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LTTE's battle for survival

by Anjali Sharma

(September 02, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a terrorist group which, not long ago, threatened to leave Sri Lanka brutally divided, is today facing a near death. The group has consistently been losing both men and material, crippling its operational capability. Although the number of men killed in fighting is relatively smaller than those given out by the military spokesman in the daily news briefing, there is no denying the fact that in the last six months, LTTE has lost its operational capabilities considerably, forcing the group to specifically target the military logistics.

More critical has been the ground lost during the period. The group is now confined to a much smaller area than what they previously controlled. Only two districts of the North, Mullaitheevu and Kilinochchi, remain their sole refuge from the Sri Lankan security forces. Their supply lines remain crippled; first, on account of the group being completely cut-off from the rest of the country and second, due to the strict vigilance of the sea waters from where they once got most of their overseas supplies. LTTE has clearly lost its advantage over the security forces and remain surrounded on all three sides by the Sri Lankan armed forces.

Reasons for the debacle

There are several reasons for LTTE’s present state. Firstly, Sri Lanka is not alone in fighting the rebel forces this time ; it has active support from its neighbours like India and Maldives, besides the US and Canada. It is clear that without timely and effective assistance from the Indian Navy, and the Coast Guard, the rebel Sea Tigers could not have been weakened. No less significance has been the contribution of Tamil Nadu Police’s Q Intelligence Branch which did a commendable job in reining in the rebel activists and sympathisers in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

LTTE’s capabilities to retain its hold over the areas it traditionally claim to be its own has suffered, in part, from the hostile attitude of the countries which once supported its formation by providing training facilities to its cadres and in part, from the leadership crisis within the group. As most of the LTTE’s senior leadership is either killed or suffering from the age-related problems, it faces acute shortage of the well-trained and experienced staff. Official estimates put the figure at five to six experienced commanders.

It is widely believed that LTTE still has about 3000 hard core fighters which it has reserved for its ``final battle``. Some observers say that a large number of these foot soldiers are underage and novice. No group with such short number of men and commanders can hope to retain territory or regain lost ground. Shortage of arms and ammunition has only added to LTTE’s growing difficulties.

Thirdly, internal power struggles have also played their part in weakening the group’s military capability. Attempts made by LTTE Chief Prabhakaran to groom his son for the leadership post did not go down well with other key leaders who had plans to share the power. The case of Col. Karuna’s split from the group is well known. The group’s Intelligence wing leader Pottu Amman recently arrested its Peace Secretary Pulidevan on charges of treachery. These are symptoms of leadership crisis within the group.

The fourth factor that has added to LTTE’s woes is the loss of popular support to its aims and objectives. The group is witnessing a growing erosion of trust and confidence of the people towards their goals. The reason is LTTE’s harsh retribution against own supporters and sympathisers for not toeing their line or talking with the government. This has alienated the Tamil people further.

Fifthly, the inexperience and the unwillingness of the group in devoting time to state-building activities in the areas they control have not been helpful either. The living conditions in LTTE territories were no different from the one under the State control. An increasing level of frustration is visible among the Tamil people towards LTTE.

Sixthly, people’s realisation that the government’s talk of power devolution is not baseless has also brought about a significant change in their thinking. With the conduct of the peaceful elections and the appointment of the former rebel Pillaiyan as the Chief Minister of the Eastern Province which was once the LTTE hub has restored the confidence of the general public in the government of Sri Lanka.

By all accounts, the group is today fighting a battle for survival. The mounting losses have forced the group to retreat on several fronts; it is now targeting the South to ease the pressure from the security forces in the North. It has turned to the time-tested method of guerrilla warfare and its future strategy would be on similar lines. It must however be said that a complete decimation of the group, despite the current setbacks, would remain a remote possibility.

Challenges before the Rajapaksa Government

The weakening of LTTE alone will not bring the elusive peace to the island nation. The onus of keeping peace remains the primary duty of the Rajapaksa government. A key catalyst is the devolution of power as promised in the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. The May 10 Provincial Council elections were held on the same plank which helped the government forces to emerge victorious. Rajapaksa’s victory was also due to the elaborate development plan named “Nagenahira Navodaya” meant exclusively for the resurgence of the East. In fact, the win was the result of the 3D philosophy - (a) Devolution, (b) Democracy (Rule of the People), and (c) Development.

With LTTE out of the scene, the task before the government is to develop the province and integrate it with the mainstream democratically. Failure on any one front may put the clock back with the hostile forces, defeated but not decimated, waiting in the wings to take over.

A similar situation might emerge in the North if the security forces were able to push out LTTE from the area. The government is likely to replicate the East model in the North but it must not take the LTTE threat lightly. There is a strong possibility that the group might reemerge if it could manage to restore its supply lines and recruit more men. Since there has not been an accurate estimate of LTTE’s strength—estimates vary from 3000 to 17000—it will be more prudent on the part of the government not to dismiss the group’s capability to recoup.

The government should remember that it has not been able to come up with the much-talked about political package comprising a credible power-sharing formula between the Tamils and Sinhalese. LTTE’s defeat must be accompanied by devolution of power at the political level that would satisfy the Tamil demands within the united framework of Sri Lanka. A departure from the promised step would render peace unreachable, and allow LTTE to reclaim its lost ground.

(Anjali Sharma is an Associate Fellow in the Observer Research Foundation)
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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