A rapprochement move

Print edition : July 17, 1999

There is evidence to show that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is seeking to ingratiate itself with India when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition is still in power.

THE Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) seems intent on launching a campaign that would help it achieve a rapprochement of sorts with India. Although "well-wishers" of the LTTE in India have been pushing its case for several years, the Tigers themselves seem to be doing it, and actively so, after the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre came into being in 1998. For instance, LTTE propaganda no longer gloats over the "great triumph over the world's fourth largest army." Instead there is a constant refrain that New Delhi should revise its Sri Lanka policy, without specifying how.

It is becoming strikingly evident that the LTTE's hope is to ingratiate itself with India, when a political configuration led by the BJP is in power. An illustrative case is the LTTE's action in challenging through legal means the extension of the ban that India imposed on it in 1992.

The Tigers did not follow this course of action on previous occasions, that is, in 1994 and 1996, when the ban came up for review, even though that option was available. They sought that remedy, though unsuccessfully, only last year when the ban came up for a similar review. The LTTE also stated its current position towards India succinctly in a press release in which it denied allegations of a conspiracy against Sonia Gandhi. It said: "The LTTE wishes to state emphatically that it has no intention of interfering in the internal politics of India, nor will it act in any way prejudicial to Indian national interests." Ever since the Kargil crisis escalated, the LTTE has apparently remained consistent with its declaration that it would abide by its professed position in support of India's interests. The Wanni-based LTTE radio, Puligalin Kural (Voice of Tigers), broadcasts news items and commentary that are favourable to India and critical of Pakistan. The Tiger daily circulated in the Wanni, Eelanatham (Sound of Eelam), too has followed suit. The Tiger-controlled media of the Tamil diaspora have also been pro-India. Some Tiger journals have stated in recent times that the organisation has sent "declarations of support" to the Indian government directly.

According to these journals, the LTTE's London-based political adviser, Anton Balasingham, has faxed these letters to relevant agencies on instructions from LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakaran himself. Supportive missives are said to have been transmitted to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Defence Minister George Fernandes, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, Home Minister L.K. Advani, Law Minister Ram Jethmalani and Power and Energy Minister Rangarajan Kumaramangalam. The content of the letters has not been revealed. There are reports that Balasingham also spoke to two Cabinet Ministers and a Secretary to the Government over phone, extending support. It has also been pointed out that the Tigers have expressed support to India while Sri Lanka is officially "neutral" but secretly "partial" towards Pakistan. There has been no independent confirmation of these reports.

EVEN as the LTTE made a tentative foray into the realm of subcontinental affairs, events in the island-nation were of an interestingly assorted nature. On the battle front it became clear that the Government now hoped to establish a land route to the Jaffna peninsula via the Mannar-Pooneryn road on the northwestern coast. Aware of this manoeuvre, the Tigers are now offering stiff resistance, unlike on earlier occasions. The Army, which captured without any real fighting, around 1,000 sq km of territory through three different operations, codenamed "Rana Ghosa"(War Cry), finds itself bogged down.

Troops of the 53rd and 55th divisions, engaged in Rana Ghosa IV, have not been able to proceed beyond the key Pallamadhu junction on the Mannar-Poneryn road. The LTTE's artillery unit, named after its former commander Kittu and commanded by Bhanu, has been stationed at strategic positions and is reportedly unleashing a barrage of shells on advancing government soldiers. It is becoming clear that with the Tigers resisting its moves the Army will no longer be able to repeat the "cake walk" marches. The Army has to take control of a further 50 km of the road between Pallamadhu and Pooneryn, a stretch of running through places such as Iluppaikadavai, Vellankulam, Mulankavil and Pallavaraayankattu.

The shift in fighting to the northwestern sector from the earlier central and eastern parts of the Wanni has been highlighted by another development. Earlier the entry point for civilians crossing to and from LTTE-controlled regions into Army-dominated areas was at Uylankulam on the Mannar-Vavuniya road. After the conflict heightened in Mannar district, transport was curtailed. This drastically affected the distribution of food supplies. As a result, an alternative has been proposed by the Government and accepted by the LTTE.

Ironically, the new route is along the A-9 Highway between Jaffna and Vavuniya, for the control of which Government troops launched the bitter campaign codenamed "Jayasikirui" or "Certain Victory" from May 1997 to December 1998. The Army could not proceed beyond Mankulam on that road and had to seek another route - the Mannar-Pooneryn road. Now the stretch of road between Vavuniya and Mankulam is to be utilised as a point of entry for civilians. It is envisaged that all civilians going into the Tiger-controlled region would be checked at Thandikulam and then transported in Army buses to Mankulam. Likewise people who venture out from LTTE areas will be brought from Mankulam and checked at Peyaadikoolankulam. The same rules will apply to vehicles taking rations.

The willingness of the LTTE to allow new entry points on the A-9 highway itself has been necessitated by the severe food shortage. The reality is that if rations sent by the Government are restricted, there are no alternative sources of food supply for the people of the Wanni. Even at the best of times enough food was not available. Now, food scarcity is acute. Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe has accused the Government in Parliament of using food as a weapon of war.

Further compounding the civilian's misery is the callous manner in which the LTTE itself manipulates food distribution in areas it controls. Official circles have alleged that the LTTE siphons off for its own consumption 20 per cent of all food rations immediately upon their arrival. A recent report of the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) states that the Tigers have introduced compulsory military training for all able-bodied persons in the Wanni. The intensity of training differs according to gender, age and physical fitness. What is tragic, however, is that while the Government is criticised for using food as a weapon, the LTTE too is using food distribution as an instrument of coercion. The UTHR says that people who refuse to take military training are denied their rations.

