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 Spotlight

  East - from military to a political battle ground


Playing Russian Roulette with the troops


Mahinda Rajapakse, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka
and Gotabaya Rajapakse

By Ranjith Jayasundera

Soaring sky high, on par with the prices of bread, electricity and fuel is the Defence Ministry's tally of the number of LTTE cadres killed in its 'defensive' operations on the northern front lines.

If anything can testify to the haste and lack of planning with which the Rajapakse defence apparatus manages this bloody war, it is the haste and lack of planning of their public statements relating to the war.

To submit that Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka is arithmetically challenged under the circumstances would be the most gross understatement. Since the start of the government's campaign to 'liberate' the east for the TMVP at the beginning of last year, General Fonseka has seemed confounded in efforts to estimate the fighting strength of the LTTE.

In an interview with The Hindustan Times in May 2007, he suggested that the LTTE had less than 4,000 cadres alive in its northern bastion. He didn't stop there. "But they are not its best cadres," he continued, before concluding that "if they lose 2,000 cadres they are finished."

Seven months and over 2,500 dead Tigers later (figures from government reports) he told the Sunday Observer in an interview published on December 30, that the LTTE had 3,000 cadres remaining and that they would be wiped out within six months, or by June 2008.

  Mathematics

If the Army Commander's May 2007 assertion of 4,000 Tigers is to be believed, after wiping out over 2,500 (2,562 to be precise) LTTE cadres by December 2007, there should have been scarcely 1,500 Tigers remaining.

Coupled with his gem last May that "if they lose 2,000 cadres they are finished," one must ask what held back the champagne corks at Army Headquarters in December? Put another way, how were there suddenly 3,000 LTTE cadres remaining for the picking?

Analysts had barely a day to absorb the incredulity of Fonseka's bizarre statements before he was quoted the next day from Lake House again, this time by the Daily News of December 31, where he said the war would enter a 'decisive phase' by August 2008.

Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka's December estimate for ending the war within a matter of months was not completely ungrounded. His hypothesis for ending the war to the Sunday Observer was explained by his "daily target" of killing "at least 10 LTTE terrorists."

By Defence Ministry figures - and the General's own admission - the army managed to maintain double this rate, killing on average 20 Tigers per day for the first few weeks of the new year. On January 11, at a new year's party for foreign media a buoyant Commander boasted about this kill performance. Bright as a button, General Fonseka vowed that he "will not leave this war to the succeeding army commander."

'Decisive phase'

Lt. Gen. Fonseka is due to retire from the military in December 2008, having served the last of four one year extensions he is entitled to. So his vow to end the war by December could be generously perceived as keeping in line with the plan to enter a 'decisive phase' by August. Word of Fonseka's confidence spread far and wide across the country, from Cinnamon Gardens all the way to Muwanpellesa, that the army was on the verge of wiping out the Tigers.

At The Sunday Leader, being the wet blanket that we are to the government's propaganda bonanza, we instituted a weekly graph of 'Fonnie's Law,' showing how close the government was getting to wiping out the remaining 3,000 Tigers.

Next came Independence Day, with huge billboards springing up all over the country showing us denizens that the Rajapakse government would purge Sri Lanka of terrorists in 2008. The end was nigh, we were told.

Not too many days after Independence Day, General Fonseka made a statement to the Sinhala weekly, Irida Lakbima published on February 10 that made us wonder whether he was suffering from Alzheimers and signalled the beginning of a flurry of official backtracking on the war timetables.

General Fonseka started on an ominous note when broaching the topic to Lakbima. "They are an organised force with a lot of experience. They have thousands of fighters," he began. It was apparent the Army Commander respected his enemy, as Sun Tsu prescribed in The Art of War. But here's where things got a little funny. "I don't conduct the war looking at deadlines and timeframes," insisted the General.

Eh?

"This time when we take Kilinochchi, we will not leave it after a while. But we must realise that the offensive is going to take time," he warned. He also revised his estimate of LTTE strength to 5,000 cadres. This u-turn if nothing else should have raised enough eyebrows. Something's wrong with this picture.

In May 2007 there are 4,000 Tigers left, and they will be "finished" once 2000 of them are taken out.

Figures gone wrong

By December 2007, after claims of over 2,500 killed, we were told that there are 3,000 remaining, and for some reason the LTTE were not "finished" yet. But this was to follow in six months, as 10 Tigers would be killed everyday and by June the whole island was to be 'liberated.'

