A deceptive calm

Print edition : June 10, 2000

The LTTE advance has come to a halt, but that does not mean that the Army has gained the upper hand. Apparently the Tigers are biding their time to strike harder.


THE curtain, by no means the final one, seemed to have come down on the theatre of conflict in northern Sri Lanka around the end of May. After weeks of intensive fighting, a comparative calm had enveloped Jaffna Peninsula by June 2. The sporadic clashes between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had become somewhat low-key in comparison with the full-scale fighting that occurred earlier. The primary cause for this temporary lull was the absence of any noteworthy military manoeuvres by the LTTE.

Members of Sri Lanka's rapid deployment force stand guard in front of the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo on May 24, after unidentified attackers lobbed a crude explosive device near its guard room.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/AP

The earlier phases of fighting in the latest round had seen the LTTE conduct its military campaign, styled "Unceasing Waves" with tremendous success. After retaking the greater part of the northern mainland known as Wanni, the Tigers had focussed on the Jaffna Peninsula. The strategic Elephant Pass camp fell in the wake of a string of Tiger victories in the southern, southeastern and eastern sectors of the Peninsula. Then came another series of LTTE victories in the southwestern zone known as Thenmarachchi. The LTTE entered certain areas within the Jaffna municipality and established positions. Tiger artillery also began intermittent shelling of the important Palaly airport cum Kankesanthurai harbour complex. At the end of the third week of May, the LTTE seemed poised to overrun the entire Thenmarachchi region, seize Jaffna, and cripple the Palaly-Kankesanthurai base complex. The Sri Lankan armed forces were seemingly on the verge of a humiliating defeat, leading to a possible "Dunkirk"-type evacuation of troops from the Peninsula with international assistance.

Ground realities have, however, proved contrary to these expectations. The pause-and-pounce military strategy adopted by the LTTE in the past had seen periods of seeming inactivity interspersed with those of raging combat. These "pauses" were meant to enable Tiger cadres to consolidate captured areas and prepare for the next campaign. In addition, it provided some rest to the Tiger fighters. But this time the "pause" seems to be lingering for quite a while. Also, the LTTE has withdrawn from certain areas it took only some weeks ago. Adding to the confusion are propagandistic statements from Colombo that the armed forces have turned the corner and that the Tigers are on the run. With censorship blacking out all dissenting viewpoints, the mood in Colombo is turning from that of panic to complacency.

Perceptions about the fighting in the north have to be understood within the context of past performances by both sides. The LTTE was at its zenith, rolling on like a juggernaut, crushing and overrunning all opposition. The Army was at its nadir, retreating without a real fight and pathetically trying to cover the harsh reality by talking of "redrawing defence lines" and "strategic withdrawals". This pattern had in recent times become the accepted norm and the standard to evaluate performance. Therefore, the LTTE is now being perceived to be "declining" merely because it is not maintaining the earlier pace. Likewise, the Army is viewed as being on the "ascendant", in contrast with its lacklustre past. Perceptions such as these have been dangerously wrong in the past and are very likely to be so in the future. The series of LTTE victories should not be the sole criterion to judge both sides in the future. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the trend towards LTTE victories has been "put on hold". The moot point is whether this state of affairs is created intentionally or not and whether it is temporary or permanent.

A perusal of the ground situation reveals that the LTTE has withdrawn from the Gurunagar and Pashaioor coastal areas of the Jaffna municipality. It has also vacated some positions along the Jaffna-Kandy road, such as the Pungankulam, Mambalam and Nedunkulam junctions. By early June, the Tigers were maintaining a presence in the Jaffna municipality presence only in the eastern areas of Ariyalai, between Manian Thottam and Ariyalai munai and the coastal sections of Colombothurai. Occasional exchanges of fire took place in Colombothurai. The LTTE was also firing artillery from Ariyalai across the Chemmany plain at the military points beyond. The much-awaited campaign to take Jaffna city has not taken place. In the Thenmarachchi sector, the LTTE had not succeeded in taking Kilali on the southwestern coast despite repeated efforts. The 522 Brigade of the Army as well as a naval detachment known as the "boat squad" were holding on to Kilali in the face of sustained Tiger assaults. Kilali was the western point of an elaborately fortified defence line extending diagonally to Nagar Kovil in the east through Eluthumattuvaal in the middle. The LTTE holds all territory to the south of this line in the Peninsula. While the Tigers had not attacked Eluthumattuvaal, they had launched some attacks on Nagar Kovil which is in the Vadamarachchi sector. But the Tigers had not proceeded beyond Nagar Kovil thus far. There was also a lull in Kilali.