Even as this goes on, Tiger propagandists abroad proclaim that the people of the Wanni are gearing up for a "people's war". The position on the ground is, however, the opposite of this. Moreover, the LTTE decision to resort to crude modes of conscription only suggests a severe shortage of cadres. The shrinkage of the area under LTTE control and the corresponding drop in the size of the civilian population it controls have reduced the scope for new recruitment. Moreover, the recent fighting has caused a number of deaths and debilitating injuries. There have been desertions also.

The main cause for the inadequacy of personnel to meet the LTTE's military requirements is the interesting reversal of roles caused by the current Tiger strategy. It is a universal credo that the guerilla does not hold on to territory and is essentially mobile, and follows generally hit-and-run tactics. Thus the guerilla retains the element of surprise, picking and choosing his targets. The time and place of attack are determined by the guerilla movement, and the conventional army is placed in the unenviable position of only responding to attacks.

Unlike the average guerilla outfit, the Tigers at one point of time gained the strength to exercise territorial control. The LTTE has aimed at territorial entrenchment and adopts positional warfare. Although the area controlled by it in the north has shrunk considerably, it retains a rectangular swathe between Paranthan in the north, Mankulam in the south, Mullaitheevu in the east and Nachikudah in the west. However, the Army surrounds this territory in all four directions.

This means that the element of surprise now lies with the Army. The security forces pick the time and place of conflict in the Wanni and the Tigers, in a bid to preserve their territorial control, are compelled to defend their areas. This is a logistical nightmare for the LTTE in the Wanni as the Army is in a position to launch a series of multiple incursions from diverse points. So the LTTE has to maintain fixed positions, like a conventional army. According to military intelligence reports, the LTTE has stationed contingents to the west and east of Paranthan, south of Killinochi, north of Mankulam, east of Oddusuddan, north of Kokkilai, north of Pallamadhu and south of Thunukkai-Mallavi-Vavunikulam. With such large numbers of cadres tied down, the Tigers are desperately in need of fresh blood.

This does not mean, however, that the Tigers are defanged. There is an opinion in the Sinhala-dominated south that the LTTE is weakened to the point of impotency. The fact that the LTTE has not launched any major attack since November 1998 is adduced as proof of this. However, such an assumption can be dangerously wrong. According to Tiger propagandists abroad, the LTTE has not conducted a massive attack on the lines of Mullaitheevu and Killinochi only because Prabakaran issued a call for peace in his Great Heroes Day speech of November 26, 1998. He is keeping the doors of peace open and that is why the LTTE is unusually quiet, these circles say. They warn that a terrible attack will be launched if the Government does not respond positively.

IT does seem certain that a major LTTE attack is in the offing. There has been a systematic acquirement of sophisticated arms during the past few months. Also special training schemes are being conducted for cadres. The recent loss of more than a 1,000 sq km of territory to the armed forces without a fight has demoralised LTTE supporters considerably. There is tremendous pressure on Prabakaran to demonstrate through a military operation that the Tigers have not become toothless. Besides, it is necessary to negotiate from a position of perceived strength if and when talks with the Government take place.

The LTTE has launched another tactical campaign. It seeks to destroy all vestiges of a civil administration in the Government-controlled areas of the north and east. It has stepped up attacks against the Army in the peninsula. It has killed several recently elected members of the local authorities. Besides, it enforced a boycott of government offices by government employees for two days in a week. This paralysed government institutions. The boycott, which was the result of a mere warning, illustrated the LTTE's hegemony over the Tamil people. After proving their point the Tigers suspended the boycott.

The LTTE also issued a stern appeal to rival Tamil groups, after killing Razeek, the leader of the Razeek Group, in Batticaloa. It called upon their members to redeem themselves by joining the LTTE. They would be forgiven if they did so now, and hereafter there would be no further opportunities, the Tigers stated. This resulted in a considerable number of members of smaller organisations joining the LTTE ranks. The military commander of the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Manickadasan openly asked his colleagues to join the LTTE and then left for Singapore. Perturbed by this development, the Army has been disarming many of the organisations aligned to it.

In another controversial move, the LTTE has embarked upon a stratagem in Batticaloa district of the Eastern Province. It has conveyed a message to the five members of Parliament elected from the district that they should not meet their constituents or attend public functions in the future. These MPs comprise Pararajasingham, Selvarajah and Thurairajasingham of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), Ali Zahir Moulana of the United National Party (UNP) and Hizbullah of the Muslim Congress, a Deputy Minister. All of them took the warning seriously and returned to Colombo after cancelling all their engagements. Later the Tigers made a public announcement that no one should participate in government functions or invite politicians for functions of a private nature.

EVEN as "parliamentary democracy" started crumbling in Batticaloa, the country at large became excited over speculation about a snap election in October this year. Earlier, President Chandrika Kumaratunga had said that the election year was 2000. Now there are signs of her preparing for an earlier poll.

A straw in the wind was the appointment of two new Ministers. Ministers now number 30 and Deputy Ministers 41, making a grand total of 71 out of 113 members on the treasury benches. The new appointments were made in such a way that diverse regional and other interests were satisfied.

Another factor that perhaps prompted the Government to decide on early election is the perceived divisions within the UNP, the principal Opposition party. The calculation seems to be that a united People's Alliance (P.A.), the ruling coalition, can defeat a divided UNP. Although it is not clear whether the parliamentary polls or the presidential election would be held first, it is widely believed that Chandrika Kumaratunga would prefer to hold the presidential poll first as she is considered the favourite in a one-to-one race with UNP chief Ranil Wickremasinghe. There could be a dark horse for the Opposition - the maverick leftist Vasudeva Nanayakkara. First it remains to be seen whether the speculation of an October election would prove correct.

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