The government was in line with Fonseka's predictions and things seemed to be going fine as of Independence Day - it was the central government, not General Fonseka, that sprang up those billboards at public expense - and somehow six days later, the Army Commander takes back all of his own "deadlines and timeframes" and insists that the campaign was "going to take time."

By February 10, 2008, the public is asked to swallow the fact that there are now 5,000 Tigers remaining. The numbers are spectacular. There were 3,000 in December. By February nearly 1,000 are supposed to have been killed according to the Defence Ministry website. After killing 1,000 out of 3,000 we thought there should be 2,000 left. But according to the Army Commander, there are 5,000 "LTTE terrorists" out there suddenly.

Is there some special terrorist breeding programme that we are not aware of? Is Pirapaharan cloning his cadres? Or is the government just picking numbers out of a hat to distract people from the skyrocketing cost of living?

Admittance

It was only several weeks later that the government admitted in parliament that over a hundred soldiers had been killed in intense fighting during February alone - intense fighting that somehow slipped the mind of the kept press as they splashed daily reports of cakewalk advances and cattle slaughters of LTTE cadres.

Defence Minister, President Mahinda Rajapakse was the next to give us a new deadline, the most recent. He said on his disastrous interview on India's NDTV that the war would take another 18 months to complete. "We would have cleared them out of the remaining areas long ago but we also had to ensure no civilians were killed. I would say, in a year and a half, we might be able to do it."

It's funny that the President mentions civilians in his fumbling explanation. If we were to hold the government to its December claim of 3,000 Tigers remaining, by the Defence Ministry's 'Kill-O-Meter' figures, we should have polished off these Tigers by the end of the upcoming New Year season, at the current rate of "terrorist killing."

Lying

Not to say 'we told you so,' but we did. The government has been lying about the war, for no other reason than to use chauvinism and extremism as fuel for its engine of nepotistic and seemingly limitless power. The only question is what they are lying about. Is the number of LTTE cadres remaining a lie, and are there several thousand more that we don't know about?

Or are the numbers that are being killed off daily false? Is the government killing civilians and passing them off as LTTE cadres? Just last month, Air Force Spokesman, Commander Andrew Wijesooriya told us that the air force does not even bother keeping a count of the number of civilians killed in airstrikes, although he did mention that "all possible precautions" are taken to prevent civilian casualties. We wonder how the air force manages to take "all possible precautions" without knowing how well they have been doing in the past.

Insult

That the government claims that "only 3,000" or 5,000 LTTE cadres are remaining in a tiny portion of the Wanni jungles is the biggest insult imaginable to the security forces. Even the ill-fated Jayasikuru operation for all its failings led to the killing of between 3000 and 3,600 Tigers as the LTTE and military estimates, respectively. And there are many differences between the LTTE of the late 1990s and the organisation today.

For one the government claims to have destroyed the entire fleet of the Tigers' floating armouries or arms smuggling ships, making it difficult for them to resupply. The east is 'completely' out of LTTE hands. The air force has advanced with the purchase of newer bombers and bombs. The LTTE has been banned in countries across the world and its funding and arms procurement networks have been stung by high profile arrests and convictions from the USA to East Asia.

It is difficult to believe given all these restrictions (and the fact that the government has supposedly been able to kill over 5,000 LTTE cadres in less than the last one year) that the war will take another one and half years to complete if there are only 3,000 or 5,000 LTTE cadres remaining.

Why invest?

Even if this were to be so, and the LTTE was on the verge of defeat, why is the government investing in four brand new MiG-29 interceptor jets from Russia, as reported by Janes Defence Weekly? These aircraft, valued at over Rs. 2 billion each, with options, are used by air forces worldwide to intercept other jet planes. Why would we need such sophisticated air interception capabilities if the war is on the verge of completion?

It is clear that as the cost of living increases and public unrest skyrockets with it, the government will continue to exert pressure on the military to seize more territory and  kill more Tigers, damn the cost of our soldiers' blood.

Having effectively torpedoed the APRC and abandoned the 17th Amendment and its checks and balances on executive power, it is clear that the government is dragging the country down to the depths that Robert Mugabe managed to keep Zimbabwe buried in for the last several years.

