A no-win situation

Print edition : September 25, 1999

Bringing peace to the northeastern region of Sri Lanka requires more than a smart military operation. Lack of progress on the political front has created a no-win situation here.

NORTHEASTERN Sri Lanka is going through a painful phase, marked by an impasse, in both political and military terms. With the country set to face national and presidential elections in the year ahead, it is possible that positions will harden among both the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Government. The Opposition United National Party (UNP), whose endorsement of the policy decisions taken by the ruling People's Alliance (P.A.) is crucial to resolving the crisis, is also expe cted to adopt a tough stand.

Exactly a year ago, following a fierce battle between government troops and the separatists, Killinochchi and Manku-lam changed hands. While Killinochchi came under the control of the LTTE, the government regained Mankulam.

Since then nothing much has happened to alter the situation. But the security forces have scored a string of successes in the Wanni area, regaining chunks of territory from the Tigers. The crucial gain was the retaking of Madhu, a pilgrim centre in Manna r district.

In the second week of September, the security forces started a fifth round of Rana Gosa (Battle Cry) operations in the Wanni area comprising four northern districts. The previous such operation had been conducted with remarkable ease. Going by reports co ming from the northeastern area, Rana Gosa V has not made much gains as the LTTE has put up stiff resistance.

(Reportage on military operations is largely confined to information based on secondary sources as journalists are not permitted to enter the areas until after the completion of a military operation. Moreover, censorship of news related to military opera tions has been in place since June 1999.)

The Defence Ministry said that the troops "advanced from general areas north and east of Welimarandamadu Tank and general areas east of Periyamadu tank". Indications are that the total number of casualties on both sides could well be above 150.

Heavy casualties have been reported from the northern Mannar district, where a fresh offensive was launched on September 12. The operation has strategic significance in that it seeks to cover areas which would, if successfully penetrated, lead to the ope ning of a much-needed main supply route to the northern Jaffna peninsula.

The operation launched in September 1998 implied a rethinking on the part of the government with regard to its plans to open a main supply route to Jaffna through a series of offensives called Operation Jaya Sikuru (Sure Victory). After Operation Jaya Si kuru was given up, the western offensive was launched, and it has been widely perceived as one aimed at opening a main supply route along the western coast.

Operation Rana Gosa also marks a shift in military strategy after the Killinochchi operations in that an earlier approach to open a main supply route along the Kandy-Jaffna road, which runs through the Tiger heartland, was abandoned in favour of a more p ractical western route.

Bringing peace to the troubled northeastern region would require more than a smart and successful military operation. While the military advance is crucial, equally important would be the progress made on a resolution of the political issues. Unfortunate ly, nothing has happened on this front as the goals of both the government and the LTTE have remained unachievable.

For its part, the government is keen on a solution within a framework that envisages a united but non-unitary nation, while the Tigers remain committed to their separatist agenda. And so the attrition continues.

So it is imperative for the government to address the ground realities in the northeastern region, especially the situation faced by civilians living under the LTTE's sway. Regulations on fishing, and movement between the government-held and LTTE-held ar eas, lack of proper transportation facilities between Jaffna and the rest of the island and mounting pressures on the food delivery system are but early manifestations of more trouble ahead.

The advantage now lies with the military, successive operations having eroded the territorial base of the LTTE. With the ongoing military thrust, the efficacy of the civil administration, already handicapped as a result of the government having to run ba sic affairs in an essentially enemy-held area, has been further affected. The prevailing no-win situation, according to Tamil politicians, could help the LTTE to try to prove that it has a presence all over the northeast. This could impel it to launch at tacks on economic installations and security personnel, as was seen in a recent attack on a police station in Trincomalee.

By systematically dismembering the other militant groups, the LTTE is better placed to claim the status of the "sole representative of the Tamils". The assassination of Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, senior leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), an d those of Razeek of the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front and Manickathasan of the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam are indicators of the LTTE's unwillingness to accommodate an alternative leadership for Tamils, either politic ally or militarily.

However, the present delicate balance and uncertainty could change dramatically if the LTTE were to strike at any Army camp. Military strategists are in no doubt about the LTTE's capabilities. The question now is when and where it will strike.

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