Situation Report

11th August 1996

Blunder, bluff

By Iqbal Athas

Twenty one days after Sri Lanka's worst military disaster, Deputy Minister of Defence, Anuruddha Ratwatte, at long last fulfilled his accountability to the State legislature last Thursday - the mountain laboured and brought forth a mouse.

There's is no other way to describe the confused explanation in his statement which rather than explaining the facts of the tragedy sought to hide the Government and himself behind the facade of a vituperative assault on the Opposition in general and the Leader of the Opposition in particular.

Having resorted to such confrontational tactics, as strong as the diatribe he unleashes on the LTTE, Minister Ratwatte paradoxically appealed to the House (obviously including the Opposition) to give "your support in this hour of grave national need".

He continues in the same strain after having made innuendos against the Opposition without so much as a word of conciliation and further appeals by saying "think not within your narrow boundaries of political dogmas and personal hatreds, think with your hearts and minds."

It has unfortunately become an all too common attitude amongst the senior leadership of this PA Government to accuse and brand all and sundry who disagree with their views as being traitors or LTTE sympathisers. Need anything more be said about irrational and confrontational politics which dragged national issues into abyssmal depths of degeneration?

That too in the backdrop of a four month long censorship where news that Sri Lankans should know of the ongoing separatist war are selectively dished out and even matters not governed by the prevailing censorship, containing criticism of a political nature, are totally blacked out.

It was only recently President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, declared that the separatist war would be ended by next year. Her own Deputy Minister of Defence has made news the world over for his prophecies on ending the war.

Minister Ratwatte, as a Lt. Col. soon after assuming office as Deputy Minister of Defence, told Parliament he had a "secret plan" to end the separatist war. Several months later, as Minister Ratwatte himself claims he gave leadership to the security forces. The Government secured control of the Jaffna peninsula and for his efforts, Colonel Ratwatte was elevated to the rank of a four star General.

To his credit, he mingled with soldiers in the battlefront in beret and camouflage in a way none of his predecessors did. If that gave him a unique image as a soldier/politician credited with successfully carrying out the war to evict the LTTE from the Jaffna peninsula, the public attached greater significance to his projections.

There was considerable public enthusiasm when he declared in Hambantota early this year that the separatist war would end by April (this year). This of course came as the best bit of news for the vast majority of Sri Lankans but that was not to be. Several weeks later, Minister Ratwatte concluded that 70 per cent of the war was over and only a meagre 30 per cent remained to be completed. He also observed that it would take five days for the security forces to evict the Tigers from the east.

Any references or discussion to these matters, on the one hand is deleted by the Censor. On the other, whatever little that is published after the Censor's approval has other unexpected repercussions. In a bid to silence objective criticism one is accused of either discussing military strategy or attempting to demoralise the troops. The mite of the state-controlled media is brought to bear on those holding different views with such fervour that one sometimes wonders which enemy the Government is fighting - whether the LTTE or those holding divergent views.

Since the Mullaitive disaster, easily the worst in Sri Lanka's military history, many questions have been raised in these columns on matters arising from analysis of the military situation. They have been censored even though the questions were related to political issues and not on matters military.

Unfortunately Minister Ratwatte has not answered these questions. In fact the questions raised, did not relate to matters of strategy or tactics of which I claim to have no expertise, not even little.

My questions were simply related to questions which would have come to the ordinary lay mind.

Minister Ratwatte's statement that "the Government and its security forces took every possible action to send re-enforcement’s to the embattled area" does not appear tenable.

Minister Ratwatte, in his statement , refers to the attack on the Pooneryn defence complex by the LTTE and that for three clear days the government did not retaliate. That is hardly a relevant argument. In fact in this context , not only was Mullaitivu base not recaptured where as Pooneryn camp was not abandoned.

What is germane is whether the military and political planning were correct for effective operations. That is the question to which the military is answerable to its political authority and the political authority in turn answerable to the elected representatives of the people in the supreme legislature, the Parliament.

This accountability is finally to the humble voter. This is a fact that politicians should never forget. It is this accountability which the media, as the watchdog of public interest, takes issue. It is the only mechanism of this chain of accountability that can create a healthy nation responsible to the issues which affect them individually and collectively.

This is a time for national mourning. Unfortunately no such declaration was made in honour of the gallant men and women of the armed forces and the Police. Undoubtedly each time a military reversal occurs, it does not call for mourning.

But in the face of the worst debacle in our history, some recognition was deserving. This is especially so to a nation which regardless of the war have not sacrificed their lifestyles or suffered any privation towards the war effort. The example for this should surely come from the top and the lack of leadership in this regard is a matter for deep regret. It is even more regrettable when Parliament is told "we do not consider this incident as a major military loss." If this is not major loss, as a citizen I shudder to think what General Anuruddha Ratwatte would classify as a major loss?"

Minister Ratwatte told Parliament last Thursday that there were 1407 security forces personnel in the now abandoned Mullaitivu Military Base. In these columns last week, I reported that nearly 40 soldiers (approved by the Censor) had returned to neighbouring camps. There has been no reports of returnees this week. Barring those dead, the rest of those in the camp will remain declared as Missing in Action.

Minister Ratwatte did not give details of weapons losses at the Mullaitivu Military Base. UNP MP, Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena, tables a list in Parliament. According to this list, among the items lost were: Artillery 122mm (2 pieces), artillery 120mm (2 pieces), one Recoiless Gun, 81mm mortars (15 nos.), 60mm mortars (32 nos.), 12.7 heavy machine guns (4 nos.), 2 inch mortars (11 nos.), RPG 7 Rocket Launchers (3 nos.), multi purpose machine guns (15 nos.), general purpose machine guns (108 nos.), T 56 rifles (1654 nos.), T 81 rifles (238 nos.), FNC sniper weapons (4 nos.), Pakistani manufactured A 3 rifles (5 nos.), 40mm grenade launchers (23 nos.) and flame throwers (2 nos.). Dr. Jayawardena told Parliament that the equipment lost was worth over Rs. 2,73 billion.

Dr. Jayawardena told Parliament that the LTTE was preparing itself to use the artillery guns taken from the Mullaitivu Military Base on security forces positions.

Five Timil parties on Friday urged the government to have unconditional talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) if it was "serious of a political solution".

"All are disappointed that priority, prominence and importance is given to the war and not to a political solution" , Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) leader Suresh Premachandran told Professor G.L. Peiris, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs during a 90 minute meeting.

The meeting was called on Friday morning at Minister Peiris's residence in the backdrop of reports that the Tamil parties may withdraw their support to the People's Alliance Government.

The Tamil political parties, Mr. Premachandran said, told the Minister that the government will never get the two third majority to pass the political package in Parliment.

"You have branded the Opposition Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, as an LTTE spokesman. How can you expect him to have a dialogue with President Kumaratunga and support the political package?", the five Tamil parties told Professor Peiris, Mr. Premachandran said.

"Opposition United National Party (UNP), the main opposition in the Parliament is totally against the package. We know the government is in a very difficult position", he pointed out.

With the opposition now accused as LTTE sympathisers and the media silenced on reporting the war through a rigid censorship, the P.A. Government appears to have declared war on all others including some factions within the Alliance itself. Who else will be the biggest beneficiary of this other than the LTTE?

Who would they thank most - the Government or the Opposition?

(Note: The censor has deleted parts of the Situation Report although they do not relate to provisions governing the Censorship Regulations)

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