COLOMBA, Sri Lanka, January 12, 2000 — This article was originally published in the January 12 edition of Jane's Defence Weekly. It is reproduced with permission from Jane's Information Group.
Sri Lanka’s 17-year civil war is intensifying again. Now, the U.S. government is getting involved.
As the new millennium dawned in Sri Lanka, the 17-year separatist war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) entered an escalated phase. Both have been locked in bitter battles in the northern Jaffna peninsula and adjoining Elephant Pass since 11 December.
By late December last year, the Tamil Tigers had seized Paranthan, the southernmost strategic town in the line of government defences running from Jaffna through Elephant Pass. They had also established a beachhead along a coastal stretch east of Elephant Pass.
This has encompassed Vettilaikerni, a makeshift port for supplies and the government’s only surveillance/radar point monitoring maritime movements in the northeastern seas between Trincomalee and Jaffna.
The government has admitted that 212 soldiers were killed between 11 December and 2 January and 2,118 wounded, with a further 37 missing in action. Significantly almost all of these wounds were caused by artillery and mortar fire. Military officials claimed that more than 550 rebels were killed, although only 226 have been identified by name from radio intercepts. The LTTE has remained silent on its total casualties.
LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran has described the rebel assault as the second phase of Operation ‘Oyatha Alaikal Three’ (‘Ceaseless Waves Three’). Its declared aim is to regain control of the northern, predominantly Tamil, Jaffna peninsula. It was only in 1995 that government troops recaptured the peninsula, where the LTTE ran a virtual parallel administration, paradoxically with funds sent by the government for public utilities.
Prabhakaran is undoubtedly buoyed by the unexpected scope of the LTTE’s success in the first phase. In November, the Tamil Tigers overran military positions in Kanakarayankulam, Mankulam, Odusuddan and Nedunkerni, all in northern Wanni in mainland Sri Lanka. The headquarters of the 55th and 56th Divisions were captured. Nearly 1,000km2 of territory brought under government control after much hard fighting in recent years was lost. It was the most humiliating battlefield débacle for the ruling People’s Alliance Government of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
The government admitted that more than 300 troops were killed or missing in action.
Thousands of others abandoned positions and withdrew, many defying the orders of their superiors, as one base after another fell. Rebels seized large quantities of weapons and vehicles, including armoured fighting vehicles, utility vehicles and engineering equipment.
The Ministry of Defence ordered the commanders of the 55th and 56th Divisions on compulsory leave and appointed a court of inquiry, chaired by Army Chief of Staff Major General Lionel Balagalle, to investigate the defeat. A report is expected to be presented to President Kumaratunga later this week.
Highly placed defence sources say the court will censure some senior officers and recommend that some be court martialled. Whether the blame for the debacle can be placed on the security forces alone is a matter of conjecture as recent military operations have been directed by Deputy Minister of Defence Anuruddha Ratwatte.
An uncle of President Kumaratunga, Ratwatte was appointed deputy defence minister in 1994. Soon after troops recaptured Jaffna peninsula under a campaign which he personally directed, Ratwatte, a former army reserve officer, was “decorated” with the rank of general.
For Kumaratunga, who was re-elected for a second six-year term in the 21 December presidential elections after surviving an assassination attempt by an LTTE suicide bomber, the loss of Elephant Pass would be a political disaster. “The loss of Elephant Pass would make it difficult to maintain control of Jaffna,” says Tissa Weeratunga, a retired general who commanded the army and later the tri-service Joint Operations Command. “The rebels can increase their control of Jaffna and focus on restricting military movement, thus denying the security forces the required mobility to maintain vigilance and the writ of the government in the peninsula.”
The loss of the peninsula would wipe out all the battlefield gains made during President Kumaratunga’s first administration. A tight media censorship after the Wanni débacle has kept most Sri Lankans in the dark about realities on the ground.
Just six months after being first elected in November 1994, President Kumaratunga ordered military action to be intensified against the LTTE after peace talks with the rebels failed. Costing billions of rupees, an ambitious military campaign began in 1995 which led to the recapture of the Jaffna peninsula. A string of other offensive operations followed, culminating with the controversial Operation ‘Jaya Sikurui’ (‘Victory Assured’) launched in May 1997 to open a land-based supply route to Jaffna. After 18 months, the operation was suspended in December 1998 after government forces failed to clear the route.
Only now is the large loss of life during this operation becoming apparent. A ‘roll of honour’ in a newly-published official history of the Sri Lankan Army reveals that more than 2,180 army personnel died during ‘Jaya Sikurui’. It does not list personnel declared missing in action or losses to the navy, air force and police. Military officials say total losses exceeded 3,500.
The clandestine Voice of Tigers (VoT) radio said at the end of December that 14,355 LTTE fighters had died so far in the struggle for a separate homeland, called ‘Eelam’, in the north and east for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. VoT said 9,558 Tamil Tigers were lost during Kumaratunga’s first administration.
The two earlier stages of Operation ‘Ceaseless Waves’ were short and swift. On 18 July 1996, the LTTE seized the important military base in the northeastern coastal town of Mullativu. More than 1,000 government troops were killed or missing in action in the attack which lasted only 48 hours. In September 1998, the LTTE launched the second stage, counterattacking troops advancing as part of Operation ‘Jaya Sikurui’ at the northern town of Kilinochchi. More than 1,000 troops were killed or missing in action.
In the 10 months after December 1998, the LTTE refrained from any offensive operations. This inactivity was apparently misinterpreted by the security forces which believed the rebels had taken a bad beating with very heavy losses of manpower. In hindsight, it is clear that the LTTE used the pause to recruit and train more combatants. Moreover, the LTTE improved its ability to use indirect fire and long-range weapons to reduce human losses in close combat. Surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank guided missiles, multi-barrel rocket launchers and more powerful artillery were added to the LTTE’s arsenal.
The LTTE has thus crossed the threshold from being a guerrilla force to an organisation now capable of staging large conventional military operations. While large-scale assaults co-ordinated with indirect fire support will almost certainly be employed in the continuing drive to recapture the Jaffna peninsula, the LTTE will continue to rely on guerrilla attacks in the east as well as areas outside the operational theatre, including Colombo.
President Kumaratunga, in a broadcast to the nation after escaping the assassination attempt, urged the Tamils to “use every ounce of influence at your disposal to bring Mr Prabhakaran to the negotiating table without delay”. She also called on anyone “who is a member or a supporter of the LTTE to renounce violence and join us in establishing peace”. But she warned “the days of terror in this land are numbered and that number is small”.
Despite the warning, there appear to be signs of a thaw in the government’s hardline attitude. With the launch of the military campaign in 1995, government leaders declared unequivocally that there would be no talks until the Tamil Tigers laid down their arms. But last week state-run media were giving wide coverage to appeals by members of the clergy, known to be supportive of the government, to declare a ceasefire and immediately initiate peace talks.
Strengthened by their string of military successes, the LTTE is unlikely to settle for the government’s long-standing package of constitutional reforms. The LTTE also wants a third party, a foreign country, to mediate the dispute a proposal which the government has consistently rejected. Government officials have indicated that a “facilitator” would only be allowed to pave the way for direct talks. A new and perhaps significant feature in the new millennium will be the growing regional and international interest in the war. Senior Sri Lankan security officials say the guerrilla war has turned into a high-intensity conflict only because the LTTE’s international supply lines have remained intact. Privately they lament, that despite New Delhi’s official assurances, the Indian Navy has failed to intercept vessels bringing in military supplies through the international sea lanes.
Last year, Adm Vishnu Bhagwat, India’s former chief of naval staff, charged that Defence Minister George Fernandes “had sent a directive to all chiefs of staff on 27 July 1998 saying that the armed forces should not pursue or attack any gun runner without prior sanction from the defence ministry, no matter how hard the intelligence may be”. He told Sri Lanka’s The Sunday Times newspaper: “Subsequently, the order was amended to say such vessels could be pursued only if they were within India’s territorial waters or the Exclusive Economic Zone.” Adm Bhagwat also directly accused Fernandes of supporting the LTTE in public utterances and interviews in the Indian media.
Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry raised Adm Bhagwat’s assertions with New Delhi. One ministerial source told Jane’s Defence Weekly that “assurances came from the highest levels that no such things have happened and would never happen”.
Yet, Sri Lankan Navy patrols intercepted more than four boats carrying medical supplies in the weeks before the LTTE launched its November offensive. They were being smuggled from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, across the Palk Straits, the thin strip of Indian Ocean dividing India and Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan intelligence officials also complain that some LTTE casualties are also being ferried to Tamil Nadu whilst fuel and dry rations were being smuggled in.
If Indian apprehensions of a greater US role in Sri Lanka was a major factor that fuelled support for Tamil rebels during the early years of the war, an increased US role in the new millennium will again raise New Delhi’s concerns.
For a second year running, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last October designated the LTTE as one of 28 “Foreign Terrorist Organisations”. Under the continuing Operation ‘Balanced Style’, US Special Operations Command personnel have trained Sri Lankan security forces to enhance their fighting capabilities. Training has also covered intelligence techniques, explosives handling, casualty evacuation, aircraft safety and maintenance, and the law of armed conflict. More places have been provided for Sri Lankan military personnel at US training establishments and at military seminars.
Last November, the US State Department made elaborate preparations under its Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program for a five-day seminar in Washington for a team of high-level officials from Sri Lanka’s armed forces, police and government. It was to teach them how to cope “with terrorist incidents that impact on national level systems and have international ramifications”. But the Sri Lankan government was forced to order the officials to remain in their posts after the military débacles in Wanni for fear that the security situation would worsen.
Last week, a team of US explosive experts arrived in Colombo to help police in their investigations into the assassination attempt on President Kumaratunga. This improved co-operation is in contrast to the period before 1994 when only a few Sri Lankan personnel were permitted to attend courses in the USA under Washington’s International Military Exchange and Training programme.
India’s rival, Pakistan, has been publicly backing the Sri Lankan government. On many occasions urgent military equipment requirements have been sold or loaned to Sri Lanka. Extended by then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, this co-operation has been continued by the man who has ousted him, General Pervaiz Musharraf.
While in Colombo for the Sri Lankan Army’s 50th anniversary celebrations, Gen Musharraf discussed increasing the number of places for Sri Lankan personnel at Pakistan’s defence colleges and various other forms of assistance. A senior Pakistan Army officer has since been sent to help improve the Sri Lankan Army Staff College at Batalanda.
The man billed as number three in China’s power structure, Li Ruihuan, Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, was in Colombo last November. Included in his entourage were senior military officials. China, which is the largest seller of military hardware to Sri Lanka, assured continued supplies.
The new year thus finds Sri Lanka preparing for a costly escalation of the war as the armed forces replace lost equipment, continue a much needed modernisation programme and seek more manpower. Heavy casualties in recent fighting have exacerbated the problem of desertion and recruiting and some disenchanted or exhausted members of the officer corps are wanting to quit. But for the government of Kumaratunga, peace could be even more costly if the LTTE, bolstered by its military gains, demands a steep price to agree to peace talks.