Thermobaric Warfare and Humanitarian Concerns

“We are perturbed over reports that the Sri Lanka government has purchased new infantry weapon system with chemical warheads. This Russian made rocket propelled thermobaric weapon is internationally banned for its lethal toxic effects on combatants and civilians. The acquisition of this banned weapon by Sri Lanka marks a new and dangerous escalation of the armed conflict in the island.”

- LTTE Press Release of 16th August 2001

By D. B. S. Jeyaraj



Revelations made by The Sunday Leader last week regarding the purchase of RPO, a Shmel Rocket Infantry flame throwers by the Sri Lankan armed forces have enlightened the nation at large about the nefarious deals worked out by the merchants of death, - the new breed of entrepreneurs called arms dealers. It has been common knowledge for quite a while that all was not well in the sphere of arms and armaments acquisition.

Masquerading as persons committed to Sri Lanka’s security concerns middlemen have made a lot of money by pushing through arms deals that have not benefitted the national interest in any way. Regrettably many people in the upper echelons of the defence establishment have collaborated with these middlemen and enriched themselves through commissions and bribes. Inferior and inappropriate equipment have often been bought at exorbitant prices as a result.

Thermobaric weapons

The startling disclosures about the Shmel flame throwers focus on the shady aspects of such arms deals. The purchase of outdated weapons allegedly at the behest of top military personnel has raised serious questions about the whole exercise. It is interesting to note that similar armaments were bought through a different firm for US Dollars $ 4,995,000. 00 The current deal was cheaper being only US dollars $ 3,698,000. 00. Yet the agency that sold it to Colombo acquired the same merchandise originally for only US dollars $ 2,500,000 .00.

All these sordid details may not have seen the light of day but for the inter and intra rivalry among persons involved in the exercises. The infighting about issuance of end user certificates between current army commander Lionel Balagalle and his former deputy Janaka Perera; the internal dispute between Upali Gajanayake, director of the British based Gladstone Industrial Holdings Ltd and the former chief executive officer of Gladstone Ameer Temour; the rivalry between the man who put through the previous deal Nalin Fonseka and the man of the moment Upali Gajanayake etc. are but some of these wrangles. The cumulative effect of this strife has helped shed light on some dark areas. Much more information may become available when Gen. . Balagalle breaks his deafening silence about the weapons delivered to Colombo on July 17, this year.

Fighting with chemical weapons

Apart from these valid concerns the entire exercise has to be viewed from a different humanitarian perspective. The use of chemical and thermal weapons banned by the USA and the European Nations in Sri Lanka’s domestic conflict is a serious issue. The government has raised the stakes to an unacceptable level by this action. The induction of such terrible weapons into the war arena by one side can only result in the Newtonian law of every action causing an equal and opposite reaction. The reaction of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam towards this move by the government was crystal clear in its statement of Aug 16. The LTTE press release stated as follows -:

“The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in a statement issued from its headquarters in Wanni, northern Sri Lanka today, warned the Kumaratunga government of disastrous consequences if it inducted the recently acquired weapons with chemical warheads into the north-eastern theatre of war.”

“We are perturbed over reports that the Sri Lanka government has purchased new infantry weapon system with chemical warheads. This Russian made rocket propelled ‘thermobaric’ weapon is internationally banned for its lethal toxic effects on combatants and civilians. The acquisition of this banned weapon by Sri Lanka marks a new and dangerous escalation of the armed conflict in the island” the LTTE’s statement declared.

“The use of this weapon has been eschewed by international militaries except the Russians. The indiscriminate nature of these morally reprehensible arms and the dangerous effects of their use do not seem to have perturbed the Sinhala ruling elites. The decision by the Sri Lankan government to introduce mass destruction technology into the northeast theatre of the conflict reflects its single-minded determination to continue with the military option and escalate the war against the Tamil people.

As a result, this development has seriously undermined efforts to peacefully resolve the Tamil question. Any confidence in such efforts continues to be eroded by the ongoing persistent aerial bombardment on towns and villages in the Tamil homeland.”

