The Mitsubishi Pajero be longing to Sri Lanka Army's Medical Corps lay parked just a stone's throw away from a crowded ceremony. The shutters were up and the doors were locked.
The occasion was the ceremonial opening of yet another of a series of Building Materials Corporation (BMC) outlets in the north. This time it was in the heart of the city of Jaffna, at Stanley Road, which runs parallel to the Main Street of Jaffna.
Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, assigned by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to head a Task Force to re-habilitate and re-construct the Jaffna peninsula, was pressing ahead with a programme to open a string of BMC outlets.
The absence of an extensive retail network had led to prices of building materials sky rocketing. For example, a bag of cement, though price marked at Rs. 400 was being sold in the blackmarket for a staggering Rs. 2,400. Large amounts of money were in circulation and people were willing to pay a heavy price to re-build, even in a small way, their war-ravaged homes.
Having ended a formal opening ceremony, Mr. de Silva and his official entourage walked towards their vehicles for the return journey to the Palaly military base. After a lunch break they were due to board a return flight to Ratmalana. A host of military men, government officials and civilians followed the minister.
Brigadier Ananda Hamangoda, Brigade Commander for Jaffna town, walked ahead, unlocked the driver's door of the Pajero. He reached out for the other front door and unlocked it too, alighted and waited for Mr. de Silva to board. He got in and sat down. Brigadier Hamangoda who was driving the Pajero was readying to get in when he and others nearby saw a young woman, seemingly pregnant, moving forward from the crowd in the direction of the Minister.
By then men of the Quick Reaction Team (QRT) had kick started their motorcycles and were ready to escort the Ministerial motorcade. Private Pushpakumara of the QRT who had Private Seneviratne on the pillion saw the "pregnant" woman trying to dash towards Minister de Silva who had just taken a seat in the Pajero.
Pvt. Pushpakumara pulled his all terrain motor cycle across the woman's path. Within seconds a loud explosion rocked the area. The bodies of the two privates from QRT were charred and their motor cycle was burnt out twisted metal. Their courageous action saved the life of the Minister of Housing, Construction and Public Utilities, Nimal Siripala de Silva.
But Brigadier Ananda Hamangoda who stood closer to the advancing woman was killed on the spot. So were other Army, Police, Government officials and civilians. Among them was Ranjit Godamuduna, chairman of Lanka Cement Ltd. and Carlyle Dias, a retired Senior Superintendent of Police who was Civil Affairs Officer (CAO) in Jaffna.
Mr. Godamuduna, an experienced planter and a director of a Colombo brokering firm, was a full-time campaigner for the PA at the last general elections. Soon after assuming office as chairman of Lanka Cement Ltd. he was spearheading an ambitious progamme to re-commission the Kankesanthurai cement factory. He was setting the stage for the arrival of a group of foreign engineers.
Mr. Dias, an experienced Police officer assumed duties as Civil Affairs Officer after serving a stint at the office of the Commissioner General of Essential Services.
Thursday's bomb explosion, the first major incident in nearly eight months after the security forces re-captured Valikamam Sector of the Jaffna peninsula, incorporating the City of Jaffna, left 23 dead and 59 wounded.
The message was quite clear. The LTTE would use the techniques it acquired to become one of the world's deadliest guerrilla outfits against its own people, the people whom it vowed to protect in the so-called state of Eelam it pledged to create. Thirteen innocent civilians who were witnesses to an event paid with their lives. The message to the many who survived was clear - keep away from Government sponsored public events.
To the security establishment, it laid bare the fact that there had been infiltration into Valikamam sector. The re-capture of Valikamam was marked by a symbolic ceremony on December 5, last year. Security forces who focused on military offensives in Thenmaratchi and Vadamaratchi sectors had to stall their moves. They launched phase five of "Operation Riviresa" in Valikamam itself. The aim was to flush out groups that had infiltrated. This was in April this year.
But two months later, there had been infiltration again. In fact, military intelligence had warned of this factor. Disturbingly the infiltration this time was reportedly more organised with the Tigers possessing communication facilities to make contact outside Valikamam.
Thursday's attack by a female suicide bomber coincided with LTTE's Black Tigers Day. The occasion is observed to honour Captain Millar, the first Black Tiger to undertake a suicide mission. It came during "Operation Liberation" in Vadamaratchi in 1987. Millar drove a truck heavily loaded with explosives into the Nelliady Central College where troops were billeted during the operation. Though Black Tigers Day falls on July 5, the LTTE said in a statement that "commemoration ceremonies in Mullaitivu to remember Black Tigers started yesterday (Thursday)."
The incident in Stanley Road which comes in the wake of escalating terrorist activity in the east and the Wanni demonstrates on the one hand that the LTTE is by no means a force beaten by the successes of "Operation Riviresa". On the other hand, the scale of such terrorist activity exposes the weakness of the security forces in terms of manpower and resources to dominate the areas under Government control.
This logically raises the question of the strategic values of the success of the series of "Operation Riviresa". There is no doubt whatsoever that these operations demonstrated the military superiority of the security forces. At the same time it exposes the fact that the LTTE is no match to the security forces - a myth which the Tigers tried to create in their war against the IPKF - in a military confrontation. Whilst this inequality is true in terms of "force versus force" confrontation, the balance of advantage in unconventional operations is quite another matter.
It is no secret that the Army is fully committed in maintaining its domination in the Jaffna peninsula and therefore can spare very little regular manpower to support the largely volunteer and home guard elements which are mainly tasked to maintain security in other theatres of operations.
The ability to operate outside the peninsula would largely therefore depend on whether the LTTE can be totally neutralised in the peninsula or in the alternative, whether the Army could build up further manpower and equipment to undertake the additional commitments. Both seem unlikely in the immediate term.
