Coming from the head of state, it was a remark that spoke volumes about the acute threat Colombo is facing. When Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga met opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to brief him on the military situation in the Jaffna peninsula, she had to confess that "the situation is critical". Indeed, since April 21, when Tamil separatist rebels captured the strategically crucial Elephant Pass military complex-the gateway to the peninsula-the island nation is facing an unprecedented military and political crisis. For, since then, the rebels have made rapid gains, moving further north and raising fears about the safety of about 40,000 government troops trapped in the region.
"The big question is whether the army can hold Jaffna when 10,000 troops couldnt defend a crucial garrison from an attack force of no more than 4,000," says Iqbal Athas, defence correspondent for the Sunday Times. In the ensuing public outcry, demands were made that the government ask for foreign military assistance and put the country on a war footing. Mirroring this opinion, a front-page editorial of the daily The Island said that "If the Jaffna peninsula is to be saved from terrorists, the government must appeal to friendly nations, particularly our neighbours, for immediate military assistance in the form of armaments."
The government obliged on both counts. Appeals for arms were made to countries that have supplied them in the past. Pakistan responded first, air-lifting 10 tonnes of ammunition and shipping in arms including 122 mm muti-barrel rocket launchers. Colombo also acquired arms and Kfir fighter jets from Israel-the latter are a crucial addition to the depleted Lankan air force. Tanks are also being sought from the Czech republic. Such was the urgent need that despite constant media exposes of massive corruption in past arms purchases, the defence ministry was ordered to buy military equipment specified by the armed forces over the counter.
On November 26 last year, in his annual Martyrs Day address, LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran had declared 2000 as the "year of war". Despite this advance warning, and the fact that the Lankan army has withstood two previous assaults on the Elephant Pass complex, when the LTTE launched its offensive this time, the army was forced to retreat after more than three weeks of fighting. "The reason for this is simple. Poor leadership and the soldiers consequent lack of will to fight," says Athas. "Basic principles of war have not been adhered to for the last couple of years leading to a series of setbacks. The troops are thoroughly demoralised, this level of demoralisation has never been experienced in the 50-year combat history of the security forces," says a retired senior army officer.
The government responded by meeting the other demand and placing the country on a war footing for the first time in the history of the 18-year-old conflict. After declaring that "all non-essential development work is immediately suspended and money diverted to the war effort," in a midnight gazette notice the government announced draconian regulations to restrict democratic freedom. Strikes, meetings and protests were banned, local and foreign media placed under censorship and criticising the government or the military made illegal.
The opposition and media activist groups promptly protested, "The government is using the military setbacks to crack down on the peoples democratic rights," said Ranil Wickremesinghe. But in Colombo, 224 miles from the battlefield, life is almost normal though the tension is palpable. Most of the majority Sinhalese who dont have relatives in the army havent felt any serious pressures yet. "The people are concerned but there is no sense of panic yet," says Victor Ivan, editor of the Ravaya newspaper.
However, for over two million Tamils living outside Jaffna peninsula things are quite different. "The first concern of the Tamils in the south is for their relatives in Jaffna with whom theyve lost all contact in the past two weeks. Tamils in Colombo are also worried about the possible consequences of Jaffna falling," says Kethishwaran Loganthan of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives.
But by far the biggest nightmare for both Tamils and the government is the possibility of a repeat of 83 when angry Sinhala mobs ran riot in Colombo. The government, fearing the rioters would target government leaders, had directed the rioters towards Tamil business establishments and homes. Almost 1,000 Tamils were killed and hundreds of thousands fled to the north and east.
The government has justified its draconian measures by playing on just this fear, saying the aim was to stop a recurrence of this. But the real worry for many observers is the damage done to the Norwegian-sponsored peace talks between the government and the rebels. Says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, "A military debacle in the north will harden attitudes on both sides, and those who hold the advantage on the ground will call the shots. We are on a knifes edge as regards peace. Now, it entirely depends on the ability of the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to think beyond short- or medium-term gains. This conflict cannot be settled by war." But then, in this ravaged paradise, both sides are trying to do just that.