Burning bright

Rohan Gunaratna looks at the factors, particularly with reference to the strife the same intensity as an inter-state conflict.

On 23 May 1997, a Greek-registered freighter named Stillus Limassul left the Croatian port of Rijkei for Sri Lanka carrying 32,400 units of 81mm mortars for the Sri Lankan military. Worth USD 3 million, the weapons were bought by the Sri Lanka Defence Ministry from the Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI) or so it thought. The consignment was not to reach its intended destination. On 11 July 1997, the LTTE triumphantly faxed the US Embassy in Colombo:

We, the Tamil Tigers, inform you by the present that on 11 July 1997 we have hijacked a vessel carrying arms destined for Colombo. We know that the manufacturer and the supplier of the mortar bombs is ZDI from Harare. The cargo [has been] confiscated. We make known and warn that we will take action against all persons participating in the supply of military equipment used against the legitimate rights of Tamil people and we will severely punish those concerned.

Subsequent investigations revealed that Ben Tsoi, an Israeli arms sub-contractor working with the zdi had arranged for the mortars to be manufactured in Croatia and for it to be loaded on to an LTTE freighter. Tsoi's company, L.B.G. Military Supplies and zdi, had provided false information to Colombo that the shipment had been loaded, as scheduled, at the Mozambican port of Beira on 21 May and was en route via Walvis Bay and Madagascar. By the time Colombo learned the full extent of what had happened, the mortars had been oft-loaded and trans-shipped via smaller vessels to LTTE jungle bases off the Mullaitivu coast. A month later, the weapons were already being used with devastating effect by the LTTE in the continuing battle for control of the A9 highway in northern Sri Lanka. About 70 percent of the military casualties since June 1997 has been from mortar fire.

Open warfare

The fierce conflict between the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE is classified as one of the 16 major armed conflicts of the world. The open warfare between the battle-hardened LTTE and a standing military of a South Asian nation has directly claimed the lives of about 65,000 combatants and civilians. Some 40,000 more have died as an indirect result of the war.

The present wave of fighting that began after the LTTE broke a ceasefire with the newly elected People's Alliance government on 18 April 1995 has been the fiercest ever. With the ceasefire abandoned, the military launched a series of operations, and pushed the LTTE out of the Jaffna peninsula, the northern heartland of Sri Lankan Tamils. The LTTE, which had retreated to the Wanni mainland, south of the peninsula, regained its prestige by mounting a daring pre-dawn assault and overrunning the heavily fortified military complex at Mullaitivu on 18 July 1996.

The operation, codenamed Oyatha Alaikal (Ceaseless Waves I), killed 1344 soldiers, the highest single loss faced by the Sri Lankan army. Although the LTTE also lost 315 fighters, the attack netted them USD 70 million worth of arms and ammunition, including heavy weaponry. Most important, it gained them the military confidence to fight on.

Subsequent military efforts to recover the Mullaitivu complex failed but in a series of operations—Sath Jaya (Seven Victories) government troops captured Kilinochchi, the first major town in the Wanni. The battle for Kilinochchi, which had been developed as a backup base to Jaffna by the LTTE, resulted in the loss of 700 government troops.

The Sri Lankan military's longest operation, Jaya Sikuru (Certain Victory), was launched in May 1997 to recapture the A-9 highway that links the military-controlled South to Jaffna. The LTTE strongly resisted attempts to create a land route bifurcating the Wanni. The operation suffered more than six LTTE counter-attacks and led to the loss of billions of rupees worth of military hardware, including nine artillery pieces and seven tanks. Periodic attacks on the main column and raids to breach the defence line demoralised and slowed down the advance of the troops.

The military failed to accomplish its mission in time to mark the golden jubilee of Sri Lanka's Independence, 4 February 1998, because the LTTE was using its new Croatian mortars with deadly effect. However, the operation, claiming 3500 military fatalities and 9800 casualties, brought the military to the centre of the theatre of conflict.

Strategic map

Since the operation was aborted on 4 December 1998, the military has strengthened its thinly held defence line and prevented LTTE reconnaissance of their static positions through aggressive forward patrolling. The military is conducting raids into LTTE-controlled areas on both sides of the Wanni. However, recent military incursions using elite troops—special forces and commandos supported by technical intelligence—to locate and destroy the core and penultimate leadership of the LTTE have failed.

