Situation Report

28th July 1996

Fear of bomb threats has disrupted public lifestyle

By Iqbal Athas

Which in turn fuelled confrontational politics widening the gulf between the mainstream political parties. This, unfortunately, had been a baneful feature all too common in Sri Lanka where politics suffocates nearly all aspects of human activity and even inactivity.

The ugliness of such hypocritic politics has even superseded events of gross national tragedy.

At this instance, as in the past three months, news management under a tight censorship has been manipulated for political gain with callous disregard for the pathetic emotions of those affected. The magnitude of the Mullaitivu debacle has not yet been officially divulged even though much of the true facts are known to the independent media ironically through their own contacts in the security forces whom the censorship pretends to safeguard.

Paradoxically, the tragedy in the remote jungles of Mullaitivu was the world media's top most story even surpassing the tragedy of the TWA flight 800 from New York to Paris or the grandeur of the centenary Olympics in Atlanta. The correct story which was freely available to the world was hidden to the Sri Lankan public.

All that was released in between snippets of fact was political bravado and more political bravado.

With the advance of the security forces in the peninsula, LTTE offering little resistance, withdrew into its operational base in the Wanni. Much in the mannar of Mao Tse Tung's long march to a new base before re-commencing his offensive. So did Prabhakaran consolidate his forces in the Wanni. The change in the strategic geo-military equation as a result of the re-capture of the peninsula brought into military value the hitherto outback base of Mullaitivu.

The sleepy fishing village of Mullaitivu which had been a military camp in the yester-years to counter illicit immigration and smuggling lies mid way in the eastern coast between Trincomalee and Jaffna. Its maritime position makes it ideal to monitor the sea lanes from Trincomalee to Jaffna which became important as a strategic route of communication with the disruption the overland main supply route to Jaffna from Vavuniya. .

Its importance in the land battle lay in its proximity to the main Wanni base of Prabhakaran which is located due west. In the altered geo-military balance, Mullaitivu base which had the potential to be a launching pad for an offensive against the LTTE base was obviously uncomfortable to Prabhakaran. The proximity of Mullaitivu to the border area line of military bases from Kokkutuduwai to Janakapura portended the development of these base complexes into a complementary system to commence domination of the Wanni.

Hence the elimination of Mullaitivu, the defence capability of Mullaitivu was not upgraded to a capability comparable to the threat perception. In this regard an obvious consideration would have (or should have) been the vast increase of LTTE cadres in the Wanni area consequent to their withdrawal from the peninsula.

This LTTE re-deployment surely would have given them a numerical superiority in the Wanni area vis a vis the Mullaitivu Base in both its land battle capability and its sea Tiger Naval capability.

These circumstances should surely have completed the re-assessment of the resources of Mullaitivu but also the re appraisal of contingency plans to counter attack or reinforce the Mullaitivu Camp in the event of LTTE attack. The word "attack" is advisedly emphasised as the threat to it was always there.

In the wake of the attempts to reinforce Mullaitivu after the attack on July 18, which took four days to gather momentum, .

To the lay mind, the confusion of finding answers to these questions is magnified by the total news blackout due to consorship. This is made worse by the obviously questionable hype by the state-controlled media which is insulting to even the most naive mind. Unfortunately the rhetoric by government politicians to whom the public took up to for honesty did not help to clarify the public mind. This hype war transparently defensive.

Brimming with confidence in the past eight months after ousting Tamil Tiger guerrillas from their lair, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga embarked on an ambitious rehabilitation and re-construction programme.

She wooed the western aid donors for a 270 million U. S. dollar aid package. After almost 13 years in which they ran a virtual civil administration with its own "judiciary", "police" and "tax collection centres", the LTTE was routed in a string of military operations code named "Operation Riviresa".

Government leaders claimed that the LTTE was weakened. They have lost their recruiting base, the facility to collect taxes and a population to run a civil administration. That was to be the edifice on which President Kumaratunga's People's Alliance government was to crown what it believed would be its biggest political success-implementing a devolution package through constitutional amendments and inviting the moderate Tamil parties to share power.

But the LTTE, forced into the Wanni jungles in the mainland, was thinking otherwise.

