Lanka at crossroads
of war and peace
- SLFP-UNP pact marks significant change of
policy and direction
- Govt. needs to take greater control of military
- Official casualty figures of security forces
raise major questions
- Diplomatic moves relating to mystery arms
shipments from Indonesia, Ukraine
The battlefields of the North and the East remained
relatively calm as delegations of the Government and the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) faced each other at the negotiation
table in Geneva. Yesterday, they heaped accusations on each other
when articulating their respective positions.
A solution to the near two decades of war cannot
be found in just two days of talks. But it marks a beginning. To
many who are tuned into developments in Geneva, the hope is that
the two sides will continue to talk more peace than wage war. Yet,
there were powerful groups in Colombo who wanted the Security Forces
to continue offensives until the military capability of the guerrillas
was weakened. Those in essence seem the critical factors.
There are important reasons for the distinctly
different backdrop in which the peace talks began yesterday. It
is during a respite in Eelam War IV, notwithstanding a near four
year long ceasefire. This phase of war in the past weeks saw battlefield
gains shifting from one side to the other. At first, buoyed by the
military successes at Mavil Aru, Kattaiparichchan, Muhamalai and
Sampur the Government spoke from a position of greater strength.
That gave them the resolve, despite the Ceasefire Agreement, to
assert that troops would retaliate if they were attacked.
But the military debacle at Muhamalai on October
11, followed by the lone suicide bomber's attack on the largest
wayside gathering of Navy sailors near Habarana (on October 16)
and capped by the guerrilla attack on the naval detachment SLNS
Dakshina in Galle (on October 18) were to undo all this. The debacle
followed by the two attacks erased that great momentum.
The Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Wasantha
Karannagoda, this week appointed two Courts of Inquiry. One to probe
the incident near Habarana will be headed by Rear Admiral Wasantha
Tennekoon. Other members are Commodore D.S. Molligoda, Captain Kapila
Samaraweera and Commander Hewage Sumanasiri. The other court to
probe the guerrilla attack on the SLNS Dakshina in Galle is headed
by Rear Admiral M.R.U. Siriwardena and comprises Commodore G.E.C.
Jayawardena, Captain Rohan Kulasekera and Captain Palitha Weerasinghe.
References to the Muhamalai debacle and the two
subsequent guerrilla attacks are by no means to say all was lost.
The bravery and valour of the troops led to the capture of Mavil
Aru, prevented a guerrilla take over of Kattairparichchan, avoided
the infiltration of Muhamalai defences to lay siege on Jaffna and
led to the seizure of Sampur. The latter relieved the stranglehold
the guerrillas had placed on the Navy's largest establishment, their
Eastern area headquarters at the Dockyard in Trincomalee and the
nearby Air Force base in China Bay.
|Troops on duty after the capture of Sampur.
Photo: Berty Mendis
All these gains were the result of a highly laudable
and the tremendous sacrifice by officers and men of the Army. During
the period 6 a.m. July 31 till 6 a.m. on October 12, when these
incidents (including some limited operations and day to day casualties
involving the Army) occurred, official statistics show that 31 officers
and 380 other ranks were killed. Whilst one officer and ten soldiers
were reported missing, those wounded in action were 118 officers
and 2081 soldiers. This is all during a period of 74 days. A document
containing these official figures was seen by The Sunday Times.
Here is a breakdown:
SECURITY FORCES HEADQUARTERS - JAFFNA AREA: 11th
August to September 6 - Nineteen Officers and 202 soldiers were
killed. Forty nine officers and 851 soldiers were injured. From
6 p.m. on September 6 to 7 p.m. on September 9 - Two officers and
32 soldiers were killed. Nine officers and 188 soldiers were wounded.
