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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2789

Sri Lanka 2006: LTTE’s unbalanced score card

By Col R Hariharan (retd.)

The year 2006 may be called the year of reckoning for LTTE. What LTTE had been sowing during the four years of ceasefire from 2002 came back to haunt it in 2006. It was also a year that saw LTTE reaching the point of abandoning the East to Karuna’s control. The year also saw the international community, already tired of LTTE’s old rhetoric, got increasingly disenchanted with LTTE’s methods. This enabled the Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa, who was elected thanks to LTTE’s ‘advisory’ to Tamils to boycott the elections, to turn the peace process into a military dialogue, even as the international community watched on the sidelines.

With the rise of Sinhala chauvinism, the danger of the war against LTTE turning into a war against Tamils has approached near reality. The reincarnation of the modified version of Prevention of Terrorism Act and the de-merger are the other fallouts of the weakened equation LTTE had arrived at with the Government towards the end of 2006. For an organization that spoke of peace with a military superiority in 2002, it is a steep decline.

The ceasefire year 2006 also had the unsavory distinction of about 3500 people of all ethnic groups losing their lives. That included over 1000 LTTE men, women and children.

And all this has cost the Tamil civilians dearly because they formed the bulk of the 215,000 internally displaced people who fled the war zones. Over 16,000 of them sold everything they possessed to seek safety in Tamil Nadu. At least a thousand of them were killed, their lives cut short by the war.

LTTE’s efforts to push India to pressurise Government of Sri Lanka, without uttering even a word of regret for its misdeeds in India, as expected, did not yield any worthwhile results except more statements from Indian politicians.

LTTE score card 2006

To those who do not subscribe to LTTE methodology, LTTE’s overall goal appears murky. LTTE appears to be trying hard to push the clock back to 2001, after shedding the blood of at least 3,000 of its own kind in the years of peace, and complaining to the international community when the fortunes of war went awry. The bottom line is that LTTE strategies of 1996 and 2000-2001 are not working in 2006 as international ambience has changed. In a nutshell the only achievement of ceasefire period appears to be that LTTE had sacrificed the international sympathy the Tamil cause had enjoyed all these years, to crown itself as the sole spokesman for Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Of course there were other ‘gains’ of earlier years that lost their shine in 2006:

• Assertion of territorial legitimacy: LTTE has created an administrative structure, including police and judiciary, to run the civil administration in the areas under its control. This has buttressed LTTE’s claim of running a de facto state as part of its quest to gain legitimacy. From the early stages of ceasefire it sought to gain recognition of parity with the Sri Lanka state and demanded the right for freedom for Sea Tiger boats to move in Sri Lanka waters. However the SLMM curbed such moves when LTTE misused this freedom to launch operations against Sri Lanka Navy in 2005-2006. But LTTE does not appear to have given up its quest for legitimacy. Armed Sea Tigers seized a Jordanian ship MV Farah III, carrying 14000 tons of rice, which was stranded 8 nautical miles off Mullaitivu due to engine trouble on December 23, 2006. They arrested the 14- member Arab crew and whisked them away to Kilinochi. According the ship’s captain, Sea Tigers also confiscated the ship’s communication equipment and computers. In international terms, this action is called piracy. If LTTE wanted to reassert its claim to legitimacy in 2006, it could not have chosen a worse way of articulating it.

• Elimination of Military Intelligence assets: During the first two years of peace, LTTE had systematically hunted down operatives of Military Intelligence. These MI assets built over the years had enabled the Security Forces to conduct successful deep penetration operations inside LTTE controlled territory. LTTE’s victims included PLOTE Mohan and ten other MI agents, MI unit commander Major Nazim Mutaliph, and Inspector Jeyaratnam. LTTE also targeted senior military officers in 2005-2006. Though it failed in its attempt on the Army Commander Lt General Sarath Fonseka, it managed to kill Major General Parami Kulatunge, Deputy Chief of Staff, further aggravating the military situation. The net result was the Sri Lanka Army gained a handle to pound the LTTE positions relentlessly by both air and artillery fire.

• Occupation of strategic pockets: In the North, LTTE carried out sporadic guerilla actions to prevent the free movement of troops even in areas outside LTTE control. However, the strong military response from Sri Lanka Security Forces in 2006 reduced LTTE to be totally defensive. Now LTTE has started attacking soft civilian targets in Sinhala predominant areas and a feeling of déjà vu is unfolding. Unlike the North, in the East clearly demarcated forward defended lines do not exist. Over the years LTTE took advantage of this to establish its presence in areas like Sampur, Mutur East and Mavil Aru to interfere with naval operations and dominate the operation of Trincomalee harbor. In 2006, Security Forces evicted the LTTE from these areas and confined it to a small pocket in Vakarai after a series of military operations. Tamils driven from their homes in this region due to these operations are still stranded. And the risk of these Tamils losing their ‘traditional homeland’ forever in the East is real now.