It was past midnight and June 18 had dawned. Only those assigned for guard duties were in their bunkers in this fortified camp.

The noise of the swaying palm trees and the occasional barks by stray dogs disturbed the calmness of the night.

That attack by Tamil Tiger guerrillas was to create history.

The attackers had destroyed the tall communications tower in the base. The Commanding Officer of the camp was Col. Lawrence Fernando who was in Colombo on other duties. He was officiating Brigade Commander of 25 Brigade Headquarters. (i. e. The Mullaitivu Base)

a group of Commandos were landed five kilometres south of the Base. Their task was to establish a beachhead so the infantry could make an amphibious landing. The first group was led by the Commanding Officer Lt. Col. Fazly Laphir. The Commandos were being inducted by Russian built transport helicopters. Lt. Col. Laphir was clinging on to the microphone of a radio set mounted on the backpack of a soldier.

He was hit by mortar fire. An Israeli built Kfir jet fighter moved into bomb targets and thus relieved the commandos. Friendly fire cost the deaths of 20 soldiers and wounded more than 60.

In the meantime, some Navy gunboats escorted landing craft with soldiers. They probed on the possibility if landing on the beach in front of the Mullaitivu Military Base

Accompanying Lt. Col. Laphir's group was Col. Lawrence Fernando. He was returning to join his command. Firing from Kfir jets left him wounded and unconscious.

The two Commando groups were now fighting to link up and establish a beachhead.

During that time Sea Tiger suicide boats rammed a Chinese built Shanghai Class fast patrol boat "SLNS Ranaviru." The 41 metre long Fast Gun Boat (FGB) sank killing 36 sailors including its Commanding Officer, . Only seven of the bodies were recovered.

One of the M17 with a complement of 30 Commandos (part of the second group) was hit by guerrilla fire that severed the fuel pipe. In this situation the MI 17 had only a duration of 15 minutes flying time. The pilot made it to a military camp in 13 minutes.

The two Commando groups linked up and a beachhead was finally established. The first group of troops landed from a Navy Landing Craft on July The same craft took away the wounded and the dead to Trincomalee from where they were flown to Colombo.

It was only on Thursday July 25 (one week after the LTTE attack) that the advancing commando columns followed by infantry units reached the southern edge of the military base. . There was still resistance from the northern and western ends of the base. They also fear that the LTTE which has virtually flattened the camp area would have mined and booby trapped it.

The only survivors were stragglers who surfaced at various times when the troops advanced.

The LTTE strategy of widespread attacks on the entire front of their conceptual Eelam extending from Yala to Wilpattu has further committed the security forces. The security threat to Colombo is a further commitment of resources.

It is still too close to the event to raise the many other issues and questions which come to mind. Whilst that is so, any clear comprehension of what happened in Mullaitivu has been totally confused as a result of the media blackout. The three-month old censorship has in no way contributed to comfort the minds of the Sri Lankan public engulfed in a deadly war, sky-rocketing cost of living, deteriorating public and social amentities.

The spectre of bomb threats has disrupted the lifestyle of the public as well as the business and economic future of the country.

In these dire circumstances, the citizens of this country must and need to know what is happening, for them to plan their own lives, their safety and that of their loved ones. To do so, they expect their elected leaders to take them into confidence.

In this expectation the media blackout, news management and rhetoric have not contributed to the health of a nation. Censorship in the national interest as an extreme measure, though not the ideal in this modern age of technology, could at least be understood. But in this instance, any logical explanation as to why there should be a censorship boggles even the most imaginative mind.

If the argument now to keep facts away from the public is the fear of a purported, communal backlash, then the government has hopelessly under-estimated the discipline of a nation. For the past 13 years, since July 1983, Sri Lankans have shown commendable restraint in the face of mass tragedies and provocative attacks on innocent civilians. In many of the disasters earlier, like the infamous Pooneryn debacle, there was no censorship and no news blackout. Neither was there any backlash.

Hence, this reason is not only flimsy, but untenable. Ironically the whole world is kept abreast of developments in Sri Lanka, except the Lankans themselves. And that too by a government that claims transparency and holds a mandate on promises made, among other things, to uphold the freedom of the press.

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