N. Manoharan , Former Senior Research Fellow, IPCS
Ongoing confrontations in Sri Lanka- termed as ‘Eelam War IV’ – have become intense especially since July 2007 when the Sri Lankan security forces “liberated” the east from the LTTE. With momentum gained in the east, the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) adopted a multi-pronged strategy to defeat the Tigers and capture the remaining “uncleared” areas in the north. On its part, the LTTE has been employing both defensive and offensive strategies to thwart advances of the government forces into its “motherland.” The government strategy, however, seems to be working better.
The grand strategy of GOSL was proclaimed as “war for peace.” The rationale was that, peace to the island can be brought only by defeating the LTTE militarily. As and when territories controlled by the Tigers were captured, the objective was assumed to have been achieved. To achieve this aim, the security forces firstly captured the east with the able assistance of cadres of the breakaway LTTE faction under Karuna. Karuna’s men knew the terrain well, but also provided timely and useful intelligence to the government forces. To a great extent they also stifled local support to the Tigers that was vital for any militant group to succeed. The major setback for the LTTE, however, was the loss of the east – its main recruiting ground. All these factors contributed to LTTE’s eviction from the eastern parts of the island.
In the northern operations, the government forces launched a four-pronged attack on the LTTE-controlled areas comprising full districts of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi and parts of Mannar and Jaffna. Task Force 1 and 57 Division were entrusted with Mannar front; Task Force 2 and 58 Division took care of advancing from Vavuniya; the newly-raised 59 Division was put in charge of Weli Oya area; 53 and 55 Divisions guarded forward defence lines (FDLs) along Muhamaalai in the northern front. The plan was to gradually encircle Kilinochchi – the LTTE’s administrative capital – from all sides. Simultaneously, the Sri Lankan Army has been deploying its ‘deep penetration units’, operating under Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol, to selectively assassinate Tiger leadership and at the same time gain field intelligence.
Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) and Navy (SLN) have been ably supporting the Army in the advancement. Air strikes are being used to support the ground troops and as well destroy the LTTE defences and installations. Precision aerial bombings to kill LTTE leaders, based on specific intelligence, have also been SLAF’s additional task. LTTE’s Political Wing leader SP Tamilselvan was one of the prized victims. The Navy has been used to mainly cut supply lines of the LTTE and at the same time weaken the ‘Sea Tigers’ as much as possible to trim down their capability to launch amphibious operations. With the recent addition of the Rapid Action Boat Squadron that uses Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats, the SLN is now able to operate even in shallow waters. In addition, the GOSL has been fairly successful in obtaining support of important countries like India and the United States in stifling LTTE’s supplies – monetary and material – from outside.
The issue, however, is that the LTTE is not a conventional force, but a militant group adept in guerilla tactics. This apart, it still commands considerable popular support, if not the support of the entire Tamil community. As long as grievances that caused militant groups like LTTE to prop-up remain unaddressed, Tigers will continue to find legitimacy and support. Unfortunately, the progress in drafting a political package for Tamil minorities has been lethargic. The All Party Representative Committee (APRC), appointed to “fashion creative options that satisfy minimum expectations as well as provide a comprehensive approach to the resolution of the national question” has not moved anywhere near the state objective. Instead of exploring creative options, the APRC, in its interim report, advised the President to implement the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which outlined devolution to provinces after Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of 1987. Even after 20 years, such ideas are back to square one.
However, the government is unwilling to implement even these old ideas. It is appreciable that President Rajapakse conducted elections first, to the local councils in Batticaloa district in March and then to the now de-merged Eastern province in May this year. The post-election governance in the east, however, is not promising. This is an opportunity for the government to demonstrate its earnestness in sharing power with the minorities. The opportunity, however, seems to have been misused, to show the international community that “democracy has been restored in the former fascist areas.” Unless strategy on the political side is strengthened, no sound military strategy can result in a comprehensive victory.