Like a burning log snatched from a fire…" — III

By Nalin Swaris

(April 29, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Velupillai Prabhakaran, President, Prime Minister and Solar Deity, was the Commander in Chief of the LTTE armed forces. Once upon a time, his counterpart on the Lankan side was President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Kumaratunge’s government came to power promising an end to the war through talks. After six months of talks, the LTTE returned to war by bombing two navy boats. Kumaratunga the ’peace queen’ was forced into war. Some one coined a slogan for her; she was waging a "War for Peace’ It was like fornicating for chastity.

In the end she lost many battles andfailed to get what she coveted a Nobel Peace prize. She did inflict a moral defeat on the LTTE when the army captured Jaffna, the cultural and administrative centre of Eelam in December 1995. As the Lankan army was about to capture Jaffna the BBC held a Panel discussion on the situation in Jaffna. Kumar Rupesinghe, then Head of International Alert, spoke on behalf of the Jaffna Tamils. Rupasinghe was frank about his considered opinion about the recapture of Jaffna (Daily News Jan. 11 2006). "I was interviewed by the BBC with our Ambassador to the UK and when I was asked what I felt about the occupation (sic) … I did call for International intervention (sic) to stop the carnage". Strong language, "occupation", "international intervention","carnage".

Warrior Niece and Uncle

Kumaratunga’s uncle Anurudddha Ratwatte was Defence Secretary at the time Jaffna was regained. Kumaratunga held a ceremony on the grounds of the Presidential Secretariate to celebrate the victory. She was more than three hours late. When she finally arrived, in a very feudal ceremony, Prince Sapumal presented the Queen with a sannasa to report ‘Mission Accomplished’. I learned later that Ratwatte had no battlefield experience. I thought he had, but I was told he walks with the aid of a stick due to a road accident. Kumaratunga made her uncle senpati by elevating him to the rank of General with operational command of the army! Now anyone with even a general knowledge of war history knows that when an army marches deep into enemy territory it is absolutely essential to protect its rear flank militarily and logistically. But the Kumaratunga-Ratwatte duo were fighting the war to a political agenda. The mercurial, warring-for-peace Kumaratunga was not known for steady focus on any issue and the Lankan army suffered spectacular defeats; Pooneryn. Mulaitivu, Elephant Pass fell like dominoes. Thousand of soldiers lost their lives. No one was called to account, no one resigned, not even after the devastating attack on the Air Force base in Katunayeke. A large swathe of territory in the North East was de facto in LTTE hands. This was given de jure recognition by the Norwegian crafted Ceasefire Agreement. The LTTE converted the ceasefire lines into state borders with customs and immigration-emigration posts.

During the international conference in April 2002, an admiring foreign correspondent referred to the Tiger Chief’s renown as one of the most brilliant military strategists in the world and asked him what he considered was his most spectacular battle field victory. Prabhakaran replied with a sarcastic smile, "Driving back the Jayasikuru forces and capturing Kilinocchi." There were titters in the audience.

Showdown at Mavi Aru

After months of stalled talks and low intensity warfare by the LTTE, political chess master and brilliant military strategist Velupilla Prabhakarn played a big hand. On 22 July 2006 he ordered the shutting down of the Mavil Aru sluice . It affected 30,000 acres of paddy fields, and 15,000 farming families of all communities, Muslim Tamil and Sinhala, depriving them of drinking and agricultural water. The LTTE had confronted the government with a fait accompli. The Norwegians and the Colombo NGOs urged ‘both parties’ to settle the issue through negotiation. On the face of it, it seemed a laudable proposal. But like many proposals of these ‘honest’ peacemakers, it had an undisclosed sinister intent. Article 20 of the notorious ISGA dealt with ‘Water Use’. The LTTE demanded "equitable and reasonable use of water resources by lower riparian users". This is the type of treaty that would be signed between two contiguous sovereign states. That was the peacenik snake in the grass. The GOSL was being asked to negotiate the reopening of the sluice and thereby concede legitimacy to LTTE’s right to the waters of Mavil Aru. The President did not fall into the trap and ordered to the Army to capture Mavil Aru. The rest is history by August 2007 the Government was in control of the East. The climax, even literally, of the eastern campaign was the capture of Thoppigala on July 11, 2007. Thoppigala is a huge cap-like rock rising from a thickly forested mountain. It was the "citadel" of the Tigers, where they trained their fighters, kept close watch on any troop movements in the low lying areas below and from where they launched attacks in the East and on border villages. Ranil Wickremesinghe shamelessly trivialised the capture of Thoppigala.