• Recruitment and training of fresh cadres: According to UNICEF, as on Apr 30, 2006 LTTE still had 1440 children recruited since ceasefire (859 of them now 18 years or above). These children were apparently retained out of the total 5375 children LTTE had recruited since the ceasefire. Despite LTTE’s efforts at damage control, internationally LTTE has gained the dubious recognition as one of the front line child recruiters in 2006. No amount of finger pointing at the Sri Lanka Security Forces, which was also named for helping Karuna in such recruitment, is going to absolve LTTE.

• Sea Tiger actions: LTTE carried out a number of successful Sea Tiger operations during 2005. But during 2006, the revamped Sri Lanka military leadership ensured that most of such attacks were either neutralised or compromised even before they were launched. This raises a question mark on the much-vaunted organisational secrecy of LTTE, if not the operational competency of Sea Tigers in dominating the coastal seas.

• LTTE’s international support network: LTTE had used the first two years of ceasefire to build ‘legitimate’ relations with European nations. This helped its international support network to operate without interference, as the Government of Sri Lanka wanted to play down such demonstrations of ‘functional autonomy.’ But after walking out of the peace process, LTTE arrogated the right to kill not only military targets but also innocent civilians in scores, even while talking of peace. Such killings and perhaps the assassination of Foreign Minister Kadirgamar in a way, made the EU re-examine its relationship with LTTE. The EU ban on LTTE came a little later after advance notices of caution.

The Human Rights Watch published a well-documented report on extortions carried out by LTTE in Canada in March 2006. And the new political leadership in Canada slapped a ban on LTTE. Two Tamil social organizations, known for their pro-LTTE leanings in Canada are under investigation for various illegal actions in support of LTTE. The UK, the traditional tolerant home of LTTE, had to intervene when LTTE inveigled into the Wanni two of its erstwhile benefactors, Rajasingham Jeyadevan and AK Vivekananthan and held them captive in a bid to seize control of a prosperous Hindu temple in Britain. Already the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) was under investigation in Britain. The long arm of law in Britain started devoting its unwelcome attention on LTTE activities in the UK since then. And the story continues. As a result of all these events, LTTE’s international supporters among Tamil Diaspora have become less vocal, particularly when LTTE needs their full-throated support.

• LTTE arms procurement: LTTE is reported to have imported at least 12 shiploads of arms during the ceasefire period. It was able to upgrade its artillery, anti-tank and small arms to improve its firepower with these imports. (According to the Sri Lanka Army Commander Lt General Fonseka, LTTE managed to increase its holdings of 122 MM guns from 20 to 100 through such imports.)

However, in 2006 there were major setbacks to LTTE’s arms procurement. In a sting operation in August 2006, FBI arrested 13 Sri Lankan ethnic Tamils domiciled in the U.S. and Canada for multiple crimes connected with LTTE. The crimes included attempting to purchase illegal arms from FBI agents posing as arms dealers on Long Island, USA, attempting to obtain classified information, conspiring to bribe U.S. public officials in an effort to remove the LTTE from the U.S. State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, and dealing in illegal financial transactions with the LTTE. The wish-list of arms included up to 100 Russian-made SA-18 shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles, 500 AK-47 assault rifles and other weapons. According to the FBI agents, those arrested were seeking missiles capable of shooting down Sri Lanka Air Force’s Kfir fighter jets. In another operation FBI arrested six persons including four Tamils and two Indonesians in Guam in October 2006 when they deposited $ 700,000 with undercover agents in Maryland as a down payment for millions of dollars worth of missiles, sniper rifles, submachine guns and grenade launchers for LTTE. The Government of Sri Lanka made special efforts to persuade Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand to tighten their controls to prevent such sales to LTTE. Overall, the coming years are going to be tough for LTTE to buy and transport arms as before due to the tightening of international maritime anti terror controls now in force. Protocols like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Automatic Identification System (AIS) cargo requirements and the International Ship and Port Facility Security Initiative (ISPS) code have been introduced which make maritime traffic more accountable.

• Erosion of Norway’s mediation efforts: Norway had been enjoying close relationship with LTTE all along. LTTE had not hesitated to leverage this relationship, particularly the personal rapport that existed by the Norwegian peace envoy and minister Erik Solheim and the late Anton Balasingham, Prabhakaran’s political advisor, to its advantage. Despite this, during the year 2006 LTTE has practically neutralized the Norwegian peace effort by making it difficult for Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) to effectively operate after the EU banned LTTE. This has made it convenient for Sri Lanka Security Forces to launch military actions, even if they contravened the terms of the Ceasefire Agreement without any inhibitions. Norway pulling out of the mediation process at least for a while appears a distinct possibility.

