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How will Rajapaksa handle Killinochchi?

M. Mayilvaganam is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • October 18, 2007

    Since the launch of its July 2006 military offensive on Maavilaru, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government has made remarkable advances in almost all aspects of establishing its control over the Eastern province. This is largely thanks to the military inputs provided by the Karuna faction as well as technical, financial and military assistance provided by the international community. The ascendance of the security forces has indeed given much confidence to the Sri Lankan government in militarily engaging the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). According to Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, the government “is determined to liberate the remainder of the un-cleared areas in the (rebel controlled) Wanni (region) from the clutches of the LTTE, the same way it liberated the East.”

    Military success in the East has buoyed up the Rajapaksa Government, which has had to take considerable flak on human rights violations during these operations. The seeming helplessness of the LTTE in the face of the Sri Lankan military’s advance has greatly contributed to the government’s confidence as well as the determination to take the Tigers head on in the North as well. Moreover, victory in the East has meant that the Sri Lankan security forces have been placed in a position of relative strength, with the confidence to take on the Tigers. In fact, the security forces have made considerable improvements in organisation, maintenance and operations, as well as in the quality and quantity of weapons used during the last few years. Given all this, the Rajapaksa government is hoping to dislodge the Tigers from the North completely in three years time, and has relegated the political process to the back burner. The lack of a strong opposition, discord within the LTTE and immense support from the Sinhala segment of the population are added incentives for the adoption of such a militarist approach.

    But it is one thing to gain control of the East and another to repeat this in the North. A combination of Karuna’s input and the lack of a good local LTTE commander helped the Sri Lankan military in the East. Retaking the north—Wanni—is likely to prove to be a more challenging task. There are two notable sources of risk in attempting this. The first is with respect to Wanni’s terrain and the psyche of the LTTE. Wanni – in particular Killinochchi and Mullaitivu – is well-fortified and heavily mined. It is the LTTE’s stronghold and the Sri Lankan forces are bound to face strong, committed and trained Tigers in this area. It appears that the LTTE is already regrouping its forces, including the deadly black Tigers who are capable of inflicting heavy casualties. Moreover, the imminent arrival of the monsoon will be a boon to the Tiger’s guerrilla offensive while at the same time it would hinder the Sri Lankan military advance. Moreover, the Sri Lankan forces lack effective local intelligence and support base in the Wanni region. All these mean that the Sri Lankan military may not be able to inflict a total defeat on the LTTE.

    The second risk in trying to militarily regain the North relates to its consequence not only for the government but also for the country as a whole. Wanni is a trigger point and any attack on this LTTE heartland is likely to lead to all out war. The Tigers are likely to respond with spirited attacks, including suicide bombings, against the security forces and the Sinhalese population. Further, the island’s economy, dependent as it is on tourism and international aid, would be adversely affected by such a conflict. It has been reported that revenues from tourism have already come down by 20 per cent in mid-2007. There are also likely to be repercussions on the domestic political as well as international fronts. Though the current domestic political situation in Sri Lanka is stable to an extent, the adverse economic impact of a full-fledged war could provide a boost to the United National Party, the break-away group of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party led by Mangala Samaraweera and the Janata Vimukti Peramuna, and help them mobilise people against the government. Similarly, the government’s evident lack of concern for human rights is likely to complicate diplomacy and the mobilisation of the international community on its side. The international community is already upset with the Rajapaksa government, as is evident from recent attempts by Senator Patrick Leahy to cut aid to Sri Lanka and the idea floated by the UN Human Rights Commission and the US-based Human Rights Watch to set up a UN human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka. And most notably, the spill over effect of a war, on India and in particular on Tamil Nadu, especially given the expected refugee influx is likely to invite Indian displeasure as well.

    The present approach of the Rajapaksa government with its emphasis on militarily crushing the LTTE has put the idea of resuming negotiations on the backburner. The very idea of initiating operations in Wanni makes the idea of negotiations a non-starter. While it is true that violence and terrorism require a military response, simply depleting the LTTE’s strength would not bring peace to the island and would not form a prerequisite for a political solution. What is also necessary is a fair power sharing agreement that would to begin with bring at least moderate Tamils on board.