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Numbers and Braggadocio by the Colombo Braggarts

by Sachi Sri Kantha, August 29, 2008

"[O]ver the seven months that we have been recording the Defence Ministry reports, it has been easy to spot certain amusing trends. The number of soldiers announced killed in any report is almost certainly couched towards the end of a story, and it is generally zero, one or two. The number of LTTE cadres killed however, often follows a different pattern. Often the number of Tigers reported killed would match the day of the month or the article's ID number on the Defence Ministry web site." -- Sunday Leader, Aug. 24, 2008

Just like any average Tamilian possessing a modicum of common sense, I do not trust the contents of what appears in Colombo’s daily newspapers owned by the Sinhalese media moguls. This is because they strain the simple logic inculcated by our primary school teachers. Nevertheless, infrequently some material that gets published in the Colombo newspapers (especially by the Sunday Leader, an anti-SLFP organ) do some justice to common sense. One such commentary appeared in the Sunday Leader of Aug. 24, under the byline Ranjith Jayasundera. It was entitled, ‘War Rhetoric and the Numbers Game.’ For those who missed it, I reproduce the entire text below.

Here are some interesting numbers, that appear in this commentary about the current job performance of the Sri Lankan armed forces, as they are purported to be “annihilating” the LTTE cadres in the North of the island. These numbers were delivered by none other than the current SL military spokesman, Brigadier General Udaya Nanayakkara and the prime minister, Ratnasiri Wickremenayake.

(1) “Over 14,000 soldiers have deserted the forces in 2008, Military Spokesman, Brigadier General Udaya Nanayakkara told The Sunday Leader. This figure is around 5.4% of the army's total strength over a period of just over half a year.” This works out to a desertion rate of an average 2,000 per month, until the end of July.

(2) “The military spends over Rs. 1 million on the 15 week training periods for each and every one of these soldiers, the Brigadier said.” At the current exchange rate of approximately 1 US dollar being equivalent to 108 SL rupees, this works out to 9,270 dollars spent “on the 15 week training periods” for each SL soldier.

(3) “Even the lowest ranking soldier serving in an operational area would collect just under Rs 30,000 monthly, according to the military - a figure that even adjusted for inflation, is far higher than that ever paid to soldiers over the last few decades of conflict.” Thus, the SL army’s foot soldier pay of Rs. 30,000 equates to nearly 278 dollars per month.

(4) “Brig. Nanayakkara also said that during the late 1990's, the desertion rate was much higher and over 30,000 would desert the army in a year.” Isn’t this stupendous? Now, he tells us. If one has to believe this, in late 1990s (when President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Lakshman Kadirgamar were ruling the roost), the SL army was nothing but a deserter’s paradise.

(5) “The most worrying part of the Prime Minister's statement was that he said 622 - six times the number killed - soldiers were 'injured' in battle. This is not a military that counts a scratch on the arm or a broken toe as an injury. A lot of these soldiers, aged 18 and up, have been hurt so badly that their lives have been effectively shattered…In July alone, for example, there were over 725 soldiers either killed or injured in battle. Simply put that is an average of 23 soldiers are killed or injured every day.”

(6) Ranjith Jayasundera’s following tongue-in-cheek observation is rather cute; “over the seven months that we have been recording the Defence Ministry reports, it has been easy to spot certain amusing trends. The number of soldiers announced killed in any report is almost certainly couched towards the end of a story, and it is generally zero, one or two. The number of LTTE cadres killed however, often follows a different pattern. Often the number of Tigers reported killed would match the day of the month or the article's ID number on the Defence Ministry web site.”

For rest of the not-so-dignified revelations on the dilemmas faced by the SL army, please enjoy the entire text of Ranjith Jayasundera’s commentary below.

War Rhetoric and the Numbers Game

by Ranjith Jayasundera [courtesy: Sunday Leader, Colombo, Aug. 24, 2008.]

When Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake ascended the stage to address an SLFP rally in the Kuruwita area of Ratnapura last week, he roared that the military was in a position to capture Kilinochchi town by yesterday (Saturday).

"We are very, very close. Kilinochchi is not very far from our site," he insisted, emphasising that "Our boys might even take Kilinochchi by August 23." Unfortunately, in a telling sign as to how much enthusiasm the government is received with in Ratnapura, the rally was practically deserted.

This, of course, the PM attributes to the fact that people were afraid to attend due to terrorist threats, according to the BBC Sandeshaya Service. It appears that as the war draws closer to an end, the level of terrorist threats seems to increase in proportion.

As startling as the Prime Minister's claim was, it was quickly rebuffed by a retired army general with political ambitions. "I am puzzled as to why always these predictions coincide with elections," was the wry comment of Major General Janaka Perera, the UNP's main candidate in yesterday's North Central Provincial Council election.

