Monday, Oct 18, 2021

The Bloodied Island

It is clear that there is a war in Sri Lanka, and all conventional indicators confirm this reality. A staggering 3,920 fatalities in 2006 (till December 1) surpass the earlier highest figure of 3,794 in year 2000.

The Bloodied Island
The Bloodied Island

Every year, on November 27, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ‘chief’, Velupillai Prabhakaran, delivers his annual Mahaveerar Thinam (Heroes’ Day) speech. Billed as the policy statement of the LTTE, it spells out the outfit’s strategy. Year 2006 was no different, with Prabhakaran mounting a scathing attack on Colombo’s intransigence. Claiming that an independent Tamil state was the only solution, he called for international recognition of the Tamil "freedom struggle". "The Rajapakse regime hopes to decide the fate of the Tamil nation using its military power," he declared, "It wants to occupy the Tamil land and then force an unacceptable solution on the Tamils." He added, further, that this strategy rendered the truce "defunct". 

It is clear that there is a war in Sri Lanka, and all conventional indicators confirm this reality. A staggering 3,920 fatalities in 2006 (till December 1) surpass the earlier highest figure of 3,794 in year 2000 (between March, when mass hostilities commenced, and December 31), according to SATP data. [See table in the pop-up]

2006 had also witnessed a series of LTTE-engineered massacres of civilians, attacks on security force (SF) personnel and government installations, and the killing of several prominent personalities. Year 2006 saw two rounds of failed talks between the government and the LTTE and some significant developments on the political front, including the signing of the historical pact between the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party and opposition United National Party; the appointment of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) and its power devolution formula; and the Supreme Court ruling striking down the merger of the Northern and Eastern regions. Overall, year 2006 is set to have decisive impact on just where Sri Lanka is headed. 

Fatalities in 2006 were higher than the combined fatalities for the years 2001-2005, and civilian fatalities exceeded the preceding peak in 2000, when the country was reeling under the ferocity of a ‘declared war’. The overwhelming majority of these fatalities have been inflicted after the July 2006 Mavil Aru incident, though sporadic violence was underway even before this date. The preceding attack on Army Chief Sarath Fonseka was the immediate trigger for hostilities. The major incidents of violence in 2006 included: 

November 8: More than 45 civilians were killed at Vakarai in the Batticaloa district as a welfare centre was allegedly hit by retaliatory fire of the military. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) spokesperson Hellen Ollafsdottir said that monitors who visited the incident site had counted 23 bodies at hospitals where also 135 injured were treated. However, the LTTE claimed that 50 to 100 civilians were killed when "indiscriminate fire" by the military hit a school building where the displaced are housed. 

October 16: At least 98 sailors of the Navy were killed and 100 wounded as suspected LTTE cadres rammed an explosive-laden vehicle into a naval convoy at Digampatana in the Habarana area of Matale district. 

October 13: The SLA confirms that it lost 129 soldiers in fighting with the LTTE in Jaffna peninsula on October 11. It also confirmed that the outfit buried 196 of its cadres in the uncleared areas (area not under government control) of Sunokkai, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Omanthai and Mullaithivu. 283 soldiers and 312 LTTE cadres were injured in the confrontation.

October 11: At least 50 SLA personnel, including seven officers, were killed and 214 injured in clashes between government troops and the LTTE at the Muhamalai and Kilaly Forward Defense Lines (FDLs) of SFs. 

October 6-7: At least 60 LTTE cadres killed and an unspecified number of them injured when clashes between SFs and the LTTE in the Batticaloa district erupted on October 6 when the LTTE cadres launched a heavy ground attack using artillery, mortar and small arms on an Army detachment at Mankerni and Kajuwatta. 

September 24: At least 70 LTTE cadres were killed by the SLN as they attacked a flotilla of 24 boats of the LTTE and sunk eight of them loaded with the outfit’s cadres and weapons in a fierce sea-battle off the coast of the eastern town of Pulmoddai. 

September 9-10: At least 150 LTTE cadres were killed in the clashes between SFs and the outfit at Muhamalai, the northern gateway to the Jaffna peninsula on the A-9 main supply route, and its surroundings areas. 28 soldiers killed while 120 others sustained injuries in the incident. 

August 31: 119 LTTE cadres and 14 soldiers were killed in the clashes since August 28 in Trincomalee district. 

August 29: At least 66 cadres of the LTTE and 13 SF personnel were killed in fighting between troops and the LTTE in the Trincomalee district. 

August 16: Troops kill at least 98 LTTE cadres in retaliation when the latter attacked the FDL in the Kilaly area of Jaffna district. 

August 15: At least 250 LTTE cadres were killed and another 300 injured in continued fighting in the Jaffna peninsula during the past 72 hours. 

August 11: At least 128 people, including 28 army and navy personnel, killed in the battle between the SLA and the LTTE in the east and north. 

August 4: The LTTE massacres over hundred civilians in the Trincomalee district who were fleeing fighting from the Muttur town. Troops foil a major LTTE attack on a strategic jetty in the Muttur area of Trincomalee district, killing 152 cadres of the outfit. 

June 15: At least 64 civilians, including 15 children, were killed and 86 injured when a state-run passenger bus carrying 150 passengers was destroyed in a twin side-charger claymore mine explosion triggered by the LTTE in the Anuradhapura district. 

May 11: At least 17 SLN sailors and 50 LTTE cadres were killed as the SLN successfully repulsed an attempt by a cluster of the outfit's suicide boats to destroy a heavy troop-carrying vessel - the 'Pearl Cruiser' - with 710 troops on board off the coast of Vettilaikerni. 