The LTTE had also taken many areas of Thenmarachchi, including Chavakachcheri, the second largest town in the Peninsula. The chief Thenmarachchi areas under Army control were Meesaalai, Kodikamam, Kachchai, Allarai, Allippalai, Kilali, Eluthumattuvaal, Mirusuvil, Varany, Manthuvil and parts of Sarasaalai. The Tigers were expected to take these areas as a matter of course. LTTE media outlets confidently announced that Tiger formations were advancing into Meesaalai along the Jaffna-Kandy road. But that march has halted. In a reversal of the usual situation, the Army offered stiff resistance. Apart from being unable to go beyond Meesaalai, the LTTE suffered losses when it tried to penetrate Manthuvil and Varany on the border of Vadamarachchi West. An MI-24 helicopter crashed during this battle; the LTTE claimed that it shot it down and the government attributed the crash to a mechanical defect. The government claimed that over 150 Tigers were killed in Manthuvil. According to informed sources, the number was around 50 of which at least 30 were young women. After this incident the LTTE suspended its Thenmarachchi initiatives. The bulk of Thenmarachchi sector continues to be in the hands of the Army.

Apart from being unable to overrun the rest of Thenmarachchi, the Tigers were faced with two limited military counter-offensives by the Army. On the one side the Army moved into Vembiraai, Sarasaalai and North Madduvil from Meesaalai. Although it failed to wrest control of the strategic Kanakanpuliaddy junction, the Army succeeded in expanding its lines into interior Sarasaalai, apart from consolidating its position in Vembiraai. On another side, the Army advanced some distance on the road to Chavakachcheri from Meesaalai and Kachchai. Also, it conducted some sorties into the Ariyalai area, without seizing territory.

In terms of the number of LTTE cadres killed and the extent of the area captured, the Army's gains were small. The significance, however, was that it displayed some fighting spirit after a long time. The government claimed that this reversal of fortunes was because of the induction of recently acquired arms and planes. One consequence of these acquisitions has been the massive aerial bombardment and artillery shelling that Thenmarachchi has been subjected to. Chavakachcheri town, Kaithady, Madduvil and Sarasaalai have been particularly affected. At least 50 civilians have been killed and over 200 injured.

ONE factor in the perceived military renaissance is the new command structure in Jaffna. The overall Northern Province Commander is Major-General Janaka Perera and Jaffna commander Major-General Sarath Fonseka. Both have a reputation for being tough, no-nonsense soldiers. Media circles in Colombo attribute the restoration of morale and fighting spirit among the troops to the leadership qualities of these two. It was a case of the war being left to the generals instead of the politicians. But Sri Lanka's controversial Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte has once again jumped into the limelight by stating in a television interview that the Army was fighting better because the government had made the correct decisions, given proper directives and provided the necessary inputs. Ratwatte was "eloquently" silent when the Army was perceived as losing, but with some improvement in the Army's performance, he is attempting to hog all the publicity as in earlier times.

In his anxiety to project himself, Ratwatte revealed some militarily valuable information about Palaly. He said that he was compelled to jump out of his helicopter because LTTE shells were falling. This explicitly contradicted the earlier denial by Colombo that LTTE artillery pounded Palaly. Ratwatte also stated that he had spent several days in Palaly. This again confirmed the fact that the airport runway and communication towers had been damaged, leading to a suspension of air traffic for some time. According to informed sources in Colombo, only helicopters are now landing and taking off in Palaly.

The LTTE was at one point using artillery to target Palaly, Kankesanthurai and positions to the west of Kankesanthurai such as Senthankulam, Mathagal and Ilavaalai. But the shelling seems to have stopped now. One reason for this seems to be the inability of the LTTE to proceed beyond Kopayveli on the Kaithady-Kopay road. Had the LTTE been able to do so, it could very well have reached Urumpirai, within close range of Palaly, and kept up a barrage. But the Tigers just could not cross beyond the plains of Kopayveli. Also, the LTTE suffered a heavy loss at Atchuvely, which may have impacted on its targeting of Palaly-Kankesanthurai.

Atchuvely on the Jaffna-Point Pedro road is under Army control. It is, however, within strategic proximity to Palaly from the direction of Pathaimeni. The Army received a tip-off and encircled a house in Atchuvely recently. It was the home of a woman whose daughter was a senior LTTE leader. She along with four other LTTE cadres were in the house. After a shootout the five Tigers blew up the house, including their arsenal, and committed suicide. The mother was also killed. Military observers have noted that the shelling of Palaly ceased after this incident. It is surmised that this squad had infiltrated into Atchuvely and was targeting Palaly with mortars while heavy artillery was used from Kopayveli. It has been found that the shells falling in Palaly were both from heavy artillery and mortars. Therefore, the assessment is that the LTTE called off its Palaly campaign the Atchuvely incident.

In spite of these minor setbacks to the LTTE and the small but significant successes of the armed forces, it would be premature to predict an absolute defeat of the LTTE as the government is doing. While there is no denying the fact that the LTTE has not kept with its track record, this does not mean that the Tigers are down. Also, the improved performance of the Army in contrast with its thorough demoralisation earlier does not necessarily guarantee continuous success. One thing made clear by the recent happenings is that a rout of the Army within a short period of time is not on the cards. The battle for Jaffna is by no means over but will only be longer and harder.

