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2006 Blood-spattered year

by Shamindra Ferdinando

Two claymore blasts in the Jaffna peninsula in the first week of December last year set the tone for 2006. The explosions provided a grim warning to the newly elected President Mahinda Rajapakse who overcame tremendous opposition to be elected the Fifth executive President less than a month ago.

The November 17 poll brought Rajapakse to power after a damaging leadership tussle with his predecessor Chandrika Kumartunga who did not believe in gracefully giving up executive power.

The Australian government was the first to squarely blame the LTTE for the Jaffna attacks. The Nordic truce monitoring mission shielded the LTTE.

Blood-spattered year

The Jaffna blasts provided a cue that 2006 was going to be a blood-spattered year. In fact it was one of the bloodiest years in the entire conflict with over 2000 people, mostly combatants perishing. It marked decisive actions but nothing could be more important than President Rajapakse’s hotly disputed decision to wage war against the LTTE after the assassination attempt on Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka on April 25th, the October 16 declaration by the Supreme Court that the merger of the Eastern Province with the Northern Province under the July 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord was null and void and the SLFP-UNP co-operation pact which would be in force for two years. The historic agreement finalized on October 23 at the expense of the JVP which repeatedly rejected President Rajapakse’s invitation to join his administration diminished the chance of an early parliamentary election.

The JVP quit the Kumaratunga’s administration on June 16 last year to protest her decision to go ahead with a joint government-LTTE mechanism to handle tsunami reconstruction and rehabilitation work.

Tigers step up attacks

Although the LTTE declared its intention to undermine Rajapakse after helping him to defeat UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe at the presidential poll the government did not accept the reality. The LTTE mounted a series of claymore mine attacks on security forces, ambushed two fibre glass dinghies off the Mannar coast while generally stepping up pressure on the forces. If Rajapakse believed in bringing the LTTE back to the negotiating table which it quit in April 2003 during Ranil Wickremesinghe’s tenure as the Prime Minister, with the help of Norwegians even after the claymore attacks, Rajapakse had to eat humble pie. The LTTE fast tracked its military campaign in the first week of January. Sea Tigers blew up an Israeli-built Shaldag class Fast Attack Craft (FAC) at Foul Point on the East coast. It was the beginning of a new phase of their campaign to weaken the military before the launch of a massive onslaught to defeat the army in Jaffna in time for LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday celebrations. Despite the absence of Karuna and his followers the LTTE went ahead with its plan and I must say the group almost succeeded in bringing Rajapakse to his knees. But a series of successful security forces operations, barring the October 11 debacle at Muhamalai and the massacre of over 100 SLN personnel at Diganpathana, inflicted sizeable losses on the LTTE.

LTTE loses ground

The year comes to an end with the LTTE in a military weakened state, dwindling overseas support and the army poised to evict the LTTE from Vakarai one of its strongholds in the East. The Vanni units deployed in the East are fighting a losing battle in the East. Their problems had been compounded by the growing strength of the breakaway Karuna faction. Although the Vanni-based LTTE leadership believed in swiftly defeating the breakaway group it failed as the Karuna group tremendously bolstered its fighting capability this year. It had begun mounting major incursions into LTTE held-areas. Karuna’s operations had a devastating impact on the Vanni faction which is finding it extremely difficult to receive assistance from Vanni. The Vanni units deployed in the East are believed to be facing a severe shortage of both men and material as the government and Karuna have gradually increased pressure on the common enemy. The loss of several senior commanders in action, particularly due to clandestine operations had demoralized the Vanni faction.

LTTE underestimates MR

Did the LTTE underestimate Rajapakse? Did it purposely engineer Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat at the presidential election believing Rajapakse would be an easy target? Did the LTTE and their overseas supporters misjudge the real state of preparedness of security forces and most importantly the US stand on the newly elected administration? The LTTE rightly judged that the Rajapakse administration did not have a comprehensive plan to meet their military threat or a blue print for peace.

Even after the assassination bid on the Army Chief the government did not have a contingency plan.

The acquisition of arms, ammunition and equipment during the ceasefire agreement, fresh moves to bring in a consignment of high-tech arms including Russian-built SA-18 surface to air missiles to wipe out the Sri Lanka Air Force and the inability of the political-military leadership to reach agreement on a strategy boosted their chances. Although the government was directionless the LTTE remained committed to its well proven two-pronged strategy: inflicting devastating losses on the military and assassination of political and military leaders.

Govt. under pressure

The assassination of TULF veteran Joseph Pararajasingham in Batticaloa on the Christmas Eve (2005) disturbed the international community. The soft spoken politician’s wife survived the attack mounted in a church situated in the government-held area. International condemnation increased pressure on the government. The TNA squarely blamed the government for the assassination. The Batticaloa killing, the assassination of Jaffna District TNA MP Nadarajah Raviraj in Colombo, the massacre of 17 humanitarian relief workers in Muttur, the slaughter of 10 Muslims at Pottuvil and an artillery barrage that killed several dozens of Tamil civilians in the East brought immense international pressure on the government. The result was the establishment of a powerful international panel dubbed the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons in Sri Lanka to watch over the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses.

Despite growing international pressure Sri Lanka asserted her right to meet the LTTE’s military challenge. The government reserved the right to adopt military measures to neutralise the threat. Although the government initially lacked a cohesive plan, once the LTTE forced Rajapakse’s hand by targeting the Army Chief in Colombo, the forces took the challenge. Although their victories did not come cheap the LTTE suffered sizeable losses. Their losses, although not serious enough to write them off, had blunted their offensive capability. Last month the LTTE acknowledged the loss of 818 cadres in action in the first 11 months of the year. Although the LTTE never revealed the number of the wounded it would be over 1000 closer to the 1500 mark.