Today, the focus of the military is the Wanni jungles, from where the LTTE leadership controls its 10,000-12,000 fighting cadres, sleeper and operational cells in the South for conducting bombings and assassinations, an international network in 46 countries, and a fleet of two dozen ships.

The Wanni is made up of the northern administrative districts of Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Mannar and is sparsely populated. Due to undergrowth, visibility in the jungles averages 50 metres enabling the LTTE to engage the Sri Lankan military in guerrilla and semi-conventional warfare. This region is likely to be the principal theatre of warfare between the military and the LTTE for the foreseeable future, and the performance of 40,000 operational troops drawn from the 120,000-strong Sri Lankan army will be tested fully against the LTTE.

After the Sri Lankan army recovered the Jaffna peninsula, the bulk of the LTTE strength has been concentrated in the Wanni. In the eastern province there are only about 1500 cadres, but they are highly mobile and are strategically deployed to pin down around 30,000 Sri Lankan troops into guarding the main roads to the major towns and non-Tamil villages. The East serves two other functions for the LTTE—it provides both material resources and recruits to replenish the wastage of rank and file in the north.

The military is currently poised to assault Mullaitivu, the major bastion of LTTE military power. Here, the ltte maintains a complex of camps to produce full-fledged fighters. The infrastructure, concealed by the jungle canopy, provides basic and advanced training, special training such as Black Tiger (suicide missions), Sea Tiger and Air Tiger training, and manufactures weapons, from antipersonnel mines to an assortment of mortars and four types of fibre-glass boats.

LTTE merchant ships anchor in the adjacent sea of Alampil, outside the Sri Lankan territorial waters, while heavily armed Sea Tiger boats supported by suicide attack craft transport military and essential supplies to the shore. As the LTTE values Mullaitivu strategically, it is likely to conduct a pre-emptive strike on military positions to thwart a military buildup or an advance towards the Mullaitivu coast.

The LTTE's response to the military developments in the Wanni battlefield has been varied. In the theatre of operations, it moves in strength to prevent being attacked by small army teams probing for intelligence and to attack weakly defended military targets. Occasionally, the LTTE has concentrated its strength and overrun military defences to gather arms and ammunition, and to capture strategic ground. To prevent the military from pouring in its troops into the Wanni, the LTTE continues to conduct sporadic attacks outside the Wanni theatre—notably in Colombo, the eastern province, Jaffna—and Sinhalese and Muslim border villages.

LTTE operations in Colombo have been the bloodiest, extracting huge losses of life in bomb attacks. Intelligence reports reveal that the LTTE has mounted surveillance, and attempted to penetrate the inner circles of both President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the United National Party leader Ranil Wickremasinghe. Considering the LTTE capability in breaching security and striking important politicians, it is likely that the group will try to remove a national target at an opportune moment, such as on the eve of an election or at a national celebration to draw the maximum impact.

Camp attacks

Over the years, the LTTE has gained expertise in overrunning well-fortified military complexes. The first large-scale operation was in November 1993, when the LTTE overran the Poonaryn-Nagathevanthurai base complex, where it made off with a haul of extensive armoury, including a tank and four naval craft. To prove their capability to infiltrate the complex, an LTTE intelligence agent removed a file from the command centre and replaced it after LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran had a look at it.

The LTTE's next major operation was to overrun and hold the Mullaitivu military complex defended by 1488 officers and men in july 1996—only around 100 of them survived the attack. In the Mullaitivu raid, the LTTE recovered two 122-millimetre howitzers guns with 903 shells; this immediately put most military camps in the island's North-East within its reach.

The latest large-scale operation launched by the ltte, Oyatha Alaikal (Ceaseless Waves) II, attacked the Kilinochchi military complex—comprising the Kilinochchi base, the Elephant Pass-Paranthan base and the Iyakkachchi-Vettilaikerni base—on 27 September 1998. As military intelligence had continuously warned of an impending LTTE night attack, the troops were in a high state of alert. Even so, 975 government troops were killed in the 48-hour battle, and the LTTE lost 717 male and female fighters.