In these circumstances, the question some military observers ask is whether "Operation Riviresa" has achieved the desired politico military objectives or whether the Army has successfully fought itself into a cul de sac. They say that an operation which is limited by its own end is not of value.
It is their argument that any operation should successfully flow into a series of continuous operations which contribute to the overall politico-military strategy. Hence, if as a result of Riviresa, the Sri Lanka Army is stultified in extending operations to other theatres, then it falls short of being a success in the totality of the war strategy.
Furthermore, these circumstances have led to a stalemated situation. Such an impasse can only be of advantage to the LTTE. In the context of the nature of the conflict, time can only favour the LTTE. The Government cannot afford this for many reasons, most importantly because of the economic strain. As it is, the repercussions of a Government over-burdened with the cost of war expenditure are telling heavily on the economy of the country. This in turn has its attrition on the popularity of the Government and its ability to govern.
Both the Government and the LTTE are now in a no-win situation. And the next phase of the war will see each side attempting to wrest the initiative. In this respect the LTTE at this point of time has the initiative of the choice of attack, when, where and the nature of the target irrespective of whether it is military, unarmed civilian or economic targets.
In order to deter this, the Government is committed to extend its military, political and economic resources to its fullest whilst strengthening and organising its capability to break out of the military impasse. This is critically important for the Government as the devolution package on which it relied towards a peace dividend is most unlikely to be accepted both politically and by the nation at a referendum.
The present stalemate is a phase not unfamiliar in the guerrilla warfare movements that have occurred the world over. To the guerrilla, the phase is of strategic importance to wear governments politically and economically by force of governance. The Government has to maintain its political, economic and security infrastructure. The guerrillas have no such responsibility.
So long as the guerrillas keep on achieving some success, they keep the movement in focus and give the population they purport to lead a promise of achieving the guerrilla aim - which is Eelam.
This, therefore, is a critical phase for the Government and the nation. All efforts should be co-ordinated and focused to one aim, one aim only. And that is to defeat the LTTE. To do so, militarily, the political strategies must go hand in hand.
In its effort to re-vamp the military capability, the Government is adopting several measures. In addition to stepping up its strength of manpower and equipment, the Government is also pursuing the qualitative improvement of its forces by improved training. In this, they have sought international training.
An American journalist, Mark Kaufman from the Philadelphia Inquirer was in the southern town of Wirawila last month. A report by him to his newspaper also appeared in last Sunday's Dallas Morning News. The news item widely circulated via the Internet says:
U.S. Quietly Expands its Role in Sri Lanka, says inter alia:Deleted
By Mark Kaufman (Philadelphia Inquirer)
On an air base at the southern end of this tropical island nation - about as far from the United States as a person can get - a team of 12 Green Beret specialists is training Sri Lankan soldiers in combat medi-vac techniques, radio work and field engineering.Deleted
Unannounced, and unreported, the US military activity in Sri Lanka involves considerable security and political risks.Deleted
While Sri Lanka is one of the world's most beautiful places, it is also home to one of the world's longest and most vicious civil wars. Over the last decade terrorists bombs, the shelling of civilians, and thousands of hightime murders have left fifty thousand people dead.
Unlike most joint military exercises, the Pentagon has not publicized the Sri Lanka mission. It has not been mentioned in Sri Lankan newspapers which are heavily censored by a government sensitive about human-rights abuses laid at the feet of its military.Deleted
Until now, the United States has had a small apparent role in the country's war - a bitter ethnic struggle pitting Tamil militants fighting for a separate homeland in the north against the Sinhalese majority of the south, who want to keep Sri Lanka whole.
"We have no dog in this fight," said the American military attached to Sri Lanka, Col. Carl Cockrum, who helped bring the Green Berets over for a mission code named "operation balanced style".
But the small - yet increasingly frequent - presence of US military advisors over the last two years suggest that formulation may be changing.
So does the State Department's official determination last year that the main Tamil group fighting for independence - The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or Tamil Tigers - is a "terrorist group".
And so does the recent finding by US human-right monitors that the Sri Lankan government is seriously addressing its unhappy history of harbouring quasi-official death squads. That positive State Department conclusion - which some human-rights groups in Sri Lanka say grossly overstates the governments progress - allows the United States to move even closer to Sri Lanka.Deleted
All these steps, US official say are possible because of the dramatic improvement in Sri Lanka's human-rights record.
Both US and Sri Lankan officials in Colombo say there are good strategic reasons to be deepening ties. The American military is attracted to the islands prime location between the Middle East and the Far East and near China. And Sri Lanka is seeking a political counterbalance to its giant neighbour India.
But both sides also say they have good reason to keep their arrangements low-key. International and political affairs can be perilous business here. Consider the experience of the Indian Army.
Saying it was on a peace keeping mission to help solve the Tamil-Sinhalese ethnic war, India sent fifty thousand troops there in 1987, with the apparent approval of all parties. Three years later, and after 1500 soldiers were killed. India left Sri Lanka in a Vietnam-style defeat.
Then in 1991, Sri Lankan Tamil militants assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, the Inidan Prime Minister who sent Indian troops to their country. Tamil militants have also assassinated a Sri Lankan President, several defence ministers, and a long list of other top Sri Lankan politicians and officials.
Late last year, the Sri Lankan military stormed the Tamil north and routed the Tamil Tigers (and many civilians) from their long time stronghold. The Tigers, however, still control hundreds of miles of Sri Lankan jungle and periodically send out teams to attack patrols, villages and some heavy populated sites in Colombo.
The Tigers have their own US connections. Well-to-do Tamils living in the United States sent considerable sums of money to the rebels.
With a blood history like this, it is not surprising that the Green Beret team arrived unannounced. In a recent interview, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar denied that any soldiers were on active duty in his country.
DeletedGo to the Fifth Column