ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday January 20, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 34
Columns - Telescope  

A game that will speak not its name

By J.S. Tissainayagam

The then Deputy Minister of Defence Anuruddha Ratwatte addressing the troops during Operation Jayasikurui.

The government has predicted that 2008 would be decisive in its campaign against LTTE separatism and reiterated its ability to defeat the Tigers in their Wanni lair before this year closes. “We must realise that military victories will surely pave the way to push the LTTE to seek a political solution to the problem... Like we overcame the tsunami tragedy, we will face the threat of terrorism and overcome it soon,” said President Mahinda Rajapaksa with imperturbable self-assurance at the national ceremony to commemorate the 2004 catastrophe.

The army commander too echoed these sentiments. The Daily News on December 31, 2007, said, “Army Commander Lt. General Sarath Fonseka who has already announced his intention of shifting the current battles to a decisive phase in August next year, expressed confidence of achieving the mission …”
Statements issued by other senior government figures, too, reflect an upbeat mood. They suggest that while acknowledging the battle for the Wanni would not be as smooth as clearing the East, it could be achieved by sheer military might. And why not? According to the military spokesman and the MCNS, Tiger cadres are perishing like flies in the battlefields of the North.

While this might be one way of perceiving on-going military operations, there are alternate perspectives too which we would do well to consider. The military establishment, assisted by sections of the media, has succeeded in projecting what has been going on in the past three months or so as that of the security forces readying themselves for a frontal assault on the LTTE’s armed formations in the Wanni. In other words, the army is poised to strike on the Tiger heartland but that the operation is yet to begin.

While breaking into the LTTE stronghold appears to be the overall objective, the strategy appears to clear the mainland between Vavuniya and Mannar and cut through the western flank of Tiger territory to link up with Pooneryn (to which reference was made in these columns some weeks ago). Control of Pooneryn by government forces is expected to debilitate the LTTE and prevent it from launching attacks across the Jaffna lagoon on the southern part of the Jaffna peninsula.

With the view of executing this strategy, the military began assaults on Tiger bunker lines northwest of Vavuniya from around October last year. Its first ‘capture’ was Silavathurai. Though trumpeted by the government as a major victory, those following the conflict know that Silvathurai was actually no man’s land and it offered no strategic benefit to the rebels. The Tigers, therefore, withdrew from Silavathurai, which the army then occupied.

Beyond that, judged even by the information supplied by the Ministry of Defence, it is clear that fighting is centred round the forward lines, or FDLs. Recent confrontations of significance include Pandivirichchan, Parappakandal and Mullikulam. Clashes on the FDLs, where there is usually significant loss of lives on both sides, are hailed by the government as major battle gains. How come that limited progress on the advance into LTTE-controlled areas has not created adverse reactions in the public? Interestingly, the government has managed to ward off such criticism by not declaring full-scale operations have already commenced. The public is made to believe that what has been going on from October last year are no more significant than border clashes.

This is at variance with the army’s approach under President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Operation Jayasikurui was launched from Vavuniya and Weli Oya (Manal Aru) with the intention of establishing a main supply route (MSR) to the North by taking the A9 highway. A secondary objective was to split the LTTE-dominated Wanni through the middle. Since the government was in control of areas north of Kilinochchi it meant clearing a mere 45 mile strip between the two towns.

The launching of Jayasikurui on May 13, 1997 was attended by great fanfare. The then Minister of Defence, Anuruddha Ratwatte, belting out words of defiance and taunts at the Tigers became routine. But while the fanfare might have been elixir to the ego when the going was good, the setbacks that began to occur as the army approached Pulliyankulam found the media and the public beginning to criticise the government on its inept handling of the operation.

The present government has learnt from its predecessor’s mistakes. It is able to fend off adverse criticism by not declaring formally that a military operation has already begun. The public is made to believe that all that is taking place is a series of armed clashes on the FDLs with the great ‘push’ yet to come. While on the subject of Jayasikurui – the last major assault on the Wanni – comparisons are inevitable. Initial battlefield victories of the security forces during Jayasikurui were quite imposing. Despite a counterattack by the LTTE on the Thandikulam camp soon after the operation began, the military was able to overcome Tiger resistance and advance up to Omanthai (from Vavuniya) and Nedunkerni (from Weli Oya) in around five weeks.

It was only as the army approached Puliyankulam that the Tigers launched a major counteroffensive, which served to alter the whole complexion of the operation. With its armour bogged down by the monsoon rains and fierce resistance by the LTTE, Jayasikurui began floundering. Judging from the government’s accounts of the fighting in the past weeks and a glance at an atlas, it is evident the advance to link up with Pooneryan has been confined, in the past three months, to fierce clashes at the FDLs stretching between Vavuniya and the north-western coast. As far as battlefield losses are concerned, each side makes different claims and I leave it the reader to investigate the veracity of the respective assertions.

Unable to advance significantly on this particular front, the military’s strategy seems to be opening other fronts with the intention of dispersing the LTTE units away the northwest line. Thus there have been clashes on the Muhamalai and Weli Oya (Manal Aaru) FDLs too. Meanwhile, the LTTE clashes with the STF regularly in the Amparai jungles; two zones of insecurity have been created by civilian killings in areas near Yala and, from this week, Moneragala. If they intensify it would take away the government’s ability to concentrate its forces on advancing on the Wanni, while also resulting in civilian displacement from these areas. There is also access to the Eastern Province through Moneragala.

All this might very well change in the coming weeks with the army surging forward from the northwest FDLs. Its self-imposed deadline for completion of this Operation Without a Name is August this year.

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