Salutes and smiles
In Sri Lanka’s military lexicon the word 'war' was almost invisible as top commanders presented their versions of how victory was won in the last leg of the 30-year-old civil conflict. Addressing an audience of army officers and diplomats from 41 countries at Colombo’s Galadari Hotel this week, Major Generals continuously referred to Eelam War IV as a “humanitarian operation.” Fought between end 2006 and early 2009, the last phase of the civil war was the bloodiest with third-party estimates of civilian deaths close to 40,000, if not more. Former Australian army officer and Washington-based counterinsurgency researcher David Kilcullen thought the Sri Lankan Army had successfully applied a combination of guerrilla and conventional tactics to vanquish the Tamil Tigers. The author of Accidental Guerrilla, a book related to America’s war on Islamic terror, published two years back, told the seminar however that it was “very difficult to see how the international community can accept the Sri Lankan model without a frank and honest discussion of these allegations of abuse.” For someone with first-hand counterinsurgency experiences in East Timor and Afghanistan, his advice to the Sri Lankan government was: “If the original grievances driving the conflict remain ignored, the incentive for violence will continue.”
A couple of pictures of dead children killed by the LTTE earlier were displayed during slide-shows at the conference as were images of UN vans carrying food and relief material for the war-affected people of the north. It was only a few weeks ago that the UN panel on Sri Lanka had included photographs of children allegedly killed in shelling by government forces in its report to secretary-general Ban Ki Moon. Major General Shavendra Silva, now the country’s deputy ambassador at the UN in New York, offered his account of the first five months of 2009 during which the Sri Lankan Army captured the formerly rebel-held A-9 highway, the arterial road linking the north to the south and the Iranamadu Tank, the north’s largest water source. According to him, the first no-fire zone was announced by the government in response to the LTTE’s mobilisation of civilians in defensive positions around an area called Puthukudiyiruppu by mid-January. In following days, two more such zones were created. The LTTE placed war-like materials amid the civilian population in no-fire zones he said adding that LTTE bunkers had been placed along a couple of hospitals in the north, the ICRC office, the UN communication hub in general area Valipunam and the UN humanitarian mission safe house in Puthukudiyiruppu. The UN panel, in its report, had blamed the army for specifically and repeatedly shelling these buildings.
In a seeming response to the UN report on shelling of no-fire zones by the army, Major General Silva said that in mid-February 2009, the LTTE had moved its heavy artillery into the fourth no-fire zone in another area called Putumatalan. In the first week of March, he claimed 400 civilians “in the guise of innocents” conducted a suicide attack on artillery gun positions near a lagoon, destroying a couple of guns of the army. They were all killed. By mid-May, the final days of the war, the LTTE’s remaining cadre and leaders were confined to 400x400 meters area near the Nanthikadal lagoon, the mangrove near which LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s body was found on May 19. Around May 17, in a final desperation, the LTTE, Major General Silva claimed, set fire to its remaining armoury, vehicles and property belonging to civilians. Apparently, that fire also killed many civilians. On May 18, the LTTE, he said, “poised as IDPs” crossed the lagoon and sprung a surprise attack on division 53 of the army but that was “instantaneously put down.” He however did not mention how exactly Prabhakaran died. Former IPKF commander in Sri Lanka, Major General Ashok K. Mehta (retd.), present in the audience even asked him to clarify the mystery surrounding Prabhakaran’s death. On May 17, then Sri Lankan Army commander Sarath Fonseka had told the media here that Prabhakaran’s charred body was found in an ambulance in which the LTTE leader was allegedly trying to escape the battlefront. Within a day of that announcement, that version gave way to the one of finding the rebel chief’s body near the lagoon with injury marks visible only on the head. By the way, while the conference was underway, Fonseka was in a prison cell a few kilometres away, serving disparate sentences from court martial and civil court.
East and Karuna
Sri Lankan Major General Nandana Udawatta, involved in earlier campaigns to take away the country’s east from the LTTE, mentioned the failure of the February 2002 ceasefire agreement between then UNP government and the rebels. The Mahinda Rajapaksa regime’s political expediency has been to blame now opposition leader and earlier Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe for the failure of the ceasefire. This argument was also used as the basic mandate of the home-grown commission studying last seven years of the conflict. On July 21, 2006 as the LTTE closed the sluice gates of the Mavil Aru dam, severing water supply to 22,000 villagers and 14,000 acres of paddy fields, “several attempts to negotiate through the ICRC were made by this government,” Major General Udawatta continued telling the conference. With no breakthrough in sight, the army began its campaign to regain control of Mavil Aru sluice gate. On “humanitarian grounds,” he added without delay. The east was “cleared” of rebels in August 2007. The role of Vinayamoorthy Muralitharan aka Karuna Amman, the LTTE’s erstwhile eastern commander, was not touched upon in the presentation on the eastern operations and understandably so. Karuna who broke away from the LTTE in 2004, was said to have helped the army with his cadres and intelligence. In fact, some media commentators can’t seem to decide between two events that apparently paved the LTTE’s downfall — Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination or Karuna Amman’s defection.
According to the Sri Lankan Army, there were 18,000 LTTE cadres in early 2008. As the war progressed, around 8,000 civilians were added as new recruits. In the months of 2009 as many as 21,500 were fighting the army, the military intelligence estimated. The LTTE possessed an “accurate and concerted indirect fire capability through pooling of fire assets and deployment of cadres on observer duties at very close range.” With missiles up to 122mm range and with 152mm and 130mm artillery guns, multi-barrel rocket launchers and armoured vehicles, and of course the lethal suicide squad of black tigers, the LTTE had kept the army away for long, according to Sri Lankan military intelligence. With villages fortified by mines and haphazard booby-traps, bunkers at 100-150 meters intervals, listening posts and observation posts and indigenous but effective communication devices, it took a long time for the army to regain control of the north.
Two Chinese companies participated in the conference as official partners of the Sri Lankan government. Chinese army outfit Chinese Poly Technologies that sells missiles and Chinese Electrical and Technologies Corporation that makes products ranging from hand-held Police terminals to cyber surveillance mechanisms, capable of tracking down and blocking what they call “information harmful” to security societies around the world, were the only two foreign firms at a small exhibition on military ware. The only other participant in the exhibition was a Sri Lankan company called Himani Ballistics, majoring in bullet shields.
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