And as much as the public will suffer the unbearable price of survival, we will have to learn to be thankful for the chance we are granted to wake up each morning. Few of us felt the pain of the three families who lost a father, son or husband, in each day of February, to the folly of the government's war and keeping the Rajapakses in power.

Our thoughts go out to those serving in the military on the frontlines and their families, for it is with their lives that the Rajapakse brothers are enjoying their game of political Russian Roulette, with virtually all the bullet chambers loaded.

The many deadlines

Date                                    

May 28, 2007

Jan. 11, 2008

Dec. 30, 2007

Feb. 10, 2008

Feb. 19, 2008

Feb. 22, 2008     

Official

 Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka

Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka

Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka 

Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka

Mahinda Rajapakse

Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara

Quote

 "The LTTE has 4,000 cadres in the north. They are not its best cadres. If they lose 2,000 cadres, they are finished."

"LTTE has 3,000 cadres remaining. Military plans to kill them within six months. Our daily target is to kill at least 10 LTTE terrorists."

"My term of office is coming to an end this year and I will not leave this war to the succeeding   army commander."

"They are an organised force with a lot of experience. They have thousands of fighters. I don't  conduct the war looking at deadlines and  timeframes. The LTTE has around 5,000 fighters. This time when we take Kilinochchi,  we will not leave it after a while. But we must realise that the offensive is going to take time."

"We would have cleared them out of the remaining areas long ago but we also had to ensure no civilians were killed. I would say, in a year and a half, we might be able to do it."

"But we have never said that we will finish them off. We have never set deadlines. We are fighting a terrorist organisation, not a conventional war. The more we weaken them, then the more they will come into negotiations. It is not possible to wipe them out."

  


East - from military to a political battle ground


Where it all began. A police officer stands guard near the dried out Kallar anicut in late July after the closure of Mawilaru -- Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe and (inset) Civilians flee the fighting over Mawilaru and Muttur, August 2006 -- Photo by Amantha Perera

By Amantha Perera

It was June 20, 2001. Rauf Hakeem had just walked across the aisle in parliament into opposition ranks and dealt a death blow to the second Chandrika Kumaratunga administration.

He sat among journalists in one of the parliament dining rooms and mused aloud of the crossover of the seven SLMC parliamentarians. "My neck is on the line," he said.

His neck is once again on the line - last week he upped the stakes in next month's Eastern Provincial Council election by resigning from his parliament seat, along with two of his close associates, to run in the polls.

It is only apt that the Mahinda Rajapakse administration faces it first stiff political test in the east. The east, from Kumana in the south to Kokillai in the north, is where it fought its first major military battles with the Tigers, and won.

Eventual fall

Five years, one month and two days after Hakeem sat in the opposition triggering  the eventual fall of the Kumaratunga Government, on the afternoon of July 22, 2006, the water ran dry under the Kallar anicut in Somapura, north of the now famous Mawilaru sluice gates.

The Tigers said that civilians angry at unofficial restrictions placed by the government forces closed the gates. Whoever closed the gates, the incident was the first fall in the domino action that would end with the Tigers losing all their real estate holdings in the east.

Just a week shy of the anniversary of the  Mawilaru closure, on July 15 last year, government forces gained Toppigala in the Batticaloa District, a symbolic event that signalled the culmination of what began with Mawilaru.

By July 27,  2006 water flowed once again under Kallar, but by then the  government had already ordered troops to march towards the sluice gates.

As battles raged near the dirt track that was the access road to Mawilaru from the Somapura Road, the Tigers attacked government held western parts of Muttur town, about 20 km north of Somapura.

Fighting spreads

The Tigers held western and southern parts of Muttur while the government maintained its hold on the  north-eastern parts where the important jetty was located. Fighting spread like wild fire in the northern edges of the province in the first 10 days of August 2006.

On August 11, the Tigers upped the ante yet again, when they shelled the Palaly base using long range artillery and also launched an assault on the government defence line at Muhamalai. They even said that Tiger aircraft had flown over Palaly during the fighting.

The August 11 fighting closed the A9 and it has remained closed since. The Tigers also launched artillery attacks on the Trincomalee Naval Base, targeting a naval troop carrier convoy that was in the bay area.

But the tide quickly turned in favour of the government forces. The government gained lost ground and even moved a half kilometre into Tiger held areas in Muhamalai two weeks after the August 11, 2006 debacle.

