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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2640

Muhamalai: Paying for Triumphalism

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

"Talks which it seems cannot be avoided, are now looming round the corner. Across the table will be an enemy which had cleverly circumvented the traps which were set for it, and walked off quite unscathed in the bargain".
The Sunday Times – 29.4.2001

During the Third Peace Process Sri Lanka wallowed in an orgy of defeatism. The aura of invincibility we ascribed to the Tigers made us justify every act of cowardice and betrayal during that long winter of appeasement. Then came the swing to the opposite extreme, post Mavilaru. This new triumphalism was as potent and as blinding as the previous defeatism. As it reached its zenith with the victory at Sampur a ‘milkmaid mentality’ pervaded the government ranks. It was clear that the Rajapakse regime was planning to impose a Sinhala peace on the Tamil people (with a modicum of decentralisation masquerading as maximum devolution – plus some platitudes about brotherhood and harmony - to sweeten the pill) once the Tigers were decimated. And the decimation of the Tigers was expected to happen soon. There is a direct line of descent from this inane triumphalism to the debacle of Muhamalai.

Now, with the possibility of another round of talks, we are facing the opposite danger – that of relapsing into defeatism and justifying unjustifiable concessions to the Tigers (though not to the Tamil people) at the negotiating table. Just as the anti-devolution Sinhala supremacist lobby became predominant in the post-Mavilaru period, the pro-Tiger peace lobby is likely to get stronger in the aftermath of Muhamalai. Set backs and defeats will not make us concede on the devolution issue; we are more likely to think in terms of sacrificing some anti-Tiger Tamils to placate the Sun God. The middle path, the golden mean of democratic devolution (anti-Tigers, pro-political solution) will eternally evade us as we swing from one extreme to the other.

The Tigers are fascists. Unarguable. But this does not mean that qualities such as bravery and commitment are unknown to them. These intangible qualities are powerful factors in any battle, and should be taken into account adequately when dealing with the Tigers, who possess them in abundance. In fact the Muhamalai debacle could have been avoided if we did face up to this fact instead of believing our own propaganda about Tigers on the run, strategically. The Karuna rebellion weakened the LTTE in the East but not in the North. The Tigers could not retake Palali, though they tried in September; similarly any retaking of Elephant Pass by us is going to be no easy matter. But in our blinding triumphalism we were blind to all these realities. So we did our version of the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, and ran into a wall of Tiger fire, with predictable results.

Agni Keela II

I am neither a military strategist nor a military historian but a layperson with a memory. The Muhamalai disaster seems curiously akin to Operation Agni Keela of April 2001 which paved the way for the debilitating peace process of 2002 (via the Katunayake attack and the election of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the PM). That operation, which was aimed at retaking Tiger controlled areas of the Jaffna Peninsula, began on the early hours of 24th April along the LTTE’s Forward Defence Lines of Killali, Muhamalai and Nagarkovil. It was over in 72 hours, with disastrous losses for the Lankan Forces. As the Sunday Times in its editorial of 29th April, 2001 stated: “This offensive was planned, and it had the unconditional backing of the political establishment, which had not stipulated any deadlines. The mandate was to gain territory, with one eye on the talks. The almost clichetic "position of strength'' was sought after, and the army was supposed to secure this position through the offensives planned in the peninsula soon after the LTTE had declared their "unilateral cease-fire'' officially ended”.

What happened? Operation Agni Keela took place at the end of a unilateral ceasefire by the Tigers (24th December 2000 - April 2001). The LTTE as usual used this breathing space preparing for the next round of battles. If Anton Balasingham is to be believed the Tigers had anticipated and were readying for a move by the government to retake parts of the Peninsula, including possibly the Elephant Pass: “During the months of ceasefire the LTTE fighting units painstakingly worked out a meticulous plan to lure the invading troops to locations targeted for artillery and mortar fire and to entrap them in camouflaged minefields…. Sri Lankan troops marched straight into the Tiger trap. Without knowing the perils that lay ahead, they were jubilant at having captured eight square kilometres of territory within three hours, with little resistance. Then, suddenly, the LTTE combat units struck back in fury with formidable firepower…” (War and Peace: Armed Struggle and Peace Efforts of Liberation Tigers).

This time around too the Tigers obviously knew that the Rajapakse administration would try to win a decisive victory in the Northern theatre ahead of the peace talks. Not only did the Tiger spokesperson wrote to the SLMM about it, as the Island reminds us; the Tamil net carried a fairly detailed report of preparatory activities by the Forces, two days before action began: “The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) was seen moving truck loads of military hardware from its Palaly main base to Forward Defence Lines in Jaffna Monday. Consignments of artillery ammunition, mortar shells, and rockets were rushed in heavy military vehicles via two routes, Palaly-Jafffna Road leading to the A9 Muhamalai FDL, Ariyalai area and Point Pedro Road towards Nagarkovil FDL in Vadamaradchi East since Saturday night. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka Navy ordered fishermen in Gurunagar to hand over more than 240 outboard motors and fishing boats….” (9.10.2006).

