Endgame

Print edition : May 22, 2009
in Colombo

PRESIDENT MAHINDA RAJAPAKSA welcomed by Army chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka when he visited Kilinochchi on April 16.-PRESIDENT'S OFFICE, SUDATH SILVA, HO/AP

APRIL 26, 2009, marked the third anniversary of the assassination attempt on Sri Lanka Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka by a suspected pregnant cadre (it is still not clear if the woman was actually pregnant or had passed off as one) of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Lt. Gen. Fonseka suffered serious injuries in the attack, mounted right inside the Army Hospital located on the premises of the military headquarters. It took him over five months to recover and return to his job.

In a way the attack proved to be a landmark in Eelam War IV, beginning from August 2006, and paved the way for the virtual annihilation of the LTTE as a conventional force. Three years and five days later, on the afternoon of May 1, as this report is being penned, the military map of Sri Lanka has changed beyond the wildest imagination of any Lanka watcher. The hunter has become the hunted and vice versa.

The LTTE chief, Velupillai Prabakaran, having lost all the 15,000 square kilometres of land he lorded over in the east and the north prior to commencement of Eelam War IV, has fled into the government-earmarked no-fire zone (NFZ) and taken shelter among an unknown number of civilians.

The military and the government are convinced that inside the NFZ Prabakaran and other top-rung Tiger leaders are holding innocent citizens as a last wall of defence against the rapidly closing-in military. Whether Prabakaran is inside the NFZ or not, the plain reality is that the defeat of the LTTE as a conventional force is irreversible at least for several years to come.

The fate of Prabakaran, who has led the LTTE from the front for almost three decades, has been a topic of vigorous analysis. In case he has escaped or decides to flee the battle zone, he is scripting his own political obituary. In the other scenario of the LTTE chief going down fighting, he would end up as a martyr, a prospect that does not augur well for a peaceful resolution of the ethnic conflict. In either case, the implications are serious and unpredictable.

Until there is clarity on the fate of Prabakaran, the suspense over the outcome and consequences of Eelam War IV will continue. The military and experts whose articles are featured elsewhere in this issue have dwelt at length on where, why and how Prabakaran and his fellow-travellers blundered during the nearly three-year phase of the current war.

Among the vital miscalculations by the LTTE, the first and foremost was the Tigers naivety in believing that Mahinda Rajapaksa as the President of Sri Lanka was a better bet than his opponent and United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Ironically, the Tigers worked assiduously to put Rajapaksa in the presidential saddle and despite this the November 2005 presidential race ended in a photo-finish. The LTTE had clearly underestimated Rajapaksas determination and acumen in executing his electoral promise of fight to finish the Tigers on the ground. The LTTE believed that the electoral alliance of Rajapaksa with the ultra-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and his pledge to scrap the 2002 Norwegian-brokered Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) and throw out Norway as the official peace facilitator would further its Eelam agenda.

Rajapaksa and his core group made a political determination in August 2006 to launch a fight to finish campaign against the Tigers after the latter gave the much-needed opportunity and excuse when they closed down the Mavil Aru sluice gates in the east. The presidential core team in the campaign included his younger brother and Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and Fonseka, both of whom had scores to settle with the Tigers.

In December 2006, after the attempt to kill the Army chief, suspected Tiger cadre targeted the Defence Secretary, who had retired as a colonel from the Army almost two decades ago and settled down in the United States only to return as a high-profile official in his brothers government. The Defence Secretary and the Army chief proved to be a lethal combination for the LTTE. The President backed them to the hilt even when some of their actions evoked strong disapproval within and outside the island nation.

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. 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 was in dire straits.

LTTE chief Velupillai Prabakaran, a February 2009 picture. Until what has happened to him is known, the outcome and consequences of Eelam War IV will remain a suspense.-HAND OUT

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). 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 CFA was kept alive until January 2008 and it did not ban the LTTE as a terrorist outfit until the first week of January 2009 when Sri Lanka became the 31st country to proscribe the organisation.

On the propaganda front, too, the government imitated the LTTE. On the battle front, it went the extra mile to ensure that the mistakes of the past were not repeated and that the soldiers were offered maximum protection. 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.

The current phase of hostilities witnessed the maximum use of air power. Despite an estimated 20,000 aerial sorties, it is only in the last phase of the war (from December 2008) that the military faced flak for alleged indiscriminate bombing.

Of course, the human costs have been enormous. The military concedes that it lost 4,200 soldiers and officers and claims to have killed 20,000 Tigers. There is no independent confirmation of the losses the LTTE suffered.

The LTTE just could not match the government on any front. The way Rajapaksa handled international pressure in general, and Indian expectations in particular, was best reflected in the 56-word statement issued on April 27 promising to stop using heavy weapons in the NFZ. It was much ado about nothing and it does not require a genius to understand it.

The obvious question is, what next? The LTTE is undoubtedly part of the problem, but its elimination as a conventional force is not the answer to the problem. The Tigers are the byproduct of the long-neglected legitimate grievances of Tamils, and unless these grievances are addressed the cause would remain.

In the immediate context, the biggest challenge for the Rajapaksa regime is to ensure the basic minimum facilities to the two lakh-odd displaced people. It is beyond the capability of the government to cope with the challenge and it would have to bank on the international community for generous help. For the help to flow unhindered, the government has to treat the international community with respect and stop looking at hidden agendas where none exists.

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