A span of over 13 years in which over 6,000 troops laid down their lives and a little over an equal number were maimed or wounded, Sri Lankan security forces reached a historic landmark in the ongoing separatist war in the north last week.
For the first time they were dominating the major part of the Jaffna peninsula. Both in Valikamam and Thenmaratchi sectors, they were now in control. If Valikamam was re-captured during "Operation Riviresa I" sans the civilian population, stage two of this operation in Thenmaratchi had led to significant achievements on a number of fronts.
On the ground, security forces regained control of more
The capture of Kilali pier sealed off the Jaffna peninsula and denied to the LTTE boat movements across the Jaffna lagoon. Now Naval patrols are operating between Elephant Pass and Kilali.
Thousands of civilians ordered out of the Valikamam sector by the LTTE before the launch of Stage one of "Operation Riviresa" were choking the roads Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored where groups of Policemen seated behind desks were screening and clearing them.
History was being made in the north but quite clearly many Sri Lankans were unaware of the exact happenings.
If the total news management resulting from the ongoing consorship prevented the free media from generating their own reportage, there appeared to be a severe paucity in what was disseminated by the only source of news for Sri Lankans and the outside world - the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence through the Government Department of Information.
Day to day information came in press releases put out by the Operational Headquarters. Although no one in his right senses expects the OP HQ to put out classified or sensitive information, the press releases were cryptic and did not give the Sri Lankan public, leave alone the international community, a fuller or clearer picture of what was going on.
For example, the OP HQ press release of April 23 said, "Over two hundred thousand people have been liberated by the security forces. Over one thousand families have been cleared so far by the security forces to return to Valikamam division..."
Besides the ongoing censorship, both local media and Colombo based foreign correspondents are debarred from battle areas. Could not an effort have been made to record in the press releases the views of at least a handful of the 200,000 or a few of the thousand families cleared to go to Valikamam? Would it not have been of some interest to know how they felt with the arrival of the security forces? There were many questions to which they could have provided answers.
If these aspects were lacking in the daily press releases, video footage shot and released to the State and private electronic media by the OP HQ did not help either. Most of the footage showed scores of people moving in a single direction. Where were they going? Commentaries spoke about their return to Valikamam. There was no effort made to convince the viewers by projecting landmarks in Valikamam that would have given greater credibility to the claim. Worse enough, still pictures released to the media were not even accompanied by captions.
If the censorship, among other matters, prevented any bad publicity to the Government and the military, what was officially disseminated did not convey the Government's success story of the significant achievements by the security forces that created history. In the past one and half decades of the separatist war, it was from last week that the Sri Lankan security forces have begun dominating most of the Jaffna peninsula. Billions of rupees and thousands of lives have been lost to achieve this. What portends is another matter.
But the ultimate achievement has been obscured by the amateur handling of information on the war effort, a subject of great interest to Sri Lankans.
When the PA Government was voted to power, the public expected a free media without being subjected to the rhetoric of State controlled print and electronic institutions. They were fed up of being fed with what they were told to believe in. We as a nation are never tired of reminding the world that we have over 85 per cent literacy. But unfortunately, the manner the Government handles the media, it seems to believe that this country has 85 per cent illiteracy. A literate and educated public demand a mature approach to the media.
The dissemination of information relating to the separatist war continues to be handled not differently to the style of the UNP Government, by a military spokesman. So, in other words what is given out as information is what the military wants. This is a very Goebellian style of news management.
The military naturally lack the knowledge, experience and expertise to manage a media operation. They are at best capable of giving out information of the prevailing ground situation but in no other way competent to be a part of the State media apparatus which is an area for media professionals.
Not naturally, the military, as indeed any other specialised group would be in the circumstances tend to be parochial in their dialogue with the media, giving the impression, even though it may be otherwise, of professional arrogance. This has nothing to do with personalities of the spokesman, who 1 dare say, are good military gentleman sacrificing themselves for the national cause. The reality, however, is a Colonel Blimp attitude just does not pay in this post colonial era.
Quite clearly, the agency acknowledged over the years for such a task is the Government Information Department. When the SLFP Government in 1971 faced the JVP youth insurrection in the south, it was the sole state agency that disseminated information. The affable Army Commander then, General Sepala Attygalle, assigned military officials to liaise with the Department of Information and provide them the information to be disseminated.
