Shrinking lair

Published : Jan 02, 2009 00:00 IST

The Sri Lankan forces have made extraordinary gains on the battleground since the current phase of the war began in 2006.

in Colombo

ON December 9, at a function to mark the inauguration of a power plant, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised to unveil a new dawn soon in the north where the island nations military is engaged in fierce battles with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). A day before, on the eve of Id-ul-Alha, Rajapaksa asserted that the day was not far off when the Muslims from the north could return to their homeland. His reference was to the estimated 1,00,000 Muslims who were expelled, with less than 24 hours notice, in 1990 from the north by the Tigers.

With Sri Lanka at war for over two and a half decades, such promises by the President would have been viewed as pep talk by the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces to boost the morale of the military engaged in an all-out war with the LTTE. The current phase of hostilities, known as Eelam War IV, promises to be different, though. But only time will tell if it is going to be a decisive one.

Why is the Sri Lankan President so confident of a victory? The answer lies in the extraordinary gains made by the military on the battleground since the current phase of the war began in July 2006. It is true that the Tigers have lost territory to the Sri Lankan forces in the past too but never have they been cornered on so many fronts as at present. The ground situation is best summed up by Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leader V. Anandasangaree in his open letter dated December 10 to the people and leaders of Tamil Nadu. He makes a passionate plea to pressure the LTTE to allow innocent citizens trapped in the war zone to move out freely. The letter reads: The war that started about 200 miles away from Pottuvil in the Eastern Province has now reached a point from where the end is only about 10 to 15 miles from Kilinochchi in the Northern Province. More than 90 per cent of the area under the control of the LTTE is already liberated.

When the current phase of hostilities broke out 28 months ago, the LTTE had a presence in the Eastern Province and was dominant in Kilinochchi, Mullaithivu, some parts of Mannar and Vavuniya districts in the Northern Province. As of December 10 this year, the Tigers are confined to parts of Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu in the Wanni region.

Jaffna and the Wanni are the two theatres of battle. In the Jaffna theatre, troops maintain active defence on three fronts Muhamalai, Kilaly and Nagarkovil. Until recently, the Jaffna peninsula was cut off from the mainland owing to the LTTEs domination in the Wanni. With the liberation of Ponneryn and the Sangupiddi causeway, troops manning the Kilaly, Muhamalai and Nagarkovil forward boundaries are now shifting their mode of operation from active defence to all-out offence.

The LTTE has not contested the governments claims on the battlefront. The November 27 Great Heroes Day speech by LTTE chief Velupillai Prabakaran confirmed the Sri Lankan military assessment. It read more like a mercy petition to India to bail out his cadre from the relentless campaign by the Sri Lankan forces. However, it bore no signs of remorse for the ruthless campaign the LTTE has conducted since 1987 with India as villain number one in the region. Prabakarans speech indicated no empathy for the people of India though it came a little after the terrorist attack on Mumbai.

The speech speaks volumes about the state of the LTTE in the thick of Eelam War IV. With the Sri Lanka Army in the vicinity of Kilinochchi town and the LTTEs administrative headquarters and bases in the north falling like a house of cards, the Tigers are faced with a do-or-die battle. In Prabakarans own words, the LTTE is pitted against the Sri Lanka forces in an intense war as never before. It is a rare confession from a man who has kept up the fight for the elusive Eelam in defiance of the counsel of the whole world. The LTTE somehow wants to bring about a halt to the ongoing ground operations. In November, the Tigers lost some key bases in the north, which threatens its very existence as a conventional force. It is true that the LTTE had lost and regained these bases to the Army in the 1990s.

The militarys recapture of Ponneryn and its immediate environs after a gap of 15 years, on November 20, is a huge blow to the Tigers. It has helped the Army open another front to move towards Kilinochchi and has also brightened prospects of the fall of the administrative headquarters of the LTTE. Sri Lankan troops are steadily marching along the Ponneryn-Paranthan road. Ahead of the A-9 (Kandy-Jaffna) highway, this road bifurcates. One leads to the Paranthan junction, the other to Kilinochchi town. The takeover of Ponneryn by the military would give it another land-based supply route from Mannar to the Jaffna peninsula. The people of the peninsula have remained cut off from the rest of the island since August 2006, when the military shut down the A-9 highway, which runs through Tiger territory, on grounds of security. The prospect of a new land route to the peninsula would help movement of troops and supplies.

