War threat recedes as tsunami batters Tigers

All that remains of the Naval Sub Unit at Mutur in the Trincomalee district. Pic by Ishara S. Kodikara

When the cameras and microphones turn away from the death, damage and destruction of last week's tsunamis, the nation will awaken once more to the festering ethnic issue - one that portended another catastrophe in the New Year.

This was after the Tiger guerrilla threat to revert to war if their demand for an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) is not conceded. If the Al Qaeda attacks in New York and Washington in 2001 was billed as the 9-11 incidents, nature's onslaught on Sri Lanka would be the 12-26 catastrophe.

That no doubt has blast frozen the cold war that went on late last year and threatened to continue from yesterday, day one of 2005. The Government and the security forces are all focused on the aftermath of 12-26 - much worse than all the loss of human lives and destruction during a near two decades of separatist war. So is the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The most immediate consequence - the Ceasefire Agreement between the Government and the LTTE, which will turn three years next month, will remain more stable. With both sides pre-occupied, indulgence in activity that one side will accuse the other of violating the ceasefire, will no doubt be less. Like the Army's complaint this week, it will have more to do with the aftermath of the catastrophe than on other issues.

Last Wednesday, the Army complained of attempts by Tiger guerrilla cadres in the east to grab relief supplies in the Trincomalee district destined to a “cleared” area. Troops had to secure the 19 lorries taking the supplies organised by the popular Sinhala TV channel Sirasa and its Tamil sister channel Shakthi. In another instance, civilians in Mahindapura and Kallar villagers who organised a relief convoy to Eachalampattu and Poonagar villagers were forced to hand them over to the guerrillas.

Therefore, the tasks for SLMM head retired Norwegian General Trond Furuhovde and his men would enter a new sphere - keeping the peace between the two sides whilst their respective relief operations are under way. But long-term implications, however, remain for both.

First to the security forces. Admittedly they were not in the best state of preparedness since the Ceasefire Agreement. President Kumaratunga herself has conceded this to her Cabinet Ministers on many an occasion. Equipment shortages, lack of spares, dwindling troop strengths and the mass exit of deserters are some of the contributory factors. Although a belated decision has been made not to commit any more troops for UN peacekeeping operations, one battalion made up of well-trained troops are already in Haiti. In addition, a total of 8,668 have been allowed to opt out of the Army. More are to follow suit.

In this backdrop there was substantial damage to security forces and even Police encampments as a result of the catastrophe caused by tsunamis. The exact extent still remains to be fully assessed. Forward Defended Localities (FDLs) adjoining the north-eastern coast that divided security forces positions from guerrilla bases have been washed away. The Army's camp in Kallady in the Batticaloa district is virtually non existent now. There has been some loss of weapons. Their camp in Kalkudah has also been damaged. The commanding officer of 232 Brigade, Col. W.M.S. Gunaratne was the senior-most officer to die together with his son Diran Dhananjaya who was on vacation there.

Some Naval establishments were also badly hit. They include Dakshina in Galle and those in Point Pedro, Manalkadu, Kirinda and some sub units north of Trincomalee. Fifteen navy personnel died. The commando arm of the Police, the Special Task Force (STF) camps in the east were also badly hit. They included Komari, Panama, Arugam Bay and Ampara.

The task of restoring these camps, no doubt, will become a priority for the security establishment. If Government resources are available for this, quite clearly, they would find it difficult to fund the entirety of programmes formulated to ensure an enhanced military preparedness. Such a programme was taking shape in the wake of declared guerrilla threats to resort to hostilities in the New Year. Hence, the Government would have to be content with some of the bilateral Government to Governemnt arrangements for military procurements that are on the pipeline. In the wake of last week's developments, the needs now would have to be re-assessed and only the barest minimum required obtained leaving opportunities for other sectors that are high priority. Here again, such a move is not altogether unjustified because threat perceptions, at least in the short term, have changed considerably since the catastrophe.

President Kumaratunga had declared that her top most priorities after last week's disaster are the immediate restoration of the road networks followed by restoration of telecommunication facilities, building hospitals, schools and providing housing to those displaced. Hence, any military spending for greater militarization or enhanced preparedness, quite understandably, will be not high priority.

Now, to the LTTE. There has been very heavy damage and destruction in guerrilla controlled areas. CNN Correspondent Stan Grant who also doubles anchor from their Hong Kong Bureau and his cameraman, Wen Chun learnt that the death toll alone exceeded 14,000. Many thousands were displaced and hundreds were languishing in open ground with no roof above their heads. They were badly hit by the lack of medical supplies, even basic necessities like aspirin and antibiotics.

This has caused severe hardships to civilians. So much so, thousands in Vakarai (Batticaloa) district moved to cross over to security forces controlled areas. They were, however, prevented at gun point from passing through guerrilla controlled check-points. State agencies, Non Government Organisations and even civilian groups have been debarred from moving into any guerrilla controlled areas to distribute relief or engage in other humanitarian activity. The LTTE has insisted that all relief, both in financial grants and supplies, should be handed over to its own Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO). It would be the responsibility of the TRO to distribute such relief in affected areas in guerrilla controlled territory.

This has led to the Government officials being denied a fuller picture of what is going on in the guerrilla controlled areas. As a result, even the death counts which the Ministry of Social Services put out daily based on reports received from Divisional Secretariats reported a toll of between 1000 and 1,500. When relief teams arrived in Sri Lanka from various countries, one priority of the Government was to despatch a Russian team to the Wanni. Officers at the Army Checkpoint at Omanthai waved them through but the Tiger guerrillas turned them away at their check-point. The Russians had to return.

