was not so long ago, October and November last year to be precise, that the Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force, Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe and the State media criticised The Sunday Times for publishing on this page computer graphic designs of SLAF aircraft.
On August 31, 1997, The Sunday Times published aircraft lost by the SLAF. They were computer aided drawings to give the reader an idea. The Sunday Times then pointed out that real photographs of those aircraft were not a closely guarded secret but were readily available either via the internet or through magazines and other publications. That too in colour and varying sizes.
It seems the SLAF (and not their apologists) now accepts the view held by The Sunday Times.
That can be the only reason (since there are no others known) why the Sri Lanka Air Force has chosen to publicly lay bare all it's possessions of aircraft and armaments. This is in the form of a colourful 1998 calender that is being sold to officers and other ranks at a concessionary price of Rs 100. Any number of copies can be purchased by them.
Hence, one who needs to know what kind of aircraft the SLAF has, how many, what type of weapons they use in them and how they look like, all one has to do is buy an SLAF calendar. That is not all. Want to know where the SLAF has located its bases throughout Sri Lanka, who is in charge of each one of them and their zonal names ?
They are also readily available. That is found in the blue colour SLAF diary for 1998.
Here is what the SLAF's 1998 calendar, printed at considerable cost, has to offer:-
JANUARY - A Chinese built FT5 bomber with the 250 kilo bombs, rocket pods and 12.5 mm ammunition displayed in front.
FEBRUARY - Four American built Bell 414 helicopters.
MARCH - A Chinese built Shaanxi Y 8 in flight.
APRIL -An MI 24 Hind helicopter in flight.
MAY - Four Israeli built Kfir ground attack aircraft (on right), three Chinese bult F7s and one FT5s.
JUNE -A close up of a Bell 412 helicopter
JULY - An Israeli built Kfir loaded with its full configuration of 250 kilo bombs (14 of them).
AUGUST-Russian built MI 17 troop transport helicopters.
SEPTEMBER-A Russian built Antonov 32transport plane in flight.
OCTOBER-A Kfir jet taking off. Below the wing is an additional fuel tank.
NOVEMBER- A Kfir jet with the full array of weaponry used in them - 250 kilo bombs, machine gun rounds etc.
DECEMBER - A Kfir jet landing. The chutes open out to cut down speed.
With only ten more days to go for the local polls in the north, Sri Lanka Navy's Eastern Command Headquarters in Trincomalee has been a hive of activity.
Last week, they shipped 65 buses and 50 Police vehicles on board "Lanka Muditha", a cargo vessel operating in the northern and eastern coastal waters. Heavily armed Navy ships escorted them.
If that was important cargo for the conduct of the polls, equally important were the voters who will exercise their franchise at a local poll after nearly 15 years. Besides the security forces and Government officials in the north, the task of helping ensure a larger turnout of voters seems to have fallen on the Sri Lanka Navy.
Last week, they ensured the transport of over 700 civilians, all eligible voters (barring their small children), from Trincomalee to Jaffna. Further batches of civilians are due to leave in the coming week.
These civilians were among those displaced from the Jaffna peninsula after security forces re-captured it in late 1995. They crossed the Kilali lagoon and lived in areas in the Wanni until they crossed into security forces controlled Vavuniya. They had remained in refugee camps where Government officials are now busy screening those from Jaffna and preparing them for their departure.
But the most precious cargo for the Sri Lanka Navy arrived last Tuesday evening at the Eastern Command Headquarters in the Dockyard at Trincomalee. It came in the form of Mangala Samaraweera, Minister for Posts, Telecommunication and Media. He was accompanied by Bertie Premlal Dissanayake, Minister of Social Services and Dilan Perera, MP (PA).
That evening the two Cabinet Ministers and the MP were entertained by Comeast, Commodore Mohan Wijewickrema and his deputy Captain Sarath Weerasekera. The trio checked in to Navy chalets for the night but were up early to board an Israeli built Dvora fast attack craft at 3 a.m. Wednesday for a near six hour journey to Kankesanthurai with a flotilla of escort boats.
