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Winning the 'media war', the SLA Way

Sri Lanka Guardian Interview with Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara

By Nilantha Ilangamuwa

"The knowledge of a people at any given moment of its history involves an understanding of its environment and above all of its past. Theoretically, one may deny that past, as did the men of the Revolution, as many men of the present day have done, but its influence remains indestructible."
--- Gustave le Bon, The Psychology of Revolution

(January 23, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) I was reminded of this famous observation when I met Brig V Udaya B Nanayakkara, USP Hdmc, the Director of Media and spokesman of the Sri Lanka Army, at his office in the national capital of Colombo on Wednesday, 21 January 2009. It was a deep discussion on present situation in the 'ethnic war' with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), particularly on 'liberating' the tens of thousands of civilians being held as 'human shields' by the militant/terrorist outfit. His handling of the national and international media during the crucial phase of the ethnic war for much of the past two years has surprised many – yet welcome, all the same.

He seems to avoid direct eye contact, but there is an explanation: "I am listening to you correctly; it's better than keeping eye contact." Staying attentive to the questions that are shot at him, and responding with short and strong replies is his style. About the war, which has been going in favour of the armed forces, this is what he has to say: "It is hard but we must win this war because we (armed forces) are responsible to all the people in the island-nation (meaning, the Sinhalas, Tamils, Muslims and others). All of them want 'LTTE terrorism' wiped out."

That the LTTE is getting beaten all around over the past two years in the 30-year-long history of the 'ethnic war' is well known. After all, the LTTE is the most ruthless, well organized, motivated and trained of all militant/terrorist, non-State player anywhere in the world. It is also the only outfit of its kind to have an efficient naval wing and an effective air arm. The 'Black Tigers' suicide squad is legendary, so are the organized approach of the LTTE fund-raisers across the world. Adding an edge to the lethality of the LTTE used to be its propaganda machinery, which used to dovetail publicity operations with anti-government psywar, nearer home and afar. Not any more.

Over the past three years, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran finally seemed to have found his match in President Mahinda Rajapaksa. As much on the publicity and psywar fronts, the Government side has been as effective as it is on the military front. Slowly but surely, the Government has been able to send across the message to the Tamil civilian population that the armed forces are there to protect them, not to harass or kill them, as they had been made to believe. How did it happen? According to Brig Nanayakkara, "Well, over the past few years, not only did the LTTE destroy property and kill people, including Government leaders and soldiers, but also made the world sort of believe that they were justified in doing so. Once we identified the mess and the menace, and applied correctives, the mainline media began carrying accurate information and correct perspectives, as should have been the case from the very beginning. We do not play with numbers, nor do we twist or hide facts. To achieve this, we also worked closely with our ground formations. That has produced results. People have greater faith in our reports. That helps."

According to Mao Tse-tung said, the relationship between guerrilla cadres and the people they are serving should be like between the fishes and water. That is now coming true of the Sri Lankan forces, too. While on the Sinhala side, the armed forces have been able to attract a lot of youth to the ranks on the Tamil side there is no fear of wanton annihilation or harassment of civilians. "People believe and trust our forces rather than the terrorists. It was a greater opportunity for us to undertake humanitarian operations. The civilian casualty figures are also minimal," said Brig Nanayakkara. According to him, "Ordinary people who used to be sympathetic to the terrorists' cause earlier, are now providing us with information on their movements, missions and whereabouts."

On the handling of the media, Brig Nanayakkara said that the armed forces have changed their approach, here too. "We changed the earlier pattern, and now have a media center with spokesmen for the three Services and the Police handling updates and questions. In the past, the Ministry of Mass Media used to handle the war situation." The implication is that officers from the three Services are better equipped to handle questions pertaining to military situation on the ground – and would know how to address them. The media, and through them the people too would lent greater credence to the explanations given out by a military person than a civilian official. The discomfiture of a civilian official untrained and unfamiliar with the war situation would be more ill at ease, particularly when facing experienced newsmen, both from within the country and outside, who have a good knowledge of defence and war-related issues. "In short, telling the truth is our main priority," Brig Nanayakkara said adding, "In doing so, we have also understood as to how the terrorists used their media arm to spread reports that were untrue or false, and how it helped only serve the personal interests of a few."

According to Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer and peace activist, "War – every war – is the ream of lies. Whether it is called propaganda or psychological warfare, everybody accepts that it is right to lie for one's country. Anyone who speaks the truth runs the risk of being branded a traitor." Is that the case with Sri Lanka, too? Brig Nanayakkara begs to differ: "We never dominated the media scene. Nor did we ban the media. We play our role correctly. Somebody even said that a mainline pro-LTTE website was banned but it was not true." In this context, he contested LTTE media releases with horrible pictures of large-scale civilian casualties in Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) strikes in Dharmapuram. "It's not true. We never attack civilians. If any civilians are there we delay our operations. But terrorists want to blame us every time because they cannot face our attack. Hence they want to project a negative image of the armed forces in the eyes of the world, for the latter to bail it out of the present, difficult situation."

Brig Nanayakkara recalls how the armed forces had "rescued 40,000 civilians who were being used as 'human shields' by the LTTE, in Vaharai. At that time too, the pro-LTTE groups and media claimed that the forces had attacked the Vaharai hospital and other public places. But when we liberated the area, people found that no such thing had happened. It was the same case when we liberated the Madhu Church and the neighbouring areas, and more recently, Killinochchi. In the case of Madhu Church, there were even reports that we had destroyed the church. People later found for themselves that it was not true." In this context, he also rejected the figures given out by the local Government Agent on the number of internally-displaced persons (IDPs) in the Wanni area. "There are 100,000 IDPs in the uncleared areas, and 1,000 terrorists. The latter use the civilians as human shields." Likewise, the LTTE's claims, supported by a photograph, on 'child recruitment; in the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) was "totally false. It was aimed at destroying the Army's credibility. Yes, the body was handed over to the Government, but we have confirmed that the boy was above 18 years of age. Anyway, we are not like terrorists, who can force children into their cadres and hope to get away with it."

According to him, "the Tamil Tiger terrorists are confined to 458 sq km of land in Mullativu, with a 20-km coast line under 'Sea Tigers'. Seven divisions of the SLA have cut off the LTTE-controlled areas from all sides. On the water-front, the 'Sea Tigers' cannot move freely as they are under constant attack within the Sri Lankan waters and continuous surveillance in the international waters. In the same vein, Brig Nanayakkara also spoke about militants who had surrendered in the past. "We are protecting all those who have surrendered. We have given them skills training for employment. As a result, a number of them have gone overseas for jobs. Even now, we appeal to all LTTE cadres to give up terrorism, and join the mainstream for a better future."

Talking about the post-war situation Brig. Nananayakkara said, "This is a very important factor of this conflict. But our soldiers, who have been serving on the field for years now, have not lost their inherent human values and norms. We do not have any psychological programmes for them in this regard. I think the Sri Lankan soldiers are comparable to any other in the world. They always stay in touch with their culture and customs. However we are conducting seminars, religious programmes and mediation to help them in the process." Post-war, he said, "They can join in the re-construction of the country. It is already happening in the East. Even in the North, we saw it happen in Killinochchi, when it was 'liberated' earlier 10 years ago. In fact, NGOs who had worked in these areas had not done as much good work as the armed forces." - Sri Lanka Guardian

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