The mission was declared an abject failure by 07:30 am, and the insurgents sprung to flee from their failed attempt at a coup.
On November 3, 1988, 34 years ago at around 04:00 a.m. an armed group of Tamil insurgents from Sri Lanka had come to the shore of Maldives capital, Male’ City. The mercenaries were led by a Maldivian who saw it as an opportune moment to topple the then state government. To them, their preparations were sound, solid and strong enough to achieve the end they wanted. However, nothing went according to their plan.
The local mastermind Abdulla Luthfee, had sought the help of Sri Lanka’s People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE); a militant group from the neighboring country that an anti-establishment, and anti-government movement formed in 1980 by ex-surveyor Uma Maheswaran alias Mukundan after splitting from Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Though never confirmed, it has been widely speculated that the Sri Lankan militant group may have been promised one of the local islands for their base of operation, should they succeed in usurping former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s presidency. The militants and the primary Maldivian conspirators reached the local shores via two fishing vessels.
The vessels carrying the militants did not find a berthing spot from the harbor, after which the vessels carrying Luthfee and a PLOTE commander Vasanthi were successful in mooring their respective boats to the pier.
PLOTE had to resort to hijacking two trawlers off Kalpitiya since they did not have any other options. A vessel the militant group earlier bought from a European country was seized by the nation following an insurance default. The smaller fishing vessels meant that their travel time increased traversing from Lanka to Maldives; largely hindering the plan’s prospect.
Evidently, the group had initially projected to reach Maldivian shores on November 2 for which they embarked from Sri Lanka on October 30, midnight. They were welcomed by rough seas and unforgiving waves, which not only disoriented the mercenaries but also rendered them lose their prime posture. Several of these militants reportedly were in dire need of sustenance.
Moreover, the plan was never to jump to Male’ shores and run amok with their guns blazing. Instead, they had initially attempted to silently venture into the mainland and make their way towards their mission objectives. But when the militants, along with Luthfee, set foot in Male’ and before they could venture into the mainland in silence, they ran into National Security Service (NSS) – the local law enforcement before it was split into Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) and Maldives Police Service – along with a group of Immigration officers. The officers were alarmed at the untimely arrival of a few unfamiliar faces so they walked towards them for inquiry. The insurgents panicked and started firing at the officers.
Though the Maldives is no stranger to foreign skirmishes, it had been counting peaceful days since gaining independence from the British Raj back in 1965. So, there was no reason for caution among the locals and no one had, beyond their wildest imaginations, anticipated a similar intrusion into their homeland.
The sudden rupture of gun fire penetrated into the dawn’s calming silence caught the officers at Bandaara-Koshi barracks by surprise, with most of them unaware of what has transpired. However, not all of the soldiers stationed at the barracks were resting, and the officers at the sentinel posts and vanguard duty were quickly alarmed to arm themselves with weapons the minute the first shots penetrated through thin air. Hussain Adam, who was stationed on guard duty, at the sentinel post, was quick to retaliate the armed militants. He continued to answer the militants in the same language as theirs; bullets. It was during his confrontation, and after gunning several of these insurgents that Hussain Adam was martyred.
Aside from losing the element of surprise, the militants lost another key component that might have played to their favor; the sat-com device they used to communicate with their base. One that they would have used to arrange a transfer back to their home, but alas, the device was greeted by the sea when the militant who was carrying it dropped it while the vessel was being berthed. Their entire communication was interrupted from this point on, and hindered for a more coordinated attack – most importantly they lost their direct channel with their mission leader.
According to Skanda, the former spokesperson and translator to PLOTE, who in 2015 while giving an interview to Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror about the skirmish, confirmed that the death of Vasanthi during the first wave of Maldivian soldiers’ retaliation not only broke the morale of the remaining militants, but they lost their mission instructor as well. This had greatly impacted the progress of their coup attempt since they no longer had any authority leading or directing them with mission objectives. The only thing his group was able to do was to hold back the soldiers in Bandaara-Koshi barracks from coming out to the street as reinforcement.
Skanda during his 2015 interview further said that he had met Luthfee together with PLOTE leader, Uma Maheswaran “on a number o foccasions and believed he was merely one of Uma’s “fans.”
But later on, Luthfee’s involvement with PLOTE became clearer. According to Skanda, Luthfee’s request was simple and direct, he wanted to overthrow the government and replace it “with a more people friendly regime.”
After Maheswaran took the decision to involve himself in the ‘Maldivian expedition’, a secret unit of around 80 cadres were formed. The operation was planned by Maheswaran, Luthfee and two of the PLOTE leaders Vasanthi and Farook.
