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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2347

The Flying Tigers

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“The LTTE thrives on anarchy and has found ample opportunity to drive its agenda immaterial of the human cost and suffering. To our great misfortune, sane political leadership, which would guide the armed forces to perform their task while being responsive to their obligations towards civilians, is in abeyance”.
UTHR – J (Information Bulletin No. 5 – 27.3.2007)

The most surprising thing about the first ever Air Tiger attack was our own surprise at it. That the Tigers possess one or more light aircrafts was an open secret. Obviously the authorities should have expected the LTTE to use these aircrafts against a Lankan target any time (why else would the Tigers bother to acquire them?). Equally obviously the authorities did not expect such an attack and were taken unawares when it happened. Monday’s raid proves that in our unrestrained air war we either did not try to neutralise or were unsuccessful in neutralising the LTTE’s air capacity. Even more worrying is our manifest failure to respond adequately to the attack, even after it happened; the Tiger plane/s escaped safely while we assuaged our wounded pride by dropping some more bombs someplace in the North-East.

The ability of the LTTE to use air power in attacking Lankan targets marks a turning point in the Eelam War, equal to the development of its marine wing, the Sea Tigers. An important barrier has been breached even if Air Tigers do not become as numerous as Sea Tigers (soon there will be Black Air Tigers as well). Still the successful raid and the pictures of the Tiger planes and the Tiger pilots would galvanise the Diaspora and bring the LTTE new funds. The Tigers would not be able to use their air power with the same regularity and magnitude we use ours, but every raid will dent our morale and make the regime’s claim of a short victorious war even more incredible. The LTTE’s new capacity to launch aerial attacks against any target in the country would create a serious headache for the defence establishment. It may be possible to protect some key locations from such attacks but it is not possible to protect every military and civilian centre. Air Tigers thus represent a strategic setback for Sri Lanka, which needs to be acknowledged and addressed, rather than glossed over.

The unrestrained manner in which we are using our air power in the undeclared Fourth Eelam War makes it hard for us to occupy the moral high ground. And the LTTE very intelligently opted to aim at a military target than a civilian one in its first use of air power. The lack of condemnation from any country demonstrates that this tactic has worked. Friends such as the US and China reiterated their general condemnation of terrorism and called for peace and reconciliation while India merely expressed concern about the recent escalation of violence. This chilly response to the regime’s attempts to drum up international support is a reminder of the disapprobation with which many countries are coming to regard Sri Lanka. Today we are more friendless than we have been since the bad days of the 1980’s.

Hubris

The LTTE’s air capacity demonstrates the dangers inherent in an appeasement-oriented peace process as well as in a strategy of total war. The LTTE had been trying from the 1990’s to acquire air power and it adroitly exploited the opportunities provided by the 2002 CFA to achieve this objective. Despite credible evidence of the Tigers using the peace process to acquire aircrafts, the Wickremesinghe administration (and subsequently that of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga) did nothing for fear of antagonising the LTTE. This same ‘ceasefire at any cost’ attitude made the Norwegians too opt for inactivity – though by attempting to acquire air capacity the Tigers were clearly violating that very ceasefire. Ranil Wickremesinghe, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and the Norwegians are all responsible for the birth of Air Tigers.

President Rajapakse and his administration too share equal blame for this calamity. After all, Mr. Rajapakse had been doing things ‘his way’ for one and a half years. Since the LTTE’s acquisition of one or more planes was hardly a secret, the President had ample time and opportunity to do something about it. Not only did he fail to do so; his administration also failed to take this factor into account in their defence plans, as the debacle on Monday demonstrated. The fact that the Tiger planes came all the way from the North-East, attacked a premier defence establishment in the country and got away scot-free is a shame that the Rajapakse administration cannot wash away with verbal gyrations.

Fighting the war half-heartedly is a charge that has been levelled against most Lankan leaders, especially President Premadasa. Sirisena Cooray in his biography on Mr. Premadasa, rather than denying the charge, explains the logic behind this seeming ‘half-heartedness’. “Fighting the war half-heartedly was not a weakness limited to Mr. Premadasa. I think it is a result of our democratic system…. The majority of Tamil community are unarmed, peaceful civilians; they may sympathise with the armed separatists; they may even help in some ways; but still they are non-combatants and citizens of this country. Any leader of Sri Lanka will have to think about this group, rather than about the LTTE. Any leader would want to satisfy these people, or at least not antagonise them too much. So the result is that irrespective of which party is in office and who the President is, the war will be fought half-heartedly. After all, it is not a war against some invader from outside; the enemy is from your country, part of your people. If you do not think that way even genocide becomes possible” (President Premadasa and I: Our Story – emphasis mine).