Their mission ? To travel to Jaffna to participate in the ceremonial opening of the Library on Thai Pongal Day. At the end of a 123 nautical miles journey, arrangements were made by the Naval authorities for Mr. Samaraweera's party to breakfast at SLNS Uttara base in Kankesanthurai and travel by road to the Security Forces headquarters in Palaly. From there, they were to travel to the multi-storied National Housing Department building near the Kachcheri where the library is being temporarily housed.
Evidently, Mr. Samaraweera, who as leader of the Sudu Nelum movement, was a prime mover behind the resurrection of the Jaffna library project, felt it more secure not to fly in a Sri Lanka Air Force aircraft for the event. The SLAF's own highly pitched propaganda in the recent months, to counter criticism of its administration, particularly after a Presidential Committee of Inquiry had made severe strictures on its Commander, Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe, and the organisation's efficacy, seems to have had very little effect, at least on Sri Lanka's Media Minister.
Senior military officials including the Commander of the Security Forces in Jaffna, Major General Lionel Balagalle, was in for a pleasant surprise when they learnt late Tuesday night that Mr. Samaraweera was arriving by Naval craft the next morning.
Until then welcome arrangements had been planned out for for only two other VIPs - Minister of Education, Richard Pathirana and British High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, the amiable David Tatham. They were arriving on Wednesday morning by an SLAF Antonov 32 aircraft.
Military officials lost no time in making arrangements for Mr. Samaraweera and his party too. The high ranking among them successfully persuaded Mr. Samaraweera and party to board an SLAF helicopter for a short flight to Palaly and later travel by road to the Kachcheri complex.
If the re-opening of the Library itself warranted tight security, the presence of three Cabinet Ministers only heightened it. A fourth - Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, another prime mover to have the Library re-opened, was also billed to fly to Jaffna. However, he called off his visit at the eleventh hour after a conversation with President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. The reasons for the move were said to be on grounds of certain immediate security concerns but defence officials remained tight lipped over what it was.
The opening ceremony of the library was confined to invitees and strict checks, including body searches, were conducted to ensure nothing untoward happened. The measures were to irk some of the invitees who complained they and their accompanying security personnel were subjected to checks repeatedly at two different points, located one next to the other. Among them were leader of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) and Jaffna district MP, Douglas Devananda and Democratic People's Liberation Front (DPLF) mayoral candidate for Jaffna, N. Manikkadasan.
Senior military officials who learnt of the event despatched a military vehicle to escort Mr. Devananda back to the ceremonies. Moments later he was seen in animated conversation with the Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Rohan de S. Daluwatte.
If Mr. Devananda and his colleagues in other moderate Tamil political parties were busy canvassing for votes, there was a different form of canvassing going on among the ministers. Education Minister Richard Pathirana canvassed for his cabinet colleague Minister Samaraweera and party to return to Colombo by the SLAF aircraft. Some senior Army officials chipped in to say it was safe and there was no danger. They joined in.
Hours before departing on an official visit the United Kingdom, on Friday, Mr. Samaraweera presided at a meeting of the Central Monitoring Committee - a body made up representatives of State media concerns. They included Director of Information, Ariya Rubasinghe and representatives of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, Independent Television Network, Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, Lake House and Lakhanda. Director, Media at the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence and Military Spokesman, Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe, has also been co-opted to the Committee.
The talk among those who gathered for the meeting was about how Minister Samaraweera chose to travel all the way by road from Colombo to Trincomalee and thereafter by Naval craft to the Jaffna peninsula. One senior official close to Mr Samaraweera could not contain his feelings about the minister choosing to return by an SLAF aircraft. "He was sure nothing untoward would happen since High Commissioner Tatham was on the flight. The LTTE dare carry out any attack with him on board," he remarked, part jokingly, to prove his Minister's decision was therefore wise.
The two key absentees to the library event - President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Kadirgamar - had pre recorded television messages. The tapes were carried by Minister Pathirana. A huge television projection screen belonging to the SLRC was flown for the public screening. The response of the enthusiastic crowds outside prompted military officials to appeal to Mr. Samaraweera to order that the projection screen be left behind with the Army. He readily agreed and directed that the Rupavahini be informed accordingly.
The trouble free conduct of ceremonies relating to the re-opening of the Jaffna library and the safe return of the Cabinet Ministers to Colombo did not mean security concerns for senior security officials in the peninsula receded.