According to the initial plan, a group of the cadres led by Babu were to take over the radio station and seize the telecommunication’s network. Farook’s group were to take former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom along with the then Minister of Defense under their custody. Luthfee and Vasanthi’s groups were expected to capture Bandaara-Koshi; which was back then, the only military base.
Moreover, a group of Luthfee’s supporters were expected to meet the incoming group on the mainland.
Following Vasanthi’s death, the second group arriving to the mainland had docked at the harbor and made their way towards the radio and telecommunication center. But this group found that the center was closed since it was a holiday in the Maldives, while the steel doors of the establishment were able to withstand the explosive charges used by the attackers.
Farook’s group who were on their way to grab Gayoom, were not aware that Babu’s group who were supposed to seize control of the radio station and telecommunication center, had failed in their endeavor. This meant that Gayoom’s security detail were alerted about Farook’s advancing, and the then President was safely spirited away from his residence while the then Defense Minister went into hiding as well.
Gayoom had believed that the radio station facility had fallen to the attackers, but by chance around 07:00am, he had discovered that communication lines were still open. Gayoom immediately phoned India and the US, the British and Sri Lankan governments seeking their assistance for intervention.
According to Rahavan, one of the PLOTE soldiers who participated in the ‘Maldives expedition’, a US flight from Diego Garcia base was among the first to respond. Around 07:30am a US fighter jet circled the area, but left without any action – this was the point where Farook and Rahavan realized their plan had failed. This was also the juncture where they started planning the retreat.
But with Vasanthi’s death, the surviving militants had no knowledge of the escape plan or a plan for retreat in the event of a failure.
The insurgents set an emergency plan where one group was sent to hijack a ship from the harbor while a second group will take hostages. By afternoon the group that was sent to secure a ship had been successful in their endeavor – a vessel named Progress Light was hijacked. The crew on the ship had agreed to transport the group back to Lanka. Meanwhile, the second group was also successful in taking hostages – near two dozen or so of them including a Maldivian minister and his wife.
Around 06:00pm the first flight of armed Indian soldiers landed in the Maldives. “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 12:10am (November 4) the ship began its journey out of Male’”, Rahavan explained.
Ships leaving Male’ went through the direction of the airport and maneuver towards international waters – this was the route taken by the ship carrying the militants. But when the ship maneuvered towards the airport (now the Velana International Airport), Indian soldiers believed the militants were attempting another attack and opened fire on the ship. But there were no casualties and the ship proceeded.
An Indian warship eventually caught up with Progress Light, and fired across its bows. One of the hostages in the vessel was dragged onto the deck and the abductors had used hailers threatening to kill the hostage if the warship did not back off. Though the frigate withdrew, it still continued to follow the vessel carrying the militants. The militants killed on of the hostages by stabbing them and another was blindfolded, shot and thrown overboard.
The frigate was quick to move in and fire a warning salvo when it learned that Progress Light was attempting to enter Sri Lankan waters. The warship demanded the vessel halt immediately, but Progress Light made no attempt to slow down. The warship responded by firing on the ship, which caused the vessel to sustain heavy damage and sink. Both the militant abductors and their hostages were taken aboard the Indian warship.
Indian warship fired on the vessel on November 6, by then it had been two days that Progress Light was traversing towards Lanka. One more of the hostages lost their life during this final attack by the warship to stop the vessel.
Though Indian intervention effectively ended the coup attempt in the Maldives, the victory did not come without consequences. Maldives lost 19 of their fellow citizens in the attack, including soldiers and civilians.
A day that shook the very core of a peaceful and tranquil nation, is still remembered for the trail of blood left in the wake of the aftermath. It is a day remembered for the selfishness of a select few, and the loss of the lives of those who dared to protect the nation they loved, and the people who swore to serve.
Meanwhile, an imprisoned and aging Luthfee maintains his side of the story claiming that it was Maheswaran, who was the actual mastermind and Luthfee was simply a pawn in his game, forced to do his bidding. However, the former PLOTE spokesperson Skanda tells a very different tale, claiming Luthfee had come to them seeking help.
“Luthfee 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,” Skanda said.
According to the former PLOTE spokesperson, “Luthfee agreed to let us land weapons on one of the uninhabited isles which could later be brought to land in small boats.”
Skanda also claimed that this coup was not unanimously agreed by the rest of the PLOTE militants, and it had created dissent among several of them.
Regardless of what might have happened during the planning of the coup or who backed it and who did not, the fact remains that Maldives observed one of the scariest days it had throughout in its otherwise peaceful history, on one dreaded Thursday. It was not a Thursday like this.