Situation Report

15th September 1996

East: a prize catch, thinks LTTE

By Iqbal Athas

High frequency LTTE radio transmissions last week, as usual, was very brisk. But amidst the crackle of routine traffic, there were some interesting revelations that were food for thought to the security forces.

There was a caller who asked a base somewhere off the shores of the north east for 30 men to unload some unidentified item or items from the beach and move them inland. The mission was executed though what the cargo and where it was moved to remains a mystery.

Another conversation revealed that cadres in the east were being recalled for deployment in the Wanni areas where hectic defensive preparations have been underway. Leaving behind smaller strength in strongholds in the east, cadres were already shifting. Whether they were preparing themselves to meet a security forces offensive or for a diversionary manoeuvre was not clear.

Yet another episode in the east underscored some excitement. A Sri Lanka Army leaflet campaign calling upon LTTE cadres in the area to surrender and enjoy a new lease of life had plunged the ranks into confusion. A new surrender package has been formulated by the Ministry of Defence. Some wondered whether this was a prelude to a major sweep against them. There was an air of panic as some sought instructions and others reported they were shifting locations.

It is in this backdrop that a group of Tiger guerrillas attacked a bus load of civilians on Thursday morning at Aranthalawa, a village on the main highway linking Ampara to Kandy. Eleven civilians were killed and 27 others were wounded, six of them seriously. On June 2, 1987. Aranthalawa was the scene of a gory massacre of 30 Buddhist monks and four Sinhala civilians. Fifteen more monks were wounded in this attack carried out by the LTTE.

The attack at Aranthalawa came just four days after another incident involving civilians at Divuldamana, four kilometres east of Aralaganwila in Polonnaruwa district. Tiger guerrillas fired small arms and mortars at a group of civilians killing four and wounding one.

The fact that the LTTE was planning to attack a string of civilian targets was known to the Government. In fact the day before the incident at Divuldamana, the Deputy Minister of Defence, General Anuruddha Ratwatte, flew in with some senior military officials to villages located on the border between the north and the east. The purpose of the mission was to make on the spot checks and enhance security arrangements. Particular attention was focussed on the Welikanda area, the scene of reported LTTE build ups in the past several weeks. Some immediate measures became necessary in order to stall an exodus of civilians from these villages.

Despite this, LTTE activity in several areas in the east continued. According to the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence, last Wednesday, Tiger guerrillas robbed six tractors belonging to civilians in Vempaiyadi Kulam in Tirukuvil. As reported in these columns in the past two weeks, the LTTE has made attempts to infiltrate and attack. Its attention has been focussed on smaller economic and civilian targets as against military installations.

The success at Mullaitivu appears to have satiated the appetite of the Tiger, at least for the moment. The LTTE by that operation has not only regained its military prestige after its forced withdrawal from the peninsula but has also restored its esteem amongst the Tamil populace.

The promise of Eelam which faded with Riviresa has re-blossomed into a possibility however distant vision it may be. In order to keep up this momentum of success, the LTTE has got to maintain their operational momentum. But being a guerrilla force which like all other guerrilla movements depend on an element of surprise for success. The LTTE too appears to be biding its time to gain the best initiative.

In the meantime, the LTTE is continuing with other aims of its strategic design. A feature central to this is to secure the Eastern Province which to the LTTE is the jewel in the crown. Its objectives in the East include the ethnic cleansing of the population including border areas which it considers to be Sinhala Colonised territory and hence as anathema politically.

In executing their operational designs in the Eastern Province, the LTTE is undoubtedly conscious of the fact that the security forces here are thin on the ground. Any security forces re-inforcements can only be made at the expense of security in the peninsula or by reducing security on strategic targets in the non-operational areas. Thus the targets in the Eastern Province are comparatively soft which gives the LTTE the advantage of tackling with the second string forces reserving their hard core for high intensity offensives. A bonus to the LTTE would of course be any thining out of security forces in support of the Eastern Province which would offer the LTTE opportunity operations elsewhere of more greater significance.

Against this background, the Aranthalawa massacre of civilians is not an ad hoc action by a run away field commander but a part of carefully co-ordinated and well knit plan by the LTTE political and military command.