Barely a day after the event, the officials headed by Jaffna's Security Forces Commander, Major General Lionel Balagalle, were meeting representatives of political parties contesting the local elections. He made an important announcement at Friday's meeting - the security forces and Police were taking charge of security in the outlying islands of the Jaffna peninsula with effect from Saturday (yesterday).
Though the measures took effect with only 11 days to go for polls, parties contesting the local polls still welcomed the move. It was only last week the EPRLF and TELO demanded that cadres of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), who are in control of islands off the Jafffna peninsula be disarmed. They made the request on two different occasions to the Commissioner of Elections, Dayananda Dissanayake. The latter took up the issue with the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Chandrananda de Silva.
Major General Balagalle told Friday's meeting that Navy and Army personnel would move into the islands of Delft and Pungudutivu with effect from yesterday (Saturday). In addition a string of Police Posts were also being established in the island for the conduct of polls. These two islands have remained under the control of armed cadres of the EPDP with no Police or security forces presence.
Maj. Gen. Balagalle has explained that EPDP cadres were being allowed to use weapons issued to them only to protect their own offices. Those found indulging in polls or other activity with the use of arms would be disarmed and handed over to the Police for legal action. This was his second meeting with representatives of political parties. Brigade Commanders have also had their own meetings with candidates to ensure security and the conduct of a smoother poll.
In the islands of Nainativu, Analaitivu and Eluvaitivu, the existing nominal Naval presence has been increased. In addition Police have also been deployed for duties related with the Polls.
The move to confine armed EPDP cadres followed a directive issued by the Ministry of Defence. The MOD said on Wednesday that Defence Secretary (Chandrananda de Silva) has issued service commanders and the IGP instructions.
A Ministry statement on Wednesday said:
"It is the duty of the Police Department, assisted by the Armed Services where necessary, to maintain proper law and order during the period of the Elections to local Authorities in the Jaffna peninsula. It is a well known fact that the LTTE may pose a threat as it had happened at other times, in the maintenance of the required level of law and order during the conduct of Elections. I am confident, however, that adequate measures would have been taken to stall any such attempts.
"Within these constraints, every effort has been made to assure the safety of candidates and other campaigners during this period. Reports have been received that some of the parties/groups contesting the Elections, and who have been issued with firearms for self protection, have threatened each other with the same firearms. It is also rumoured that in so far as the islands are concerned, some of the groups are preventing others from canvassing in that area. It may be prevalent in other areas too.
"These developments are not in the interest of a free and fair election. You are therefore directed to maintain very close surveillance on the developments and prevent any such incidents. Wherever anyone is apprehended, he should be warned to refrain from such activities.
"However, after a first warning if anyone fails to abide by this commitment not to misuse firearms, you should withdraw all arms provided to them, other than those required to guard their office premises. Every such incident must be subjected to a thorough investigation for the purpose of identification of the party/group and the persons engaged in such activities. Any such individuals should be taken to custody and produced before Courts. Please ensure that there would not be any build up in the misuse of firearms leading to the date of the poll. Such a development can deprive the freedom of the parties/groups/candidates, Agents and Electors of the Election. It should be considered the collective responsibility of the Police Department and the Services to ensure that freedom."
In this backdrop, Director of the National Intelligence Bureau, Punya de Silva, was in Jaffna yesterday holding talks with the DIG there, Camillus Abeygunawardena, on arrangements for the polls and matters relating to security. Mr. de Silva also met other senior Police and intelligence officials in the peninsula in addition to talking to Government officials. Even as the security forces prepared to disarm EPDP groups in islands outlying the peninsula, a selected group of troops deployed in "Operation Jaya Sikurui" (Victory Assured) were returning to Jaffna to be deployed on polls duty. Despite this, the receding of rains in the Wanni has helped troops deployed in this operation, now running into its tenth month, to resume a limited advance. Whilst consolidating their defensive positions, troops made smaller advances last week with limited close air support. This was whilst some groups prepared to leave for Kandy to take part in the 50th anniversary independence celebrations.
With these developments, it has become abundantly clear that the security forces will not be able to meet the latest deadline set by Deputy Defence Minister, General Anuruddha Ratwatte, who is personally directing the war machine against the LTTE. General Ratwatte has publicly declared that the north will be linked to the south by February 4 "at any cost." He was so confident of the latest deadline that he asserted "those who scoff at our plans are in for shock..."