Northern Campaign

With the Eastern Province cleared the armed forces turned to the Northern theatre, without jeopardising the Eastern victories. The terrain in the North is quite different to that of the East. Much of the North is covered in thick jungle. The LTTE said its withdrawal from Thoppigala area was strategic reasons: the brilliant strategist, the spin doctors said, was concentrating his forces and waiting for the kill. The UNP politicians led by Ranil though appearing to deride the government, were in fact ridiculing the armed forces. Instead of Sampur the army should be taking Kilinocchi, they had said. But the armed forces under the leadership of the Defence Secretary were in no hurry. They had a well worked out step by step strategy in which the battle plans of the army, navy and air force were brilliantly coordinated. During the First Iraq war Colin Powell was the Commander in Chief of the US forces. He, like his field commander Norman Schwarzkopf, were Vietnam war veterans. They were not going to let their soldiers get bogged down and killed in a prolonged land war, as in Vietnam. Colin Powell enunciated the principle of "Invincible Force"- that is to say, use of massive air power to destroy enemy assets. Then the land forces would move in "to cut off and kill" - the Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait. Our military strategists matched the best in the world. Forward intelligence was radioed to Katunayeke. The Air Force carried out accurate pin point bombings of LTTE assets, personnel and material. Considering the wanton destruction caused by a better equipped and supposedly well trained Israeli pilots in South Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2008, the Lankan lads were superbly accurate – and touch wood - they all came back to base unscathed. In a spectacular foray, Navy fighter craft sailed into distant blue waters and destroyed the LTTE ten huge floating arsenals. Prabhakaran was being hit from all sides. He had presumed that the ‘modaya’ Sinhala army (remember his sarcasm about the Jayasikuru campaign?) would attack as they did in the past; advance in massive armoured columns and large companies of infantry. His strategy was built on this assumption – kilometer long rings of deep ditches and high mud walls. The tanks and heavy armoured vehicles with their difficult maneuverability would get bogged down and the LTTE fighters would go for the kill. The Army however, used small commando style units, trained for jungle combat and began to engage the LTTE fighters on several fronts.

The master guerilla tactician was getting a taste of his own medicine. Mao Zedong pointed out that a clenched fist is a powerful weapon. But when unclenched, one could chop off the fingers one by one. This is what the army was doing. The Mannar district was taken first and that task force started moving eastwards. Another task force was moving south from Muhamalai and others up from the south east. One by one LTTE’s northern strongholds were falling like a pack of cards. Elephant Pass was retaken.

It was said that Kilinocchi is invincible, that Kilinocchi will be the Lankan army’s Stalingrad, that the "The War is Unwinnabale". Instead of a direct frontal assault on Kilinocchi and other towns, as Prabhakaran expected, the army units came to the towns through the jungles. I suspect, they followed what in counter insurgency terminology is called the "dragnet principle". They moved from the outside in, scooping and mopping up LTTE pockets operating in the jungle, cutting them of and killing them, forcing them to retreat and capturing the weapons and ammunition the LTTE fighters had abandoned. If the army had attacked the towns first, with massive force, LTTE cadres would have melted into the jungles. Everyone has seen the enormous stockpiles of weapons, ammunition, communication systems, and underground bunkers, stocks of fuel and the food rations they had stock piled. They would have dug in and the war would have lasted another thirty years. In the event, LTTE assets accumulated over decades, some under cover of the CFA, were lost in a matter of weeks. Kilinocchi fell, Mullaitivu fell, Puthukuduyiruppu fell. The Tiger’s back was broken. It crawled with its heavy and light weapons into the No Fire Zone reserved by the GOSL as a refuge for unarmed civilians. The saviour of the Tamil people now hides behind hapless civilians for its salvation while firing at the army using the aged, women, children and infants as human shields. The Sun God’s Eelam has been reduced to a tiny patch, that too in an army allocated area.

It’s over. Finished. And with it the charade of the peacenik NGOs. Hearts cannot but melt at the sight of those poor people, the aged, the children, the infants. Weary, broken baffled, but relieved. "All tremble at the thought of death", the Buddha said. By their tens of thousands of our fellow countrymen and women, braving the bullets of the LTTE, the scorching sands of beaches, the shallow waters of Challai lagoon are asserting their will to live. They have had enough of Prabharan’s cult of death and blood sacrifice and glorification of martyrdom. Most heart wrenching is the realisation that the vast majority of these refugees are poor, destitute Tamils. Those who could bribe the LTTE have left; those who had the wherewithal to buy houses of Sinhalese at inflated prices in crowded Colombo North or the more residential Wellawatte have done so. Others have migrated to rich countries. The agitations of politicians and the clever theoretical arguments of scholars go far above the heads of this poor residue. This is what the politicians and pundits have reduced them to. And there must a curse in their hearts for those made their fortunes on their misery and justified their internment under the jackboots of a ruthless thug. The plight of these poor people have unleashed a wave of compassion. Let us hope it will become a tsunami of loving kindness. There are simple Sinhala women volunteering to breast feed orphaned Tamil infants. Soldiers are providing first aid and cooking meals in huge cauldrons. Sinhalese women soldiers pick up Tamil babies and cradle them in their arms and gently lead the aged. Time the Kumar Davids and Rajan Philipses to end their disgruntled swipes at ‘Sinhala chauvinism’ from their luxury condominiums in five star residential complexes and comfortable bungalows. Their ponderous writings have done nothing to lighten the burden of people whose lives are far removed from theirs. Time also for the western powers to end their machinations against this majority Buddhist country.

Now the ordinary Sinhala people know what the poor Tamil people have had to endure under Tiger rule. They are rising up to embrace their Tamil bretheren like the people, in the Cakkavatti Sutta, come to their senses, saying: "Oh fellow manussa manussa, How glad I am to see you are alive. Come, let us not kill anymore". Far more effectively than the abstract legal concoctions of the All Political Party Conference, this ground swell of compassion from the masses might yet be the catalyst of a genuine peace, wiping away the tears and binding the wounds of far too many years of created hatred. 

-Sri Lanka Guardian