Eastern cauldron

Print edition : August 24, 2007

A soldier keeping vigil in the Thoppigala, or Barons Cap, area in early July. The last bastion of the LTTE in eastern Sri Lanka was taken by the Army on July 11.-MINISTRY OF DEFENCE/HANDOUT/ AFP

The government forces take the Eastern province, but will the military status quo remain?

A soldier keeping

ON July 11, soldiers of Sri Lankas elite Special Forces hoisted the national flag at the summit of Barons Cap (Thoppigala /Kudumbimalai in Sinhala/Tamil), a rocky hill in the Eastern province. With that symbolic gesture, the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) announced that the Eastern province had come under its full control.

On July 19, a grand ceremony paralleling an Independence Day celebration was held in Colombo. Amidst the pomp and pageantry, the service chiefs presented President Mahinda Rajapaksa with a sannaspatra (parchment scroll), formally informing him that the east had been fully liberated from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The Opposition was not impressed. It accused the government of diverting the countrys focus from the rising inflation and cost of living to what is touted as a great military victory in the east. While these charges are not entirely without merit, there is no denying that Rajapaksa must be happy and proud to have won back the east by capturing the final stronghold of the LTTE in the province. It has been many years since Colombos writ ran in all parts of the province.

The Eastern province covers an area of 9,965 square kilometres, comprising around 16 per cent of the total land area of Sri Lanka. The maximum length of the province is 286 km extending from Kumana in the south-east to Pulmoddai in the north-east. The maximum breadth, from Ulhitiya in the western hinterland to Kirankulam in the eastern littoral, is 89 km.

The province has a 420-km coastline (Amparai 110 km, Batticaloa 100 km and Trincomalee 210 km). It is the only province with three airports, located at Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Amparai. According to the 1981 Census, Tamils comprise 41 per cent, Muslims 33 and Sinhalese 26 per cent of the population. The ratio of Tamils has since decreased with corresponding increases in the populations of the other communities.

The past decades of conflict have seen the areas controlled by the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE expand and shrink according to the vicissitudes of war. The littoral to the east of the Batticaloa lagoon, known as Eluvaankarai (shore of the rising sun), has been generally under government control. Likewise, the greater part of the hinterland to the west of the lagoon, known as Paduvaankarai (shore of the setting sun), has been under LTTE control. The littoral is densely populated and heterogeneous, interspersed with Tamil and Muslim villages. The hinterland is sparsely populated and homogenously Tamil.

The fluctuating fortunes of the east have been tied up to the changing military strategies of different regimes at the centre. The United National Party (UNP) governments of Ranasinghe Premadasa and Dingiri Banda Wijetunga in the 1990s believed in keeping the east under control. The east was regarded as the weak link in the LTTEs armour on account of its mixed population and terrain. Besides, if the east came under Colombos writ, the LTTEs claim for Tamil Eelam could be weakened. Thus, the UNP regime deployed nearly 42 per cent of its military strength in the east. The greater part of the east was under government control.

The LTTE was confined to the jungle areas and pockets of territory adjacent to the jungles. A positive outcome of this strategy was the holding of relatively free and fair local authority elections in 1993 and parliamentary and presidential elections in 1994.

The government of Chandrika Kumaratunga effected a policy shift in 1995 when war broke out between the government forces and the LTTE. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led government wanted to target the Tamil-majority north. So military personnel were pulled out of the east and deployed in the north. The Kumaratunga regime succeeded in wresting back the Jaffna peninsula and some parts of the northern Wanni mainland from the Tamil Tigers.

This resulted in a vacuum in the east. The LTTE was quick to take advantage of that gap. Without virtually firing a single shot, the LTTE started to gain extensive eastern real estate. The Tigers claimed that 70 per cent of the east was under them. When Jaffna fell in 1996, the LTTE propagandists tried to make the best of a difficult situation by pointing out that more land in the east had come under its control than what was lost in the north.

Despite the LTTEs claims, the actual extent of eastern territory under its control was around 55 per cent. The government controlled 30 per cent of the province. The remaining 15 per cent was disputed territory, with both sides exercising movement. Although the LTTE had a larger extent of land under its control, more than two-thirds of the people were in the government-controlled areas.