From 7 p.m. on September 9 to 6 a.m. on October 11- A total of 46
soldiers were killed. A further 10 officers and 188 soldiers were
wounded. From 6 a.m. on October 11 to 6 a.m. on October 12 - Eight
officers and 53 soldiers were killed. Thus, the total casualties
for SF HQ Jaffna area works out to 29 officers and 333 soldiers
killed. A further 92 officers and 1718 soldiers were injured. An
officer and ten soldiers were reported missing. NOTE: In respect
of Jaffna, the official figures do not explain where the casualties
occurred except to list them as incidents within SFHQ (J). Here
again it is only from August 11 to October 12, a period of 62 days.
Thus, a clear picture of the Muhamalai debacle on October 11 cannot
be discerned from these official figures. Was it meant to be that
way? However, details in respect of others are disclosed as shown
KATTAIPARICHCHAN/ MAHINDAPURA/ SERUNUWARA: From
August 2 to August 30: Twelve soldiers were killed. Seven officers
and 94 soldiers were wounded.
MAVIL ARU: From July 31 to August 25. Two officers
and 15 soldiers were killed. Eight officers and 106 soldiers were
wounded. On September 9, a further seven soldiers were injured bringing
the total number of wounded soldiers to 113.
SAMPUR: From July 31 to September 26. Twenty soldiers
were killed. Eleven officers and 156 soldiers were wounded.
Updated figures for Army personnel killed in the
Muhamalai debacle, according to statistics placed before the National
Security Council, stood at 18 officers and 128 soldiers. A total
of over 616 were wounded. In addition, six battle tanks, and not
five as reported earlier, were lost. Of this, two that lay damaged
could be seen from the Army's defence lines in Muhamalai. Intelligence
sources confirm one has been retrieved by the LTTE and is in working
Each battle tank was procured at a cost of around
US $100,000 or Rs. 10 Million. Hence the loss battle tanks alone
in Muhamalai amounted to Rs. 60 million.
|Army on patrol duty in Sampur
Whether the remaining three, said to be in guerrilla
hands, are operational, is still not clear. The toll at the incident
near Dambulla, as disclosed last week, stands at 116 sailors dead.
More than 130 were wounded. One sailor and a civilian were killed
in the attack on the naval detachment in Galle. It is now confirmed
that eight guerrilla bodies were washed ashore after the attack.
Since the casualty figures in the Jaffna peninsula
have been listed under the SFHq (Jaffna), it is not possible to
discern where it occurred and how. For October 11, the day of the
Muhamalai debacle, the figures speak of the deaths of only eight
officers and 53 soldiers or 61 Army personnel. It places 24 officers
and 491 soldiers as wounded and an officer and ten soldiers as missing
on the same day. It is most likely the reference on this date is
to Muhamalai though the figures are incomplete.
This is because the document containing official
figures is only for the period July 31 to October 12. For this period,
the total killed in action (in the North and East) according to
the official figures, as pointed out earlier, is 31 officers and
380 soldiers or a total of 411 Army personnel. Of this number, if
one is to reduce the 61 Army personnel (eight officers and 53 soldiers)
presuming they are victims of the Muhamalai debacle and are included
in the official figures, (to the exclusion of bodies handed over
later by the Tiger guerrillas) the total for the period works out
to 350 Army personnel killed.
If the figure of 146 personnel (18 officers and
128 soldiers), the last known official count in Muhamalai debacle,
is thus added, the Army death toll works out to 496 officers and
men. The deaths of 116 Navy sailors near Habarana and one in Galle
bring the total of Army and Navy personnel killed to 613. The wounded
would total 118 officers and 2081 soldiers, according to the official
figures. Added to this would be the 616 soldiers injured in Muhamalai,
130 Navy sailors near Habarana and 11 Navy sailors in Galle. The
grand total would be 2956. A sizeable number from this are walking
This is during a period of 72 days and works out
to an average of over eight deaths and more than 41 injured per
day. This is only for a specific number of incidents involving the
Army and the Navy. The figure would be higher if all other incidents
are taken into consideration. Soon after last year's Presidential
elections in November, limited guerrilla attacks led to an average
of three deaths per day.
Senior Army officials in the battlefront claim
that Tiger guerrillas killed would be three times that of the figures
for troops. Twice that number, they say, were wounded. The LTTE
has been playing down its casualty figures. Independent verification
of guerrilla casualty counts is not possible.
Another important reason is last Monday's signing
of the historic Memorandum of Understanding between the ruling Sri
Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the main opposition United National
Party (UNP). Opposition and UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the
chief architect of the February 2002 Ceasefire Agreement, has pledged
to support President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the pursuit of a negotiated
settlement to the ongoing conflict.
Even if he has agreed to oppose terrorism "in
all its form", as the pioneer of the CFA and supporter of the
call for a negotiated settlement, Mr. Wickremesinghe is not likely
to endorse continued military offensives amidst the ongoing peace
initiatives. Not even if they take the form of the new but illogical
and contradictory terminology, "defensive operations,"
that has entered the lexicon in Sri Lanka's separatist war. He has
now emerged as a catalyst in this regard endowed with a new ability,
after the MoU, to influence both the Government and the Norwegian
facilitators. This factor, weighed together with the Government's
move to obtain a string of dates for future peace talks, clearly
signals a move in a different direction.
That is an effort to shift from the battlefield
to the negotiation table. But some thorny issues will continue to
linger. The two sides have to clear many a procedural hurdle in
the negotiation process before moving on to critical areas. Such
a process is time consuming. It will have to entail a very difficult
period of a de-escalation of tensions and the beginning of an almost
difficult task of confidence building. During that period, any renewed
activity in the battlefield could put the clock back.
Both sides could accuse each other of triggering
off a battle that will lead to a renewed war. Thus, an escalation
of fighting would threaten not only the peace process but the MoU
too. Herein lay the dilemma for Government leaders. A clear cut
approach becomes necessary. That would require their taking greater
control over the military establishment and not allowing a situation
that is vice versa to develop. It would also entail other tough
decisions if in fact it is committed to ensure the peace process
is on track. Otherwise, the Government will continue to be accused
of duplicity. On the other hand, "the war on terror,"
as some senior military officials call it, is to be continued, how
it will impact on the peace process remains a critical question.
Equally critical will be the question of UNP's support for such
a dual track approach.
Besides maintaining a high level of military preparedness
to prevent any guerrilla attacks, the Government has also embarked
on significant diplomatic initiatives. That is to thwart attempts
by the LTTE to build a much stronger military machine by smuggling
in hardware. This is particularly after ammunition stocks began
to dwindle following their recent encounters with the government
forces and attempts to acquire sophisticated weaponry including
Surface to Air Missiles.
Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, who is
also the Deputy Minister of Defence, went as President Mahinda Rajapaksa's
special envoy to Jakarta this week. During the two-day visit as
the head of a top level delegation, he held discussions with Indonesian
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other leaders, among other
matters, on an important issue. The Sunday Times learnt this is
to seek Jakarata's support to crack down on illegal rings in that
country involved in smuggling military hardware to Sri Lanka.
A leading Government source, who spoke on grounds of anonymity said,
"President Rajapaksa's appeal received a positive response"
but declined to bare details.
The detailed activities of such an illegal ring
came to light during a sting operation by the United States Federal
Bureau of Investigation (FBI). At the centre of a conspiracy to
supply, a variety of military items to the LTTE was a retired Indonesian
Marine Corps Brigadier General Erik Wotulu. The items included state-of-the-art
firearms, machine guns, ammunition, surface to air missiles and
night vision goggles.
Together with Wotulu, another Indonesian national
Haji Subandi, Haniffa Bin Osman, a Singaporean and Thirinavukarasu
Varatharasa, a Sri Lankan with links to the LTTE, were arrested
in Guam, a US territory, during the sting operation. They are now
indicted in the District Court in Maryland for conspiracy to export
arms in violation of US laws. The four had been attempting to procure
weapons from the US when their operations were busted.
Also arrested were two other Indonesian nationals
- Reinhard Rusli and Helmi Soedirdja. Together with Haji Subandi,
the trio are charged in the District Court of Maryland in a separate
case for violating US laws and trying to import night vision goggles,
Special Forces weaponry, communication devices, spare parts for
helicopters and military aircraft, sonar technology, unmanned aerial
vehicles as well as conventional arms and ammunition. The "end
users" of these items were the LTTE in Sri Lanka and unidentified
sources in Indonesia.
Indonesia's Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who reacted
to the FBI findings, said in Jakarta that that the case involving
Brigadier General Wotulu was the responsibility of the persons concerned.
He said "The Government cannot control everyone. So (Eric's
case) is his personal responsibility. The country's population has
now reached 220 million. It is impossible to control everyone."
When he was serving as a Colonel in the Indonesian
Marines, Wotulu was named as head of security in Otoria Batam, an
Indonesian island, a special trading zone, near Singapore. The place
is known to be rampant with smuggling and corruption. It is also
known to be a haven for piracy. Born in 1947, retired Brig. Gen.
Wotulu is a Minahasan, a predominantly Christian area in northern
Another diplomatic initiative relates to Ukraine,
where agents and manufacturers have supplied military hardware to
the Sri Lankan Government. There were suspicions that the LTTE had
in the past obtained weaponry from sources in Ukraine.
Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the Russian Federation,
Udayanga Weeratunga, on October 13 wrote directly to Air Marshal
Roshan Goonatillake (with copy to the Chief Purchasing Officer of
the SLAF, Air Commodore T.M.P.D. Tennekoon) of his efforts to stop
illegal trading or terrorist organizations importing defence items
from Ukraine. It is not clear how the letter came to be sent directly
to the Air Force and whether the Foreign Ministry or other related
state agencies were also told. This is what his letter says:
'CONFIRMATION OF AUTHENTICITY OF END USER CERTIFICATE
FOR SUPPLIES FROM UKRAINE
"I would like to bring to your kind notice
that on my request, the Government of Ukraine has enforced a new
special regulation with effect from 01st October 2006 for the Ukrainian
companies which are involved in defence supplies/services to Sri
Lanka. According to the new regulation, those companies have to
get confirmation on the authenticity of the End User Certificate
issued by the buyer, via the Diplomatic Mission of Sri Lanka based
in Moscow. This regulation will apply to all pending supplies. My
request was made with the purpose of avoiding illegal/terrorist
organizations importing defence items from Ukraine.
"The State Services of Export Control, who
issues the export licences to suppliers, hereafter will not issue
the licences without confirmation of this Mission on the authenticity
of End User Certificate issued by the relevant buyer of Sri Lanka.
"Therefore, please send me the copies of
End User Certificates issued in respect of all pending supplies/services
"A copy of the End User Certificate No. SLAF/JR-1668/06
of 10/08/2006 issued to Zaporozhye Regional Foreign Economic Association
in respect of the supply of Auxiliary Power Unit (Preferably via
e-mail as an attachment) is required urgently for confirmation on
the authenticity, to enable the supplier to proceed with the order".
These developments come as Sri Lanka is at the
crossroads with regard to both war and peace. A new approach has
begun with President Rajapaksa joining hands with his one time political
arch rival, leader of the Opposition and UNP, Ranil Wickremesinghe.
It comes at a critical juncture where the Government
faces accusations of human rights violations, widespread abductions
and disappearances. In this regard, the media has not only been
subject to threats, intimidation and other insidious pressures.
With the Government, knowing or otherwise, sections of the military
establishment have declared their own war on the media, a move that
would distance it further from the Government. It cannot prosecute
both war and peace without a healthy dialogue with the media. That
should be a priority for President Rajapaksa if he is to succeed
in his efforts.