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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2708

Dangers of a military agenda

By R Hariharan

It is nearly a month since both the Sri Lanka Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) agreed in principle to meet and talk peace. The subsequent delay was only in matters of detail. But even as the Government announced that it was ready for the talks at Geneva on Oct 28 and 29, 2006, the Sri Lanka Armed Forces (SLAF) artillery and air force planes pounded LTTE targets in Vakarai-Panichchankerni (about 50 km Southeast of Trincomalee) area on the east coast on the strategic A-15 highway running between Trincomalee and Batticaloa signalling another round of military operations.

On October 6, 2006, the SLAF claimed a grand success in beating back a LTTE offensive on its Forward Defended Lines (FDL) in area Mankerni- Kajuwatte area (about 40 km Northwest of Batticaloa). In the ensuing operations at Panichchankerni the SLAF further advanced five Km further to force the LTTE pull back to Vakarai. There are reports that withdrawing LTTE destroyed the Panichchankerni Bridge.

During the fight at Mankerni, naval boats operating off the coast of Vakarai engaged five Sea Tiger boats and sank two of them. The Karuna faction operating around the same time claimed overrunning LTTE positions in Kaddumurali Kulam, 10 km west of Vakarai. According to them 49 LTTE cadres were killed, while they lost 5 killed and 18 were wounded.

There had been conflicting claims of casualties from both sides. Despite that on the whole the operation was a success for SLAF as it has gained a tactically more advantageous position. Undoubtedly, SLAF had launched a well-coordinated attack at Mankerni. Usually, troops in defence do not chase the enemy five km from the FDLS unless it was planned in advance. Thus the SLAF has maintained the initiative gained after the success at Sampur to destabilise LTTE in the East. The SLAF operations also indicated that its coordination with Karuna are now well organised at tactical level to provide mutual support.

SLAF’s successive offensive operations in Mavil Aru, Muhamalai, Mutur, Sampur, and now Panichchankerni should clear any doubts about President Rajapaksa’s priority to push through a military agenda rather than resume the peace process. LTTE made it easy for the President to launch upon this strategy in July-August as it had under estimated the President’s will to resort to the military option. LTTE made yet another strategic blunder when it forced the withdrawal of monitors from EU countries from the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) reducing its effectiveness. This has made it convenient for the Sri Lanka Government to go ahead with its military option. No doubt that LTTE had acted provocatively for a long time. But it was the LTTE attack on the Army Commander in April that triggered the SLAF to exercise its right to respond in kind. Since then all the “defensive responses” of SLAF are part of a well-planned offensive strategy to strengthen the SLAF position on the ground.

In the East, the basic SLAF objective was to destroy LTTE threat from Mutur bulge and clear them from the coastal area to ensure safety of Trincomalee and Koddiyar Bay. It was also probably aimed at reducing LTTE domination of the A-15 highway. The eviction of LTTE from the two strategic river crossings on the A-15 highway at Verugal Ferry (about 35 KM Southeast of Trincomalee) and at Vakarai- Panichchankerni is probably part of this plan.

Neutralising Sea Tiger capability off the east coast to make it safe for naval and logistic ship movements between Trincomalee and Jaffna was also probably another objective. This will not only reduce Sea Tiger support to LTTE in the east, but also increase SLAF naval capability to assist ground operations.

In the North, the SLAF strategy is much simpler: (1) Neutralise LTTE artillery threat to Palali airbase and prevent forward deployment of LTTE guns. (2) Keep pressure on LTTE on A-9 highway between Muhamalai and Elephant Pass and make it difficult for LTTE launch offensive operations against Jaffna. (3) Cut off financial gains for LTTE from tax collection on vehicles moving through A-9 highway. Blocking the highway and organising ship-based logistics for Jaffna can achieve this. This would also enable the government to control supplies to Jaffna and prevent it from falling into the hands of LTTE. (4) Prevent LTTE infiltration West of Jaffna through the Kayts-Mandaitivu group of islands. This would prevent surprise threat to rear areas and logistic bases in Jaffna.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has so far successfully pursued the military option as a part of an overall strategy. But the quick successes have imparted some danger of military strategy overtaking the consideration for pursuing the peace process. There are a few compulsions that induce the President to do so even as efforts are on way to resuscitate the peace process. The President has wrested the initiative from the LTTE and his government is in a politically assertive position in the peace process after a long time. Military successes are an important part of this strategy. Till this political advantage is translated into gains in the peace process, perhaps the President would like to continue with the threat of military option.

Similarly for the first time since the ceasefire in 2002, the SLAF is militarily in a dominant position. The series of its successes against LTTE has boosted the SLAF image and morale. There is a perceptible swing in Sinhala public support for continuing the war against LTTE. As a result the President is stronger politically than ever before. As a result the ‘hard line’ lobby in the government has been strengthened. Unless there is a tangible benefit for the government, the President may not want to sacrifice these advantages he enjoys now.

