Sri Lanka: Wining on War Front and Losing on Other Fronts

"On the political front, just as expected already India, the US, Japan and the EU have asked for starting the political process to resolve the Tamil issues speedily. It is significant that they have accepted the military successes fait accompli as possession is three fourths of law"

Victory in the war front

(January 11, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) In just a week after the fall of Kilinochchi, the Sri Lanka security forces captured Elephant Pass, the last stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on the A9 Kandy-Jaffna highway, the vital lifeline of the Northern Province on January 9. This was not unexpected as Elephant Pass was becoming unviable to defend as the security forces pressed on their offensive after capturing Paranthan in the south on January 1.

According to the defence sources, the final assault on Elephant Pass came with 58 Division entering the Elephant Pass causeway from the south to link up with 53 and 55 divisions advancing from the north, capturing Pallai and Iyakachi one after the other.

As President Mahinda Rajapaksa said, with the fall of Elephant Pass, the entire route from Point Pedro in Jaffna coast to Dondra Head in the southern tip of Sri Lanka is now fully under government control after more than two decades. Regardless of other issues, the President and the security forces have shown what they can achieve if they makes up their mind. It is a creditable military achievement in successfully coordinating a large scale offensive involving a number of formations. There were a few hiccups, but wars are always full of imponderables.

Now the focus of the war is on Mullaitivu where the LTTE hopes to offer major resistance. Probably this was conditioned by the requirement to provide sufficient linear space for disrupting the advance of the security forces towards Mullaitivu with a series of delaying positions. The two major security forces axes of advance are: from the northeast along A35 road from Paranthan-Murasamoddai-Puthukkudiyiruppu-Mullaitivu and from south/southwest on a broad front covered by Oddusuddan-Mulliyavalai-Tanniyuthu. The army commander is said to be concentrating 50,000 troops – that is about four divisions minus – for the offensive, where the LTTE is reported to be having 6000 defenders.

Already 58 Division advancing along A35 axis have encountered the first LTTE position in Murasamoddai which probably extends up to Vaddakachchi to its south. 58 Division claimed recovering 11 bodies of LTTE cadres and some mines and equipment in the area. Similarly troops operating south of Murasamoddai have also come in contact with LTTE. Along the southern axis Task Force 4 and 59 Division are poised to take on Mullaitivu; presumably there will be some coordination of operations on both the axes of advance for finally taking on Puthukkudiyiruppu/Chundikkulam-Mullaitivu where main LTTE assets are likely to be concentrated.

Security Forces will now be facing the major task of keeping the A9 highway safe from LTTE's hit and run attacks for free traffic. Already 61 Division, the holding formation, reported killing four LTTE cadres who had been operating in area Pampaimadu. Probably politically it will be appropriate to open the A9 highway for public use as early as possible. And in all likelihood safe public passage can take place only when at least about three to five-mile stretch on both sides of the entire highway is totally sanitised and kept free of LTTE. We can expect the holding formations and other task forces not actively involved in offensive operations to undertake this task.

The LTTE has reported killing seven people including three air force personnel in a Claymore mine attack between Pankulam and Morawewa (22 km from Trincomalee on the road to Anuradhapura). Similar small scale attacks are likely to increase. So it is not surprising the police are picking up suspicious Tamil youth in smaller towns in vulnerable areas. One can only hope of their organised release after the screening process to lessen the heartburn of the affected families.

Failure on other fronts

If President Rajapaksa's strategy had worked well on the war front, they appear to be not working at all on two fronts vital to sustain the military gains over the long term. These are the political front and the human rights front.

On the political front, just as expected already India, the US, Japan and the EU have asked for starting the political process to resolve the Tamil issues speedily. It is significant that they have accepted the military successes fait accompli as possession is three fourths of law. But they would like to expedite the political process that stands grounded.

The US has probably articulated their view best: "The United States does not advocate that the Government of Sri Lanka negotiate with the LTTE, a group designated by the United States since 1997 as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. However, we do believe that a broad range of other Tamil voices and opinions must be brought into a political process to reach a political solution that Tamils inside and outside of Sri Lanka see as legitimate.

"This will help assure Tamils that their rights are protected, that they have a say over important areas of their lives in geographical areas in which they predominate, and that they are an integral and respected part of an undivided Sri Lanka. At the same time, such as process would further delegitimize and erode the support of the LTTE in Sri Lanka and abroad. made it a point to The U.S. believes that a lasting, sustainable peace can best be achieved if the Sri Lankan Government works now to reach a political solution that addresses the aspirations of all Sri Lankans, including Tamils, Muslims, and Sinhalese."

All that the government can think of is to harp on the All Party Committee to evolve a consensus on the devolution. With most of the major political parties not participating in the APC deliberations, it has become a big joke. The continued inaction on this front is likely to be used by the LTTE to light of the embers of Tamil chauvinism to turn it to its advantage.

The other front where the government is clearly losing is the human rights front. There had been relentless pressure on the media, to crush dissent. All means are being used. Even BBC news is under unannounced censorship despite being hosted by the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. The latest victim of calculated violence against the media is the brutal killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge shot in broad day light in a busy thoroughfare near Colombo, a city bristling with police checkpoints. In spite of that how two motorcycle borne gunmen who repeatedly shot at the editor and escaped is a mystery. And he is not the first journalist to be killed in Sri Lanka.

Of significance is that Wickrematunge was a vociferous critic of the Rajapaksa regime's policies including the war and governance in the process courting the wrath of the Rajapaksa brothers and Lt Gen Fonseka. There is no confirmation that any government agency was involved in his killing. But what the public perceive is very important and unless a transparent investigation is done and the guilty are brought to book, public suspicion will centre on government agencies. So how the government conducts itself is very important if it is serious about free media which President Rajapaksa has referred to in his condolence message on the killing.

It is difficult to believe that the President cannot achieve success if he makes up his mind to trigger the political process as well as set right the dismal human rights record, just as he has done in his war of "liberation" as he calls it. Otherwise all the talk of war of freedom will be meaningless, not only to Tamils but all Sri Lankans. And after all the sweat and blood of soldiers, that would be a national achievement wasted.

(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies.
- Sri Lanka Guardian