The Sunday Times on the web

The Situation Report

5th April 1998

Rumblings of talks again

By Iqbal Athas

Front Page |
News/Comment |
Business | Plus | Sports |
Mirror Magazine

Front Page
Mirror Magazine

* Under Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs due here
* Troops only a kilometre away from Mankulam

The Sinhala and Hindu New Year season, just a week away, marks a significant milestone in the PA Government's conduct of the separatist war.

It was three years ago, on April 19, what is dubbed as "Eelam War Three" broke out, after talks between the Government and the LTTE failed. This phase of the war has not only turned out to be the bloodiest and costliest but is also studded with events that are unprecedented during the previous phases.

If the most significant gain was the re-capture of the Jaffna peninsula after over a decade of LTTE control, the most significant loss came when the Mullaitivu military base was over run by the Tiger guerrillas. Many other events were to contribute to a heavy casualty toll, heavier expenditure and more importantly, pose newer dimensions to security in areas outside the theatre of conflict.

And yet, there were rumblings last week about the likelihood of talks again between the Government and the LTTE. Leaders of moderate Tamil political parties were surprised when they heard LTTE cadres were spreading the word around in Jaffna. This time, some of them, moving sans their small arms and cyanide capsules, were heard to say there would be talks soon. They were even heard to say the LTTE was not against the other Tamil political parties and would do nothing to harm them.

These leaders speculated whether this was in any way linked to a possible revival of initiatives begun last year by Britain's previous Conservative government. Then Under Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs, Dr. Liam Fox, initiated an accord between the Government and the Opposition under which the two sides agreed to adopt a bi-partisan approach to resolve the Tamil ethnic conflict. Though the accord has remained confined to paper, Dr. Fox's successor, Labour Government's Mr. Derek Fatchett, is due in Colombo later this month . They believe the conflict will be high on the agenda during Mr. Fatchett's talks with Government and Opposition leaders.

A senior Cabinet Minister who was associated in these initiatives asked a high ranking military official what he thought of suggestions about talks with the LTTE. The answer came promptly. "Every time we talked, we have been played out. The only way out is to continue to hit them hard. Offering to talk has always been an LTTE ploy." That seemed to reflect the military thinking though the prospects of any talks in the future is still a matter of speculation.

But a more important aspect of "Eelam War Three" continues to worry the security establishment. That is the ongoing "Operation Jaya Sikurui" (or Victory Assured) which will be eleven months old on April 13. Artillery attacks on the tactical headquarters of the Army's 55 Division on March 15 (Situation Report March 22) has temporarily stalled the advance of security forces to the strategic Mankulam area.

Troops are only a kilometre away from the Mankulam junction. Overall Operations Commander and Chief of Staff of the Army, Major General Srilal Weerasuriya, is not in a hurry to order a full frontal assault. Intelligence reports have spoken of heavily built LTTE fortifications ahead. Hence, he wants to avoid heavy casualties.

Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Rohan de S. Daluwatte, paid two visits to the Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH) in Vavuniya last week to confer with senior military commanders on future moves connected with the ongoing operations. Last Friday, Major General Weerasuriya met Lt. Gen. Daluwatte in Colombo on the same matter. For obvious reasons one cannot elaborate on the measures contemplated or shortcomings that have to be resolved.

As I said last week, with no more political deadlines weighing down their necks, efforts by military commanders to achieve the remaining objective of "Operation Jaya Sikurui" is open ended. There is no doubt that the declared objective of the operation, the opening of a land based Main Supply Route from the south to the Jaffna peninsula, will not be a reality by May, when it will be one year old. The four months thereafter will be a challenging time before the nature's deadline sets in again -the north east monsoon. The onset of heavy monsoonal rains late last year not only impeded the advance of "Operation Jaya Sikurui" but also led to over 700 troops being inflicted with yellow fever.

Quite clearly, the nearly eleven months old "Operation Jayasikurui" has begun to have its repercussions in practically all other spheres of the separatist war. Nowhere else has it been felt more than in the Jaffna peninsula, the only show piece achievement for the Government in the three years of fighting.

Jaffna was re-captured during three separate phases of "Operation Riviresa." The first lasting 48 days began on October 17 and ended on December 4, 1995. It culminated in a gala flag hoisting ceremony in Jaffna on December 5. Troops advancing to capture Valikamam were unduly held up at Neervely due to heavy LTTE resistance. This was overcome after 24 artillery guns (122 mm), which were on order arrived in Colombo and were rushed to the area. Troops literally blasted their way through.

