Final act

Published : Feb 27, 2009 00:00 IST

in Colombo

ON the evening of February 5, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa received a telephone call from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. It was an unusual call as neither Rajapaksa nor Ban Ki-moon was in their respective headquarters. Rajapaksa was away in Kandy and Ban Ki-moon was on a visit to New Delhi. The obvious topic of the conversation was the fate of an estimated 1.5 to three lakh civilians trapped in the war zone in territory under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Ban Ki-moons call came hours after India, the Tokyo Co-Chairs (the United States, Norway, Japan and the European Union), and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her counterpart in the United Kingdom David Miliband strongly appealed to the Rajapaksa government and the LTTE to halt the fighting for some time to provide safe passage for the civilians caught in the crossfire.

Perhaps never before had Rajapaksa, since taking charge as President in November 2005, faced so much pressure. Yet, he was unflinching. Thank you sir, but no thanks was his polite but firm response to missives from different parts of the globe urging him to halt the war against the Tigers for a few hours.

Sri Lanka-watchers, who are rubbing their eyes in disbelief over the spectacular gains made by the military in a war that was largely considered unwinnable, attribute the success of the military in all but wiping out the LTTE as a conventional force to Rajapaksas single-minded pursuit of the Tigers.

By all accounts Rajapaksa and his core group made a political determination in August 2006 to launch a fight-to-finish campaign against the Tigers. The LTTE provided the much-needed opportunity and excuse when its cadre closed down the Mavil Aru sluice gates in the east, denying water to more than 30,000 civilians. The presidential core team in the campaign included his younger brother and Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, both of whom had scores to settle with the Tigers.

Gen. Fonseka survived an assassination attempt when a Tiger woman suicide bomber blew herself up at the Army hospital inside the Army Headquarters complex in April 2006. In December that year the Defence Secretary who had retired as a colonel from the Army almost two decades ago and settled down in the U.S. only to return as a high-profile official in his brothers government was the target of a suspected suicide bomber on a trishaw in the heart of Colombo.

The Defence Secretary and the Army chief proved to be a lethal combination for the LTTE, which, ironically, aided Rajapaksas election as President by asking Tamils to boycott the 2005 presidential election. The President is the supreme commander of the armed forces, but for all practical purposes the Defence Secretary and Army chief call the shots on matters pertaining to defence.

The two had full freedom to decide on any action concerning national security and defence. The President backed them to the hilt even when some of their actions evoked strong disapproval within and outside the island nation. The Defence Secretarys decision twice to order a police census of Tamils settled in and around Colombo since 2003 is a case in point.

Similarly, the Army chief ruffled many a feather within the defence hierarchy by picking officers of his choice, overlooking seniority, of course in the name of merit, to lead sensitive military campaigns. Much to the embarrassment of the establishment, he got away several times with controversial remarks, such as his characterisation of some of the politicians of Tamil Nadu as a pack of jokers.

The duo faced innumerable charges of intimidation and targeting of journalists and political opponents of the President but always emerged unscathed with the blessings of the highest authority in the land. On January 17, at a dinner he hosted for the media, the Army chief took a dig at the media for raising questions on the militarys capability to take on the LTTE. Most defence reporters and analysts, he remarked, could be out of work by next year. Pointing to the black shirt he was wearing, adorned with a dragon strangling a tiger, he said: For your information, this was the same shirt I wore when I hosted the dinner for you people at the beginning of 2008. I am wearing it for the second time today after that day.

With the President in charge of the Defence portfolio and his brother as the Defence Secretary, the war budget was no constraint though the economy of Sri Lanka is in dire straits. The President and his team tapped all possible sources for defence supplies, at times causing discomfort to India. The ranks of the military, all the three wings put together, swelled to over 200,000 and the allocation for defence for 2009 was pegged at Rs.177.1 billion ($1.66 billion). The allocation for defence in 2008 was Rs.166.44 billion. Sri Lankas ratio of soldiers to population (under 20 million) must be one of the highest in the world.

On the political front, the Rajapaksa government adopted a shrewd strategy, borrowing some of the LTTEs own tactics, such as continuing to make politically correct statements on matters of peace, development and steps towards conflict-resolution while meticulously planning operations for an all-out war. The facade of the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) brokered by the Norwegian government was kept alive until January 2008 despite the fact that hostilities between the military and the Tigers had reached a point of no return in early 2007.

Perhaps to impress upon the international community that it was keen on keeping the door open for negotiations, the Rajapaksa government did not ban the LTTE as a terrorist outfit until the first week of January 2009. Sri Lanka became the 31st country in the world to proscribe the LTTE when it formally issued the gazette notification on January 6, four days after Kilinochchi had fallen.

On the propaganda front, too, the government borrowed liberally the LTTEs tactics. It created the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) in June 2006 with the sole aim of countering the pro-LTTE TamilNet. Defence spokesperson and Minister Keheliya Rembukwella confessed at one of the weekly news conferences that the task of the MCNS was to wean away readers from the cyber web of the Tigers. The Defence Ministry revamped its own website and kept up a relentless campaign not only against the Tigers but against anyone and everyone who was critical of the war.

On the battle front, too, the regime went the extra length not to repeat the mistakes of the past and to ensure maximum protection for the soldiers. The motto, in the words of the Army chief, was Go for the kill, maximum casualties and destruction of infrastructure of the enemy with minimum possible damage to the troops. For the first time armoured tanks were inducted into the battlefield for safe transportation of soldiers on the front. The troops moved in small groups to minimise casualties if they were encircled or trapped.

The current phase of hostilities witnessed the maximum use of air power. The estimates of aerial attacks by the forces vary from 15,000 to 20,000 sorties. Despite such large-scale aerial missions, it is only in the last phase of the war (from December 2008) that it faced flak for alleged indiscriminate bombing. The military, in the course of its campaign, which commenced in August 2006 in the east, wrested control of an area of 14,900 square kilometres. As of February 6, the Tigers are confined to an area of roughly 100 sq km.

Of course, the human costs are enormous. The military concedes to have lost 3,700 soldiers and officers and claims it killed 15,000 Tigers. There is no independent confirmation of the losses the LTTE suffered. Even if one were to be guided by the military figures, for every four members of the LTTE killed, the Army lost one soldier. There are no estimates of civilians killed so far, and the assumption is that as the battle enters the last phase, casualties of those caught in the crossfire could be high.

Besides the question of the fate of the civilians caught in the war zone, several other questions remain unanswered. These include the whereabouts of the top rung of the LTTE, including its leader Velupillai Prabakaran, the future of the hundreds of Tigers who might survive the military offensive and choose either to mingle with the civilians or to surrender, and the costs borne by the military to hold the territory it has wrested from the Tigers.

Jaffna peninsula, which came under the control of the military in 1995, best illustrates the point. It is cynically referred to as an open prison because an estimated 40,000 troops are present in the peninsula as successive governments have not been able to resolve the ethnic conflict and pave the way for a political dispensation.

The Sri Lankan military has won the battle for territory and now it is up to the polity in the island nation to begin the war to win the hearts and minds of the people.

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