But alas today, the Department of Information appears to have abdicated its role. Undoubtedly the Department is faced with a lot of shortcomings including the lack of skilled professionals. Since independence, the Department's role has been largely focused on servicing the print and broadcast media.
But today electronic media has become a very powerful medium in Sri Lanka. More so with the growth of satellite television. But the Department has no facilities like camera crew, studios etc., to service them. The OP HQ has taken on this role too with the help of a production house. But their products are totally amateur and do not meet the discerning standards of the electronic media though locally some private stations are forced to use the material for lack of any choice.
Today the Department of Information has been reduced to the level of a distributing agency. In relation to the separatist war, it merely circulates military news releases, video clips and pictures. Of course there is an additional task nowadays for the Department of Information in enforcing the censorship - no easy work for officials including the unassuming Director, Ariya Rubasinghe. Even in this, there were discrepancies, on most elementary matters.
When the Situation Report copy which appeared in The Sunday Times last week was forwarded to the Censor for approval, there were several deletions made. One in particular were references made to the retirement of Lt. Gen. (now General) Gerry de Silva and the appointment of Major General (now Lt. General) Rohan Daluwatte as the new Army Commander.
The relevant paragraphs were cut off. But the same facts appeared in another Sunday English newspaper. It was again published the next day, Monday, by another English morning daily.
This is what was said (and deleted by the Censor) in last week's Situation Report:
"To be promoted as a Lieutenant General, Major General Daluwatte takes over as Army Commander on May 1. Lt. General Gerry de Silva, the present Commander will relinqish duties on April 30 and go on retirement.
"Lt. Gen. de Silva (due to be promoted a General) is to be appointed Sri Lanka's Ambassador to Pakistan succeeding career diplomat Janaka Nakkawita. Earlier, he was to have assumed duties as defence advisor to the President.
"It was only this week Lt. Gen. de Silva returned to Colombo after a tour of Malaysia and Israel. He was to have toured Indonesia but the visit was called off at the eleventh hour. 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.
"With Major General Daluwatte taking over as Army Commander, the conduct of the ongoing "Operation Riviresa II" will be formally carried out by the new Overall Operations Commander, Major General Srilal Weerasuriya."
The fact that Lt. Gen. Gerry de Silva was retiring and Maj. Gen Daluwatte was taking over as Army Commander were widely reported even before the censorship was clamped down. It was also reported extensively in these columns too. Comical enough, Sinhala newspapers had published an advertisement from the Parliamentary High Posts Committee listing General Gerry de Silva's name as Ambassador designate to Pakistan. Still the Censor thought it should remain a secret.
Despite these matters being public knowledge, they were blacked out. Why? If it was supposedly on the grounds that it was sensitive information useful to the enemy, allowing it to be published in some sections of the media only makes the censorship a mockery.
These discrepancies only go to illustrate the futility of a censorship, where service copies or foreign radio broadcasts which are not subject to censorship are easily accessible in Sri Lanka.
A good case for the authorities to study would be how the United States and its coalition partners handled the media during the 100 day long "Operation Desert Storm" against Iraq, a war which people around the world watched from their bedrooms and living rooms.
The media was not shut out but carefully handled. They were afforded the opportunity of accompanying troops to some battle areas. They reported on the war from the theatre of conflict.
Now for the events in the Jaffna peninsula that has made history. All the LTTE offices in the peninsula have shut down. Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Reports reaching Colombo said there was still a limited LTTE presence in Vadamarachchi, particularly in Point Pedro.
Soon after the security forces moved into Chavakachcheri, civilians looted a well stocked LTTE food store in Chavakachcheri. Many who were seeking re-entry into Valikamam were in queues carrying stocks of food looted from there.
Valikamam has turned out to be a hive of activity. The Government Agent, Jaffna, Selliah Pathmanathan, has set up his headquarters in the CARE International office in Jaffna. One of his main pre occupation these days in running welfare centres that are providing cooked meals to returnees.