The second phase of "Operation Riviresa" lasting 36 days began on April 19 and ended on May 2, 1996. It led to the re-capture of Thenmaratchi. The third phase which was virtually unopposed and lasting ten days led to the re-capture of the Vadamaratchchi area. It began on May 15 and ended on May 25, 1996.

In all, it took only 94 days for the security forces to re-capture the Jaffna peninsula. The Government has been too slow in seizing the victory to speedily restore civil administration. Hence the task of both providing security as well as restoring normalcy fell on the hands of the security forces. Western diplomats and representatives of international agencies who visited the north have commended their role under difficult conditions.

Despite infiltration and attacks in over two years it had remained under Government control, security forces still remain the main instrument of restoring normalcy. They are still in liaison with State agencies in Colombo to restore or provide facilities required by the civilian populace.

Last Friday, Presidential Secretary, Mr Kusumsiri Balapatabendi, presided over at a conference of the Resettlement and Rehabilitation Authority of the North (RRAN). During an hour long discussion attended by senior military, police officials and representatives of Tamil political parties, it was decided to allow Jaffna fishermen more time to devote to their vocation.

They will now be able to engage in fishing in the Jaffna lagoon from 2 a.m. to 11 a.m. instead of the present hours of 4 a.m. to 11 a.m. That is not all. They will be allowed the use of fibre glass theppams. This was after it was found that wooden boats, built with Albizzia wood and manufactured in Kandy, could not be transported to Jaffna any more. Until recently, most of these boats have been in use.

If the liberation of Jaffna has led to the restoration of normalcy to a very large extent with newer relief measures to the public emerging every week, the continued isolation of the peninsula from the rest of the country has undoubtedly given it the flavour of a separate state under government control. The main reason is the absence of a land based Main Supply Route, the objective the ongoing "Operation Jaya Sikurui" is trying to achieve.

Whilst this is so in the Jaffna peninsula, in what appears to be an over reaction, the Government blockaded the eastern province from the rest of the country last month. Vehicles entering the east from the rest of the country were banned. Those who entered on their own volition were told they could not bring back the vehicles they travelled in. Similarly, vehicles coming from the east had to stop at designated security forces barriers. So were goods leaving the eastern province. They had to be unloaded at the barriers and allowed to remain there for 24 hours until they are later re-loaded to other vehicles that lay outside the eastern province barriers.

The blockade was prompted by the March 5 bomb explosion in Maradana. It was found that the explosive laden bus had arrived in the City from Batticaloa.

Quite apart from everything else, the move would have amounted to another part of the country assuming the flavour of a separate state. Paradoxically so when "Operation Jaya Sikurui" is trying to open a Main Supply Route to the North. Here a Main Supply Route to the east was being blockaded. Fortunately, Government leaders became wise to the move and called it off. At present, there are over 45,000 Jaffna civilians wanting to travel to other parts of the country. They have been security cleared and wait listed but have no means of leaving. Of this number, 20,000 have qualified themselves to fly out of Jaffna and the rest to travel by sea. But the limited air travel facilities for civilians and the absence of a coastal transport system have prevented them from leaving.

Only a handful of civilians are being accommodated in flights operated by two private airlines on a priority basis. That too on strong humanitarian grounds like those requiring urgent medical attention or those wanting to attend a funeral. Others will have to await their turn.

Civilians in Jaffna are required to apply to the Army's Civil Affairs Office for clearance. The applications are processed both by Military Intelligence and the National Intelligence Bureau personnel in Jaffna. Those who are "security cleared" are thereafter wait listed until a flight or a sea passage is available.

A senior military official said over 45,000 civilians have been wait listed over a short period of just five months. He said Lionair operated two flights per day and Monara one. They were able to air lift an average of only 150 passengers per day from Jaffna. Beginning tomorrow, they have been allowed to increase their frequencies by one more flight. This, however, is only until April 25. But the absence of a vessel is preventing the introduction of a passenger service from Jaffna to Trincomalee.

Besides those wanting to leave Jaffna and travel to other parts of the country, there is also a backlog of civilians who have obtained "security clearance" but are unable to obtain seats in flights to Jaffna. Those wanting to travel to Jaffna are required to apply first to their local Police Station. The applications are forwarded through the Ministry of Defence to the National Intelligence Bureau. Once the NIB clears them, their names are forwarded to the Ministry of Defence which in turn circulates a list to the two private airlines. The names and a number allotted to each person cleared are also published in the Tamil media. The process is said to take anything between a month to two months.

Some sections of the defence establishment argue that allowing large numbers from the Jaffna peninsula into the City may pave the way for LTTE infiltration.

