30th July 2000
Military changes amidst a lull
lull not withstanding, the Government's attention last week was still focused
on the battlefields in the north. It was not over battle gear or over battle
plans against Tiger guerrillas.
Instead, it was over an altogether unexpected issue – immediate damage control following fears of factionalism and drooping troop morale of troops.
In these columns last week, The Sunday Times (Late City Edition) reported exclusively the changes effected in the northern military command. Major General Anton Wijendra was appointed Security Forces Commander, Jaffna. In that capacity, he will be the senior-most military officer in the North. He was earlier the Security Forces Commander, Wanni.
Security Forces Commander, Jaffna, Major General Sarath Fonseka has now taken over as SF Commander, Wanni. Major General Janaka Perera, Overall Operations Commander (North), has reverted to his substantive post as Chief of Staff of the Army. He will operate from Army Headquarters. With his transfer, the post of Overall Operations Commander, the senior most command position in the military hierarchy in the north, has been scrapped.
The changes, which came as a surprise, were the talking point this week, not only in defence but also in political circles. Both, Maj. Gen. Perera and Maj. Gen. Fonseka, are among those in the forefront of battle hardened veterans of the ongoing separatist war. Their postings together to the northern theatre of operations came amidst claims that the duo had remained sidelined until battles there had escalated, particularly after the Army's withdrawal from the Elephant Pass defence complex.
Taking over the reins from the then ground commanders, who came under severe criticism, both for their inaction and inability to appreciate the ground situation, the duo made strenuous efforts to stabilise the situation. LTTE's "Operation Oyatha Alaikal" (Unceasing Waves), which began in November, last year, had triggered off a string of debacles for the military. It began from the Wanni, extended to Elephant Pass, to Pallai and later to Eluthumaduval. Tiger guerrillas had reached the outskirts of Jaffna.
It was then that the duo took over their responsibilities. Maj. Gen. Perera took on the role of delivering a daily radio address to troops in the battlefield, in addition to regular meetings with field commanders. The exercises were to shore up morale and gear the troops to fight back. He also visited troops on the battlefront. Maj. Gen. Fonseka was also a regular visitor to the battlefront and acquired a reputation for what was called "bunker hopping" – moving from bunker to bunker talking to troops.
The Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRLs) arrived. They were put to use. Though described as a weapon used against "blind targets", rockets fired from MBRLs turned out to be as lethal as they were expensive. The rockets that spewed out from the thirty or forty barrel types, seconds after seconds, was devastating. By hindsight, it has become clear that MBRLs were in fact a cause of worry for the LTTE. This was why infiltrated LTTE cadres in the Jaffna peninsula were on the lookout to identify MBRL launch sites in addition to artillery gun positions of the Army. (Situation Report July 23)
The shoring up of morale and the free use of MBRLs are certainly not the only contributory causes for a sudden halt to advances by Tiger guerrillas. There were many more important reasons, some of which cannot be discussed in view of the ongoing censorship. If a larger part of the Wanni and Elephant Pass were totally devoid of a civilian population, fighting in the peninsula was different. There were very largely in built up areas packed with civilians. Any Tiger guerrilla thrust would have been at the expense of hundreds of civilian lives.
But, that is not to say it would otherwise have been a cake walk for the LTTE. The two top men in the north had sufficiently geared the military machine to withstand any further incursions though in offensive roles they had to make tactical withdrawals. This was particularly due to heavy artillery and mortar fire in the open terrain. Yet, within six weeks they did contribute to slowing down a six month long vigorous thrust by Tiger guerrillas.
Why then did the duo, who had done much good, pulled out from the north ? There were complaints to the defence establishment last week that the move smacked of political victimisation. The duo, who were held in "cold storage" and "put to use" at a critical hour of the nation's history, were being unceremoniously pushed out, protested many. In opposition circles there was more anger. They claimed the two were not the favourites of the PA Government and hence their efforts were not appreciated.
But those in the higher echelons of the defence establishment had a different story. The two senior Army officers, who together fought to keep the enemy away from the Jaffna peninsula, were now fighting with each other. The battle between number one and two had reached a peak leading to infighting between factions.
To what serious proportions matters had reached came to light when Maj. Gen. Fonseka chose to launch a military operation on LTTE positions in Ariyalai on July 10.
His immediate superior, Maj. Gen. Perera, Overall Operations Commander (OOC) North, was completely unaware of it. He was in Colombo when the operation began. Neither the Chief of Defence Staff, General Rohan de S. Daluwatte or the Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya, were in the know too.
In fact news of the launch of this operation reached them in a peculiar way. When one Mi-17 helicopter after another began arriving at the Army grounds in Colombo, top brass at the Army Headquarters first thought it was a VIP mission. But when there were too many choppers, telephones began to ring and it soon came to be known that the Russian built transport helicopters were bringing in casualties. An offensive operation had begun in Ariyalai that morning.