LTTE tactics

Although the LTTE lost more members in this operation than in any other, it was an assault on a complex with exceptionally well-defended supply lines. Two military battalions that arrived from the Paranthan-Elephant Pass base to rescue Kilinochchi were attacked by large LTTE cutout teams. The air force's Israeli built Kfir bombers refrained from making low passes, with the LTTE claiming credit for its enhanced air defence capability.

After the Kilinochchi battle, the LTTE announced that 100 sq km of territory had been "liberated". It demonstrated a semi-conventional warfare capability not only by repulsing attempts to recapture Kilinochchi, but by holding on to captured terrain as well. But for a guerrilla group, the cost of 1400 lives lost in defending, counter attacking and finally capturing Kilinochchi, from 1996 to 1998, was extraordinarily high—about 10 percent of the total strength of the guerrilla force. This led the LTTE to step up recruitment and training in the East to replenish the losses suffered in the northern province.

The fighting tactics of the LTTE has been adapted to meet the threat level, evolution of military tactics, and the changes in the political environment. The rebels rely heavily on high-grade intelligence both to survive and to strike. Combat intelligence is the responsibility of two organisations—the Tiger Organisation of Security Intelligence Service and the little-known LTTE Directorate of Military Intelligence.

The LTTE lays heavy emphasis on gathering intelligence from civilians. Every civilian entering LTTE -controlled areas is held for 24 hours and questioned. The build-up of security forces is monitored by infiltrating military-controlled areas using sympathetic civilians and members. They also monitor military radio and vehicular communication to learn of the security forces' intentions.

Small groups are deployed parallel to the forward defence lines to identify staging areas for military offensives. These groups in turn inform highly mobile large groups of impending breakouts to which the latter respond rapidly in strength. When the troops are within small arms range, LTTE groups in well-camouflaged positions attack the advancing troops using maximum firepower. Meanwhile, reinforcements arrive from other areas, both supporting their members engaged in battle and preventing military reinforcements from reaching the battle area. When the security forces reorganise a counter attack, the LTTE groups withdraw and fresh groups respond by attacking the weak positions of the military.

The fighting is assisted by claymores mines, buried improvised explosive devices, and booby traps. The LTTE used indigenously produced Jony and Fool anti-personnel mines (two mines cost one US dollar) extensively during the IPKF period when it faced a serious manpower shortage. Today, the LTTE relies less on anti-personnel mines and concentrates more on mortars and small arms.

The use of air power by the Sri Lanka air force is limited because the LTTE engages the troops only when they are at close quarters. The LTTE meets the threat of tanks by deploying tank-hunting teams. These three-man teams carrying Chinese rocket propelled grenade launchers (RPGs) or US-made light anti-weapons (LAWS), wait in well-concealed positions before ambushing their targets.

LTTE's survival is not in danger so long as there is no sound strategy and timely intelligence on the part of the Sri Lankan military. After the politicisation of the national intelligence apparatus in 1996, the government lost its capability either to forecast or disrupt LTTE operations even in the capital. The group carried out spectacular bombings in the heart of the financial capital in January 1996 and October 1997, destroying the Central Bank and damaging the World Trade Centre. It took the bombing of the sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic—the most hallowed shrine of the Sri Lankan Buddhists—on the eve of Sri Lanka's 50th Independence day celebrations for the government to revamp its intelligence apparatus

The LTTE stands out in many respects among contemporary guerrilla groups of the world. It is the only group that has assassinated two world leaders (former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993). It is known to have used chemical warfare in 1990, and in 1997 it conducted a well-planned information attack on Sri Lankan foreign missions, paralysing their e-mail systems.

The intention, the motivation, and the fighting skills of the 45-year-old LTTE leader Prabhakaran have been persistently misjudged or underestimated not only by Sri Lankan political and military leaders, but also by the Indians. Everyone believes, however, that if Prabhakaran is captured or killed, the LTTE as an organisation will collapse.

The LTTE engages the Sri Lankan state militarily, politically, economically and internationally to weaken the capacity of the government to sustain a protracted military campaign. Internationally, anti-government propaganda by the LTTE has dramatically affected investment, trade, foreign aid and tourism, impeding economic growth and development.