Fighting the war half-heartedly is not a charge that even his worst enemy can credibly lay against President Rajapakse. The administration has been conducting its military operation unrestrained; no considerations about damages to civilians have deterred this regime. The President’s brother is in charge of defence and the President backs him completely. Money and political support are available in abundance. The regime defends all actions of the Forces from any criticism from whatever quarter, local or international. In other words this government is doing what previous governments did not do, what Sirisena Cooray opined no President will be able to do. It is going all out in its military endeavours, without let or hindrance, with no consideration for the safety and wellbeing of the North-Eastern Tamils.

This is the politico-military context in which the Air Tiger attack took place. Obviously the total war strategy of the Rajapakse administration carried out in complete disregard of civilian casualties and international opinion was unsuccessful in preventing the Tigers from making a quantum leap and using air power for the first time. This development is grave enough and potent enough to dilute every advance the Lankan forces have made on the ground since June last year. It also shows that a total war strategy cannot really weaken the Tiger; it merely damages the Tamils and antagonises the rest of the world.

In a sense the Air Tiger debacle is similar to the Muhamalai defeat of 2006. Both stem from hubris, from a willingness to believe our own exaggerated propaganda, from a chronic inability to develop a correct understanding and estimation of the enemy. The Eastern victories are not unimportant ones. But they were possible thanks in the main to the Karuna factor. The Karuna rebellion had weakened the LTTE in the East; it also gave the Lankan forces an able ally who knew the Tiger intimately because he himself was a leading Tiger until not so long ago. Instead of understanding this specificity, we opted to believe that the victories were due solely or primarily to the ‘Rajapakse factor’ – the presence of a president (and a defence secretary) who was willing to wage an all out war, to back the Armed Forces to the hilt and to give them a free hand to fight unburdened by political or humanitarian considerations. This Rajapakse factor enabled the Eastern victories, enthused the propagandists. When the Muhamalai debacle happened it was blamed on a couple of middle level officers, who, it was claimed, began this major operation without informing either the Army Headquarters or the Defence Ministry!

Delusion

While the Mavilaru crisis was on, and just before the military operations began, the South became engulfed in mass hysteria over ‘Budu ras’ sightings. Devotees are said to have seen a Buddha statue in a Southern temple emanating holy rays; soon more claims came from other parts of the country. A generalised stampede was created as believers rushed to the nearest temple to witness the miracle. This was a divine sign, proclaimed some of the Sinhala hardliners. According to the Sinhala media this ‘phenomenon’ was discussed at a meeting between the President and the JHU. The JHU hailed the President as a modern day Dutugemunu while the President reminded the JHU delegates that the initial sighting of the holy rays took place in a temple in Hambantota. Whether the initial sighting was part of a plan to create a belief in the public mind about divine blessings for the regime and the Mavilaru operation (which must have been on the drawing board at that time) remains to be discovered. What is clear is a George Bush type attempt to create a nexus between the war and religion, to make the war seem a divinely sanctioned venerable enterprise.

So triumphalism reigned. Initially it was claimed that the war could be won within a year; subsequently it was extended to two to three years. The ethnic problem was reduced to the war and there was a belief in a military victory without a political solution. The escalating human rights problems and worsening refugee crisis were dismissed as enemy propaganda. The Tiger was almost done for, it was said and believed. This prevented a proper analysis of the enemy, his capacities and his determination. Those who warned about the dangers of triumphalism were decried as traitors and faint hearts. And amidst this premature victory celebrations the Tigers were allowed to develop their air power unhindered and to use it unhindered.

Unfortunately the regime’s response to the Air Tiger debacle indicates that it is incapable of learning anything from its past mistakes. This response ranges from denying the gravity of the problem to trying to pin the blame on the SLFP dissidents (apart from silly proposals about turning the populace into human radars). We will also continue to make empty promises about investigating human rights abuses and coming up with a political solution. The refugee crisis will be dealt with either by denying its existence or forcibly relocating some of the refugees. It is business as usual.

According to the Amnesty International, around 3000 civilians have died and 215,000 have become displaced as a result of the undeclared Fourth Eelam War. Going by reports, the resettlement mode favoured by the government is akin to its ‘humanitarian operations’ which made no mean contribution to the creation of the refugee crisis in the first place: “In several cases children were in school when buses were brought and parents asked to pack up instantly. They had to leave without their children. At Palacholai near Chenkalady on 15th March, soldiers told the IDPs that they would burn their huts, throw grenades inside and shoot if they did not go. Local reports said that in some instances soldiers beat the IDPs with sticks to drive them into buses” (UTHR – 27.3.2007). If this is resettlement, then indiscriminate bombing and shelling are ‘humanitarian operation’ and Air Tigers just a flash in the pan not worth bothering about. We can continue to delude ourselves of great victories and dear leasers until the Tigers make the next leap, with a submarine or a SAM.

- Asian Tribune -

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