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.
A mere 16 hours after Gayoom’s SOS had been sent, Indian paratroopers landed in Malé in a daring, Hollywood-esque military operation titled ‘Operation Cactus.’ According to Indian media, however, the Indian military at the time could barely find the Maldives on a map. They were also confused as to the identity of the enemy, wondering whether the mercenaries hailed from the African peninsula or the Middle-East or South Asia.
The geopolitics at the time was such that India’s relations with the international community, particularly the West, were changing for the better, thanks largely to the foreign policy of young Rajiv Gandhi. Washington, too, had been actively encouraging New Delhi to play a more prominent role in South Asia.
According to one Indian analyst, when Indian forces were dispatched to the Maldives, there was tacit Western support. The Indian aircraft reportedly received some help through meteorological information sent by a passing US warship.“What was remarkable was that many of those on the rescue mission had only a hazy idea of where Maldives was. Indeed, the military did not even have a decent map of the area. In so doing, its experience in Sri Lanka a year ago was being repeated, when it had to use tourist maps to operate. In this case, given the remoteness of the Maldives from Agra, not even tourist maps were available, only a coffee-table book,” he said.
Mayhem In The High Seas
Despite these shortcomings, India decided to intervene. Meanwhile, chaos was unfurling in Malé. To say that things weren’t going according to plan would be an understatement. The conspirators and their Sri Lankan friends were desperate to make a quick getaway.
“We didn’t have a way to escape as those trawlers which brought us to Malé weren’t there. We allowed the trawlers to leave as we were confident of seizing control. There was total chaos. During gun battles we lost two PLOTE personnel, while several received gunshot injuries. We retreated towards the Malé harbour as Indian paratroopers landed in the capital. We didn’t have any other option other than to seize the Maldivian vessel MV Progress Light. We got away at about 11 a.m. on November 3, 1988. We left the bodies of two PLOTE cadres killed in action. Three PLOTE personnel trying to get away in a rubber dingy were captured,” Luthifi said in his interview.
The fleeing terrorists, who had successfully commandeered the MV Progress Light cargo ship off the southern coast of Hulhule, had also taken its crew and passengers hostage – among the hostages was Maldivian Minister Ahmed Mujuthaba and his wife (or mother-in-law, as per a different account). Swift orders were made to stop the ship dead in its tracks.
The drama that subsequently unfolded between the seas of Maldives and Sri Lanka was the stuff of action thrillers.
Taking matters into his own hands ‒ quite literally ‒ Brigadier Farooq Balsara snatched a Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle from a soldier standing nearby and fired three shots at the cargo ship as it was making its way out of the port – to no avail. Balsara and Staff Sergeant Sham then hopped on a jeep and chased the freighter all the way to the southern tip of the Hulhulé island. Attempts to fire at the ship here also proved futile as it was now safely out of range.
At approximately 1:45 a.m., the Indian Army made its way to the secret hideaway President Gayoom had taken refuge in, strengthened the security around the perimeter aided by local military and then proceeded to transfer the President and his family to the Maldivian military headquarters, under heavy Indian guard. The President, now having been alerted to the possible escape of the conspirators aboard a commandeered freighter, ordered his military to immediately launch a rescue operation with Indian assistance.
The Indian Navy headquarters wasted no time in alerting three of its naval frigates: namely, INS Godavari docked at Port Blair on South Andaman Island, INS Betwa travelling to Somalia and INS Tir docked at Cochin Port in India. The frigates were on their way to intercept the rogue ship.
Meanwhile, a team of four Maldivian National Security Service (NSS) personnel had been dispatched to Colombo and were to board a helicopter from the Sri Lankan capital and fly to the INS Godavari which would then make contact with MV Progress Light. Their goal: to negotiate with the terrorists.
The freighter was headed to Mullikulam in northern Sri Lanka when it came face to face with INS Betwa in the early hours of November 5. Despite multiple warnings, Progress Light did not change its course. INS Godavari too had now arrived. The mercenaries, however, stood firm.
