CAPTURE OF VAKARAI AND THE CONTRADICTIONS IN SRI LANKA’S AGENDA – Update No. 112
by Col R Hariharan (retd.)
The Sri Lanka Security Forces’ capture of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) stronghold at Vakarai on January 19, 2007 and later the areas around including Verugal, and the subsequent opening of the Trincomalee-Batticaloa road to the government control, marks the end of an important phase in the Eelam War-4. The weakening if not complete marginalizing of the LTTE influence in the east as a result of the operation will have far reaching influence on the peace process, and on the future role of Karuna and anti-LTTE Tamil parties.
The Vakarai operation forms part of the overall strategy the Army Commander Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka to “cut down the LTTE to size” in the North and South. In SAAG No 339 dated October 10, 2006 titled “Sri Lanka: Contradictions of a military agenda -Update 104” (available at http://www.saag.org/notes4/note339.html), I had assessed the Security Forces objectives of in the current offensive strategy as follows:
1. In the East:
To remove the LTTE threat from Mutur bulge and clear them from the coastal area to the south to ensure safety of Trincomalee and Koddiyar Bay from LTTE interference and bottle them up in a restricted area out of harm's way. [i had forecast this strategic compulsion in SAAG paper no. 1908 dated Aug 12, 2006 titled “Sri Lanka: Mavil Aru operation & after - an analysis.”] This was completed with the capture of Sampur.
Reduce LTTE domination of the A15 highway. The eviction of LTTE from the two strategic river crossings on the A15 highway at Verugal Ferry (about 35 KM Southeast of Trincomalee) and at Vakarai- Panichchankerni is part of this plan.
Neutralise Sea Tige capability off the east coast to make it safe for naval and logistic ship movements between Trincomalee and Jaffna. It will not only reduce Sea Tiger support to LTTE but also increase Security Forces naval capability to assist ground operations.
2. In the North:
Neutralise LTTE artillery threat to Palali airbase and prevent forward deployment of LTTE guns.
Keep pressure on LTTE on A-9 highway between Muhamalai and Elephant Pass and make it difficult for LTTE launch offensive operations against Jaffna. [i did not expect the Security Forces to launch the Muhamalai offensive, which in any case was botched up and failed.]
Block A-9 highway and deny LTTE the opportunity to collect 'road tax' on traffic passing through it. Ship-based logistics to Jaffna as an alternative would also enable the government to control supplies to Jaffna and prevent it from falling into the hands of LTTE.
Prevent LTTE infiltration West of Jaffna through the Kayts-Mandaitivu group of islands. This would prevent surprise attacks in rear areas and logistic bases in Jaffna.
The assessment on the Eastern objectives has come true, though a little late in January for very good reasons as the region was reeling under severe monsoon. Most of the Northern objectives given above are under control except for maintaining pressure on LTTE in Muhamalai. After the fall of Vakarai and clearing of east, the Army Commander has confirmed the Security Forces attention will now shift to “liberate the North from LTTE.” As maintenance of momentum particularly after a successful phase is an essential perquisite in war, we can expect the northern offensive to start soon. With the downsized SLMM and a ‘peace weary’ Norwegian mediation, Eelam War-4 is going to be a bloody one in the North, as the Security Forces will be waging war to hit the LTTE in their heartland.
While the Security Forces gave a good account in the Muhamalai-1 when they warded off LTTE’s multi-pronged attack in Muhamalai and three other locations along the FDLs, the Security Forces well publicised offensive after the fall of Sampur ended up with a lot of red faces. So we can perhaps expect the offensive to come through with less backroom pressure and publicity. In any case, it will be a tough operation as LTTE will battle of survival. In this context, the LTTE moles inside the Army can prove deadly. The reported uncovering of a serving officer who spied for the LTTE and provided useful information for launching the attacks on the Army Commander Lt Gen Fonseka and the Defence Secretary Ghotabaya Rajapakse is a chilling revelation. This time around the Security Forces would probably be wiser.
Vakarai operation had shown how cleverly the LTTE had used the concentration of civilians along the operational axis to delay and split the Sri Lankan attack. This shows that despite fighting with their back to the wall, LTTE is capable of using ruthless means to achieve its end. LTTE has probably in all suffered about 300 casualties in the operations in the east; the operations have once again exposed the vulnerability of LTTE to air strikes and its limitations in fighting conventional operations. This was brought out in its inability to blow up the Panichankerni bridge as well as in fighting in multiple fronts. However, the quality of operations in the North would be different as the LTTE has better artillery support and the narrow axis to Elephant Pass canalises the attacker making him more vulnerable. .
Impact on the ongoing conflict
The capture of Vakarai and the areas around is likely to impact the ongoing conflict in the following ways:
LTTE has been evicted from an area, which was recognized as under its control at the time of ceasefire. Its capture sends a clear message from the Government of Sri Lanka to the LTTE and international community that the ceasefire though kept alive in letter is dead in spirit; and the Government would pursue its agenda to make itself physically secure before considering the resumption of the peace process. This means the ‘peace game’ would now be played to a new set of rules. In effect it minimises the inhibitions of Security Forces in progressing the military agenda in the north as and when it is operationally convenient to them.
With the loss of Vakarai-Verugal area LTTE loses a direct access to the sea, considerably reducing if not removing, Sea Tiger threat to Security Forces movements along the east coast. As a corollary, Security Forces will be able to deny the LTTE the facility to move troops by sea between the east and the north. After the rise of Karuna LTTE has already lost this important recruitment base; now it will be able to carry out only unconventional operations, limited to hit and run operations, assassinations and claymore attacks. Strategically, LTTE will not be able to use the eastern sector to impact upon its operations in the north.