Lack of credibility

The LTTE is perhaps the strongest non-state actor with military capability in Asia. Its falling fortunes in 2006 can be attributed to certain characteristics of Prabhakaran’s leadership conduct of LTTE. These have eroded the organization’s credibility:

• Prabhakaran has been able to conduct LTTE’s military operations with considerable thought to strategy. However, in political decision-making he seems to lack the flexibility of thought and pragmatism of approach. Due to this weakness a number of impulsive political decisions he had taken have created long term problems for the organization. The killing of Kadirgamar and the boycott of Presidential poll 2005 are such recent decisions that have adversely impacted LTTE fortunes.

• The monolithic and egocentric leadership of LTTE under Prabhakaran does not encourage free exchange of ideas. As a result a second line leadership has not bloomed. In handling the peace process, this has created problems in dealing with other countries, particularly while dealing with the Government of Sri Lanka, which operates with a well-oiled bureaucracy. This problem is likely to be aggravated by the recent death of Anton Balasingham.

• Prabhakaran’s abiding faith in the gun exhibited so readily even during the ceasefire period, particularly to get political and military leaders eliminated, has increased the hiatus between what LTTE says and what it does. Thus LTTE has not been able to carry its message with credibility in the international media.

• Over the years LTTE has gained the reputation as anti-intellectual body, thanks to its systematic and often mindless elimination of Tamil intellectuals. Any such killing is now generally attributed to the LTTE, whatever LTTE may say. The assassination of Ketheshwaran in 2006, the latest in such killings has been internationally condemned and the adverse fallout has naturally come on LTTE. As a result Tamil intellectuals, who share the same national self-determination vision for Tamils as LTTE, have been reluctant to actively join the struggle under the flag of LTTE.

• LTTE’s conduct in utter disregard to international norms on human rights and humanitarian laws has come under severe criticism of international watchdog bodies and the UN. These relate to a large number of issues including child recruitment, illegal arrests, kidnapping etc., apart from assassinations and suicide bombings. The international criticism of LTTE peaked in the year 2006.

• Prabhakaran has never shown any hesitation in eliminating those whom he considers as obstruction to his objectives regardless of his personal relationship with them. At the same time whenever the LTTE’s political or military interests demanded, Prabhakaran had shown no hesitation even to sup with the enemy. Even as the IPKF was fighting with LTTE, and a political lobby in India was actively working to end the war, he opened a line for rapprochement with the Sri Lanka President Premadasa in 1989. After Premadasa managed to send the Indian troops out of Sri Lanka and eased the pressure on LTTE, Prabhakaran walked out on Premadasa. And Premadasa’s life ended the way former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s at the hands of a suicide bomber.

Given this background, it is difficult to predict how LTTE would behave in the year 2007. Undoubtedly, it is going to be more difficult than 2006, not only for LTTE but also for Sri Lanka as well, as conventional operations heat up. However, LTTE is not an organisation to be cowed down by fear of failure. It has shown great resilience in the past to bounce back. But when conventional operations threaten its existence, LTTE could expand and extend its unconventional terrorist operations in Sri Lanka.

With the Norwegian mediation no more effective, Sri Lanka could be heading to an outburst of terrorist violence. Perhaps, the two explosions in public transport buses that killed 21 civilians in Galle and Gampaha districts in the first week of the New Year were signals of things to come. LTTE’s political wing leader SP Tamilselvan earlier in the week had warned of severe repercussions after Air Force bombed a settlement in Mannar killing 14 persons. Bishop of Mannar has confirmed with his own eyewitness account that those killed were civilians including children and not LTTE cadres of a Naval Base. It is to the credit of the people of Sri Lanka, than political leaders, that they have maintained ethnic harmony despite sustained grave provocations from all sides. If more and more acts of violence and retributions are carried out the limits of tolerance of ethnic communities may well be broken.

The lack of credibility in LTTE makes it difficult for countries like India or the UK where Sri Lanka Tamils enjoy considerable goodwill, to take any initiative on their own to bring back peace in the Island. LTTE’s military initiatives afresh are not going to dramatically improve either its fortunes or lead to a lasting solution. Fortunately for LTTE, in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) there a number of experienced Tamil politicians who have considerable knowledge and experience in handling political initiatives. It is high time Prabhakaran used their talent positively, not only to his advantage but also to the advantage of Tamils at large. And that can come through only through lasting peace. Will Prabhakaran take such an initiative in the interest of the people?

Of course the rising Sinhala chauvinism and the Sri Lanka State and polity also have an equal share in the ongoing dismantling of the peace process. And that is altogether another theme to analyse.

Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka (1987-1990) as Head of Intelligence.

- Asian Tribune -

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