These people were well off economically and had access to better infrastructural facilities compared to those living in the LTTE regions.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa became President, the LTTE was in possession of impressive real estate in the east. In Trincomalee district, the group controlled many areas north of Trincomalee town and the greater part of Muthur and Eechilampatru divisions in the south. It also held a small portion of the Sinhala-dominated Seruwila division.

In Batticaloa district, the LTTE controlled the bulk of the territory in the hinterland to the west of the Batticaloa lagoon, the Vaharai region and also the Kudumbimalai/Thoppigala areas. In Amparai district, the LTTE controlled the Kanchikudicharu-Rufuskulam jungle areas and the adjacent villages. It also maintained a presence in the Lahugala and Pottuvil jungle areas. So much so that at one stage the eastern coast, from Sampoor down to Panichankeny, was dominated by the LTTE. Possession of Sampoor by the Tigers posed a threat to the strategic Trincomalee harbour.

The Rajapaksa regime revised the military policy of the previous regime. It wanted to clear the east of the LTTE and liberate the people from the Tigers. Significantly, the new regime wanted to achieve this without sacrificing territory in the north. Initially, it was the strategic Sampoor that was targeted. The aerial bombardment and artillery shelling of Sampoor commenced on April 25, 2006, on the day a suicide-bomber targeted Army commander Sarath Fonseka. People from Sampoor and Muthur East began fleeing towards the south.

Ground-based offensives began in July last when the LTTE blocked the flow of water at the Maavilaaru dam. Thereafter, it was a slow but steady forward movement of the armed forces. The LTTE tactic was to offer stiff resistance, often engaging in counter attacks, and then retreat. Spokespersons of the LTTE described this as tactical withdrawal.

Steadily, the government forces seized Sampoor, Muthur East and Eechilampatru division in Trincomalee; the Kanchikudicharu-Rufuskulam areas in the Amparai; Vaaharai, Paduvaankarai region, the Karadiyanaaru- Aayithiyamalai-Unnichai areas, and the Vadamunai-Kudumbimalai-Tharavaikulam region in Batticaloa as the LTTE wilted before the relentless military juggernaut. At one point, Commander Sarath Fonseka set New Years Day in April as deadline for fully clearing the east. The final announcement of victory came weeks later in July.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a state-sponsored ceremony in Colombo on July 19 to celebrate the capture of the Eastern province from the LTTE.-SANKA VIDANAGAMA/AFP

President Mahinda Rajapaksa

The present reality is that the LTTE is not in control of the areas they once possessed in the east. However, the Tigers continue to maintain a low-key presence in the jungles of Kudumbimalai/Thoppigala and Kanchikudicharu, and the Kadawanaikulam -Peraaru areas in Trincomalee.

It is estimated that some 300 Tiger operatives are maintaining a clandestine presence in the eastern littoral and around 500 Tigers are moving in small groups in the jungle areas of the province. These cadre mainly belong to the intelligence section and the assassination squads. More and more cadre are now relocating to the Wanni. Apparently, the LTTE wants to whittle down its cadre strength in the east to an optimum level of a few hundreds.

The question that arises at this juncture is, can the LTTE change the eastern military status quo through future armed action? Will it make a strong effort to regain the east? This question gains significance when seen against the backdrop of past experiences, which have shown that the LTTE gets cleared out only to return in full force. Government strategists feel that the situation will not repeat itself. But LTTE circles are confident it will.

In this respect, the LTTE is the cynosure of all eyes. What the Tigers are capable of doing will determine the easts future. It is noteworthy that the LTTE did not make desperate endeavours to retain its grip of the province. After showing resistance for specific periods, it withdrew its men, thereby retaining a considerable part of its military assets.

It is also worth remembering that the LTTE did not make powerful attempts to capture territory in the east during the early 1990s. This was a time when the Tigers controlled extensive territory in the north. This indicates that the LTTE did not regard the east as a great prize for which it had to fight to the finish. It gave much priority to the preservation of the northern Wanni mainland as its rear base than risk grave losses in a bid to retake the east.

Militarily, retention of territory in the east is not as important as retaining territory in the Wanni. Therefore, the LTTE is unlikely to launch major offensives to recapture the east. A guerilla force like the LTTE cannot hold on to the eastern territory in the face of intensive offensives launched by the security forces. The surprise factor in the eastern theatre was not that the LTTE lost but that it withstood for such a long time. The LTTE faced overwhelming odds in terrain unsuited for positional warfare but managed to hold out for nearly 15 months.