Questioned by both General Daluwatte and Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya, Maj. Gen. Perera, is learnt to have denied any knowledge of the operation. He had protested that he had not been consulted though he was the Overall Operations Commander (OOC). Later, Maj. Gen. Perera had been directed to call for Maj. Gen. Fonseka's explanation as to why the OOC had not been consulted or briefed on the launch of the operation which led to the deaths of one officer and 18 soldiers, left five soldiers missing in action and 94 soldiers and officers becoming injured. The latter were all described as P1 or cases who are left out of battle. The Sunday Times has learnt that Maj. Gen. Perera did not receive a response to his letter calling for the explanation of Maj. Gen. Fonseka until he relinquished his post as Overall Operations Commander.
High ranking Government sources said the developments that followed continued to worry the defence establishment. So much so President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga herself raised issue with Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya, during a conference at Temple Trees on July 21 – hours before she emplaned for London for a medical check up. She is now back in Sri Lanka.
President Kumaratunga, who is personally keeping a tab on the workings of the military machine, had learnt of the reported infighting between the two topmost Army officials in the north. Needless to say Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya, who as chief of the Army, was responsible for all matters including discipline, was embarrassed. By that evening, orders went out appointing Major General Anton Wijendra as the Security Forces Commander, Jaffna. By the same order, both Maj. Gen. Perera and Maj. Gen. Fonseka were moved out from that area.
Maj. Gen. Wijendra, the son of a Sergeant Major in the Artillery Regiment, has had a thirty year long career in the army. He joined the Army in 1970 as an Officer Cadet and was enlisted in the Sri Lanka Engineers Regiment. In 1991, he was at the forefront of "Operation Balavegaya", led by late General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, to regain control of Elephant Pass which came under LTTE siege for nearly three months. In 1992, he became Brigade Commander in Palaly and led "Operation Bhoomi Kampa" (Earthquake) which led to the extension of security forces defences from Palaly up to Madagal.
The changes came as officials at Army Headquarters wrote to military suppliers seeking their consent to make payments next year for supplies that are being made available this year. Whilst some suppliers had agreed to accept payments late, others with whom deals had been concluded and whose countries had been visited by special envoys to thank them for the sales, have shown reluctance.
Such deals were still in the balance as Treasury and senior Army officials discussed last Friday ways and means of accommodating payments for the deals which have been concluded and Letters of Credit opened. President Kumaratunga was to chair a meeting of these officials to reach finality.
It has now become clear that cash flow problems were the main reason why the Government had to appeal to suppliers to delay accepting payments. "We are now working out the priority areas and will ensure the war effort is not hampered in any way," a senior Army official who spoke on grounds of anonymity said.
Another development this week, which is also aimed at enhancing the war effort, is the creation of a new Air Wing by the Sri Lanka Navy. For obvious reasons, details of this new unit cannot be divulged except to say that the Navy will soon have air capability. Retired Sri Lanka Air Force personnel are now being hired for the purpose. Thus preparations are under way whilst the lull continues.
The lull in operations could be attributed to a number of reasons, both military and political. The rationale for that situation, applicable to both the Government and the LTTE, are not quite for the same reasons.
For the LTTE, the operational scenario in the peninsula is quite different to that what prevailed in the Wanni and in the environs of Elephant Pass. The peninsula interspersed with small farms, villages and urban areas supports a dense population fiercely committed to the land. They are unlikely to abandon their homesteads that they have owned for generations as was shown in the return of the population to the peninsula in the wake of "Operation Riviresa."
Indeed, it is the uniqueness of the lifestyle in the peninsula that has fashioned the character and political culture of its peoples. The LTTE cannot afford to alienate the population in the peninsula by initiating operations in the style of the Wanni that will result in large-scale collateral damage and population displacement. Especially after 17 years of conflict with attendant hardship to the population the LTTE, too have to be conscious of the hearts and mind factor.
A political promise that has not seen fruition in those many years is by itself an inadequate promise. The Government too is placed in a similar situation where the population factor is a compelling restriction in planning operations and strategies. Quite apart from the ground restrictions, the political scenario is also an inhibiting factor on the conduct of operations in the North.
With a general election due, the government will not want any military reversals. With Elephant Pass now a closed chapter, the Government would prefer a holding strategy militarily until they can see some positive public reaction to their political strategies.
Whatever be the outcome to the proposed Constitutional amendments due to be presented in Parliament, the Government would want to see the elections done with before coming to grips with the military situation. In that situation, the obvious course for the Government is to consolidate the military situation on the ground whilst building up the command and manpower structure of the forces and up dating their equipment. That will be the challenge to the Government in the immediate months ahead.
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