More than ever, Eelam seems a reality now
Major General Ashok K Mehta
Blaming the Indian Peace Keeping Force for the political and diplomatic failures of New Delhi that led to its pullout from Sri Lanka is quite reprehensible. The Indian government caved in to Sri Lankan pressure and made scapegoats of its soldiers.
The IPKF was invited there by the president of Sri Lanka. His successor stabbed the force in the back by joining hands with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Greek tragedy was re-enacted with the LTTE back-stabbing the Sri Lankans: first [then Sri Lankan prime minister R] Premadasa, then [the current PM, Chandrika] Kumartunga.
The latter, having survived a Tamil human bomb attack, is now being led up the garden path -- to the Norway-brokered peace talks with the LTTE. Given their track record, the Oslo talks are unlikely to succeed.
On the ground in the north the Tigers have pushed the Sri Lankan army against the wall. Their attacks came precisely when optimism over the Norwegian peace talks was building, and exactly as Sri Lankan intelligence had predicted: on February 16, 1999, against the mighty Elephant Pass garrison, the strategic causeway linking the mainland with Jaffna peninsula. It is that pass that keeps Sri Lanka united and is at the heart of preventing Eelam.
The Sri Lankan army was tipped off two weeks in advance. Therefore, it beat back the attackers, inflicting heavy casualties but losing a helicopter. These were not the first attacks this season on the Elephant Pass, the most valued and coveted real estate of this war.
The military situation in the north is precarious. Chances of holding on to Elephant Pass are rated 50:50, with some outlying defences already lost to the Tigers a month ago. The LTTE is no longer just a guerrilla force using terrorism to multiply its military edge. It has turned from a hit-and-run outfit into a conventional force fighting fixed battles.
During six days in November last year, it recaptured ground lost in the Wanni sector in over 18 months. The SLA regards this as its worst-ever debacle.
The loss of Elephant Pass could become Sri Lanka's Dien Bien Phu, the strategic battle the French lost to the Vietnamese half a century ago. A 17,000-strong SLA division is holding Elephant Pass. In 1991, soon after the LTTE sabotaged peace talks with the Premadasa government, it laid siege on the Elephant Pass, then occupied by just 800 soldiers. For nearly five weeks, the LTTE used unsuccessfully conventional tactics to dislodge the army and learnt the lesson that a guerrilla force cannot win a conventional battle.
The SLA victory came after it launched an amphibious assault at Vettilaikerni on the coast 10 km north-east of the pass. It was SLA's finest hour and the worst defeat for the LTTE. That was nearly 10 years ago.
Since then, the military balance and equation of firepower have kept changing as results on the ground have shown. So have tactics and weapon systems. The string of spectacular defeats suffered by the army, notably at Mullaittivu and Kilinochchi, and more recently along the central highway tell one side of the story. The SLA's capture of Jaffna says the other.
Going by the rate of desertion and demotivation in the Sri Lankan army and the mutinous behaviour of its ranks, the military appears to be at the end of its tether. The recent rout and reversal of Operation Sure Victory has confirmed the LTTE's claim that it was not defeated at Jaffna but had only carried out a tactical withdrawal. At the time the government had ignored intelligence reports that its victory at Jaffna was hollow as the LTTE had escaped in order to fight another day.
For the third Eelam war, the LTTE reorganised its forces, training and tactics. Most of the heavy guns and new weapons in its possession are part of its war booty recovered from the SLA. The fear of the LTTE taking Elephant Pass and then Jaffna is real. If this happens, it could prove catastrophic for a leadership itself tormented by perpetual fear of the suicide bomber. This doomsday scenario comes easily after one saw SLA defences north of Vavuniya collapse and crumble.
The LTTE waited four years to be fully prepared before it struck back in strength in the north. It gauged correctly that the SLA was fatigued and over-stretched. No one has forgotten [LTTE chief Velupillai] Prabhakaran's vow to retake Jaffna soon after losing it. The pledge has to be taken more seriously than the routine pledges taken by Sri Lankan leaders to finish the LTTE and end the war.
