On The Last Spoor Of The Tiger

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Betrayed by defectors from within and cornered by mortal foes from without, PC Vinoj Kumar examines how Sri Lanka won the war. And why the LTTE lost it

Caught Civilians fleeing combat queue for rations
Caught Civilians fleeing combat queue for rations

SRI LANKAN President Mahinda Rajapaksa should consider writing a book on how to win wars. The Rajapaksa Doctrine is quite simple. There are three main rules. The First (and most important) Rule: Conduct the War Without Witnesses. Ensure that the theatre of war is out of bounds for the media, international monitors and aid agencies. The Second Rule: Give the Army a Free Hand. Do not constrain them with rules and international conventions. The Third Rule: (In the absence of witnesses), Don’t Worry About Human Rights Violations.

This strategy has paid rich dividends in Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE, the rebel group fighting for Eelam, a separate nation for the Tamils of Sri Lanka. When Rajapaksa became President in November 2005, the LTTE controlled large swathes of territory in the northern districts of Mullaithivu, Killinochchi, and parts of Mannar. The LTTE held an area of about 15,000 sq km and ran a parallel government, complete with military, a judiciary, police and civil administration.

The defection of the Tigers’ Eastern commander was a disaster for the LTTE

However, the LTTE’S statelet began to shatter as Rajapaksa started his military campaign around August 2006. He first evicted the LTTE from the small pockets it controlled in the Eastern Province. In January 2008, he called off the six-year-old ceasefire and initiated open war against the LTTE. Relentless attacks devastated the rebels, who began to retreat from town after town. The LTTE is now surrounded in an 8 sq km strip of coastal land in Mullaithivu and government troops are pushing forward to conquer the last patch of land from the rebels. Despite appeals from the international community, which has expressed concerns about the safety of the thousands of civilians trapped in the conflict zone, Sri Lanka has refused to halt operations. The army says that top rebel leaders, including LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakaran, are holed up in this area.

Defanged LTTE supremo Prabakaran poses in a file photo with Sea Tigers
Defanged LTTE supremo Prabakaran poses in a file photo with Sea Tigers

“We will not give them any breathing space,” military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told TEHELKA, adding, “The LTTE has used ceasefires before to regroup. This time, we denied them that opportunity.” Another strategy was to attack the LTTE on multiple fronts, stretching rebel resources to breaking point. Though LTTE political head B Nadesan claims that 20,000 Lankan soldiers have been killed in the last two years, Colombo (which does not publish casualty figures) has had sufficient reserves to withstand troop losses. “We raised new battalions and enlisted 80,000 soldiers in two years,” says Nanayakkara. The army also created small platoons of four to eight soldiers which would infiltrate and destroy LTTE positions.

The Sri Lankans were able to destroy seven LTTE ships due to Indian intelligence inputs

In January, the LTTE lost its administrative capital, Kilinochchi. It then lost the strategic Elephant Pass and Mullaithivu. As the LTTE fell back, it took the people with them. “This was a poor strategy. The people became a burden for the LTTE, since it had to look after their needs,” says Col R Hariharan, a former Indian Military Intelligence official who has served in Sri Lanka. Col Hariharan feels that the LTTE should have adopted guerrilla tactics to counter the army, instead of fighting a conventional war. Several experts agree. Lieut Gen (retd) AS Kalkat, a former Indian Army commander who led IPKF operations in the 1980s, wrote in The Hindu, “Prabakaran thought that he had achieved Eelam in the North Eastern Province and the LTTE usurped the trappings of a sovereign state. He established the state ‘capital’ at Killinochchi, created ‘government departments’ and pretended that his armed cadres were a regular army, navy and air force. Then, either due to arrogance or overconfidence, Prabakaran made the blunder of taking on a regular army and tried to fight like one, with disastrous consequences. The LTTE was fighting outside its core competence.”

Lankan soldiers with captured LTTE weapons
Lankan soldiers with captured LTTE weapons

As the war continued to claim civilian lives, the world watched as the Lankan military juggernaut rolled into the Tiger heartland. According to the UN, over 6,000 civilians have been killed in the last three months. Sri Lanka used its fullest might, pressing its air force and artillery against the Tigers. The United Nations, the US, the UK and some other countries expressed their concern at civilian casualties, but failed to persuade the government to stop its operations. In February, a minor diplomatic row broke out between Sri Lanka and Britain after Britain sent an envoy to begin a peace process in the island nation. Rajapaksa rebuffed the emissary, a former cabinet colleague of the British Prime Minister and described the move as “an intrusion into Sri Lanka’s internal affairs.”

