The recent battlefield success of the Sri Lankan Security Forces has dramatically changed the ground realities and dynamics of the Sri Lankan conflict. The Tamil Tigers have been dislodged from areas they dominated militarily for many years in the North and East of the island.
According to latest reports the Security Forces are less than 2km south of Kilinochchi, which is considered by the Tamil Tigers as the de-facto capital. The fall of Kilinochchi will have symbolic value to the Sri Lankan government. However, in terms of strategic value the Paranthan junction 5km north of Kilinochchi will be the jewel in the crown.
The fall of Paranthan junction will cut supply routes to Tamil Tiger defence localities in Poonaryn, Elephant Pass and Muhamalai.
The success story of the Sri Lankan Security Forces has been built upon the combination of six critical events coming together at the right time over the last twelve to eighteen months.
a) For the first time in the history of the Sri Lankan conflict, the Sri Lanka Navy embarked on deep sea missions pursuing Tamil Tiger merchant vessels in international waters. The success of the Navy in completely destroying nine merchant vessels of the Tigers between March to October 2007, is in my opinion the single most significant factor that changed the tables on the Tigers. The supply chain capability of the Tamil Tigers was completely destroyed crippling the induction of weapons and supplies. Many have argued that the tide changed for the Tigers with defection of the Eastern Commander Karuna Amman. While this paved the way for improved intelligence on Tamil Tiger procurement and logistics operations, the destruction of the nine merchant vessels by the Navy is by far the crucial game changer.
b) The defection of Karuna Amman as the Eastern Commander and disbanding of young combatants in the east set the stage for the complete eviction of the Tigers from the Eastern Province. The expulsion of the Tigers from the East has prevented the Tigers from opening up a new theatre to thin out the Sri Lankan Security Forces engaged in the North. The inability of the Tamil Tigers to open up several fronts has greatly assisted the Security Forces to concentrate on the Northern battle ground.
c) In the recent fighting the Sri Lankan Security Forces favoured a strategy of capturing coastline on the North Western and Eastern coast. This strategy of progressing along the coast had a twofold impact on the Tigers, firstly it constrained the supply channels especially regular inflows from India, and secondly the Sea Tigers became redundant due to the lack of operating space. Furthermore the Tigers had always expected the Security Forces to advance along the A9 highway (MSR) and much of the Tiger defences were constructed at Omanthai and surrounding areas along the A9 highway. The Tigers had not anticipated a coastline assault.
d) In May 2008, the Tamil Tigers suffered a significant blow to the command structure. The Overall Commander of ground operations Balraj died due to illness. Balraj was the senior most military commander within the Tigers with overall command over all infantry units. His demise created a major vacuum in terms of military planning for the Tigers.
e) Over the last twelve months the international network of the Tamil Tigers has been significantly disrupted in five key fundraising countries. In the United States, FBI operations busted two procurement cells and also arrested the head of Tamil Tiger fundraising in New York. The US Treasury also clamped down on fundraising activities of the TRO. In France the arrest of 17 Tamil Tiger operatives completely unraveled the fundraising and fund transfer operations in France. The arrest of head of Tamil Tigers activities in the UK and two others has curbed overt fundraising activity. The death of a key activist and three arrests in Melbourne and Sydney has disrupted the Australian operation. The banning of the Tamil Tigers and the WTM in Canada has disrupted fundraising operations in Toronto. The authorities in Switzerland and Denmark are also pursuing investigations on Tamil Tiger activities at present.
In addition to the setbacks to fundraising activities, the Tamil Tiger propaganda machine also faced major problems in Europe. The Tiger satellite TV channels were shut down in France and uplink facilities for satellite broadcast were terminated in Italy, Serbia and Israel. The Tamil Tiger satellite TV channels are facing stringent scrutiny of content by Telecom regulators in Europe.
f) with regard to the international community, there is a sense of “LTTE fatigue” globally. The argument is that the Tamil Tigers had a run for two decades without achieving much for the Tamil people. Leader of the Tamil Tigers Velupillai Prabakaran will remain intransigent to any alternative other than a separate State, therefore the current situation may open up opportunities for moderate Tamil opinion to be heard and have a place at the table.