It will become more difficult for LTTE to use the east coast to import arms and equipment. It will have to adopt the more risky unloading of supplies and arms from ships off Mullaitivu or Point Pedro coast in the north. To overcome this LTTE could be expected to bring it supplies in smaller lots in trawlers etc. The LTTE would also probably reopen or resume sourcing of essential supplies from Tamilnadu and Kerala.
Though LTTE had never enjoyed the same degree of territorial control in the east as it did in the Wanni, its strong presence there had a strong psychological influence on its supporters because east is considered part of the Tamil homeland. Thus marginalizing of LTTE at Vakarai is a big loss of face for the Tigers. In order to retrieve the situation from such an impact, we can expect LTTE to carryout some dramatic covert operations as it did at the Naval transit point near Habarana and on the Dakshina Naval base at Galle in October 2006.
The Tamil groups and parties against LTTE are likely to regain their ability to increase their influence among the Tamils of the region. In this respect, the reported meeting of representatives of Karuna’s Karuna’s Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP), Peoples Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF-Padmanabha group) and Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) to work on a common programme in the east could be significant. However, given the internal divisions among Tamil parties how far and how long they could effectively function on such an arrangement is to be validated.
Security Forces continued their consolidation operation in tandem with the operations of the Police Special Task Force (STF) in Amparai and pushed LTTE out into the wilderness on the west. The LTTE forces now disperse will probably consolidate and resume small low level operations once again after sometime. Whether Karuna and Security Forces will give them the time so essential to recoup is the question.
Rise in Karuna’s influence
The reduction of LTTE control in the east gives a big boost to Karuna. In the east there is a constant of triangular jockeying for power between the three ethnic communities both politically and operationally. As Karuna is an easterner rise, of his influence is sure to affect this relationship. Already there are signs of this:
The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauf Hakeem while speaking in parliament had complained about the activities of Karuna’s cadres harassing the Muslims who had fled from 23 villages in the area during the Vakarai operations. Karuna Group had also attempted to grab land belonging to Muslims. Similar complaints have come from Muslims of Katttankudy also, where there had been a lot of tension between Tamils and Muslims as a result of Karuna Group’s activities. According to a report in the Daily Mirror, as many as 18 complaints about Karuna Group’s activities have been received at the Batticaloa police station, though Karuna Group has attributed these acts to ‘rotten eggs’ within the organization.
There were reports of movement of Karuna’s cadres in uniform with arms to establish and assert their presence in Batticaloa district. There had been apprehension voiced in the media that Karuna that he was “trying to rule Batticaloa.” As his cadres’ style of operation is similar to LTTE, the civil administration could run into conflicting situations when the population gets restive with TMVP donning the mantle of LTTE, unless TMVP takes a conscious step to operate in a more acceptable way.
However, at this stage of the operations, the Government still needs Karuna’s active assistance to prevent LTTE from re-infiltrating into the Tamil areas, and to provide intelligence inputs. Perhaps this would also be in conformity with the Security Forces need to maintain a friendly relationship with Karuna Group. So in the east we can expect increased assertion of TMVP politically and militarily in the coming months, particularly when there is speculation of the President calling for fresh elections.
In a bid to refurbish its image as a responsible political organisation rather than a militant group, TMVP will be required to change its style of operation. Perhaps conscious of this, the TMVP in their response to the report of Allan Rock, UN Special Envoy to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, UN, on recruitment of children in their ranks, are reported to have agreed to hand over all children ‘who came to join voluntarily’ and to provide free access to UNICEF monitors to TMVP’s military camps. TMVP is also reported to have issued detailed instructions to its military wing on the subject.
Military agenda Vs peace process
It is surprising that except for media men and the mediators, nobody appears to see the contradictions in Sri Lanka’s policy of pursuing a military agenda while avowing a peace process. The President has used his Military successes as a tool of real politick to further his political agenda of depriving his opponents contending for a share of the cake in the south. Thus military operations have become an important part of President's political strategy advantage unlike his predecessors who were not very clear in their military and political strategies. While this may show scant respect for the letter and the spirit of the ceasefire agreement, the President after Geneva 2 had given adequate notice that he would pursue the military agenda if LTTE did not carryout its earlier promises.
How far the Government pursue the two contradictory agendas at the same time? In SAAG Note no.329 dated Aug 31, 2006 titled "Sri Lanka: War in Small Doses-Update No 100" (available at http://www.saag.org/notes4/note329.html), I had discussed the compulsions of the President to continue with the military operations. These included the swing in Sinhala support to continue the war, the Security Forces achieving a dominant position on the ground particularly after the Vakarai operation, the political weakening of the main opposition party the United National Party (UNP), the reduced operational horizon of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLLMM), and the seeming reluctance of international community to the operations which are in violation of the ceasefire, remain very much valid. So as a shrewd political strategist the President is likely to continue on his present course.
Both internally and externally the President has in an unassailable position by making LTTE look confused and militarily weak. He has won over the opposition parties and even the UNP has reluctantly agreed to toe his line, though it still speaks of reviving the peace process. It had no choice as it was losing its MPs in crossovers discussed openly. His government is in a politically assertive position in the peace process after a long time.
A lot of events that directly undermine all the good work done in the last four years of peace have taken place in Sri Lanka. These include the combined operations of large sized forces, the de-merger of north and east, the re-introduction of a modified version of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and lastly the killings and assassinations by both sides and the disturbing appearance of the white vans and pistol groups. While the LTTE had been largely responsible for drawing all these things upon its own self, the contradictory political agenda of Sri Lanka that smacks of opportunism than sincerity and faith in the peace process cannot be absolved of furthering the present dismal state of affairs.
(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka (1987-1990) as Head of Intelligence. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)