Domestically, sporadic bomb attacks in Colombo and in the South and sustained guerrilla warfare in the North-East have increased defence expenditure. Today, nearly 25 percent of the national budget is spent on maintaining national security. Over the last decade, the LTTE has grown into a force capable of engaging the Sri Lankan military at division level. The intention of the military is now limited only to weakening the fighting capability of the LTTE, which threatens the very survival of the Sri Lankan state.

When the current round of fighting erupted in April 1995, the social and economic cost of the war escalated dramatically. While Eelam War I (upto 1987) claimed the lives of 900 service personnel and Eelam War II (upto 1994) killed nearly 5000, so far, 10,000 have been killed in Eelam War II (1995 upto now). About 30,000 military personnel have been maimed or injured. Only six weeks' training is provided to government troops, which has led to heavy material losses, casualties and desertions. One out of 10 soldiers desert, despite reasonably high wages and the threat of punishment.

The LTTE has lost about 12,000 cadres. Atrocities and fighting have killed more civilians than combatants—about 30,000 Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim civilians have perished in the slaughter by both sides. The conflict has uprooted ethnic communities, altering the demographic landscape. The LTTE has expelled Muslims from the northern province and it continues to attack both Sinhalese and Muslim villages to discourage a non-Tamil presence in the North-East. But, the most affected in the conflict have been the Tamils. For every Sri Lankan Tamil living in the island, one is internally displaced and one lives overseas.

International image

The LTTE has come under increasing international criticism in the international fora since Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. The image projected by the LTTE as a "liberation movement" was dented by its violating two ceasefires. The LTTE has also been criticised for trying to disrupt the military-assisted civil administration in Jaffna, shooting down a Russian-piloted chartered aircraft carrying Tamil civilians from Jaffna to Colombo, and for bombing non-military targets in the South.

The elimination of rival Tamil groups, Tamil human rights activists and mainstream Tamil politicians has similarly weakened LTTE's claim to be the "sole representatives of the Tamil people". Except for Indian support in the 1980s, the LTTE has received no state assistance. What outside support they have come from a few ANC hard-liners in South Africa, the Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes, Tamil nationalists leaders from Tamil Nadu, and Western parliamentarians with Tamil constituencies.

The LTTE has also been lambasted for recruiting and deploying child combatants. Sri Lanka is among a number of countries together with Sierra Leone, Tajikistan, Liberia, Cambodia, Sudan, Kosovo and Afghanistan where children are in frontline combat; in Sri Lanka, they are also used by the ltte for mine clearing, spying and suicide bombing. When the security forces struck Mankulam, 26 ltte prisoners mostly ranged between 11 and 17 years. UK-based Sri Lankan researcher Dushmantha Ranetunge states that 60 percent of the LTTE members who have perished are under 18.

At present, no short-term or mid-term solution to the Sri Lankan conflict appears in sight. A longterm politico-military solution may be possible, for instance if the opposition returns to power in 2000. But the country is likely to return to war unless there is both an international facilitator and guarantor with a capability to pressurise the LTTE.

It is highly unlikely that India will intervene again, nor will there be domestic support for international or UN mediation. The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, several Scandinavian states, the Palestinian Authority, South Africa, the Commonwealth, the United Nations and many other international organisations have offered to facilitate talks between the LTTE and the government. But no country is likely to commit ground troops to enforce peace having assessed the ruthlessness and unpredictability of the conflict.

The LTTE strategy to call for political negotiations is to impress upon the world community of its commitment to peace while preparing for war. But whenever there has been a period of respite, the rebels have expanded militarily and politically, which explains why the Sri Lankan military is today firmly opposed to political negotiations.

Although sustained Sri Lankan military thrusts depleted the LTTE offensive capability in April 1995, the group has increased its international reach and depth, and expanded its support base. In the immediate future, the LTTE has the expertise and resources to engage the Sri Lankan military in the Wanni as long as its international supply and communication lines are open and they can replenish the depleting of the rank and file with fresh recruits. The government has failed to sever the arms pipeline and control recruitment from the displaced and other vulnerable sections of the Tamil people. Given these factors, it is very likely that the Sri Lankan conflict will continue into the foreseeable future.

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