A deceptive calm

Published : Jun 24, 2000 00:00 IST

As a relative calm prevails in Jaffna, the LTTE tries to raise the expectations of its supporters and the government exudes optimism that the Army is re-establishing control over the peninsula.


MOST of the 170 plus journalists who reached Colombo anticipating the fall of Jaffna have left the Sri Lankan shores in view of the slow pace of events in the northern battlefront of the island. The much-hyped Jaffna debacle has not taken place so far. T he fighting in the Jaffna Peninsula has not escalated to the expected levels, while the civilian predicament is noteworthy and pathetic.

In the midst of the overall yet deceptive calm that prevails in Jaffna, two spurts of military activity occurred. The first was a limited push by the Sri Lankan armed forces, which ventured into newly acquired Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) terr itory in the Thenmaratchchi sector. The move ended in failure but provided the troops with a morale-booster, albeit a limited one. The second event was the disruption of air traffic at Palaly and sea traffic at Kankesanthurai by the LTTE through sustaine d artillery barrages. By June 15, however, the situation had improved and air and sea communications to and from Palaly-Kankesanthurai were no longer dysfunctional.

In a significant move, the Sri Lanka Army embarked on a limited expedition aimed at wresting control from the LTTE of the Sarasaalai-Madduvil sector in Thenmaratchchi. The chief target was the strategic Kanakanpuliaddy junction, which if taken would have enabled the Army to exert control over five key routes leading out from the area (see "The battle for Jaffna", Frontline, June 9). The Army's launching pad for this manouevre was its camp at Kodikamam along A-9, the Jaffna-Kandy road. The LTTE co ntrols the roadway from Navatkuli down to Sangathanai, including Chava-kachcheri town. Meesaalai, lying between Sangathanai and Kodikamam, is controlled in parts by both the Army and the LTTE, while the areas in the centre are a veritable no man's land.

On June 9, the Army broke out from Kodikamam, moved into Meesaalai and turned off towards Vembiraai at Puthur Junction on the Jaffna-Kandy road. (This junction is not to be confused with the larger and more famous Puthur on the Jaffna-Point Pedro road). The road from Puthur junction at Meesaalai reaches Vembiraai junction from where one road branches off through Manthuvil to Varani while the other leads on through parts of Sarasaalai to the strategic Kanakanpuliaddy junction. The greater part of Manthuv il, as well as Vembiraai junction, is under Army control.

The Army succeeded initially in taking over Vembiraai and then moving into Sarasaalai. At one point it was within a stone's throw of Kanakanpuliaddy junction. The LTTE rallied and launched an effective counter-attack. Both sides used mortar shells heavil y. After a prolonged conflict, said to be hand to hand at one stage, the military effected a strategic withdrawal. The LTTE did not seek to press home its advantage and was content to abide by the status quo in area control. Thus the Army was once again behind Vembiraai junction while the LTTE continued to retain Kanakanpuliaddy. In spite of the stalemate, the brief operation indicated once again that the armed forces in Jaffna were transcending the earlier mode of "flight" to that of "fight". Thereafte r, the Army did not make any significant push and the situation in Thenmaratchchi was quiet by June 15.

The other development was the LTTE recommending an intermittent artillery barrage against the Palaly-Kankesanthurai base complex. The airfield at Palaly and the harbour at Kankesanthurai are the only points of entry and exit for the armed forces statione d in the peninsula and also the only supply conduits. (The naval base at Karainagar provides limited access). The Tigers had earlier fired on Palaly, damaging the runway and the control tower. Shells had also fallen in Kankesanthurai and beyond. Later th e LTTE stopped targeting Palaly-Kankesanthurai and the situation was nearly normal.

On June 7, the LTTE resumed firing at Palaly-Kankesanthurai and by June 10 it succeeded in disrupting air and sea traffic. The Air Force was ordered to cancel all fixed-wing aircraft flights to and from Palaly. Only sporadic helicopter flights continued. Likewise, the Navy suspended all ship movement to and from Kankesanthurai. Changing tack, on June 11 censors allowed the Colombo-based Sunday newspapers to report the situation at Palaly-Kankesanthurai in brief.

A few days later, the LTTE called off the artillery barrages. This presumably led to an improvement in the situation. A Defence Ministry press release noted that all types of aircraft were landing at Palaly and ships were docking at Kankesanthurai. It sa id that all lines of supply were continuing without disruption. While not disputing earlier press reports explicitly, the press release implied that the Palaly-Kankesanthurai situation had returned to normal. However, the authorities cancelled permission for a ship "City of Trincomalee", carrying food and supplies for the Tamil civilians, to dock at Point Pedro on June 16.

THE LTTE tactic of blowing hot and cold with its artillery at Palaly-Kankesanthurai seems to have been fashioned out of necessity. It has been shuttling some of its artillery pieces to different places in the peninsula in recent times. Kaithady, Kopayvel i and Atchuvely were some of these points. The latest round of firing seems to have taken place from the Vaddukkoddai-Ponnaalai and the Puthur-Vatharavathai areas. The artillery pieces were stealthily taken to these positions. They are also being moved a round speedily and surreptitiously.

This Tiger tactic is in the preliminary phase of impacting on the armed forces. The firepower of the armed forces has improved remarkably after the induction of heavy weapons, including artillery from Pakistan, Israel and China. These are being used inte nsively at areas controlled by the LTTE in what is termed as a tactic of "softening" it militarily. This is a bid to prevent the Tigers from consolidating themselves in these positions and launching fresh attacks. This is an important but not the only fa ctor behind comparatively "slow" pace of the LTTE advance. The rate of such artillery bombardment by the armed forces has been high, particularly in the Thenmaratchchi region.