“Giving up the mercenaries for a lost cause, the Indian warships heightened their attacks around the freighter to force their surrender. In the wake of shockwaves created by grenades that INS Godavari’s helicopter dropped in the ocean around MV Progress Light, the frigates launched a powerful strike against the freighter. The violent confrontation between the cargo ship and the frigates resulted in the deaths of a number of mercenaries and three hostages,” said one Maldivian reporter.
According to Luthifi, a five-member Maldivian defence team that was on the Indian warship, demanded that MV Progress Light change course towards an Indian or Maldivian port. The conspirators refused, and things took a dramatic turn that Luthifi would no doubt have liked to avoid in hindsight.
“We refused to give in. We demanded mid-sea negotiations to settle the dispute. The Indians started firing at our ship at the behest of the Maldivians onboard their vessel. The PLOTE commander got in touch with their headquarters in Sri Lanka and sought instructions. They received instructions to execute one hostage and throw his body to the sea. In spite of the Maldivian minister in captivity making a desperate bid to avoid the execution of one of the hostages, the PLOTE took one person to the deck and shot him. They threw the body and the Indians recovered it. The remaining hostages volunteered to come on the main deck in a bid to discourage the Indians from firing at us. But the Maldivians onboard the Indian warship wanted all of us killed.
“On the morning of November 6, they fired at our ship and gave us three hours to surrender without any preconditions or face the consequences. We didn’t stop but proceeded towards Sri Lankan waters. We were about 30 nautical miles away from our position when the Indians opened up with big guns. The minister was among the persons hit during the initial fire. We didn’t fire back as Indian ships were out of the range of our guns. I directed the Filipino engineer to stop the engine. As I was watching him ‘killing’ the engine, he was hit. We were ordered to jump into the sea and were rescued by the Indians immediately after we raised a white flag,” Luthifi told the Island.
So ended the valiant but ill-conceived efforts of Luthifi and co. to get rid of what, in their eyes, was a ruthless dictator immune to the checks and balances of democracy.
“I wanted to get rid of Gayoom at any cost. As the election process in my country never gave a reasonable opportunity to the Opposition, I felt an outside force should be used to oust Gayoom,” Luthifi said 23 years after his failed attempt at ousting the dictator.
Having survived the coup (and an assassination attempt years later), President Gayoom went on to rule for two more decades until he was ousted by Sri Lankan-educated Mohamed Nasheed in 2008. Gayoom’s presidency, mired in controversy and allegations of corruption and human rights violations, thus came to an end.
In 1989, PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran was gunned down ‒ interestingly, of all places ‒ near the Maldivian High Commission in Colombo. ENDLF, an Indian-backed offshoot of PLOTE, claimed responsibility for the killing, though some suspect disgruntled PLOTE members of having plotted the assassination.
In an interview given to the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror, PLOTE member Skanda said, “had our effort [in the Maldives] been successful, we would have been compared with Castro and Che Guevera who helped overthrow Batista in Cuba and not termed mercenaries.” Alas, this was not to be.
That same year, India repatriated the PLOTE cadres captured aboard the MV Progress Light, who were later given the death sentence by the Maldivian judiciary, on Gayoom’s watch. However, Gayoom was forced to commute the death sentence to life imprisonment under Indian pressure. Four years later, Maheswaran’s successor D. Sidharthan managed to negotiate the release of the PLOTE cadres languishing in prison.
Former Maldivian President Ibrahim Nasir, who was also accused of being a conspirator, though he denied involvement. Nasir had previously been sentenced by Gayoom inter absentia for allegedly trying to plot another coup, but was later pardoned in 1990 in recognition of his role in obtaining the island nation’s independence.
The current whereabouts of Abdulla Luthifi, the mastermind behind the conspiracy, are unknown. The death sentence on Luthifi was also commuted to life imprisonment by President Gayoom along with that of the other conspirators. In 2009, then President Mohamed Nasheed’s government allowed Luthifi to travel to India for medical treatment. Maldivian media speculates that it was here that Luthifi gave the authorities the slip. Authorities, according to the media, suspect that Luthifi is currently living in neighbouring Sri Lanka under a false identity.