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The Situation Report

17th May 1998

It's time now to take stock

Jaffna's most beloved Brigade Commander killed in LTTE suicide attack

By Iqbal Athas

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As the ongoing "Opera tion Jaya Sikurui" (Victory Assured) entered its second year last Thursday, the defence establishment was jolted by two major incidents.

In the security forces controlled Jaffna peninsula, an LTTE suicide bomber exploded himself killing Brigadier Liyana Aratchige Rupasiri (Larry) Wijeratne, outgoing 524 Brigade Commander. He was the second Brigade Commander to die since the peninsula was re-captured three years ago. Brigadier Ananda Hamangoda was killed when a female suicide bomber exploded herself on July 4, 1996, at Stanley Road, Jaffna.

In Chettikulam, barely a few kilometres away from the Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH) in Vavuniya, the nerve centre for counter terrorist operations, Army and Police personnel going home on leave in a convoy of buses were attacked by Tiger guerrillas. It led to the deaths of 13 soldiers, a policeman and a civilian. Forty two others were injured.

In the case of Brigadier Wijeratne, a colleague and friend had warned him to be cautious when he attended public functions before his departure.

At Chettikulam, Military Intelligence officials said, the area Brigade Headquarters had been warned of Tiger infiltration and possible attacks.

Brigadier Wijeratne flew into Jaffna last Wednesday, in what was to be his last official visit. He was relinquishing command as Brigade Commander (524 Brigade). Colonel Sanath Karunaratne (former Brigade Commander, 22 Brigade, Trincomalee) had also arrived in Jaffna on Wednesday.

On Thursday morning, Brigadier Wijeratne formally handed over command to Colonel Karunaratne. Later in the week, he was to assume office as Deputy Commandant of the Kotelawala Defence Academy. With the formalities over, Brigadier Wijeratne, who like the Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Major General Lionel Balagalle, was most popular with the Jaffna public, left the Brigade Headquarters in Point Pedro that afternoon for a farewell lunch in his honour. It was being hosted by the Vadamaratchi Traders Association at the National Savings Bank building which adjoins the Point Pedro bus station.

With that over, he was returning to the Brigade Headquarters. It was around 3.20 p.m when Brig. Wijeratne's Double Cab was barely 100 metres outside the main entrance, driving over a hump ahead of the first sentry point manned by Policemen. Just then a youth with explosives strapped to his chest emerged from a bylane and darted towards the Double Cab. He was a few feet away, to the rear left side when he exploded himself.

Three pellets penetrated Brig. Wijeratne's head. He was seated in the front together with his driver who escaped injury. However, Lance Bombardier Dharmasena and Gunner Ratnayake who were in the back seat also sustained head injuries. They were rushed to the Jaffna Hospital where Brigadier Wijeratne was pronounced dead.

Rains which broke out early Thursday morning had somewhat receded when the incident occurred. But the bad weather conditions continued.

So much so the pilot of a Sri Lanka Air Force Bell helicopter that was airborne to provide cover for an SLAF AN 32 that was due to take off, landed at Kankesanthurai. It remained there and the AN 32 on the tarmac in Palaly until the weather cleared.

Senior officials at the Security Forces Headquarters in Palaly held the AN 32 on ground until Brigadier Wijeratne's body and the two soldiers were brought by road from Point Pedro to Palaly. They arrived in Colombo in the AN 32 flight later that evening.

As the news of the incident spread, shops put up shutters. There were fears of an Army retaliation. Col. Karunaratne drove around the town speaking to shop owners. He assured them protection and urged that the shops re-open. Some did.

Investigations into the incident revealed that one of the sponsors of the farewell lunch to Brigadier Wijeratne received a letter of warning from the LTTE. It had asked him not to felicitate the Brigadier. It is not immediately clear whether the recipient of the letter informed the relevant authorities of its contents.

On Friday, black and even white flags flew in most buildings in Point Pedro. That included houses. Schools in the area closed early as a mark of respect for Brigadier Wijeratne. A public rally is also being planned in Jaffna to protest against the incident.

LTTE's clandestine radio, The Voice of Tigers, confirmed on Friday that one of its suicide bombers carried out the attack on Brigadier Wijeratne. The radio was monitored by security forces in Vavuniya.

The attack at Chettikulam came after a group of Tiger guerrillas, said to be around 40, had infiltrated the town area. Last Thursday morning, they had taken up position at various places including the grounds of the hospital. Troops later learnt that they had placed a machine gun in the lawn. Ten buses escorted by armoured Buffels were to travel to Anuradhapura.

Hardly had the journey begun when claymore mines began to explode. It was followed by machine gun and small arms fire by guerrillas who had taken cover in the area. Two of them pretended to be pumping water from a tube well. When a Buffel approached, they pulled out a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) and fired damaging the armoured vehicle and killing its driver.

Soldiers travelling in the first three buses were injured in the incident. As the attackers withdrew, 15 were dead and 42 injured. The dead included two officers - Captain Ruwan Dissanayake and Lieutenant Arjuna Kodippily. The Chettikulam area was considered secure by the security authorities particularly after "Operation Edibala" which led to the re-opening of the Vavuniya - Mannar road. The Chettikulam town lies south of this road.