Quite apart from the military impact of the LTTE operational designs, the political wash-back of the effects on the government also requires cognisance. At this point of time when the government is struggling to cope with division in its own alliance in a political climate of ever increasing cost of living and the attendant political instabilities it generates, the government can ill afford a crisis in the east.

Any turmoil in the east will also have its downside on the Sinhala and Muslim polity which the government is trying to enamour to support its peace initiative. Even a minimum success by the LTTE in the Eastern Province will have greater reversals on the government politically which it can ill afford.

While the LTTE are therefore jockeying with a military strategy of the War of the flea in the operational areas, they in turn is applying pressure through its strategies on both the military and the government.

Thus whereas the current phase of the war in the Government book seems to be a stalemate situation, it is quite a different ball game to the LTTE. They are using this stagnancy to secure a strategic advantage militarily, politically and terriotorially. No Government conducting a war can afford to permit a stalemate situation. A stagnant war is an impotent war with no strategic design.

In the prevailing circumstances the Government must necessarily re-focus it's attention to the eastern province to deny this de-stabilisation on the one hand and to permit the LTTE any strategic advantage on the other.

Whilst there has been no sparks flying in the operational front, the volley and thunder in the political, diplomatic fronts in the City has generated rumblings over references in these columns. It is particularly in the ranks of the Tamil political parties. This is how it happened.

Outside a two storeyed building at the top of Maitland Place, armed Policemen clutching Chinese T 56 assault rifles stood guard last Wednesday. As the clock struck seven politicians and professionals among others, some accompanied by their spouses, trooped in.

Across the road from the bungalow, the row of vehicles wound its way well past the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC). This sector of Colombo seven has acquired the reminisence of London's Earl's Court known for its motor shows. Something similar occurs at Maitland Place but the credit is not to the Ministry of Transport.

It happens when the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka decides to hold one day international cricket matches at the SSC. On display along this street are the most sophisticated driving machines many of them duty free and the less advanced ones of the decades past which foreign manufacturers are looking out for their museums.

But the occasion at the bungalow had little to do with cars or cricket. It was a cocktail party hosted by the United States Embassy's Political Officer, Scott Delisi and his charming wife Leija.

Delisi, who was acting as Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) is easily one of the most approachable western diplomats in Sri Lanka. Though not an exponent of the Sinhala language, his capacity to understand local lifestyles and sensitivities has earned for him many friends. There was a cross section of them and he was saying adieu, temporarily, since he was leaving Sri Lanka with Leija on a two week sojourn to Washington.

There I shook hands, for the first time, with Dharmalingam Sithardthan of the People's Liberation Organisation of Thamileelam (PLOTE) He was in conversation with Douglas Devananda of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), whom I have known. The conversation turned to last week's Situation Report.

In these columns last week I reported on the 150 minute meeting leaders of Tamil political parties (with the exception of the TULF) held with US Ambassador, Peter Burleigh.

I said "in attendance were Suresh Premachandran (EPRLF), Shankar Raji (EROS), Sri Skanda (TELO), Douglas Devananda (EPDP) and T. Sithardthan (PLOTE).

"The discussion began over soft drinks and continued through a meal of rice, fish, carrot, curry and salad..." the report said.

At the cocktail party US officials were quick to point out an error in the situation report last week. It was not carrot curry but boilt carrot that was served.

Bearded and soft spoken, Mr. Sithardthan was keen to find out who had briefed me on their meeting with Ambssador Burleigh. "It cannot be you since I am meeting you for the first time", I remarked somewhat humourously and added that I had, however, heard others at the party mention his name. That again was more in fun than to accuse Mr. Sithardtham.

The PLOTE leader promptly turned to Ambassador Bureligh who was right behind talking to another group, pointed his finger at me and declared "he says I did not leak the story, I am meeting him for the first time". Joining in with another disclaimer was Douglas Devananda.

That ended the conversation. Moments later, TULF's charismatic Parliamentarian, Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, known for his good wit and humour was leaving the party when he saw me. Though some distance away, he had observed me in conversation with the PLOTE and EPDP leaders.

He remarked in a lighter vein "they have eaten the carrots, when are they going to see the stick?"

Exactly a week after their meeting with Ambassador Burleigh, the same group of Tamil political leaders were meeting a cross section of the Sinhala intelligentsia at Father Tissa Balasuriya's Centre for Society and Religion in Maradana. The occasion was to have a frank exchange of views on the Government's devolution proposals.

But the meeting began with both Mr. Sithardthan and Mr. Devananda complaining about the situation report. The two were of the view that the report ridiculed Ambassador Burleigh and that they should write to The Sunday Times. What exactly brought about the ridicule was not made clear but a short discussion ensued.

EPRLF's Suresh Premachandran, who was also probing how the details leaked out, held the view there was no purpose in writing to the newspaper. He referred to The Sunday Times and The Sunday Leader and added that they even reported proceedings taking place at "Temple Trees" the official residence of the President. The matter ended there and the meeting went ahead. More on that later.

I do not challenge Mr. Sithardthan and Mr. Devananda's rights to express their own opinion however far fetched it may be. But I must say that there was no intention to ridicule Ambassador Burleigh or for that matter any of the Tamil leaders who took part in the discussion. Coming from a country where freedom of expression is enshrined in the Constitution, I have no doubt Ambassador Burleigh would have entertained any qualms about it.

It might be relevant to mention the Second Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise therof, or abridging the freedom of speech, of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances." Whilst this is familiar to allAmericans, it is a reminder to those in Sri Lanka who whilst holding office by the will of the people but end up suppressing free expression of the people.

The rumblings over last week's situation report was not only amongst leaders of the Tamil political parties who met Ambassador Burleigh. The LTTE also responded to some references made in the report to a move by the Government to ban the Tigers. Interesting enough the LTTE gave its own mischievious twist.

It happened during the Voice of Tigers (LTTE's clandestine radio) news broadcast at 8 am on 9th September, 1996. The radio station is said to be operating somewhere in the jungles of the Wanni. Interestingly a copy of The Sunday Times was in their hands when they went on air. The broadcast was monitored by intelligence authorities.

The Sunday Times obtained a translated text of this broadcast made available to the Ministry of Defence by military intelligence authorities. This is what it says:

"Army observer IQBAL ATHAS has stated in The Sunday Times that the efforts made by the Sri Lankan government to ban the Tiger movement has been a failure. The political solution to the ethnic problem will borrow time. In every country war leads toward destruction. Chandrika who came to power by promising to improve the country has lost the confidence of the people. People are not prepared to believe the peace package. Unnecessary expenditure is on the increase. In addition millions of rupees have been spent on the war. Not only the price of flour but the price of other items are also on the increase. He also said that the country will never prosper until the reasonable requests of the Tamils are granted."

The discussions between the Tamil political parties and a cross section of the Sinhala intelligentsia lasted over three hours and was on a positive note. There was a free and frank exchage of views.

The Tamil leaders expressed apprehension over the ability of the Government to ensure the passage of the devolution proposals in Parliament with a two thirds majority. They pointed out that the Parliamentary Select Committee currently studying the matter did not have a quorum at times. On the other hand they were deliberating on noncontroversial matters. Some of the contentious issues were yet to come up.

They said that since the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in 1987, for the past nine years, a search for a political solution had been on. The Tamil political parties have nothing to report back to their people. In 1995 the Government made known its proposals. They were diluted and submitted as a legal draft. They never discussed it with the Tamil political parties. Now they were wanting to know whether the UNP would accept it. If they do not, they were going to place it before Parliament.

Sinhala intellectuals who took part concurred with the views expressed and the immediate need for action to resolve the Tamil ethnic conflict. They felt the need for a further dialogue in an expanded forum so their search for peace can continue.

This week as in the weeks preceding has not made any progress politically or militarily in the offensive against the LTTE. Whilst the Government seems to be stultified by its security commitments and political contradictions, the LTTE without the inhibitions of Governmental responsibilities are in relentless pursuits of their strategic objectives. Hence, it is essential that the Government focuses on regaining of the initiative to keep the Tigers off balance.

Go to the Fifth Column
Return to the Editorial/Opinion contents page

Go to the Situation Report Archive