Furthermore, the international community has also been otherwise engaged over the past twelve months with a devastating cyclone in Burma, earthquake in China, elections in Zimbabwe, elections in Pakistan, Georgian conflict, an assertive Russia, nuclear aspirant Iran, Iraq/Afghanistan, US presidential elections and the financial meltdown in US/Europe for little Sri Lanka to get much attention.
The combination of these six factors coming together at the same time has had a devastating blow to the Tamil Tigers. This together with the re-energized Sri Lankan Security Forces have steadily advanced into Tiger dominated areas. The new offensive divisions and special forces created by the SL Army have demonstrated superior ground tactics in the current fighting. The fall of Naddankandal and Illuppaikkadavai is testimony to innovative ground tactics adopted by the Security Forces that baffled Tiger defences.
It is unlikely that the Tigers will be able to mount any major reversal to the offensive operations of the Security Forces. At present the Tigers have hedged all bets on Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi in India to save them from the Security Forces onslaught.
Recently politicians of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) a proxy of the Tigers agreed to the annexation of Kachchetivu island by India, which is comical given the Tigers are fighting to establish a separate State of their own. The Tigers are counting on Karunanidhi to flex political muscle with the central government in India for Indian intervention to save them from collapse.
If the Sri Lankan Security Forces are able to reach Paranthan junction within the next 3-4 weeks, the senior leadership of the Tigers will need to re-assess their own future and that of the young combatants.
The Security Forces presence in Paranthan junction will also increase the vulnerability of Prabakaran. It is suspected that the primary hideout from which Prabakaran operates is approximately 10 km east of Paranthan, interior from the Paranthan – Mullaitivu Road. In the past DPU teams have not been able to access these areas north-east of Kilinochchi and also had limited human intelligence from such high security zones. With the displacement of combatants and civilians into these areas there will be better human intelligence on such localities and provide cover for DPU teams to operate.
The Tamil Tiger military hierarchy consists of five senior commanders namely Pottu Amman (intelligence), Soosai (Sea Tigers), Bhanu (Overall Ground Ops), Jeyam (Western theatre) and Theepan (Northern theatre). In addition, the Political unit, Finance unit, KP department and the International Secretariat provide supporting roles.
In a “Post-Paranthan Scenario” (PPS) the options for the Tigers are limited, they can continue fighting with the loss of lives, or transition to a political entity. Both Prabakaran and Pottu Amman are political liabilities given the indictments by the Indian courts for the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Sea Tiger head Soosai cannot gain the confidence of infantry combatants. Theepan lacks a charismatic personality and not popular within the group. Jeyam is originally from the reconnaissance units and not from infantry. He is also the junior most member of the inner circle. Some have suggested that Charles Anthony the eldest son of Prabakran is being groomed to take over the leadership, unfortunately age and maturity are not in his favour.
The only plausible option to save the lives of young combatants is for Bhanu the overall military commander of ground units to defect and disband all units under his command. This will provide an opportunity for options other than Prabakaran’s separate State to have a real chance at a political process.
Bhanu is well regarded within the organization as the artillery expert who inflicted the highest number of casualties among the Security Forces over the years. At present he is placed in the right position and commands the confidence of the rank and file to take a decisive decision and prevent further bloodshed to his people and have a real chance at peace.
The Tamil diaspora has been informed in advance of the heroes day theme this year, the theme is expected to be “our land may be taken but our aspiration cannot be defeated”. The international secretariat of the Tigers has sent out instructions to country representatives to organize the largest ever gathering of Tamil people in each country on 27 November to astound Western media and politicians. The theme indicates the Tigers have shifted from a real territorial model as seen in past heroes day speeches which used terms such as defend, attack and de-facto administration to accepting a virtual reality model.