So the well informed Tiger was obviously waiting for us to walk into the trap again, as we did in April 2001. This time too the heaviest fighting seems to have taken place along the Muhamalai, Killali, Nagarkovil and Palli axis. The difference is that the battle this time lasted a lot less than 72 hours, and in the light of the level of casualties that ensued in a matter of few hours, one cannot but be glad of this small mercy.

Was it political compulsion, to win another Sampur type victory in the North, before talks began? Did we confuse intelligence with our own propaganda? Didn’t we think of checking so obvious and public a source as the Taminet? Or did we think that the enemy knowing about our impending operation did not matter because of our belief of the Tiger on the last legs? The Island reports that the President took the Armed Forces Chiefs to task for the debacle but it is doubtful if he can pass on the buck quite so easily. After all, if he took a lion share of the credit for the previous victories he should also take a lion share of the present defeat.

The Fourth Eelam War is unlikely to be over soon, and both sides will have their share of advances and retreats. One victorious battle (or even two or three) does not make a victorious war. We forgot this in Mavilaru and Sampur. Similarly one defeated battle (or even two or three) does not make a defeated war. This has to be remembered, post Muhamalai. The trick is not to utter inanities like ‘this is the Tigers’ last effort’ and try to engage in another act of adventurism but to develop a realistic assessment of the enemy, including of his psychological strengths. Admitting that the Tigers are no strange to bravery and commitment is not to glorify the Tigers or to denigrate our Armed Forces. The German Army fought heroically and with commitment in the World War II; but that did not stop the German Army from being a Nazi Army. The parallel should be obvious.

Political Solution and Not a Peace Process

Post-Muhamalai the government is in denial. Publicly we are still clinging to our story of an almost defeated LTTE – with Muhamalai being depicted as the last gasp of the dying Tiger. On the other hand peaceniks are once again talking about Tiger invincibility. As long as it lasts, the national government illusion will strengthen this appeasement line within the corridors of power. According to the Tamil net Ranil Wickremesinghe is already on record stating that a PA-UNP consensus will be conditional on a renewed peace process: "We will not oppose the Budget of the government once the peace process is on the track moving forward," said Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the main opposition United National Party (UNP) addressing a press conference held at Cambridge Place Thursday’ (Tamil net – 13.10.2006).

What is unlikely is a more realistic assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the Tigers and of the political and military conditions necessary to defeat them. What is unlikely is a serious attempt to come up with a political solution to the ethnic problem based on democratic devolution so that Tamil people can begin to feel that they are co-owners and equal stakeholders of the state of Sri Lanka. What is unlikely is a consistent attempt to win over the Tamil people and the international community by minimising civilian casualties, investigating the extra-judicial killings of the last several months in a credible manner and commencing a massive development drive in at least some of the Tamil and Muslim majority areas of the government controlled North and East.

The government in its seven conditions for talks says that the Tigers are not the sole representative of the Tamil people. Why not suit action to words? Why not begin at least a consultative process with the anti-Tiger Tamils? Is it because the regime really has no intention of devolving more powers and in fact hopes to take some of the devolved powers back, if possible? Is this the logic behind the inane attempt to study the Panchayat Raj system as a suitable solution? According to the Asian Tribune the President at his recent London meeting with Tamil and Muslim expatriates had said that he will accept the recommendations of the APC: “The President assured that he would not influence the decision of the All Party conference. Nor would he interfere with them in their decision making process. He said that any decision made by the All Party Conference would be submitted to the people and their approval would be sought in a democratic way”. What the President omitted to mention was that he had already loaded the dice, by stuffing the experts committee which is supposed to advice the APC with people who think that devolution is akin to separation (and are on the record opposing even the 13th Amendment!). If that is not influencing the proceedings what is?

Mr. Rajapakse has a history of changing according to changing winds (an understandable attribute given that he is neither saint nor sinner but an ordinary politician with a penchant for survival). It is thus possible that he will become pro-devolution if there are strong political compulsions to do so. Unfortunately there aren’t as yet. There are strong political compulsions from his hardline allies to oppose both the Tigers and devolution; and there is pressure from the UNP to accede to another pro-Tiger peace process. Unfortunately even the international community (including India) gives primacy to a negotiated peace with the Tigers rather than a political solution to the ethnic problem.

The anti-Tiger Tamils have been doing their best, but given their lack of unity they have little political clout. And the continued absence of a political solution weakens them, as they are seen as allies of a Sinhala supremacist regime that is intent on imposing a Sinhala peace on the Tamils. This perception can eventually undermine even Col. Karuna, thereby re-shifting the military balance in the East in favour of the Tigers. Many Eastern Tamils may prefer him to the LTTE but this should not be seen as backing for a Lankan regime perceived as ‘Sinhala First’. The continued absence of devolution will thus weaken and undermine the anti-Tiger cause, politically and militarily, from within and without, making other Muhamalais other appeasement processes both possible and inevitable.

- Asian Tribune -

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