A process of stabilization in the East, and of attrition in the North, has been initiated by Colombo. To the extent that its objectives are sufficiently met, a broader military offensive in the North will become inevitable.
With the killing of S.P. Thamilchelvan, the leader of the political wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the de facto number two of the organisation, Colombo has clearly declared its intent to initiate the decisive confrontation with the rebels which has been inevitable since the Sri Lanka Army's (SLA's) successes in the Eastern province through July 2007. That it was the clear intent of the Mahinda Rajapakse government to consolidate its hold on the East, and then move compellingly against the North had been abundantly clear over the past months.
If any doubts remained, they would be cleared by Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake's declaration, after the strike that neutralised Thamilchelvan, that "Our security forces are targeting the (LTTE) hiding places and safe houses… They will not stop the relentless pursuit of terrorists." The Prime Minister also made it clear that the government was not willing to enter into another cease-fire with the LTTE at the present stage, though a formal offer of ‘unconditional talks' was made. The rebels can hardly be expected to take kindly to such an offer under the present circumstances, and the LTTE chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, while mourning Thamilchelvan's demise, reaffirmed that the rebels would "continue to travel on our path towards the goal with renewed determination."
Sri Lankan analyst D.B.S. Jeyaraj notes, "He was very close to the LTTE leader. His demise may bring about a hardening of attitude in the LTTE hierarchy." The pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance has already threatened, "Although his death is destined to create thousands of new Thamilchelvans who will doubtless serve our freedom struggle with dedication, we shudder at the repercussions for peace of this act by the Sri Lanka government."
Thamilchelvan was killed in a Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) air strike at Thiruvaiaru, a location three kilometres South of Kilinochchi, at around 6am on November 2. Simultaneously the fighter jets also pounded a Black Tiger camp in the East of Iranamadu. Five other LTTE leaders, ‘Lieutenant
Colonel' Anpumani alias Alex, ‘Major' Mihuthan, ‘Major' Nethagy,
‘Lieutenant' Adchgivel and ‘Lieutenant' Vahakai Kumaran were also killed in the air strike. Defence sources claimed that Alex was the chief of
LTTE's "strategic communication division" and in charge of handling all communication activities between its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and the other
"international terrorist agents" and the targeted location was an international communications centre and a centre for logistics, arms procurement, fund raising and operational matters.
The LTTE Peace Secretariat had already confirmed these losses shortly before the SLAF confirmation. Thamilchelvan was also posthumously promoted to the self-styled rank of ‘Brigadier' - the first occasion the outfit has promoted one of its leaders to this rank. Prabhakaran also appointed P. Nadesan, a Sri Lankan police defector who joined the Tigers and later became a member of the Tiger peace negotiating team, currently in charge of Tamil Eelam Police, as the new Political Head. Prabhakaran also accused the "Sinhala nation" of having "killed our dove of peace".
It is useful, in this context, to review the career of the LTTE's ‘dove'. Thamilchelvan was the outfit's main interlocutor at the last round of peace talks with the Sri Lankan government in October 2006 and had emerged as the international face of the separatist group. However, the "terrorist turned political head" (as described the Media Centre for National Security, MCNS) lacked the negotiating skills of his predecessor, Anton Balasingham (who died of cancer on December 14, 2006) and was widely thought to have failed as an interlocutor.
Lakshman Kadirgamar, the late foreign minister of Sri Lanka (who was assassinated by the LTTE on August 12, 2005) once remarked, "Balasingham was the moderate of the lot. Those who have emerged now are the hardliners." Remarkably, in an interview with Associated Press in July 2007, Thamilchelvan had said, "(We will) weaken the military capacity of the government of Sri Lanka, which will invariably end up hitting economic targets as well,"--a statement that would be difficult to associate with a ‘peace interlocutor'.
Thamilchelvan played a pivotal role in a number of attacks on members of the security forces in the recent past, including the assaults on Kilaly, Muhamalai and Nagarkovil Forward Defence Lines (FDLs) in August 2006. According to the MCNS, his military experience commenced with deadly attacks on the Jaffna-based Indian Peace Keeping Force and security forces in 1985, a few months after he joined the LTTE.