The need to channel all funds through the TRO was further re-iterated by LTTE Political Wing leader, S.P. Tamilselvan. He told a conference of international donors at the LTTE Peace Secretariat in Kilinochchi on Thursday that all relief would be welcome and there was a dire need for medical supplies. Taking part in the event were representatives of UN agencies. Among them were representatives of UN Disaster Management Committee, UNICEF the World Health Organisation and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Many NGOs including Oxfam and representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross were also there.

The LTTE military machine has been very badly dented by the catastrophe. The main Sea Tiger base at Chalai had suffered very heavy damage. So were their encampments in Mullativu, located in the same area where the security forces base functioned until July 16, 1995. Also hit were many smaller Sea Tiger units that were located along the north-east coast.

One of the first measures adopted by the LTTE hierarchy in Kilinochchi is to send out instructions to their senior and lower level cadres. They were told that casualty figures of fighting cadres or any other details concerning them should not be divulged.

The Sunday Times learnt that by late Monday, the Tiger guerrilla death count had exceeded 2100 fighting cadres. In the North (Jaffna, Nagerkovil and adjoining areas) more than 250 were reported killed. In the LTTE heartland of Mullaitivu, Chalai, Nayaru and immediate outskirts more than 1400 had died. In the East, the largest amount of casualties had been in the Trincomalee district, at Sampur, Koonativu, Koonativu and Kokkutuduwai areas. In the Batticaloa district (Verugal, Kathiraveli, Vakarai and neighbouring areas), a total of 150 cadres had been reported killed. Sources in Tiger guerrilla controlled areas say the figure was likely to rise as evacuation and rehabilitation efforts are under way.

The LTTE has been very quick to react to adopt remedial measures. Already a propaganda unit has been placed under the charge of S. Prabagaran alias Pulithevan, head of the LTTE peace secretariat. This was to focus exclusively on the damage caused to people in LTTE controlled areas by the tsunamis. Video material of the catastrophe is already on the way to their organisations in foreign capitals. The idea is to screen them during pre-arranged meetings and immediately launch a major fund raising campaign. The Tamil diaspora abroad has been advised on the need to give priority to this.

The dent to the LTTE military machine as a result of last week's developments, in the long term, will not translate into a major advantage to the security forces. The latter may be compelled to maintain the existing status quo for much longer period than the LTTE. Herein lies the significance of why the LTTE is disallowing all outside relief personnel from entering areas dominated by it. In raising funds through the TRO, not to mention material support, the guerrillas are aiming to create a monolithic organisation that will be the bulwark of the "economy" in "uncleared" areas.

Besides NGOs and the Tamil diaspora, many a UN agency is bound to help them. With an LTTE campaign that the Government was neglecting their areas in the distribution of relief, the question therefore remains whether some foreign governments will be compelled to channel aid through this NGO. After all, the former UNF Government of Ranil Wickremesinghe had granted NGO status for the LTTE's TRO. For all intents and purposes, it is therefore, a recognised body.

Benefiting from the vast sums of money that the TRO will collect, the LTTE no doubt will siphon a sizeable part to immediately re-build its damaged military machine. That will include the construction of new camps, recruitment of new cadres and even the procurement of weapons. For the Sea Tigers, that would mean the acquisition of more boats. For all these, the LTTE has now ensured a fund raising mechanism, one that is absent for the security forces.

It will not be long before the LTTE steps up its recruitment drive both in the North and East. An important area to watch out for would be the hundreds of makeshift camps and houses where internally displaced persons are now located. LTTE "talent scouts" will scour these places looking for potential recruits to enhance its strength. With their excellent organisational abilities, the task will take weeks instead of months.

It will not be surprising if the process is further expanded to rope in elderly cadres for civilian militia roles - much the same way they did during the period of Operation Jaya Sikurui. Civilians who fled the Jaffna peninsula were co-opted and trained. Those who refused to join in were denied their weekly food issues, supplied by the Government and distributed by the LTTE. Many later returned as displaced persons to Jaffna.

In this context, President Kumaratunga's New Year message on Friday assumes greater significance. She declared "This is a fine opportunity for us to look at the ethnic struggle from a new perspective and realise the need for a new approach for a permanent solution. Let us give serious thought to live in a united Sri Lanka, as one nation, with equal rights, while preserving our individual identities. If wisdom prevails and all political parties grasp this reality, we Sri Lankans could live in a united Sri Lanka.

"Let us learn from this disastrous experience and unite to build a nation." Interesting enough, the call came just one day after United States President, George W. Bush telephoned President Kumaratunga to convey America's sympathies over last week's catastrophe. According to diplomatic sources, President Bush spoke to President Kumaratunga of his Government's wish to see rapprochements - one between the Government and the Opposition. The other is between the Government and the LTTE. The unfortunate disaster, President Bush believed, afforded a window of opportunity to re-define the terms of engagement.

In this respect, what UN Secretary General Kofi Annan told a UN news conference on Friday becomes relevant. A journalist asked him "Do you see an opportunity, perhaps a silver lining, in that the civil war has been suspended because of this disaster? When things get back to normal, they just resume fighting again? Or is there something to work on?

Dr. Annan replied: "We hope that this offers an opportunity both in Aceh and in Sri Lanka and that the protagonists are now working together to bring support to those in need. I hope that collaboration is not going to end with the crisis and that they will be able to build on that and use this new dynamic to resolve their own differences. We will be encouraging that."

In this climate of no belligerence, Norway's Special Envoy, Erik Solheim, arrives in Colombo this week. Besides conveying the Norwegian Government's sympathies to both sides, he will also talk to President Kumaratunga (in Colombo) and Mr. Thamilselvan in Kilinochchi on the need to take the peace process forward on a fresh note. Hence, many a new challenge is in store for Sri Lankans in the year 2005 which began yesterday.

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