By September 1, 2006, troops had broken out of their encampments in Kattaparichchan, west of Sampur after the camp had been besieged. Three days later on September 4, 2006, the security forces reported that troops had entered the Tiger stronghold of Sampur, and the Tigers said they had made a tactical withdrawal from the town. Sampur was the main Tiger political/military enclave in areas south of the Trincomalee bay and Tiger big guns had been positioned there.

On the march

By December 2006, troops had began moving up the A 15 that links Muttur and Valachchenai from the southern tip of the highway in the Batticaloa District.

January 21, 2007, government announced that the key coastal town of Vaharai had fallen into government hands.

On February 28, the Tigers committed yet another inexplicable act. They started shelling the Weber Stadium on the western edges of Batticaloa town as helicopters carrying several key Western ambassadors and Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe landed on the grounds.

A week later troops had launched into the only areas held by the Tigers in the Batticaloa District, around Toppigala, Karadiyanaru and Vavunathivu.

By July 15 last year it was all over and Toppigala had fallen. While the northern parts of the province were being cleared of the Tigers, the STF had succeeded in a similar effort in the Kanchikudichiaru areas in the Ampara District.

Hundreds die

The fighting did not go as a chess game as some media reports would indicate. Hundreds of combatants and civilians died, and hundreds of thousands fled for their lives. Between last year and this March the government had resettled over 104,000 in the Batticaloa District alone.

Seven months after Toppigala was gained, the Batticaloa local government elections were held, and the TMVP led Pillayan crowned in glory.

Now the entire province is heading into a provincial council poll. As the local government campaigning reached fever pitch last month, Hakeem felt the direction of the political winds in the east - that the LC polls was a launching pad for larger struggles.

Now that the sixth sense of the seasoned politician has come true, he has no option but to do battle himself.

Ampara Muslims want TMVP out

By Mandana Ismail Abeyawickrema

The Muslim factor in the east cannot be undermined in the forthcoming Eastern Provincial Council elections due to the large number of Muslims in the province.

The biggest Muslim bloc in the province is in Digamadulla (Ampara) District, which is to also elect the highest number of provincial councilors to the Eastern Provincial Council. A total number of 35 provincial councilors are to be elected at the elections (Digamadulla District 14, Batticaloa District 11 and Trincomalee District 10).

Over 50% of the 409,360 voters in the Digamadulla District are Muslims with Kalmunai, Samanthurai, Ampara and Pottuvil being the areas with the highest Muslim concentration.

However, the way in which the Muslim vote would sway depends mainly on one issue - the Pillayan factor and the support given to it by the government.

According to Muslims in the Digamadulla District, the results of the Eastern Provincial Council election would also play a key role in the future survival of Muslims and also the Sinhalese in the province.

The friction between the Muslim and the Tamil communities following the activities of the Pillayan Group in the area would push the Muslims to exercise their franchise against any group representing the Tiger breakaway.

The growing dissention against the Pillayan Group intensified last week when an act of intimidation by several members of the group in Kalmunai resulted in a hartal launched by the Muslims in the area.

Although the hartal ended by Tuesday, April 2 afternoon, the impact the incident had on the Muslims have made them more vocal on the need to safeguard their rights at the forthcoming elections.

According to residents in Kalmunai, being under Pillayan would be like being under the LTTE.

"The election results would show if the Muslims and for that matter even the Sinhalese would be able to survive in the east," Mohideen Ajeemal, a resident from Kalmunai said.

He said that although Kalmunai was calm at the moment, there was growing dissention against the Pillayan Group.

Pillayan's affiliation with the government has made the Muslims think twice about the UPFA and supporting it.

"Muslims and the Sinhalese have no issues and they can co-exist. The problem is with the Pillayan group," Ajeemal said.

He added that Pillayan's group was trying to intimidate people in the east just after winning the local government polls in the Batticaloa District. "The Pillayan Group does not have a huge presence in Digamadulla like in Batticaloa, but still they try to intimidate the Muslims. Imagine the plight of the people if Pillayan or any faction supportive of them wins the elections?" he pondered.

 

Muslim big guns enter the fray

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

The closure of nominations for the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) ended on Thursday (3) on a dramatic note. The government, requiring significant Muslim political support managed to clinch a last minute deal with SLMC Executive member, M.L.M. Hizbullah, the SLMC's driving force behind the recently concluded Batticaloa local authority election.