“In conclusion, the LTTE calls upon the concerned nations of the international community, particularly the United States, Britain, European Union and India to condemn Sri Lanka for the acquisition of weapons with chemical war heads and to impress upon the Sinhala Government the detrimental effects of their use in the Tamil homeland.”

Violence begets violence

It is now accepted wisdom that the Katunayake Air Force Base attack by the Tigers on July 24, was a direct consequence of the unwarranted and provocative aerial bombardment of Jaffna Peninsula by the Sri Lankan government on June 30. It may be recalled that a US statement criticising the bombing warned that “violence begets violence.” On July 2, the LTTE issued a statement condemning the bombardment.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam warned the government of Sri Lanka then that peace initiatives would be irreparably damaged if it continued with its intense aerial and artillery bombardment against the LTTE positions in Jaffna. Describing the Air Strikes as provocative aggression and calculated escalation the LTTE also accused the Kumaratunga regime of seeking desperate measures to mobilise the support of Sinhala nationalist forces with the purpose of overcoming the crisis brought by the no confidence motion.

Damaging the peace process

The statement went on to warn that the current provocative aerial attacks on the LTTE forces will permanently damage the peace process. In conclusion the statement then warned the Sri Lankan government that “it should bear total responsibility for the adverse consequences that might arise from its misplaced strategy of escalating the conditions of war in the Tamil homeland.” The Kumaratunga regime was reprimanded severely by critics for not taking this warning seriously enough then. In that context the LTTE statement of August 16, should be taken careful note of.

It warned the Kumaratunga government “of disastrous consequences if it inducted the recently acquired weapons with chemical warheads into the north-eastern theatre of war.” The LTTE reaction is not due to fear of the destruction that these Russian made Thermobaric devices can unleash on its cadres. These flame throwing rockets were used in gay abandon by the former Soviet Union to quell the Mujaheiddeen of Afghanistan.

According to ‘Jains’ in Afghanistan “the weapon was used to clear Mujaheiddeen from caves.” One does not know the extent to which Afghanistan’s countryside and mountain ranges were destroyed by the use of thermobaric devices but contemporary history has certainly recorded that the Soviets could not exterminate the Mujaheiddeen and had to retreat ingloriously from the country. One is ignorant about the number of Afghan freedom fighters cleared from the caves but the most fierce segment of the Mujaheiddeen - the Taliban, is controlling Kabul now.

Underestimating the LTTE

The carpet bombing and deployment of even Napalm did not ensure success for the USA in Vietnam or Kampuchea. The wisdom of hindsight in the aftermath of the Indo-China debacle has taught many a western counter insurgency expert that technology alone cannot defeat guerrillas. The deadliest artillery is useless if it fails to specifically target the guerrilla; A powerful aerial bomb could create a deep crater when impacting but may be practically useless if the guerrilla cocooned in a fortified bunker survives it; Aircraft can wreak havoc through bombs and napalm and cause raging forest fires but of what use are these if the targeted guerrillas are not in that area?

The results of recent confrontations between the armed forces and the Tigers demonstrate the comparative ineffectiveness of superior weaponry and technology against committed guerrilla fighters even in terrain hostile to the latter. The acquisition of K-firs, MIG 27s Mi 17s and multi barreled Rocket Launchers etc. have not helped the government to overcome the Tigers. The Agni Kheela debacle bears testimony to this. This is mainly because of three factors. Failure to address the root causes and sustaining factors of the armed insurgency: Inability to comprehend or understand the nature of the conflict: Gross underestimation of the resilience and combative capacity of the LTTE.

Devising a daring manoeuvre

Under these circumstances the government and its security forces can only delude themselves if they consider the LTTE response to the acquisition of thermobaric devices as a sign of weakness. The usage of such devices would certainly make their task harder but it cannot silence the LTTE. If recent events are any indication the LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakharan will not allow the government to define the parameters of conflict. In a move reminiscent of the Katunayake attack the LTTE leader is very likely to devise some other daring manouevre that would deliver a military, political, economic and symbolic blow with far reaching consequences. If the government does not take heed of the LTTE warning and act accordingly the Tiger response can only be ferocious enough to execute the coup d’ grace to an already crippled economy.