For an anxious public who awaited the good news, particularly in the backdrop of General Ratwatte's own assertion that 92 per cent of the ongoing separatist war is over, even if there is no propaganda hype of a February 4 military victory, there are other campaigns in store. Arrangements for an elaborate publicity campaign, both during and after independence day, are now under way. During the independence day celebrations, arrangements are being made to relay events in Kandy through live telecast to all parts of the country, particularly the Jaffna peninsula. Technical arrangements to facilitate such broadcasts are now under way. On February 5, arrangements are under way to beam independence day broadcasts from the peninsula depicting national and cultural events. They will come in the backdrop of the emergence of a local political leadership in the north.
For the security establishment, there was an unexpected distraction from these events on Friday. This followed an incident in the Ruhunu National Park (Yala) where a landmine, believed to be directed at a tractor carrying two officers and six soldiers, exploded. There were no injuries to the men except for a minor injury from pebble that hit a soldier below the ear. The tractor too was not damaged.
The incident occurred within the intermediate zone near coastal area of Patanangala. The Competent Authority for the Park, Brigadier Sriyan Ranatunga, had summoned the two officers for a discussion. They had travelled from Block One or the Strict Natural Reserve and crossed the Menik Ganga.
Brigadier Ranatunga has told senior Army officials that the land mine appeared to be an amateurish job. The explosives buried in open terrain had been connected to a 25 metre long wire which had been used to detonate it. Although the plan appeared to be to explode a land mine and thereafter ambush the troops, a group of persons had been seen running immediately after the explosion occurred. Who was responsible ? Was it the LTTE or an attempt by an amateur group ? Brigadier Ranatunga has said he wished to have an open mind about who could be responsible until a detailed investigation was conducted.
Looking at the events of last year, it is clear that much of the pre occupation of the Government was centred around bringing about some settlement to the vexed ethnic problem. Rightly so, considering the loss and expenditure of human and material resources committed to that issue and its retardation on national growth and development.
Unfortunately due to the acrimonious relationship between the mainstream political parties, almost each and every action is seen and analysed in a narrow, parochial political context, which also be said is not entirely an incorrect diagnosis. National priorities often seem to be on the back burner.
That has been the sad situation, not just manifest today but a malaise which has prevailed over the years of changing political scenes. In that fashion the events of last year have not been out of trend either.
The heavy reliance on "Operation Jaya Sikurui" as a political expedience was to be successful prelude to push through the devolution package to be followed with the February 4 Golden Jubilee bash up.
The selection of Kandy as the venue for the celebration was also according to plan. The elections in Jaffna was expected to exude a euphoria of returning to normal and bolster the Government's image. All this was calculated to blunt the Opposition accusations on corruption, mismanagement etc.
But like most plans made in hope rather than with sense, the main plank of the grand design faltered with the inability of "Operation Jaya Sikurui" to keep to target.
As it is, "Operation Jaya Sikurui" is clearly unlikely to fulfil its aim in keeping with its political expectations. This not only takes some of the shine off the February 4 celebrations, but it is also an embarrassment to the political establishment which boasted this as a deadline for that operation.
But pride and boast apart, the fact that the Wanni operation still remains wide open portends serious security implications in the coming months, particularly in the 50th anniversary of independence.
That the LTTE has been declared a terrorist organisation in the United States and that its front organisations in Canada are under pressure cannot be of comfort to the LTTE. The overseas support to the LTTE has been a major factor to its survival. With that now under threat, it cannot afford to lose face in their struggle in Sri Lanka. That will seriously jeopardise its existence.
Though it's back to the wall, the LTTE has not yet been deprived of its political and military space. Committed to Operation Jaya Sikurui, it is no secret that the armed forces are stretched to their maximum. And the more the Government gets committed into, the greater the options that become open to the LTTE. That is the catch 22 situation.
With a question mark on the outcome of the devolution package and doubts whether the outcome of the Jaffna elections would pave the way for a viable democratic alternative, the hope of any political resolution, or at least a nascent option, remains far off. In any case that all such options have been rejected by LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, leave no other course open but to marginalise the LTTE militarily.
All resources should be marshalled towards that end. Parochial politics and personal aggrandisement have no place in such a strategy.
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