Not alone

But the Prime Minister wasn't alone in his proclamations; his was simply the most outlandish. The Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, was not far behind with his pledge that Kilinochchi will be captured by the army within the next few months.

His was a follow up to a statement by the military that the army had already entered the Kilinochchi District from an undisclosed location. Yet the Army Commander himself admitted, the military' strategy is one that might allow the LTTE insurgency to "last forever."

As many analysts have been saying since the military campaign in the Wanni started, it is one that lacks clarity or direction. At various times officials have made statements so self-contradictory that they lead to fears that - despite the ruthless professionalism emanating from the soldiers on the ground - the top brass do not know whether they are coming or going.

It also begs the question whether overall military strategy is being compromised at the altar of political expediency as was evident with Prime Minister Wickramanayake's desperate claim that Kilinochchi will be captured by election day, August 23.

Main aim

The Defence Secretary, for example, told the New York Times in a May interview that the government's main aim was "to destroy the leadership" of the LTTE. This has in the past been the work of the army's deep penetration units and air force bombers, coupling their strikes with accurate intelligence information on target positions.

But by last week the Secretary Defence had changed his mind. He told the UK's Times Online that he had to "go after (the Tigers) and completely eradicate them." His brother, President Mahinda Rajapakse has often insisted that the ongoing war was part of a humanitarian campaign to free civilians, or systematic retaliation to LTTE aggression.

Yet in the heat of the elections with opinion polls not favouring the government, the Commander in Chief too came out with his real thinking on the war while he was addressing a rally in Ruwanwella, Sabaragamuwa. "There is no turning back under any circumstances or influence now, until every inch of land is recaptured and each and every terrorist is killed or captured!" he thundered to the crowd.

Given all its contradictions, the government will find it difficult to maintain its facade of impending victory, unless it finds some form of tangible 'victory' to show to the public. Over 14,000 soldiers have deserted the forces in 2008, Military Spokesman, Brigadier General Udaya Nanayakkara told The Sunday Leader. This figure is around 5.4% of the army's total strength over a period of just over half a year.

Heavy expenditure

Although these soldiers are not from the army's most battle-hardened regiments, they are troops who have seen combat, and whom the military depends on to hold the territory behind its advances. The military spends over Rs. 1 million on the 15 week training periods for each and every one of these soldiers, the Brigadier said.

"That cost includes the cost of their starting salaries, paying their instructors, buying their uniforms, rations, weapons and other equipment, as well as rations and accommodation," he said. Even the lowest ranking soldier serving in an operational area would collect just under Rs 30,000 monthly, according to the military - a figure that even adjusted for inflation, is far higher than that ever paid to soldiers over the last few decades of conflict.

The general thus doubts that deserters have left the army for economic reasons and instead suggests that 'personal reasons' played a bigger role. Brig. Nanayakkara also said that during the late 1990's, the desertion rate was much higher and over 30,000 would desert the army in a year.

"Now the figures are far lower," he said. 5.5% however, is an extremely high rate of desertion for any army - enough to cause alarm. At the peak of the US military's Vietnam debacle, when a draft (effectively conscription) policy was in place and tens of thousands of American soldiers were being slaughtered, the desertion rate peaked at 5%.

Too soft

A senior military officer, who wished to remain anonymous due to a witch hunt against officers who speak with 'traitorous' journalists, felt that the military was taking the desertion issue too softly. "When we are supposed to be in a successful military campaign, 5.5% is a crazy rate. Don't forget, you're saying 5.5% out of the whole strength of the army, but that is including all from engineers to admin officers. If you look at what number of combat troops are deserting, that's a huge and scary number."

It is impossible to independently establish the ground situation faced by soldiers on the Wanni battlefront, since the military does not allow access for journalists to visit the front lines. Yet the threat of insurgency faced by the military, especially in the light of outright retreats by the LTTE, has been significantly downplayed.

Even in the cleared Eastern Province, which is now effectively the domain of Karuna and Pillayan, the military and the STF find signs of LTTE infiltration nearly every day. Barely a day has passed since Pillayan was appointed Chief Minister in May, without the military and STF either encountering an LTTE splinter cell, or discovering a stash of weapons - ranging from automatic weapons, to claymore mines, rocket propelled grenade launchers to light artillery mortars.

If this is the situation in the Eastern Province, whose former LTTE czars are on the government's side, it is easy to imagine the abundance of military hardware stashed in safe-houses and jungle hide-aways, behind the army's advances.

'Clever tricks'

Karuna himself warned last week that Pirapaharan may have some clever tricks up his sleeve. He told a news briefing in Welikanda - while out campaigning - that the LTTE would use northern civilians as blatant human shields, and use chemical weapons to try to halt the army's advances. He also took the 'credit' for the LTTE's military operations to rout the Jayasikuru campaign, and the operations to capture Elephant Pass and Kilinochchi from the army. Without him, says the Colonel, the Tigers are past their heyday.