The LTTE reaction to the acquisition of these destructive and internationally forbidden thermobaric weapons by the Sri Lankan government has to be seen therefore as reflecting the wider concerns of the Tamil people rather than its narrow military interests. The descriptions of thermobaric and flame throwers should not let anyone underestimate the level of destruction these weapons could unleash on civilian habitat. Given the dry climate of the North-Eastern terrain these could function as incendiary devices and cause fires that would virtually scorch the earth. It is no secret that these weapons were banned by the USA and other western nations because of its dangerous anti-humanitarian effect. They have been described as having the effect of a mini-nuclear bomb within a minor area.

Joining Pariah States

It is apparent that only a cash strapped post - perestroika Russia is manufacturing these devices now and selling them clandestinely. The customers for such horrible weapons deserve to join the “Pariah states” of the world that violate codes of civilised conduct. The usage of such weapons by one country against another even as self defence is to be condemned outright. But to use them in an internal conflict against a segment of the population inhabiting a section of the country regarded as part and parcel of one country is utterly reprehensible. The fears and concern of the Tamil people is that by using these weapons the armed forces would only cause immense damage to civilian life, limb and property.

Tamil fears in this respect are fuelled by the track record of the armed forces in the past. Israeli K-firs and Russian MIG-27s are supposedly used to defend a country’s borders against external aggressors and not internally. But in Sri Lanka they have been used incessantly to bomb the Tamil regions. Of course the official claim is that Tiger targets have been demolished but the LTTE never seems to suffer much damage in these raids.

Civilian areas targeted

In fact the Tigers turn the tables sometimes and inflict damage on the very aircraft that claim to seek them out. The current Air Force chief went on record some months ago in a newspaper interview that his bombers do not know whether they have struck their targets or not. The Air force has also claimed that it obtains information about Tiger installations through hearsay information. Thus the air force continues to bomb Tamil areas without any real knowledge about their targets or results. This deficiency was illustrated clearly during ‘Operation Agni Kheela’ when the Air Force misinformed the army that it had destroyed Tiger positions on the basis of seeing fire and smoke.

Likewise the acquisition of artillery like multi barreled rocket launchers do not seem to have wrought much havoc on the LTTE. Indeed the usage of such artillery was extremely ineffective against the LTTE during ‘Agni Kheela.’ The use of such heavy artillery and aerial bombardment certainly destroyed Tamil civilians and civilian property. Chavakachcheri the second largest town in Jaffna peninsula was deliberately reduced to rubble and ashes through artillery and aerial bombardment. Several areas in the Thenmaratchy region were destroyed through indiscriminate use of air and firepower. Pallai and its environs were demolished during ‘Agni Kheela.’ The systematic destruction of the Tamil homelands through artillery and aerial bombardment under the pretext of fighting the Tigers has only strengthened Tamil belief that the Sinhala dominates state is practicing a scorched earth policy.

Burning Tamil civilian dwellings

The acquisition of thermobaric devices has enhanced the deadly arsenal of destructive capacity. These flame thrower rockets when used will explode and burn Tamil civilian dwellings and habitat at random. The official version would be that Tigers were destroyed. The human misery and suffering caused would be tremendous. It is to avoid and minimise this tragedy that Tamil opinion is firmly against the usage of such destructive devices in their homeland. This is not merely from their particular experience and perspective alone but also in harmony with that of universal civilised standards. It is the Sri Lankan government that stands in the dock today for having purchased such inhuman and dastardly weapons.

In possession of nuclear weapons

The Defence Ministry spokesperson Brigadier Sanath Karunaratne defended the government action in acquiring these ‘rogue’ weapons in an interview to the BBC’s Sinhala service ‘Sandesaya.’ Karunaratne compared the action to the stockpiling of nuclear arms by countries like the USA. The intention was not to use them but only to possess them as an effective deterrent was Karunaratne’s argument. This justification for possessing nuclear weapons becoming increasingly unacceptable as civilised opinion is of the view that nuclearisation on this basis amounts to mutually assured destruction. The second strike option leaves much to be desired. Besides the USA itself is actively discouraging other countries from acquiring nuclear devices as ‘deterrents.’