FOR THE LTTE, the post-9/11 scenario was detrimental,” says Hariharan. “Rajapaksa exploited the situation. He enlisted the support of the major world powers and presented his fight against the LTTE as part of the ‘Global War on Terror’. That the LTTE had been designated a terrorist outfit in nearly forty countries helped his cause.”

The bodies of slain LTTE fighters
The bodies of slain LTTE fighters

The LTTE has alleged that the army was using banned weapons such as phosphorus bombs and napalm against civilians. It has sent photographs of apparently charred bodies to the media, claiming that they were victims of phosphorus bombs. No nation reacted. The Sri Lankan spokesperson for national security and defence, Minister Kehiliya Rambukwella denied the charges and told TEHELKA, “We have never used any banned weapons.” Rambukwella said that the LTTE could have burnt some bodies in order to accuse the army of using phosphorous bombs.

With no independent press coverage, there is no way of verifying the truth. Journalists who dare to report inconvenient details of the war are often detained by Sri Lanka under false charges. UK reporter Jeremy Page ofThe Times was denied a press visa for many months. He entered Sri Lanka on a tourist visa but was identified at the airport and deported. Tamil journalist Vithyatharan, who has a reputation for exposing army excesses, was detained for nearly two months on charges of having links with the LTTE. In January, senior journalist and vocal critic of the government Lasantha Wickramatunga wrote an editorial titled ‘And Then, They Came for Me’ in which he said, “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.” In February, unknown assailants assassinated him.

Spoils of war A destroyed LTTE mobile communications hub
Spoils of war A destroyed LTTE mobile communications hub
Photos: Sri Lanka Army

Says Tamil MP MK Sivajilingam, “If the government has nothing to hide, why did it prevent international monitors or aid agencies from entering the war zone? The LTTE was willing to let independent observers into its area, but the government refused.” Though the Tamil diaspora has organised protests against the ‘genocidal war,’ their cries for global intervention have been fruitless.

Sri Lanka has received military support from China, Pakistan, and India. India, which had a score to settle with the LTTE for its involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, provided crucial intelligence inputs, radars and weapons. It is also believed that the Sri Lankan Navy was able to destroy seven LTTE ships due to Indian intelligence inputs. The Indian Navy and the Coast Guard have also sealed the entire Indian coast to block LTTE supply routes from Tamil Nadu.

THE LTTE’S naval fleet and light aircraft have raised security concerns in India. Major General AK Mehta, who served in the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka, notes in an article in The Deccan Chronicle, “The LTTE’S Czech-origin Zlin-143 trainer aircraft which struck Colombo in 2007 raised fears in Delhi of the safety of nuclear power plants and oil refineries in South India. Though the LTTE had declared that it would not attack India or any Indian assets, on a one-way mission from Mullaithivu, a Zlin-143 could have reached Bengaluru.” Adds Hariharan, “What if the LTTE had bombed the Chennai homes of its staunch opponents such as Cho Ramasamy?”

Captured 130mm artillery
Captured 130mm artillery

If external actors were arrayed against the LTTE, the revolt of Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, alias Karuna, the LTTE’S former Eastern commander, was an internal catastrophe. Karuna, who has defected to the Lankans and has been made a Minister, provided vital intelligence about LTTE battle tactics during army operations in the Wanni, the Sri Lankan heartland. Colombo journalist Kusal Perara says that with the loss of Karuna, the LTTE lost its major recruitment base. “Most of the fighting LTTE cadres came from the East and not from the North,” he says.

Meanwhile, Rajapaksa is already talking about how he has set an example for all nations in handling the war on terror. In his Independence Day message in February, he stated: “As we pay this well deserved tribute to our heroic forces, we can be satisfied that many who were once critical of our operations to eradicate terror from our land are now citing Sri Lanka and the success of our troops as an example of how terrorism should be defeated.” Rajapaksa conducted the war with the help of two trusted lieutenants, his brother and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Army Chief Sarath Fonseka. They complement the President in their thinking. Gotabhaya is already talking about lessons learnt from the war. “The lesson I have learned is that peace talks will never go anywhere… Tell me a place where this has worked,” he told The Christian Science Monitorrecently.

Lankan President Rajapaksa inspects seized ordnance in Kilinochchi
Lankan President Rajapaksa inspects seized ordnance in Kilinochchi

But many Sri Lankans do not think the Tamil question has been resolved or will be resolved even if Prabakaran is eliminated. Rohana Gamage, a former navy officer turned politician, insists that the LTTE will re-emerge in another form. “There can be no military solution to the Tamil conflict,” he says. Rohana belongs to the opposition United National Party and is a member of the North Central Provincial Council. Adds Tasha Manoranjan, a US-based Tamil, “Rajapaksa’s inhumane military offensive will only breed further enmity between the Tamils and Sinhalas.” The unity and integrity of Sri Lanka continues to hang in the balance.

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