By Rajan Hoole –
What contributed more to the state of anxiety was the widely held belief that the fall of Elephant Pass was tantamount to the fall of Jaffna. Just over a week after the fall of Elephant Pass the LTTE attacked Palai. The Army pulled back north-west to a new defence line between Palai and Kodikamam. The withdrawal here may not have been as hasty and precipitate as the tone of the reports suggested. The problem for the Army was that they could not move forward without matching firepower or adequate air cover. They could only fight from bunkers and withdraw when the going was heavy. Thus a withdrawal from Palai made sense if it was to better prepared and more defensible positions. The widely held expectation was that once the LTTE pushed the Army back sufficiently, it would move in the heavy guns captured at Mullaitivu to fire at Palaly Base on the northern coast so as to disrupt air traffic.
In the meantime, President Kumaratunge returned from Britain on 27th April, addressed the nation, and a week later placed the country on war-footing. She appealed to India, Pakistan and other countries for help. Relations with Israel were quickly restored. In the meantime, the situation was looking bleak. If the need arose as then seemed likely, the Government badly lacked the ships and the aircraft to pull 34,000 or so troops out of Jaffna. The news services claimed that Sri Lanka had requested ships from India to pull the troops out. At this time, in early May, there were also rumours that many of the troops in Jaffna were unwilling to fight. A senior commander, according to a journalist, told his wife in a telephone conversation from Jaffna, “There is nothing we can do here. We can only fight to save our souls.” The sense of crisis is also reflected in General Janaka Perera’s words to his men when he assumed control in April 2000 as Overall Operations Commander in the North: “We will fight and win in Jaffna, failing which, we will fertilize its soil.”
At the same time, there was anxiety in Colombo about a backlash against Tamils, should a section of the Army be massacred in Jaffna. Sinhalese fascist groups from the margins were in the meantime flexing their muscles, and even that segment of the intellectual elite who had long advocated talks with the LTTE as the only way forward, were beginning to worry about the “military balance”. It suddenly dawned on everyone that the trappings of liberal democracy in the South, seminars on conflict resolution and negotiating with the LTTE, and Tamil publicists backing Tamil fascism in Colombo, were all viable granting one essential prerequisite – namely, the much abused Sri Lankan Army should hold the “military balance”. If not, the consequences were unthinkable.
Then again, the main reason we came to this dangerous point was political lethargy and irresponsible self-indulgence at the top. Elephant Pass was on the cards from December 1999 and no one in the Government was grappling with the problem. Those in authority added to the damage done by accusing a pro-UNP section of the Army of having engineered previous November’s Vanni debacle. The Government and the state media accused some unnamed army officers of complicity in the assassination attempt on President Kumaratunge in December. So powerful seemed the presidency that no one close to Her Excellency seemed to have the courage to tell her that she should not be making tactless accusations without a full investigation.
The following appeared in the front page of the government-owned Ceylon Daily News of 10.1.2000: “There are also reports that several army personnel are linked to this alleged [assassination] plot and that there had been plans to capture power through a military coup if the President had been killed in the Town Hall bomb blast”. Again, not a shred of evidence was found. Some self-seeking persons close to the President seemed to be feeding her with wild rumours rather than helping her to act prudently – particularly in the aftermath of her traumatic experience and the urgent problems in hand.
To some concerned observers, this seemed the beginning of the end for the Army that could ill-afford doubts and division at this time. Instead of trying to get things together the Army Commander seemed to be making excuses for himself. Supporting a call in March by the Buddhist prelates to crush terrorism, he had called for more manpower for the Army to save the 2500-year-old civilisation – something he was very unlikely to get under these conditions through mere rhetoric.
Apart from political reasons, there were others why it was imperative for the LTTE to take back Jaffna. The population living under the LTTE was in the region of 300,000 and with a casualty rate of about one to one in fighting the Army, its capacity for recruitment was stretched. Taking Jaffna would have increased this base by a further 500,000 or so. This addition was badly needed by the LTTE to continue the war in the East. The organisation’s rhetoric and the expectations with which it has charged the cadre will not give it any rest from war.
Moreover, knowing the feelings of the people in Jaffna, were the LTTE to start recruiting again using the methods a totalitarian regime, it would once more have been driven to intense repression. It would have been impelled to impose a regime of torture and murder worse than what gained it notoriety in the early 1990s. The LTTE was clearly not an option for the civilian population. However, apart from indulging in puerile propaganda, the Government had let go the political initiative at every stage and failed to win over the Tamils.