What after Jaffna? Trincomalee, maybe? Perhaps Batticaloa. Now more than ever before, Eelam seems a horrible reality with disastrous consequences for the neighbourhood.
Just above the Elephant Pass is Jaffna. It is under the absolute control of the SLA. The surface calm here would belie this worst-case contingency. Major General Chula Seneviratne is Jaffna's new general officer commanding. Last month he replaced General Jayakode, who died of heart-attack days after taking charge.
The battle for the hearts and minds of Jaffna's 500,000 Tamils continues in full swing. The LTTE is horrified the government is succeeding in this. Nearly 60 per cent of the Jaffna administration is in the charge of security forces, with the reminder in the hands of the civilian government agent. In 1996, the Jaffna development plan and programme was made with considerable foreign aid including India's. Many of the 30 big projects had to be abandoned as funds dried up. What is left its smaller schemes, courtesy resident donors.
Local business and small scale industry operate normally despite power cuts, inadequate transportation and the fact that it can take two-and-a-half days to get from Jaffna to Colombo. The ICRC runs a steamer services from Jaffna to Trincomalee. Commercial flights have been suspended after LTTE shot down a Lion Air aircraft recently over Elephant Pass.
Besides the International Committee of Red Cross, German, Dutch, Norwegian and British aid workers have their offices in Jaffna. Some operate through local agents. Jaffna Tamils recall with envy the days of plenty when the IPKF was there. The economy was booming. Today there are as many as 40 jewellery shops and a dozen utensils shops.
There is no dearth of money there. Only opportunities to spend it. Salaries in Jaffna are three times as much they are in Colombo. Foreign remittances for each family who has a member abroad is an average Rs 25,000 to 30,000 per month. Every family tries to keep one person overseas.
There are 490 functioning schools in Jaffna with about 120,000 students. The dropout rate which used to be 20,000 in 1996 has fallen to just 3,000. The historic Jaffna library destroyed accidentally by the air force has not yet been reconstructed due to local politics. There are six banks that handle the currency and loan markets.
There is no interference in their functioning by militant groups as was the case earlier. The law and order situation in Jaffna is the best anywhere in Sri Lanka because the army with assistance from the local police is in charge. It should be the other way round and officially is.
There are no card-carrying LTTE cadres in Jaffna. Nor are there any armed activists. But the LTTE manages to collect a parallel tax and create incidents at will.
These are all part of the bright side of Jaffna. The bad news is that some of the 50,000 small farmers cannot till their land as nearly 12,000 hectares is under the control of security forces. Similarly, only half the 20,000 fishing families can fish due to security restrictions. Although food and vegetables are plentiful, paddy is in short supply. Young men, torn between joining the LTTE and going abroad, are also in short supply.
In its most insensitive reprisal after reclaiming Jaffna, the SLA bulldozed the LTTE's graveyard commemorating its martyrs. Yet, on November 27, 1999, on the LTTE's Heroes' Day, oil lamps were lit mysteriously at the memorial. People say that when the LTTE returns to Jaffna, at least 1,000 Tamils who consorted with the government will be executed. The announcement has been made.
Jaffna is suffering from autarchy. It is living in a bubble created by remittances. Assured and regular sustenance can come only from development of infrastructure and opening up Jaffna which is blockaded by both sides.
Unfortunately, it is in a state of siege from within and without. Worse, a short fuse separates Jaffna from the Elephant Pass, also under siege and perched on a tinder box.
The LTTE will try desperately to further improve the military balance in its favour before joining the Oslo talks. The SLA too has to redeem its honour before that.
That, then, is the Catch 22 to Oslo.
Major General Ashok K Mehta, a frequent contributor to these pages, served with the IPKF in Sri Lanka.
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