April 25: Army Commander Lt. General Sarath Fonseka critically injured while at least eight persons are killed when a female suicide cadre of the LTTE, disguised as a pregnant woman, blew herself up in front of the military hospital inside the Colombo Army headquarters. 

Year 2006 also witnessed the assassination of several important personalities, including Kethesh Loganathan, Deputy Secretary-General of the government's Secretariat for Co-ordinating the Peace Process and a former Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front member, who was shot dead by unidentified gunmen near Vandervet in Dehiwela Colombo on August 12. On November 10, unidentified assailants shot dead the Jaffna district Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Parliamentarian, Nadarajah Raviraj, and his personal security officer near his home at Borella in Colombo. TNA is widely regarded as a proxy party of the LTTE. 

For the first time since the 2002 truce, Sri Lankan troops have initiated an aggressive military strategy to force the LTTE out of areas under its control. The recapture of Sampur, controlled by the LTTE since 1997, was a crucial success in this conext. Further reverses inflicted on the LTTE at Mavil Aru, Muttur, Muhamalai, Sampur and Panichankerni boosted the military’s morale, as the LTTE was clearly pushed onto the defensive. Since hostilities began in July 2006, the rebels have lost at least 1,930 cadres, and a total of 2,219 cadres in 2006. 

Critical to Colombo’s current strategy is support from the Thamil Makkal Viduthalai Pullikal (TMVP), the irregular militia of Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias ‘Colonel’ Karuna. The military has gained immensely vis-à-vis local intelligence of the breakaway LTTE leader, and the ‘Karuna factor’ has been critical in the East. In 2006, 827 LTTE cadres were killed in the three Eastern Districts, including 518 in Trincomalee alone. The Karuna faction, after breaking ranks with the LTTE in April 2004, has also killed several senior LTTE leaders in the East. These included Kaushalyan, the former LTTE eastern political wing leader and the highest-ranking LTTE leader to be killed in the factional violence since the truce, who was shot dead in February 2005 

On the peace front, the two sides held talks twice in 2006, at Geneva, on February 22-23 and on October 28-29, under sustained international pressure and the urgings of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). The SLMM, however, itself lost considerable credibility, with its neutrality being challenged by both parties. The LTTE questioned SLMM’s neutrality in the aftermath of the EU ban on the LTTE on May 31, 2006, while the government explicitly criticized the monitors’ repeated accusations of atrocities against government Forces. In what appeared to be a conclusive judgment on the Norwegian role, President Rajapakse stated, on December 1, 2006, "We must thank Norway for trying to facilitate this peace process. They also have tried to settle this for so many years, but they have failed miserably." 

Both rounds of the dialogue in 2006 failed to make any headway. While the February talks revolved around the LTTE’s demand of disarming the ‘Colonel’ Karuna group, the October talks got stuck on the issue of reopening of the A9 highway, a road linking Jaffna to the rest of the country, which was closed by the government after August 12, when fighting erupted in the peninsula. The dialogue collapsed because 

…the peace process remains, in substantial measure, tactical rather than substantive, with LTTE in particular treating the negotiations as a parallel instrument to terrorism to exert pressure on the government. Further, the hiatus between the rival positions is relatively unbridgeable, and it is unsurprising, consequently, that the future of the dialogue process amidst such a situation of sustained violence and subversion, can only be uncertain. 

Meanwhile, violence engineered by the LTTE continues, "even as it (the LTTE) seeks to secure the goals on the negotiating table, having failed to achieve these through a vicious campaign of terrorism over the decades." 

On October 16, the Supreme Court declared the temporary merger of the northern and eastern provinces, effected in 1987 and extended annually, "null and void and illegal." The Court ruled that the President had no powers to effect a merger of provinces under Emergency Regulations, and only the Parliament could decide on the subject. This also vitiated the atmosphere, as the LTTE alleged that the decision was part of a nefarious design of the ‘majority Sinhalese’. 

President Rajapakse and the leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe, on October 23, 2006, signed a Memorandum of Understanding for cooperation on six points pertaining to crucial issues facing the country. The lack of a ‘Southern consensus’ had always been a stumbling block for Colombo in its political strategy, and the Memorandum put the government in a much stronger political position, allowing it to consider translating its military advantages into concrete political gains in the foreseeable future. The consensus among the Experts' Panel of the All Party Conference constituted by the APRC on the devolution proposals was another point of relief in an otherwise bleak year. 

There are sufficient indications that the military would continue with its relatively successful pro-active strategy. Army Chief Sarath Fonseka asserted in Washington on December 1, 2006, that there "could be no chance for peace in the country unless LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was militarily weakened." While placing faith on a political solution to the ethnic conflict, Fonseka stated: "the search for peace must not allow the LTTE to strengthen its military capability thereby weakening the defence of Sri Lanka." He disclosed that, during the four-year truce, "Artillery pieces had risen from 10 to 100, from two 122 mm guns to 20 and from 20 heavy mortars to 80. In effect, the four year’s of ceasefire had helped the Tamil Tigers to become a stronger fighting force." Consequently, "it was imperative that the government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) checks his military capacity, at least to ensure that he does not grow stronger militarily to the extent that he sees no reason to seek a political solution." 

Responding to Prabhakaran’s speech in an interview, President Rajapakse summed up the mood of the country, "He can kill some Presidents, presidential candidates, he tried to kill Chandrika Kumaratunga. But do you think any government will surrender to a terrorist leader or terrorist organisation in this world? No government will do that. And no government will ask me to surrender myself to a terrorist." 

Given the current level of hostilities and violence, a pervasive instability can be expected to continue in Sri Lanka in the foreseeable future. 

Ajit Kumar Singh is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal


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