In the week when the cease-fire would have completed half a decade, there was very little to celebrate in Sri Lanka. The two signatories to the truce, the Sri Lankan
government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have never been as close to open war in the past five years as they now are.
War rhetoric has replaced negotiations everywhere. In the capital, Colombo, Buddhist monks fasted, calling for an abrogation of the truce; in northern Jaffna, the grapevine was expecting a shift in trajectory from the Tigers on or after the fifth-year mark.
President Mahinda Rajapakse, under whose leadership the military has scored a series of successes, stated in Male, capital of the Maldives, that the LTTE would be soon flushed out of their last eastern strong hold of Toppigala. The LTTE are trapped in the area after fleeing vast stretches of land following operations by government forces.
The Tigers have lost their holding power in the east considerably. Soon after the costal town of Vaharai fell to government hands on January 19, 2007, the truce monitors, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) assessed that the LTTE was unlikely to retain control of the land in the Eastern Province.
Going by what transpired in Vaharai, the present momentum is with the government forces. The LTTE, for the first time in the last decade, fled leaving behind a large haul of arms, including two long range 152 mm artillery pieces. Their losses in terms of cadres have been hard to estimate, given the lack of access to the areas. However, military sources claim that more than 400 had been killed. The Sri Lanka Army’s (SLA) own casualty figures in the three-month operation to regain Vaharai included 120 dead.
The LTTE have regrouped in Toppigala, south of Vaharai. Cadres who were stationed in camps in the Kanchikudichuaru area in the southern Ampara sector have also reached Toppigala after fleeing an onslaught by the Police Special Task Force.
The loss of artillery power is likely to be a major factor against the LTTE. They had used the big guns to pound the Trincomalee Naval base and ships using the harbour. government forces then pushed them back into the interior after taking control of Sampur, which lies at the southern end of the Trincomalee Bay. Now that they have lost two of their most powerful guns and at least another one is damaged beyond use, they would have to depend largely on shell fire and direct intervention of cadres to thwart an Army assault. Sources in the Karuna group, however, claim that the LTTE still has "one or two" artillery pieces in the Toppigala area.
The LTTE also suffer from a mid-level leadership crisis in the Eastern Province. The Tiger leadership in Kilinochchi had taken pains to boost the east with the presence of high-level military cadres since the defection of its former eastern military head Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias ‘Colonel’ Karuna. In March 2005, a year after the Karuna rebellion, two military commanders holding the rank of ‘Colonel’, Banu and Balraj, were stationed in the east. Both have now been withdrawn to the north. And elite cadres from units like the Charles Anthony Unit and the Jayanthan Unit were relocated to areas where incursions by the breakaway group and the security forces were likely.
However, in the battle for Sampur, the LTTE was unwilling to augment, or was prevented from pumping in, cadres and leaders. The SLA claims that a naval cordon had intercepted an attempt to bring in cadres. Top political leaders have now reached Kilinochchi and the fate of Suwarnam, the overall military commander for Trincomalee, is still unclear. The SLA maintains that he went silent on the LTTE communication network following an air attack on his base on January 14, 2007. The LTTE withdrew from Vaharai between January 16 and 19, 2007, and asserted that this decision was made considering the plight of the civilians who had been trapped in the town, and were denied supplies.
The LTTE command in Toppigala is headed by Ram, Ramesh and Nagesh. The breakaway Karuna group says that they will take the Tigers on in Toppigala. The Tigers have accused the Karuna cadres of working hand-in-glove with government Forces. The Karuna group insists that it works independently. While the operation to regain Vaharai was on, the group carried out several attacks in the area, but has not publicly claimed any accolades for taking the town. It now states that cadres specially trained for jungle operations have been inducted into the Toppigala area. The Karuna group’s own strength has remained a matter of speculation, but members have claimed that it has at least 2,000 armed cadres circling the Toppigala area, including 200 special cadres. With their knowledge of the ground and terrain, the Karuna group has been able to plug escape routes. The government is now openly announcing that it will take Toppigala and, in the words of President Rajapakse, drive out the Tiger ‘ghost’. And now, murmurs have begun that the North – the LTTE heartland – is next. But the Tigers are landlocked in Toppigala, with supply routes thinned out, and will be forced either to give up easily or fight to the bitter end. The North, however, is an altogether different ball game.
In the North, the Tigers are massed along with a sizeable civilian population, and fighting cadres alone could number as many as 20,000 with a naval wing and possibly a rudimentary air wing as well. The government is also wary of the possibility of the war reaching the South, as it already has, on occasion. On January 6 and 7, 2007, twin bus bombs rocked the South, killing at least 20 civilians. On January 20, the Navy thwarted an attack by three LTTE boats on the main Colombo Port. An earlier attack on the Galle Port in November 2006 had driven tourist arrivals down, despite the relatively low success of the operation. On each occasion that government Forces have launched a major operation to regain areas from the LTTE, the national capital, Colombo, has invariably ended up a target. Security in the city is currently at an all time high and is likely to remain so in the foreseeable future.
Military successes notwithstanding, Rajapakse is currently facing a major political battle, ironically with the very man who headed his successful presidential campaign in 2005. The powerful former Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, who was sacked on February 9, 2007, is now openly critical of the government. In a letter sent to the President, he has spoken of alleged interference by the President’s relatives and advisors and the deteriorating human rights situation in the country, among other issues.
On February 22, 2007, the now notional ceasefire completed five years. Just a week before this date, on February 14, the LTTE issued a statement to the effect that it no longer considered it self ‘an armed group,’ but rather a
de facto state. The LTTE Peace Secretariat stated: "LTTE is no longer an "armed group" but is indeed a
de facto state. A functioning de facto state like the LTTE is entitled to recruit those above the age of 17 but not send them to the battle front."
With political and military positions on all sides hardening, the times ahead don’t look good for the island nation.
Amantha Perera is a Colombo-based writer and commentator and Lecturer in Sri Lanka Press Institute.
Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal