The Sinhala and Hindu New Year saw the commencement of the long awaited "Operation Riviresa Two" designed to expand the government-controlled areas Censored
At the beginning, the LTTE offered limited resistance to the security forces advance. Days later, even this resistance faded into an apparently unchallenged advance by the security forces. But after a two day rest when troops resumed their move on Thursday to further encompass censored and link it on the western flank with Valikamam, Tiger guerrillas offered some resistance. But the troops pushed their way through.
On Friday the security forces captured the LTTE's boat landing point in Kilali and thus sealed off the Jaffna peninsula from the mainland by interdicting LTTE boat movements across the Jaffna lagoon. Soon after accomplishing the task, Chief of Staff and Overall Operations Commander, Major General Rohan Daluwatte, flew down to Colombo to prepare for the take over as Commander of the Army.
High ranking Indonesian military officials were busy with their annual conference and hence the Indonesian authorities had expressed their inability to work out a programme for Lt. Gen. de Silva.
As reported in these columns last week, the LTTE strategy is based on sacrificing space in the peninsula in order to consolidate itself in the Wanni. In doing so, the LTTE not only saved face by not getting committed into an unequal conventional confrontation which it cannot hope to win. But more importantly, the LTTE strategy is also aimed at minimising casualties and so retaining its manpower intact as much as possible.
In the earlier weeks, this column also noted that the confrontation in the peninsula will, at this stage of the tussle, boil down to not merely a struggle for real estate but more critically a contest for population control, in other words the control of minds.
The LTTE devalued the government's military success in "Operation Riviresa One" by evacuating the population of Valikamam and leaving behind to the security forces territorial gains to be protected without the benefit of a population to win over.
From claims made in news releases issued by the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence, "Operation Riviresa Two", it appears, has met with much better response from the civilian population in the liberated areas who wish to move back into areas of government control to be rehabilitated.
The government claims over 250,000 of the population who were in refuge with the LTTE have overwhelmingly decided to seek security forces' protection.
Unfortunately, this matter cannot be verified. Not only is there a news blackout through censorship but the media is denied access to the war zone or even to the liberated areas under rehabilitation.
But a report transmitted from Colombo to their overseas headquarters by a reputed international organisation which has their own representatives in the troubled north spoke of developments which neither the LTTE nor the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence referred to.
The agency, known for its standing and authoritativeness, said that in the days preceding "Operation Riviresa Two", more than 30,000 civilians, vast majority of them from Thenmaratchi, had crossed the Kilali lagoon and arrived in the Wanni. An equal number or more were held up on the Kilali side of the lagoon after LTTE boat movements were intercepted by security forces fire.
The agency said that a large number of civilians displaced from Valikamam and living in the Thenmaratchi sector were being screened and allowed to return though the numbers were not as staggering as 250,000. This was after the authorities satisfied themselves of the claims made by the displaced persons.
There certainly is a movement of civilians to Valikamam which the government claims is quite substantial. And this has caused the biggest worry for Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, who heads the Ministerial Task Force vested with the responsibility of rehabilitation and re-construction of the north. He is busy with officials making preparations for providing the infrastructure to facilitate the re-settlement of the civilians and providing them welfare measures.
Whatever the numbers game be, the exclusion of media from matters of utmost national and human importance is by and large unprecedented. One of the few instances which occur to one's mind was a similar media censorship imposed by the late Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, during "Operation Blue Star" to end the siege on Sikhism's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple. The negative fall out of that action is well known and recorded, certainly a precedent not to be emulated.
The strategic objectives of the security forces are not known.
This makes sense as it would then confer to the security forces the tremendous advantage of having a land Main Supply Route (MSR) censored in the peninsula and into the offshore Islands of Mandaitivu, Kayts and Karainagar.
In addition to operational convenience, it will also considerably reduce the vulnerability of aircraft which have hitherto been compelled to be exposed as a result of being tasked on routine logistics missions. The overall benefit to the morale of the security forces as a result of a link up in the areas also cannot be overstated. The question now is how the LTTE would respond to a changing strategic situation.
In the peninsula the LTTE has certainly not only lost a battle but considerably lost its image of invincibility. Quite apart from this, affecting its morale and operational capability, will also have its toll on the psychological attraction of the LTTE as the messiah of the Tamil cause.
It is too early to read how damaging this has been to the Tamil political psyche. However, in the overall political assessment the LTTE is still likely to retain a great deal of empathy from the Tamil community unless and until a satisfactory political dialogue and solution could be effected or a strong enough non militant Tamil leadership emerges. Even Velupillai Prabhakaran and the LTTE are unlikely to be not regarded as the historical catalyst in the confrontation. In this context the course of action by the LTTE in the next few months is going to be significant
Though they will eventually withdraw much of their capability from the peninsula, it is unlikely that they will let go their hold though unable to openly confront the security forces militarily. In these circumstances it is not likely that they will revert to their classical weapon of the early stages of their resistance, the use of the landmine to restrict the security forces land movement and confine them to protective bases leaving the uncontrolled areas with the civilian population to be influenced by the LTTE.
They surely must be conscious that they will have to keep the security forces tied to the peninsula with maximum strength to deny them (the security forces) the freedom of operating in a strength in the Wanni and the eastern province.
The carefully-built civilian infrastructure in the Jaffna peninsula which conferred on them the appearance of being an alternate government has now been demolished. This, they will have to restore now in the Wanni, as it is all important facet to their pretended image internationally and to their community that the LTTE is in fact a democratic and organised body in an established struggle for liberation. Apart from these appendages which is for political consumption internationally, the LTTE is bound to activate operations to destabilise the eastern province.
The LTTE cannot be blind to the severe strain on the national economy as a result of this war. In their calculations therefore the interdiction of economic targets (particularly in the city) to cripple and embarrass the government would be as strategically important as their struggle against the security forces in the operational theatres.
Perhaps now that they have lost out in the peninsula would make economic interdiction far more attractive mode of warfare. To attack the government politically and economically creating contradiction with a policy which would increasingly lose public morale and confidence in the government.
The LTTE strategy therefore is likely to be three pronged:
(1) Regain a military position so as to be a recognisable threat to the security forces in the Jaffna peninsula;
(2) Maintain control in the Wanni and the eastern province and,
(3) To attack the government economically and gain by the consequential political turmoil.
In this way the LTTE would ensure that the military resources of the government are spread over a wide area. And so denying the security forces the ability to concentrate in strength like they did in "Operation Riviresa" (one and two). In a final analysis the reality is that the confrontation at its political and military levels remain between the government and the LTTE.
The other Tamil political groups and ex militant factions are helpless bystanders and being unable to influence Tamil polity are unfortunately not in a position to influence either the government or the LTTE towards compromise and accord.
This is the unfortunate reality and in as much as a solution to this conflict lies with the strong leadership among the Sinhalese. It also depends on the strong non militant leadership within the Tamil community.Go to the Defence Column