The monitoring process of SLMM has been weakened following the reduction in its strength. And the SLMM operations have come to a grounding halt. This provides a good opportunity to the SLAF to gain a tactically advantageous position on the ground and weaken LTTE. International political and diplomatic reactions to Sri Lanka’s military operations and its collateral damage have been subdued. The death of civilians and the colossal uprooting of populations internally as a result of the war have failed to generate global sympathy. Even the UN has not taken the Government to task for a large number of human rights violations reported by INGOs. Indirectly, Sri Lanka government perhaps reads this as an indication of silent international support to its efforts to "cut LTTE down to size".

Most importantly international sympathy for LTTE is perhaps at the lowest ebb now. The unearthing to two LTTE "arms purchase missions" in Baltimore and Guam in the U.S. during the last few weeks have made it more difficult for LTTE to conduct its international operations with the impunity it enjoyed in 2002.

Put together, these happenings have favoured President’s pursuit of a military agenda.

Despite both Sri Lanka Government and the LTTE agreeing for talks at Geneva in end Oct 2006, no major breakthrough can be expected. President Rajapakse is unlikely to call off the military operations at this stage and revert to the ceasefire, unless he gains firm commitment on observing the ceasefire from LTTE chief Prabhakaran. And the President has made it clear that he would not hesitate to use the military force to tackle such transgressions in the future. Historically LTTE resents such fetters on its conduct. So we can expect the fresh spell of ‘ceasefire’ to be short lived, perhaps till the civilian refugees clogging Verugal-Vakarai area are moved out.

There is a lot of distrust and pessimism on both sides. So the SLAF can be expected to continue its operations in the coming days till the talks start in Geneva. Having lost its face, there is a general expectation from LTTE to come out with a strong retaliatory strike at a time and place of its choosing. Normally considerations such as Geneva-II talks do not prevent Prabhakaran from carrying out such operations at a time he decides.

The President’s actions ever since he came to power have reawakened Sinhala nationalism. It is a short hop from Sinhala nationalism to Sinhala chauvinism. His selection of hardliners for key posts in the police and the Ministry of Defence have increased the suspicion among the Tamils that he was looking for a military solution. The looming threat to de-merge north-eastern province, the likelihood of thousands of Tamils displaced from their homes in the East never going back to their lands, and the indifference of the rulers to ensure quick rehabilitation of displaced populations have made them even more uncomfortable. The unabated abductions and killings of Tamils in Jaffna and Colombo have made personal safety of Tamils a big question mark for the first time in six years.

Among Tamils, there is a perceptible lack of expectations from the All Party Committee (APC) constituted for evolving an acceptable form of settlement for the Tamils. This is rooted in their past dismal experience with such exercises. Its composition has not made them happy either. Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, has articulated their scepticism: "Is the primary consideration here the transformation of the conflict or is it about keeping potential critics on board?"

Many Tamils do not like the LTTE’s way of doing things However they have been passively falling in line with it because they feel Tamils have no other viable organisation to "protect them" from the clutches of Sinhala chauvinism. This feeling of helplessness is latent in the minds of many Tamil leaders who had stood against the LTTE in the past. They include experienced and competent political leaders now riding the LTTE political bandwagon. As members of Tamil National Alliance (TNA), they sit in the parliament to politically carry out the LTTE’s struggle. Tamils have only the TNA members to articulate their cause. So the TNA members have a moral responsibility to the Tamil people in whose name they occupy the parliament to take their job seriously and contribute a little more than remain political mouthpieces of LTTE.

In this disturbed ambience of rising ethnic distrust, violence and killings, the President’s pursuit of a military agenda in preference to a peace agenda is fraught with danger. It can unleash forces of chauvinism in both communities and once again the nation is in danger of being plunged into chaos. The President is known to be a pragmatic politician. He has successfully steered his course so far to seize the military initiative from LTTE. Now Geneva-II offers him a unique opportunity to use his acumen to wrest the political initiative also to pursue a peace agenda. He owes it to all the people - Sinhalas, Tamils, Muslims and others who expect him to pursue the elusive peace rather than plunge the country in another cycle of war. As the President he needs to restore a sense of trust and security among the people.

This suggestion is equally valid for LTTE. The Eelam War-4 in the last three months has shown LTTE’s limitations. It has sacrificed 800-1000 cadres, nearly 10 to 12 per cent of its strength, in this spell of war. So LTTE has no need to prove its prowess through yet another bout of death and devastation. Time has now come for LTTE to take seriously the historical responsibility it has seized, to cobble out a settlement that meets the just demands of Tamils without any more bloodletting – Sinhala or Tamil or anyone else’s.

If, South Africa with all its diverse races, ethnicity, languages and religions can do it, why not Sri Lanka? Ultimately the solution to the ethnic problem can come only from Sri Lankans of all hues and not from Norwegians, Europeans, Americans or Indians.

Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka (1987-90) as Head of Intelligence. He submitted this article to "Asian Tribune" for publication.

- Asian Tribune -

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