At present, a larger number of troops are moved by Jetliner, a passenger vessel which can carry 3,000 people. In the light of threats, a fleet of Dvora fast-attack craft and helicopter gunships escort the vessel from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai. The Sri Lankan forces have seized a two-and-a-half kilometre stretch of the A-9 highway and recaptured Mankulam. Indications are that the LTTE is putting up maximum resistance in a last-ditch attempt to halt the troops advance to Kilinochchi. Following the seizure of Ponneryn, the troops from the Armys Task Force 2 advanced northwards from Omanthai, until recently the only entry-exit point to the Wanni. The Sri Lankan forces have also recaptured the first line of LTTE defences at Muhamalai. The area is the divide between the government-controlled Jaffna peninsula and the Tiger-dominated Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu.

It is against this backdrop that the latest Heroes Day speech of Prabakaran is to be evaluated. Clearly, he is banking on Tamil Nadu to build pressure on New Delhi to prevail upon Colombo to halt the offensive and resume talks. In contrast to his 2007 speech wherein he had accused New Delhi of abetting the genocide of Tamils being carried by the Sinhala state, the Tiger chief appealed to New Delhi to remove the ban against his outfit.

There were some glaring contradictions in his speech. For instance, on the one hand he said that the LTTE was faced with a war like never before, but on the other he dismissed the Sri Lankan military offensive as neither novel nor huge. Similarly, in his bid to reach out to India, he talked of how his organisation never posed a threat to the geopolitical interests of any country but in the same breath boasted about the past record of the LTTE in taking on forces much mightier than ours.

In an obvious reference to the war between the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and the Tigers from 1987 to 1990, Prabakaran said: We have faced forces much mightier than ours. We have had direct confrontations even against superior powers, stronger than us. We have withstood wave after wave of our enemy attacks Even though the armed struggle was thrust on us by inevitable needs, we wish to stop the war and seek a peaceful resolution to the national question of our people, he said.

He accused the Sri Lankan government of using peace talks as a masquerade to wage a major war. This war has affected Tamil civilians more than anybody else. By turning the heat of war on our people and by burdening them with immeasurable sufferings, the Sinhala state is aspiring to turn our people against the LTTE, he maintained.

In contrast to Prabakaran, the Sri Lankan President took the opportunity provided by the Mumbai attacks to reach out to India and put forth the viewpoint of his regime. As a country that has suffered the most brutal terrorism for the past three decades, and is currently engaged in determined action to eradicate it from our midst, Sri Lanka stands with the Government and people of India at this time of tragedy and remain firm in our commitment to jointly combat and eradicate terrorism in all its forms from our countries, as well as from the South Asian Region, Rajapaksa said in a message.

Ironically, his regime may be doing well on the battleground, but its attempts at scoring self-goals could prove costly. For instance, Sri Lanka Army chief Sarath Fonseka made derogatory remarks to the state-run English weekly Sunday Observer about politicians in Tamil Nadu campaigning for a ceasefire and resumption of talks. He had said, It [New Delhi] would not listen to the political jokers of Tamil Nadu whose survival depends on the LTTE. Sri Lanka had to express regret over the conduct of its Army Chief very soon when New Delhi lodged a strong protest. Incidentally, on December 8 the Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper was replaced.

It is not for the first time in recent weeks the Army chief has got embroiled in a controversy over his statements in the media. His comments in another interview that Sri Lanka was a Sinhala nation had triggered protests in various quarters.

The international community and several quarters within Sri Lanka are concerned that finding a political solution to the ethnic conflict is progressing at a snails pace. Those within and outside the government have argued that military gains on the ground need to be consolidated with imaginative and constructive political moves towards winning the hearts and minds of people on the ethnic divide, but it has so far not had the desired impact. The precarious law and order situation in the east, which has been liberated from the clutches of the LTTE in 2007, reinforces the point.

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