One of the reasons attributed for the easy infiltration by Tiger cadres is said to be the withdrawal of some defence lines manned by the Police. An Army official said the men had been inducted to hold positions in the areas re-captured during "Operation Jaya Sikurui."

The suicide bomb explosion that killed Brig. Wijeratne came as further confirmation that there had been a marked rise in the levels of LTTE infiltration in the peninsula. To their credit, the security forces personnel are not only carrying out the difficult task of securing the area but also carrying out a multitude of tasks relating to civil administration. This is in the back drop of a substantial number of soldiers being inducted from Jaffna to "Operation Jaya Sikurui" thus denying the security forces command in the north the possibility of conducting large scale search and clear operations to counter infiltration.

Quite clearly, the year long "Operation Jaya Sikurui" is having its impact, both directly and indirectly, on the security scenario. As previously mentioned in these columns, troops from the eastern theatre of conflict have been thinned out and deployed in the Wanni. So are Police personnel from many divisions. Whilst this is at the expense of security in the depleted areas, it has also denied to the security forces the possibility of mounting another large scale offensive.

The LTTE marked the anniversary of "Operation Jaya Sikurui" with events both in the Wanni and the east. Its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, issued a lengthy statement on the year long operation. He admitted that 1,300 LTTE cadres had died so far, a figure that matched the security forces death toll in the year long offensive.

Prabhakaran said "Before the launching of "Operation Jaya Sikurui", the Sri Lankan political and military high command miscalculated the military strength and determination of the LTTE. Based on our strategic withdrawal from Jaffna peninsula and on our non-engagement in the "Edibala" operation, Sri Lanka Government entertained a theory that the LTTE was militarily weakened.

This misconception led the Army high command to believe in an assured victory and made them to issue time-frames for the campaign. Ultimately the military establishment has had to face humiliation.

"We were prepared to confront Jaya Sikurui troops. We reorganised and re-structured our military machine to engage in a conventional mode of offensive. Our successful campaign at Mullaitivu strengthened our fire power. On the basis of our newly acquired weaponry we built up artillery and mortar units, anti-tank and anti-aircraft units to form a well integrated military structure capable of confronting a conventional military thrust. On the basis of such practical experience we devised new offensive and defensive strategies and constructed impenetrable defence lines. By such method we prepared ourselves to face the biggest ever offensive undertaken by the enemy.

"In the Jaya Sikurui military operation the Sri Lankan Army has adopted various strategies and tactics. It experimented with new offensive manoeuvres found in contemporary military sciences. Furthermore, it implemented war plans charted by foreign military experts. Yet, the armed forces could not break or weaken LTTE's determined resistance. Rather, such offensive thrusts resulted in serious setbacks and heavy losses to the army."

Pointing out that in every confrontation during this prolonged battle "We gained new experience and learned a lot in the art of war," Prabhakaran said "that has helped to develop our fighting ability." He called it a battle which was "a baptism of fire".

In marked contrast, there was no word on the "Operation Jaya Sikurui" from the man who is running the military machine against the LTTE, General Anuruddha Ratwatte. He chose not to speak about the year long operation.

But the need to raise more cadres and continue the thrust of Operation Jaya Sikurui was very much uppermost in his mind. Speaking to newspaper editors and senior journalists last week, Gen. Ratwatte declared if a recruitment drive failed, conscription would have to be resorted to. But later in the same week, his colleague, Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera, declared at the weekly media briefing that 'the Government is not contemplating the introduction of a compulsory military service at this point of time'.

"There is absolutely no such plan. It was just mentioned by Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte as an alternative if all other efforts failed," Mr. Samaraweera said. Obviously the usually genial Media Minister was concerned that reports of conscription would have an adverse bearing on the PA Government's image, particularly in the backdrop of no decision being made on such a sensitive issue.

Early this week, Gen. Ratwatte was taking part in official events in Mr. Samaraweera's electoral district Matara. In speeches he made, Gen. Ratwatte referred to the current efforts to persuade deserters to surrender and the upcoming recruitment drive. The Sri Lanka Rupavahini English news bulletin on the night of May 12 quoted Gen. Ratwatte as saying "If this was not done, I will be compelled to propose to the Government to conscript youth from the age group of 18 to 30 for the forces." Gen. Ratwatte can propose but whether his Cabinet colleagues would readily endorse what he wants is another billion dollar question. It is a well known fact that in the conduct of the separatist war during the past three years, Gen. Ratwatte's only achievement has been directing the military campaign to re-capture the Jaffna peninsula. Since then many a military action under his control has been shrouded in controversy not to mention the human and material losses.

A recruitment drive has now become inevitable. Out of an estimated 15,000 deserters, Army officials claim that over 5,500 had availed themselves of the last amnesty. However, other defence sources doubted the claim and said the number was much less.

Be that as it may, the short fall has prompted officials at the Army Headquarters to hurry with plans for a nation-wide recruitment drive. As revealed in these columns, such a drive will target school leavers too.