THE LTTE strategy of pausing and pouncing enables it to prepare adequately for the next attack during the interregnum. In the case of the current phase, LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakaran was constrained to expedite his attacks in order to exploit the demoralisation that had set in within the Army. He also wanted to interdict Palaly and possibly grab as much territory as possible within the shortest possible period of time. On the negative side, this hurry prevented the LTTE from adequately preparing its operational phases, particularly in the logistical sphere. As a result it appears that the LTTE has been unable to move its artillery or construct fighting posts to the extent it needed to. The Army also has displayed a tendency to fight back and not run as in earlier times. More important, the LTTE ultimatum to and seven-day deadline for soldiers to surrender did not meet with any success. Not a single soldier has crossed over. Therefore, whatever the LTTE wanted to achieve by exploiting the "demoralised mood" has reached its limits. Under these circumstances, the Tigers do not need to pursue the current hurried course of action. What seems likely is that the LTTE is now cutting its losses and preparing itself for a more vigorous campaign in the near future.

Another impediment that has hindered LTTE progress is the behaviour of Jaffna's civilians. Since the LTTE claims to fight on behalf of the Tamil people and wants to "liberate" Jaffna, it is duty bound to protect and avert any loss of civilian life and property. Unfortunately for the LTTE, the civilians, particularly those within Jaffna city, do not want to move out from their homes. This is because of neither an aversion to the LTTE nor a fondness for the Army, but because of the existential reality. Jaffna's people have been displaced several times and suffered as refugees. Most of the people living in the Peninsula were those who refused to relocate to Wanni in 1995-96. Also, many of them do not live in their own homes, but in those of others. So these people just do not want to leave their homes permanently and eke out a miserable living in refugee camps.

The LTTE also failed in its efforts to move civilians from Thenmarachchi into the Wanni mainland. It wanted to use the ferry service between Keratheevu on the Peninsula and Sangupiddy on the mainland. The LTTE wanted a temporary ceasefire to facilitate this and urged the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to obtain government concurrence. The day in question saw the government failing to respond. The LTTE accused the government of honouring the ceasefire in the breach and preventing civilian movement by intensive shelling. A government spokesperson said that the government had not been informed. The UNHCR clarified the situation through a press release by stating that it had in fact informed the government but failed to elicit a response. Subsequently a second ceasefire was observed, with the choice left to the people to move either to the mainland or the Army-controlled areas of the Peninsula. There was a trickle of people into both areas, but most people remained where they were. The Tigers were unable to get more people into Wanni. The main reason for this was that people just do not want to leave their homes and relocate in Wanni, which has been and is likely to be deprived of enough food and medicine.

Another factor that may have affected the LTTE was the international reaction to the developments in Jaffna. The perceived predicament of the armed forces in the short term and the consequences the civilians would face in the long term evoked a lot of interest. The possibility of international intervention loomed large. But with the LTTE relaxing its military action, the situation is changing. The armed forces do not seem to be at imminent risk. As such, the talk about "intervention" is receding.

Prabakaran is not a person who can be cowed into submission by threats of international intervention. But it may very well be that he would like to avoid external involvement as far as possible. For that, the "crisis situation" had to be defused. That is being achieved by the LTTE's own brand of "de-escalation". This does not mean that the LTTE will give up its objectives as the code name "Unceasing Waves" itself suggests. It must also be noted that the current lull was caused by LTTE inaction and not because the Tigers were defeated by the Army.

What it means then is that the LTTE is now devising a new strategy and making preparations. The Tigers had raised a civilian militia consisting of 28,000 people in Wanni. It is now mobilising it to full force. It has starterted a recruitment campaign in the areas it captured recently. Some youngsters have joined up. Tiger cadres are also moving their artillery to strategic locations. There are also intelligence reports that small squads of Tigers are infiltrating Army-controlled areas in Jaffna. The LTTE is also expanding and diversifying its operations. Attacks have taken place in Vavuniya, Mannar, Amparai, Batticaloa and Trincomalee. There is also the possibility of a "new front" being opened in Batticaloa. The LTTE recently asked about 10,000 people in the west of Batticaloa to move out recently. This was in order to facilitate artillery attacks on military installations.

All these indicate that the LTTE is biding its time to prepare and launch its military campaign again, perhaps in a different mode. Ominous forebodings were evident in the LTTE's Tamil news release of June 2. After remaining silent for several days about Colombo's claims that the Army was on the ascendant and the LTTE was on the run, the Tigers indicated what they were contemplating.

The LTTE news release said: "The third phase of Unceasing Waves planned and directed by the Tamil Eelam national leader (Prabakaran) is continuing. The LTTE is consolidating captured positions and preparing themselves for future operations. The Sri Lankan government is spreading false propaganda that the Army morale is improving and that the LTTE has sustained severe losses because of Army operations. Authoritative LTTE sources denied this and said that the government was indulging in false propaganda under the cover of censorship." It is clear therefore that the battle for Jaffna is hardly over. The LTTE's pauses may be longer but the pounces could be stronger.

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