Stranded in Wanni

Published : Feb 13, 2009 00:00 IST

in Colombo

ON January 16, exactly two weeks after the Sri Lanka forces captured the political and administrative headquarters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Kilinochchi in the north, TamilNet, the pro-Tiger website, had an unusual note posted on it. It read: Many readers of the Eezham Tamil Diaspora and India anxiously communicate with TamilNet on the future course of the Eezham Tamil struggle. In this regard, TamilNet invites positive written opinion from its readers. The views will be compiled and presented shortly. TamilNet also considers this as a healthy democratic exercise in inspiring the future course of the struggle. The names and identities of the contributors will be withheld.

This was the first formal acknowledgement by pro-LTTE elements that the 30-month-old war between the Sri Lanka military and the Tigers was decisively poised in favour of the former. More importantly, the invitation suggested that the struggle for a separate homeland for the Tamils of Sri Lanka could no longer be anchored exclusively on the visibly dwindling strength of the LTTE.

The despair is not difficult to understand, given the speed at which the northern region is slipping out of the hands of the Tigers. The new year began on a disastrous note for the LTTE. Within days of being ousted from Kilinochchi, it lost its bases in Muhamalai and Elephant Pass at the mouth of the Jaffna peninsula. As a result, for the first time since the departure of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in 1990, the Sri Lanka forces gained complete control over A9 highway.

The A9 is of enormous significance from the political and military perspectives. It is the road that links the peninsula with the rest of the island and is politically a symbol of unity between the north and the south. It is the best New Year gift the military could have asked for. There are about 40,000 troops deployed in the peninsula, and the absence of a road route posed formidable problems in terms of logistics.

On January 17, Army Chief Lt.-Gen. Sarath Fonseka declared, at a dinner he hosted in Colombo for foreign correspondents and local defence reporters, that the conventional war with the LTTE would be over before mid-2009. He claimed that the LTTE was now confined to a 30 km by 15 km area in the jungle stretch of Mullaithivu.

Acccording to his estimate, the number of LTTE cadre is down to 1,000 as of the third week of January. The military believes that in Eelam War IV the current phase of hostilities which began in July 2006 it has killed over 14,000 LTTE cadre. The claim cannot be verified in the absence of an independent mechanism, but there is little doubt that the LTTE has suffered maximum damage in the current war and is faced with one of its worst crises ever.

The rapidity of the militarys advance into Mullaithivu, the last remaining LTTE bastion, could be gauged from the militarys claim that the troops had marched 17 kilometres towards Mullaithivu in as many days. When the war started, I used 50 map sheets to plan it. Now I only need one sheet to plan it, Lt.-Gen. Fonseka said at the dinner.

He created a stir among journalists when he casually suggested that the LTTE chief, Velupillai Prabakaran, may have already fled Sri Lanka via the sea route. Prabakaran is a man who loves food, a man who loves his family, so I dont think he would wait until the military got so close to him. He could have already escaped through the sea, he said. He argued that Prabakaran would neither commit suicide, which he exhorts his followers to do with cyanide capsules worn around their necks, nor allow himself to be captured like former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The General thought the LTTE could find shelter in some parts of the world but not in India. They have plenty of money. There are several countries in the world where one can find shelter if one is ready to part with cash, he said.

He took a dig at the media for raising questions on the militarys capability to take on the LTTE. Most defence reporters and analysts, he jokingly remarked, could be out of work by next year. Pointing to the black shirt he was wearing, adorned with a dragon strangling a tiger, he said: For your information, this was the same shirt I wore when I hosted the dinner for you people at the beginning of 2008. I am wearing it for the second time today after that day.

The developments on the military front do not mean that everything is hunky-dory. A January 16 note circulated by the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC), the only organisation on the ground in the Wanni region, drew attention to the plight of civilians stranded in the war zone. A visit by Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon on January 16-17 to Colombo highlighted the concerns that India, like the rest of the world, has about civilians caught in the cross-fire and on the need for a speedy political solution to the conflict.

There is dispute on the number of people stranded and displaced in the war zone. At last count, United Nations agencies put the figure of displaced people in the Wanni at 2.3 lakh. However, the government said this was an exaggeration and insisted that the number could not be over one lakh. But even the governments own figures are alarming enough. With the LTTE retreating into the jungles of Mullaithivu, it is presumed that civilians have moved with the LTTE cadre, voluntarily or otherwise.

The ICRC note complained that fighting had prevented relief supplies from reaching the population in the Wanni from January 9. Civilians in the Wanni are weary from the conflict. Repeated displacements, often involving the loss of their personal belongings, have taken a toll on them. Nevertheless, their ability to cope has been remarkable, said Paul Castella, head of the ICRC delegation. The ICRC also noted that because of the combat operations and the moving front line, tens of thousands of displaced civilians were concentrated in an area so small that there were serious concerns over their physical safety and living conditions, particularly in terms of hygiene.

In addition, the ICRC has to negotiate safe passage over a distance of up to 30 kilometres between government- and LTTE-held areas with the parties every day [between 2002, when the ceasefire was signed, and November 2008, guarantees of safe passage were needed only for travel on a 300-metre stretch of road]. The new situation has made it necessary for the ICRC to bring in more international and national staff to manage the convoys and communicate with the parties on the ground, the note said.

The ICRC also negotiates with the parties to the conflict to arrange for the safe passage of ambulances and health professionals between the various medical facilities in LTTE-held areas and Vavuniya. However, the ICRC said it was concerned that no safe passage had been arranged since January 9.

This has put at risk the lives of patients who cannot receive suitable treatment on the spot and therefore need to be transferred to Vavuniya Hospital, in government-controlled territory, the note said. It added that in Mullaithivu and Kilinochchi districts, a large number of civilians abandoned their homes and shelters and fled combat areas in December and there was almost no area left in that part of the country where people could be safe from the hostilities. Families heading westward in search of safety are encountering other families moving eastward with the same aim, Castella said.

It was against this backdrop that Shivshankar Menons two-day visit assumed significance. He met Palitha Kohona, his counterpart in Sri Lanka, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary, and Basil Rajapaksa, Senior Adviser to the President. He also called on President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama. In addition, he met the Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party, and prominent leaders of the Tamil and Muslim communities.

Shivshankar Menons visit came after repeated demands by some political parties in Tamil Nadu, including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh send External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee to prevail upon the Sri Lankan government to halt the war and resume the peace process. However, New Delhi distanced itself from the demand for a ceasefire on the grounds that this was an internal affair of the island nation and focussed only on the humanitarian issues and the need for an early political resolution of the conflict.

There is a discrepancy in the accounts given by India and Sri Lanka on the outcome of the talks between Shivshankar Menon and his counterpart. The formers reluctance to brief the media and the inexplicably long time that the Indian mission took to issue a press statement only added to the confusion. In contrast, Colombo went to town with two press statements suggesting that New Delhi was in total agreement with its approach to war and resolution of the ethnic conflict. Neither statement made any reference to the humanitarian crisis in the Wanni and both quoted the Indian official as saying that Indias relations with Sri Lanka had reached an unprecedented level of depth and quality today. Rohitha Bogollagama and Shivshankar Menon were said to have agreed that a moment of political opportunity had been made available to Sri Lanka to bring about an inclusive peace with credible political representation of the Tamil people within the countrys democratic process.

In a statement issued on January 18, the Indian mission in Colombo maintained that the Foreign Secretary had conveyed Indias concerns at the humanitarian situation in the northern part of Sri Lanka and the need to ensure the safety and security of the internally displaced civilian population. It said the Foreign Secretary announced Indias intention to provide further assistance in the form of medicines and shelter material worth 40 million Sri Lanka rupees. India had provided 1,680 tonnes of food and other relief assistance through the ICRC.

There is little doubt that the Rajapaksa government has made unprecedented gains on the battleground against the LTTE, but that does not move forward the process towards a resolution of the conflict. Tamils in the island nation are anxious about their future. Unless the government focusses its attention on the battle to win the hearts and minds of the minorities, the territorial gains in themselves do not mean much.

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