Geographically, the east is too long and too narrow for a force like the LTTE to hold on indefinitely. Also, unlike the north, Tamil territorial contiguity in the east is impaired seriously through interspersed Sinhala and Muslim areas. Attempting to hold can only result in debilitating losses. Retaining territory that passed into Tiger control by default is acceptable. But to risk losses in trying to retain or recapture the unretainable is simply unacceptable to the LTTE.

Even during the recent fighting, the LTTE hierarchy in the Wanni did not make any major effort to send reinforcements to replenish the depleted ranks in the east. With little logistical support from the north, the eastern Tigers were on their own. The hundreds of Tigers present in the east are capable of launching guerilla-type attacks, but their ability and capacity is limited unless greater input from the north is received.

It is doubtful whether the current eastern strength can enable the LTTE to conduct a major offensive to retake territory or reverse the current military balance of power. This can be possible only if the LTTE hierarchy in the north is willing and able to induct men and materiel in a big way into east. This is unlikely because the LTTE high command is now concentrating on retaining the Wanni.

The security forces are already knocking on the gates of many different entry points to the Wanni. The Wanni has become highly vulnerable. So the Tigers will give priority to the Wanni and not the east. It is not in the LTTEs interests at this critical juncture to dilute manpower and firepower by sending a portion of its strength to the east. Even if the LTTE were to send reinforcements, there is the big question of how?. The security forces now dominate the eastern sea coast. The LTTE can beach a boat or two discreetly but will find it difficult to mount a massive naval offensive.

The only land link between the eastern and northern cadre is the Beirut trail, a jungle route running between Kudumbimalai/Thoppigala and Manalaaru/Weli Oya. Many of these jungle tracts are in areas populated by the Sinhalese and Muslims. Tiger groups have revived the use of this route. It would, however, require much effort to utilise the trail for a reverse flow and to transport men and materiel necessary for an eastern assault.

It has to be remembered that such an operation was not conducted even when Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan alias Col Karuna was eastern regional commander of the LTTE.

Today, the situation is one where a breakaway faction, ostensibly led by Col Karuna, is cooperating fully with the security forces. The Karunas cadre know all about the Beirut trail. It is only a matter of time before combined units of the security forces and the Karuna cadre commence jungle patrolling.

Even if the LTTEs mobility through the Beirut trail is not stopped entirely, the possibility of a large-scale Tiger movement could be curtailed effectively.

One development that could transform this climate drastically is a Tiger victory in Weli Oya/Manalaaru. If the LTTE overruns this region and removes the military presence there, it would seriously undermine the security forces in the north-east.

In such a situation, the Tigers could launch effective attacks against military installations in Trincomalee district. More importantly, the north-east transport would be made much easy. Again, it must be pointed out that the LTTE could not overrun Weli Oya/Manalaaru earlier when it was perceived to be much stronger than it is now.

There are other reasons that militate against the idea of large-scale offensives by the LTTE in the east.

First, the security forces have displayed a tenacity unseen before. Massive aerial bombardment and artillery shelling have undermined the helpless Tamil civilians. Displaced Tamils have not returned home yet.

The ordinary Tamils in the east will not like a resumption of hostilities. They would prefer that the LTTE leave them alone while they try to pick up pieces of their shattered lives. There will be no public sympathy for a Tiger assault.

Secondly, the Muslims in the east are alienated from the LTTE. So are the Sinhalese. This provides the security forces a lever to handicap the LTTE.

Thirdly, the split in the LTTE has weakened it considerably. With the Karuna cadre on the side of the security forces, the power balance has altered dramatically in favour of Colombo. The Karuna cadre are likely to play a crucial yet supplementary role in pacifying the east.

The LTTE is more likely to carry out a series of guerilla attacks on Army, police and Special Task Force patrols; lightning raids on police stations and Army outposts; sniping; landmine ambushes; and assassinations of politicians and administrators perceived as agents or collaborators of the regime.

While keeping the eastern cauldron boiling, these actions cannot by themselves reverse the military situation. It can only invite reprisals and make life miserable for the civilians. These possible attempts by the LTTE will be counter-balanced by the regimes ruthless resolve to retain the east at any cost.

The Rajapaksa government is blowing up the eastern victory to enormous proportions. With such a political investment, it is of utmost importance to retain its hold militarily.

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