The logistical problem facing the armed forces is that such intensive barrages require ample and uninterrupted supplies. This line of supply to Palaly and Kankesanthurai is under constant threat from LTTE artillery. The Tigers have at times succeeded in interdicting or curtailing the volume of supplies. One way to counter this would be to stockpile necessary arms but then again, doing so at a base complex that is under constant enemy threat is problematic. Also, given the recent history of Elephant Pass and several camps in the Wanni being overrun by the LTTE and arsenals being captured, maintaining a massive stockpile in Palaly or the other major camps in the peninsula is not wise. This then is the dilemma facing the armed forces even as the LTTE step s up its staggered campaign of targeting Palaly-Kankesanthurai.

Although the levels of direct fighting have not been intensive in the past weeks, the plight of the Jaffna civilians as a result of recent upheavals has been tragic. Officially the recent fighting has caused 16,767 persons to register themselves as displ aced persons in 138 welfare centres - a euphemism for refugee camps. This does not include the 15,000 plus persons displaced south of Kilaly, Eluthumattuvaal and Nagar Kovil in the lower regions of the peninsula or other LTTE-occupied areas in the Thenma ratchchi sector. The official figure of registered displaced persons also does not reflect the ground reality as it is only the category of persons belonging to the lower echelons who seek refuge in official camps. These unfortunate people have no other levels of support.

Others with better resources stay temporarily with relatives and friends in places that are safer. They also camp in temples, churches and school buildings. A pronounced tendency is a reluctance to venture far from home. Non-governmental organisations (N GOs) involved in providing aid and relief in the North placed the number of affected persons at a high of 220,000 at one time. Now it is estimated at 150,000. Many of these people are not in need of provisions and are maintaining themselves independently . Many of them are in their areas by day and by night return to the places of refuge. Others shuttle between both places day after day. Having been displaced several times, the people of Jaffna just do not want to abandon their home and hearth for too lo ng a stretch.

A striking example is Jaffna city itself. Its usual population of 115,000 increased to about 130,000 in the early days of the fighting as the displaced people moved in temporarily. When the LTTE moved into the coastal areas of the municipality, 70 to 75 per cent of the people moved out. But they were in adjacent areas such as Kokuvil and Manipay. By day many returned. With an attack on Jaffna town being not so imminent, about 80,000 people have returned. Most of the rest are seen in the town by day and are also trickling back. By days, Jaffna city may not be exactly bustling, but it does not seemed besieged either.

ANOTHER consequence of the intensified artillery barrages has been the destruction of life, limb and property. The strict media censorship has prevented attention being focussed on the civilian predicament. But international organisations working in the North have been informing family members living outside Jaffna of deaths and injuries sustained by their relatives. Many buildings and houses in Chavakachcheri, Sarasaalai, Meesaalai, Madduvil and Kaithady have suffered damage. The Catholic Bishop of Man nar, Fr.Joseph Rayappu, in a statement released to the press on June 12 placed the civilian casualty toll at 500. NGO circles in Colombo told this writer that though they do not have exact figures, the number of civilians affected was quite high. They al so said that according to available information, 75 to 80 per cent of the casualties were victims of Army firing and those of the LTTE.

The past few weeks have seen the LTTE trying hard to bring about a temporary ceasefire in order to enable the "trapped" civilians to move into safe areas. The Tigers also directly appealed to the international organisations to intervene with the Sri Lank an government and/or enact measures to remove civilians in Thenmaratchchi to safer areas. One reason for this concern was that the continuous civilian presence in the war zone was constricting Tiger operations. The government has remained non -responsive to these efforts for unstated yet obvious reasons.

Another complicating factor was the insistence by both sides that the displaced persons should move to safer areas under their respective spheres of control. The armed forces want people from Thenmaratchchi to move into Army-controlled areas of Vadamarat chchi and Valigamam. The Tigers want the people to use the Keratheevu-Sangupiddy ferry and relocate to the LTTE enclave of Wanni, the northern mainland. The people are caught in between, but manifest nothing other than a yearning to remain in their villa ges permanently.

According to an NGO official who spoke to this writer on condition of anonymity, another problem was the contentious issue of youngsters from Thenmaratchchi being "conscripted" by the Tigers. The official said that 150 to 200 parents had complained in wr iting that their children in late teens had been forcibly recruited by the LTTE and taken to Wanni. LTTE leaders, however, denied that these youngsters were conscripted and claimed that they had all voluntarily joined the Tiger ranks. When NGO officials requested a meeting with the new "recruits" to ascertain for themselves the correct picture, Tiger leaders informed them that they were undergoing intensive training and that meetings could be arranged after training concluded.

WHILE the Jaffna peninsula continued to have a period of relatively uneasy calm, LTTE news releases sought to assure the organisation's overseas supporters that the "lull" was only temporary and was a prelude to a massive military campaign. The Tamil new s release of June 15 said that the Tiger forces were engaged in consolidating captured territory and making preparations for the next stage of fighting. The LTTE was formulating plans to drive out the "Sinhala forces of occupation" while striving to ensu re the safety of civilians by conducting them safely to other areas outside the war zone.

Even as the LTTE was trying to keep expectations high among its overseas support base by referring to an imminent offensive, there was increasing optimism in Colombo that the armed forces were re-establishing control over the peninsula. The hope was that apart from withstanding LTTE attacks the Army would in due course take the initiative and win back all areas lost in the peninsula. This expectation was linked to the government's electoral strategy for the parliamentary elections to be held any time af ter August this year.

It remains to be seen whether the LTTE would succeed in its plans when a major confrontation erupts or whether the armed forces would be able to wrest the initiative. It is certain, however, that the "stable stalemate" prevailing in Jaffna will become "u nstable chaos" when the fighting begins in earnest.

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