He had emerged as Prabhakaran's most trusted aide and was his personal bodyguard during
Prabhakaran's visit to India in 1984, His killing is a body blow for the LTTE's strategic plans. Thamilchelvan's closeness to the Tiger leader also helped him to rise in the rebel hierarchy. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, he held various command positions in the strategically-important Jaffna region. Many accuse him of leading a group carrying out assassinations in that area at the time. Thamilchelvan was the highest-ranking member of the LTTE to be killed by SFs since the emergence of violence in the island nation in 1983.
It is significant that the attack that neutralised Thamilchelvan was only the second major strike to have been directed against Kilinochchi since the resumption of hostilities in July 2006. Colombo had tended to keep Kilinochchi outside the scope of its military operations because of the location of the LTTE's political headquarters there, and the concentration of civilian populations in close proximity to the rebels administrative infrastructure. This had conferred a measure of immunity and freedom of operation on the LTTE leadership.
However, an estimated 69 LTTE cadres were confirmed killed following two separate aerial and artillery attacks at Chempankundu in the Pooneryn area of Kilinochchi
district on September 25 while a rehearsal of an LTTE ‘Passing out Parade' was in progress. Following specific intelligence, Air Force fighter craft had struck the target around noon. At about 4.30 pm the same evening, a volume of heavy artillery fire directed by ground troops of the Army caused further losses, preventing the outfit from proceeding with the event any further. Reports suggested that several LTTE leaders were in attendance on the occasion.
The SLAF had, in fact, been carrying out regular attacks on targeted LTTE locations in the Northern sector ever since its military victory in the East, where aerial attacks had preceded the final ground offensive. A comparative escalation can now be expected across the North. Thus, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa stated, after the November 2 attack on Kilinochchi, "This is just a message that we know where their leaders are. I know the locations of all the leaders, that if we want we can take them one by one, so they must change their hideouts… When the time comes only, we take them one by one."
There has been a continuous escalation of violence between the Security Forces and the LTTE since the election of Mahinda Rajapakse as President in November 2005. The military offensive in July 2006 inflicted heavy losses on the LTTE, forcing the rebels into flight from their erstwhile Eastern strongholds, and wreaking considerable damages in rebel capacities in the Jaffna and Wanni sectors. As of October 31, according to the data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management, 4,082 LTTE cadres and 1,042 SFs have been killed, in addition to 1,066 civilians, in a total of 6,190 fatalities, since July 2006.
With the depleted Tigers yet to be defeated finally, the government appears determined to carry forward its offensive operations, rejecting any temptation to re-engage in an illusory ‘peace process'. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had made Colombo's perspectives abundantly clear on October 28, 2007, in the aftermath of the October 22 LTTE aerial and artillery attack on Anuradhapura Air Base, declaring that terrorism would be wiped out militarily as it was clearly evident that the LTTE was never in search of a politically negotiated peaceful solution to the ethnic crisis. He added, further:
"Despite the diverse interpretations of our successes and our failures, we are far more superior than (sic) the LTTE. This is what we had overlooked in the past and the battle was dragging on. However, we observe now that we have broken the spine of the LTTE. We have seized much of their arms and ammunition and killed many of their cadres. They are being defeated even in the Vanni. As never in the past, we have chased after many LTTE floating weapons ships and completely destroyed them in the deep seas. We are convinced that the LTTE is now weakened."
He articulated the government's determination, moreover, not to "pass this ethnic problem to the next
Colombo is clearly readying for a final showdown, and the LTTE has limited capacities to resist the state's armed forces in positional warfare. Inevitably, its stealth and terrorist strikes against state and civilian targets in the Sinhala heartland will escalate, and this will bring extraordinary economic pressures to bear on the government. Whether this will suffice, this time around, to thwart a tremendously augmented Sri Lanka Army and Colombo's triumphal mood, remains to be seen.
Ajai Sahni is Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management.
Ajit Kumar Singh is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management.
Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal