Relying on stealth

Print edition : January 27, 2006

Tamil tigers participate in a shooting competition to mark New Year's day in Wanni, northern Sri Lanka. - REUTERS

LTTE adopts a new combat strategy in north-eastern Sri Lanka in which its front organisations stage violent attacks on chosen targets.

RECENT developments in the Tamil-majority regions of north-eastern Sri Lanka indicate that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has embarked upon a fresh, multi-pronged combative strategy against the government headed by President Mahinda Rajapakse. While not resorting to open war, the Tigers are, through a series of overt and covert manoeuvres, increasing the pressure on the armed forces stationed in the north-eastern areas. It appears that the LTTE has commenced hostilities under the guise of a "people's war", which resembles in parts the Palestinian intifada and the Iraqi resistance.

The LTTE found it problematic to resume war in a situation where Chandrika Kumaratunga as President and Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister were willing to negotiate a federal alternative. The LTTE delayed engaging in direct talks to explore federalism as stipulated in the November 2002 Oslo Accord and came under immense international pressure to resume negotiations. The end of Chandrika Kumaratunga's term gave the LTTE a new opportunity, as her chosen successor to contest the presidency, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, had entirely different views on how to deal with the ethnic conflict.

He aligned with parties that adopted a hard line on the national question, such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). A major consequence of this political re-configuration was that Rajapakse reversed the paradigmatic shift from unitarianism towards federalism in Sri Lankan politics. Rajapakse stood for a unitary state as opposed to the federal option advocated by his chief opponent Wickremesinghe. Many observers feared that war was a distinct possibility in the event of Rajapakse's victory.

The election campaign saw a polarisation of forces, with the bulk of Sinhala voters supporting Rajapakse and the minority communities overwhelmingly supporting Wickremesinghe. In the circumstances, Sri Lankan Tamils were expected to vote in large numbers for Wickremesinghe. However, the LTTE intervened at this juncture, calling for a boycott of elections through its front organisations. Even some violence was used to intimidate people. This "enforced" boycott saw a large drop in votes polled in the north-eastern Tamil areas. As a result, Wickremesinghe lost to Rajapakse by around 487,000 votes. It was clear that the LTTE wanted Rajapakse to win. Rajapakse, in his policy declaration, reiterated some of his hard line policies on the ethnic question.

V. Prabakaran, the LTTE chief, in his Great Heroes Day address on November 27, acknowledged that a hiatus existed between the policies of Rajapakse and the LTTE. Prabakaran, however, referred to Rajapakse as a practical man with political pragmatism and stated that he was prepared to give time until next year (2006) for the President to take conflict-resolution steps. It appeared that immediate war was not on the cards and that there was time and space for meaningful action on the peace front.

But this was not to be. Using the killing of two Tiger supporters, allegedly by members of Tamil "paramilitary forces", as a reason, a great deal of civil unrest was promoted in Jaffna. The police and the armed forces were the targets of systematic attacks. There were incidents of shooting, bomb-throwing, grenade-launching and landmine explosions. Attacks also commenced in areas outside Jaffna, such as Mannar, Vavuniya and Trincomalee. These sparked a backlash, with soldiers and policemen retaliating against civilians in many places. The situation is tense and uncertain.

The unfolding pattern of events suggests that the ongoing violence is not a random one, and notwithstanding denials, the hand of the LTTE is discernible. The LTTE, without resuming open war, seems to have adopted a new combative strategy.

The LTTE alleged that attacks by government-sponsored "paramilitary forces" were posing a security threat and shut down its political offices in the government-controlled areas. Thus it has no "official" presence in government-controlled regions, including Jaffna town. Members of its intelligence wing and assassination squads, however, maintain an active, yet clandestine, presence. These people are in communication with their superiors in the Tiger-controlled areas, who direct and supervise the "shadow war".

The war is termed makkal yutham (people's war) and is undertaken by a front outfit of the LTTE, loosely termed Makkal Padai or People's Force. Members of this force are "technically" not a part of the LTTE but are aligned to it as a civilian militia. Members of this militia have obtained various levels of combat training from the LTTE and any of them killed in action is given the Maaveerar or "Great Hero" status as acknowledged Tiger "martyrs".

This force consists of two segments. One is of people who returned to the Jaffna peninsula from the LTTE-controlled Wanni northern mainland after the ceasefire. Many of these people, particularly the younger ones, have got Tiger training.

The second consists of people living in Jaffna who have undergone Tiger training during the post-ceasefire period. Apparently, members of this group were trained in LTTE-controlled areas in the lower peninsula and Kilinochchi at different times. Despite living in government-controlled areas for many years, these people opted to go for training with the LTTE. According to recent estimates, 15,000-17,000 "civilians" have obtained such training.

While an element of coercion cannot be ruled out, that is not the sole explanation for this phenomenon. The LTTE has conducted similar exercises in other parts of the north-eastern region too. While the exact figures are not available, it is reasonable to conclude that 8,000-10,000 people obtained such training. An unknown factor is the impact of the `Col.' Karuna rebellion on this development in the east.

While most people so trained remain dormant, some, particularly of the younger generation, are involved in the violence against the armed forces in the north. If the 1980s saw militants moving about on bicycles in the peninsula, the new-generation rebels move around on motorcycles and use cellular phones for communication. The LTTE has a motorcycle brigade of its own and many of its members have received special training; young men on motorcycles were behind most of the incidents of shooting and grenade-throwing.

OFFICIALLY, the LTTE says it has nothing to do with the violence. The Tigers claim that the "oppressed people of Jaffna" are rising spontaneously against the "army of occupation". The attacks in different parts of the area are, according to LTTE political Commissar Suppiah Paramu Thamilselvan, committed by isolated groups of "infuriated" people. This was the "official" version he trotted out to representatives of the four peace-process co-chairs at a recent meeting in Kilinochchi. It is, however, believed that LTTE cadres provide guidance and logistical support to the Makkal Padai.

Though attempts have been made to demonstrate the spontaneous and fragmented nature of the violence, some centralised control is suspected. Various front groups make statements to prove that multiple forces are at work. Despite this "decentralisation", the presence of an overall power directing events can be gauged. There is also the case of sophistication in the attacks, in the use of Claymore mines and RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) launchers, which betrays a Tiger hand.

The second "front" opened by the LTTE in Jaffna is the deployment of student power. In a manner similar to the Palestinian intifada uprisings, Jaffna's students have commenced sporadic demonstrations protesting against the army "occupation" of Jaffna. While the police and the armed forces have reacted with ferocity to these demonstrations, the students themselves have displayed great tenacity in withstanding the repression. To stifle the protests, the police routinely open fire, use teargas, resort to lathi charge and assault with rifles and poles.

Jaffna University at Thirunelvely was in the eye of a storm after soldiers attacked teachers and students attempting to go in a procession to the Ceasefire Monitors' office. Soldiers defied convention and entered the university campus on another occasion and assaulted students. It is well known that the students are not acting entirely independently and that the LTTE and pro-Tiger activists are behind the dissent and protests. A key figure is Selvakumar Gajendran, president of the International Tamil Student Federation and Member of Parliament from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). It is suspected that "non" students in school uniform also participated in the protests.

The presence of the army in some schools and public buildings is apparently a motivating factor for these protesters. Also, the setting up of security zones and their expansion have displaced many people. Nineteen per cent of the total land area and 42 per cent of the coastline in the peninsula are in security zones.

The 2002 ceasefire agreement stipulated that the armed forces should withdraw in a phased manner, but the then Jaffna commander, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, insisted on the disarmament of the LTTE before such a withdrawal. This caused much heartburning among the ordinary people of Jaffna. Fonseka is the Army Commander now and the student protests, during which his effigy was burnt, coincided with his assumption of office.

THE LTTE has galvanised protests and dissent against this backdrop of security zones and the resultant displacement. The civilian front and the student organisations propagate the slogan "Velieru Allathu Veliettruvom" (Get out or be ousted) against the armed forces in Jaffna. The earlier mass demonstrations titled "Pongu Tamil" (Tamil upsurge) also provide precedents for staging protests.

The LTTE's strategy of combining sporadic attacks with mass demonstrations has transformed the socio-political climate of Jaffna. It is almost like a prelude to open war. According to some insiders, the idea is to increase the pressure on the armed forces through scattered attacks and demonstrations in the name of "enraged" people. If the armed forces succumb to the pressure and go on the rampage, resulting in big civilian casualties, that may provide the LTTE the opportunistic reason to go to war.

In the meantime, the attacks of the "People's Force" have had five significant effects. One, the armed forces are retaliating forcefully against genuine civilians. This is causing much resentment and it is almost a throwback to the 1980s when the armed forces retaliated against Tamil civilians and alienated them further. Any goodwill built in the years of ceasefire is rapidly eroding.

Second is that soldiers from the heavily fortified camps are being re-deployed throughout the peninsula. This is resulting in a thinning out of personnel. At the same time the number of vulnerable targets is increasing and soldier morale is being undermined. Third, personnel from other areas are being moved to Jaffna. Attacks, however, have begun in other areas, too, increasing the vulnerability of the already stretched armed forces.

Fourth, the continuing attacks on soldiers in Jaffna exposes the tenuous nature of their presence despite being stationed there for many years. The publicity surrounding the attacks and protests helps portray the armed forces in a negative light as "forces of occupation".

Fifth is the evidence that the "dirty war" is escalating. The murder of Batticaloa TNA Member of Parliament Joseph Pararajasingham in the Batticaloa St. Mary's Cathedral on Christmas day is one example. He was perceived as being pro-LTTE. The brutal execution of five Tamil youths in Trincomalee is another example. The state begins to lose the moral high ground.

If and when open war breaks out, it is a moot point what the LTTE's immediate military priorities would be. It may be Jaffna peninsula, the Weli-Oya complex, Trincomalee or targets in the south. But if the objective is the over-running of Jaffna, the current strategy of fomenting a "people's war" is ideally suited for that.

When the real fighting starts, the soldiers in Jaffna will face threats externally and internally. The LTTE has succeeded in creating a powerful fifth column in Jaffna, behind the army lines, along the Kilaly-Eluthumadduval-Nagarkovil axis. While LTTE cadre may launch a frontal assault in the lower peninsula, the powerful fifth column could commence a series of attacks within army-controlled territory. Troop mobility could be restricted severely and internal supply routes could be blocked. The use of heavy artillery in such a situation could cause immense harm to genuine civilians and their habitats. This is bound to help the LTTE in its propaganda against the government.

The Sri Lankan government, therefore, is sitting on the edge of a rumbling volcano. The current violence in the name of a "people's war" is not merely a simplistic device to provoke the government into declaring war. It goes much beyond that and the Mahinda Rajapakse regime is yet to wake up to the complex realities of this combative strategy of the LTTE.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor