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SRI LANKA: An Analysis of the Military Situation –02-July-2008

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SRI LANKA: An Analysis of the Military Situation –02-July-2008
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Years back when I was a young officer in the Regiment of Artillery, our regiment moved from New Mal in Eastern India to Deolali in Western India. On the day of our departure we trooped into the railway station with our trucks, baggage, stores and all the men at 6 am in the morning. Our special train was scheduled to leave at 11 am. We sweated in the heat in the roofless station but the train earmarked for us was nowhere in sight. The hapless station master could do nothing. Around one pm we were informed the train would be placed by 5 pm.  It came at 7 pm and we were kept busy loading it for next three hours because we were told the train would leave by 10 pm. But it did not even when the clock struck twelve.  I was the train duty officer and ran around trying to find the railway staff that had vanished. Around 12 am I collared the station master in his house. “The train is ready for a long time to leave, sir,” he said. I was furious; “then why doesn’t it leave,” I thundered brimming with military efficiency. He walked over to the station and told me, “sir, train is there, but power has not come.” My uni-polar military brain could not understand the term ‘power’. “What ‘power’ do you mean?” I asked. He said “sir, you call it the engine, we call it power - the one that pulls the coaches, that has not arrived.” By the time ‘power’ came, a new dawn was on the horizon and we reached our destination two days late.

That small real life experience comes to mind when we look at the current military situation in the Eelam War-4.  The military developments are in some order, just as political developments are in disorder.

Sri Lanka security forces made the strategic link up in the north between 57 and 58 divisions, capturing a large chunk of  the territory between A32 Mannar-Pooneryn highway  fromt and the A9 Kandy-Jaffna highway. It is no mean achievement for any army, considering that this was achieved in three weeks time, after a few bloody battles and loss of quite a few human lives. For the Sri Lankan army it is a creditable achievement showing how a learning army can overcome its own past shortcomings and reach new levels of operational efficiency.  The strategic link up, if held, could block the free transportation of LTTE supplies smuggled from India arriving at the Mannar coast either eastwards or northwards movement along the A32 highway. It also provides launching pads for Sri Lankan offensives to wrest Vidathaltivu and later Pooneryn.

And the army should be able to hold on to the gains, considering that two divisions plus the newly raised 61 Division are there to defend. It is doubtful whether the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) still retain the capability to launch a sizeable conventional strike to dislodge the army form their gains. The arithmetic of force levels is against the LTTE and probably it would rather reinforce its Wanni defences and safeguard the line Pooneryn-Elephant Pass-Kilinochchi- Puthukudiyiruppu than deplete its forces in launching a counterattack.

Sri Lanka Army Commander Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka vocalised the recent achievements of the security forces while speaking to foreign correspondents recently. “The LTTE has lost the capability of fighting as a conventional army. Although they are (still) fighting us, they (are) not in the same manner as was in the past. That type of resistance is not there anymore.”

Does that mean the ‘final military victory’ over the LTTE is around the corner? The Army Commander was more realistic. He said that though the LTTE's fighting capabilities was badly weakened, it would take another one year or so “to completely defeat them militarily.” He summed up the assessment saying, “I am sure the LTTE will totally lose even their present capability in less than one year. Then they will resort to a totally different type of tactic” So what the LTTE has lost is its proactive conventional operational capability. And that is undoubtedly a plus point for the security forces because they have the military initiative in the war from now onwards.

To the man fighting the insurgents, the only difference between the two kinds of warfare is that firepower is concentrated in conventional war, while it comes in penny packets in unconventional war. But bullets remain equally deadly in both kinds of warfare. This was dramatically illustrated yesterday when some extremist element shot at the Bell 412 helicopter while it was returning after flying in the President in Amparai. The LTTE in that area was driven away more than a year ago. Fortunately, the helicopter managed to land safely though its fuel tank was punctured by bullet fire.  

But what the General said in the course of the interview on the on the ‘overall plan’ of his forces was a little disturbing. “We do not just go for terrains, but we go for the kill. This is the difference between the military operations in the past and the present,” he said. The laudable military achievements need to be put in the overall perspective. Was the LTTE’s military capability the only issue that had dragged the nation into war with its own population for the last three decades?

Far from it; as long as there is Tamil population outside the fold of good governance in Kilinochchi,  Mullaitivu and parts of Vavuniya and Jaffna districts, even if the LTTE loses its conventional capability, every year it should be able to muster 1000 to 2000 recruits by coercion or otherwise. The LTTE’s conventional capability is an acquired skill egged on and abetted by skewed Sri Lankan political priorities and decisions. Unlike that the LTTE’s unconventional war capability is rooted in the grievance of the Tamil population. It does not matter whether others feel these grievances exist or not. And definitely it is not due to international conspiracy as dubbed by some Sri Lankans.

How does the LTTE sustain the ability to wage unconventional war? It is because the government has not given the Tamil population a feeling of security and trust in the present dispensation. The slogan ‘Freeing the Tamils from the LTTE yoke’ (as the government media proclaims) alone will not gain their trust if the they feel that they are being saddled with another yoke!  This lack of trust and feeling of insecurity among them cannot vanish as long as white van operations continue, media is muzzled, inquiries into illegal killings become political soap operas, and indefinite incarcerations without trials go on as before. These actions are not done by international NGOs or friendly foreign powers as it is made out for political convenience. Most of such actions are taken such loose cannons operating within the system to score political brownie points rather than solve problems.  

Many Tamils feel that every action to empower them with all the good intentions is undone by backroom operations. Two glaring examples of lack of political sincerity are the half hearted implementation of the 13th amendment and the ‘non working’ of the APRC – the all party committee - constituted for evolving an acceptable formulation of devolution. The 13th amendment has a lot of lacunae for the elected provincial government to exercise its powers; the government agents do not come under it, it has little powers to collect any form of revenue, and it has policing as a subject but has no control over the police force (the DIG Northeast works under Colombo). It cannot even organize and control water supply for the people.  Added to this is a general reluctance to implement even its limited articulation of power. So merely installing a Tamil chief minister in the east is not going to make the problem vanish. It requires hard decisions to empower the population. And there is no sign of anyone in authority seriously considering this.

As regards the APRC, there is nothing much to show. After a lengthy and very eloquent dialogue process, with all the inputs of wise men, its only practical achievement is its recommendation for the implementation of the existing 13th amendment of the constitution. And beyond that, there appears to be nothing on its cards except the travel bills accumulated on tours of the committee members to study how the devolution process has been achieved in other countries. Is this status going to change?  Sadly, there is no sign of any other initiative.

Mahatma Gandhi’s description of Sir Stafford Cripp’s Mission in 1942 as the 'post-dated cheque on a failing bank,' appears apt for the current situation in Sri Lanka.  The government in Sri Lanka regardless of its composition or ideology has to create a sense of security and trust among the minorities. And this is not going to come on its own by military victory over the LTTE alone. The security forces can only do so much. The government has to act to make use of the opportunities provided by military victories. The Tamils have to feel the ‘power’ to take them to new places, like my own military experience taught me when we moved our regiment by train.

Col. R. Hariharan (Retd.)
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(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies.)

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