But others argue the answer to such a problem is careful background checks, greater vigilance and not restrictions that give rise to the feeling that for citizens of Jaffna, life should remain different from those in the rest of the country. More so after the peninsula has been liberated and the Government is on a programme of restoring normalcy.

That notwithstanding, the fear of LTTE infiltration into the City has led to a wave of security forces-Police operations. They are being directed by the acting Operations Commander, Operations Command, Colombo, Major General Sathis Jayasundera. Major General Asoka Jayawardena who took over OCC on March 5 is indisposed. Over 1,000 Tamil youth have been rounded up in the past week and their background was being checked to ascertain whether they had any LTTE connections.

The over enthusiasm of some officers at the Operations Command, Colombo, last week caused embarrassment to the Ministry of Defence.

They had on their own imposed a ban on persons checking in directly to chummeries and hostels in north Colombo area. Owners of these concerns have been told they should ensure all their customers seeking accommodation would have to produce a certificate from the Grama Sevaka of the area where the chummery or hostel is located.

That certificate should be obtained upon production of two photographs of the customer, one to be affixed to the certificate and the other to be retained by the Grama Sevaka. Those not possessing a certificate would be liable to arrest, the owners were warned.

In other words, someone needing overnight accommodation would have to first go to a studio to obtain photographs and go looking for a Grama Sevaka, a process which in itself would take a day or two. The duties of a Grama Sevaka entails regular field work and they are not always available in their offices.

Needless to say officials in the Ministry of Defence were embarrassed. No such directives had been issued. It was only weeks earlier that an Officer-in-charge of a Police Station had on his own introduced a photo identity card for Tamil residents in his area. It was later withdrawn.

Besides the City, intelligence officials believe the LTTE has plans to trigger off violence in the east. It was only on Thursday that Tiger guerrillas attacked a Police post in Toppur in the Trincomalee district. They seized arms and ammunition. It was only last month intelligence officials learnt of how LTTE area leaders in Trincomalee were summoned for a meeting in the Wanni by Karuna, the Batticaloa leader who is one of those heading the LTTE resistance to "Operation Jaya Sikurui."

Plantation areas have come under increased surveillance after reports of LTTE infiltration. So are areas in the deep south. Army Headquarters has appointed Brigadier H.A.N.T. Perera as the new Competent Authority to oversee security in Yala and adjoining areas. He succeeds Brigadier Sriyan Ranatunga who has been reverted to Army Headquarters.

The opening of the Main Supply Route from Vavuniya to Jaffna has been the main focus of the Government's war plans. So much so, that it could be described as a single prong military strategy. This by itself would not have been vulnerable, as is the inherent danger in any single option plan, if it provided adequate reserves for alternate options, should they become necessary. It would then have permitted flexibility to switch to other options, either in support of the main option or else as a diversionary exercise.

However, the MSR strategy, as "Operation Jaya Sikurui" demonstrated, has committed nearly all the available resources of the security forces to its implementation, leaving the barest reserves to enforce operations in other areas. This very situation confers to the LTTE a greater degree of flexibility in their choice of strategic options.

It is in the way of classical guerrilla doctrine: get the enemy to concentrate and to disperse. That is to disperse not just by way of strength but in a widespread offensive.

This is no doubt the picture of things the country is seeing today. In making that observation, it is not to say that "Operation Jaya Sikurui" is a strategic miscalculation. There is no doubt that opening of a Main Supply Route to the north would become a reality given the fullness of time. There is no gainsaying about the political and military advantages it holds.

But the very quandary is in the time frame of expected success, that as said, is given the fullness of time. In the meantime to permit the LTTE the luxury of a widespread choice of operations, a fortuitous fallout from the single option 'Operation Jaya Sikurui", is counter productive to the overall security situation - and by extension to the establishment of stability to the advancement of a political solution.

The need at the moment is for widespread assurance of security, which could stultify the LTTE and create the required climate for political negotiation.

By solely focusing on the Main Supply Route, such a situation is unlikely considering the military and economic inputs that will be required for the effort, both to achieve its objective as well as to maintain it to exploit its success.

In this context, the targeting of time frames when the battles will be won is naively political and not contributory to the national interest. Nor are the arithmetical calculations of heavy percentages won and what remains to be completed to be very little. If nothing else, time has shown that these are not only miscalculations but monolithic myths..

Taraki's Column

Editorial/Opinion Contents

Presented on the World Wide Web by Infomation Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.

Hosted By LAcNet

Situation Report Archive

Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to

The Sunday Times or to Information Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.