goes in the direction of the airport at which point boats manoeuvre towards international waters. To hide their real destination, the crew was told the group was heading in the direction of Indonesia.
As the ship manoeuvred towards the airport, the Indian soldiers believed the insurgents were trying to attack them and opened fire on the ship. However no one was hurt and the ship proceeded. In the meantime another drama was unfolding.
When firing commenced as the first group attacked the military camp, members of the crew on the trawler in which Peter and his communications set were stationed grew afraid. They asked they be allowed to leave. Peter agreed and released the crew and the trawler.
He stayed on a dingy. After some time when firing ceased after the attackers withdrew, Peter remained at sea awaiting a signal. Finally on 4.11 believing the group had captured Male,he made his way to the harbour where he was warmly welcomed by Indian soldiers who subjected him to interrogation during which they discovered he was not only from Sri Lanka, but also a member of the PLOTE.
On board the “Progress Light” more drama was unfolding. Indian fighter jets identified the location of the ‘Progress Light’ and diverted an Indian warship returning from a visit to Australia to apprehend it.
As the warship caught up with the “Progress Light”, it fired across its bows.Pandemonium broke out. One of the hostages was dragged onto the deck, using a hailer the abductors threatened to kill him if the warship did not move away. Probably after informing higher authorities the frigate withdrew, but did not go away. But when it became clear the Progress Light was attempting to enter Lankan waters the frigate quickly moved in, fired a warning salvo and demanded that the ship halted immediately. When the Progress Light made no attempt to slow down, the warship fired on the ship, which rapidly broke up and sank. ……….Hostages, abductors and crew were all taken aboard the Indian naval vessel.
Indian intervention effectively ended the attempted coup in the Maldives.
In 1989 PLOTE leader Maheswaran was assassinated. Four years later, D. Sidharthan who was subsequently elected leader of PLOTE successfully negotiated the release of PLOTE members who had been condemned to life imprisonment.