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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2583

Victory in Vaharai

By Dayan Jayatilleka

In his Mahaveera Day speech last November, Velupillai Prabhakaran signalled to the Tamil people and the world, the beginning of the end – by which he meant the beginning of his final war for the establishment of an independent Tamil Eelam. He punctuated his speech with the suicide bombing of the Defence Secretary, which luckily and symbolically, proved abortive.

The Sri Lankan state replied with the victorious campaign in the strategic ground of Vaharai.

The battle for Vaharai is noteworthy not only for its pivotal placement in the East. The protracted battle also turned into a battle of attrition waged against the Tigers. Usually it is the guerrilla who successfully wages a war of attrition against the state forces, but in Vaharai, the LTTE’s Eastern cadre was bled out.

Vaharai is noteworthy also because it proved the value of new tactics: the combination of regular army, tactical air power (both planes and helicopter gun-ships), Special Forces and commandos, the STF, naval patrols and Karuna’s irregulars.

The success in Vaharai is historic because it helps achieve on the ground, that which the Supreme Court did in law: the liberation of the arable East, with its rice fields, from the grip of the Tamil Eelam project.

Finally, the Vaharai win is important because the military offensive went on until victory, in the face of an orchestrated international and regional campaign of propaganda - amounting to psychological warfare - to halt the operation on “humanitarian” grounds.

It demonstrated that which was deficient on the Sri Lankan side, for many a decade: sheer political determination and purposiveness on the part of the Sri Lankan state and its leadership.

The Armed Forces moved with determination, purpose and confidence, as exemplified by army commander Gen Sarath Fonseka, while the President created and guaranteed the political space for the military to do the job.

The East: What Next?

One hopes that the victories in the East will be followed by civic action and small scale development programmes which can bring people jobs, commerce, industry, prosperity and some semblance of normalcy. The most scholarly soldier in the US army, Maj Gen David Petraeus, unlucky enough to be just appointed commander of all US ground forces in Iraq, is the author of the new, and widely praised US army textbook on counter-insurgency. In it he describes the essence of counter-insurgency as “armed social work” (an unwitting echo of Che Guevara who defined the guerrilla as an “armed social reformer” – a definition lost on Mr Prabhakaran). The Petraeus doctrine calls for a ratio of 20 combat troops (not admin or logistical troops) for every 1,000 local inhabitants, and the embedding of the military with local allied forces and in local neighbourhoods. While the LTTE has not been a classic insurgent movement for quite a long time and therefore the war against it has to be a mix of conventional, mobile and unconventional warfare, the Petraeus doctrine of counter-insurgency is quite appropriate in those areas that we have cleared. I cannot think of a better formation to implement it than the STF, in conjunction with the Karuna forces.

An election should be held as soon as is feasible, in the Eastern province. Once it is a legitimate provincial administration, the TMVP will find it easier to recruit. Meanwhile recruitment to the STF should be expanded. The sooner that some areas of the East can be handed over to the STF and Karuna, the sooner the military can be rotated out of the Eastern theatre to the North, for the final campaign against the LTTE which will have to culminate in slaying the beast in its Wanni lair.

Rajapakse Role

The success in Vaharai is further proof that President Rajapakse is a leader worthy of support - though that support need neither be unqualified nor uncritical. The best evidence of that proposition was the 10,000-man increase in recruitment to the armed forces, an almost unprecedented increase in recent decades. President Rajapakse did not commit the folly of his predecessor, who ran the Sudu Nelum Movement, an anti-war campaign, at state expense, while we were locked in a war re-started by Prabhakaran. The former Deputy Minister of Defence, Gen Anuruddha Ratwatte, a man whose personal courage cannot be doubted, felt himself utterly frustrated by the Sudu Nelum’s devastating effect on military recruitment. The Sri Lankan army was unable to capitalise on Army commander Gen Gerry de Silva’s capture of Jaffna in late 1995, and suffered dreadful losses in 1996 and 1999-2000, precisely because it was overstretched in terms of manpower, and could not hold that which it had cleared.

As the writings of the late DP Sivaram ( ‘Taraki’) amply reveal, a most important consideration in the Tiger calculus was the inability or decreasing ability of the Sri Lankan armed forces to recruit, while the Tigers were able to do so unabated (thanks to forced conscription – though Taraki didn’t admit that).

All that has stopped, thanks to two people: Karuna and Mahinda Rajapakse. The Karuna factor alone would not have done the trick, because Ranil and/or Chandrika would have sold him out.

Chandrika: The Contrast

In an incredibly irresponsible move, when the Karuna rebellion broke out in April 2004 President Kumaratunga permitted Prabhakaran’s forces to move through our naval cordon and land behind Karuna’s lines. Not only has Karuna repeatedly denounced her for this act of treachery and folly; in a newspaper interview she proudly proclaimed that she had communicated to Prabhakaran that she could send in the Sri Lankan forces to disarm Karuna, but that Prabhakaran had refused the offer!

Contrast this if you will, with the conduct of Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi, when provided with a roughly similar opportunity. enawi was the leader of a formerly Marxist (actually, self confessed Stalinist) guerrilla movement which overthrew the ‘Marxist’ junta of Mengistu Haile Mariam (whose Marxism was of the JVP’s brand). President Zenawi quickly shifted to the ideological centre and Ethiopia is described today as Christian rather than Marxist. When a militant Islamic movement took power in neighbouring Somalia, Ethiopia’s traditional foe, Zenawi spotted both the danger and the opportunity. His armed forces worked with the US and UK militaries (especially their Special Forces) and intervened in support of the deposed Somali provisional government, smashing the Islamic militants and installing his Somali ally back in Mogadishu.