It is well known that Presidential Advisor and MP Basil Rajapakse struck the crucial deal with Hizbullah, splitting the SLMC further in a bid to strengthen the government's Muslim representation at the May 10 poll. Strangely, it was Hizbullah, whilst spearheading the SLMC election battle in Batticaloa last month that proved the most vociferous critic against the Pillayan Group, highlighting instances of violence and intimidation against Muslims.

Hizbullah's explanation was, "Either Pillayan or I will be appointed chief minister, depending on how we fare at provincial level. One has to work with the government to become the chief minister."

A political failure

Hizbullah who has twice defected from the SLMC was also critical of the SLMC Leader. "He has proved himself a political failure. The Muslims need to be heard. That's why I am here together with other Muslim leaders who advocate a massive eastern voice for the Muslim community."

Irked by the defection, Party Leader Rauf Hakeem claimed that some party members have been conspiring to destroy the party but expressed confidence in the unwavering loyalty of SLMC supporters.

Matching words with action, Hakeem struck a deal with the UNP and promptly resigned from his seat together with Party General Secretary, Hasan Ali and Basheer Segu Dawood to contest the polls. As things stand, the three SLMC members will provide leadership to the three districts in the UNP-SLMC joint campaign to capture political power in the east.

The SLMC's massive entry will work in their favour, opines UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake.

"We are to contest in a province that is multi ethnic and multi lingual. Besides, the SLMC has a significant presence given that it is essentially, eastern based. We will ensure a formidable political contest," he said.

No such pledge 

At least one government minister, Digamadulla-based UNP defector P. Dayaratne has broken the UPFA chief ministerial theory claiming that no such pledge had been made to either Pillayan or Hizbullah despite their much-publicised ambitions to run the provincial administration.

"That post is currently open. It has not been pledged to either Hizbullah or Pillayan" Dayaratne said.

The quicksand political dynamics in the east is not confined to the Muslims. The Tamil community too has added to the sense of drama.

Last week, the TNA officially announced its decision to boycott the eastern PC poll giving historic reasons for doing so.

The TNA's position is that the government spent Rs. 250 million on a poll together with a Tamil breakaway militant group to deny the political rights of a community. "What are the credentials of the Pillayan Group? What ideology do they represent, having given into the Sinhala dominance and becoming a pawn in the hands of President Mahinda Rajapakse," demands TNA Jaffna District MP, K Shivajilingam.

Tiger political arm

In the meantime, a political  arm of the LTTE, the People's Front of Liberation Tigers (PFLT) has submitted its nominations at the Ampara Kachcheri for the forthcoming poll. It is an interesting development to find one time Tiger Political big-wig Yogaratnam Yogi's signature on the party nomination list. The PFLT is fielding 17 candidates including two women.

But the TNA remains unflinching, claiming that whoever who participates in this 'farce' goes against Tamil ideology.

"President Rajapakse has bifurcated north-east as opposed to the original merged north-east which were merged following an 1987 international treaty between India and Sri Lanka. The merged territory existed for 18 years and was accepted by four successive presidents of Sri Lanka," adds TNA General Secretary, Mavai Senadhiraja.

'Having destroyed the east through military offensives since July 2006, the government has caused immense damage to crops and livelihood, property including houses, plantations and fishing equipment. Over 500,000 Tamil civilians were displaced and extra judicial killings and enforced disappearances completed the picture,' he charged.

"Hurriedly holding an election in the bifurcated east is a diabolical step. It is a smokescreen for all its misdeeds against the Tamil people," he alleged.

Rightfully belong to a Tamil

Meanwhile, staking a claim for the top post in the region is Pillayan himself. "The post should rightfully belong to a Tamil. By working with the government, we can ensure development," he told the media April 3 midday, as nominations closed.  

 The  JVP that has vowed to 'destroy the PC system from within' has nominated a former teacher and Pradeshiya Sabha Member, Wimal Piyatissa as the party's chief ministerial candidate.

Piyatissa will head the JVP in the Trincomalee District with Ibrahim Lebbe and Krishantha Priyadarshana heading the Batticaloa and Digamadulla Districts.

Adding a fresh twist, two PA constituent parties, the CP and the LSSP too entered the fray as the Left Front, staking a separate claim in the eastern political battle.

Like the terrain and the ethnography of the east, the political battle is proving to be interesting, as it prepares for a poll after 14 years.  

  


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