A particular episode illustrates the ineffectiveness and lethargy of the Government. On 29th September1998, a Lionair passenger flight was shot down by the LTTE while flying at 15,000 feet in the North. 55 persons including 48 Tamil passengers were killed. The Government failed to take the matter seriously even for propaganda purposes. There was no condolence message from the President to the victims’ families. Former Air Force chief Paddy Mendis was a key player in the highly profitable Lionair venture and was also very close to the defence establishment to which he was a consultant on defence purchases. Owing to lapses on the part of both Lionair and the Defence Ministry in the tragedy, the inquiry was practically hushed up (see our Bulletin No.19). Even the report of the very incomplete investigation by the Civil Aviation Department was not made public. ICRC sources noted a lack of interest by both Lionair and the Government in using their services to get at the wreckage in the LTTE controlled area.
For the next one and a half years, the Press went on speculating about how the aircraft came down. Almost every possibility was aired. Neither the Government nor the Defence Establishment seemed to have an interest in finding out whether the LTTE had acquired missiles with such a range. Almost exactly one and half years later, at March end 2000, a similar Anotnov aircraft bringing a similar number of persons, but this time soldiers on leave from Jaffna, crashed while coming to land at Anuradhapura. The cause was first thought to be mechanical failure. Further investigations strongly suggested that it had been shot down. This time the President offered her condolence to the families. Any further speculation about the ill-fated Lionair flight was also brought to an end.
The LTTE have since put out stories that they shot the Lionair flight by mistake thinking that it was carrying troops. This we cannot accept. The shorter route was used only for civilian flights. Moreover, the LTTE had issued several warnings to civilians of its intention to shoot down a flight. According to UN staff here who used Lionair three days before the tragedy, Lionair officials were then negotiating with the LTTE in London concerning the threats issued, and so thought it safe to fly on 26th September.
A particular asset in the Government’s favour during the crisis of May 2000 was the LTTE’s obnoxious reputation worldwide. The moral support from foreign governments and the induction into Jaffna of new armaments and fresh troops slowly revived morale. Among the first supplies to arrive were from Pakistan and Israel. The first development in the Army’s favour was when it beat back an LTTE attack on Kilaly, on the shore of the Jaffna lagoon in the eastern sector, on 5th May, reportedly using the stratagem of a feigned withdrawal, killing 37 attackers. This was before any new weapons arrived. The Army seemed to have stabilised the south-eastern front, the LTTE’s direct approach.
After a gap of a few days, the LTTE tried an indirect approach, like in Elephant Pass. It was easy for the LTTE to infiltrate troops through no-man’s land into Ariyalai East and Thanankilappu through a short stretch of the Jaffna Lagoon from Pooneryn on the LTTE controlled mainland. The Army had been pushed back from some of these strategic areas five months earlier during December. Like near Elephant Pass, the danger posed by not pushing the LTTE back was largely ignored.
The LTTE’s overseas propaganda quickly claimed that Jaffna Town had fallen to them. But this was incorrect. Only the Army’s defence lines had been pushed back towards Colombogam in Ariyalai East. This was just after 10th May. We understand that the Security Council had been asked by the Jaffna Command to consider whether, in the event of a heavy onslaught on Jaffna Town, to pull back or to resist. The Army’s thinking appears to have been to avoid a demoralising engagement before they had fresh troops and new equipment in place.
However, after 3 days, on 13th May, the LTTE decided to abandon the assault on Jaffna City after encountering heavy losses. The Army had in the meantime failed to make a determined effort to push the LTTE back into the lagoon from the Thanankilappu salient. During these three days the LTTE had inducted about 1500 fighters and materials, and started advancing eastwards towards Chavakacheri from Navatkuli Junction on the A9, which it had taken some days earlier. The LTTE advance towards Chavakachcheri posed a real threat. They may have been able to move the captured heavy cannon up through what used to be a short ferry crossing and threaten Palaly more effectively. It also threatened to isolate troops in the Kodikamam sector.
