Media bytes on Sri Lanka

By Col R Hariharan

(April 27, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) My responses as a military analyst to questions from the media on some of the current developments in Sri Lanka are given below:

1. Do you think that the LTTE leader V Prabhakaran will be captured by the Sri Lankan army which says they are within the last six square kilometres of LTTE held territory?

Capturing Prabhakaran would not be an easy task. I do not believe he would stay at the front and fight till the last bullet and die. If he is still there - it is a big if – he would fight to make a get away. In my assessment, he might have got away from the no fire zone sometime last week, after the two-day pause in operations ended when the sudden increase in civilian exodus flooded the area. LTTE could have allowed thousands of civilians to get out the area in one go as it would impede the launching of a major offensive against the LTTE.

2. Why Sri Lanka is ‘defiant’ in not responding to the call for ceasefire from many nations of the world, including the U.S., U.K., and even India?

There could be both internal and external reasons for this. Internally, President Rajapaksa has been elected with a promise to eliminate the LTTE and he has almost completely succeeded in physically executing this task. At this stage it would be politically suicidal for him and the SLFP to accept a ceasefire because of external pressure. If he proposes to go for the parliamentary elections when the tragic episode in Vanni is ended a ceasefire decision would affect his chances at the polls.

The international community had been helping Sri Lanka, wittingly or unwittingly, to abandon the peace process 2002 and continue the war from 2006 onwards. Thirty two countries have banned the LTTE as a terrorist organisation, they share intelligence with Sri Lanka and they have been equipping and training Sri Lanka armed forces. By their support they have been sending a clear message that the LTTE in its present terrorist format is unacceptable to the international community, though by and large they sympathise with the Tamil community in their struggle for equitable rights. That is why their calls for ceasefire have been tempered with a call upon the LTTE to surrender.

Moreover, within the UN Security Council the plight of the trapped civilians rather than the war by itself had figured as a point of discussion. Sri Lanka is not even listed in its agenda as a subject. So there are limitations what they can do to really enforce a ceasefire short of sending a peace keeping force, an idea that will find few takers. Even imposing an international economic sanction on Sri Lanka would not be easy as the idea might not find adequate support. The fact that IMF is negotiating loan for $ 1.9 billion dollar loan to Sri Lanka is a pointer to this. Moreover, Sri Lanka has cushioned itself to a limited extend with financial largesse from China and Iran who have their own agenda in this region. And even Libya had announced a credit line of $ one billion!

3. Your comment on the LTTE announcement of a unilateral ceasefire.

It has come very late in the day, when the LTTE lost its military capability to stop the tide of security forces trying to engulf. Probably it was done to satisfy international community and Tamil supporters of the LTTE to show that it had real concern for the trapped civilians. But it is meaningless now as the military initiative is totally with Sri Lankans. That is why it has not evoked any enthusiasm even among its supporters.

4. What is your comment on the Sri Lanka government announcement that combat operations have “reached their conclusion and the security forces have been instructed to end the use of heavy calibre guns, combat aircraft and aerial weapons that would cause civilian casualties”? Has the war ended?

I think this is the Sri Lanka response to the growing calls for a halt to the war to save the civilians still trapped in the no fire zone. One of the main accusations against Sri Lanka, as stated by the UN agencies and international NGOs is that during the war it had been using heavy weapons and air strikes causing huge casualties to civilians in the no fire zone. In fact, the UN has put the figure of such civilian deaths at over 6000.

Sri Lanka had been denying this. It has been saying that it was only returning the LTTE fire. However, the issue has become a major cause of humanitarian concern for not only for Tamils all over the world, but most of the nations. It is a source of international embarrassment for Sri Lanka. For all of us in India it had been heartbreaking, tragic news. The US has come out with a strong statement. Three European foreign ministers are visiting Sri Lanka because of this issue. The latest Sri Lankan announcement could be to satisfy, at least partly some of these concerns.

Apart from the above non-military reasons, the operation has reached almost the goalpost. The security forces are within 6 km of the last LTTE position. There is really no requirement for air strikes. The LTTE positions are probably within range of infantry battalion weapons like machine guns, mortars, grenade launchers, and recoilless rifles. And probably the LTTE also lost all its artillery assets by now and artillery retaliatory fire might not be required. Of course, if the security forces do not use artillery during the final assault, they would suffer more casualties because they would inflict fewer casualties on the LTTE.

However, the moot point is that all the infantry weapons are capable of killing any civilians within their range because the operational area is so restricted. So while the casualties might be less, the threat to civilians there very much exists.

Lastly, the war has not ended with the latest Sri Lanka announcement. The operative words in the statement indicating future course of action is: "Our security forces will confine their attempts to rescuing civilians who are held hostage and give foremost priority to saving civilians." In Sri Lanka’s official parlance that means the war would continue because it has always claimed that the objective of the war is to liberate the people held as hostage by the LTTE. So the war would continue probably in a slower pace, perhaps less dramatically, provided the LTTE can still sustain.
-Sri Lanka Guardian