LTTE hits Colombo

The government ordered air and artillery strikes on the LTTE immediately after a woman suicide bomber targeted the Army Chief. They were the first air and artillery strikes since the signing of the Oslo-brokered Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in February 2002. The government did not anticipate the LTTE’s readiness to face air and artillery strikes. The LTTE proudly boasted that it knew of the impending attacks and took evasive action. The government did not take their claim seriously. But the subsequent revelation that the LTTE had infiltrated the army shed new light on the LTTE claim that it was aware of the government decision to mount air strikes.

Forces thwart LTTE

The LTTE went ahead with its diabolical plan. It triggered a major confrontation over Mavilaaru, mounted a multi-pronged attack on Muttur area, targeted two troop ships carrying over hundreds of off duty personnel, forced the Nordic truce monitoring mission to cease naval monitoring, ordered monitors representing EU countries to quit the mission after the EU declared the LTTE as a proscribed organisation and attacked Trincomalee navy base. It also targeted the Colombo harbour. But they failed to achieve their objectives in any of the operations carried out after the abortive bid on the Army Chief. The Kebitigollewa massacre forced the government to review its strategy. The June 16 massacre unsettled the President. It triggered chaos, strengthened the JVP’s call for military action and most importantly the de-merger of the Eastern Province from the Northern Province. But the LTTE remained confident of taking its campaign to a successful end. The LTTE struck on August 11 on a wide front from Kilali to Nagarkovil on the Vadamarachchy East coast. The attack coincided with a major propaganda campaign. Pro-LTTE Tamilnet and their cohorts fuelled speculation of the existence of LTTE air wing. They reported the LTTE ‘air force’ firing rockets at the strategic Palaly airbase on the first day of the offensive. After a two-week battle the army gained the upper hand and by the first week of September troops seized the first line of LTTE defences at Muhamalai. The army’s victory at Muhamalai coincided with the capture of Sampur after a week-long offensive.

Water war

The Mavilaaru battle dubbed the water war gave the much needed confidence to the army. The LTTE blocked the anicut on July 23 forcing the President to order the army to neutralise the LTTE threat. The Jaffna offensive got underway less than 48 hours after the LTTE gave up resistance. The LTTE succeeded in breaking through army fortifications in the Muhamalai area during the initial stages but troops rallied round to regain the lost ground. The army would have been in a much better position if it did not launch a second offensive in the Muhamalai area. The army suffered a humiliating defeat.

The military launched an offensive to bring Vakarai under government control in the backdrop of the Muhamalai debacle. The LTTE targeted Defence Secretary Colonel (retd) Gotabhaya Rajapakse in Colombo. The assassination would have offset the LTTE battlefield losses and given it the edge over the President who recently set an example by sending his second son Yoshitha to the navy. The LTTE targeted the Defence Secretary as the army was making headway in the Vakarai region. The contribution made by the breakaway Karuna faction in the Batticaloa theatre is significant as proved by the recent commando-style raid on an LTTE gun position in the Kathiraweli area.

‘Ammo shortage’

The navy’s success this year contributed to the overall improvement in the ground situation. A series of detections in the Gulf of Mannar, off Jaffna and Kalmunai resulted in the destruction of vessels bringing in fresh armaments to the LTTE. Naval operations and on and off inquiries initiated by Indian authorities had revealed the existence of an arms smuggling ring in India. The government had taken this up with India. Rajapakse’s government is seeking a convincing battlefield victory in the East. The absence of regular supply of ammunition to the LTTE is facilitating the army’s progress. This would not have been a reality without the navy’s success at sea.

Ranil survives, CBK & Anura in hot water

On the political front too the ruling coalition is making progress with UNP MPs fighting over their proposed party reforms. The faction led by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe appears to be gaining the upper hand as the Reformists’ campaign goes off track. Contrary to expectations, Wickremesinghe has survived the attempt to clip his wings. Although the Reformists campaign gathered momentum after the rejection of the party nomination list for the Colombo Municipal Council and reached its peak by September-October, Wickremesinghe neutralised the threat by finalising the SLFP-UNP cooperation agreement late October. The Reformists had entered with egg on their faces. The same could be said about Chandrika Kumaratunga. She is facing the bleak prospect of losing even her home base Attanagalle. A furious Rajapakse responded to Kumaratunga’s recent criticism of his policies at a Horogolla meeting by pruning her powers over the Attanagalle electorate. Tourism Minister Anura Bandaranaike seems to be in hot water over his alliance with Kumaratunga. In the absence of tangible opposition by Wickremesinghe, Kumaratunga and Anura seem to be on Rajapakse’s gun sight. Rajapakse is likely to zero in on them unless they stop being a nuisance.

Corruption

The recent controversy over Sri Lanka voting against Iran over her hotly disputed nuclear programme and avoiding an anti-Israel vote at the UN reveal the government’s uncertainty on crucial foreign policy decisions. A wider role for the British in the Oslo-led peace process is perhaps one of the major policy changes. Whether it would bring any result is anybody’s guess.

But with the President seeking to militarily subdue the LTTE the focus is on the military front. Despite problems, the military is making progress and I believe everything would depend on the navy’s ability to police Sri Lankan waters thereby preventing fresh arms shipments to the enemy. But the other primary problem which is equally challenging as meeting the LTTE’s military threat is the growing menace of CORRUPTION. Unfortunately the government is yet to make headway on that front. -The Island

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December 28, 2006 - Posted by | News and politics, South Asia

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