Brig. Karunaratne was not only being superficially shallow in this analogy but also thoroughly dishonest. When replying last week on behalf of the Army commander to queries raised by The Sunday Leader, Karunaratne declined to reveal details about these purchases. “Greater care is exercised particularly in instances that are of a highly sensitive nature. This is based on national security interests. Moreover enemy access to such information can not only endanger the lives of soldiers but also lead to other dangerous consequences,” pontificated the Brigadier. One can understand the suppression of details regarding troop movements for security reasons but not the purchase of new weaponry particularly because the defence ministry has been regaling the country in the past about all the ships, planes and big guns acquired. This reticence can only be interpreted as being in the interest of Karunaratne’s boss the Army chief and not the national interest of the country.

The Brigadiers puerile stance is made all the more pathetic because of his ridiculous assertion to the BBC. If the thermobaric devices were acquired to act as a deterrent on the enemy then the least that should be done is to make the enemy aware that these weapons have been acquired. Refusing to divulge details to a newspaper on the basis that the enemy should not know and then going on to tell a worldwide radio that they have weapons for deterrence and not usage are chronically contradictory. Is it Karunaratne’s contention that the Tigers don’t listen to the BBC? Or that they don’t read The Sunday Leader? Or both? Or none? The mind truly boggles! But then what is to be expected of an official spokesperson who accused the Tigers of raping a Tamil woman to discredit the army and then ate his words when three soldiers were charged for the offence.

900 units bought last year

There are however serious doubts as to whether thermobaric devices have been already used in the North. 900 units were purchased last year. What has happened to them? It stands to reason that at least some were tried and tested because further units have been ordered subsequently. There were unconfirmed reports last year that soldiers in Thenmaratchy were instructed to collect the thermobaric disposable throwaways after using them to destroy towns and villages. The colossal scale of destruction in Chavakachcheri and environs suggest the strong possibility of these weapons being used. They may have also been used in the Pallai area during ‘Agni Kheela.’ The government should come clean on this but given its past record it is highly unlikely that it would. Only international pressure can compel it to confirm or deny.

The danger in the current situation is that the LTTE has contained the Kumaratunga regime militarily and stalemated it politically. The Tigers are steadily gaining the upper hand militarily. The Kumaratunga government is tottering on the brink of disaster. A desperate government led by an even more desperate leader could resort to desperate measures in what may well be a futile bid to extricate themselves from the mess they are in. What better way than to unleash war on the Tamil people again with the aid of these newly acquired destructive weapons? There have been several past instances where military operations were conducted without concern for Tamil civilians simply because Kumaratunga needed to win an election.

Using forbidden armaments

So a dangerous attempt to replicate those methods on a massive scale cannot be ruled out. Any government that could stoop so low as to buy forbidden rogue arms to use against a section of the population it claims as its own can certainly use the weapons indiscriminately. This whole war bears testimony to the manner in which the Tamil people have been killed, maimed, injured, displaced and had their dwellings destroyed and economy shattered for the ‘noble’ motive of keeping them in a united island.

The onus now is on the world at large particularly those nations that have been preaching to the Tamil people to give up their politico-military struggle and accept the overall hegemony of a Sinhala dominated government. What has the international community to say about the open admittance by the Sri Lankan government that it has acquired thermobaric devices? Will the world remain passive as an illegitimate government uses horrendous devices to demolish and immolate Tamil towns, villages, fields, gardens, groves and lush jungles? A government is preparing to indulge in chemical warfare against a section of its own people?

International Community - No Comment

What have the Americans training Lankan soldiers to say about the Kumaratunga government buying weapons that have been banned by their own country? What has Britain that banned the LTTE as ‘terrorist’ to say about a British based company selling forbidden weapons to Kumaratunga? What has Japan with lingering memories of Hiroshima and Nagassaki yet bankrolling this war to say about the use of such destructive weapons ?

The Tamil people have for long been at the receiving end of patronising lectures by the international community about what is best for them. It is now the Tamil peoples turn to ask of the international community what it intends doing about the usage of thermobaric devices against them. The use of such weapons should be viewed from a humanitarian perspective and not a military angle. The long-suffering Tamils expect the civilised world to listen and respond positively.

Courtesy: Sunday Leader [19 August 2001]