The Sunday Leader earlier cited a research paper published by the British Medical Journal, which warned that due to errors inherent in normal casualty reporting methods, the death toll from Sri Lanka's war may be higher than 300,000 - opposed to the earlier estimate of 60 to 70 thousand.

With the government's own figures, nearly 16,000 people - of whom just fewer than 2,000 were civilians - have been killed in the past two years of conflict. This year alone over 600 security forces personnel have laid down their lives, in 'return' for the military claiming to have killed some 6,300 LTTE cadres in the same period.

The month of July has been the bloodiest yet, with the government claiming to have iced 1,017 terrorists for the loss of 106 soldiers' lives. These figures were revealed by the Prime Minister to parliament, before the entire government took off on election campaigning work.

The most worrying part of the Prime Minister's statement was that he said 622 - six times the number killed - soldiers were 'injured' in battle. This is not a military that counts a scratch on the arm or a broken toe as an injury. A lot of these soldiers, aged 18 and up, have been hurt so badly that their lives have been effectively shattered.

The stats

Also, if the government claims that nearly 12,000 Tigers have been killed between 2006 to date, surely at least a similar number must also have been maimed?

The Prime Minister's numbers for those killed last month however did not tally with our own records of news releases from the Defence Ministry.

The Ministry doles out the odd news story of a soldier who "laid his life for the motherland" or "made the supreme sacrifice" every so often, scattered amongst the banner headlines of all the hundreds of terrorists it is killing every week. The total number of soldiers admitted killed by the military itself in the month of July was just 55, almost half the 106 that Ratnasiri Wickremanayake claims were killed.

Similarly, the military's reports only allow that 299 soldiers were injured in the month of July, despite the Prime Minister's figure being double this. Although these figures cannot be verified, time and time again they are found to be untrue and reek of fabrication. The intention is obvious and there in lies the rub.

Rather than fight the war on a strategic basis to corner the Tigers what the government is doing all too obviously is dish out false propaganda simply to achieve political ends as opposed to real military successes. Thus while claiming on a daily basis that only one or two soldiers are killed as opposed to dozens of Tigers in their propaganda handouts, the government is conditioning the minds of the people on a daily basis the war is nearing end at very little human cost to the military.

Monthly statement

Then comes the monthly statement of the Prime Minister at the emergency debate giving lie to the government's own daily propaganda by stating over 100 soldiers were killed for the month with over 600 injured if July is taken as an example. That figure of course does not spell out the number of missing in action or deserters. What does this mean in real terms ? In July alone for example there were over 725 soldiers either killed or injured in battle. Simply put that is an average of 23 soldiers are killed or injured every day.

Now the purpose of highlighting this fact is not to demoralise the soldiers because they know the ground realities being in the frontlines but to impress upon the government not to fight the war through the news media to achieve narrow political ends since the truth will out and it will not do the government's credibility any good via the very people they are trying to convince.

Thus, over the seven months that we have been recording the Defence Ministry reports, it has been easy to spot certain amusing trends. The number of soldiers announced killed in any report is almost certainly couched towards the end of a story, and it is generally zero, one or two. The number of LTTE cadres killed however, often follows a different pattern. Often the number of Tigers reported killed would match the day of the month or the article's ID number on the Defence Ministry web site.

Propaganda war

Thus the Ministry is winning its war, but a propaganda war. Around Colombo the Presidential Secretariat has gotten in on the act by replacing the contents of nearly every single Colombo Municipal Council hoarding to advertise President Rajapakse and his Nelum Mal logo.

The government has set yet another target for capturing Kilinochchi, Pirapaharan's headquarters. It is well known that as the military advances, the Tigers will have nowhere to run, as the army is in place north of Elephant Pass along the Muhamalai - Nagarkovil defence line.

Thus, as the President promised, once "every inch" of land has been captured, the government would be hard pressed to explain themselves should the senior LTTE leadership manage to escape and disappear, as did Bin Laden in Afghanistan, or 900 Tigers who simply 'vanished' from a 'surrounded' Thoppigala last year.

If the military is unable to capture Pirapaharan or his top rankers, and the government proceeds to appoint another 'Karuna' out of nowhere to run shop in the Northern Province, the sinister back room dealings that took place between the President's confidants and the LTTE during and just after his presidential election may finally begin to make sense.

The government would therefore at least now do well to fight the good fight and give the valiant soldiers their due credit and respect by recognising their achievements and sacrifices without overplaying the propaganda card since before long they would have wiped out not just the LTTE but the entire Tamil population twice over if it is to simply be a numbers game alone.

*****

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