If this drive also meets with little success, as Gen. Anuruddha Ratwatte says, he would be compelled to propose to the Government to conscript youth between the age groups 18 to 30.

The stage is now set for the second year of Operation Jaya Sikurui, the beginning of which is anything but auspicious with the killing of Brigadier Wijeratne and the ambush at Chettikulam. Without appearing to be skeptic, good or bad omens do not portend the outcome of wars. It is sound planning, well thought out strategies and effective application of force that produces results.

In this regard, the pronouncement by Prabhakaran should arouse interest. From what he says, it would appear that the LTTE has made good use of the stalemated situation to consolidate itself organisationally to counter the conventional approach of the Army. With the obvious knowledge that the cutting edge of the armed forces is in their superiority in armour, artillery and air power, the LTTE seem to have focused to neutralise that advantage.

Military observers have often commented that the LTTE should not be given respite to consolidate and that only relentless mobile operations against them will keep them off balance. This, the Army does not seem to have been able to effectively implement.

This is for the singular reason that the Army is too heavily committed on the Jaya Sikurui strategy in addition to the security and quasi administrative management of re-occupied areas.

Whether this is a result of wrong strategic choices or under estimation of resources, both manpower and material, is a matter for evaluation by those charged with the responsibility of conducting the war. This they must for a stalemated situation, as it now exists, favours the LTTE. The paradox is that such a situation fortuitously gives the LTTE greater flexibility in the choice of multiple operations. More security forces and civilian targets come under pressure as a result of that advantage.

This in turn slows operational resilience and compels the security forces into increased positional security measures. That is the Catch 22 situation which the Army has got into and from which it must untangle itself by regaining a capability for a widespread choice of operations in as wide an area as possible.

Undoubtedly manpower is a key factor in revamping operational dynamism. But military observers say that increased resources should be accompanied with multiple strategies to tie down the LTTE in such a manner as to deny them space and ability to manoeuvre.

It is questionable whether the Army's plan to attract deserters by the offer of amnesty will be successful. That it has been tried several times earlier without significant success casts doubts whether it will be effective this time. There is no doubt that re-enlisting deserters is one way of getting trained cadres. It is questionable if deserters can be relied on, or whether others in service have confidence in them.

The whole question of recruitment reflects the dilemma faced by the country in regard to the conduct of the war. Whether conscription is an answer is debatable.

If the shortfall of cadres is only 15,000 as has been declared by the forces, then conscription seems an overkill. On the other hand, if it is to be for large-scale recruitment, other issues come to play.

In the hindsight of two southern insurgencies, a growing gun culture, an ever increasing Mafia, economic uncertainties, and other potentially volatile fault lines in our society, not to mention the North-South divide, the wisdom of conscripted military service is a question that requires a great deal of consideration.

The post war rehabilitation of excess soldiery and hopefully demobilised militants is a frightful thought by itself, and it is something to which the Government should give some thought even though there is no immediate hope in sight of the war ending.

The question of recruiting methods apart, the reasons as to why there appears to be little enthusiasm to join the forces at the time when the nation is at war bears examination.

That many would rather not undergo the rigours of military service or expose themselves to risk life and limb is understandable, however much arguable in the context of patriotic fervour. But there are many other underlying issues which need to be addressed.

Does it manifest a lack of public enthusiasm for the war? Or, does it reflect a lack of faith in the leadership? Or else, is it simply a lack of public motivation? Or, could it be a credibility gap created by the ever-defaulting political promises of victory, mistrust of political motives and increasing public awareness of corruption in high places in regard to military procurements.

It is sine quo non that public support is essential for national wars.

The best and perhaps the most recent example of military reversals for lack of public support was the US involvement in Vietnam.

Further alienating the public mind is the all too common knowledge of corruption by high officials responsible for equipment evaluation and procurement. The flaunting of ill-gotten gains by way of expensive purchases of real estate and the emergence of nouveau riche military mudalalis have not gone unnoticed by an alert public. Nor, have the scandals relating to the purchase of equipment assured the public that the best cost-effective procurements are being made.

The slowness with which the Government has acted even when the media has exposed some of these incidents, and the seeming lack of interest of government agencies like the permanent commission on bribery and corruption or the tax department to investigate these reports, often supported with some factual material, have contributed to widen the credibility gap.

The lack of a national policy in the conduct of the war and the acerbic hostility between the mainstream political parties has not in anyway contributed to generate public unity. Political acrimony is a continuing hindrance to garner public support. This situation has exacerbated the conditions brought about by other factors to create suspicion of the sincerity of the war effort.

The lack of what could be a viable political solution to problem also diminishes public enthusiasm of what seems a never-ending problem.

These contradictions demand that both the government and the opposition take stock of the situation before it deteriorates further. It would do well for the political and defence establishment to remember that a fundamental axiom in insurgent-guerrilla warfare is to exploit contradictions that manifest in the enemy. Time, they believe will create those conditions. This calls for a national effort to end this war. It means a national defence policy, a national support for recruitment and national support to end corruption.

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