A combination of factors including demoralisation of the Army helped the LTTE to advance towards Chavakacheri. The Army commandeered a large number of lorries from traders who came to remove their goods from Chavakacheri. This gave the message to the fighting men that the high command had decided on a total withdrawal. This affected the will of the soldiers, and several of those taken to the battlefront were seen running away. The LTTE took Kaithady and had reached Chavakacheri on 20th May.
On 20th May, General Janaka Perera went public on television to state that the Army had been re-equipped with appropriate weaponry and had their act in place, and that they would stay put in Jaffna. But foreign media assessments continued to be pessimistic. During the month that followed the fall of Elephant Pass, the roles of Generals Janaka Perera and Sarath Fonseka were undoubtedly crucial in rallying round the troops. There was widespread pessimism then that anything positive could be done in Jaffna except to capitulate. While the Army was very shaky and mutiny among the troops who had lost their will to fight seemed a real possibility, the spontaneous action of a large number of civilians in Jaffna town made a crucial contribution towards the morale of the Army. The LTTE fired several shells around the city, killing a few civilians, and ordered the population to vacate. But a large number of them, despite their aversion for the LTTE coming back, remained in the City.
The Army inflicted a major defeat on the LTTE at Sarasalai, north of Chavakachcheri, on 21st May. Having advanced from Kaithady, the LTTE had massed for a final push on the brigade HQ at Sarasalai. The Army pounded the area with long-range artillery from Palaly inflicting heavy casualties on the attackers.
During this saga, neither the Government nor the Army gave much thought to the civilians. The LTTE advanced firing into civilian areas. The Army withdrew and then, as the civilians put it, rained shells on them. Many of the civilians lived through this horror for three weeks and more, seeing many around them being killed or badly injured. Both combatants prevented humanitarian aid from reaching the victims (see our Bulletin No.24 – The Ordeal of Civilians in Thenmaratchy).
The Army gained some initiative after checking the LTTE advance from the east at Kilaly and then from the west at Sarasalai. But this happened after other competent and trained military men were let down by the system. At Elephant Pass, the Army using special equipment had located the LTTE’s gun positions. But the Air Force lacked the ability to take them on. The Navy was unable to interdict the LTTE’s initial sea borne landings in Jaffna. Nor was it able to interdict the LTTE’s gun running.
General Denis Perera in his report to President Jayewardene as outgoing army commander in 1981, had, in an unusual departure for an army man, recommended that Sri Lanka being an island, its defence should depend on paying greater attention to upgrading the Navy rather than the Army.
Defence has rather been conducted in an ad hoc manner, pushing the Army into actions in the 1980s that were utterly detrimental to the country’s security. Those at the top in the defence establishment over the years have been seen to be more keen on creaming off contracts rather than on doing any thinking or planning.
Further, from the early 1980s service chiefs have become even more subservient to politicians. The chiefs have largely accepted this state of affairs and are in no position to reassure their men. When Elephant Pass came under attack, we understand that the Army lacked spares for its mobile equipment to launch an advance from the southern sector (e.g. Vavuniya) to take the pressure off the Pass. Following a visit here in early May 2000 in the wake of the crisis, India’s Air Marshal Tipnis stated publicly that the Sri Lankan Air Force is well-equipped. He then told some Indian journalists off the record that the situation is pathetic.
A feature in the Sunday Leader of 7.5.2000 gave some idea of the situation in the Air Force. Over 50% of the aircraft in the SLAF were reported grounded. Of the four aircraft transporting troops to Jaffna and fitted with anti- missile systems, 3 were reported grounded. In turn three AN-24 aircraft were leased from Ukraine and were then being used without anti- missile systems. This meant additional cost without protection.
Two cases of purchases of propellers for grounded AN-32 aircraft worth USD 49,500 in each instance, from the same report, give cause for much concern. Both propellers supplied by the local commission agent turned out to be defective. In both cases the money was paid against normal procedure. In one instance the local agent threatened to go to “higher authorities” if immediate payment was not made. It took the Air Force in this instance more than two months to inform the supplier that the part was defective. The aircraft meanwhile remained grounded for 6 months or so while the defective propellers were returned for repair. Even such concerns raised with considerable detail are unlikely to be answered. This is because with direct and indirect political interference in promotions, appointment of chiefs and extensions of service, every scandal and every shortcoming, directly touches those at the very top.
*To be continued.. next week “Military Ethics and Human Rights”
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here