Chandrika Kumaratunga should have covertly thrown her weight, so to speak, behind Karuna, or at the least, remained benignly neutral, but she had forgotten the main, strategic enemy. Despite a decent record in relation to the LTTE threat for most of her presidency – and her real achievements were nothing less than historic, namely the liberation of Jaffna in ’95 and its defence in 2000 - she ended her stay in office in much the same way as she began. In 1994, she not only initiated the Sudu Nelum, but appointed Wasantharajah (later a pro-Tiger ideologue and spokesman) as Rupavahini chairman!

When the war broke out, she could not mobilise patriotic mass sentiment in the way that her successor has, not only because of the Sudu Nelum exercise but because she pushed an excessively liberal “union of regions package” in 1995 and 1997, instead of exercising the option readily at hand: the implementation of the Mangala Moonesinghe Parliamentary Select Committee proposals which her mother, Sirima Bandaranaike had signed.

Chandrika concluded her presidency almost a decade later, in much the same disappointing way. A recent internet report quoting PLOTE sources said that the LTTE has short-listed four persons as possible replacements for Anton Balasingham: Visuvanathan Rudrakumar, M Sornarajah, V Veerasamy, and Shiva Pasupathy. The second individual on the short list, Singapore based Sornarajah, architect of the infamous ISGA, is the brother in law of President Kumaratunga’s Senior Advisor on the peace process and ethnic affairs at the tail-end of her reign when she agreed to the PTOMS!

So the political and military space afforded to the Karuna’s Tamil resistance fighters, who played such a significant role in the Vahari campaign and ongoing liberation of the East, is not to be taken for granted. It is the direct result of the incumbency of President Rajapakse.

Assassins and Character Assassins

When Chandrika was targeted by a suicide bomber she responded by going on the BBC’s Hard Talk and calling for negotiations. After 9/11, she addressed audiences at the LSE and the JNU (Delhi) saying that terrorism cannot be defeated militarily; its root causes have to be solved politically. Ranil Wickremesinghe followed suit at the Woodrow Wilson Centre and the Washington Press Club, asserting that the LTTE was different from international terrorism. (At an international conference on the first anniversary of the Madrid train bombing, Chandrika’s peace and ethnic affairs advisor opined that one simply had to talk to terrorists). By contrast, when Gen. Sarath Fonseka and later Def Secy Brig Gotabhaya Rajapakse were targeted by Tiger suicide bombers, the Sri Lankan state responded firmly, with resolve and self-respect. We can therefore understand why Mahinda Rajapakse, his brothers, and the Army commander, are targeted by Tiger suicide assassins. What is less understandable is why they are targeted by Southern character assassins. It is grossly unethical for those who are not likely to be targeted by the Tigers, to engage in vilification (rather than constructive criticism) of those who are not only Tiger targets, but have narrowly escaped Tiger suicide bomb attacks!

Crossovers: The Strategic Imperative

In the meanwhile there is good news on the Southern front. Dr Palitha Kohona, who served the Sri Lankan people better as SCOPP head than his distinguished predecessor was allowed to, has been appointed Foreign Secretary, while his boss, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has put in an excellent performance on his visit to India, both in his Lal Bahadur Shastri Lecture and his meeting with the editorial board of the Hindustan Times. Having made a trenchant critique of the LTTE’s terrorism, he has (echoing a recent description of newly re-elected Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega) called for a “radical centre”, an ingathering of moderates which would isolate both extremes. Samaraweera and Kohona could make a great team.

With the liberal-progressive wave about to sweep the First World in 2007-8 (France, Australia, US, UK), a prospect that for the most part I am delighted at, Sri Lanka will paradoxically face an uncomfortable situation. The Rajapakse administration being left of centre, such a wave should result in a global political atmosphere quite propitious to Sri Lanka. However, given that progressive Sinhala nationalism is quite unlike any other, and is curiously hostile to regional autonomy, minority rights, multiculturalism and secular republicanism, it is not Sri Lanka but rather the Tigers who will stand to gain from the international trends. Indeed what we win on the battlefields we may lose, and what the Tigers lose on the battlefields they may gain, because of irresistible global changes. If it actually comes about, the UNP crossovers may bring in the human resources, generate the synergies, shift the ideological centre of gravity, and recompose and re-profile administration in such a manner as to avoid this outcome.

What’s in it for the UNP defectors? Even the victorious British Labour party has changed its leadership, so as to position itself better for the next election. The Conservatives have changed theirs several times in defeat until they came up with the young, appealing David Cameron. The US Democrats made their comeback while dumping the unsuccessful John Kerry and with new faces spearheading the campaign, from Nancy Pelosi to Barak Obama. Next year the Democrats and Republicans will face off with new candidates and slates (Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama, John Edwards, John McCain and Rudolph Giuliani). Sri Lanka’s United National Party is the only one that (for unfathomable reasons) has not and never will dump its disastrous leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. In a presidential system, where personality counts, he can never win. Nor can he ever secure the votes of the majority of the majority (which will always be Sinhala, more accurately Sinhala Buddhist).Therefore it is entirely logical to leave that party and join the popular Rajapakse administration.

The Foreign Minister’s call for a new centrism and a Giddensian Third Way will be amply served if Karu Jayasuriya and the constructive elements of the UNP are actually incorporated in the Cabinet. The country’s moderate centre was shattered by two events: DS Senanayake breaking away from the Ceylon National Congress and SWRD Bandaranaike splitting from the UNP. No development in Sri Lanka’s contemporary politics would better facilitate the emergence of a strong new centre marked by a progressive patriotism, than the fusion of the SLFP and the UNP reformists.

- Asian Tribune -

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