Even yesterday, large groups of civilians were moving towards Valikamam. They are required to report to the Police checkpoint at Navatkuli where their credentials were checked before being allowed in. There were unconfirmed reports about an attempt by Censored Censored Censored Censored suspected to the LTTEers, trying to enter Valikamam and being detected.
LTTE has made attempts to trigger off incidents. In one case, a private lorry carrying civilians hit a pressure mine at Anaikottai, four miles north of Jaffna town. Three civilians were killed in the incident. In the hospitals in Thenmarachchi, 17 civilians underwent treatment for injuries they sustained during "Operation Riviresa II." All of them were adults except for one child. Although this did not mean other civilians were not injured, reports from Thenmarachchi spoke of low civilian casualties.
Security forces were busy consolidating their defences whilst Government officials in Colombo were busy preparing relief plans.
On Thursday, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, met heads of Colombo based diplomatic missions and representatives of international relief agencies. She appealed for their help for the rehabilitation and re-construction of the Jaffna peninsula and reminded them of the pledge given in 1995 by the Aid Sri Lanka Consortium.
In spite of the control established by the security forces in the major part of the peninsula, it is too premature to make a comparative assessment of the operational success of the Army vis a vis the strategic withdrawal by the LTTE. Whereas the LTTE offered some semblance of resistance to stage one of "Operation Riviresa", they did not even offer any token defence to the stage two advance into Thenmarachchi.
Some observers also question the stoic silence of the LTTE in not resorting to retaliatory torror tactics. This indeed is a moot question. Further commenting, but yet in a way not unexpected in the prevailing LTTE dilemma are the noises made by their International Secretariat in London of willingness for third party intervention.
Accompanying this has also been statements from non militant Tamil parties of the need for the Government not to depend on a military solution but to consider a truce followed by an international mediation.
The fact that general elections are underway in India could also be an influencing factor in the lie low strategy of the LTTE. The tussle between Jayalalitha-Congress I axis with Karunanidhi-Moopanar opposition groups and the result of that outcome vis a vis who the party that would eventually control Lok Sabha, even though it may be a hung Parliament, will be of critical importance to LTTE strategic planning.
The LTTE has long realised the folly of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination which severed whatever links there remained with the centre in India. They cannot be unmindful of the Indian factor in two abortive weapons smuggling incidents, in the high seas of the Indian Ocean, one involving the MV Ahat or the Kittu affair and more recently the sinking of Horizon off the Mullaitivu coast.
The difficulties encountered by the LTTE to maintain a high profile in Tamil Nadu wherein their connections are becoming increasingly tenous must also worry the LTTE. In these circumstances it must be in the LTTE calculations not to create any situation in Sri Lanka which could create waves in Tamil Nadu and in the Indian establishment at this critical moment.
The political attitudes which shaped the Tamil electorate has perhaps been the single most factor supporting the LTTE militancy. Without that, the Tamil militancy would have been still born.
So long as the LTTE were able to dominate the peninsula and the other areas of Tamil domicile, they were in a position to influence if not control the minds and will of the Tamil polity. Now that the security forces have regained control of much of the peninsula and they claim the return of a vast number of the population, it opens up the question as to which way the political support of the Tamil people will swing.
It has been an important aspect of Government's stance that the population were under coercion by the LTTE. Whether this was true will now be put to the best. Should the population in the peninsula swing over to support the Government or at least adopt an anti LTTE position, then the entire edifice on which the militancy has been structured will begin to collapse. It is too close to time the events to make any prediction let alone even a wild guess.
However, it takes no genius to predict that a battle for the minds will be a serious strategic effort. To do so, it is logically necessary for the LTTE to retain a political presence in the peninsula backed up with some military capability to demonstrate and harness resistance. In this battle for control, unless the vigilance and intelligence capability of the Government is at the highest it will lose its weight in the quest to suppress the LTTE.
Thus the immediate presence of a Tamil leadership in the liberated areas of the peninsula is an utmost priority to the hearts and minds exercise to win the Tamil polity. Whether the Tamil political leadership that exists today can do so is the billion dollar question.
The military success in Jaffna is only the tip of the iceberg and indeed a thin chunk of the pinnacle. More important is the fact that we are at the political crossroads in the peninsula. And which way we will turn finally depends on the Tamil polity and the Tamil leadership.Go to the Defence Column