War and pain

President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga´s "war for peace" has gone awry in recent weeks. Stark reality dawned on Colombo only after the 23 April fall of the Elephant Pass army complex on the narrow isthmus of land linking the Jaffna peninsula to the northern mainland. "He who holds Elephant Pass controls Jaffna," has been the conventional military wisdom that the Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is all set to prove, while the government forces are fighting back-to-wall to hold on to Jaffna.

In July 1996, when Mullaitivu, a major facility on the northeastern coast, fell with an estimated 1200 soldiers losing their lives, Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte had nonchalantly explained it away by saying that reverses are inevitable in all wars. Again, when other camps in the war zone, notably Kilinochchi, an important bastion south of Elephant Pass, was taken over in September 1998, there was an inexplicable inability on the part of both the political and military leadership to see that the LTTE was tightening the noose round the military´s jugular. The present Tiger onslaught began in November 1999, when they captured 10 army camps in the northern Wanni mainland in just five days, but the Colombo government, as in the past, was slow on the uptake.

It was only when Elephant Pass fell, with the Tigers freely using heavy artillery and ammunition captured from government forces, that Colombo opened its eyes and desperately rushed to obtain foreign assistance and procure urgently needed arms. A government that was boasting that it would militarily weaken the Tigers before sitting with them for negotiations, suddenly found the tables reversed. Full-fledged diplomatic ties with Israel were hurriedly resumed, much to the chagrin of the Muslim allies in Kumaratunga´s ruling coalition. Israel, which had trained Lankan forces in mid-1980, was unceremoniously shunted out in 1991 when then president Premadasa had ordered the closure of the Israeli Interests Section in the American Embassy at Colombo.

With the latest LTTE offensive on, the Kumaratunga government, first elected in 1994 on a peace plank, has been forced to put the country on a war footing. Taxes have been hurriedly raised, and development plans suspended to help pay the USD 800 million needed for urgent buying of weapons, principally the Israeli Kfir fighters and heavy artillery. The army has admitted that the Tigers had at least one artillery piece with a longer range than its own howitzers. The government has clamped Emergency law, including strict press censorship, claiming supremacy of national interest over normal democratic freedoms. While nobody disputed the gravity of the situation with the Tigers at the gates of Jaffna, it is fair to ask whether the political interest of the rulers is being mixed up with the national interest. Given that parliamentary elections must be held by October at the latest, this possibility is not as far out as it may seem. Meanwhile, there is no escaping the fact that the war had been badly managed over a considerable period of time. While one faction of the government believed in a military solution, another had been shouting itself hoarse about peace. The army command, in the meantime, has steadfastly maintained that peace will not be possible without "crushing the LTTE". Like the Tigers, the Sri Lankan army has for long been short of manpower, with thousands of desertions yearly. Calls for peace by a section in government have not helped the army´s recruitment drive any. There had been allegations of widespread corruption in military procurement, but rather than nab the guilty all this did was to slow down the purchase of badly-needed hardware. Everything then had to be perforce speeded up as Jaffna slipped away.

Colombo´s embarrassment becomes more acute when the strength of the government forces is compared to the LTTE´s. Sri Lanka´s forces are 120,000-strong, though it must be said that actual combat troops number only around 20,000. The rest are support forces, or soldiers used to hold territory that has been won over. On the other hand, the LTTE has no more than an army of 10,000 hardcore fighters, going up to 30,000 when you include child soldiers used for back-up. As the war has progressed, the military commanders have stopped dismissing the Tigers as "only a guerrilla group unable to take on the army in a conventional war". The fact that they can, is being abundantly demonstrated even as Himal goes to press.

Given the unequal balance of power between the combatants, and the fact of the government´s monopoly of air power, the results are indeed hard for Colombo to justify. But it must not be forgotten that the Tigers do command a formidable resource base, quite apart from their captured weapons. They are bankrolled by the Tamil diaspora, estimated at 850,000 living in Western Europe and North America. They are in many businesses both illegal (drug peddling, gun running, human trafficking, etc.) as well as legitimate. The LTTE owns a fleet of ships, employed both for ferrying military hardware as well as for commercial cargo carriage; as also many other businesses including restaurants.

On the much-debated question of Indian intervention, it has to be said that New Delhi certainly has a moral obligation to help Sri Lanka in its time of need, if only for the reason that it had played a significant role in making LTTE the formidable force it is today. While India´s publicly proffered "humanitarian aid" is of little consolation to Sri Lanka, there are hopeful signs of something better as this is being written. While Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee must contend with the popular empathy for Tamils across the Palk Strait in Tamil Nadu, New Delhi clearly seems to understand the security implications of a militant-run Tamil State close off its southern coast.

These are mean times for Sri Lanka. At the altar of war, old scores are being settled, and wounds getting the salt treatment. When the Tigers were ejected from Jaffna in December 1995, amidst all fanfare, Deputy Defence Minister Ratwatte was elevated from lieutenant colonel to general. So now when things have gone wrong for the general, a Colombo newspaper rubbed it in by reprinting the five-year-old picture of Ratwatte handing over a ceremonial scroll to the president for the Jaffna victory. Even good memories turn sour.

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Himal Southasian