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"Conquering Kilinochchi"

Military delusions that ruin Sri Lanka

by Vasantha Raja, Lanka Eye, January 12, 2009

Thus, over 100,000 soldiers are occupying Tamil areas - primarily as garrisons concentrated mainly in tiny towns surrounded by the jungle. They are virtually all ethnically Sinhalese soldiers stuck in the midst of a hostile population that perceive the troops as aliens and enemies.

The assassination of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of 'Sunday Leader' - undoubtedly the most effective critic of the Rajapaksa administration - marked the climax of hunting down several political journalists during the past few years. Just three days back gunmen with grenades attacked the biggest private TV station in the country, and the event is widely seen as part of the present administration's effort to suppress dissent.

Vasantha Raja Lanka Eye 2009Killings of influential 'anti-war' journalists, however, may also be linked to right-wing nationalist formations among extremist Sinhala-Buddhist circles too - no doubt, with military, political and underworld links. [Apparently, a "state within the state" with fascist leanings is taking form behind the scenes, as some claim] Amidst rising military euphoria, continuation of attacks on media critical of the war is likely to come from such secret organisations rather than individual politicians, I think.

However, the government's intensifying efforts to bridle free media must not be underestimated on that account at all. But, the question is this: why would an immensely popular government amongst the Sinhalese majority ruthlessly stifle the media? Does the government want to hide something? Is the military picture in the north and the state of the economy not as rosy as what the government wants us to believe?

In fact, a sober appraisal of the military and the economic situation in the country does raise some questions. Let me explain:

Clearly, the overwhelming majority of Sri Lanka's army is now stretched to its limits in Tamil areas. SL Army consists of 13 Divisions; out of which 12 divisions are now occupying North & East under 3 Operational Commands in Jaffna peninsula, Vanni districts and the East. Only one division left in Colombo [Panagoda] to protect the entire south, including Colombo.

Thus, over 100,000 soldiers are occupying Tamil areas - primarily as garrisons concentrated mainly in tiny towns surrounded by the jungle. They are virtually all ethnically Sinhalese soldiers stuck in the midst of a hostile population that perceive the troops as aliens and enemies.

In contrast, Vanni jungles - from where Tigers would operate guerrilla attacks - stretch from the east coast to the west coast of the island's north covering vast regions like a buffer zone separating the Jaffna peninsula from the south. Obviously, the jungles are inaccessible to conventional forces in the normal way.

Tigers know the thick forests of Vanni like the back of their hands, whereas the Sinhala soldiers are only limited to the few available roads, like the A9, and the towns. Thus, the logistics and supply routes become crucial. The military has to provide regular supplies from the south to maintain the garrisons; and the supply routes will constantly be under the threat of guerrilla attacks.

Quite apart from the supply routes' vulnerability, this is going to be a hugely expensive task. Under the present economic circumstances, this could amount to a virtual nightmare, to say the least.

Vanni region is ideal for guerrilla forces, but not so for conventional forces. The might of Sri Lanka's army and the air-force will have to be limited to the towns. Tigers know this.

Tigers and the civilians left the Tiger capital - razed to the ground by aerial bombing - before the end of December. That was the sign that they had on the whole resumed a guerrilla mode of existence, leaving the army to stretch themselves to the maximum.

If this ends up as a long-term military occupation surrounded by a sophisticated guerrilla force nurtured by the Tamil community, the implications would be ominous.

Although Tigers' similar tactical transformations have happened before, this time round there are two new significant factors: Firstly, this is the first time Sri Lanka's army is almost entirely mobilized to occupy the entire north & east. Secondly, Sri Lanka's economic circumstances have never been so dangerously vulnerable.

In particular, one must not underestimate the fact that this is happening at a time when the deepening global recession and the impact of the credit crunch are about to hit Sri Lanka's economy really hard. Social unrest in the south seems unavoidable. If the Sinhala majority's high hopes to see LTTE's demise soon end up in disillusionment, the consequences could be terrible. The government must be fully conscious of this eventuality and it knows the presently rising support could quickly turn into anger. Clearly, the government wants a media that somehow help keep the delusion intact - particularly at a time when the SL Army is bogged down in the Tamil-dominated war zone.

In my view, southern political establishment will be doomed, unless they come up with a political solution that is unambiguously appealing to the Tamils, and negotiate that with the LTTE. However, judging from what is happening now - such as banning the LTTE, media attacks and fast rising supremacism among the Sinhalese etc. - a convincingly attractive political package for Tamils' consumption is unlikely, to say the least. Gullible journalists who swallowed the military interpretation of the war have now convinced the Sinhala people of their leaders' ability to impose their own 'solution' on the Tamils.

Amazingly, most local and foreign journalists saw the capture of kilinochchi as a major defeat for the Tigers; the truth is it is only a symbolic defeat, and certainly of immense propaganda value to the government. The real significance of the kilinochchi battle is that it has convinced the Tigers it's time to forget the mini-state and resume guerrilla war.

Realistically, guerrilla warfare is more effective and useful for them than the conventional form. It was probably Tigers' separatist ideology that pushed them to have their mini-state. But, defending it militarily against the SL forces is not a viable proposition at all - even if it has clearly demonstrated the LTTE's organizational skills and the commitment. Financially, it has been a huge burden on the LTTE and the Tamil people. In terms of human lives and peoples' misery it has been a disaster.

Ironically, the Rajapaksa regime has unwittingly taught a valuable lesson to the Tigers: that the Colombo administration will not leave any town within Tamil regions for the Tigers to build mini-states. But, in doing so the government has forced the LTTE to resort to guerrilla warfare. Consequently, Sri Lankan government will now have a far more dangerous situation in its hands than ever before.

Tigers' statelet was useful for the LTTE to show the world that they can run a state smoothly as responsible statesmen. But what has the global leaders done to promote their case? Bitter experiences so far have proved that the energy spent on maintaining a mini-state is a waste of time, money and lives. What is needed is to intervene politically - backed by a guerrilla army of course - to unite the people under a common banner and foster links with the southern mass movement.

Paradoxically, the Rajapaksa brothers' ruthless war has forced the Tigers to see the truth, and I think, before long the SL government will realise that it has committed a big blunder by 'educating' the Tigers and pitching its "entire" army in the midst of a massive jungle, a refined guerrilla force and a hostile population.

If the LTTE succeeds in developing a political strategy to unite the Tamils under a united front and approach the southern mass movement in a productive way, the situation can change in totally unexpected ways. The Sinhala mass movement also should realize that an alliance with the Tamil side would be crucial for their own emancipation in the oncoming economic demise of the island. In other words, Sinhala and Tamil liberation are inseparably linked, and they merely reflect two sides of the same coin.

Since Independence anti-Tamil racism has been an effective weapon in the hands of the rulers to split Sri Lankan masses along communalist lines and protect the status-quo. This has happened before. Predictably, it will happen again - next time on a far wider scale. Right now this may seem unrealistic. But soon it won't; global credit crunch will make sure of that.